We have followed numerous lines of investigation using very various materials. With what result? To what extent have these inquiries served to uncover the causes of the variety of civilisations? We have, so far only investigated those manifestations of life resulting from blood relationship and the triple law bound up with it. It is true we have valuable pointers where the thread of the matter must next be sought: examination of the problem of relation of religion to civilisation has just brought us to the question of public law and so to a new theme, the relation of society and State. But let us first sum up.
We have seen how the attitude of man to fire became the differentiating factor par excellence. Who can say whether more peoples will not be discovered who are unable even to kindle fire, or among whom the keeping of a fire is the exclusive privilege of authority? After all we do not know the interior of Borneo or of Australia, and many peoples are known simply “by sight”. Information even on the triple law is extremely inexact in the case of the great majority of the peoples of the earth. Our knowledge in this field resembles a sieve, of which it can be said that it is made of holes. It is thus not easy to decide upon a systematization of civilisations, the more so that a second element of difficulty inherent in the very nature of the subject enters in.
For does the triple law develop in straight lines? In reality the outlines are often less distinct, with one feature sometimes obscuring another, as in a mixture. Life has more combinations than learning can digest schemes. But wishing to keep to the paths of science, we must arrangs the material under certain heads, striving to systematize, and that despite complete awareness that the result can only be a sketch requiring constant correction which will surely be forthcoming as monographs on the various detailed problems begin to appear.
It is impossible to avoid the questions: what civilisations there are, how many there are and in what their essential differences consist. But as with races, the inquirer must answer the question “when?”.
Every epoch has its civilisations — some older, dating from the previous epoch and some newly emerging. For example, Chinese civilisation still flourishes, ancient Egyptian has completely disappeared. Nor is the number of civilisations constant — they can only be counted in a chronological framework. The question thus arises whether the number of civilisations is increasing or decreasing as a majority of the peoples of the earth attain higher levels.
As with races and languages, once there were more civilisations than today. The more primitive conditions, the narrower the territory which suffices for a separate system of communal life, but also the less permanent they are. How many civilisations have been lost because their systems proved unsuited to wider development we shall never know. There are unsuccessful, choked civilisations incapable of reaching higher levels, lacking the conditions to evolve any tradition or to get round the feature which forces them to a standstill. There are also those which are condemned from the first to stagnate in their primitiveness: it is not easy to describe them, particularly as among primitive peoples there is no uniformity in either situation or opinions.
But it is not possible to achieve definition even of undoubtedly historic civilisations of which only fragments remain. Here and there one finds survivals of the great dark civilisation of ancient Egypt, which reach to the Pamir and are for us today a real revelation. But the discovery of a stray fragmentary survival cannot tell us even approximately to what extent the influence of ancient Egyptian civilisation was felt in Central Asia. Did there exist an entire culture of this civilisation, or have we only caught hold of an imported item without real significance? What is to be said of the disjecta membra of Etruscan civilisation? Or of the Phoenician? Or the Tokharian, recently dug out of the desert sands of Eastern Turkestan? Could anyone, in the present state of our knowledge, describe Tokharian triple law or even explain whether it was a distinct civilisation or perhaps only a culture of the Turanian (although their language was apparently Indo-European)? Does Turanian thus go back to distant times or was it created only towards the end of the classical centuries, or perhaps even later? How much is known of the civilisation called Minusinsk, a civilisation of an agricultural people in the Altai-Sayan region? And it is only now that we are beginning to get our bearings in the redskin’s civilisations of Peru and Mexico.
There is thus a great probability that further archaeological discoveries will add to the question marks. Numerous and considerable gaps in our knowledge mean that the time has not yet come for definitive systematization. But a modest sketch may be undertaken on a limited scale. For it would of course be impossible to bring in every civilisation, since so much in them is unknown territory. The unavoidable necessity of limiting oneself to the few better known may be a useful lesson in humility.
It should be borne in mind that this sketch is made because the advance of knowledge requires that some kind of order should be introduced into the material of the scientific heritage at this time. In the history of every science there are these stages of systematization. Although the process is never finally complete and settled, there is no plainer criterion of the state of a given science than the systematization of its branches. It is impossible to argue whether such systematization is an essential part of science or only a means of getting one’s bearings; but it is certain that without systematization no science is capable of emerging from swaddling clothes.
It is indeed a fact that in all manifestations of life reality is rarely in complete harmony with the scientific account of it, but nobody draws the conclusion that there should be an end to the cultivation of science. The margin of disagreement between the scientific account and the reality is increased because science always inclines to simplify its arguments, to generalise on the least possible number of types, scientifically described and classified and allegedly of a superior order. The higher the science climbs, the fewer such types it counts. There is always incomparably more diversity in life than in a book. And yet... And yet although we know that (classical) mechanics requires numerous and sometimes considerable corrections in practical application — when, for example, it is a question of building a boat or a power-station, nevertheless we also know for certain that the best sailor or fitter will not build them, because they are not familiar with the theory.
Scientific systems do not necessarily give an entirely adequate picture of life, but despite this they are indispensable for a proper sense of direction, knowledge of where one is going — and in order that life may be controlled and directed according to human possibilities. For although the system is rarely exactly identical with the reality, reality without system is even more rarely comprehensible.
With these reservations, I proceed to tentative systematization. I can only deal with the best known civilisations, but in all likelihood these civilisations, great and more studied, offer a sufficient basis for argument, useful mutatis mutandis for the smaller and secondary also. Provided we can reach certain guiding principles, the basic features of a systematization, it will be easier for us afterwards to correct and supplement it. Basic lines always keep their value for the continued development of the study of civilisation.
We shall thus chiefly consider features of the systems for the organisation of communal life which are contemporary to us. I exclude Tibetan civilisation from further argument, because it is too little investigated. An experimental field is provided by the seven main civilisations in existence today — Jewish, Brahmin, Chinese, Turanian, Arabic, Byzantine and Latin; others will serve here and there to supplement conclusions arising in the course of discussion.