The Shape of Things to Come

Book the First
Today and Tomorrow: the Age of Frustration Dawns

1. A Chronological Note

H.G. Wells

IN THE NINETEENTH and twentieth centuries the story of mankind upon this planet undergoes a change of phase. It broadens out. It unifies. It ceases to be a tangle of more and more interrelated histories and it becomes plainly and consciously one history. There is a complete confluence of racial, social and political destinies. With that a vision of previously unsuspected possibilities opens to the human imagination. And that vision brings with it an immense readjustment of ideas.

The first phase of that readjustment is necessarily destructive. The conceptions of life and obligation that have served and satisfied even the most vigorous and intelligent personalities hitherto, conceptions that were naturally partial, sectarian and limited, begin to lose, decade by decade, their credibility and their directive force. They fade, they become attenuated. It is an age of increasing mental uneasiness, of forced beliefs, hypocrisy, cynicism, abandon and impatience. What has been hitherto a final and impenetrable background of conviction in the rightness of the methods of behaviour characteristic of the national or local culture of each individual, becomes, as it were, a dissolving and ragged curtain. Behind it appear, vague and dim at first, and refracted and distorted by the slow dissolution of the traditional veils, the intimations of the type of behaviour necessary to that single world community in which we live to-day.

Until the Chronological Institute has completed its present labours of revision and defined the cardinal dates in our social evolution, it is best to refer our account of the development of man’s mind and will throughout this hectic period of human experience to the clumsy and irrelevant computation by centuries before and after the Christian Era, that is still current. As we have explained more fully in a previous book [Nothing of this is to be found in Raven’s notes.—ED.], we inherit this system of historical pigeonholes from Christendom; that arbitrary chequerwork of hundred-year blocks was imposed upon the entire Mediterranean and Atlantic literatures for two thousand years, and it still distorts the views of history of all but the alertest minds. The young student needs to be constantly on his guard against its false divisions. As Peter Lightfoot has remarked, we talk of the “eighteenth century”, and we think of fashions and customs and attitudes that are characteristic of a period extending from the Treaty of Westphalia in C.E. [Christian Era] 1642 to the Napoleonic collapse in C.E. 1815; we talk of the “nineteenth century”, and the pictures and images evoked are those of the gas-lighting and steam-transport era, from after the distressful years of post-Napoleonic recovery to the immense shock of the World War in C.E. 1914. The phase “twentieth century”, again, calls forth images of the aeroplane, the electrification of the world and so forth; but an aeroplane was an extremely rare object in the air until 1914 (the first got up in 1905), and the replacement of the last steam railway train and the last steamship was not completed until the nineteen-forties. It is a tiresome waste of energy to oblige each generation of young minds to learn first of all in any unmeaning pattern of centuries and then to correct that first crude arrangement, so that this long- needed revision of our chronology is one that will be very welcome to every teacher. Then from the very outset he or she will be able to block out the story of our race in significant masses.

The Chronological Institute is setting about its task with a helpful publicity, inviting discussion from every angle. It is proposing to divide up as much of the known history of our race as is amenable to annual reckoning, into a series of eras of unequal length. Naturally the choice of these eras is the cause of some extremely lively and interesting interchanges; most of us have our own private estimates of the values of events, and many issues affecting the earlier civilized communities remain in a state of animated unsettlement. Our chronology is now fairly sure as to the year for most important events in the last 4,000 years, and, thanks largely to the minute and patient labours of the Selwyn-Cornford Committee for Alluvial Research, to the decade for another hundred centuries. So far as the last 3,000 years are concerned, little doubt remains now that the main dividing points to be adopted will be first the epoch of Alexander and the Hellenic conquests which will begin the phase of the great Helleno-Latin monetary imperialism in the western world, the Helleno-Latin Era. This will commence at the crossing of the Hellespont by Alexander the Great and end either with the Battle of the Yarmuk (636 C.E.) or the surrender of Jerusalem to the Caliph Omar (638 C.E.). Next will come the epoch of Moslem and Mongol pressure on the West which opened the era of feudal Christendom vis-à-vis with feudal Islam: the Era of Asiatic Predominance. This ends with the Battle of Lepanto (1571 C.E.). Then thirdly there will follow the epoch of the Protestant and the Catholic (counter) Reformations, which inaugurated the era of the competing sovereign states with organized standing armies: the Era of European Predominance, or, as it may also be called, the Era of National Sovereignty. Finally comes the catastrophe of the World War of 1914, when the outward drive of the new economic methods the Atlantic civilizations had developed gave way under the internal stresses of European nationalism. That war, and its long-drawn sequelae, released the human mind to the potentialities and dangers of an imperfectly Europeanized world—a world which had unconsciously become one single interlocking system, while still obsessed by the Treaty of Westphalia and the idea of competing sovereign states. This mental shock and release marks the beginning of the Era of the Modern State. The opening phase of this latest era is this Age of Frustration with which we are now about to deal. That is the first age of the Era of the Modern State. A second age, but not a new era, began with the Declaration of Mégève which was accepted by the general commonsense of mankind forty-seven years ago. This closed the Age of Frustration, which lasted therefore a little short of a century and a half.

The date upon the title-page for the first publication of this History is C.E. 2106. Before many editions have been exhausted that will be changed to Modern Era (M.E.) 192 or M.E. 189 or M.E. 187, according to whether our chronologists decide upon 1914, the date of the outbreak of the Great War, or 1917, the beginning of the social revolution in Russia, or 1919, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, as the conclusive opening of the Age of Frustration and the conflict for world unity. The second date seems at present to be the more practicable one.

In C.E. 1914 the concept of an organized world order did not seem to be within the sphere of human possibility; in C.E. 1919 it was an active power in a steadily increasing proportion of human brains. The Modern State had been conceived. It was germinating. One system, the Soviet system in Russia, was already claiming to be a world system. To most of the generation which suffered it, the Great War seemed to be purely catastrophe and loss; to us who see those hideous years in perspective and in proportion to the general dulness and baseness of apprehension out of which that conflict arose, the destruction of life and substance, unprecedented as they were, has none of that overwhelming quality. We see it as a clumsy, involuntary release from outworn assumptions by their reduction to tragic absurdity, and as a practically unavoidable step therefore in the dialectic of human destiny.

The Shape of Things to Come - Contents    |     Book 1 - 2. How the Idea and Hope of the Modern World State First Appeared

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