November 18, 2008


The Rise Of The West: Lessons for today's lost conservatives (Michael Auslin, 11.14.08, Forbes)

As conservatives ponder a long exile in the political wilderness, many voices are calling for a period of contemplation, a returning to roots, so to speak.

They could do worse than return to William H. McNeill's 1963 magnum opus, The Rise of the West, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this year. The lessons of that 900-page survey of human history have as much urgency today as they did at the height of the Cold War, and they make a sweeping case for economic and political freedom.

McNeill's name is no longer widely known, least of all in universities, though he is one of the last of our truly great professors. Over his three-plus decades teaching at the University of Chicago, he became famed for tackling giant subjects, such as the history of technology or the whole of human existence, as in The Rise of the West.

He was, in his day, part of the vibrant republic of letters that marked post-war American intellectual life, a time when ideas and words mattered, when the Great Books were mass-produced for the middle class and when educated adults read Trilling and Barzun and Buckley. Professors were celebrated for their learning and sage writings, not for their sound bites, celebrity and anti-Americanism. The Rise of the West fit squarely into this richly humanistic and, yes, positive moment.

McNeill rarely used the word "progress" in The Rise of the West, at least not in a Hegelian fashion; but his book unapologetically portrayed human history as a long, slow climb out of the cave (literally and figuratively). He anticipated today's globalization debate by claiming that the sinews of human contact throughout civilized history were vast inter-societal and inter-regional communications and trade networks. McNeill believed that these networks were mostly established by merchants and that they created a "great society" that pushed innovation throughout the world.

He saw this great society emerging as early as the third millennium B.C. in the Sumerian and Akkadian empire-states, and then repeatedly reemerging after the fall of empires, serving as the holding receptacle for knowledge when states collapsed. The strength of these sinews allowed certain societies (the bones and muscle) to flourish, based on their openness to the cosmopolitan flow of ideas and goods and their talent at employing them for state-building purposes.

McNeill saw this steady spread of ideas and the broadening of economic participation as a "democratizing" element to human history. The great motor of man's development was fueled by economic exchange and learning, both of which were facilitated through dissemination of the written word. He used the term "democratizing" in a largely rhetorical sense to describe these trends, but that undoubtedly did not endear him to critics who were starting to hold strong antipathy toward democracy in its struggle against 20th century totalitarianism.

As radical professors spread throughout universities in the late 1960s, McNeill's The Rise of the West became for them the symbol of an outdated, patriarchal era of scholarship.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 18, 2008 6:33 AM
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