Next up on the menu is Roger Osborne’s Civilization: A New History of the Western World. Continuing the trend that most western historians are solipsistically (is that even a word?) ever only concerned with the west, Osborne charts the path of western society from its pre-historic roots to the modern world. While no history can be comprehensive and stay within the 400 to 600 page range that normal, marketable general history books are, Osborne does a good job of selectively picking out major veins of history. While not going into depth on some of the intellectual ideas that have been the basis for western society, the historical themes mostly fall around political, geographical, and economic. [Ahhh, who am I kidding! We all know the world of ideas will always take a backseat to the power of money!]
Early in the book there is a good section on Greek thought and the influence of the development of an alphabet had on sophisticated ideas and argumentation. This might not be too surprising to those students of linguistics or analytic philosophers out there, but it is quite a compelling and enlightening concept. Was language truly the key that unlocked the human intellectual potential? Much has been made of the agora and stoa of ancient and hellenistic Greece where would-be leaders and mentors would argue cases of politics and philosophy. Arguing, back and forth, in a primitive language may have been much more time consuming and tedious. The development of an alphabet as the basis for words and ideas which, when combined, formed more complex words allowed those in the agora and stoa to express a greater range of ideas much more quickly.
Osborne continues to argue the case that language, and particularly written language, had an unparalleled affect on Greek society. The social order was based on customary, unwritten laws which had been passed down through tradition and was a negotiable arrangement between people. While this state of affairs remained prevalant through the ages, as was common of all other societies at the time, written language made law and the interpretation thereof something “disembodied” from personal affairs. The laws became, themselves, an abstraction that was removed from human affairs and took the place among something immutable and incorruptible. Others might see how this leads to Plato’s theory of the forms where abstract thoughts become the only true reality and that the nature, material world around us is but a shadow of reality.
Another interesting topic that Obsorne touches on is the development of nation states as a result of more destructive military technology. With the advent of the canon and the musket, city walls meant little in the way of defense and only sheer numbers and geographic barriers (mountains, large bodies of water, or large expanses) would become principle determinents of the battlefield victor. In order to support these massive armies with their sophisticated technologies, only the large and wealthy survived. These developments, combined with Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, may explain how Europe went from 300+ political units to only a few dozen by the end of the 19th century.