Barry C. Knowlton: Review of Anthony Pagden's Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West (New York: Random House, 2008)
Ever since the events of September 11, 2001, it has seemed to those who can take an historical view of such things that Herodotus, who wrote the first history in the western tradition about the wars between Greece and Persia, is the beginning of the history we are now living. As Daniel Mendelsohn has pointed out in a recent article in The New Yorker, during the Cold War it seemed that Thucydides was the ancient historian who spoke to the current moment; now Herodotus is the man of the hour. Anthony Pagden begins with The Histories; and endeavors to tell the long history of which it is the beginning. If it does make sense to invoke Herodotus while talking about the current struggle between East and West, it is because there is some historical understanding to be had if only the literate citizenry would read some of the history. Pagden’s book would serve this worthy purpose.
Herodotus wanted, above all, to inquire into why the Greeks and Persians fought each other early in the fifth century B.C.E. The history of this enmity includes the Trojan War, which was for many centuries considered the first war between European and Asian civilizations. The Greeks did come from west of the Hellespont, and Troy did lie to the east of it; but Homer’s Greeks and Trojans are not very culturally different. For Herodotus, an historian rather than a poet, the cultural difference between the Greeks and Persians was an established and significant fact – based on geography, but so historical as to seem natural. Pagden ultimately endorses the standard and still current reading of Herodotus as the historian of the struggle between western freedom and eastern despotism; but from the beginning his account does complicate and destabilize the most obviously oversimplified understandings of this history.
“The terms ‘East and West’ are, of course, ‘Western,’ ” he says; but then adds that it was the Assyrians who first made a distinction between Asia, where the sun rises, and Europe, where the sun sets. And though, according to Pagden, for the Assyrians “there was no natural frontier between the two, and they accorded no particular significance to the distinction,” to this historical reader it begins to cast the difference into the natural rather than the cultural realm, and tends to signify for each side that the other is somehow beyond the pale. A few pages later, Pagden explains that “The English word ‘West’ was originally an adverb of direction,” which “meant, in effect, ‘farther down, farther away.’ ” This makes me think of Herodotus’ attempt, in Book IV of The Histories, to sort out the geography of the continents. There he says that nobody knows what lies north and west of Europe, where we now know England to lie. Herodotus in fact knew much more about Asia than about Europe; but he was trying to sort out not just those continents but Africa as well. This makes Pagden think of the Biblical account of the Flood and its aftermath, in which the sons of Noah go to Asia, Africa, and Europe to repopulate those places with their peoples. So we can see how readily this East/West opposition can be complicated and destabilized, even as we can see how historically persistent it is.
Pagden’s first chapter summarizes the most telling episodes of Herodotus’ Histories, including not only the Battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis, but also the constitutional debate that preceded the accession of Darius to the Persian throne and the deliberations instigated by the Persian King Xerxes prior to his invasion of Greece. Before Darius became king, the Persians considered the constitutional alternatives to monarchy, with one Persian aristocrat, named Otanes, arguing for democracy, or, to use the word Herodotus uses, isonomia, which means equality under the law. Another Persian argues for an aristocratic constitution. Darius, however, makes the case for their sticking with kingship, because that is what the Persians have always done; and then he makes sure that he’s the one who becomes king. Pagden writes that “At this moment in their history, the Persians could have followed the path the Athenians had taken at the end of the sixth century, when Cleisthenes introduced the rule of the majority into Athens. Herodotus, who is writing what amounts to a chronicle of the power of democracy to triumph over monarchy, has given them their chance, but they have turned it down.” Darius’ son Xerxes, having decided to invade Greece and already given the orders for the mustering of an enormous invasion force, rather unaccountably solicits the advice of his court. He wants to invade, but he wants a debate. Mardonius, one of his generals, praises the king and endorses his plan. Artabanus, one of his uncles, is the only other one to speak, and only dares to speak because of his kinship with the king. He points out that in a debate both sides should be heard, and goes on to make a strong case against the invasion. Xerxes responds angrily that if Artabanus had not been his uncle, he would lose his head for speaking his mind. The invasion will go forward, but Artabanus will be left behind with the women. Pagden writes that “Once again reasoned disputation is suppressed by precisely what Otanes had identified as one of monarchy’s greatest weaknesses: the inability of a monarch to listen to the voices of any but those who tell him what he wishes to hear.” Monarchy and conquest are Persian traditions, and Persia must do what its traditions dictate.
The Persian invasion goes forward, and is defeated. In his account of this phase of the struggle, Pagden relies not only on the Histories of Herodotus but also on the Persians of Aeschylus, the tragic dramatist who of course was also a participant in the battles. In the succeeding chapters of narrative and analysis we hear of, and from the lives and writings of Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Plutarch, Augustine and Zoroaster, Avicenna and Averroes, and others. Pagden is at present a distinguished professor of political science and history, but has for many years been an eminent intellectual historian; and so here writes both a political and intellectual history of the 2,500-year struggle, using texts of all sorts for his sources. According to Pagden’s account, the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the Empire acquired by the Roman Republic, were attempts to neutralize the struggle between East and West by subsuming them into the universal rule of, initially, the conqueror, and, eventually, the Emperor. He observes that, while it is easy these days to represent Alexander as a great villain, it is not so easy to dismiss or demonize the historical consequences of the Roman Imperium. He writes that while for the ancient Greeks Persia was the East, for the Romans Greece was eastern; and that the Hellenistic world that evolved from Alexander’s conquests was cosmopolitan. There are many invocations of cosmopolitanism throughout the book, but there is no place where Pagden analyzes that notion. Of course, a history of cosmopolitanism would warrant a volume as long and broad as this one, and would be as timely. It may well be that Pagden does not undertake such an analysis here because he has done so in some of his other writings. But here he might have said more to indicate the significance of cosmopolitanism as a solution to cultural struggle. At this historical moment, western sensibilities are more multicultural than cosmopolitan, and our current multiculturalism is based on a notion of cultural difference that at best tends toward mere commodified variety and at worst leaves no obvious alternative to nihilistic violence. Similarly, there are throughout Pagden’s history incidental mentions of normal and profitable diplomatic and commercial relations between East and West, but no systematic analysis of their historical significance or effects. On the other hand, I found it very interesting and not at all disappointing that Pagden’s analysis on occasion angled toward a revision of Edward Said’s Orientalism and Joseph Bernal’s Black Athena, two influential but controversial accounts of the historical interactions of East and West.
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the universal but competing claims of Christianity and Islam restarted the struggle between East and West. This time, of course, the Empire itself was split between East and West; and at this point in his history Pagden also describes the split within Islam between Shiites and Sunnis, which also fits the East/West pattern. This weaving together of more and less familiar history is of a piece with his account of a 2500-year struggle that has been historically persistent but is not being historiographically oversimplified. In his history of the Muslim East and Christian West, for instance, the Jewish people figure as westernized easterners. The struggle within the West between Catholic and Protestant Christians is seen to be resolved by a tolerance that begins to make the larger struggle asymmetrical. The separation between Church and State develops in the Christian West, but not in the Muslim East. And the apparently outdated Enlightened opinion that despotism was the source of eastern weakness and freedom the source of western strength in fact continues to recast the long-standing East/West opposition as one which is on different levels about religion and politics, tradition and modernity. If it is historiographically useful for Pagden to make and maintain a fairly straightforward distinction between East and West, it is also necessary for him to complicate it whenever historical events and developments don’t simply fit the abstract analytical categories. Of course, where those categories have been historically thought upon and worked into the acts and experiences of actual people, they cease to be mere abstractions. It seems to me that Pagden strikes the right historiographical balance here, and avoids the obvious unhistorical pitfalls. Some of his reviewers, expert in their pertinent specialties, have pointed out various errors and omissions in his narrative or analysis, but this sort of thing is probably inevitable when strictly disciplined sensibilities encounter an attempt to present a synoptic and accessible survey.
In the end, and in the Epilogue, Pagden, writing as a modern, secular westerner, observes that “the Muslim world seems to be unable to reconcile traditional ways of life, traditional religious beliefs, with modern liberal forms of government,” and he asks, “Why?” His answer both begins with, and follows from, Herodotus. “It seems unlikely that the long struggle between East and West is going to end very soon,” he says. “The battle lines drawn during the Persian Wars more than twenty-three centuries ago are still…very much where they were then.” Pagden’s reading of this history should not only enlighten but also inspire his readers; so that, while his book could serve as one that would inform literate citizens of the history they are living, they might also be encouraged to read that history for themselves.
comments powered by Disqus
thierry kauffmann - 3/2/2010
The first name of the author of Black Athena is Martin, not Joseph.
Elliott Aron Green - 8/26/2009
Since I opined in my previous comment that the supposed East-West, Orient-Occident dichotomy is much too much a simplification, not merely overdone but indeed false, I think that it is right to question the credentials of Islam as representative of the East, the Orient.
In fact, the Arab-Muslim conquests wrecked the ancient East, submerging cultures, languages, histories, peoples, whole nations, and so forth. It seems that the Arab/Muslim barbarian conquests were more destructive of ancient Eastern civilization than the Germanic barbarian conquests in Western Europe destroyed the Roman heritage and civilization. So how can one treat Islam as the representative of the very ancient Orient that it did so much to destroy?
Elliott Aron Green - 8/24/2009
the cultural differences alleged between "east" and "west" are much exaggerated. Indeed, classical Greek culture owed much to Egyptian, Phoenician and Israelite/Jewish influences.
Cyrus Gordon was one of those who argued for those influences. More recently, Walter Burkert and Martin West have argued much the same.
Let's look at the Persians of that period. They spoke an Indo-European language, that is, a language belonging to the same broad family of tongues as English, German, Latin, and Greek. Pictures of ancient Persians in R Ghirshman's book, Iran [Penguin 1954], look curiously Germanic. See in Ghirshman pp 25, 32-33.
Meanwhile, Greek city states in Anatolia were dependent on Persia and allied with them in the Persian Wars.
Besides the fact that both "east" and "west" can mean many things culturally and religiously, much too much has been of the East-West dichotomy notion especially in the ancient period.