The String in the Maze: On What It Means to Be Human

By Zach DorfmanApril 8, 2013

The Undivided Past by David Cannadine

PHILOSOPHERS AND POETS have always known that we contain multitudes. At any given moment of any given day, we conceive of ourselves in vastly different terms, and these conceptions are often irreducibly distinct from each another. Some of the foundational ideas we have about ourselves skirt parallel planes and never meet, receding and irrupting in tandem — akin to the point where the shoreline meets the ocean but never manages to touch it — while others forcefully battle each other for supremacy, with few clear victories and many more wars of attrition. I, for instance, am simultaneously a son, husband, and friend; a New Yorker, American, and Ashkenazi Jew; a political being and a strenuously apolitical one; a manager and a worker (which confounds classic ideas about my class positioning); I am extraordinarily advantaged by global standards (thanks to what has been rightfully called “the birthright lottery”), but significantly less advantaged according to local ones. Moreover, I speak a language (a language, as I am embarrassingly monolingual) that I was born into as part of my inheritance — I had no more choice in the matter than I did in choosing my parents — which is the foundation for a symbolic world that mediates all of my experiences, and in some sense creates them. These sources of the self, intermingling and interpenetrating one another, form a core part of who I feel I am and who others believe I am.

“Plurality,” wrote Hannah Arendt in 1958, “is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.” This single, paradoxical fact — “that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” — governs all others. We are dazzlingly variegated creatures, and the full extent of our diversity, in our beliefs, mores, appearances, and behaviors, is itself beyond human conception, because our inherent transience (we are born and we die) means that no one really knows what humankind is at any given moment. Humanity is a continuum and not a constant.

Yet, striking as this fact is, it is the uniform condition of our plurality that makes human experience human. Our differences do not hermetically seal us from others; they are what make our shared experiences possible, and intelligible. The common threads of humankind only become apparent when transposed against our differences. No human being wants to suffer. All of us desire happiness, or the opportunity for human flourishing (what Aristotle called eudemonia). We all possess the capacity to act as rational beings, and therefore, as Immanuel Kant (and many philosophers after him) argued, are endowed with an inherent worth and dignity. The moral equality of every human being is just as fundamental as the hierarchies or differences that foreground the human condition.

Nevertheless, as David Cannadine argues in his wide-ranging work of historical synthesis, The Undivided Past, human history (and history-writing) has more often been characterized by an emphasis on our divisions than on our commonalities. Worse, these divisions have generally been portrayed as fixed and unchanging — in other words, transhistorical, existing outside of their particular manifestations in certain times and places. For Cannadine, it is the categories of religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization that constitute the core cleavages (falsely) dividing us from one another. These six concepts form the schematic taken up, and eventually ground down, by The Undivided Past. As Cannadine attempts to show, ruptures along these lines only occur under the most exceptional of circumstances. In reality, he argues, human interaction on both a large and small scale is characterized by a complex coexistence, one that is far more salient and enduring than is normally portrayed. 

The Undivided Past is a work of impressive breadth. In fact, the sweeping nature of the book makes a summary critique of it rather difficult, since each chapter functions as a stand-alone account of the history of ideas regarding an entire domain of human experience. From Friedrich Engels to Betty Friedan, Marcus Garvey to John Stuart Mill, and Benedict Anderson to Alfred Toynbee, the book encompasses centuries of thought and many diverse — and often antithetical — perspectives on the core dividing lines for our species. 

In effect, The Undivided Past is an attempt to historicize difference, to dissolve seemingly impermeable boundaries and show how certain “boundary concepts” — like “civilization” or “race” — have been prey to faulty logic, ruinous ideologies, or political cunning. Such ideas are often flimsy and, when subjected to even a modicum of intellectual pressure, can be shown to be incoherent. As Cannadine rightly notes, organizing ideas of this sort can be salutary, and emphasis on our differences benign — for instance, when used to push back against discriminatory racial, national, regional, linguistic, or religious hierarchies, or as a didactic exercise in encouraging group pride in communities burdened by negative stereotyping. But the emphasis on our differences has become so pervasive that it has completely obscured what we all share, which is far greater than what we do not. He sees this focus on our differences stretching from intellectually rarified academic domains all the way “down” to popular culture. (He is right to single out academia: this strategy of endless subdivision is the bread and butter of almost every humanistic discipline, from politics, history, and postcolonial studies, to sociology, economics, and statistics, although their methods vary widely.) The book can thus be read as an attempt to push back against this tendency, to rewrite history from the perspective of what binds us together.

The Undivided Past aims to show that “the most resonant forms of human solidarity,” as Cannadine elegantly puts it, are unstable and often ultimately incoherent. He argues, in other words, that many foundational concepts cannot withstand logical or historical scrutiny, and then proceeds to demolish all the chauvinisms born from overly rigid ideas about human difference. As Cannadine is well aware, the 20th century (and the 19th, for that matter) saw extraordinary advances in human consciousness and technical progress, while also serving as a bloody testament to the destructive power of these forms of “solidarity.” This raises some important questions (unanswered in the book) about the relationship (or lack thereof) between the veracity or philosophical attractiveness of an idea and the efficacy of that idea in the popular imagination. It appears that truth and “progress” can be severed entirely from one another; all too often, historical movements represent a triumph of the will, and not an authentic advance in human knowledge or organization. This is why Don DeLillo was right to observe, rather elegiacally, that “longing on a large scale is what makes history.” Not truth, or beauty, or the invisible arc of the universe bending toward justice — it is often mere belief that moves us, sparking a passion to act, and possibly die, in service of an idea that may become discredited within a generation. The seemingly inevitable repetition of this process in human history is both uplifting (because it points to something indomitable in the spirit of our species) and deeply disturbing (because of the frenzied, unreflective way in which these projects can lead to the doing of great evil).

My sense, however, is that while all of the basic identity-grounding concepts analyzed by Cannadine are less fixed or impermeable than often depicted, some of them are more central to who we are than others, both in terms of their efficacy and their ultimate reality. Even our differences are different. While this complicates Cannadine’s argument somewhat, it doesn’t necessarily run counter to it — it just requires us to examine each of these “forms of solidarity” on their own terms. For instance, as Cannadine notes, gender-based perspectives, for all the good they have contributed, have been “a less cohesive and potent basis for collective identification and mobilization than virtually any other,” while “for much of recorded history” it was religion, and subsequently nationalism, that possessed pride of place, and thus unrivaled explosive power. And in contrast to the concepts of “civilization” and “race,” for instance, it seems clear that religious affiliation is a major constitutive feature of our world, reaching back to our prehistory. So even though intercourse and overlap between religious communities have existed for millennia — and even though these communities contain tremendous internal diversity — there are still relatively discreet groups that we can identify, and whose existence is largely beyond contestation. 

However, while Cannadine gives almost no attention whatsoever to “Eastern” religions in The Undivided Past (he argues that doing so would have caused the book to balloon to an unwieldy size), if he had he would have found much to support his thesis about the mutability of identity. Take, for instance, the case of Hinduism. What is today called “Hinduism” is an amalgamation of a variety of different local religious practices (with the worship of Vishnu and Shiva being predominant, although not exhaustive by any means) that existed across the Indian subcontinent during the British Raj. The actual word “Hindu,” which was popularized by the British in the 17th and 18th centuries, is a corruption of “Sindhu,” the Sindhu being a major river (now known as the Indus River) that traditionally separated the subcontinent from central Asia. Thus something that once referred to all people within a geographic space became a catchall for a tremendous number of religious sects that were defined by what they were not: that is, not Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian. Even though Hinduism presents something of a special case, it undoubtedly exists — as a complex, interconnected set of practices and beliefs — in a way that “race” or “civilization” does not.

For example, Cannadine argues that the concept of rigid racial groups with predefined, innate characteristics, inhabiting vast swaths of the earth (and, of course, of the relative superiority of some groups over others) did not arise until the modern era, and is roughly traceable to 18th-century Europe. In 1735, Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, divided humanity into the categories of “white European, red American, dark Asiatic, and black Negro.” Not too long after that, in 1775, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach invented the term “Caucasian,” in order to identify the ancestors of Western Europeans, who he claimed had originated in the Caucasus region (he also wrote that the Caucasus peoples were the most attractive and intelligent ancestors one could have). Ideology masquerading as science, this concept has caused untold suffering worldwide for hundreds of years. Recent scientific advances confirm the concept of race as incoherent: as Cannadine notes, the Human Genome Project has shown that human beings across “racial groups” possess 99.9 percent genetic similarity, with more variability shown between members of the same group than mean differences between groups. Religion may be a fact of human experience, as it — or the impulse that precedes its formalization — is arguably hardwired into the structure of our consciousness. Race is not; that is, while human beings may always divide themselves in tribalistic ways, some of these divisions possess more empirical reality — are more foundational — than others. In the end, “scientific” racism was anything but.

Ultimately, The Undivided Past serves to warn us about putting too fine a point on our divisions, and that emphasizing what sets us apart from others is both perilous and empirically suspect. Aside from being desirable, this argument benefits from being true: other than the relatively rare cases wherein a society or group is in the throes of a mass delusion or ideological convulsion, we live together in remarkable quotidian harmony. There is, moreover, a case for optimism regarding our common future, as significant evidence exists that we are slowly moving toward a world where there is both more freedom in the aggregate (in the liberal-democratic sense) and less violence (as Steven Pinker argues in his 2012 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature). If this is true, it is perhaps partially driven by the fact that most of us understand, almost at an intuitive level, that our identities are multiple, our commitments are complex, and that this very complexity necessitates an understanding and deep tolerance of one another. The opposite view — that humankind is neatly divisible into rigid and fixed binaries that are largely antagonistic — seems antiquated at best. The people who live by these binaries may be filled with passionate intensity, but their numbers seem pitifully small when compared to humanity as a whole.


But what of the first group — which is the much larger of the two — that knows that the world is not ultimately binary, although it may be characterized, at least provisionally, by a multitude of (unstable and constantly evolving) binaries? This is the more difficult, and I think interesting, question: how can we live together in a world of tremendous, and at times frustrating, pluralism? This difficulty is captured in a famous quote by Edward Gibbon on Roman toleration and disagreement, employed by Cannadine:

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord. 

The tolerant, pluralistic Roman world depended on a harmony that could only be achieved in practice, not in theory. As soon as the reasoning behind each position (that of the people, the philosophers, and the magistrates) is sought, one realizes that they are, in fact, mutually exclusive. Such an anti-foundationalist approach to political or social functioning may be necessary, and even desirable. Describing the drafting process of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights — perhaps the modern world’s greatest monument to cosmopolitan solidarity — the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain quipped that all of the drafters “agree about the rights, but on condition no one asks us why.” Accepting that our differences are provisional is one thing; living together in a pluralistic world overflowing with such differences is another.

The question of how to develop a modus vivendi, or way of living together, in a world characterized by such marked differences has concerned philosophers for a very long time. In our era, this question was most famously taken up by Isaiah Berlin, who focused on the nature and possibility of living with “value pluralism” — that is, a moral universe in which a variety of ideals coexist, but cannot be reduced to one another, or ranked hierarchically, or achieved simultaneously. Moreover, significant and irresolvable tensions may exist within a particular ideal, a distinction that Berlin famously explored while examining the differences between “negative” and “positive” liberty. The tensions within and between these kinds of ideals, which exist within every society, recur on the global level. For instance, in the mid-1950s, in an effort to create an International Bill of Human Rights, the United Nations attempted to draft a treaty that would codify all the different forms of individual and collective rights, and legally bind governments to protect and advance the rights delineated in the treaty. (The UN Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, is also part of the International Bill of Human Rights, but is nonbinding.) But controversy erupted over the different kinds of rights: some were “positive” rights (such as the right to participation in cultural life, the right to adequate housing, and the right to free education), while others were “negative” in nature (such as the right to privacy, the right to freedom of religion, and the right to fair trial). The controversy over these different kinds of rights eventually led to their division into two separate treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Notably, the United States, while ratifying the ICCPR in 1992 (it was signed under President Carter in 1977, even though it was introduced in the UN General Assembly over a decade before that) has not ratified the ICESCR, nor does it appear likely to do so. Disagreements about irreconcilable value structures, and what they ethically require of governments and peoples, are merely deferred — and never solved — by “global governance” institutions such as the United Nations.

Still, overemphasizing our differences leads to a view just as jaundiced as one that dreams of a frictionless, unitary global political order. Imperfect as an institution like the United Nations may be, the world has made unprecedented strides in the last half century toward political integration, and this integration reflects widespread agreement (at least rhetorically) about fundamental, transhistorical human values. The idea of individual, universal human rights, of the self-determination of peoples, of the moral equality of every single human being — such concepts provide a powerful basis for comity, and we should appreciate the existing widespread consensus regarding their import, across language, space, national community, gender, and class. So, too, should we appreciate the powerful reemergence (which is surely not coincidental) of sophisticated theories of moral and political cosmopolitanism, wherein philosophers such as Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Thomas Pogge have taken an ancient idea and approached its challenges with renewed urgency. The very fact that philosophers today can speak of the problem of “global justice,” and have the question taken seriously at face value, says a great deal about moral progress in the last half century. 

This brings us back to The Undivided Past, which never describes a time without divisions, because there never was one, nor will there ever be. There is some unintentional irony in the book’s title, as Cannadine is clearly well aware of the fact that there is no Eden to which we can return, and that the quest for such a state of affairs is not merely quixotic, it is dangerous. All the 20th-century experiments with totalistic politics attest to this fact. In marked contrast, the liberal-democratic impulse is to prefer a messy life to a clean death. 

What the philosophers know, so do the poets. In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy describes a scene where, on a cold night in the Sonoran desert, the main characters in the novel stare into burning coals, disputing the nature of the world. One claims that all things have a predefined shape and purpose, a clear-cut structure. Another disagrees:

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

We imbue the world with much of its meaning, and so it is our responsibility to engage in this process of world-creation wisely. For our species, the 20th century was largely an act of collective self-betrayal. But in our case — humanity’s case — at least, the past, divided as it was, makes no great claim on our future. 


LARB Contributor

Zach Dorfman is senior editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of Carnegie Council. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, The Awl, Dissent, The American Interest, and elsewhere.


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