Readers familiar with H.G. Wells' later writings will likely know what to expect from The Outline of History. Wells' study of world history is, much like what he offers in comparable passages in The Shape of Things to Come, a progressive tale of the triumph of reason over superstition; of the ideas of service and community over self-seeking and privilege; and of human dignity and freedom over ignorance, want and tyranny. This is, Wells informs us, above all a history of the development of human thought, and in particular the development of three, generally rising trends:
1. The rational, systematic pursuit of knowledge about the world, and the application of this knowledge in similarly rational and systematic fashion. (This can be thought of as the story of philosophy and science, of figures like Herodotus and Aristotle, Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon, and the "mechanical revolution" that remade everyday life.)
2. The recognition that all of humanity comprises a single, universal community, the members of which are all equals and for whom the true "good life" lies in service to that larger community. (This is the ethical revolution wrought by religious traditions like Buddhism, Taoism and the Abrahamic tradition, as well as secular philosophies like Stoicism.1)
3. The interaction of the principles of the "community of will" (exemplified by the freedom-loving nomad) with those of the "community of obedience" (exemplified by the settled, hierarchical inhabitants of the early civilizations) to produce a higher sort of community of will. (The reacting of one on the other is for him the story of democracy, from Greece and Rome to the Magna Charta to the Enlightenment.)
Nonetheless, in line with his science-minded outlook, Wells begins well before one can properly speak of such things, at the birth of the planet Earth, and the earliest development of life on it, a part of the tale that he tells at unusual length for a work of this type. We are already on page 68 before "the first men like ourselves" appear, and on page 127 before he turns to the very first civilizations, roughly an eighth of the main text already behind us.2
After this point the book becomes more conventional in its choice of subject matter, relating the rise of the first recognizable polities in Old World river valleys (the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile, the Yellow River, the Indus), the intellectual stirrings and empire-building of the ages that followed (the Dharmic and Abrahamic religious traditions, the earliest philosophies of Greece and China; Sargon and Cyrus, Asoka and Alexander, Qin Shi Huang and Caesar), and the long crawl toward modernity (Dark Age and Renaissance, the Tang and Mogul dynasties, the voyages of discovery, the scientific, industrial and mechanical revolutions, the American and French Revolutions). Still, Wells' principal interest is in tracing the trends with which the book is concerned through these movements and events, determining what he does or does not choose to emphasize.
The progress of those trends--the increasing recognition of the liberating potential of the sciences, the oneness of the human community, and the ideas of equality and freedom--had advanced to such a point by the eighteenth century's end that they thrust to the forefront of political thinking three old problems that might be thought of as issues of their practical implementation: property, currency, and the conduct of international affairs.2
The solution to these problems, it seemed to him, lay in "a world unification based on a fundamental social revolution" (916). However, the ending to that story had yet to be written--and did not seem a thing to be taken for granted. Indeed, it may be the discussion of this possibility that constitutes the most dramatic difference between one edition and another. The original 1920 edition, following its discussion of the First World War, concludes with some optimism about the diminished prospects of another, comparable conflict, and closes with a forward-looking chapter titled "The Next Stage of History," detailing a possible path toward a united world, and what the Modern World State might look like.
In their place in the 1961 edition are two chapters on "Twenty Years of Indecision and its Outcome," and "The Aftermath of the Second World War." "Indecision" offers an appropriately grim assessment of the superficial or illusory reforms, broken promises and missed opportunities of the interwar period, and their implications, not least that the outcome he hoped for seemed increasingly uncertain, and likely to come at the cost of "incalculable further depletion in waste and suffering," such that "our species may stagger half way to its goal and fail" (916).3 The book subsequently moves on to a chronicle of the major events of the Second World War, and the years that followed, the element of advocacy much diminished.
As one might guess given the book's age it has dated in ways small and large, from its adherence to hyperdiffusionism, to its assessment of pre-Meiji Japan. However, there are many respects in which Wells' historiography not only remains compelling (like his account of Rome's rise and fall), but seems surprisingly of our own time, like his critiques of academic specialization, or Eurocentrism. More importantly, nearly a century after the publication of the book's first edition, and three-quarters of a century after the last edition on which Wells personally worked, the book remains very effective in making its key arguments. Additionally, in its sweep and great readability, its breadth of vision and multitude of insights, it remains compelling as a piece of historiography, all the more valuable for the ways in which its rationalistic, humanistic and progressive vision of history has come to be unfashionable. The result is that while Wells' Outline is relevant to an understanding of the vision that produced his fictional output, its significance is hardly limited to those with such an interest. Indeed, the tendency to overlook this book, just like the tendency to overlook all his writing apart from his handful of classic scientific romances, is a thing to be regretted.
1. One may be surprised to find Wells attributing a positive role to religion. His position is that beneath the encrustations of superstitious doctrine and ritual, these religions offered a recognition of the existence of a single human community, and of "the good life" as one in service to it, rather than the pursuit of the advancement of oneself or some smaller fragment of humanity; in short, early intimations of the World State for which he called.
2. I am citing the 1961 Doubleday edition of the volume, which was revised and brought up to date by Raymond Postgate. (The last edition on which Wells worked was published in 1939.)
3. Wells' efforts on this score are, of course, imperfect. The fact remains that where space and detail are concerned, the study remains overwhelmingly devoted to the accustomed subjects of traditional Western history. However, this appears to reflect the material then available to him, and he is more successful in his effort when he is in his analytical mode, as when writing of the significance of Buddha and Asoka, or putting the rise and fall of the Roman and European colonial empires into a longer-ranged and global perspective.
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