Where We Started

Venice, a Maritime Republic

by Frederic C. Lane
Johns Hopkins University Press, 505 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Professor William McNeill of the University of Chicago is nothing if not bold. Already well known as the author of that remarkable excursion into global history, The Rise of the West, he has now published in quick succession a book-size “essay” covering seven centuries of Venetian history, and an essay-size essay covering rather more than twenty centuries of European history. Although one discusses a city and the other a continent, the two essays are in fact closely related. For each illustrates what appears to be the central theme of Professor McNeill’s world view—the role of cultural encounters as catalysts of change.

Professor McNeill’s starting point is a dissatisfaction, by no means confined to himself, with the conventional interpretation of European history as essentially a history of the development of liberty. Generations of historians have, as he says, consciously or subconsciously taken the movement toward a more perfect liberty as the organizing principle in their discussions of the European experience. Whig and Marxist historians have joined in an unholy alliance, based on their unilinear view of the historical process; and it is this unilinear view that Professor McNeill hopes to replace with an alternative conception of the over-all design of European history.

All this is to the good. Fresh thinking about the pattern of European history is badly needed, and Professor McNeill is one of the few professional historians at work today with both the knowledge and the intellectual courage to attempt to provide it. But in a curious way he somehow contrives to promise more than he manages to deliver. After the opening pages of historiographical assessment, expectations run high; but it is not clear that the general drift of the three subsequent chapters on Europe to 900, from 900 to 1500, and 1500 to today is very different from what has been written by others elsewhere, although the book is full of interesting suggestions and unexpected perspectives which by turns provoke and stimulate.

It is true that the idea of liberty has been removed from the center of the stage, but only to be replaced by the idea of “intellectual pluralism,” which tends to look like a different way of saying much the same kind of thing. Few people would doubt that diversity has been one of the most distinctive characteristics of European civilization, and that the acceptance—whether voluntary or constrained—of different points of view has been critical for the nurturing of the fragile plants of freedom and toleration in European soil. But pluralism, like Edith Cavell’s patriotism, is not enough. The unitary ideal has also been a powerful driving force in European history, and much of the inner dynamic of that history may well spring from a continuous and creative tension between the drive to unite, which tends to be checked before it becomes all-embracing, and a pluralism that tends to be checked before it produces disintegration.

For Professor McNeill, diversity within civilized communities promotes cultural innovation, and, as innovations cluster in …

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