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…

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