The long look backwards to find a story of ourselves

May 26, 2006

Belief in the superiority of European values is fading as our world changes, finds Crispin Tickell

This intriguing essay begins with the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001. While still in shock from the attack, which was unprecedented in the US, President George W. Bush said that "we're in a fight for civilisation itself" - a thought echoed by other political leaders elsewhere. But no one ventured to say what civilisation really amounted to. In fact, atrocities are all-too-familiar features of history in different societies over many centuries, and "civilisation" in its dictionary sense is more than capable of surviving them. Misuse of the word is like the current misuse of the word "war" (as in the so-called War on Terror).

Roger Osborne's book is about the development of civilisation in Europe and its various extensions overseas, including North America. His central argument is that "civilisation has come to be the story that we tell ourselves in order to secure our place in the world". In a challenging prologue, he maintains that belief in the superiority of Europeans and their values over others, together with faith in the idea of progress as such, and moral certainty of rightness, were damaged by the events of the two world wars and will not recover. We are now in a different and more vulnerable world, although some have still to recognise it; see, for example, the almost evangelical belief in some quarters about the need to spread democracy and market capitalism.

History is of course what later generations make of the past. Osborne takes us on a guided tour of post-Ice Age Europe, from the beginnings of agriculture to the growth of large communities, rising population, social hierarchies and the arrival of writing. These led on to the development of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilisation, the introduction of Greek philosophy, and the common culture of the Roman Empire. There is an especially interesting chapter on the evolution of Christianity in its various forms. Pelagius may have won the theological battle over original sin, but Augustine of Hippo eventually won the argument, and Christianity is still plagued with contradictions over predestination, free will, sex and redemption. Osborne skilfully brings out the intolerance and cruelty of European society towards dissidents or outsiders, acts that were at least as bad as the atrocities that are attributed to al-Qaeda today.

He also has good things to say about living in the not-so-dark ages, the character of medieval society, the renaissance of art in Italy, the introduction of printing, the division of European cultures after the Reformation, and the expansion worldwide of the seafaring nations of Europe. He is particularly interesting on the intellectual debates that took place during the English Civil War and the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th century followed by the French Revolution.

The problem in this part of the book is what is left out. The development of European society was greatly influenced by external factors. We forget all too easily that the dominant civilisation of the early Middle Ages was Islam, which gave its poor relations in Europe new ideas in history and thought, new technology, particularly in architecture and - through translation from Arabic - the works of the classical Greek philosophers.

There is no reference to the warming of climate in the 11th to 13th centuries, which indirectly contributed to the great increase in human population, nor to the chill that followed at the beginning of the 14th century, leading to the little ice age. The great diseases, in particular the Black Death, which drastically reduced human numbers from time to time, get no more than a mention. It was of course the transmission of diseases, in particular smallpox and measles, that made possible European conquests in the Americas.

Until the 18th century, European civilisation was more than matched in power and influence by Chinese civilisation on the other side of the world.

What gave Europe eventual predominance was the Industrial Revolution, which began, mostly in Britain, in the second half of that century. The chapters on this subject are some of the best. With industrialisation came amazing advances in science and technology, rapid exploitation of natural resources, spreading environmental degradation, wider differentiation of social class and wealth, slow political reform country by country, the further expansion of empire, and the militarisation of European states that led to the disaster of the two world wars. Human numbers worldwide have risen from about 1 billion in 1900 to more than 6 billion today. They may reach 8 billion to 9 billion by the middle of this century.

At first, the US was at the margin. The American Civil War may have led to the end of slavery, but racial discrimination has continued almost to our own times. The US came centre stage between the two world wars and, with the end of the Cold War and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, became the only superpower. In the meantime, other countries in the world recovered a measure of political independence, improved - however patchily - their living standards and tried with varying degrees of success to follow the industrial countries into a market-driven consumer society. Civilisation of a Western model had more or less arrived.

Humans have not been here before. To quote the title of a recent book by John McNeill, there is indeed Something New under the Sun . The perils and limitations of globalisation, and the new technologies that accompany it, are, if anything, understated in the last chapter of Civilization . Most modern economic theory is skewed and needs rethinking. There are many other hazards and, as has been said by the British Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, climate change is a bigger threat even than terrorism. We are brought back to the attack on the World Trade Centre, and what has followed on the ground in the Middle East and in political attitudes elsewhere.

Osborne has written a fluent and fascinating book. Even to attempt something of this kind requires rare ambition and quality of mind. It has flaws: too many generalisations, oversimplification of complex issues, some omissions and too much categorisation. Those of us who have lived through the past 50 years may not always recognise his history of them. But even if this is a curate's egg of a book, we need more, rather than fewer, such eggs in an age of specialisation. Read and enjoy this remarkable book, even if you do not always agree with it.

Sir Crispin Tickell is director of the Policy Foresight Programme, James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization, Oxford University.

Civilization: A New History of the Western World

Author - Roger Osborne
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Pages - 532
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 224 06241 7

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