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Getting It Wrong

IN DEFENSE OF HISTORY;\o7 By Richard J. Evans; (W.W. Norton: 288 pp., $25.95)\f7

THE WAY OF THE WORLD: From the Dawn of Civilizations to the Eve of the Twenty-First Century;\o7 By David Fromkin; (Alfred A. Knopf: 258 pp., $25)\f7

July 04, 1999|WILLIAM H. MCNEILL | 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."

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