Sunday, March 14, 2004

Reducing the Sauce

The Hegelian Encyclopedia begins with Being but immediately asserts that “this mere Being, as it is mere abstraction, is therefore the absolutely negative: which, in a similarly immediate aspect, is just Nothing.” J.N. Findley, a grand old Hegel scholar whose voice, stately and sonorous, could easily be taken for the voice of the Absolute Spirit itself or, alternatively, the reverberating echoes of the Malabar Caves, strictly forbid graduate students from writing papers about this particular dialectical move. It was too easy. Thinking the ALL may impress a certain sort of suburban mystic; but it is, after all, a piece of cake. You want to see me think the ALL? I can do it again if you weren’t watching—six times before lunch if necessary. Extremely general theories of history can also amount to a similarly grandiose nullity since, from a long way off, everything looks like a fly.

David Christian’s Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History is not that empty, though anybody who has spent a fair amount of the last thirty years reading attempts to think what happened in history will recognize that what is synthesized in its pages is not human history with all the trimmings but the arguments of perhaps two dozen books. That’s not a small labor in itself. The books that seem to matter for the author—Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel; William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples; Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism; Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony; K.N. Chaudhuri’s Asia Before Europe; Gordon Child’s Man Makes Himself; Carlo Chipolla’s Before the Industrial Revolution; Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism; Terrance Deacon’s the Symbolic Species; Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process; Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword, and Book; Marvin Harris’ Culture, People, Nature; E.J. Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes; Karl Jasper’s Origin and Goal of History; Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power; Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China; Geoffrey Parker’s The Military Revolution; Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution; E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class; Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States; Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World System; Eric Wolfe’s Europe and the People without History; and a couple of oldies but goodies like works by Marx and Weber—comprise a pretty formidable Freshman reading list, from which, incidentally, I’ve omitted most of the cosmic and evolutionary material. Not bad for the view from down under in 2003. And Christian’s distilling does leave a residue: no matter how much you’d like to avoid admitting it, human history really is about how minority groups have gone about exploiting majorities.

I have adapted my own boiled down version of history from Hegel. According to Hegel, there have been three ages of history that correspond to the successive recognitions that one person is free (Asiatic despotism), some people are free (Greek city states); and everybody is free (Germanic modernity). I’ve improved on that outline by adding a dialectical next stage in which the moderns, disappointed by the largely formal freedoms of the contemporary state, insist that everybody ought to be as free as an ancient tyrant.

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