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)
Easily my favorite novel I read this year was Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Penguin, 2017). It lifts the veneer off a picture-perfect suburb, and what’s beneath is rendered not just vividly but with aching empathy. The book is most of all about motherhood. If this paragraph doesn’t persuade you to read the book, then I don’t know what else to say:
Mia understood exactly where she drifted to. To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she’d been and the child she’d become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again. (122)
If you leave off looking at books about beasts and men, if you begin to look at beasts and men and then (if you have any humour or imagination, any sense of the frantic or the farcical) you will observe that the startling thing is not how like man is to the brutes, but how unlike he is. It is the monstrous scale of his divergence that requires an explanation. That man and brute are like is, in a sense, a truism; but that being so like they should then be so insanely unlike, that is the shock and the enigma. That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton. People talk of barbaric architecture and debased art. But elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory even in a rococo style; camels do not paint even bad pictures, though equipped with the material of many camel’s-hair brushes. Certain modern dreamers say that ants and bees have a society superior to ours. They have, indeed, a civilization; but that very truth only reminds us that it is an inferior civilization. Who ever found an ant-hill decorated with the statues of celebrated ants? Who has seen a bee-hive carved with the images of gorgeous queens of old? No; the chasm between man and other creatures may have a natural explanation, but it is a chasm. We talk of wild animals; but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type. All other animals are domestic animals; man alone is ever un-domestic, either as a profligate or a monk. So that this first superficial reason for materialism is, if anything, a reason for its opposite; it is exactly where biology leaves off that all religion begins.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 151–52.
“For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”
C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, in Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 403.
There follow two more bits from Screwtape well worth pondering. The first, on humility:
The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. . . . His whole effort, therefore, will be to get the man’s mind off the subject of his own value altogether. He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one. Your efforts to instil either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame. (71–72)
The second is on the word “real.” Screwtape boasts that “we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word.” If the topic is a great spiritual experience, what is “real” can only be bare physical facts; if some gruesome physical event, what is “real” are its emotional effects. Screwtape reasons:
Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word ‘real’ can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are ‘real’ while the spiritual elements are ‘subjective’; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are ‘real’, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death ‘really means’. . . . Wars and poverty are ‘really’ horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments. The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting ‘to eat the cake and have it’; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. (168–69)