By Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
When Paul Kennedy sent out early drafts of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers for comments he was surprised by the response. Readers wanted more – more background coverage and more detail supporting a thesis that Kennedy originally thought he could develop in a “brief” book.
As a result, his simple argument – that modern history shows a correlation between relative economic strength and military power – took nearly 700 pages to explain.
What happened to Kennedy’s book might be taken as a model for what has become a trend in popular history books. Today we frequently find mountains of detail and footnotes supporting theses that are almost banal. John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards is one good example. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Civilizations is another.
Fernandez-Armesto defines civilization as a relationship with the natural environment, one that recrafts the environment to meet human demands. “Civilization makes its own habitat,” and a civilization is only civilized “in direct proportion to its distance, its difference from the unmodified natural environment.”
The implications of this definition are developed in a highly original taxonomy of civilizations. Juxtaposing past and present, “high” and “low,” civilizations are sorted by environmental categories such as desert, highland, forest, and seaboard. Our learned tour guide, with extensive view, surveys humankind from the Kalahari to the Aleutians, demonstrating there is no environment that cannot be adapted to human needs.
But there is no such thing as progress. “Societies do not evolve: they just change.” There are no stages of civilization, no patterns of development, no “survival of the fittest.” Indeed, if we do want to use the survival of a particular group or lifestyle as a mark of civilization, it would be the least likely groups, those who have done the least to transform their environment, who would have to be considered the most civilized.
Thus while Fernandez-Armesto believes in the civilizing “itch” or impulse (he is candid about preferring culture to nature), his thesis implies a reversal of traditional ways of thinking about civilization. The more “civilized” a particular civilization gets – meaning the further it distances itself from its natural environment – the more unstable it is likely to become. “For the history of civilizations is a path picked among ruins” – monuments to noble and spectacular failure.
And that’s it. It is not the sort of argument that really requires 600-plus pages to make, but the detail is there for anyone who wants it. Some hint as to the magnitude of accumulation can be seen in the book’s love of epigraphs. There are over 40 chapter epigraphs appearing in at least five different languages (not all of them translated, or, for that matter, relevant). In fact, there are so many epigraphs they have their own section in the endnotes! Even for an Oxford historian this is four-flushing it.
On the positive side, the writing itself is very good, and makes one think the author might want to try his hand at writing a novel some day. His description of the casinos of Las Vegas, seen in the cold light of day after a night of debauch, shows him at this best:
Their mighty signboards, which looked glamorous or at least glitzy a few hours before, seem half-dressed in daylight: the struts and cables show, dangling or drooping, like unzipped flies and slack stockings.
This is nicely observed, as is the rest of the book, but it does not make up for the fact that Civilizations contains a simple message that doesn’t need anything like the development it receives here. The idea that readers always demand so much more needs to be reconsidered.
Review first published February 10, 2001.