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“An intelligent disquiet runs through these pages.”
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Like any author engaged in the task of building a plot, the historian must grapple with the question of where to begin the story. For historians of the particular, the problem of origins is not especially acute. We choose some reasonably datable event and have that mark the beginning of our particular histories. General historians face a slightly different problem. General history, as defined by Herbert Butterfield, is a rational account of man on earth that explains "how mankind had come from primitive conditions to its existing state." I use the term to embrace the universal histories of the ancient world and medieval Europe, the general world histories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the histories found in modern history textbooks, syllabuses, and lectures. Whatever their differences, all purport to begin at the beginning. But if one's object is humanity, all humanity, where, exactly, is the beginning?
For several thousand years, historians writing in the Judeo-Christian tradition were untroubled by this question of origins. Sacred history located the origins of man in the Garden of Eden, and that is where the general histories of late antiquity and medieval Europe began the story. In the eighteenth century, proposals for shortening the chronology proper to general history began to circulate, as the new fad for catastrophism brought historical attention to bear on the Universal Deluge. Since human societies were rebuilt from scratch after the Deluge-so the thinking went-it was the Deluge that marked mankind's true beginning. And in the philosophy of the Neapolitan historian Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), the Deluge made all prior history unknowable anyway, since it destroyed all the documents from which we could write such a history. As an event that set the civilizational clock back to zero, the Deluge marked an epistemological break between humanity's origin, which we cannot know, and the present stream of history, which we can.
Although the flood itself has long since receded in historical consciousness, the sense of rupture, a legacy of sacred history, remains. On the heels of the time revolution of the 1860s, historians gradually came to accept the long chronology as a geological fact. But we have not yet found a persuasive way to plot history along the long chronology, preferring instead to locate the origins of history at some point in the past few thousand years. In Western Civ textbooks, which offer a convenient distillation of widely held ideas, that point of origin has been similar to what it had been under sacred history, though the creation of man was duly transformed into a secular event, the birth of civilization. Elsewhere, as I shall argue in this chapter, history's plotline was even more dramatically compressed by the growing sense that early medieval Europe had been so thoroughly barbarized that it could stand in for the Paleolithic past. If one's goal is to describe the progress of human civilization, why fret about the epistemological veil that screens us from the speechless past? Far better to start with a knowable point of origin in the barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries. This view of medieval Europe, already in circulation by the late nineteenth century, became entrenched in the first generation of textbooks published in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth. The rise of medieval studies in North America from the 1920s onward owes a good deal to this reconfiguration of history's chronology. Although medieval history has long since forgotten its debt to the long chronology, echoes of the latter still linger in the textbooks devoted to medieval Europe.
As a device for plotting history, there is nothing wrong with the idea of rupture. We routinely begin our particular histories with plagues, wars, revolutions, and sudden transformations of all sorts. But no one claims that history begins in 1348 or 1789. The event we choose serves as a fulcrum, the pivot point of a teeter-totter. We might prefer to write our histories from a position astride the upswinging arm. But no one can afford to overlook the balance of the chronology on the other side. Yet this is exactly how historians, until recently, have mapped history. "History begins in the Near East," the distinguished authors of the Columbia History of the World told us in 1972. Another textbook tells us that "history begins in Sumer," and a textbook widely used in the 1960s was actually entitled "History Begins at Sumer." What were history students supposed to conclude from this? That our African ancestors lived without history? That early humans were biological entities without any meaningful culture? Can we really blame our students and our fellow citizens if they confuse the Garden of Eden with the irrigated fields of Mesopotamia?
One of the projects of the Enlightenment was to expose the products of human contrivance and replace them with timeless truths embedded in a natural reality. Thus, units of measurement should not be dependent on the whims of particular regions but should conform instead to universal or natural truths, an idea that eventually resulted in the meter, the gram, and the liter. This chapter engages, unabashedly, in an Enlightenment project. It seeks to expose the grip of the short chronology as a human contrivance that will dissolve in the gaze of natural reason. I am aware that a history diagrammed along the full time of human history is just another contrivance, since all questions about where to begin-with the species; with the genus; with the earth itself-are equally vexed. But my purpose is served if we can acknowledge that the short chronology is indeed a contrivance, that history need not be so limited in its span, and that something we can and should call "history" begins a long time ago in Africa.
* * *
Like many before and since his time, the Greek poet Hesiod (ca. 700 B.C.) was captivated by the muse of origins. To satisfy his curiosity, he invented a Golden Age of Mankind: our origin, the place where it all began. To postulate a Golden Age was to cast a jaundiced eye toward all that came after, and, in the historical trajectory that followed from Hesiod's thought, decay emerged as the dominant metaphor. Ancient and medieval historians writing in the Judeo-Christian tradition were equally captivated by the idea of a Golden Age, though theirs went by the name of Eden. Over a period of a thousand years, after the Roman Empire absorbed Christianity, historians writing in Latin and Greek became accustomed to beginning their histories in Eden. To authors like Eusebius, Gregory of Tours, and Otto of Freising, Genesis provided a necessary point of origin, an anchor by means of which they rooted their histories in time and space. The roots, admittedly, were thin and insubstantial, as authors hastened past Genesis to get to contemporary affairs. Perhaps sensing this lack of enthusiasm, the modern historians who study these texts are equally prone to skip past the preambles and go straight to the histories. But the tendency to anchor universal history in Eden was nonetheless a compelling part of medieval historiography. And though universal histories became less fashionable in early modern Europe, the impulse to begin at the beginning never wholly waned. Sir Walter Ralegh's History of the World in Five Books, first published in the early seventeenth century, began in Eden and worked its way down to the Roman period. Bossuet's famed Universal History (1681) also began the story with Genesis.
The practice of writing mainstream, professional histories rooted in Eden would persist well into the nineteenth century. But even in Ralegh's day, historians and commentators like Jean Bodin (1529-96) were trying to bring a progressive element into the writing of history, a trajectory at odds with the dominant metaphor of decay. Influenced by the natural histories of the ancient world that had identified the aboriginal state of humankind as primitive, Bodin denied the existence of Hesiod's Golden Age and made much of the lawlessness and violence of the early phases of society. These ideas were shared by other sixteenth-century anthropologists who proposed the idea of a progression from pastoral to agricultural society. The conjectural schemes subsequently developed by philosophers, economists, and ethnographers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were also influenced by the growing number of reports concerning the savage peoples of the Caribbean, North America, Tierra del Fuego, and elsewhere. In an influential argument, the seventeenth-century German jurist Samuel Pufendorf compared savage with civilized man to show how the establishment of private property marked the boundary between primitive and modern society. By the eighteenth century, there was a common understanding that humans had progressed through several economic stages-savagery, pastoralism, agriculture, and commerce were the usual suspects-and that each stage was associated with a particular set of political, social, legal, and intellectual institutions.
But how could the progressive fashion be squared with the chronological facts and descending trajectory of sacred history? The two were like the X formed by the up and down escalators in a department store. Peter Bowler has remarked that the idea that man acquired civilization in gradual stages required more time than was allowed by biblical chronology. Yet in fact the authors of conjectural or philosophical histories did not necessarily offend a biblical time frame. Conjectural history, the great fashion of the eighteenth century, was a style of writing history in the philosophical mode. Freed from the obligation to work with evidence, the conjectural historians associated with the French and Scottish Enlightenments allowed themselves to extrapolate past conditions on the basis of present-day trajectories. Chronological signposts were not essential to the project. Condorcet, for example, dodged the issue of chronology by refusing to assign any dates to the stages he proposed. Others, notably the French physiocrat Baron de Turgot, were quite willing to squeeze the stages of progress into the short span of time made available by Holy Writ. Adam Ferguson similarly framed the history of mankind in the limited time period allowed by sacred chronology. Few saw an essential contradiction with sacred history, since no one knew how long it took societies to evolve.
The chronological conundrums were easy to square. Sacred and conjectural histories, however, were profoundly incompatible in another way, for they disagreed on history's direction. Is it from Eden downward, as proposed by Judeo-Christianity? Or from the primitive upward, the trajectory favored by conjectural historians? Yet there was a potential solution to this problem, if only one could jump off the down escalator and join the up at the point where the two cross. Embedded in the famous historical scheme promulgated by Turgot in A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind (1750) was a kind of biblical catastrophism, the idea that an event or events described in sacred history had wiped the slate clean and reset the clock of civilization to zero:
Holy Writ, after having enlightened us about the creation of the universe, the origin of man, and the birth of the first arts, before long puts before us a picture of the human race concentrated again in a single family as the result of a universal flood. Scarcely had it begun to make good its losses when the miraculous confusion of tongues forced men to separate from one another. The urgent need to procure subsistence for themselves in barren deserts, which provided nothing but wild beasts, obliged them to move apart from one another in all directions and hastened their diffusion through the whole world. Soon the original traditions were forgotten; and the nations, separated as they were by vast distances and still more by the diversity of languages, strangers to one another, were almost all plunged into the same barbarism in which we still see the Americans.
This, the crucial compromise, allowed conjectural history and economic stage theory to be reconciled with sacred history. Sacred history provided historians with at least three catastrophes-the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Universal Deluge, and the destruction of the Tower of Babel-that could be said to have returned humankind to a primitive condition. The ascent of man, as predicted by theories of progress, could begin from any of the three points.
Of these, the Deluge loomed largest in the historical imagination. An event of monstrous significance, the Deluge has seldom failed to grip the European imagination. It was a prominent feature in the geological treatises of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and figures significantly in other writings. But the implications of the Deluge were not lost on historians and economists. In his On the Origin of Laws, Arts, and Sciences (1758), Antoine-Yves Goguet argued that the Deluge caused humans to forget the use of iron and other metals and return to the use of tools based on stone. Ferguson, writing about how the human race had again been reduced to a few people, alluded at least indirectly to the Deluge. And it was not just conjectural historians who played with the idea. Bossuet's great Universal History suggested how mankind was reduced to nearly nothing after the Deluge and then, by degrees, emerged from ignorance, transforming woods and forests into fields, pastures, hamlets, and towns, and learning how to domesticate animals and use metals. This use of the Deluge as a resetting event in both sacred history and geology would persist into the nineteenth century.
Conjectural historians, it is true, were not much interested in origins. Sacred historians like Ralegh and Bossuet, in turn, wrote much about the Deluge but were correspondingly less interested in outlining the stages of postdiluvian progress. It was Vico who, in his New Science (1725), most persuasively reconciled the Deluge with the theory of human progress. Vico was not widely known in his own day, but New Science was rediscovered in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and his reputation was resurrected to a point where he and Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) have often been called the fathers of modern history. Vico's emphasis on the Deluge was the key element of a philosophy designed to orient history around the proper interpretation of myths and legends, thereby avoiding idle speculation and armchair philosophizing. A consequence of this approach was to exclude sacred history from the terrain of the secular historian, on the theory that no documents apart from the sacred writings carried by Noah had survived the flood. Vico was clearly attracted to the idea of progress. But whereas Bodin was not interested in the Deluge, preferring instead to describe ante- and postdiluvian societies as identical in their primitiveness, Vico molded the Deluge into a powerful punctuating event. The singular importance of the Deluge in Vico's history is reflected in the chronological table printed in New Science, which begins in the year 1656 a.m. (anno mundi), the year of the Deluge. In a telling phrase, Vico actually describes his work as "a new natural history of the universal flood." By the light of this natural history, the Deluge was seen as a catastrophic event that forced humans into the most primitive of conditions, far more abject than anything experienced in the preceding 1,656 years of sacred history. His enthusiasm reflected in his redundancy, Vico writes in many places of a period of brutish wandering during which the three tribes of men were scattered throughout the world's forest and copulated promiscuously with mothers and daughters, unmindful of kinship. Much that Vico wrote was compatible-and designed to be compatible-with the anthropology of his day.
Excerpted from On Deep History and The Brain by Daniel Lord Smail Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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1. The Grip of Sacred History
3. Between Darwin and Lamarck
4. The New Neurohistory
5. Civilization and Psychotropy
Epilogue: Looking Ahead
Bibliography of Works Cited