Favorite History Book of 2018: Civilizations, by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Not that I read a whole pile of history books year. But even if I had, this one would top the stack. I started reading Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Civilizations (MacMillan, 2000) a couple years ago, when I read a footnote of a Richard Bauckham essay in which he praised the book extravagantly. Since then sporadically chipped away, finally finishing the book on vacation in Maine this summer.

The book is a five-hundred page survey of the history of world civilizations. Fernández-Armesto, a professor of history at Notre Dame who previously taught at Oxford, says he wrote the book hurriedly, in something like a fever state. The organizing thesis of the book is that a civilization is any human society that recrafts the natural environment to any significant extent. So, unlike dominant trends in Western history-writing that tell a narrative of progress that reaches its high point in current trans-Atlantic culture, Fernández-Armesto’s survey organizes civilizations by biome. The result is a non-linear, non-Western-centric, marvelously detailed, beautiful written history of collective human settlement. It’s a stunning book, eye-opening on many fronts. It’s also written in a style that should make any writer of non-fiction prose at least a little envious. I now scatter a handful of the book’s ample hoard of gems:

  • “There is no such thing as common knowledge any more and each of us is surprised by everybody else’s ignorance.” (xiii)
  • “The study of mankind is man and, to historians, nothing human is foreign.” (7)
  • “For if there is such a thing as progress, tradition is the foundation of it. No society has ever prospered by forgetting the accumulated learning of the past.” (12)
  • “Real contempt for the other is a civilized vice rather than a universal trait.” (19)
  • “Believers in progress tend to place civilization towards the end of it.” (21)
  •  “Societies do not evolve: they just change.” (22)
  • “History is glimpsed between leaves: the more you shift your viewpoint, the more is revealed.” (25)
  • “The relentless grid of the streets repeats the orderly geometry which civilization has always tried to impose on nature: the reticulation in which wilderness is netted.” (60)
  • “The white man did not introduce imperialism to the plains: he arrived as a competitor with a Sioux empire that was already taking shape.” (92)
  • “Yet we have almost forgotten—or almost obliterated—this part of our past. In the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, the nature of Atlantic civilization narrowed. The New World became a reflection and extension of Europe for four reasons: abolition of the slave trade; acculturation of the Black slaves in a society dominated by white values; the decisive shift of the demographic balance of the Americas caused by huge accessions of white settlers in the nineteenth century; and above all the fact that the constituent environment of Atlantic civilization—the ocean—was traversable only by technologies which Europeans could control. Only in consequence of these changes could Atlantic civilization become ‘western civilization’, which is another name for a white civilization of western European origin.” (519)
  • “Civilization has come to seem not worth the effort.” (542)
  • “Civilization is skin-thin: scratch it and savagery bleeds out.” (546)
  • “The history of civilizations is a path picked among ruins.” (547)
  • “Free speech and free association favour the incubation of parties which want to destroy them. Free societies are disarmed against terrorists.” (557)

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