The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilization to the Eve of the Twenty-first Century by David Fromkin, Knopf, 253 pp., $25.00
January 24, 1999        

To my knowledge, Wall Street hedge-fund managers cannot take credit for very many contributions (non-financial, that is) to culture. This book, however, is one of them. David Fromkin, a distinguished Boston University historian, was only looking for investment advice. But the man from Wall Street was hungry for wisdom. When he learned his prospective client’s profession, he asked earnestly: “Can you tell the story of humanity in the universe and make it whole?” The challenge caught Fromkin’s imagination; “The Way of the World” is the result.

It is an urbane, sensible, and – notwithstanding the subtitle – not excessively ambitious book: not a gallop but a stroll, through mostly familiar territory, toward not very startling conclusions. But there’s pleasure in the mellow cadences and the occasional piquant detail.

The first step toward civilization, Fromkin writes, was “the giant step from merely living together to working together.” Nearly all primates and many non-primates live in groups, and some have evolved a rudimentary division of labor. But something made possible an ascending spiral of interactivity and organizational complexity among humans, beginning around 100,000 BC. That something was probably language, whose origin remains a prime evolutionary mystery.

The next step was agriculture. Roughly 10,000 years ago, shortly after the last Ice Age ended, “humans first grasped the connection between seeds and plants.” Equally fateful was the invention of irrigation by the Sumerians, a now-vanished people living in what is today southern Iraq. Irrigation made possible an agricultural surplus, which in turn made possible the first cities. From that, everything followed. “The agricultural-urban revolution … was one of the two great revolutions humans have made in their condition. The other is the continuing industrial-scientific-technological revolution of modern times.”

The causes and implications of that industrial-scientific-technological revolution are Fromkin’s main theme; but first the book proceeds, in leisurely fashion, to describe the earliest appearance of moral thought and the earliest aspirations to world order. The sixth century BC was, it seems, a philosophical watershed: Zoroastrianism in Iran, Buddhism and Jainism in India, Taoism and Confucianism in China, much of the Hebrew bible, and Pythagoreanism in Greece all date from this fertile period. Largely independent of one another, each sought to articulate or criticize age-old traditions, an attempt made possible by the invention of writing a thousand years earlier. Why this simultaneous efflorescence of moral speculation occurred when it did is, Fromkin acknowledges, “among history’s greatest mysteries.”

The Macedonian and Roman empires both, one briefly and one lengthily, ruled most of the then-known world. The charismatic Alexander the Great concluded his ten-year-long military campaign with a famous (but possibly mythical) prayer for world peace. The more sobersided Romans put their faith in public law and civil engineering. Their long imperium impressed the ideal of world government on the European mind, finding an echo in medieval Christendom, the concert of feudal rulers presided over by the Pope.

What seems to have launched the industrial-scientific-technological revolution was, once again, improvements in agriculture: a new and more efficient plow, horse collar, windmill, etc. Agricultural surpluses again led to civilizational advances, this time in the form of humanism, an enhanced sense of human capacities, and secularism, the increasing power and legitimacy of non-religious authorities. Surpluses meant that Europe could produce for export, enabling the rise of global trade. To improve shipbuilding, navigation, and armaments, secular rulers enthusiastically supported technical education. The resulting knowledge explosion was, in effect, the birth of the modern world.

Fromkin shepherds the reader through various phases of the grand narrative of modernity: the European voyages of conquest and settlement; the industrial revolution and the advent of mass production; and most significantly, the founding and maturing of the supremely modern nation, the United States. Science, rationality, and individualism – the formula of modernity – presided over this country’s birth. At the end of our century of hot and cold war, Fromkin argues, it is the only civilizational formula left. In the essential respects, America is virtually every other country’s ideal. In this sense, whatever country may become the richest or most powerful, the twenty-first will be another American Century.

This is not, however, a triumphalist vision. As Fromkin points out, the fact that there is no viable alternative to pluralist democracy at present does not mean that pluralist democracy is itself bound to remain viable indefinitely. Unlike pre-modern or totalitarian societies, which could “provide a purpose in group solidarity for lives lacking [a] sense of meaning,” liberal capitalism brings its citizens together only fleetingly, in the marketplace, leaving them otherwise to “develop their own faith individually, define their own purposes individually, find for themselves the meaning of existence individually.” This is something still comparatively new in history, and not cause for unqualified optimism. “While the modernizing revolution leads humanity on to ever greater unity, it also leads in the opposite direction by destroying social cohesion and stability. Paradoxically, two of the major trends in the modern world are the objective need for concentration of power to deal with the global economy and the global environment, and the diffusion of power that results when the glue holding societies together grows too thin. The clash of these two principles seems likely to be a theme of the next century, and perhaps of the next millennium.”

It is difficult to disagree with so cautious and balanced an assessment as Fromkin’s. But it’s not easy to derive much illumination or stimulus from it, either. “The Way of the World” is worldly, civilized, genial. Perhaps too genial – it sometimes verges on the bland. There is as much intellectual excitement in many a paragraph of H.G. Wells, or even of Eric Hobsbawm, as in a whole chapter of Fromkin. This is undoubtedly a superb outline of history for busy Wall Street hedge-fund managers and other Masters of the Universe. Those with more time or taste for intellectual adventure may want to look for a more demanding guide.