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 "The Generalists' Past: Power Patterns of Human History",
a review by Carroll Quigley in The Saturday Review of Literature, August 24 1963,
of a book:
THE RISE OF THE WEST: A History of the Human Community,
by William H. McNeill.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963


"THE GENERALISTS' PAST: Power Patterns of Human History"



The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community,
By William H. McNeill
University of Chicago Press. 829 pp. $12.50,
is a documented account of the whole of man's past
in terms of the interrelations of his various societies.
Carroll Quigley, professor of history at Georgetown University,
is the author of "The Evolution of Civilizations."


   Before the publication in 1941 of Ralph Turner's Great Cultural Traditions, "scholarship" in the field of history was usually equivalent to narrow specialization. Younger scholars who tried to challenge this were silenced by the fact that access to good jobs and to publication (which opened the door to a job) was largely controlled by specialists.

   The reaction to this situation is now in process, pushed on by the growing public interest in interpretative history (especially since the success of Toynbee) and also by less well-known but equally significant trends among natural scientists, whose war experiences gave them an increased regard for generalism in science. Unfortunately, the training of a generalist is much more difficult in the social sciences. A specialist in history can restrict his interests and his research to one aspect of a single period, or even to a single event, but the generalist must be familiar with most aspects of many periods in different cultures. By "familiar" I mean sufficiently well acquainted with the problems and current research to have an opinion of his own. This is quite different from the specialist, who knows his own field, but accepts the opinion of long outdated books in other fields. A consequence of such specialism is the long lag of history textbooks behind the research of specialists. One important function of the generalist in history is to help reduce this gap. Of equal, or greater, importance is his role in providing theories for specialists by offering interpretative suggestions based on his familiarity with more aspects of a period or on his broader outlook, informed by comparisons of diverse periods and cultures. Henri Frankfort and Karl Wittfogel have done this in the recent past.

   Few generalists are better trained to perform these tasks than William McNeill of the University of Chicago. His qualifications are revealed in this extraordinary book, which, in more than 800 heavily footnoted pages, covers all human history. The first two-thirds of these pages are a magnificent success.

   Generalists see the past as consisting of several dozen civilizations imbedded in a complex matrix of other social organizations existing on a lower, uncivilized level of development. My own writing has largely emphasized the process of change in the civilizations; McNeill is principally concerned with the matrix. He seeks to explain the complicated interrelations of civilizations across the matrix, as well as the historical changes in the matrix itself. The more significant of these changes have occurred in the vast extent of grasslands, stretching from Southern Russia across Central Asia to China, where the development of pastoralism and nomadic life impinged upon the surrounding crescent of high civilizations in China, India, the Near East, and Europe. McNeill's analysis of this is outstanding and full of valuable suggestions. His discussions of the individual civilizations encircling this Heartland are consistently good and in one case — the rise of the Greeks — brilliant. Professor McNeill's penetrating observations regarding the central role of weapon development and defense needs, and the impact of these upon social and intellectual life, explain what has for so long been treated rather breathlessly as "the Greek miracle." If the author had used the same seminal idea of the effect of weapon development on the rise and expansion of Western civilization, he might have avoided the decrease in quality noticeable in the last third of his book.

   The final portion covers the period since 1500, which has seen a complete reversal of the historical pattern of the earlier period. That pattern had shown a semicircle of higher civilizations on the fringes of Eurasia, enclosing the Heartland and backed by the largely untracked oceans (and the Sahara). The new pattern has witnessed the colonization of the Heartland by Russia and the opening of the surrounding oceans by Western civilization, the rise in power of both of these, and the shattering of the older civilizations from the Aegean to the Far East. The geographic pattern remains a triple one but with a total turnabout in the power and wealth of the three sections. Today the Heartland and the Oceanic Community of the West are the centers of power, leaving the shattered remnants of the formerly powerful Ottoman, Mogul, Manchu, and Shinto empires as a buffer zone between them.

   McNeill’s discussion of this major reversal of the power pattern of the Old World is not completely satisfying, especially in view of his outstanding success in dealing with the much longer and more complex earlier periods. He handles the extension of Russia across the Heartland and of Europe across the oceans well enough, but is not nearly as convincing in his analysis of the disintegration of the fringe empires. Nor are his explanations of the expansion of either Russia or the West adequate. He treats the expansion of the West as a steady process from the Renaissance onward, when this expansion dearly hesitated and even retreated in the period 1600-1800, as marked by the exclusion of Europeans from Japan and China, the revival of India's autonomy between the Portuguese and the British intrusions, the long delay in tropical African exploration between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth, and, above all, the slump in the internal developments of Europe between the "price revolution" of the sixteenth century and the agricultural revolution of the eighteenth century.

   The weakness of the final third of McNeill's volume centers on his inadequate presentation of the Old Regime. Here he could have used the same key (weapon development and the needs of defense) that provided his brilliant analysis of the rise of the Greek polis. The Old Regime rested, as Frederick the Great saw so clearly, on a professional mercenary army, loyal to a dynastic monarchy, and supported by a mercantilist economy whose chief service was to achieve an inequitable distribution of income in a two-class society, to provide funds for political activities and elegant luxuries for a small upper class by reducing the consumption of the multitudinous hard-working masses.

   The weakness of McNeill's later pages rests on his failure to analyze the nature of mercantilism (as a money accumulating mechanism) and of dynastic monarchy (as a political organization appealing to the allegiance of a limited group) in relation to a weapon system (which operated outside the experience of the masses of the population). The Old Regime and the nineteenth century run parallel to the Greek Age of Tyrants and the Age of Athenian Democracy, much extended in time and character, but still susceptible to the same kind of historical analysis. McNeill is fully equipped to make such an analysis, using his own methods, so well demonstrated in the major portion of this book. That he already has the key in hand is evident from his juxtaposition on page 680 of works by Gainsborough and Hogarth to depict the Old Regime.



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