One of the great joys of reading history is its ability to provide the wisdom we need to live as responsible and engaged citizens. Consider, for example, this nugget:
Obtain 4 medium size cod heads. More for a large family. After they have been sculped—(to sculp heads: with sharp knife cut head down through to the eyes, grip back of head firmly and pull)—prepare to cook as follows.…
The recipe appears in full, along with many others, in Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. The book is a history of mankind’s relationship with the codfish, a narrative spanning one thousand years and several continents, and encompassing wars, slavery, and revolution. Pythonesque though the title may sound, it’s a serious work with serious conclusions.
If Kurlansky’s oeuvre is any indication—he is also the author of Salt: A World History, The Basque History of the World, and 1968: The Year That Rocked the World—history’s scope is shrinking. It is shrinking not just to single years but to half-years (Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World) and single months (David Maraniss’s They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967). It is shrinking to particular sexual statuses (Elizabeth Abbott’s A History of Mistresses and A History of Celibacy) and garments (Valerie Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History), and to the level of commodities and foodstuffs—recent titles include The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World, Coal: A Human History, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, The True History of Chocolate, and even, arguably, Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food.
But the title of Fernández-Armesto’s newest book, Humankind: A Brief History, points to the other sort of popular history that has come into vogue in recent years. Fernández-Armesto is, in fact, far better known for works such as Millennium, Civilizations, and last year’s The Americas: A Hemispheric History, each of which embraces a thousand-year span of civilization. In the same category is Michael Cook’s A Brief History of the Human Race, which surveys the past ten thousand years of human history—that geological span of time known as the Holocene—in barely three hundred and sixty pages.
The prize for bigness, though, goes to David Christian’s Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, which boasts a massive, thirteen-billion-year scope. Starting with the Big Bang, it moves in succession through the creation of stars and planets, the formation of the earth, the evolution of life, the emergence of humans, the rise of states, and, finally, the development of our own global capitalist civilization. It even offers an epilogue on the probable ending of our universe in a heat death that would last, it seems, pretty much forever. Total page count: five hundred.
History books of such scope, of course, encroach on the traditional territory of myth. Humans have always needed a story to explain how the world came into being and who governs it, a story to help us define our role in relation to the gods. Our own technological civilization is hardly different in this regard; indeed, Christian admits that his book is a conscious attempt “to assemble a coherent and accessible account of origins, a modern creation myth.”
Talk of beginnings, however, leads invariably to talk of ends. Once we have answered “Where did we come from?” we are logically faced with “Where are we going?”—a question we have been asking ourselves quite a lot in recent decades. But can big or little history answer it?
Historians, for a long time, did not bother with such grand narratives. The mythic context in which they lived gave no special role to humankind; in polytheistic cosmologies, humans were simply part of a mix that included quarrelling gods, giants, and other beings. Historians downplayed the mythic in favour of the prosaic affairs of men: Herodotus focused on the Greco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century BC, Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War later in the same century, Tacitus on the Roman Empire of his day.
Judeo-Christian monotheism, however, changed the context. A single god has no competitors or sexual politics to worry about. Suddenly, humans became the focus of divine attention. Mankind now had a purpose, the Christian version of which was expounded in a millennia-spanning narrative of creation, sin, redemption, and final judgment. Some began to grapple with this universalist idea by attempting histories stretching back to the Creation, as Eusebius of Caesarea did with his Chronographia in the fourth century. Yet traditional histories did not disappear; most historians through the Middle Ages contented themselves with chronicles of contemporary events.
Europeans gained confidence with the coming of the Renaissance—“What a piece of work is a man!” declared Shakespeare’s Hamlet, albeit rather glumly—and, by the Enlightenment, the continent had become rich and powerful enough to compare itself favourably with ancient Greece and Rome. Thus Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), an assessment of one civilization’s thousand-year decay from the vantage point of a successor civilization of equal worth.
Over the next few decades, history took on the form of a philosophic morality play, in which the forces of reason and liberty overcame the forces of irrationality and oppression. “The history of the world,” wrote G.W.F. Hegel in The Philosophy of History, “is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” Yet, while the rise of more rational modes of government in Europe reinforced the idea that the Western world was moving toward a specific goal, it was a less religious goal now. God was being ushered out of the salons, turned by the Deists into a revered creator emeritus with no actual power and simply denied by others, his divine plan now sharing the stage with a more secular view of progress. This more secular assumption underlay Thomas Macaulay’s History of England, completed in 1855; “the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement,” he wrote. It was a version of the past well suited for an England that wished to shepherd its many colonies toward greater enlightenment.
The awareness of other cultures and civilizations did lead some thinkers to different conclusions. Giambattista Vico, whose groundbreaking Scienza nuova first appeared in 1725, saw no single end to history. Civilizations, he argued, cannot be stacked up against one another and labelled “better” and “worse,” but must be understood in their own context—a complicated task requiring sympathetic insight not only into how their peoples were ruled, but also into how they thought and wrote and worshipped. Different societies could not be meshed neatly into a single framework.
Meanwhile, the expansion of knowledge was influencing not only the interpretation but also the scope of history. New scholarly disciplines, such as economics, psychology, literature, and art, gave birth to histories of painting, the Renaissance, naval power—the early ancestors of today’s works of little history. And other specialties generated the raw material that big histories would eventually use to paint their large-scale pictures of the universe and humanity’s place within it: geology showed that the earth is billions of years old; astronomy that everything began in a big bang, billions of years before that; and evolutionary biology that we philosophy-writing, freedom-seeking, empire-building humans are the descendants of monkeys. Although we now understood the universe better than any humans had before us, this world was also one in which we played the smallest of roles.
History, because it’s about us, and because we write it, is inevitably shaped to fit our needs. “Nations without a past are contradictions in terms. What makes a nation is the past, what justifies one nation against others is the past, and historians are the people who produce it,” said the British historian E.J. Hobsbawm. (George Orwell expressed it more bluntly in the Ingsoc party slogan in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”)
These days, our needs seem best met by the story of the progress of freedom. In his famous 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argued that we had reached a consensus on liberal democracy as the final stage of mankind’s development. History as an ideological evolution, therefore, is over; everything else (including 9/11 and the present “War on Terror,” he has since argued) is a matter of mopping up. American intellectuals have been especially receptive to this idea—in part because of the country’s particular experience of the past. Unlike the shattering experience that it was to Europeans, the conflict-ridden twentieth century was to America a long series of tough challenges that were overcome in the end. The belief that history has a “right side” that will inevitably triumph was vindicated, rather than discredited. This view of history creates a powerful political and psychological weapon: the ability to declare a “wrong side.” Ashcan of history; dead-enders; the writing is on the wall; Islamic medievalists; move on: all of these phrases rely on the notion that history has a natural direction to it.
Yet, as appealing as this narrative may be for some, equally meaningful narratives can be constructed on wholly different premises. Take the German literary critic Walter Benjamin’s conception of a tragic “angel of history”: “[The angel’s] face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” The story of history looks very different depending on where the bombs are falling.
Today’s big history is one useful antidote to monolithic versions of the past. In the perspective of ten thousand years, is the march of freedom more important than the invention of writing, say, or the replacement of tribes and clans by states? Even our particular position on the timeline of history is of questionable rank. “As a vantage point for writing the history of the human race,” Michael Cook observes in his Brief History of the Human Race, “the present has very little to be said for it, and may well be positively misleading. To an extent we have learned to resist the pull of ethnocentrism, the idea that the most important thing in the world is who we happen to be. But we are curiously blind to the self-indulgence of chronocentrism, the idea that the most important thing in the world is when we happen to be—that what matters about the past is how it relates to our own transitory present.” In other words, we’re simply not that special.
But little history is an equally useful antidote. After all, it’s not only political ideas that influence us; we are not disembodied minds. We are animals: we need to eat, to sleep, to breed. We covet not just intangible goods such as honour, recognition, and power, but also tangible goods like farmland and fishing grounds. Little history reminds us of our dependence on a diversity of needs, some grand, many prosaic. And it reminds us that the number of variables in the system is nearly infinite. In Salt: A World History, Kurlansky describes Gandhi’s historic 1930 salt march, which, by focusing popular discontent on Britain’s long-standing ban on local salt production, spurred Indian independence into a mass movement. After walking two hundred and forty miles over twenty-five days, the sixty-year-old Gandhi arrived at the seashore. Kurlansky describes the moment: “He bent down and picked up a chunk of the crust and in so doing broke the British salt law. ‘Hail, deliverer!’ a pilgrim shouted.” For want of a nail, as the saying goes.
Modern science has shown us how hard it is to understand large systems with many variables. In our attempts to use computers to simulate the earth’s climate patterns, for instance, we are learning that the system is just too big to model with any hope of accuracy. In Charles Wohlforth’s new book, The Whale and the Supercomputer, the climatologist Gerard Roe is quoted as saying, “People don’t understand the earth, but they want to, so they build a model, and then they have two things they don’t understand.”
That explanation may apply equally well to history. It may be that “history” as a whole is not comprehensible to us, that it’s simply too large, too complex. Perhaps, in creating our grand narratives, all we’ve really been doing is choosing variables, like “freedom,” or “equality,” or “feudalism,” that seem to explain our world—using them to tell a story that sounds plausible, but doesn’t prove anything at all.