Prior to 1500, the idea that Northwestern Europe and its disapora would come to dominate the world would have seemed pretty strange. One can make a case that this is a temporary state of affairs. All of the ancient seats of civilization were in other places, and had been for a very long time.
I appreciate this book because it takes a genuinely worldwide look at history for the last thousand years, without attempting to boost the accomplishments of the author's favorite peoples, or minimize those of his hereditary enemies.
As an aside, I note that underdevelopment economics regarding Indian textiles don't seem to have changed much in the last twenty years.
A History of the Last Thousand Years
by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995
$35.00, 816 pp.
This book is what multiculturalism would be like if multiculturalism were not a fraud. The author is an Oxford don and, apparently, a serious Catholic who undertook the appalling labor of trying to discern the large trends in the history of the world over the last thousand years. The authors of universal histories usually conclude them with some speculation about the future, so Fernandez-Armesto does too, glumly anticipating that reviewers will use up more space critiquing the final few pages of prediction than in assessing the hundreds of pages of history. He was certainly right, at least as far as this reviewer is concerned. However, even where one might think his analysis is flawed, still the whole of the book is a rare, non-tendentious attempt to make sense of it all.
According to the author, a world history only really became possible in the past thousand years, because the second Christian millennium was the time when the major regional civilizations of the world achieved substantial and continuous contact. Though the author gives considerable attention to events in Africa and the Americas, he is, for good reason, something of a Eurasian chauvinist. For most practical purposes, the history of the world since the year 1000 A.D. can be understood as the joint and several life stories of just four great cultures: China, Christendom, India and Islam. Fernandez-Armesto seems never to have heard of the solemn debate that took place forty years ago about whether the United States constituted a civilization distinct from Europe. In his scheme of things, the Americas and Western Europe are obviously part of something he calls "Atlantic Civilization." One of the recurrent themes of the book is that the era of the hegemony of this civilization does not go back as far as you might think, and that already it is probably about to be supplanted by a civilization of the Pacific, anchored on the East Asian shore.
As recently as the fifteen century, all of the major civilizations of Eurasia were expanding, with the exception of India. In the early 1400s, the newly-established Ming dynasty mounted a series of naval expeditions into the Indian Ocean as far as the coast of East Africa, involving ships far larger than anything to be found in Europe and forces of nearly 30,000 men. Russia was at the beginning of the expansion that would win it the most durable of all European empires. (It still possesses Siberia.) Christendom East and West, however, was losing territory to the Ottoman Empire. The adventures of a few Western explorers on the coasts of Africa and, later, in the Americas, did not seem to matter much in the grand scheme of things at the time. Fernandez-Armesto suggests that the contemporary perception may have been correct. Although Western expansion in the Age of Exploration certainly laid the foundations for the temporary ascendancy over the rest of the world that occurred in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth centuries, the fact is that for most of this millennium the preponderant civilization in the world has been China. China had the "initiative" before, say, 1750, and is likely to regain it in the twenty-first century.
The author has a point. Before the mid-eighteenth century, for instance, most of the world's printed books were in Chinese, and that country's iron industry was by far the world's largest until well into England's Industrial Revolution. While the era of scientifically informed technological progress begun in the West has done an amazing job of standardizing ordinary human life all over the planet, we should remember that the most dramatic effects have only been felt for about two long lifetimes. For centuries before that, Chinese inventions such as gunpowder, paper money, magnetic compasses, civil service tests, printing and the abacus had been making more or less of an impact throughout Eurasia and Africa (with which China once had quite a lot of indirect trade). The point is not that the Western inventions were less important than the Chinese ones, but that China has demonstrated a greater ability to affect the rest of the world over long periods of time.
The great Western empires were, of course, the largest political units that have ever existed, but they did not last long and they impinged on other Eurasian civilizations only fairly recently. European nations began to dominate other societies of roughly their own size and complexity only in the mid-eighteenth century, when British East India Company took possession of the already-disintegrating Mughal Empire in India. (As was the case with the Spanish in Mexico, the conquest was really a revolt of native powers led by small European armies, who did not do most of the fighting.) Even at that time, China was the largest it has ever been and was perfectly successful in its own neo-Confucian mold. It became vulnerable to Western pressure only when the Opium Wars began in the 1840s, when the Qing dynasty was in a state of decay. The Ottoman Empire was in slow retreat, but quite capable of defeating Western and Russian armies until quite late into the nineteenth century. In Africa, the great European empires began to be built only around 1870 and were almost all gone by about 1960. With a little luck and ingenuity, an African born in the last third of the nineteenth century could have lived through the whole thing. This flash of expansion and retreat looks to the author less like the inevitable "Rise of the West" (the title of William McNeill's 1950s universal history) than the sort of fleeting hegemony established by the Mongols in the twelfth century. In two hundred years, that was pretty much all gone, too.
"Millennium" is not a multicultural diatribe against the West. The author early on in the book declares his support for the traditional liberal arts curriculum. More important, he makes some effort to try to understand what other cultures actually think, rather than to use them as convenient screens for the projection of progressive opinion. Still, in his effort to view the world from other than a Western perspective, he does tend to wash out the real differences that exist between civilizations at any given point in time. The West has always had certain peculiarities which really do go far go explain its great relative successes of the past two or three or five hundred years.
In an aside perhaps intended to emphasize the equivalence of civilized societies before the 18th century, Fernandez-Armesto notes that both Japan and Spain considered invading China in the sixteenth century. The Japanese actually made a start on the project with an unsuccessful attack on Korea, while the Spanish wisely abandoned the idea for logistical reasons. While this coincidence does illustrate that blue-water navies and expansionist intentions could be found on both sides of Eurasia at the same time, it seems to me at least that there is a certain asymmetry here. Spain was an underpopulated, intrinsically poor country that yet could seriously contemplate creating an empire on the other side of the planet (as indeed it did at roughly this time, in the Philippines). The Japanese, on the other hand, never to my knowledge gave any thought to making raids against the countries of Atlantic Europe, despite the fact the Japanese had been in vigorous contact with them for some time and had a predilection in that era for piratical adventure.
The West, meaning the civilization that arose in Atlantic and central Europe after the Dark Ages, really does seem to have a peculiar case of "applied curiosity." This goes beyond mere scientific knowledge. Many societies have known or guessed that the world is a sphere, for instance. The idea of sailing around it, however, does not seem to be natural, in the sense that it does not occur to intelligent people in every culture. Even Saint Augustine, at the end of Classical civilization, is on record as recoiling at the thought that there might be people in the antipodes, with their feet pointing towards his through the center of the sphere. Yet Fernandez-Armesto remarks on a Genoese sailing fleet that, as early as the thirteenth century, tried to do what did what Columbus tried to do two centuries later. The fleet was never heard of again, for the good reason that the enterprise was suicidal with existing technology, but it was a peculiarly Western thing to do. Even the great Indian Ocean expeditions led by the Ming admiral Cheng Ho in the fifteenth century were not missions of exploration. Chinese oceanic trade had long been familiar to the regions he visited. The expeditions came to known locations to establish tribute relations, something the Ming dynasty was also attempting to do at the same time across central and southern Asia as part of its program to establish its position in the world.
"Millennium" is blessedly free of models of history, whether Marxist, Spenglerian or Darwinist, yet the price the author pays for freedom from theory is a blindness to the long phases that civilizations do undoubtedly go through. Not everything is possible to every culture at every phase of its life, even if the people have the knowledge, the resources, and the incentive to do it. For instance, Fernandez-Armesto echoes the "underdevelopment" school of economic history when he notes, accurately, that the English dismantled the Indian textile industry when they took over the country, despite the fact it was at least as efficient as the early mechanical textile industry to be found in England at the same time. This act of imperial preference, the underdevelopment economists say, is why the Industrial Revolution did not occur in India and why India is still so poor. This conclusion (which the author does not push), is obvious nonsense. Why the industrial and scientific revolutions occurred when and where they did is likely to remain something of a mystery, but it is at least clear that Mughal India did not have the physics, or the system of commercial law, or the practical engineering to do what Georgian England was doing. India was simply not about to embark on an Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, either with or without the interference of the East India Company.
This same point can be made about China, where it relates directly to Fernandez- Armesto's anticipations of a coming civilization centered around the "world ocean" of the Pacific. As John King Fairbank notes in his magisterial study, "China: A New History," Chinese civilization in the eighteenth century was ending an adventure that had begun 700 years before, in the Sung Dynasty. The first two or three centuries of the second millennium, including the Mongol interlude, was the time when China made most of the technological and commercial advances that so affected the rest of the civilized world. (Fernandez-Armesto perceptively points out that those centuries were also a time when Chinese civilization encompassed several competitive states.) More than one historian has noted the similarity of this era to Western modernity itself, both in its creativity and its character as a long civilizational "civil war." However, modernity ended when the Ming reunited China in the fourteenth century. That dynasty and the Manchu (or Qing) dynasty that followed were an era of cultural consolidation, measured territorial expansion, and a gradual loss of imagination.
The China that Lord Macartney met in 1793 on his unsuccessful mission to open diplomatic relations between China and Great Britain was incomparably mighty and wealthy by any standard, including its own history. However, it was a civilization that had exhausted its own cultural potential. Its decline in the next century was at first slow, and then catastrophic: by far the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century was the T'ai P'ing millenarian revolt of the 1850s and 60s. Since then, the country has seen many ups and downs. The empire ended in 1911 and was replaced by a series of regimes, each less satisfactory than the one before. Today, of course, the world economic system is transfixed by China's economic potential. The problem for China is that economic potential is not always the kind of potential that counts.
The author's remarks about the future of the West are perhaps more interesting than his ideas about the future of the East. While not himself a multiculturalist or deconstructionist, he seems to have absorbed a lot of the commonplaces that infest the academy these days. He believes, wholly inaccurately, that twentieth century science has been forced to abandon the search for objective truth. On the other hand, he does rightly note that the belief that objective certainty is no longer possible, either in science or in morality, has an enervating effect on the effectiveness of Western governments. While hardly a British chauvinist, he argues persuasively that the British Empire was done in by a loss of nerve at home, one that had less to do with Britain's relative decline in the world in the first half of the twentieth century than with a kind of auto-hypnosis. It took a fairish amount of moral self-confidence to bluff the Indians into submission, he suggests. When the English could no longer be certain of the inherent superiority of their civilization, they were no longer willing to maintain the bluff, and the empire dissolved.
Just as the nineteenth century empires evaporated in the harsh light of mid-twentieth century skepticism, so did the personal lives of many of the people who live in the former metropolitan countries. To some extent, this process was expedited by the social welfare policies of the Western states themselves. However, the author expects a revival of traditional family life in the future, for the simple reason that the state will be unwilling or unable to continue to provide the kind of social services that had been intended to replace family structures. Unfortunately, since the academy will be unable to articulate any common moral vision for western societies, public morality will become more and more incoherent. The author praises the Roman Catholic Church for providing the last system of moral certitude in the world (he is against abortion and capital punishment), but expresses doubt that the Church will be able to exercise this function for long. While allowing that John Paul II has so constituted the College of Cardinals that one may expect his successor to be orthodox, the author expects the Church to relax many of its positions in papacies to come.
Since skepticism and doubt cannot be maintained indefinitely, Fernandez-Armesto believes that we are living in a period of transition to new certainties. He rather expects that these will be terrible certainties, characterized by the "passionate conviction" that Yeats in "The Second Coming" ascribes to the worst kind of people. He predicts a bright future for fascism (he was raised in Franco's Spain, apparently), and like many people he believes that the death of communism has been exaggerated. For myself, it seems to me that he errs in looking forward to a sharp distinction between today's era of "liberal irony" and a totalitarian future. Radical ecology and the new forms of racism simply illustrate that when people are denied the possibility of certainty on the level of the spirit, they will seek it in the body, in biological and social history. Without a transcendent to appeal to, there is no answer to Heidegger.
One the whole, though, the future he anticipates is not a catastrophic one. The population crisis, for instance, he believes to be something of a chimera, as is the increasing hysteria in developed countries about their new demographic disadvantage with respect to the south. Experience shows that population growth rates tend to level off after a while, quite without government interference. The author anticipates, indeed seems to hope, that the Pacific will play a role in the history of the third millennium like that played by the Mediterranean in Western antiquity. Again, this does not seem to me to be altogether plausible, but if the new Mediterranean turns out to be a theater for a history as rich as that enacted in the old one, then maybe we will not have much to complain of.
The author does not look forward to universal peace, or a universal state, or to the collapse of civilization as we know it. In other words, the future is likely to turn out to be a little like life. One may hope that freedom will persist in such a world, without necessarily expecting the next millennium to be THE millennium. As the author puts it: "One of the drawbacks of freedom is that free choices are regularly made for the worst, ever since the setting of an unfortunate precedent in Eden. To expect people to improve under its influence is to demand unrealistic standards from freedom, and, ultimately, to undermine its appeal."
This article originally appeared in the December 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine.
Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly