The big idea of history

December 16, 1996|By William Pfaff

AMSTERDAM -- The retired University of Chicago historian, William H. McNeill, a Canadian-American, was given the Netherlands' Erasmus Prize last week for his many books on the ''big history'' of humanity. These include ''The Rise of the West'' (1963), ''Plagues and Peoples'' (1976) and ''A History of the Human Condition'' (1986).

The award, given at the royal palace in the presence of Queen Beatrix, was an act subversive of the conventional wisdom, since Professor McNeill's work -- precisely because it deals with history in the widest terms -- is regarded by mainstream professional historians as unscientific or even as unserious.

But possibly the Erasmus Foundation's act was one of anticipation. Mr. McNeill's belief in the importance of ''big history'' has begun to find an echo and endorsement in some professional circles, notably in the Netherlands.

Historians between the world wars turned away from large-scale history because it seemed mere lists of kings and battles, or politico-moral instruction in disguise, without scientific rigor. The history of ordinary people was substituted, as could be discovered in the documents of everyday life -- in town and village records, economic documents, the evidence of the lives of individuals.

This coincided with Marxism's interest in the history of ''the people'' writ large, seen as a predetermined conflict of the working class with the propertied classes. In the last few years there has been new attention to the history of women and other social groups ignored in the past.

It is extremely difficult, however, to write history without deriving meaning from it or attributing meaning. There is an obvious political motivation in the new attention to women and excluded groups. Neo-Marxism remains influential. Orthodox Marxism purported to be a science but was actually a secularized religion, a story of salvation, with an implied or explicit program of action. Neo-Marxism has not escaped its legacy.

The danger in ''big history'' is that it slips into some version of secularized theology, or at least of eschatology -- meaning a concern with where mankind is going and why. The amateur must ask if this is not why people read history. Why read it if the past is not part of some intelligible story about man and where he is headed?

In the past historians as well as theologians provided answers. Christian Europe from the time that it began thinking in historical terms -- that is to say, about events as they led from past into the future -- assumed that history's fulfillment would be the Messiah's second coming. The meaning of history for religious Jews was and remains the anticipation and preparation for the Messiah.

"Meaningful" history

Europeans and Americans only began to see history in wholly secular terms in fairly recent times, but still wanted to believe that it was ''meaningful'' -- that it was going someplace. Thus Marxism and its ideological derivatives.

Four decades ago the English scholar Arnold Toynbee completed an immensely influential history of civilizations which said that they progress or fail according to their ability to master challenges. Toynbee was attacked for attributing a religious significance to this process, but also because of the very scope of his work and of his generalizations. He was an influence on Professor McNeill, but today is largely ignored (unjustly, in my view).

Much less sophisticated historical generalizations are at work today when people say that we are on the march toward a more just society, a unity of the democracies, an integrated and prosperous global marketplace (all described, by Americans, as the vindication and fulfillment of American values).

Many in the West have substituted this belief in progress for an earlier generation's belief in religious destiny. When the Cold War ended, Francis Fukuyama announced that we had already arrived at where we were going. History was ''over,'' and creating liberal democratic society was what it had all been about.

Yet the idea that history is ''about'' something is what Western professional historians generally reject today, as does Professor McNeill. They say that we study the past for what it tells us about people in the past, and even about ourselves, but all we can know in any scientific sense is what the surviving documents tell us about what already has happened.

Mr. McNeill says simply that man develops by means of the encounters and communications between human groups, in which the less skilled and less sophisticated learn from the more skilled by borrowing and adapting from them.

This is modest and plausible, but seems to take progress for granted, and assume its continuation, without distinguishing between the material and moral components of progress, and without analyzing the latter (which seems odd in a man whose father was a Calvinist historian of religion!).

The new interest in ''big history'' would seem to be connected with a new concern for the meaning of progress, an essential element in the effort to come to terms with the moral experience of the 20th century. There is a fundamental difference between scientific and non-scientific forms of speculation and knowledge, but the latter is as legitimate as the former, and closer (dangerously so) to what people really want to know. Recognition of this fact may have lain behind this richly deserved award.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/16/96

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