Timetables of History
Scripps-Howard News Service 5.15.02
When in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet/Russian Empire, Francis Fukuyama declared "the end of history," I was astonished. Not because someone tried to attract attention through making an outrageous statement, but because the world of scholarship took it seriously. For Pete's sake!
Then came Felipe Fernández-Armesto with his "Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years." In it, the Hispanic Affairs Director-turned Professorial Research Fellow at Oxford apparently awards Western Civilization a place of insignificance he thinks it well deserves. He extols China and Islam - both predicted to prevail well into the future after this "crude" episode the rest of us mistake for civilization is long forgotten.
Apparently, I have to say, for I am guilty of not having read either of these books, relying on a good number of serious reviews instead. That is not something one should do with any frequency, yet the combination of an excessively ambitious title with a highly problematic thesis often justifies such economy.
But not long ago, Dinesh D'Souza, in a major speech, referred to Western Civilization before the year 1500 as "a relative backwater," naming again China as the pre-eminent civilization of our planet. And just the other day, I heard James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, a knowledgeable and articulate man, describing Islam as the leader in scientific and other important fields "for the first thousand of its thirteen hundred years - in other words between the 7th and 17th centuries."
In fact, all four names mentioned represent achievement, respectable standing, awards and positions. Why are they saying things that either don't make sense or are simply at variance with facts?
While a child can see that history did not end in 1991, many find it challenging to cast their mind's eye back even a few decades and, thus, are greatly impressed by the mention of centuries, let alone a millennium. But Western Civilization did not start either 500 or a thousand years ago. Its roots are as much biblical as they are Greco-Roman - in other words, roots that stretch back thousands of years.
And even if we think of the centuries before the Renaissance as a period of semi- gestation, who in his right mind will call it a backwater, a side-show? The great cathedrals from Venice to Paris were built; the great universities from Bologna to Oxford were established; permanent bridges across great rivers were constructed; exploration, serious medicine, weather forecasting began; there was Giotto, and there was Dante; polyphony and counterpoint laid the foundation of great music which, at last, could be written down.
But the greatest event, that would eventually propel Western Civilization to achievements wholly beyond the potential of all others, occurred in 1215. In that year, at Runnymede, the King of England put his seal on the Magna Carta, the great charter of English liberties, providing inspiration, offering hope, rendering assistance to all who desire freedom around the globe. Its expanding circles still determine the lines of scrimmage between those who wish all, and those who wish none to be free.
China and Islam have been, and still are, on the wrong side of that lineup.
Historians have come to see events from the disturbed mind set of Karl Marx, applying various theories and standards which have their roots in the "science" Marx presumed to invent. There is remedy, available at a reasonable price.
For $22, anyone can acquire "Timetables of History," a year-by-year, side-by-side listing of events and people, calling itself "a horizontal linkage." It covers thousands of years. Without offering commentary or taking sides, it simply informs about what happened when and where, as well as developments in religion, philosophy, the arts, the sciences, and in daily life. If it happened in Peking or Marrakesh, it is listed just as if it had happened in London. And that, too, separates Western Civilization from others: important contributions from all sources are recognized and reported.
Why, then, the flurry of misrepresentations? For some, the unprecedented achievement gap between civilizations has become intolerable. Others might think it politically astute to assign extra credits to peoples who crave respect, whether or not earned.
Like all good things, sooner or later Western Civilization, too, will come to an end. While it lasts, though, we ought to enjoy it in good cheer and in good conscience, for we have offered to share it freely with any and all - something the others can't even comprehend, much less emulate.
That is the lesson taught by the Timetables of History.