For those of you interested in the rather big question of how concepts like East and West have evolved, and how such abstractions have influenced global history and continue to influence the politics of our day, Anthony Pagden’s Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle between East & West is very much worth reading. Here’s a snippet from my recent review of it in the Spectator:
There is much to admire about Pagden’s book. His breadth of knowledge across two and a half millennia of Western (and to a great extent Eastern) history is impressive, and he introduces the reader to a series of fascinating thinkers and travellers: Herodotus, Aelius Aristides, St. Augustine, Constantin-François Volney, John Stuart Mill. He also displays a clear-eyed awareness of how myths are created and sustained. The battle of Lepanto, in which the Venetians and Spanish defeated the Ottoman navy, ‘was hailed far and wide across Europe as a new Actium, a new Salamis,’ he writes. But ‘the analogies were, of course, entirely empty . . . The Spain of Philip II was hardly less despotic than the Ottoman Empire and in many respects was a good deal more so.’ As an intellectual history of Western views of the East, the book is exemplary.
Which is why it is so surprising to find Pagden’s frequently long stretches of good sense undermined by sweeping simplifications…
As you can tell from that last sentence, I do think that despite its many merits the book is far from flawless. In fact, its flaws are one of its most interesting attributes, as they reflect, I believe, the very mentality that leads inevitably to the division of the world into what we think of as a progressive West and a stagnant East.
Read the whole review and let me know if you agree — particularly if you’ve already read the book itself. And for an additional perspective on Pagden’s book, I’d recommend John Gray’s excellent and elegant analysis of it in the March issue of Literary Review.