Vastly outnumbered, again

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.

2 thoughts on “Vastly outnumbered, again

  1. Looks like an interesting book, but there are so many on this topic, I wonder which you would recommend as the most readable and complete?
    The East/West view of world history has always seemed quite arbitrary to me. You could just as easily say, ‘The history of the world is the story of everyone fighting with their neighbours.’
    The French could write their history as one long battle with Germans. The Persians could write their history as one long battle with Arabs. East/West version of the story is more like an occasional All-Star game, when one power dominates Europe or Asia enough to travel abroad for competition.
    Still, its a neat way to collect a lot of different stories and people into one narrative. The one thing that could make the East/West story different from those others is whether a compelling case could be made that the fundamental worldviews of the East have consistently been different from those of the West (eg. hordes/collectivists vs individuals)- but we’ve had no trouble coming up with competing worldviews to fight over in the West alone, either.

  2. Hi David – I share your skepticism (though unfortunately I have no better books to suggest). In fact, you’ve touched on one of the very points I had to excise from the review for space reasons: that Pagden assumes a conflict between continents and/or civilizations, and does not consider whether the East vs. West “struggle” could be better described as a series of discrete and mostly unrelated conflicts between particular states for particular reasons. To Pagden, it’s all about ideology and political culture and difference — foreign to his approach, for example, is the simple idea that all empires expand and inevitably come into conflict with states that they border. The fact that the caliphs, the Ottomans, and later the British, French, and Americans all clashed over territory in or near the Middle East is symptomatic less of a fundamental enmity than of the role of the region as a connection point between different continents. The odds of empires clashing there is higher than elsewhere in the same way that the odds you’ll run into an old school friend is higher in a subway station than in your front yard.

    Pagden covers the Greek war of independence quite well (especially Lord Byron’s walk-on role in it), and in doing so offers a great counter-example to his thesis. Despite an immense pro-Greek public relations effort, and despite the passionate sympathy that most opinion shapers in Europe had for the Greek struggle (depicted, yet again, as a fight between liberty and tyranny), the Western powers studiously avoided getting involved in the war for its first six years. It was just one more international problem on their already full rosters of such problems, after all, and the opportunity to unite the West in a new crusade against the barbarian East was gratefully allowed to pass.

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