Blogs > Cliopatria > Scott McLemee: Review of Gombrich's A Little History of the World

Oct 30, 2005 4:11 pm


Scott McLemee: Review of Gombrich's A Little History of the World



“Whoever cannot give to himself an adequate account of the past three thousand years,” said Goethe, “remains in darkness, without history, living from day to day.” That is an expression of a bedrock principle of liberal humanism, European-style. It takes the existence of the educated individual as its basic unit of reference — its gold standard. But it also judges the quality of that existence by how much the individual has spent in acquiring a sense of the past. That expenditure also meaans, in effect, going into debt: You’ll never repay everything you owe to previous generations.

That outlook is, when you get right down to it, pretty un-American. It goes against the ideal of unencumbered self-creation that Emerson taught us –- in which we are supposed to throw off the burdens of the past, living always in the vital present. Fortunately, this is not hard to do. The first step is not to learn much history to begin with. (We are good at this.)

Even so, there may be an audience for E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, now available from Yale University Press, 70 years after it was first written. Imagine Goethe giving up the role of sage long enough to become a children’s author and you will have a reasonably good idea of the book’s content. It goes from prehistory up to the end of the (then-recent) Great War, with particular attention to ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the emergence of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.

As for the style ... well, that is something even more remarkable. The tone is wry, at times, without ever being jokey — a kind of light seriousness that is very respectful of its young audience. Each chapter is perfectly calibrated to suit the attention span and cognitive powers of a 10 year-old, without ever giving off a trace of condescension.

The effect, even for an adult reader, is incredibly charming –- and, indeed, instructive, at least for anyone with the occasional gap in that interior timeline. (Quick now: Who were the Hohenzollerns? And no, a vague sense that they were German doesn’t count.)

In his later and better-known role as art historian, Gombrich commanded a really humbling degree of erudition, but always with a certain generosity towards his audience. That combination is very much in evidence throughout his first book – one written in what must have been very trying circumstances....
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