The history of the West is not what you learned in school

2024-07-10 23:49:40Fokus SHKRUAR NGA REDAKSIA VOX
Painting of an Audience in Athens during Aeschylus' Representation of Agamemnon - By Sir William Blake Richmond, 1884

The Economist

Once asked what he thought of Western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi is said to have said, "It must have been a good idea." (The West, he added, was not as bright as it claimed). But as Joseph Quinn makes clear in her new book, Western civilization has always been a bad idea, or at any rate a wrong idea.

Dividing history into a set of distinct and essentially independent civilizations is a misguided approach that has dangerously distorted our understanding of the world. Mrs. Quinn emphasizes: "It is not peoples who make history, but people and the connections they create with each other."

Quinn, a historian and archaeologist who teaches at the University of Oxford, has not spent 500 pages refuting what generations of students have learned in school, and which they pride themselves on as European achievements. On the contrary, it destroys the basic concept of what she calls "thinking in terms of civilization".

Her argument is simple, compelling and deserves attention. The idea of ??civilization, Ms. Quinn points out, is relatively new. This word was used for the first time only in the middle of the 18th century, and it did not dominate the imagination of Westerners until the end of the 19th century.

In that imperialist era, historians discovered that the Greek, Roman, and Christian civilizations made beautiful building blocks that could be put together into a grand construction that they labeled "Western" or "European" civilization.

To this they attributed a host of inherited "classical" virtues: energy, rationality, justice, democracy and the courage to experiment and explore. Meanwhile, other civilizations were considered inferior. And it doesn't take much of Ms. Quinn's dissection to expose the folly of this approach.

For example, 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill claimed that the Battle of Marathon, Persia's first invasion of Greece in 490 BC, was more important to English history than William the Conqueror's triumph at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

(Without an Athenian victory, the "magic seed" of Greek civilization might never have grown into Western civilization, he claimed). Or we mention the 1996 book "Clash of Civilizations" by Samuel Huntington, an American historian, who stated that history is impossible to understand without classifying humanity into certain civilizations that have been hostile to each other "for most of human existence." .

What is non-existent is any truth to this concept. Ms. Quinn's quick and reflective account of the arc of European history shows that far from being rare, contact between and among cultures, often over surprisingly long distances, has been the main engine of human progress in every age.

Instead of being aggressive and minding their own business, most societies have shown themselves to be receptive to their neighbors' ideas, fashions, and technologies. Ancient Greece, for example, was less a place of origin than a transmission from Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian and Phoenician cultures, which themselves had mixed and exchanged ideas with each other. And instead of being the source of democracy, Athens was "something of a latecomer" to a form of government which seems to have been first tried in Libya and the islands of Samos and Chios. The Persians, eternally considered the opposite of the Greeks in everything, actually imposed democracy in the Greek cities they ruled, suggesting a "considerable Persian confidence in popular support for their hegemony," Ms. Quinn points out, among other things.

In her re-telling of the history of the West, the focus is on the unexpected and on the exchanges between kingdoms and eras rather than on large, static parts of history. But it is also an admirable scholarly work. Over 100 pages of notes at the end of Ms. Quinn's book show us that she draws not only on a wide range of primary sources, but also on scientific studies of climate change and recent archaeological research.

Even seasoned history buffs will find many fascinating new things. How the World Shaped the West joins a growing number of books that explore the vast expanse of history using new intellectual frameworks, such as Israeli historian Juval Noah Harari's bestseller Sapiens (2011), Silk Roads ” by Peter Frankopan (2015) and “The Decline of Civilizations,” a forthcoming book by British journalist Paul Cooper based on his popular podcast. Anyone who thought history had fallen out of style couldn't be more wrong.