A review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, August 13, 1967
of a book:
A WORLD HISTORY,
by William H. McNeill.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1967
"An Exercise in Historical Perspective"
Washington Sunday Star
August 13, 1967
A WORLD HISTORY.
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
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.
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
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.