The World Should Raise Doubts About Human Progress - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The World Should Raise Doubts About Human Progress

The World: A Family History
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
(Knopf, 1,344 pages, $45)

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book The World: A Family History, which will be released on May 16, is a catalog of moral, sexual, and political depravity, corruption, sadism, savagery, plunder, conquest, and atrocities committed by political leaders from ancient times to the present. Montefiore surveys the human drama from the House of Sargon of the Akkadian Empire in 2200s B.C.; the Egyptian and Nubian pharaohs; the rulers of the Persian Empire; Alexander the Great of Macedon; Athens and Sparta on the Peloponnese; Selukos in India; the Qin in China; Rome’s Caesars; Goths, Vandals, Huns, and Vikings; Charlemagne and Byzantine rulers; the Turks, Genghis Khan and his successors of the Eurasian steppe; the Hohenstaufens, Medieval and Renaissance popes and Medicis and Borgias in Italy; England’s Tudors and Stuarts; France’s Bourbons and Bonapartes; the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs; Latin America’s chieftains and military despots; Prussia’s and Germany’s Hohenzollerns and Nazis; Africa’s warrior tribes and tyrants; Russia’s Romanovs, Bolsheviks, and post–Cold War gangsters like Vladimir Putin; Japan’s militarists; America’s ethnic cleansers, slave masters, robber barons, and political dynasties; to China’s warlords and communists, including today’s Xi Jinping.

Despite varied cultures and languages and histories, there are characteristics common to most of the political leaders and families that Montefiore surveys across four millennia: unbounded ambition, greed, sexual license, deception, callousness, coarseness, and an unquenchable thirst for power and privilege. This matters because though history is not biography, it is, as Montefiore explains, made by “the interplay of ideas, institutions and geopolitics,” and “it is personalities who roll the dice.”

But human nature did not change. The urge for power never went away.

Some of the constants over the course of human history include wars, slavery, plagues, religious disputes, ideologies, and political conflicts. Advances in knowledge, science, and technology produced a mirage of progress and the “end of history,” but alas history is made of sterner stuff. All of the great plans and ideas to reshape humans and human nature have died on battlefields, at the guillotine, in concentration camps and gulags, in state-induced famines, and in jihadist terror. Beginning in the late 18th century, secular faiths have caused more destruction than religious conflicts. Science and technology expanded the scope of political ambition and provided leaders with greater ability to exercise control over their subjects and people. Living was made easier and more enjoyable, and science and technology and widespread education fueled the utopian dreams of the ideologists.

But human nature did not change. The urge for power never went away. The same basic human urges that motivated Alexander and Caesar, Charlemagne and Genghis Khan, the Borgias, the Medicis, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Romanovs, Hapsburgs, and Hohenzollerns also motivated to varying degrees the Roosevelts, Kennedys, and Bushes, and today motivate Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping.

Of course, different cultures with different ideas and institutions can and have shaped and channeled ambitious men and women in different ways. Political leaders in democracies and republics are more constrained by the political ideas and institutions that have shaped their lives and that limit their ambitions. Sometimes religion has played a role in reinforcing those intellectual and institutional constraints. But even the most idealistic political leaders in democratic nations have enslaved other human beings, pursued sexual conquests, engaged in financial corruption, ethnically cleansed sought-after territories, ordered the mass bombings of innocents, and used the coercive power of the state to destroy political opponents. Great Britain’s empire was not achieved by adhering to Biblical precepts. America’s Manifest Destiny and its overseas empire were not achieved by goodwill.

Montefiore’s political families — kings, queens, princes, princesses, sultans, sheikhs, shahs, emperors, empresses, popes, cardinals, commissars, fuhrers, prime ministers, presidents — committed and/or ordered murders, genocides, fratricides, matricides, rapes, torture, and other atrocities. Montefiore describes his book as a compendium of “cruelty upon cruelty, folly upon folly, eruptions, massacres, famines, pandemics, and pollutions.” History, he writes, “is not just a march of progress but also a stuttering spasm of contingencies.” And further, history is “a struggle not just between clashing states and ideologies but between contrasting facets of human nature.” Humans, he writes, are complicated, flawed, and sometimes inspiring — a mix of good and evil and somewhere in between. Yet Montefiore’s emphasis is on the negative side of human nature — perhaps because it is the most prominent and most consequential. The number of individual lives throughout history who have been touched by saints pales in comparison to number of people affected by sinners.

Montefiore’s world history comes at a timely moment. The world is still suffering from a global pandemic, just as it did during the Peloponnesian War, in Europe in the 14th century, and after World War I. Russians and Ukrainians are killing each other by the tens of thousands in Eastern Europe — the “bloodlands” of the mid-20th century. The sordid savagery of the ancients, of Rome, of the Eurasian steppe, of the Dark Ages, of the Napoleonic Wars, and the First and Second World Wars echoes today in Ukraine. And storm clouds are gathering in the western Pacific, just as they did in the 1930s. Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” looks an awful lot like Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Montefiore notes in his conclusion that for a time we forgot history. He calls the years of Cold War and America’s post-Cold War unipolar moment a “Seventy-Year Peace,” which led at least one prominent observer to proclaim the “end of history” and another writer to proclaim the end of great power wars. But the Korean and Vietnam wars were fought during that “peace.” The world came close to nuclear war at least twice during that “peace.” The Middle East saw at least six wars during that “peace.” And while it is true that the great powers did not directly clash during that time, they did fight each other in proxy wars and engaged in a costly arms race — as they are doing today.

Montefiore’s world history synthesizes the tragedy of the human drama across 4,000 years. It confirms the fallen nature of mankind, yet provides a glimmer of hope because even as it reveals “our limitless ability to destroy,” it also shows “our ingenious ability to recover.”


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