Getting It Wrong

William H. McNeill is the author of numerous books, including "The Rise of the West: The History of the Human Community" and is professor emeritus at the University of Chicago

What is truth? In sharply contrasting ways, "In Defense of History" and "The Way of the World" address Pilate's unanswered question with respect to historical truth. Richard Evans does so explicitly with an account of noisy debates among British and American academics that was provoked by postmodernist attacks on historians' standard expectation of discerning the truth by careful criticism of their sources. David Fromkin does so by the bold, indeed reckless way he reduces the past, present and future of humankind to a brisk 258 pages, imposing a selective vision upon the past while acknowledging that his is only "a view from one person's perspective."

Let's consider Fromkin's little book first because his argument is much clearer than Evans'. "The Way of the World" comprises 12 chapters: four devoted to the past, four to the present and four to the future. This artful structure highlights 12 "radical turns" that Fromkin believes "brought us from the African forests to the world of the 1990s and beyond." Conveniently, he summarizes the message of his chapters on the past and the present by reducing them to eight headings, as follows: "Becoming Human," "Inventing Civilization," "Developing a Conscience," "Seeking a Lasting Peace," "Achieving Rationality," "Uniting the Planet," "Releasing Nature's Energies," "Ruling Ourselves." The four future steps yet to be taken, however, do not emerge so clearly. But on the basis of Fromkin's chapters about the future, I suppose them to be the wise use of science, holding people together (both within separate states and globally as well), environmental responsibility and American global leadership toward "modernism."

He begins his book by comparing the story he is about to tell with how ancient shamans, deep in dark caves, recited the way of the world to their hearers. But his tale lacks ritual reinforcement from dance, song and the flickering light of torches that presumably made Paleolithic performances convincing, even though Fromkin's reaffirmations of progress, rationality (achieved when Galileo dropped "objects from the leaning tower of Pisa . . . thereby introducing the experimental method into science") and non-committal references to God's hand in history give his vision of times past a vintage, old-fashioned flavor.

The book reads smoothly. Fromkin has a keen eye for colorful detail and often hangs a turning point of history on a single personality, whether or not prevailing scholarly opinion warrants it. Alexander of Macedon, for example, gets no less than eight out of 122 pages and is credited with being "the earliest historical figure to raise--at least in the minds of people who lived later--the question of whether mankind could achieve permanent peace," having opened up "the option of a world state." Yet on an earlier page Fromkin tells us: "Later legend had it that the monarchs of Sargon's line were kings of the whole world from 'the sunrise to sunset.' "

Sargon, who lived almost 2,000 years before Alexander, did indeed claim to rule from sea to sea, from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and Alexander's much larger empire also centered around the same two bodies of water. Neither looks much like a world state on a global scale. And as Fromkin explicitly acknowledges, there is no certainty (and little probability) that Alexander ever thought of permanent peace as a goal for humankind, even though a distinguished English scholar, W. W. Tarn, in the wake of World War I, argued that he did.

Why does Fromkin repeat what he knows to be a generally discredited estimate of Alexander? The answer, I think, is that the chapter in which these pages appear, entitled "Seeking a Lasting Peace," is heading toward the Roman Empire and its establishment of peace around the shores of the Mediterranean. And, as he subsequently remarks, "out of the many civilizations that flourished in the year 1000, all but one succumbed in the course of the next thousand years. . . . Only the Roman Empire's progeny, by inventing first one new civilization and then another, made the running. What follows, therefore, is their story alone."

In short, Fromkin explains the way of the world by looking for the first manifestations of what he judges to be key issues and problems of our own time, leaving everything else out. As a professor of international relations, he is concerned with "the way we organize and govern ourselves; how we deal with the issues of war and peace and survival. . . ." He deals "essentially with the high drama of battle and politics," and he recognizes pitfalls ahead in the path of progress and periods of decline and fall in the past. (Gibbon is one of the persons he accords respectful attention, devoting five pages to a thumbnail biography and a paraphrase of his ideas.) But Fromkin's message for Americans is bullish: "American power continues to grow. American ideas continue to spread. For the first part of the century at least, and perhaps for all of it, it is a reasonably safe bet that we will have more of the same, that the 21st century will be not Japanese or Chinese or European but another American century."

Fromkin's admiration for the American style of modernity and his expectation of its future global influence conform to a long-standing American view that the destiny of the United States is to lead the rest of the world toward a better future. This national style of political evangelism derived from crossing 18th century ideas about the uniformity of human nature and the sovereignty of universal reason with the 17th century enterprise of re-ordering colonial society in accordance with God's will. It became explicitly international with Woodrow Wilson and continues to justify much of our military and foreign policy today.

Yet the unabashed ethnocentrism of Fromkin's book is distressing. His cavalier dismissal of the history of four-fifths of humankind as irrelevant to our world strikes me as wrongheaded and dangerous because non-American and non-European civilizations and religions still command the hearts and minds of most of humankind.

Fromkin does express disquiet at the survival of "an outdated fundamentalism that has no relevance to the way we live now." That is about as close as he gets to addressing the state of mind and feeling prevailing among the world's overwhelming majority. Such blindness is matched by apparent naivete about historical and scientific truth, for he says: "Uniquely, the civilization to which we belong at the end of the 20th century tells a story of creation that is true--which is to say, unlike all others, it is based on evidence." But the shaman's tale of creation was based on excellent evidence of the reality of the spirit world whose works he celebrated.

Fromkin, in short, appears to be entirely unaware of the postmodernist debate about the meaning of words and how agreed-upon meanings shape human behavior. For him, Galileo's experimental method established "rationality" forever and for all reasonable persons everywhere. His is, indeed, a shaman's tale and may even be a story we are already inclined to believe. But is it true? I do not think so and fear that dangerous mistakes in national policy are likely to result from acting on the basis of Fromkin's defective vision of the past, present and future of our species.

In stark contrast, Richard Evans' book centers on questions of epistemology but is far too cluttered to leave a clear and coherent impression. It consists of a cacophony of quotes and paraphrases, interspersed with the author's remonstrances and efforts at a rather facile conciliation of divergent views. But Evans' own moderating voice almost disappears amid the torrent of extreme opinions he puts before his readers.

The book is very British in outlook. Evans starts off by saying that a pair of books written more than 30 years ago by E. H. Carr and G.R. Elton are "still serving as basic introductions to the discipline of history." He hopes and intends to supplant them with this book; so each of his thematic chapters begins with paraphrase and dismissal of Carr's and Elton's views. The importance he gives to Carr and Elton is surprising; I simply do not believe his assertion that these two writers dominate the teaching of historical method in American as well as in British colleges and universities. But he may be right. I know, however, that my own choice for a methodological handbook would be J. H. Hexter, "The History Primer," a book entirely absent from Evans' footnotes.

After an initial chapter crisply analyzing the way history entered the university curriculum and became "scientific," he takes up seven aspects of post-World War II historiographical debates, a rather confusing mode of presentation. The generation shaped by the depression of the 1930s who came on stream after the war differed from the rebels of the 1960s, whose attack on academic historians' pieties began to resound in the 1980s. Evans might have been clearer if he had chosen to organize his material around successive climates of opinion.

As it is, his chapters treat the decades since 1945 as a single, noisy battleground, summarizing arguments over science and morality, facts, sources and discourses, causation, society and the individual, knowledge and power and, finally, objectivity.

After trying to do justice to post-modernist critics of academic history by quoting innumerable extreme views, Evans optimistically concludes that such critics have made historians "more self-critical and self-reflexive, which is all to the good." He further declares that careful historians can still hope for "a reconstruction of past reality that may be partial and provisional and certainly will not be objective, but is nevertheless true. . . . [T]he stories we tell will be true stories, even if the truth we tell is our own, and even if other people can and will tell them differently." And then he proceeds to contradict himself: "For my own part, I remain optimistic that objective historical knowledge is both desirable and obtainable."

Both Evans and Fromkin leave historical truth, objective or otherwise, in a sadly bruised and mangled condition.

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