When he was in prison, that legendary Elizabethan, Sir Walter Raleigh, tried his hand at writing a history of the world. Four centuries later another British-born writer, Ian Morris, has penned his own take on the general course of human events. Since Mr. Morris is a Stanford University Professor with extensive first-hand experience in archaeological digs, his study is less fanciful than Sir Walter’s, but hardly less exciting.
Mr. Morris’s book is called, Why The West Rules-For Now, and as the title indicates its premise is uncertain. It begins with a fictional scenario of Queen Victoria greeting the emissary of the Chinese Manchu Emperor, not as an equal sovereign but as a defeated one who must kowtow before the Eastern power. As Mr. Morris points out, the opposite occurred in 1848. The British Empire won the Opium War and humiliated proud Emperor Daoguang. The British acquired Hong Kong and the right to sell drugs to the Chinese.
The opening, while fanciful, serves a purpose. It shows that Western domination of much of the contemporary world was not inevitable. As Professor Morris points out, this development had only been established in the last few centuries. He lays out historical charts to show that the East and the West (he excludes India and its civilizations) had related patterns of development for most of their histories. For example, the Ancient Han and Roman Empires both rose and fell around the same periods (give or take a century). He points out that the moment when the West really took off, was not in the Renaissance or Scientific Age, but during the Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.
Mr. Morris follows what I call the English school of modern history, which places its emphasis on the Industrial Revolution (begun in England) rather than the French Revolution. The English school, in my view, is more interested in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations than the National Constituent Assembly of France’s Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen. I tend to split the difference and give high value to both, but Mr. Morris’s argument is that the rise of material development, as evidenced by his charts, is the prime criterion.
This may be news to casual students of history, but there are even bigger revelations to see. Among the “bombshells” he reveals are:
“The good old days” were never good. They were even worse than thought. One may have known about the Black Death and Spanish Inquisition, but Mr. Morris details ancient Shang ritual murders (1300-1076 BC), wherein hundreds of thousands of people were “sacrificed” to appease local spirits. Climate change is not new. Of course we know about the Ice Age and Global Warming, but temperatures have always shifted, affecting living standards and migration patterns. A Roman Warm Period began around 200 BC and a Medieval Warm Period commenced around 530 AD. The Middle East is part of the West, including Iran and Arabia. This may be hard to believe for those who imagine a European-based Western world, but Professor Morris makes a strong case that these countries have had a long history intertwined with the rest of the West. Islam itself, is in fact a child of Abrahamic origin and a relative of Christianity and Judaism. Political and subcultural developments have obscured that connectivity, but this region has had more in common with the West than just the silk and petroleum trades. Backwardness has its advantages. Conventional wisdom is that societies which are ahead in developments tend to stay ahead. The truth is that societies on the periphery of a developed cores can use what they learn (or steal) to make a new center in the core.
Modern China, for example has used its own backwardness to great advantage. Its enormous supply of cheap labor and cheap materials, and low currency have helped it to rise to become the world’s second largest economy.
Probably the most revealing arguments the book makes are the most depressing. One is that “Nightfall,” the end of Civilization as we know it, may be inevitable. Professor Morris reminds us that during the Nuclear Age there was more than one occasion when the Cold War could have turned into a hot one. His thorough documentation of the rise and fall of so many civilizations cannot help to give one pause.
The other more distressing argument to me, is that greatness is less a quality of a unique person or civilization, but probably the result of factors which made the development inevitable. In other words, though Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is proof of genius, he was not the only scientist to come up with it independently. In fact, in 1859 the year he published On the Origin of Species, Alfred Russell Wallace was poised to publish his own take on the same.
Of course, I cannot find myself in full agreement. Though some historical developments are inevitable and maybe many individuals are less indispensable than thought, how does one account for a poet like William Shakespeare, who truly reshaped the English language? Or a statesman like Abraham Lincoln, who through a sublime set of gifts, preserved the United State in its greatest crisis? Sometimes there are true individuals who shift the paradigm, and though there is a collective greatness out there, there has to be some allotment for unqualified uniqueness.
Arguments aside, it is a great book. I thoroughly enjoyed the comprehensive way that Professor Morris tried to tie the rise and fall of civilizations together in an enjoyable as well as cogent narrative. Sometimes today’s politically correct professors write histories which are so careful in how they couch terms, I have no feeling where the book is going or what the author really believes. Here is a real book for our times.
Why The West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York. 2010.