The Rise of the West

It somehow isn’t fair to boil down a seminal, 800+ page work on the development of modern society into a blog post. But a shorthand theme for William McNeill’s book The Rise of the West is to see it as an argument for free exchange of ideas and goods. McNeil thinks civilizations benefit and develop by contact with other societies. Groups thrive as they innovate through adapting ideas from elsewhere, give them their own twist. Thus barbarous and semi-barbarous societies take from more advanced societies until they are strong enough to expose the weaknesses in those societies. That suggested to me some market parallels about the way economies can be sacked and looted by new ideas, especially when they involve a shift of assets away from a region (look at my hometown in the Rust Belt, melting away with its manufacturing base, the local college not a powerful enough patron to keep Main Street alive).

The book is full of interesting notions — the phalanx as the foundation of democracy, the long tension between reason and religion, that France did more for democracy than America. The book was written in 1964, and published with a retrospective essay in 1982, prior to the return of religion as a force in American politic (though that force was probably overstated by clever political maneuvering in both the 2000 and 2004 elections — no amount of maneuvering would have helped in 2006). Yet he leaves the door open for that to happen [“Liberal democratic theory assumed human rationality…but psychologists and social scientists no longer believe that men are ruled by reason, while advertisers and military men know they are not.”] He foresees the rise of Brazil, India and China in world affairs, and even notes that we’re getting close to managing our own evolution.

He is remarkable for his balance, almost never venturing too far in favor of one ancient hero or ideal. For instance, in his discussion of Hellenism, perhaps the most powerful cultural force the world has ever seen, he writes on Plato, who proposed the idea of a philosopher king (a kind of early superman), McNeill subtly notes that not long after the day of Plato, “Philosophers, losing all real hope of transforming or much affecting public affairs, concentrated attention more and more upon personal life and manners.”

Later, while looking at the rise of Christianity, which he calls “one of the central dramas of human history,” he has this to say about its unfolding:

“The actions, thoughts and feelings of these few men [Jesus and his followers] ….continue to exercise vast influence to this day and will do so through foreseeable human time; for the living force of Christian faith, hope, and love, together with the no less powerful forces of Christian bigotry and superstition, are by no means yet exhausted.”

He notes also on the rise of Islam that it was remarkably intolerant of other ideas when compared to Chinese Buddhism or Hinduism, or even Christendom. Islam’s rejection of outside ideas is a puzzle to McNeill, but again, he remains balanced, discussing figures like al-Farabi, who was if not an atheist an Islamic agnostic.
He looks at the advances of Islamic science, among the best in the world in its era, up through the time of Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the west) in the 11th century, and then notes the turn Islamic society made in the 12th century. “Thus by a curious and fateful coincidence, Moslem thought froze into a fixed mold just at the time when intellectual curiosity was awakening in western Europe — the 12th and 13th centuries A.D.”
There was certainly no room for the secularism that became a staple of Western civilization (he does not say this explicitly, but it seems to me that Western secularism may itself have been a reaction to the onslaught of Islam).

Neither Islam nor the other great power of the day, China, get short shrift. Their immense power and wealth were clear vis a vis the relatively barbaric West. But innovations like paper, porcelain, printing and gunpowder, developed in China, were left for their “full and reckless exploitation” by the “looser, less ordered society of western Europe, where no overarching bureaucracy and no unchallengeable social hierarchy inhibited their revolutionary approach.”

There were plenty of revolutions in Europe: the Renaissance, the Reformation and then the Industrial and Democratic Revolutions. Direct political conflict as a result of religion mostly came to an end after the 30 Years War, but there was plenty of tension between religion and reason and the natural sciences in the West. He notes that in the wake of the emergence of Newtonian physics “intelligent and subtle-minded men shuddered at the thought of a dead, mechanical universe of infinite spaces and natural law.” He proposes that this might have been the source of the huge energy that fueled a number of new religious movements in the 1600s and 1700s.

He is not an unabashed apologist for the west either. At one point he notes,

Indeed, world history since 1500 may be thought of as a race between the West’s growing power to molest the rest of the world and the increasingly desperate efforts of other peoples to stave Westerners off, either by clinging more strenuously than before to their peculiar cultural inheritance or, when that failed, by appropriate aspects of Western civilization — especially technology — in the hope of thereby finding means to preserve their local autonomy.

His writing is generally wonderful. To wit:

Civilizations may be likened to mountain ranges, rising through aeons of geologic time, only to have the forces of erosion slowly but ineluctably nibble them down to the level of their surroundings. Within the far shorter time span of human history, civilizations, too are liable to erosion as the special constellation of circumstances which provoked their rise passes away, while neighboring peoples lift themselves to new cultural heights by borrowing from or otherwise reacting to the civilized achievement.

He’s also profound and sweeping: “The two-edged nature of power is nothing new in human affairs. All important new inventions have both freed men from former weakness and deficiency and enslaved them to a new regimen.”

McNeill provides a construct for the whole messy scope of human civilization, the hardest of feats. This book is a tour de force and still well worth reading.

Leave a Reply