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In a Nutshell

The Rise Of The West

by William H. McNeill
Chicago, 829 pp., $12.50

It used to be easy to plan and organize (if not to write) a history of the world. Not any more. It is no longer possible to draw the eastern border of European history at the Elbe and the Danube; to admit the Egyptians, Babylonians, Hebrews, Assyrians, and Mohammed into the story, but no one else from the Near and Middle East; to treat the United States as a colonial territory that behaved freakishly enough to merit a little attention until it suddenly became a proper subject in the twentieth century; or to treat the Far East in the same way only more so. But the alternative is a difficult one to find.

One can—and historians commonly do—get round the problem by the idea of multiple civilizations, each discussed more or less independently until they collide. This leads to an inelegant presentation and Professor McNeill will have none of it (though for reasons that have nothing to do with elegance). His 800-page illustrated book is not what one would expect from the quixotic title but a sweeping world history divided into three approximately equal parts entitled, respectively, “The Era of Middle Eastern Dominance to 500 B.C.,” “Eurasian Cultural Balance 500 B.C.—1500 A.D.,” and “The Era of Western Dominance, 1500 A.D. to the Present.” By calling the book “The Rise of the West” and structuring it in this way, he is trying to send out several signals to the reader at once. In his own words, the title “may serve as a shorthand description of the upshot of the history of the human community to date.” Hence the period since 1500 is disproportionately cramped; everything is interrelated all along the line, from prehistoric times on; and the grand argument (as well as the final prognostication) is persistently thumped home that the “West” and the West alone has made mankind what we are today, and what we will become no matter which available road we choose.

There is at first sight something refreshing about a historian who sets himself unashamedly against a fair amount of contemporary romantic woolliness and proclaims the old-fashioned view that power, Western power, has been and continues to be the central theme. Soon, however, one begins to be anxious about the persistent vagueness. “The West” is not a clearly defined concept; neither are “civilization,” “culture,” “power,” “myth,” “reason,” “flux,” “transformation,” all favorite terms of Professor McNeill’s. Precise “scientific” definition is not attainable in this field perhaps, but the alternative is not mere vagueness, imprecision, shallowness, and certainly not a Procrustean cutting and stretching to suit the individual situation or argument.

In 1500, Professor McNeill writes, one of the three “talismans of power” giving Europeans of the Atlantic sea-board their vast superiority was a “deep-rooted pugnacity and recklessness” which had “Bronze Age barbarian roots.” The first total victims were, of course, the Indians of Central and South America, who are dismissed in these closing sentences of Part II:

The loss to human culture involved in the Spanish extirpation of Amerindian civilizations does not…seem very great. Over centuries and millennia, who can say what might have arisen? But in 1500 A.D., the actual achievements of the New World were trifling as compared to those of the Old.

It would be interesting also to have Professor McNeill’s judgment about certain more recent manifestations of pugnacity and recklessness, and their extirpations. Yet not only is no verdict rendered, there is not even the briefest statement of the facts. Nazi Germany, for example, receives a half-dozen scattered and fleeting references, all but one of two in half-sentences, though the concluding section of the book is called “Dilemmas of Power” and the author’s final words exhort us to “count ourselves fortunate to live in one of the great ages of the world.” Is it unreasonable to ask a man who writes a world history with this particular allpervasive theme to try to explain the implications of these manifestations of “Western” power in our own time which, it can be argued, challenge the optimism of his vision and the neatness of his evolutionary pattern? It is not good enough to tell us all about the Amerindians of the sixteenth century.

Not that Professor McNeill is averse to explanation. On the contrary, he explains all the time, too often and too much. Any man who undertakes the thankless and laborious task of writing a serious history of the world leaves himself open to criticism of his knowledge of the details of those periods in history in which he is admittedly not an expert. The only effective and valid defense is to maintain a distance, not to pretend to know everything intimately. Professor McNeill failed to grasp this absolutely essential point of method. The results in the field in which I can claim some authority, the ancient world, do not inspire confidence about the rest. The nuances have escaped him much of the time, outright errors are too numerous, and the faults are heightened by the persistent explanations and “theories.” Sometimes, too, the authorities mentioned in the footnotes do not support, or they even deny, the statements in the text.

We read, for example, that “in general…(Greek) poetry was not profoundly influenced by the polis, largely because poetic forms (except for the drama) matured before the polis acquired a really strong emotional hold” (my italics). Since the poetic drama was, after Homer, considered by ancients and moderns alike to be the greatest Greek achievement in poetry, that is odd, to say the least. It is even odder when we note that lyric poetry, primarily a sixth-century phenomenon, was contemporary with Ionian philosophy, which, Professor McNeill asserts, “basically affirmed the polis.” It is hard to imagine that anyone who has ever read any Greek comedy can call it “a dramatic form disdaining serious ideas”; or that anyone who has read Aristotle can say that he (like Herodotus, of all people) “was not a polis man.” At the base of the Politics lies Aristotle’s perhaps most frequently quoted single remark: “Man is by nature a polis-being.” It is true, to be sure, that “Athenian political development…did not seriously engage his emotions” in the same way it engaged Plato’s, but the latter, in his turn, is caricatured:

Yet in his maturer years, in such dialogues as the Timaeus, Philebus, Theaetetus, and Parmenides, it looks as though the frustrated politician had begun to find a dim substitute for political action by making intellectual speculation and synthesis an end in itself.

On the rudimentary factual level, it was Hesiod, not Homer, who presumed to “organize and define the Olympic pantheon”; it was not “in old age” that Xenophon “retired to an estate in the Peloponnesus” (and “retired” is a curiously oblique reference to the fact that he was driven from his native Athens because he fought against her on the Spartan side in a major battle); it is false to write that, “so far as we know,” Thucydides “never returned to Athens” after his exile (especially when the sources are quite explicit that he did return); it is false, and leads to grave misunderstanding, to say that “in the fourth centure new tragedies ceased to be produced.” Aristotle’s Poetics, written late in that century, was an attempt to analyze a living art form in a systematic way.

It is curious that a specialist on contemporary history should try to spread himself more the further he goes back in time and the further in space from the European center. Greek art and literature receive pages, but for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries we are reduced to this kind of thing:

When the period began, musicians had not yet exhausted the harmonic possibilities of the eight-tone scale…. Ludwig van Beethoven (d. 1827), Johannes Brahms (d. 1897), and Richard Wagner (d. 1883), with many less famous names, exploited these possibilities brilliantly. Yet by the eve of World War I a few obscure European composers had begun to experiment with scales and harmonies beyond the domain of received convention; while in obscure American whore-houses, other musical experiments, bringing African rhythms and Western sound-making together, constituted an equally drastic, though rather less deliberate, break with the classical tradition of western music….

The various branches of belles-lettres and such other major arts as sculpture and architecture fell somewhere between the extremes represented by the precocious enthusiasm with which painters abandoned old rules of their craft and the lofty unconcern with which nearly all European musicians viewed the pre-World War I experiments with jazz and atonality. Forerunners of radical departures are not difficult to find. It is enough to recall such literary monuments as Marcel Proust’s (d. 1922) novels, Arthur Schnitzler’s (d. 1932) plays, or Alexander Blok’s (d. 1921) poems, or to remember Auguste Rodin’s (d. 1917) rough-hewn statues and the drastically simplified forms of Constantine Brancusi’s (d. 1957) early sculpture.

The word-play—“obscure European composers” and “obscure American whore-houses”—and the quite remarkable selection of exemplars typify the author’s passion for clever combinations. Unfortunately many, like these, are neither illuminating nor meaningful.

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