London, Bloomsbury, 2013, ISBN: 9781441161314; 664pp.; Price: £27.99
Date accessed: 23 June, 2021
Jonathan Daly’s massive book will serve as a tonic for those anxious that the western world is slipping. It will serve as a red flag for specialists in the history of just about everywhere else, in the unlikely event they read beyond chapter one. As a story of innovation and achievement in the history of the West, this is a fine book, with many insightful passages and interesting details. As a comparative history, it is peppered with intellectual disasters. Fortunately the comparative bits amount to no more than about 10 per cent of the text.
The first thing to note about Daly’s effort is its sheer mass. It includes 404 pp. of small-print text, followed by 116 pp. of notes and then a bibliography of some 1,900 references. Daly cannot be faulted for industriousness. It appears that either he or his publisher hopes for an audience that includes the segment of the general public that takes part in book clubs: each chapter ends with a handful of ‘questions for reflection’. Each begins with a timeline of events. Whether the book-club public has the necessary stamina for Daly’s book is an open question.
Daly begins with a prologue in which he explains that he will answer the perennial question of the rise of the modern West in a comparative framework. He reviews the answers given by some of his many predecessors, dividing them mainly into those who found the answer in geography and those who found it in culture. He does not offer his own answer here. He tries to adopt a neutral tone about the relative merits of civilizations, saying (p. xviii) ‘Far be it from me, however, to suggest or imply that the West’s unique emergence to preeminence in the modern age overshadowed the achievements of other human cultures … In other words, the great non-Western cultures have value both for their obvious influence on the emergence of the modern world and for their intrinsic worth as extraordinarily successful human ventures’. So far, so good.
In chapter one he takes several wrong turns. He gallops through prehistory, the ancient Near East, the classical world, ancient China, and a few other civilizations or cultures deemed worthy of attention. Everywhere Daly is looking for evidence of innovation, which he regards as the key to success (which presumably – Daly does not say – means the accumulation of wealth and power). In the two paragraphs devoted to the ancient Near East, we learn that in its societies ‘something was missing’, because they stagnated after some undefined point prior to the mysterious invasions of the Sea Peoples about 1200 BCE (pp. 6–7). His tight focus on innovation allows him to jog through ancient Greek and Roman history in a few paragraphs, emphasizing Greek philosophical innovation (mainly rationality) and Roman law. These societies apparently were not missing something.
By p. 10 he is on to China, and its record of innovations. That takes one page, followed by three more that seek to explain why, as he sees it, China stopped innovating after the northern Song (which fell in 1127), and why its ‘greatest inventions, printing, gunpowder, the compass transformed the world, but not China’ (p. 11). He proceeds to compare China’s ‘contributions to world history’ (p. 13) against those of the Greeks and Romans, and finds China wanting. China, it seems, did not give rise to a philosophical system (as the Greeks did) that in turn ‘fueled anything as momentous as the Scientific Revolution’ (p. 13). Nor did it have civil law or spread Christianity as did Rome (pp. 13–14). China’s lack of innovation after the northern Song is explained by its elites devoting their energies to literary pursuits, aiming to qualify for the civil service.
One can almost hear one’s Chinese history colleagues groaning as one reads these pages. Daly is engaged in a comparative exercise that in effect likens the trajectories of civilizations to a horse race. China got off to a good start from the Qin to the Song, thanks to ‘its enormous population’ and ‘good communications’, but then slowed. Europe was sluggish out of the gate but came on strong in the backstretch and approached the finish with a punishing kick. In making his comparisons, Daly relies on implicit yardsticks, the merit of which he does not discuss. Civil law, it seems, is a great contribution to world history, but Confucian thought rather less so. The spread of Christianity is a great contribution to world history, but that of Buddhism apparently is not. China history colleagues could easily write the reverse, in which the Chinese innovations are great contributions and European ones not.
India’s contributions to world history consist largely of Buddhism and mathematics, which Daly judges ‘may almost have equaled China’s’ (p. 14). Byzantium merits three sentences for its greatest contributions to world history, which were preserving ancient Greek learning and ‘shielding Europe from attacks by crusaders of … Islam’ (p. 15). Islamic civilization is credited with contributions to world history perhaps even greater than China’s, in the form of preservation of Greek thought and innovations in science – chemistry, medicine, optics, and astronomy – and mathematics (pp. 15–19). Making these sorts of comparisons, while always interesting, is best done with carefully selected and intellectually justifiable yardsticks.
Perhaps aware that his pages might be judged as unfairly dismissive, Daly assures us again (all on p. 19) that ‘Each [civilization] achieved wonders of originality and inventiveness expressing its particular values and ways of life … Every people and culture on earth has achieved miracles of adaptation and innovation. Each deserves the profound and undying respect of every thinking person’. And to drive the point home: ‘people the world over possess impressive levels of creativity and intelligence’. But time and again his account leaves readers with the impression that European achievements (or contributions to the modern world) count for more than anyone else’s. His handling of specific examples often undercuts his general pronouncements.
To give an adequate sense of how Daly praises various cultures only to damn them I will quote – in full – his remarks on pre-Columbian America (pp. 20–1):
‘The South and Central American peoples made some important advances, entirely independent of the world’s other great core areas, including pictographic writing from at least 500 B.C., sophisticated calendars, the concept of numeric ‘zero’ (before the East Indians), and formidable social efficiency. Great civilizations arose: the Maya, Inca, and Aztec. Indigenous peoples domesticated a wide variety of plants (and a few animals), probably their greatest legacy to world civilization: corn, potatoes, squash, beans, cocoa, tomatoes, peppers, rubber trees, and many others. They also imparted to Europeans ideals of living in harmony with nature. In recent times, the Latin American peoples have strongly influenced worldwide popular culture with innovative musical styles popular the world over like salsa, mambo, samba, bossa nova, tango, merengue, and rumba, culminating in the Latin Pop Explosion of the late 1990s. The continent’s north-south geographic orientation impeded development. Yet their contributions would surely have been greater had contact with pathogens carried by Europeans not ravaged their populations and cultures’.
This mish-mash of great achievements, supposed contributions to European thought, and handicaps is all he has to say about the pre-Columbian Americas. A quarter of the passage is about modern pop music. Concerning domesticated plants, one of the examples is wrong: pre-Columbian peoples did not domesticate rubber trees although they harvested latex from them.
Mongols, Jews, and Japanese round out the roster of peoples whose contributions to world history merit assessment in chapter one. After one additional assurance that ‘thousands of other peoples throughout the world … have for centuries astonished scholars and amateur observers with extraordinary displays of ingenuity, daring, perseverance and creativity’, which observation he supports by mention of canoes, kayaks, snowshoes and boomerangs, Daly gets to the heart of the matter as he sees it: ‘the explosion of innovation achieved in Europe’ (p. 24). Chapter one, in short, with its quick comparisons that come across as dismissive, whatever Daly’s intent, should be kept away from impressionable readers and tarnishes the book.
The remaining 13 chapters provide a detailed history of innovations and advances in European and United States history. The rest of the world appears from time to time as the source of one or another contribution that Europeans or Americans adopted and carried to greater heights, or as not measuring up to Western standards. Daly remains true to his emphasis on innovation and novelty: 25 chapters or sub-chapters feature the word ‘revolution’ or ‘revolutionary’.
These 13 chapters devoted to the West’s innovations and achievements begin with one on the medieval centuries. Its topics include: agricultural revolution, rise of feudalism, urban revolution, technological innovations, commercial revolution, cathedral building, literary flowering, the status of women, music, culture and art – more or less standard fare. But it too engages in invidious comparison. In a passage typical of Daly’s approach (p. 44), he finds Gothic cathedrals preferable to ‘the grandest buildings of the other great civilizations’ which were ‘cramped, narrow, and divided into numerous stories like Japanese and Chinese pagodas, or relatively low-lying, albeit at times immensely and beautifully adorned, like the most splendid mosques’. Some pagodas might be taller than cathedrals, he admits, but ‘these towers and spires cannot rival the magic of experiencing Gothic churches’. Buddhist stupas were ‘mostly closed on all sides’ whereas cathedrals ‘welcomed worshipers into a soaring unified space, often tinted with myriad hues when light streamed in through thousands of square feet of brightly colored stained glass’ producing a ‘stunning’ aesthetic experience.
Now Daly is entitled to prefer cathedrals to mosques, pagodas, and stupas (I generally share that preference). But to compare them in such a way as to imply, strongly, that cathedrals are on some objective measure preferable to stupas, pagodas, and mosques is to adopt a provincial outlook no more logical than stating that cats are better than dogs (or dogs better than cats). The tallest cathedrals might be taller than the tallest mosques – but if mere height is not meaningful when it comes to pagodas vs. cathedrals, why does it matter in a comparison of mosques and cathedrals? One could equally say that many mosques have elegant fountains, whereas cathedrals have only puny baptismal fonts, that many mosques have fabulously colorful carpets, whereas cathedrals have cold, unwelcoming, hard stone floors, and that big mosques have either four or six soaring minarets, whereas big cathedrals have only one or at best two spires. By choosing one’s yardstick, one can find reasons to prefer cathedrals to mosques or mosques to cathedrals. (Curiously, on p. 277 Daly returns to the comparison of cathedrals and pagodas, but here seems agnostic about which buildings ‘bespeak a more creative or refined culture’).
The following chapters take up changes, usually revolutionary changes, in the medieval papacy and church, early modern military affairs, overseas explorations, printing, the church again (the Reformation), science, commerce, and politics. This takes us up to about 1800. Then Daly offers two 19th-century chapters on industry and technology, and two on the 20th, one on crises (imperialism and wars) and one on social change.
I found these chapters impressive and interesting for the most part. I had not known patent law was pioneered in Venice in 1474, or that the Lutheran Church in Sweden made literacy a requirement for marriage in 1686 – to take only two of a 100 or more fascinating and significant details that I underlined in my copy. The potted treatments of subjects such as Italian humanism, the Reformation, and the Russian Revolution – and many others – struck me as well done. Next time I lecture to freshmen on these subjects, I might well return to Daly’s pages as part of my preparation.
Moreover, in these chapters Daly is not blind to horrors in the history of the West. He gives slavery, imperialist violence, the Holocaust and other grim episodes their due. Indeed he refrains from emphasizing that other world civilizations also featured slavery, brutality, and discrimination, and the record of the West in bad behavior is scarcely distinctive.
That said, some historians will take issue with Daly’s distribution of attention. Many will find his Europe skewed towards northwestern Europe and Britain (although his specialization is Russian history). For example, in the discussion of the evolution of self-government (pp. 247–72) he includes lengthy treatments of developments in Britain, the United States, and France, preceded by quick sketches of Italian republics, Swiss cantons, and the Netherlands. Poland and its tradition of self-governing elites does not rate a mention. I thought he might have made more of the demographic, fertility, and health revolutions in the modern West, which he dispatches in 30 words (p. 375), fewer than he accords to the rise of informality in the United States in the 1960s. There are passages where the parade of innovations degenerates into a catalogue, as when one comes upon a paragraph that begins: ‘The next important figure in the advance of chemistry was Paracelsus’ (p. 195).
These are quibbles. The disasters come when Daly inserts comparative observations, almost always showing the West in a favorable light and often on dubious premises. So, for example (p. 199), in his discussion of the Scientific Revolution in Europe, he writes that ‘Scholars and thinkers of the other great cultures of the world also [in addition to those of Islam] remained isolated, stifled, and largely unproductive’. This is a harsh judgment, and one that specialists in the intellectual history of China or Iran, I expect, would vigorously dispute. In a passage on the status of women in the West (p. 372), he notes ‘[t]hey suffered no enforced debilitations like the traditional Chinese foot-binding practice and were not expected to throw themselves upon the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands as in India’. Among the troubles with this sentence is that sati claimed well under one per cent of women in India at any given time. The only real evidence we have about the prevalence of widow-burning in India comes from the early 19th century, and it suggests a few hundred women -- out of perhaps 100 million females in India -- per year met their end this way. Many more women underwent foot-binding in China, although whether that was ‘enforced’ or not is a matter of controversy. In another unfortunate passage, Daly retails a vision of unchanging China in a comparison between reactions to the carnage of the First World War and of the Taiping Rebellion; the latter in his view did not raise questions about culture and values in China (p. 340). Such a view is hard to square with the debates among Chinese intellectuals in the late 19th century about the proper course for China and the Qing Empire.
Although he gives a few hints along the way, Daly saves most of the answer to his question – why the West – for the conclusion. The West’s rise can be dated to the time of Charlemagne (p. 61). The reasons for it include ‘an unprecedented ability to manage and share information, to unlock the secrets of nature, to coordinate human activity, to foster and intensify individual initiative, to discover and adapt diverse ideas and resources, and to build and maintain institutions that promote all of these things’ (p. 336). A consistent reason that helps explain all the others is the political fragmentation of Europe (not a novel argument but among Daly’s best). He summarizes (p. 398) this as follows: ‘First, after the fall of Rome, no rulers established long-term political dominance. Second, individuals, communities, associations, institutions, and societies throughout the West emerged as bulwarks of order and agents opposed to the countervailing forces of warlordism, absolutism, authoritarianism, dictatorship, and totalitarianism. A political stalemate, an extraordinary balance of powers, resulted. Consequently, no European polity had the power to fully dominate its society’.
The secret sauce of the West had other ingredients as well. Daly writes: ‘More than other civilizations, it invested humans with rights and liberties, evolved an ethics of toleration, emphasized the rule of law, developed institutions of political participation and self-government, endowed individuals and communities with spiritual authority, created institutions and procedures for building up and sharing information …These very qualities, and only they, I have argued, can explain the West’s modern success’ (p. 402). In explaining the origin of these important qualities, Daly offers only one ultimate source, although his choice of words suggests there might be others: ‘Why and how did these qualities emerge? Presumably the Christian faith was a key factor … As shown throughout this book, Christian faith, spiritual movements and institutional religion contributed powerfully, if only thanks to major struggles, to the development of values that most people today would consider essential to the flourishing of the West – tolerance, openness, a spirit of innovation, the affirmation of the sacred value of each human person, and the search for truth that accords with science and experience’ (p. 402).
The book ends with a final worry and a final reassurance. In a passage that reminded me of some of Toynbee’s late-in-life apologia for Christianity, Daly, after some remarks on loss of faith here and there, wonders ‘if it will be possible to inspire and undergird continued Western development within a framework of [environmental] sustainability without such a comprehensive and coherent religious and philosophical vision?’ (p. 403). Fortunately, as Daly sees it, whichever regions or countries prosper most in the future will ‘maintain, adopt, or adapt the Western recipe for success – decentralized authority, the affirmation of individual rights and liberty, the pursuit of truth in all its forms, toleration of differences, the rule of law, respect for property, openness to novelty, and unimpeded access to information and knowledge’ (p. 404). So the secret sauce will survive among the winners of world history’s horse race, whoever they might be.
The eminent environmental and world historian, John McNeill, apparently both loves and hates my book. He writes: ‘As a story of innovation and achievement in the history of the West, this is a fine book, with many insightful passages and interesting details. As a comparative history, it is peppered with intellectual disasters’.
As the title (‘The Rise of Western Power’) of my book suggests, its main purpose is to explain how a region of the world, Europe, advanced fairly quickly, by world historical standards, from relative insignificance to exerting the greatest worldwide influence of any culture in history. It is a ‘Comparative History of Western Civilization’, not of world history. The frequent but relatively limited number of comparisons are intended not to explain and thoroughly analyze the great achievements and contributions of other cultures – a very worthy project – but to help account for what Marshall Hodgson called the Great Transmutation and Kenneth Pomeranz has termed the Great Divergence. Accounting for this development – roughly how the modern world came to be – is arguably not only a ‘perennial question’, as McNeill puts it, but one of the fundamental problematica of modern history.
As I argue in the prologue, my guiding insight, borrowed from studies of evolutionary biology and ecology, emphasizes the universal creativity of all living things and especially human beings. It seems best to quote extensively from the relevant passage (minus citations):
‘All living things – from bacteria to humans – are phenomenally creative in their ability to adapt. At every moment, we must process almost infinite data relating to our surroundings and our own bodies and mental processes. We create from this manifold an awareness of our corner of the world. On this basis, we act, react, invent, build, and collaborate. If each individual displays such extraordinary creativity on its own, imagine how much vastly more he or she can achieve in communities. All human collectives – from hunter-gatherer bands to sophisticated civilizations – connect organically among themselves and with their environments. This alone makes them all worthy of the profoundest respect and even awe.
‘According therefore to an ecological model of evolution, no living thing can thrive in isolation but only in intricate interplay with the widest range of living and nonliving things. At various points in their development, however, the leaders of a host of cultures and civilizations found many reasons to impede further experimentation and innovation. One can point, for example, to decrees by the Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (r. 1368–1398) forbidding private voyages overseas and trade with foreign countries. Such prohibitions presumably hampered innovation; they could not stifle it altogether. China under the Ming Dynasty flourished in nearly every sphere. Yet Europe, despite its smaller population, was rising faster, developing more ecologically, more organically – was more open to other cultures and to its physical environment – than the other great civilizations. Therein lay the secret of its success’.
My intention, therefore, is in no wise to disparage or downplay the great achievements of other cultures and the universal creativity of humanity. On the contrary: I repeatedly marvel at those achievements and that creativity. Yet my book, while surveying 1000 years of European (and Western) history, is above all a monograph aimed at comprehending how such a relative backwater came to engender the modern world. Therefore, my comparative approach involves (a) cataloging the prodigious contributions of other cultures to the West's eventual divergence and (b) delineating the ways and means, both positive and negative, by which it unfolded. For instance, I discuss how Islamic civilization contributed to Western development through the diffusion of inventions, practices, institutions, values, and ideas and by posing the general psychological challenge of a more advanced culture, on the one hand, and I also analyze the intellectual impediment to further advancement inflicted by the assault on philosophy of al-Ghazali and subsequent thinkers, on the other hand.
In quoting from my book, McNeill does not always fairly sample my phrasing. For example, he claims that I attribute China’s early extraordinary development ‘to ‘its enormous population’ and ‘good communications’, which does not sound very convincing. In reality, the passage reads as follows:
Two factors help explain China’s extraordinary inventiveness for over 1,000 years. Most important was its enormous population, which was bigger than any other in history. If all human beings in the aggregate possess similar ingenuity, then a society with more people will produce more innovation. Second, good communications, a shared culture, flourishing educational opportunities, and a huge and relatively unified market gave China’s vast pool of talent myriad opportunities for sharing ideas and learning from one another.
McNeill faults me for relying ‘on implicit yardsticks’ without discussing their merits. For the most part this is untrue. Although I nowhere make such assertions explicitly, he is right that overall I would consider civil law, by far the most widespread legal system in the world, to have made a greater contribution to world history than Confucian thought and Christianity, with five times more followers, to have had a greater impact in world-historical terms than Buddhism. (Ironically, in the very next paragraph McNeill acknowledges that I consider that faith of utmost importance in world history.) Yet in various places throughout the text I am quite explicit about the relative importance and influence of these and many other elements of world culture – for example, I point out that ‘given the crucial role in modern times of civil law in the emergence of civil society, of sophisticated commercial systems, and of constitutional government, its absence in China was probably to be regretted’ (p. 13).
McNeill laments that ‘time and again [my] account leaves readers with the impression that European achievements (or contributions to the modern world) count for more than anyone else’s’. Since a host of key attributes of the modern world – including representative government, the rule of law, the free enterprise system, individual liberties, modern science and medicine, and continuous industrial and technological innovation – count as “European achievements”, in any history of the modern world they will to some extent have to ‘count for more than anyone else's’. But again, my book repeatedly argues that such achievements would have been impossible without earlier and ongoing achievements of other cultures.
In other places, McNeill clearly misunderstands what I'm trying to convey. For example he writes that I find Gothic cathedrals ‘preferable’ to ‘the grandest buildings of the other great civilizations’. Actually, my personal preference is completely beside the point. What I argue, rather, is twofold. First, for many centuries Gothic cathedrals were the world’s tallest buildings – surely a testament to European ambition and technological prowess. Second, and more important, I argue that ‘they were also monuments to a human spirit seeking unity with the transcendent and an expression of the divine spirit infusing the material realm’ (p. 43). Under the influence of Neoplatonic thought, I continue, these architectural marvels ‘celebrated soaring height, radiant color, vast unity of space, and gloriously suffusing light’. Such intellectual and artistic ambitions surely foreshadowed ambitions in various material realms, in ways that lovely fountains, carpets, and even minarets did not.
Again, McNeill misconstrues my argument when he parenthetically notes: ‘Curiously, on p. 277 Daly returns to the comparison of cathedrals and pagodas, but here seems agnostic about which buildings “bespeak a more creative or refined culture”’. This mention was part of a litany of achievements in China ca. 1200–1300 A.D. that, I argue, were hard to compare with those of Europe in the same centuries and that ‘most scholars would no doubt qualify . . . as far superior, grander, and more splendid’. Here I am acknowledging the relative superiority of Chinese achievements but also suggesting that comparisons between the two civilizations were no longer completely absurd as they would have been 200-300 years. In other words, the European transformation had begun.
In the following passage, McNeill misrepresents my argumentation. I do not claim that ‘the carnage of the Taiping Rebellion ... did not raise questions about culture and values in China’, as he has it but rather that ‘the destruction of the World War called into question Western culture and values in ways the Chinese unrest did not’ (p. 340). This is part of my overarching claim that European culture was more ‘impressionable’, more prone to radical transformation than the Chinese or other major cultures.
Finally, the reason why timelines and study questions accompany each chapter is because I wrote the book for use in a survey course I developed at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After 10 years teaching the Western civilization course I grew tired of textbooks without arguments, world historical contextualization, or scholarly references. My students, I became convinced, would welcome both – and I was right. A companion website with hundreds of historical documents, maps, and images further enhances their learning experience.
Over the past 50 or so years dozens of scholars have labored mightily and often successfully to explain the Great Transmutation. (I recently published a book objectively presenting the arguments of what I consider the two dozen best interpretations.(1)) Many resulting arguments, including some by the reviewer’s father, have influenced my writing. The most convincing, in my view, is the idea that openness to change, to external influences, and to unleashing human creativity is the main factor accounting for both various historical ‘golden ages’ and the extraordinary material abundance and well-being of modern life. My book is the first to narrate the history of Western civilization from the perspective of this insight.
- Jonathan Daly, Historians Debate the Rise of the West (London and New York: Routledge, 2015).Back to (1)