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the undivided past

Book by David Cannadine

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Different and equal

  • Oct 6, 2013
This set of historical essays takes an interesting approach to a survey of world history through the lens of fissures upon which human history has traditionally been divided:  religion, nation. class, gender, race, and civilization.   Cannadine's conclusion is documented in his title:  the past has not been so divided by these fissures as most historians and political leaders have claimed.

Cannadine starts with the first and the biggest one, religion, quoting Jesus's dividing line statement that He will separate "the sheep from the goats," but concludes that "there are many facets of lives, activities, and identity . . . not significantly informed or explicitly explained. by religious sentiment."   He then proceeds through the rest of the fissures in the order in which they seemed most important in the historical record, outlining their development and showing how despite their occasional value at explaining historical events and trends, they never dominated or inexorably divided the world along homogeneous lines.

Interestingly, civilization as a category of human difference is the most recent, the word itself being rejected as a proper English usage by celebrated English lexicographer Samuel Johnson in 1772, and finding common usage only in the 19th Century.  With "barbarian" a long accepted phrase for the collective groups on the other side of the divide, dating back to the ancient Greeks, it is surprising it took so long to apply a collective noun to the "us" to contrast to the "them" so clearly defined.  Also of interest, Cannadine finds the fissures within the group deeper and more divisive than those between groups.  He notes a similar phenomenon in religion, where fissures between Protestant and Catholic Christians through the centuries were often more virulent and violent than between Christianity and Islam, Judaism, and other religions.

Cannadine does not claim that these dividing lines do not exist, but rather argues that they have never been the sole divider and driver of history.  I was struck by a quote he uses from Robert Knox, a 19th Century proponent that race is "everything", explaining "Race implies difference, difference implies superiority, and superiority leads to predominance.". While Cannadine does not directly challenge Knox on this point and on this page of his essay, I would question whether difference must necessarily imply superiority; might not difference (different races, nations, classes, civilizations) be equal in historical value, political importance, and explanatory power?  When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that "Separate but equal" was inherently discriminatory, that was a statement about what was in the specific context of American race relations, not what must be across all races and nations over the course of history.

As a historical survey, Cannadine's book does not attempt to argue his point through exhaustive numbers or conclusive proof, but rather demonstrate through the weight of historical evidence that these categories of division have at times been important but never decisive in world history.  And he uses his historical essays to suggest that recognition of this fact should give us optimism that different and equal may share time and place and not tear us apart.

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October 06, 2013
Interesting propositions!
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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