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A review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, August 13, 1967
of a book:
by William H. McNeill.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1967


"An Exercise in Historical Perspective"


Washington Sunday Star August 13, 1967

By William H. McNeill.
Oxford University Press. 478 pages, index, bibliography, and 11 maps in color. $9.75.



   Prof. McNeill is one of the few men qualified by knowledge, understanding and inclination to write "general history." As one of that small group myself, I can testify that he is resented and largely ignored by many professional historians, who are, in most cases, as unequipped to judge his work as they are to do it themselves.

   Whatever the professionals may think of McNeill's work, the public likes it. His first attempt at world history, "The Rise of the West" (1963), was a popular and commercial success, and deserved it.

   McNeill's work as a historian is better and more important than that of most professional historians simply because the work of specialists has meaning and significance only to the degree that it can be put into the framework of a general picture.

   This volume has the same basic structure as McNeill's "Rise of the West," dividing world history into an earlier period of Asiatic dominance, a recent period of Western dominance, and an intervening period, from 500 B.C. to A.D. 1500, of cultural balance and equilibrium, on the general stage of the Eurasian land mass.

Civilizations React

   Within this general chronology, the author correctly deals with his subject in terms of a number of distinct civilizations reacting upon one another, sometimes directly but often through intermediary, non-civilized societies. In both books McNeill is considerably better on the nature of the various civilizations as wholes and on their inter-relationships than he is on the processes of historical change within each civilization. For this reason, the earlier book was much better in its first two-thirds (which dealt with such relationships) than its last third. In the present book this comment could be reversed, since its brevity requires that, even in the recent period it concentrates on relationships between civilizations without attempting to go inside any one of them.

   The chief merits of the earlier book are, on the whole, retained in the later one. McNeill is strongest on technology, the role of weapons in society, the role played in history by the pastoral peoples of the Asiatic grasslands, and his understanding of science. His historical intuition permits him to grasp significant relationships or parallels which others have missed, and his skill in verbal expression is, if anything, enhanced by his effort to be concise and yet get the whole immense story into 445 pages. As a result, the reader will find numerous gems of clear, vivid, and revealing statements of history, especially in the last half of the volume. His picture of the Old Regime in Europe (1648-1789) is outstanding, despite its brevity (pp. 347-365).

On Greek Age

   On the other hand, the first half of the volume is inferior to the "Rise of the West." The chapter on "The Flowering of Greek Civilization, 500-336 B.C." is centered on economic and class development rather than on weapons control, as in the earlier book, and is less successful. Failure to understand either the meaning and significance of Pythagoreanism or of its rival outlook, cultural relativism arising from the experiences of the age of Herodotus, is a major weakness in both books.

   The chief deficiencies in McNeill's preparation for the great task he has undertaken are to be found in his lack of appreciation of intellectual history, philosophy, and the role of religion. He does not understand the archaic outlook which was basic in all civilizations up to about 500 B.C. and which remains at the foundation of the Asiatic Cultures to this day. His outstanding historical intuition leads him to recognize the sixth century B.C. as a major turning point in human history (the century of Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, and the most revolutionary of the Hebrew prophets), but he does not see that the great change was based on intellectual revolutions which pushed the four post-archaic civilizations (Classical, Islamic, Russian, and Western) up to a new social level.

   This ideological revolution may be regarded as the separate development and later partial inter-penetration of Indo-European two-valued logic (as reflected in Zoroastrianism and Pythagoreanism) and transcendental ethical monotheism, as developed by the Hebrews and accepted by all four of the post-archaic civilizations. As a result of this failure, McNeill, despite his numerous brilliant insights into the achievement of the West, does not really understand the process by which Western civilization outstripped the other three post-archaic civilizations in power and affluence by creating a new synthesis of Greek rationalism and Hebrew religion (transcendental yet mundane) on a foundation of Asianic and Germanic technology.

   Despite such deficiencies, some of which are major, McNeill's work is full of valuable historical comments based on his consistent efforts to see events in their largest framework. Among these should be pointed out, as of outstanding importance to the world today, his view of the United States and Russia as two parallel, semi-barbarous, frontier communities, contemporary in time and increasingly similar in structure, both pressing on the shattered wreckage of the archaic civilizations of the fringes of Asia.




Scan of original review



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