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History by Committee

History of Mankind, I: Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization of the Scientific and Cultural Development of Mankind)

by Jacquetta Hawkes, by Sir Leonard Woolley
Harper & Row (Published for the International Commission for a History, volume I, 873 pp., $12.50

History of Mankind, II: The Ancient World of the Scientific and Cultural Development of Mankind)

by Luigi Pareti, by Paolo Brezzi, by Luciano Petech
Harper & Row (Published for the International Commission for a History, volume II, 1048 pp., $15.50

Taken by themselves, as products of individual writers, these first two volumes of the History of Mankind sponsored by UNESCO would hardly be worth reviewing. What makes them an object of curiosity is the immense machinery set up ad hoc by UNESCO through an International Commission to help and guide its authors: this includes hundreds of advisers and the publication of a special periodical, the Journal of World History, to “provide the International Commission with material for the final compilation of the History.” I am not implying that the two volumes are incompetently written. The very names of the five authors—two English for the first volume and three Italians for the second—are a guarantee that these books do not sink below the level of decency; but they are indifferent specimens of a wellknown species. Nowadays the shops are full of books which claim to give an idea of the historical development of mankind—either in the compact form of a Universal History or in a series of monographs on individual nations, periods, aspects of human activity. Three varieties of such books seem to me to have a genuine claim to the attention of the discriminating reader. There are the straightforward handbooks which provide competent information about sources and modern research. Here the French are supreme with their collections, Clio, Nouvelle Clio, Mana, Themis, etc. I am never wrong when I send my pupils for first information to A. Piganiol, Histoire de Rome or to E. Drioton and J. Vandier, L’Egypte, in the collection Clio. Then there are the series of histories put together under the editorship of a distinguished historian by what one may loosely call the members of his school. Here again the best contemporary examples are French, because the French are perhaps the only ones still to have real historical schools which extend their influence far beyond France. An example is the series Destins du monde founded by L. Febvre and now edited by Fernand Braudel. If the volume on Medieval Europe in this series is written by an eminent Italian historian who teaches at Yale, R.S. Lopez, this is because he is closely connected with the Febvre-Braudel group. Skillful and imaginative writing is the distinctive feature of this type of series, and each writer is too good an historian not to stick to the field in which he commands the primary evidence. A promising attempt to produce an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to this French initiative seems to be the new History of Human Society edited by J.H. Plumb, of which I have seen the volume Prehistoric Societies by G. Clark and S. Piggott* . Finally, there are the “dogmatic” Universal Histories, of which the most conspicuous contemporary representative is the Moscow Vsemirnaia Istoria. We are in for very dull and very unimaginative writing firmly controlled by the Party editors. (The best contributors to the Vsemirnaia Istoria write much better when they produce independent monographs.) But a precise point of view is systematically presented throughout the work: at least we are compelled to react.

The two UNESCO volumes are characterized by the absence of all the positive qualities that are to be found in the collective works I have mentioned. References to sources are casual and insufficient: there is no attempt to assess their value. Guidance on modern trends of research is lacking. The footnotes which are perhaps intended to fulfill this purpose—and to which I shall have to return later—contain occasional glimpses of truth, but are on the whole more comic relief than education. The various writers have indeed very little in common, and there is no link whatsoever between their contributions: unless one is prepared to see a unity in the catalogue style which all of them display and which seems to have been imposed on them by the organizers of the work. Finally, it is only too obvious that each writer went far beyond the field of his own researches and interests and simply compiled—hence of course the dullness past redemption of their texts.

An element of misfortune in the organization of these volumes has to be taken into account. Henri Frankfort, the brilliant historian of the Near East, who had originally been chosen to write Part II of the first volume on the Beginning of Civilization, died before he could begin. Sir Leonard Woolley, who bravely came to the rescue, also died before he had completed his section. Professor Luigi Pareti, who had the main responsibility for Volume II, undertook too much in his old age (he worked concurrently on this History, on a Roman History in several volumes, on a History of Sicily, on a History of Lucania as yet unpublished, and on the collection in several volumes of his own minor writings). He died at the age of 77 in 1962 before his part was finished. Yet the overall impression remains that none of the writers put his or her best into this work, or alternatively that what was required of them did not suit them.

I do not know enough about L. Petech who wrote about India, the Far East, and Central Asia to have a clear idea of his personality, but I have read the previous books by Jacquetta Hawkes and Leonard Woolley and am of course familiar with Pareti’s and Brezzi’s work. I can hardly recognize any of them in their UNESCO dress. Jacquetta Hawkes at her best is a sensitive essayist who by subtlety of language and poetic imagination tries to convey some of the difficulties of interpreting the real life and thoughts of men who lived before writing was invented: here she has undertaken to compile data on the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages throughout the world in a style of which the following sentences are a fair sample:

In France the Magdalenian culture had become the Azilian by pre-Boreal times, and this survived in the more open country of southern and south-western Europe for several millennia. Later, however, other cultures derived from the dying Upper Palaeolithic traditions emerged, important among them the Sauveterrian (formerly known as Lower Tardenoisian) which prevailed over much of France and Britain. Finally Tardenoisian and kindred “blade and trapeze” cultures became widespread over much of Europe…[1, 97].

From time to time she tries to reassert herself and to discourse—quite appropriately in the circumstances—on the emergence of human consciousness, but whether it is lack of space or lack of determination, the result strikes me as a series of non sequitur. For instance, to explain the growth of animal cults, she quotes the experience of two German refugees who decided to live alone in the African veldt as hunters; “They discovered that after a year or so of this hunting existence, they not only dreamed nightly of animals, but also of themselves turning into animals” (1, 207). She gives no evidence that the two refugees developed a cult for animals (nor, incidentally, are we told whether they brought their copy of Jung to the veldt).

Sir Leonard Woolley was, as is well known, an extraordinarily able and fortunate excavator and explorer, with the typical English taste for walking in the footsteps of Biblical patriarchs and Homeric heroes. The best pages of this work—his last—are those in which he summarizes the results of his discoveries at Ur and Alalakh—nor does it matter much whether his Abraham is too good to be true. But he was not an historian of the ancient Near East in any responsible way, and I doubt whether he had even the necessary linguistic equipment to deal with Hebrews, Assyrians. Hittites, and Egyptians, as he does here. His writing is lacking in authority and strikes me—where I can control him on Hebrew history—as unaware of difficulties.

Luigi Pareti was perhaps the only historian of real stature among the five writers. He worked on Sparta, was an authority on the Etruscans, and had an indisputable command of Roman political history. He could be infuriating in the simplicity of his rationalism and nationalism and was impervious to objections. But his mastery of sources, his originality and clarity, lend distinction to even the most questionable of his writings. What surprises here is to see him turning to subjects—such as religion, philosophy, literature, science—to which to all appearances he had never given a thought. The result is what one would expect:

Plato was a man of very great culture, learned in the various philosophical systems of his own day and of the past, and he possessed notable artistic ability in both speaking and writing. He had enormous success in carrying the Socratic doctrines to perfection [II, 535].

Finally Paolo Brezzi, who has done much of his work on the relations between State and Church in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, has written a very perfunctory history of the origins of Christianity. All the difficulties are shunned, and the reader is hardly made aware that there is a definite interdependence between interpretation of texts and understanding of events. A historian of the neo-testamentary age who does not declare where he stands in the matter of the authenticity of the Pauline letters and treats “heresies” as simple deviations from orthodoxy makes his own task unduly easy.

Shortcomings of individual performances should not as a rule be laid at the door of the general editors. But in our case it is impossible to avoid the question whether four or five good men were not put to work in conditions which were bound to extract the worst from them. First of all, nobody can work in an atmosphere of extravagant claims. But each volume opens with the same Foreword by the Director-General of UNESCO which is most unfortunate in its boastfulness; he claims nothing more and nothing less than to introduce a new type of history:

At a time when man is preparing to launch out from this planet into space, it is well that History should hold him in contemplation of his trajectory through the ages…. The ambition to write a universal history is a very old one indeed…. However, this History of Mankind parts company with its predecessors on several essential points. In the first place, it deliberately confines itself to shedding light on one of mankind’s many aspects, its cultural and scientific development…. But the originality of the enterprise does not stop there. In point of fact, that is where it begins. For the facts of which this History treats are no ordinary ones…. It is to discover a new dimension of the historical object, perceptible only when approached from a particular intellectual angle.

The ultimate aim of such a history should be to discover “the gradual development of the consciousness of the universal in man.”

I shall not discuss the claim that cultural history is something new—just invented by the inventors of the UNESCO History. The real trouble is that the planners of this History have no idea of what cultural history is about. If only they had taken cognizance of the work in cultural history which is being carried on in their neighborhood in Paris at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes or in historical journals like the Annales, they would have realized that what they proposed to publish was not history, but a catalogue of unrelated facts. It is the capacity to discover significant relations between different categories of facts which we miss most in these two volumes. This, incidentally, has been noticed by two Russian critics in a footnote added at the request of Professor A.A. Zvorikine, Vice-President of the International Commission (11, 51), but it has produced no second thoughts in the minds of the organizers. The number of unrelated facts can of course be increased ad libitum, which explains why the planners and supervisors have found it so easy to add a page here and a paragraph there where the main contributors seemed to have left lacunas. Poor Pareti, who had obviously found cataloguing uncongenial, is worst hit: the general editors made haste to add new dull pages to his dull pages on literature and philosophy. They seem never to have reflected that if one can insert alien pages into a chapter, the chapter is not worth reading.

The theory underlying these interpolations we must again leave to the Director-General of UNESCO to express:

The work you are about to read represents the first attempt to compose a universal history of the human mind from the varying standpoints of memory and thought that characterize the different contemporary cultures…. For the first time an attempt has been made to present, with respect to the history of consciousness, the sum total of the knowledge which the various contemporary societies and cultures possess and a synthesis of the conceptions which they entertain…. [Consequently] the International Commission made it a rule that the contributions of the many scholars whose services it enlisted be submitted to the scrutiny of the National Commissions which, in the Member States of UNESCO, group together persons particularly qualified to represent the fields of education, science and culture. Subject always to the overriding considerations of scientific truth, the observations received in the course of these extensive consultations were scrupulously taken into account in drawing up the final text. Never before has what I may call the decentralization of viewpoints and interpretations been carried so far in the science of history.

This passage calls for several observations: First, if one wants to give expression to the different points of view of different nationalities, creeds, civilizations, etc., the only honest way is to ask representatives of these various nationalities, beliefs, civilizations, etc., each to write their own story and to publish it separately. How can one seriously expect a self-respecting scholar to add pages or footnotes to a writer who has been given the advantage of writing a detailed (and, let us hope, coherent) account of what he thinks to be true? It is not surprising that only among the regimented historians of Russia did the National Commissions find steady contributors. The very notion of such a discussion, in which one writer has the freedom of the basic text and the others are given stray pages and footnotes, confirms the suspicion that the inventors of UNESCO history confused catalogues with history.

Secondly, any serious discussion presupposes that the evidence is produced for discussion. But what is characteristic of this History is that the evidence is seldom given and never interpreted according to the good old rules of scholarship. It follows that the main objections to the text are couched in footnotes of the following type, where trivialities and basic differences become indistinguishable:

Professor F.S. Bodenheimer asserts that the Canis matris optimae of the Natufians has been erroneously identified as a pariah-dog, and is certainly not of “Jackal-like ancestry” [1, 184, n.5].

Professor I. M. Diakonoff does not think it admissible to say that the laws of Hammurabi serve the interest of the poor and the slaves; the laws of a state always serve the interest of a ruling class [I, 512, n.11].

Dr. A.G. Drachmann points out that a solid wheel, too, could rotate round an axle [II, 155, n.20].

Professor E. M. Heichelheim notes that we have only Caesar’s own word for this view—though there is no good reason for rejecting it [II, 380, n.6].

Finally, if we grant for a moment that there is some sense in arranging a discussion in such unrealistic conditions, it remains true that it was the clear duty of the editors to ensure that all the schools of thought were represented. I have reached the conclusion, however extraordinary it may seem, that the planners of these two volumes (and more emphatically the planners of the second volume) had no precise idea of the points of view of the writers to whom they entrusted the composition of the text—and even less an idea of the schools of historical thought of our time which should have been invited to take part in the discussion. The very triviality of the majority of the additions in the text and of the footnotes bears me out. But the clearest evidence for my conclusion is provided by the sections on Early Christianity. Their author is a Catholic with a conservative outlook, who a few years ago published a very useful collection of documents on Early Christianity under the auspices and with the preface of the then Cardinal Montini, now Pope Paul VI. One would have expected his chapters to have been submitted to a discussion by differently inclined Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and free-thinking scholars, not to speak of Mohammedans, Buddhists, Hindus, and others. There is no trace of such an attempt. Nor can one say that for once the editors preferred to collect views of authoritative scholars without reference to their particular creeds and nationality. If this had been the case, we should have expected to find contributions by scholars of the caliber of the late A.D. Nock, O. Cullmann, J. Daniélou, R. Bultmann, C.H. Dodd, G. Scholem, R.M. Grant, etc., etc. No name of eminent students of Late Judaism and Early Christianity appears in the footnotes. Apart from a few trivial remarks which are mostly unsigned, we are left with a couple of a priori criticisms by the Russian Marxist E.M. Shtaerman, whose considerable merits as an historian are not exactly in the field of New Testament studies. As Madame Shtaerman was chosen by her own National Committee this is a confirmation of the backward state of the studies on Early Christianity in present-day Russia.

It may perhaps be argued that the twenty-five full members of the International Commission for this History; the 102 corresponding members; the other hundred or so advisers, revisers, translators who on a rough calculation must have contributed to the production of these two volumes will at least ensure a high degree of accuracy in the catalogues of facts. I am not sure even of that. On elementary points such as the colonizing of Alexander the Great (II, 462) or the formation of the new patricio-plebeian nobility in Rome (II, 406) the summary of the facts is either very badly worded or inaccurate. A sentence in II, 259 deserves full quotation:

Since Hebrew orthodoxy held that the Bible canon had been definitely closed at the time of Ezra, there was no place in it for certain later works written in Greek, such as Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Maccabees, and some chapters of Esther and Daniel, although these are accepted by Catholics.

All this host of revisers and advisers seems to have been unable to discover that Ecclesiastes is to be found in any Hebrew Bible under the name of Qohelet. After that the elementary questions concerning the original text of the other books mentioned in that sentence must be regarded as too difficult. In II, 370 there is a rather endearing reference to one of the lost books of Livy.

It is too early to express any judgment on this History of Mankind as a whole: the future volumes may be much better. But it seems clear that “the international viewpoint” has so far not helped to produce a successful history. It was perhaps this emphasis on internationality that misled the planners. True enough, national differences still account for many of the present disagreements between professional historians. But differences in religious and social outlook—and in methods of approach to evidence—are more important. The present History has forgotten to take such differences into due account (except in the case of that brand of Marxism which is the national philosophy of history of Soviet Russia).

  1. *

    Knopf, 1965

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