Change that shrinks a planet

World History - From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present
December 7, 2001

Asa Briggs looks at two attempts to identify the forces that shaped the world.

These two huge books, dealing with human history in the long term, have little in common except their length. The authors contrast in age and experience, and they make different claims for their books. The content is different even when, rarely, both writers deal with the same subject. Their approaches, their selection, handling and presentation of evidence, and their conclusions are different. Both books are basically chronological, however, and read together, they do more than either author explicitly intended. Both of them deliberately reject Marxist and Toynbeean models and both follow carefully devised systems of cross-reference. Jacques Barzun's system is superb, encouraging study rather than simple reading of text. "By the end," he rightly says, "the reader may feel that he has been treated to an anthology of choice morsels."

Neither author is blessed by his blurb. Barzun, a very well-known scholar born in 1907, is described as "the ultimate history man". What does that mean? We are told that Clive Ponting's book "produces a new and startlingly different account of human history". It does not. There is far more that is startling in Barzun's book, not least its title. Ponting has a better claim to be considered "ultimate", if ultimate means up-to-date. His first book, The Right to Know : The Inside Story of the Belgrano , was very much in the news when published. In this new book, which has the air of a textbook, he covers the whole span of human history and all parts of the world, whereas Barzun concentrates - and this sounds daunting enough - on half of the past millennium.

Barzun focuses on "culture", which is not Ponting's concern, and laments that the use of the word to mean "the well-furnished mind" scarcely survives. His own mind is supremely well furnished with ideas as well as with information and with names as well as with quotes. A photograph shows him in his study looking direct to camera with packed bookshelves behind him and books on the side table. The fact that he is in New York, where he began to teach at Columbia University in 1929, seems irrelevant until we reach the last few pages of his book, which he calls "a view from New York around 1995". This dismisses not only the most publicised features of "our age" but all the labels that have been attached to the late 20th century. He has already presented older cross-sectional "views" from, for example, Venice around 1650, and Chicago around 1895. Barzun is most provocative when he is most graceful. Of the chaotic internet he observes: "The remaining advantage of the real world was that its contents were scattered over a wide territory and one need not be aware of more than one's mind had room for."

Barzun is at pains to define "decadence" in a limited fashion, although the picture on the dust cover, photographed by Barzun himself, depicts it lavishly. All he means by decadence, he writes, is "falling off". It implies "no loss of energy or talent or moral sense". "On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but particularly restless, for it sees no clear signs of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility."

From Dawn to Decadence is defiantly Eurocentric, not least in Barzun's careful choice of words. Ponting, who promises much in his prologue, is confidently non-Eurocentric, and he brings his book to an end not with a personal statement but with five rather unexciting pages on "The world balance at the end of the 20th century". This is the last of a number of summary statements, the first of them concerning the world in 10,000 BC. It is his object, he states sensibly in his prologue, to demonstrate that world history is not simply a collection of the histories of individual states, empires and civilisations that have existed in the world - not mentioning that there were 18th and 19th-century historians who demonstrated exactly the same. Practically, he goes on to offer a history constructed around "common themes and developments" and, more ambitiously, "to take account of the experience of all the different human communities without favouring that of any group".

This Unesco-like offer is inevitably fraught with hazards. In the effort to be fair to all, Ponting simplifies the history of his own country and indeed of western Europe, without adding substantially to our knowledge of other parts of the world. Nonetheless, he is right to point out - and it needs to be pointed out in Europe and, not least, the United States - that "the majority of the world's population always lived in Asia, particularly in China and India" and that it was "normally the wealthiest region of the world". "The period of European supremacy was very short-lived. It was not until after 1750 [perhaps too late a date] that Europe had enough power to influence Asia, and even then its impact on China and Japan was very limited. European domination lasted from the mid-19th century until the 1940s."

The necessity of seeing world history in the very long term should be as obvious to Europeans as it long has been to the Chinese, but neither in Ponting nor in Barzun is there a satisfactory explanation of why history, short term or long term, has emerged as a way of looking at the world. Barzun offers interesting suggestions, but does not draw comparisons. He is more challenging when he turns to science and technology. "Science should not be credited with all the material advantages that modern man is said to enjoy." Technology, more exactly techne the practical arts, came earlier and was for a long time the foster mother of science. "Public opinion took a good while to connect science with practical benefits such as bridge and machine."

When he reaches the late 18th and early 19th century, he pays tribute to Thomas Beddoes, Humphrey Davy and the marquis de Laplace who were working at a time when science and poetry could be one, and he goes on to recover for posterity Georg Christoph Lichtenberg who attracted "people of all ranks" to hear his lectures on physics at Gottingen, centre also of historical studies. His 16 notebooks contain thousands of his aphorisms. "It is not too much to say that Lichtenberg was a Renaissance man, almost the last." Justus von Liebig, by contrast, has only one brief mention.

Both Barzun and Ponting talk of "themes" in history. For Barzun there are ten or 12 of them, for Ponting there are seven. For Barzun they are not "historical forces" or "causes" but "names for the desires, attitudes, purposes behind the events or movements, some embodied in lasting institutions". For Ponting, who is far less concerned with personalities than Barzun, the themes represent common patterns of interaction. His seven are very clearly identified: the way in which different "civilisations" - a Toynbee term - were gradually brought into contact with each other; the way in which crucial ideas, technologies and religions were transmitted; the extension of the "core" areas of the civilisations and the roles of centre and periphery; the relationship between settled societies and the nomadic groups that surrounded them; the expansion of trade; the position of Europe within world history; the creation of the modern world of industrialisation; rapid technological change, high energy use and urbanised societies.

Ponting's early chapters, 71 pages long, on "origins", "gathering and hunting" and "crops and animals" are easier to write - and read - than the last chapter, 34 pages long, on "the changing balance" (c.1900-2000), which is subdivided, as any text-book of world history would be, into European empires, rising nationalism, the vicissitudes of China, the impact of Japan and the world balance at the end of the century.

There is little discussion in these last chapters about how and why the world came to be considered as a planet, although there are relevant sections, on, for example, pollution, and two apposite quotes - these are rare in Ponting's pages - both relating to the United States. In 1944, Dean Acheson told Churchill that "in this global war there is literally no question, political or military, in which the United States is not interested" and in 1965, another American secretary of state, Dean Rusk, stressed that "this has become a very small planet. We have to be concerned with all of it - with all of its land, water, atmosphere and with surrounding space." This, as Ponting observes, was an unprecedented assertion of global power and "the right of the United States to interfere in any part of the world". But it was more than that.

More than power was involved. The implications of living in a small planet were genuinely universal, and how they came to be appreciated as such by environmental campaigners and negotiated - or not negotiated - by governments is the dominating common theme at least since 1970. President George W. Bush's attitudes are very different from Acheson's and Rusk's, but the steps between 1965 and 2001 need to be charted more carefully.

Interestingly, it is Barzun, not Ponting, who draws attention to the man whom he calls, leaving out better-known claimants, "the father of ecology", George Perkins Marsh, who was also one of James Murray's earliest cooperators in the production of the Oxford English Dictionary . During the 1890s he submitted to the American secretary of agriculture a report on irrigating the western lands.

There is no reference to national parks in Barzun's index, although he mentions John Muir once along with Gilbert White. There is a sting in the tail in a more general statement referring to the attempt to "save for us the environment with its fauna and flora". "Bring back the wolf" follows in brackets. Barzun also notes that Marsh, who wrote Man in Nature : Earth as Modified by Human Action , is never mentioned on Earth Day. There is a sting in the tail there also.

For Barzun, even when history spans the centuries it is concerned with particularities, and while some of the individuals that he mentions are names only, buried in lists, he would prefer to deal with them in the round. The greatest fault of the Dadaists, who were deliberately irresponsible, was that they "dislocated" themselves from time and place. He himself never does this whether he is writing about art, literature or music. On the last of these he is particularly eloquent, and if he is somewhat unconvincing in the reasons he gives for the appeal of Monteverdi or Mozart, for once he praises techne. "It was not until the advent of the long-playing disc in the mid-20th century that the general public had or could have had any idea of the richness and beauty of Renaissance music."

Likewise, "the recent interest in playing old music with the instruments of its own day has shown the difference it makes not merely in dynamics but in meaning". It is one of the strengths of Barzun and of his book that he is as much concerned with performers and listeners as he is with composers. Writing history in the long term from above as he does when he describes the 18th-century Paris mob, suggests that Barzun is more open than Ponting seems to be to the presence of history from below.

Lord Briggs is president, the Victorian Society.

World History: A New Perspective

Author - Clive Ponting
ISBN - 0 701 16834 X / 0 7126 6572 2
Publisher - Chatto and Windus / Pimlico
Price - £30.00 / £17.50
Pages - 923

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