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C A R R O L L   Q U I G L E Y   3

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The Seven Stages of Civilization

Quigley's analysis (using his six features) led him to conclude that civilizations tend to emerge, grow, decline, and fall in a specific and observable sequence of stages:

  1. Mixture
  2. Gestation
  3. Expansion
  4. Age of Conflict
  5. Universal Empire
  6. Decay
  7. Invasion

The Seven Stages in Detail

1. Mixture

Civilizations are born at the intersections of societies. Where rules and customs are understood, as in the core of a social region, the members of that society have no incentive to change; in fact, social pressure tends to prevent change.

Where differing cultures intersect at their peripheries, however, it is not so clear what rules should be followed. For example, when the marriage customs of two societies differ, and intermarriage begins to become widespread, how will it be decided which customs to respect and which to reject?

In this case and others, it may be that new customs will be invented so as to satisfy that need without offending families. When this process has become broad enough and lasted long enough for those practicing these new customs to appear distinct from their original neighboring societies, we say that a new society has formed. Out of the mixture of cultures has come a new culture, with the opportunity to become a civilization.

2. Gestation

The period of gestation (that is, a time of development in preparation for later independent growth) is defined not by what it is, but rather by what it isn't: it isn't mixture or expansion.

Accordingly, this can be a relatively short period of time, or it may last for hundreds of years. It is a time of waiting for two conditions to come into being. First, the new society must mot be swallowed up by a neighboring society. Proximity to a stronger and expansionistic neighbor will prevent a new civilization from forming.

Second, the incipient civilization must develop an instrument of expansion. Without such an instrument, a society cannot gain the critical mass required for its members to begin conceiving of themselves as having a unique identity--that is, as a civilization. This stage is the time during which various instruments may be developed and discarded until one gains wide acceptance.

3. Expansion

Once a civilization has a functioning instrument of expansion, it will begin to grow. This growth may be identified in four particular areas:

  • production of goods
  • increase in population
  • increase in geographic extent
  • increase in knowledge

This period of growth is often explosive, because each of these four kinds of growth both depends on and augments the others. An expanding civilization will begin to enjoy an increased standard of living as its level of knowledge and production of goods rise. That knowledge includes medical understanding and technology, so life expectancy increases. The growth in population increases production, while leaving more persons free to explore the periphery of the civilization, expanding its borders. This exploration adds not only to the size of the civilization, but also to its knowledge. Exploration also opens up access to additional and new natural resources, which in turn contribute to increased production of goods.

An important feature of this period is the development of a core area within the civilization. As geographic expansion continues, the transmission of culture from the central area in which that culture is strongest to the expanding fringe areas becomes more difficult. This tends to split a civilization (particularly toward the end of the period of expansion) into what can be regarded as a core area and a periphery, usually defined by geography.

4. Age of Conflict

As noted earlier, eventually all instruments become institutions. Once this process has occurred to a substantial degree to a civilization's instrument of expansion, the civilization enters an age of conflict.

This period is marked by four trends:

  • a decline in the rate of expansion
  • an increase in class conflicts, especially in the core
  • an increase in imperialistic wars
  • an increase in irrationality and general pessimism

As the instrument of expansion becomes an institution in order to preserve the privileges of the elite, the civilization--particularly in the core--becomes more static, bureaucratized and legalistic. This tends to punish innovation instead of rewarding it, and progress in the accumulation of surplus is slowed as a result of the decline in inventiveness.

This does not go unnoticed by a civilization's members. Although it is a decline in the rate of expansion, not an actual decline in expansion (that is, a contraction), an advanced civilization is so accustomed to expansion that it cannot not expand. To put it another way, survival requires accelerating growth, and once such growth has begun, it must continue. (This is one of the primary criticisms against "progress" from both the environmentalist Left and the culturalist Right. Both have a point, but both also fail to realize that the only real-world alternative is no civilization at all.)

The declining rate of expansion pits the entrenched elite against the great mass of the people. When resources are perceived as being limited, competition between classes ensues. "The rich" hang on to their wealth and prerogatives, but, realizing that they are in the minority, divert the attention of the increasingly resentful masses with entertainment, and appease them with token gestures of wealth redistribution.

Meanwhile, resentment at not enjoying the same increase in the standard of living as their parents leads the masses to feel insecure, and this feeling manifests as social disruption and other irrational behavior. As Quigley describes it: "This is generally a period of gambling, use of narcotics or intoxicants, obsession with sex (frequently as perversion), increasing crime, growing numbers of neurotics and psychotics, growing obsession with death and with the Hereafter."

Most prominently, wars of imperialism begin. These are attempts to impose a single political structure on the entire civilization, to achieve economic expansion by political means. These conflicts usually occur from the outside in. That is, wars of imperialism are generally waged by the political entities on the periphery of a civilization against the core. As the core succumbs first to a declining rate of expansion, and as unrest peaks there first, the more dynamic peripheral states conclude (not unreasonably, from their perspective) that "the center is hollow, it cannot stand." Rather than expanding outward, the smaller boundary states first consume each other, then they turn their attention inward, fighting over the remains of the core until one state (usually one of the most peripheral) has imposed its political structure over the entire civilization.

5. Universal Empire

As previously noted, once an instrument of expansion has become an institution, one of three things will happen: it will be reformed back into a functioning instrument; it will be circumvented by the creation of a new instrument (which permits expansion while leaving the trappings of power to those who controlled the previous institution); or those with vested interests in preserving the institution of expansion will prevail, and it will become permanently entrenched.

In the former two cases, in which there is a new instrument of expansion, the civilization returns to Stage 3, the age of Expansion. Otherwise, it proceeds to Stage 5: Universal Empire.

A Special Note about Choice

This, not incidentally, is the aspect of Quigley's concept of civilizational development that truly sets him apart from Spengler. In contrast to Spengler's deterministic view, in which a civilization is doomed from the moment it comes into being, Quigley asserts that any civilization can survive indefinitely, just as long as it keeps reforming or circumventing its institutionalized instruments of expansion.

Members of civilizations, Quigley says, have a choice. If they act in one way, they return to expansion; if they voluntarily choose another way, they step onto the road that leads to empire and extinction. This non-deterministic "if-then-else" structure seems intuitive to, say, a computer programmer, but it is a remarkable insight for a historian, scientist or no, to perceive in a long-duration human organization such as a civilization.

This process of reform, circumvention, or vested interest success takes place during the wars of imperialism in Stage 4, the Age of Conflict. Once a single peripheral state has imposed its political structure over the whole civilization, a universal empire has been achieved. With the cessation of hostilities, an apparent Golden Age ensues.

This is later regarded as a time of peace and prosperity. There is peace because there are no more political opponents. And there is prosperity derived from relaxing internal trade barriers, instituting common systems of measurement and coinage, and increasing domestic government spending to maintain what is felt should be the proper appearance of a universal empire.

But these things prove illusory. The peace is the calm of exhaustion, and the prosperity is the burning of internal resources to maintain a standard of living that cannot long be supported. Without an instrument of expansion, there is little if any innovation to replace the wealth being spent on unproductive consumption and gigantic monuments (such as the Pyramids, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Colosseum).

In Quigley's memorable phrase: "The golden age is really the glow of overripeness, and soon decline begins."

6. Decay

Once it becomes clear that the bulk of a civilization's wealth has been used up, the decline is usually mercifully swift. "Mercifully," because this is a period of great distress.

During this time, as recognition of the civilization's poverty spreads, the standard of living falls quickly. Law and order break down. Civil unrest sparks protests, some of which turn violent. Taxes cannot be collected, and other forms of public service such as military service (and military actions themselves) are resisted. Property cannot be protected except (if at all) by force. Personal violence becomes a daily occurrence. Trade fails, as fraud can no longer be punished. Town life fails; basic survival needs force people into the country where they can grow food, and the "middle class" disappears. Religious revivals sweep the land. The medical technology that sustains life becomes difficult or impossible to obtain, resulting in high rates of infant mortality and shortened lifespans. Finally, literacy itself fails.

7. Invasion

Although geographical or other features may allow a civilization to remain in a period of decay for many years, eventually it falls prey to forces of one or more external cultures. Whether by military occupation or political annexation, or simply by incorporation through settlement, invasion at some point destroys what was once a civilization. The mixture of old and new cultures may produce a new culture, forming Stage 1 of what will become a new civilization, or it may not. But the old civilization is gone.


We are now in a position to see a table showing the progress through the seven stages for five civilizations. Like the chart in the section on Oswald Spengler, this table identifies stages in a civilization's existence, and relates those stages to rough ranges of dates.

But Quigley's theory of history differs from Spengler's in that the former is not deterministic (that is, that that civilizations emerge, grow, decline, and fall in that order and with no hope of variation). So Quigley's chart differs as well, demonstrating that there can be multiple periods of expansion, conflict and empire, just as long as instruments become institutions and then are reformed or circumvented.

Thus, Quigley's chart of stages is slightly more complex than that for Spengler. Just remember to think of multiple dates in terms of the processes of institutionalization (moving downward in the table), and reform and circumvention of institutions (moving back upward in the table).

Note: I have modified Quigley's table slightly to reflect the collapse of the Soviet Union (which I date in 1989) as indicative of the institutionalization of the Russian civilization's most recent instrument of expansion, socialism. This places that civilization in a new age of conflict, whose outcome is yet to be determined.

1. Mixture
6000-5000 B.C.
3500-3000 B.C.
1200-900 B.C.
A.D. 300-700
A.D. 500-1300
2. Gestation
3. Expansion
in East

in West
4. Conflict
in East

in West
5. Universal Empire
a. Core
b. Whole Civilization
6. Decay
A.D. 150-300
7. Invasion
by Greeks
by Greek tribes
A.D. 300-600
by Germanic tribes

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