History Without End: On Reading Purpose Back Into Time

By Stuart WhatleyJune 7, 2013

History Without End: On Reading Purpose Back Into Time

The History of the World by Odd Arne Westad and J. M. Roberts

IN THE LATE TENTH CENTURY, according to legend, Vladimir the Great evaluated the world's primary religions and rejected Islam for its abstention from alcohol. He followed suit with Scandinavian paganism and Western Christianity (the former was going out of style, the latter’s practitioners apparently smelled), settling at last on the Orthodox Christianity of Byzantium. His emissaries had reported back from the Byzantine capital that they “knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on earth there is no such vision nor beauty.” Later, after Vladimir had made the decision, an Orthodox clergyman wrote, “the darkness of idolatry began to leave us, and the dawn of orthodoxy arose.”

By this telling, Vladimir made an inevitable, if glorious choice — an epochal moment from which Russian Orthodox Christians trace their cultural roots. But the historical record is not so clear: there are conflicting accounts as to why it happened when it did. In fact, Russian Christianization should really be viewed as an ambiguous historical event, with manifold factors likely driving Vladimir’s decision, not least among them good old fashion cynicism and realpolitik: he was, it’s worth mentioning, already allied to the Byzantine emperor at the time and engaged to one of his princesses.

John Morris Roberts equitably unpacks both the legend and the cloudy history from which it was born in The History of the World, recently released in its sixth edition by Oxford University Press (with revisions and updates from Odd Arne Westad). Roberts and Westad investigate what still remains an ambiguous historical tableau around Russian Christianization, and do so reliably without a finger on the scale. Westad praises Roberts in his preface for “never making history teleological,” such that “one part of our history points only to one possible outcome.” Teleological thinking ascribes agency to history itself, a logic Roberts clearly rejects.

Teleological thinking, a natural cognitive instinct[1], often fatally traps scholars and laymen alike. In the 19th century, European thinkers like G.W.F. Hegel and many historians, practicing what Herbert Butterfield would refer to as “whiggishness”[2], overtly demonstrated their predilections towards such logic, telling their respective societies they represented a free and enlightened peak on a long march — that they were the apotheosis of world history. Meanwhile, in America, many were channeling ancient biblical teleological threads and embracing manifest destiny with a belief that God chose America to advance “free society” in the New World.

The flaw in this thinking — its blinding chauvinism — became apparent in the 20th century. For his part, H.G. Wells published in 1918 his Outline of History, which chastised the previous century’s historians as “mere contributor[s] of doubtful documents to the broad ensemble.” He wrote his book for a general readership that had witnessed so much violence and privation in the Great War but could make little sense of it because they held a fable version of history “in nationalist blinkers, ignoring every country but their own.” A predecessor to Roberts and Westad, Wells’s was a full world history bold in scope but restrained in its historiographical approach. He wore his limitations on his sleeve and described the Outline as a “book of today — with no pretensions to immortality” which “will in due course follow its earlier editions to the second-hand book-box and the dust-destructor.”[3]

When Wells foresaw the “dust-destructor” for his work and predicted that “more gifted hands with fuller information and ampler means will presently write fresh Outlines,” he was essentially talking about historians like Roberts and Westad. Their work is a reminder that the best history is the kind that avoids reading purpose back into time.


In Roberts’s fifth edition, published in 2002, he labeled the late 20th century an “example of a recurrent phenomenon: a period of turbulent events and kaleidoscopic change.” Among other revisions, he updated his text to focus more on non-European and modern history (though it is still written from a European historical perspective at times, as is perhaps inevitable for a British writer), as well as on women’s historical role, environmental issues and “shifts in the formal and informal basis of the international order.”

In this new edition, Westad picks up the baton where Roberts left off before he died in 2003, telling us that the latest revision is “more than an update; it is a reworking of the text based on new knowledge and new interpretations.” As in previous editions, the text presents new facts alongside what was previously known, and sometimes gives what was previously known new meaning or emphasis. Among other areas, Westad has expanded and reworked the sections on India and China to account for their newly dominant role on the world stage, as well as the sections on the history of technology, science and economics.

But beyond these predictable new foci, what is most valuable about the History of the World’s sixth edition is that it often critically alludes to familiar 21st-century grand theories — about globalization, democracy and geography which, blinkered and vainglorious in their own ways, hark back to those tiresome 19th-century Western fables. This applies particularly to Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukuyama and Jared Diamond, American fellow travelers who have all published books in the past few years that epitomize the thematic overreaches and grand theories Roberts and Westad, like Wells before them, seek to challenge. It is thus worth examining this sixth edition in that light.

Grand theories usually rest on grand omissions that only become clear when contextualized against a full world historical backdrop. For example, in the fifth edition, Roberts challenged Samuel Huntington’s post-Cold War “clash of civilizations” prediction that international conflicts would center increasingly on cultural affiliations, rather than on national loyalties (a view that still obtains in many circles, as one could see in the Fox News coverage following the Boston marathon bombing in April). According to Roberts, Huntington took for granted the inherent complexity and internal divisions of any given “culture,” as well as the continuing strength of nation-states. As the Arab Spring shows, the “Islamic world” is no obelisk of lockstep conformity against the “Western world” just as there is more to New York City than what goes on in Manhattan.

Huntington also took it as given that cultural friction is a rising phenomenon, when if anything, its importance may be in decline. Roberts and Westad revisit this theme in the new edition, noting that, “Clashes of culture are frequent, but were more evidently so in the past […] The great physical, ethnic and linguistic divisions of the past were much harder to overcome than are their equivalents today” due to improved communication technology and increased accessibility to shared ideas and cultural references (e.g. Gangnam Style). In fact, there is reason to believe that nationalism, not culture, will carry on as an increasingly significant world historical force for the foreseeable future: “The nation seems to have been supremely successful in satisfying thirsts other ideological intoxicants cannot reach […] sweeping aside class and religion, giving a sense of meaning and belonging to those who feel adrift in a modernizing world in which older ties have decayed.”

Still, contemporary commentators, such as conventional wisdom sage Thomas Friedman, have syncretized both Huntington’s and Roberts’s views to assert that the nation-state and cultural clashes are on their way out, due to a communication technology revolution. While often rightly mocked for his dogberryism, Friedman remains influential among policymakers and media types, and he has used his books, columns and symposiums over the last decade to, often with more simplicity than elegance, proffer grand theories about modern history and our place in it. His 2005 book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, in which he declares himself a “technological determinist,” is an extended paean to the absolute, progressive power of new technologies, which he believes will steamroll over past historical barriers to inter-civilizational amity (like nationalism) and transform the globe into one big, flat, free-market Elysian field.

After The World is Flat, Friedman would eventually chase his own tail. In his 2008 book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, he continued to dismiss the role of politics in international policymaking and barreled forward with a comprehensive blueprint to develop clean energy at home, called “Code Green.” He believed that by demonstrating American capitalism’s fecundity for new innovations, the US, by way of example, could kick-start an international movement to address climate change — which happens to stem directly from his lauded Industrial and Information Age period of technological advancement (never mind that the US didn’t even sign on to the last international attempt to control CO2 emissions).

Friedman then followed Hot Flat and Crowded with another book in 2011 that all but acknowledged the limitations of setting a global example through technology-driven globalization. In That Used to Be Us he finally addressed the politics of his previous proposals with a prescriptive cocktail of clichés to fix Washington. And now, in 2013, Friedman has put his technological determinist’s hat back on and will host a “global forum” to “explore the complex dynamics of new-world infrastructure, especially the transformative electronic, digital and mobile environment” which has gone from “connected” to “hyperconnected”; from “interconnected” to “interdependent.”

Friedman’s waffling reveals that his deterministic assumptions about history have been painted into a corner. Technological innovation and globalized capitalism have certainly delivered unprecedented prosperity for many, but it is foolhardy to entertain that they all seamlessly propel events in the same direction. In the modern era, inequality has increased drastically, and there is no shortage of geopolitical conflagrations involving all the usual suspects. Moreover, as Roberts and Westad caution, Industrial and Information Age innovations won’t necessarily serve their creators’ preconceived purposes; they’ve wrought “incalculable” change for the modern world, but their long-term implications are “politically and socially neutral or, rather, double-edged.” Or in other words, the same technological advancements that brought us modern medicine have also created weapons of mass destruction; information technology and globalized market innovations, while uniting the world in some ways, have balkanized it in others and furnished governments with greater means and motive to surveil and control their populations.

As the technology researcher Evgeny Morozov points out, one such place to see this is China, where a highly policed form of the internet has not led to Soviet-style collapse or Arab Spring-style uprisings, and in many cases allows for the ruling CCP to more easily disseminate its own propaganda. The same can be said for China’s toxically assertive form of state capitalism, which can be generalized as an ironic mix of two bastardized European ideological imports — Marxism-Leninism and free-market capitalism. While the West celebrates that its form of political organization became the preeminent option worldwide, what it misses is that those adopting its ideas have been able to do so on their own terms and are creating new politico-economic models that will outgrow the West’s and shift the international order's center of gravity. The result is implied in an observation from Roberts and Westad that “the big story of the last fifty years seems to be the gradual transfer of wealth and power from the western to the eastern hemisphere […] This is not something new in human history.”


Regardless of what path developing states like China choose, there will always be dormant, native forces brewing under the surface (as well as the unpredictable possibility for human caprice). Some of those forces may be in contradiction to any modern transformation, but others could be seen to align. The latter is a convenient fact for Huntington’s mentee Francis Fukuyama, a prolific scholar of international affairs whose work stands in stark contrast to Westad and Roberts. Roberts’s and Westad’s humbler historical reading implies that, in the grand scheme, liberal democracy is still a relatively new phenomenon whose endurance or long-term stability is by no means confirmed. In contrast Fukuyama, perhaps one of the most recognizable teleological thinkers today, picked up where Hegel left off, arguing that history was progressing towards a natural teleological end. His latest project centers on the phenomenology of modern civilization itself, and the factors that have determined states’ rise and fall since the dawn of mankind. Fukuyama’s 2011 book, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, the first of two volumes with the second yet to come, is a historical scavenger hunt for the building blocks of what today are known as Western liberal democracy’s foundational political institutions. The Origins is not so much a parable of progress as a bildungsroman for one particular brand of progress, namely 21st-century American.

In The Origins, Fukuyama is at least on the same page as Roberts and Westad in recognizing that, as they put it, “even the most recent history has still to be seen in the light of older history.” He begins with the earliest humans, hunter-gatherers who roamed in small bands organized around shared kinship, then traverses through various stages of imperial China, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and sundry other societies on his way to the French Revolution — all the while identifying the genetic markers in each specially selected civilization that indicate its latent potential for liberal democracy. The view of political history espoused is Darwinian, whereby the institutions “best suited to the physical and social environment survive and proliferate.” Of course, though it should not be caricatured as un-nuanced, Fukuyama’s work since his 1992 blockbuster, The End of History and the Last Man, has always presumed that Western-style liberal democracy is the most effective form of political organization for any society (which is not to say it is not the most just). Or in other words, he fancies a dialectical explanation for why, in the latter half of the 20th century, it became the “default” option globally; in his latest work, he continues to beg the question of liberal democracy’s inherent, enduring political stability.

There is much to be said for viewing political institutions’ history through a Darwinian framework; it is a valid metaphor, and Fukuyama is hardly the first to use it. But it may be even more appropriate than he cares to admit.[4] Fukuyama traces modern political arrangements’ genealogy to “broader patterns of political development” in the ancient past, but he must do so by only selecting those ancient societies where his hypothesis obtains. He seeks to give an “account of where basic political institutions came from in societies that now take them for granted,” but what about the institutions that upheld — sometimes for centuries — societies that no longer exist at all? By limiting his scope not to an open-ended past, but to only the past that is still familiar to us today, Fukuyama’s approach departs from Darwinian historical analysis towards what begins to resemble a retrospective teleology, the unsubtle implication of which is that modern liberal democracy isn’t only the best option, it was inevitable from the beginning. We are presented with a smattering of historical signposts that are only meaningful when they’re leading to that one possible destination.


Ironically, some of Fukuyama’s recent nation-building work takes place in Papua New Guinea, a primary setting of Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? While the former seeks to furnish non-state societies with a Western-style state, the latter explores how that presumptuous generosity might in some way be returned. Diamond is most well known for his popular 1997 work of geographical determinism, Guns, Germs and Steel, in which he explained European global dominance over the last 500 years using a strictly environmental/geographical framework. Through ancient luck of the draw, certain civilizations’ access to arable land and domesticable beasts of burden set them on a historical trajectory which, thousands of years later, led to the superior weaponry and formidable immune systems preconditional to world supremacy.

Diamond’s easy explanation for world history has proven controversial, and it may say more as an example of what’s intellectually vogue than sound. Similar to Fukuyama’s approach, he relies on a necessarily selective historical reading with a clear goal in mind, reading that goal, and its fulfillment, back into history. Certainly geographical conditions influence all civilizations’ rise and fall, but just because they set the stage does not mean they’ve written the script. (Diamond does make passing mention of other factors’ importance, but if he were to give them due credit, his own argument would be reduced to a statement of the obvious.)

For their part, Roberts and Westad warn that it is “unwise to dogmatize about civilization appearing in any standard way in different places.” Nor should one dogmatize about civilizations that are well past infancy. Did the Mayans fall to Spanish guns, germs and steel, or did guns, germs and steel merely fluff the pillows on an already made bed of political disintegration? According to Roberts and Westad, “The Spaniards were only in the most formal sense the destroyers of Maya civilization. It had already collapsed from within by the time they arrived.”

To its credit, The World Until Yesterday is in many ways a modest step back from the tendentious assertion of Guns, Germs and Steel. But, against Roberts’s and Westad’s warning, a similar mode of thinking is still evident. In the end, rather than spotlight certain traditional societies’ more radical notions of what it is to be human, most of the insights Diamond gleans from his observations are merely old gems of common sense. We’re told to eat healthier and exercise, to value the wisdom of the elderly and to teach our children multiple languages. But it seems the more interesting lessons are embedded in these peoples’ sense of history itself. Many traditional societies do not see history as an upward march of “progress,” but rather as a flat continuum to be maintained — they consider it their purpose to protect and cherish the world that provides for life itself. Nevertheless, despite a lack of imagination, Diamond’s heart is in the right place, and he opens the door for others to follow with deeper questions.


The unintended lesson from contemporary fabulists is that, rather than mining history to understand and justify our empyrean place in it, we should try mining our own assumptions to ask ourselves if we’ve taken that history for granted.

There is a certain navel-gazing involved with looking at the past: we cannot look to it without looking at ourselves, contextualizing our own place and time. In the Hegelian terms that still influence so much contemporary thinking on this topic, self-consciousness is only possible with a foil upon which to contrast oneself. We ask ourselves what mile marker we represent on the long road of history, and where do we compare to others who have done the same before. Are we on a decline, or an ascent?

Many ancient societies held that it was the former. The basis of Confucianism, and an enduring theme in Chinese history up until the modern era, is the belief in, as Roberts and Westad describe it, a “mythical age when each man knew his place and did his duty.” One can only find wisdom and bring goodness to one’s own historical time by studying this ancestral past. Likewise, in Homer’s and Hesiod’s Greece, the glory days were generally believed to be behind them. The Golden Age heroes of the Iliad, long departed, are depicted as supermen, as noble as they are cunning, and capable of lifting boulders 20 modern men could not budge.

Full world histories are the stuff of much criticism because they are by necessity superficial — they will always be boiled down into a concentrated reduction. But their paramount advantage is the larger context they lend to any given age. Westad and Roberts observe that, “A spreading and unquestioning, not very reflective, acceptance that human problems are in principle manageable […] is a major psychological transformation” of the modern era. Indeed, if civilization itself is 13,000 years old, the psychological transformation of our time — and the factors preluding it — seems very new indeed. As the past shows, it may even be cyclic — and fleeting. [5]

Of course, it’s possible we could have never ended up with Homer or Hesiod or any of the other works that now comprise the foundation of the Western canon in the first place. In fact what is now labeled the Western tradition only survived thanks to Islamic intellectual preservationists to the east, who enjoyed their own golden age while the West spent a millennium in mewling ignorance. What appears in retrospect to be a seamless continuity in fact had bends and breaks.

Deterministic and teleological historiography overlooks more than just the fact that history did not have to unfold the way it did; it also fails to recognize that history does not have to mean what it did. It’s easy to make sense of it all through simple, meaningful patterns, and it’s convenient to limn historical forces that appear predictable with hindsight. But while these forces may set the bounds for any historical narrative, they cannot propel it, just as the physical constants of the material universe that allow for life do not dictate what we do with it (or what we have for breakfast, for that matter). It’s nice to think our ideas and way of life reign because they are normatively superior, or as some still continue to claim, because of “destiny” or divine blessing. But if we’re honest about it, we should admit it probably has more to do with our ability to unilaterally project power, of both the hard and soft variety.

As Roberts and Westad note, the present arrangement will not continue to go unrivaled forever. During that previous era of historical fables, Ralph Waldo Emerson was one figure who bucked the general trend, recognizing that “all history becomes subjective […] there is no history, only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself — must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know.” Rejecting the popular fable, he considered the history of his day nothing more than an “old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes […] The idiot, the Indian, the child and unschooled farmer’s boy stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissector or the antiquary.”

In many ways he was right. When we remove the accidents, unintended consequences and capricious human agency from our telling of history — the Vladimirs and all other men and women of power — we remove it from our own worldview as well, permitting complacency and a comfortable assumption that we’re just where we’re supposed to be and proceeding as planned. But history won’t ever follow the rules we set. When Roberts considered future events in the very first edition of his History, he wisely counseled, “We shall always find what happens both more, and less, surprising than we expect.”

Indeed, rather than any contemporary prognosticator, history will most likely continue to follow the path inlaid by Ovid: a series of peripatetic transformations, sometimes tragic, sometimes outrageous, sometimes divine, but always eminently richer and more interesting than we would have conceived of ourselves.


[1] See Deborah Kelemen’s April 2009 study, “The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults,” in Cognition.

[2] Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, first published in 1931, addressed “the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present”; and the “limits of history as a study, and particularly the attempt of the whig writers to gain from it a finality that it cannot give.”

[3] Indeed, between its initial drafting in 1918 and its last edition in 1971, the Outline was revised and reissued over seven times (this work was carried out by the historian Raymond Postgate in later editions after Wells’ death). Each new edition accounted for new findings in fields ranging from archaeology to psychology, and for general shifts in public sentiments about the meaning of past events. Which is to say, the author and his editors subscribed not to history as fabulism, but rather to history as inquiry—a return to the word’s truer, ancient meaning from the Greek historia.

[4] One of the great ironies of Darwinism is the emergence of species that, at first glance, appear to defy sound explanation. Products of sexual selection, such as the peacock, are burdened with extravagant features that do them no favors against predators, but which are so effective in attracting a mate and conceiving the next generation that they grow increasingly pronounced over time. Capitalism, for example, is a notable adapted trait of modern liberal democracy, and that the two work hand in glove is often taken as a given. Certainly that partnership’s track record for delivering material benefits cannot be denied, but neither can its rapaciousness. The recurring rise of plutocracies in the modern era — a label increasingly appropriate for the United States — may suggest that the two are not so natural a long-term fit as they seem.

[5] The Greeks of Homer and Hesiod did not sustain their particular nostalgia forever. With Aeschylus in the 5th century BC we see their own psychological transformation, wherein they “suffered into truth” to what they saw as a new golden age. As Robert Fagles and W.B Stanford describe it, in the Oresteia men celebrated their “emergence from the darkness to the light, from the tribe to the aristocracy to the democratic state.” After devastating trials and tribulations, Athena transforms the brutal Furies of the old, savage world into the just Eumenides. All is well, for a time, but as we’re reminded, it didn’t last: “Civilization rises from barbarity and it is perishable, its progress is the fruit of human struggle, a new barbarity may engulf the future.”


Stuart Whatley's writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, TruthDig, The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The American Prospect, Free Inquiry, Huffington magazine and other outlets.

LARB Contributor

Stuart Whatley is a senior editor at Project Syndicate. He has written for CNN, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Baffler, The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The American Prospect, Free Inquiry, and other outlets.


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