1997-12-28: The Rise of the West

The Rise of the West

A History of the Human Community

With a Retrospective Essay (1963, 1991)

by William H. McNeill (1917-)

As with most large-scale history books I have read, this one has a substantial memetic content, albeit unintended. Of special interest in this case is the essay that describes the author’s view of his work twenty-five years after its publication.


McNeill describes the character of the priestly meme-complex:

The practical effect of this land system [land “owned” by a god and administered by the god’s temple’s priests] was to group the Sumerians into work forces several hundred or perhaps even several thousand strong. With simple hand tools such gangs could undertake and maintain the large-scale irrigation works necessary fully to exploit the river waters. …

It is nevertheless clear that priests regularly served as managers, planners, and coordinators of the masses human effort without which Sumerian civilization could not have come into existence or long survived. They supervised the allocation of land, maintained boundary markers, saw that a generous share of the harvest was stored in temple granaries, and directed the work gangs that annually cleared the canals and strengthened the dikes. The authority of the priestly colleges was thus very great; but their services to the community were correspondingly vital. The priests alone possessed the skills of calculating the seasons, laying out canals, and keeping accounts, without which effective co-ordination of community effort would have been impossible. Still more important as a basis of sacerdotal power was the supernatural aura enveloping those through whom the great gods deigned to communicate with men. Armed with such authority, the priests were free to develop their organizing capacities in both the practical and the religious spheres, until they succeeded in raising Sumerian society to the level of primitive civilization.

As temple communities established themselves in Sumer, it became normal for cultivators to produce a food surplus sufficient to maintain a corps of specialists who no longer had to work in the fields. This social differentiation, which lies at the basis of all civilization, is neither natural nor automatic. In contemporary primitive societies, men rarely care to produce more than they immediately require; yet in ancient Mesopotamia tens of thousands of farmers were persuaded to exert themselves to feed others. The implausible irrationality of such behavior arose out of older fears that had impelled men immemorially to offer a propitiatory share of their food to the jealous spirits who might otherwise withhold future nourishment from an ever hungry mankind. Sumerian theology, as later recorded, held that men had been created expressly to free the gods from the necessity of working for a living. man was thus considered to be a slave of the gods, obliged to serve ceaselessly and assiduously under pain or direst punishment – flood or drought and consequent starvation Such ideas no doubt had a long history before they were recorded in writing, and probably justified the earliest beginnings of the practice of concentrating grain and other goods in temple storehouses, where they were used by priests to minister to the gods’ needs.

Each Sumerian temple was believed in a quite literal sense to be the house of a particular god. Priests and other attendants constituted the god’s personal household. Their primary task was to minister to their divine master’s wants through ceremonies and sacrifices. A secondary duty was to act as mediator between the god and his human slaves: to discover the god’s will, propitiate his anger, or determine the divinely approved time for any important human undertaking. As the wealth of the temples grew, the splendor and elaboration of sacred routines increased, until the adequate service of the god became a major economic enterprise, involving the professional attention not only of priests but of many types of craftsmen as well.

Such behavior was based on the assumption that the god had to be cajoled and propitiated, lest he send flood or drought or disease, or raise up some murderous enemy against his people. The frequency with which such disasters did in fact afflict the Mesopotamian cities obviously helped to engender an attitude of anxiety toward divinities who so often acted capriciously and in ways beyond human understanding. To avoid unintentional transgressions against the gods’ good pleasure and to interpret aright the signs and portents which the gods might vouchsafe became matters of the very highest import. Only a learned and expert priesthood could perform such services for the rank and file.

Hence the very insecurity of life in the early Sumerian cities acted to guarantee priestly power and influence. Priestly control, in turn, permitted the proliferation of administrative and craft specialists, whose ability to concentrate full-time attention upon non-agricultural tasks opened the door for a rapid development of all sorts of skills and ideas. …


McNeill describes the conservative nature of exploitation of inventions:

The rapidity with which the main lines of Sumerian civilization crystallized during the proto-literate period (i.e., before 3000 BC) is most obvious in art, for the major forms and motifs of the Sumerian style were already developed and surprisingly “mature” before written records began. Probably the theological world-view which sustained the Sumerians and their successors in Mesopotamia through historic times took shape during the same formative period. The same is true in technology, where a cluster of great inventions – irrigation, wheeled vehicles, sailing ships, metallurgy, oven-baked and wheel-turned pottery – appears rather abruptly in the archeological record of the proto-literate period; whereas after the establishment of literacy, comparably important inventions cease. On the other hand, in the spheres of political administration and military organization, Mesopotamian life continued to evolve in historic times; for the rise of more militarized and secularized government drastically modified the temple-centered economic system of the earliest historic horizon.

I find it curious that McNeill neglects the most significant of the great inventions: writing. This is significant not only for defining the difference between proto-literate and literate periods, but also for the role that literacy plays in freezing a meme-complex, actually resulting in the conservative nature of a literate society.


In describing the utility of complementary meme-complexes, McNeill says of early Sumer:

Each city was conceived as the property of a particular god, and its inhabitants its slaves. But each local god was subject to the collective will of all of the gods, who assembled each New Year to determine destiny for the ensuing twelve months and who might override any one of their number. Hence, even if the slaves of a particular god pleased him in every possible respect, the will of rival gods might still permit a divine decree of disaster.In such cases, the Sumerians believed that Enlil, god of the storm, exercised an overriding sovereignty, crushing one or another city according to the collective will of the gods. Thus Sumerian theology plausibly explained the vicissitudes of human life under precarious conditions of irrigation agriculture in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley and, through the doctrine that men were slaves to the gods, effectively inculcated obedience to the priests.

This is not a catalog of memes, but still shows an appreciation for the mutually supportive relationship between meme-complexes, in this case the memes for theology and those for exercise of governing power.


In describing the first large-scale empire, that of Sargon, McNeill says:

Sargon began his career as cup-bearer to the king of Kish, on the northernmost edge of Sumer. When he began an independent career of conquest, he probably drew his strength from soldiery recruited among his fellow Akkadians. At that time, Akkad constituted a zone of transition between the high civilization of the south and the barbarism of outlying regions. Thus the Akkadians were in a favorable position to  unite barbarian prowess with civilized technique to form a powerful military force; and in fact, Sargon was only one of the earliest of a long line of lords marcher who created empires by successfully exploiting a similarly strategic position on the frontier between civilization and barbarism.

This indicates a memetic process of synthesis: the potential energy of civilization harnessed by the concentrated power of a barbaric military force under the direction of a leader who values the former and controls the latter.


In his retrospective essay McNeill says:

Historians approach their subject from the moving platform of their own times, with the result that the past changes shape continually. Anyone who lives to re-read his own work long afterward must therefore expect to recognize signs and hallmarks of the inevitable displacement that time brings to historical understanding. This truism was brought home to me by a seminar devoted to my magnum opus … at Williams College, where I was visiting professor in 1988. It was the first time I had read the book in twenty-five years, and the experience of revisiting an old friend … was both humbling and elevating.

The book was a sudden, surprising success when it came out in 1963. …

In retrospect it seems obvious that the [book] should be seen as an expression of the postwar imperial mood in the United States. Its scope and conception is a form of intellectual imperialism, for it takes on the world as a whole, and it tries to understand global history on the basis of the concept of cultural diffusion …. In particular [it] is built on the notion that the principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills. A corollary of this proposition is that centers of high skill (i.e., civilizations) tend to upset their neighbors by exposing them to attractive novelties. Less-skilled peoples round about are then impelled to try to make those novelties their own so as to attain for themselves the wealth, power, truth, and beauty that civilized skills confer on their possessors. yet such efforts provoke a painful ambivalence between the drive to imitate and an equally fervent desire to preserve the customs and institutions that distinguish the would-be borrowers from the corruptions and injustices that also inhere in civilized life. …

As I struggled through a chapter a week, variations in the quality of different chapters became rather painfully obvious. The low point came with chapter 4, entitled “The Rise of a Cosmopolitan Civilization in the Middle East, 1700–500 BC”. … this chapter undertakes to describe the military-political changes, administrative systems, social structure, and cultural conservation and advance across the twelve centuries and amongst the dozens of peoples and scores of states concerned. …

The Rise of the West assumes that separate civilizations form real and important human groupings and that their interactions constitute the main theme of world history. But in this chapter I had to deal with the merging together of what had once been separate civilizations into a new cosmopolitanism that extended throughout the Middle East without erasing local differences. …

A second … failure occurred in chapter 10, which treats world affairs between AD 1000 and 1500. In this case, new scholarship since 1963 has pointed the way to a … better understanding of what was going on in the Eurasian world …. I concentrated on the “Steppe Conquerors and the Eurasian far West”. … the chapter looks at Eurasia from a naively Western viewpoint. Turks and Mongols come galloping over the horizon from the East – suddenly, and, so to speak, mysteriously …. I overlooked the ultimate disturber of world balances in the era itself: that is, an efflorescence of Chinese civilization that raised China’s culture, wealth, and power to a new level ….

Moreover, I gave undue attention to Latin Christendom, being eager to search out seeds and portents of Europe’s rise to world leadership after 1500. …

it seems to me now that the book is flawed simply because it assumes that discernibly separate civilizations were the autonomous social entities whose interactions defined history on a global scale. Just what the term “civilization” really means is left fuzzy, though I followed V. Gordon Childe and others in equating civilization with a society in which occupational specialization allowed the emergence of high skills – administrative, military, artisanal, literary, and artistic. That may be adequate to distinguish early civilizations from neolithic village societies, but it does not say much about geographical and social boundaries in subsequent eras when a multiplicity of civilizations arose ….

This raises the question of who really belongs to a civilization. Newborn infants clearly do not earn membership until they learn their cultural roles. But what about the poor and unskilled, whose roles are limited at best? And what about those living at a distance…?

The essay is much more involved than this extract, but I find two things interesting: first, an important author was (and apparently remains) fairly confused about memetic ideas; second, he is aware of his confusion, and quite forthright in critical examination of his own work.

I have not read the book (though I still might), not even the chapters 4 and 10 that he mentions in the essay. I read most of the Neolithic chapter and the Mesopotamian chapter.

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