Universal history  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Universal history is basic to the Western tradition of historiography, especially the Judeo-Christian wellspring of that tradition. Simply stated, universal history is the presentation of the history of mankind as a whole, as a coherent unit.


Ancient examples

Ancient authors

In Greco-Roman antiquity, the first universal history was written by Ephorus. This work has been lost, but its influence can be seen in the ambitions of Polybius and Diodorus to give comprehensive accounts of their worlds. Later, universal history provided an influential lens on the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire in such works as Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, Augustine's City of God, and Orosius' History Against the Pagans.

The Bible as universal history

The first five books of the Bible constitute a primary example of such a history. To the extent that the Pentateuch presents itself as an account of mankind as a whole, from creation to the death of Moses, it is universal history. The story progresses according to a universal principle: the Bible posits that the history of mankind is governed by Yawveh, and that his will is manifest in every event that takes place. The destiny of all mankind, according to this idea, is governed by man's relationship with God. This idea naturally flows into the story of the Children of Israel, whose patriarchs conversed with God and made various covenants with Him. These covenants governed mankind's destiny. This idea extends into the New Testament, which posits that the sacrifice of Jesus now affects every person, and every generation since his resurrection, into the limitless future.

Universal histories and chronicles in the Middle Ages

Western Europe

The universal chronicle (or world chronicle), tracing history from the beginning of the world up to the present, was an especially popular genre of historiography in medieval Western Europe. The universal chronicle differs from the ordinary chronicle in its much broader chronological and geographical scope, giving, in principle, a continuous account of the progress of world history from the creation of the world up to the author's own times, but in practice often narrowing down to a more limited geographical range as it approaches those times.

The Chronica of Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 275339) is considered to be the starting point of this tradition. The second book of this work consisted of a set of concordance tables (Chronici canones) that for the first time synchronized the several concurrent chronologies in use with different peoples. Eusebius' chronicle became known to the Latin West through the translation by Jerome (c. 347420).

Universal chronicles are sometimes organized around a central ideological theme, such as the Augustinian idea of the tension between the heavenly and the earthly state, which plays a major role in Otto von Freising's Historia de duabus civitatibus. In other cases, any obvious theme may be lacking. Some universal chronicles bear a more or less encyclopedic character, with many digressions on non-historical subjects, as is the case with the Chronicon of Helinand of Froidmont.

Other notable universal chroniclers of the Medieval West include Bede (c. 672 or 673–735), the Christherre-Chronik, Helinand of Froidmont (c. 1160—1237?), Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636), Jans der Enikel, Matthew Paris (c. 1200-1259), Ranulf Higdon (c. 1280-1363), Rudolf von Ems, Sigebert of Gembloux (c. 1030–1112), Otto von Freising (c. 1114–1158), and Vincent of Beauvais (c. 1190-1264?).

Christian writers as late as Bossuet (in his Discours sur l'histoire universelle,1679) were still reflecting on and continuing the Medieval tradition of universal history.

In Arabic

In the medieval Arabic world, universal history in this vein was taken up by Muslim historians such as al-Tabari and Ibn Khaldun. The 13th Century Jami al-Tawarikh ("Compendium of Chronicles") by Rashid al-Din (now held at the University of Edinburgh) is a significant example of this.

Modern examples

An early European project was the Universal History of George Sale and others, written in the mid-eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, universal histories proliferated. Philosophers such as Kant, Schiller and Hegel, and political philosophers such as Marx, presented general theories of history that shared essential characteristics with the Biblical account: they conceived of history as a coherent whole, governed by certain basic characteristics or immutable principles. For example, Hegel presented the idea that progress in history is actually the progress not of mankind's material existence, but of humanity's spiritual development. Concomitantly, Hegel presented a developmental theory of how the human spirit progresses: through the dialectic of synthesis and antithesis. Marx's theory of dialectic materialism is essential to his general concept of history: that the struggle to dominate the means of production governs all historical development.

Popular conceptions and universal history

Basic ideas of universal history are so prevalent that they are difficult to separate from basic Western assumptions of how the world is or should be. Outside some intellectuals, such ideas continue to predominate as core assumptions. The teleological aspects of universal history remain entrenched. Many people believe that the events of our world, and more specifically, the events within the human community, are directed toward an end or tending toward an end of some sort. 'Linear' pre-suppositions of the theory are no less prevalent. Most people living in Western cultures conceive of time, and therefore of history, as a line or an arrow, that is proceeding from past to future, toward some end. The idea that time may be cyclical, or that there is no fundamental "end" to the human struggle, is unfamiliar.


The roots of historiography in the nineteenth century are bound up with the concept that history written with a strong connection to the primary sources could, somehow, be integrated with "the big picture", i.e. to a general, universal history. For example, Leopold Von Ranke, probably the pre-eminent historian of the nineteenth century, founder of "Rankean positivism," the classic mode of historiography that now stands against postmodernism, attempted to write a Universal History at the close of his career. The work of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee are two examples of attempts to integrate primary source -based history and Universal History. Spengler's work is more general; Toynbee created a theory that would allow the study of "civilizations" to proceed with integration of source-based history writing and Universal History writing. Both writers attempted to incorporate teleological theories into general presentations of the history.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Universal history" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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