“Sic omnia fatis in peius ruere ac retro sublapsa referre.”
(All mortal things are subject to decay.)

This is a handsome book in all pertinent respects. It is stately of subject, nicely written, well-edited, and eye-winning in cover—especially the jacket. Roberts, a well-known British historian and university chancellor, has written the book, we are told, to accompany a 13-part television series which will bear the same title. Given the BBC genius for dramatic, especially historical, presentations, Americans should be in for another lustrous television experience, one to match, let us hope, Lord Clark’s now almost legendary Civilization.

All the familiar, traditional settings, personages, and events are found in the book, the ones the moderately educated viewers will look forward to from the very beginning of the series: Rome’s decline and fall; the rise of Christianity; Charlemagne’s crowning; 1066; the repulse of Islam in time’s nick; the slumbering Middle Ages; the redemption of the West by the Renaissance (here denoted “New Age”); the blessed Enlightenment with its gifts of freedom, justice, democracy, and other good things; Western expansion to the outermost limits, imperialism, colonialism, Americanism, and industrialism; and the never-ending piling up of technological marvels and, with these, of envies, resentments, jealousies, alienations, anxieties in a mass and on a scale never before seen in the world.

Without doubt, the television viewers will watch the old familiar pageant unfolding on the screen with the kind of pleasure that comes with putting on a comfortable sweater or sensible shoes. The 13 episodes will come and pass too quickly; left will be wishes that more had been shown on the Christians battling the Saracens, the Wars of the Roses, the tournaments, Henry VIII’s wives and their decapitations, the grave philosophes planning the world’s salvation from Christianity, Luther nailing his theses up on the church door, Puritans looking the part, Galileo liberating mankind from darkness and ending once and for all the hive of superstitions that was the Middle Ages, the colorful Renaissance ushering in true rationalism for the , first time in human history, and so on, not forgetting of course the two world wars of this century and the triumph of liberalism.

It’s hard to know how to react to a book of this sort. Reviewing the Lord’s Prayer would be easier. Of course we cherish our heritage, as the phrase has it, and of course we believe in tradition and in the sanctity of the past. But in the interest of the West’s true riches, won’t some kindly historian come along one of these days and chin himself on the edge of his fur-lined rut, look out on a different world, and then return to his desk to real work instead of the inditing once again of the old familiar epic: first this, and then, and then, and then . . . The format was old when “Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre” and from the beginning to the present moment has been better adapted to the telling of sad stories of the death of kings than to the kind of creative use of the past that our epoch and our people so badly need—indeed that all epochs and peoples have needed. Sometimes I wonder which is really worse: teaching no history in the schools or teaching history in the style of Little Red Riding Hood. If the child reaches an age when he is no longer enchanted by Cinderella, can the good old Western pageant be far behind?

The form seems to invite, to stimulate and restimulate, recourse to the hoary conventionalities: those particularly regarding Christianity, the medieval era, the so-called “new age,” the Enlightenment, and so on. One would never guess from Roberts’ book the historical inseparability of Christianity and the West—for good or ill— right down to the West’s current confrontation of the Third World. Closely associated with Christianity is and has been the West’s long infatuation with collective progress, or the myths of progress, at least. Roberts deigns to dip his little finger in powerful currents of Judaic messianism, Greek developmentalism, and Augustinian historical determinism, which so many specialists have demonstrated during recent years to be the vital underpinnings of the Western idea of progress, but he is quick to retreat and to resume the comforts of the rationalist’s certainty that a conception of progress is as modern as democracy, populism, and egalitarianism. What has given Christianity its distinctiveness and, most of the time, its temporal suzerainty in the world is precisely its powerful conviction, formulated by Augustine in The City of God, that it is the vanguard of an earthly progression, at once historical and transhistorical, to eventual perfection that will embrace the entire human race.

The author is wise enough to avoid the worst conceits and fancies about the Renaissance, that is, the “New Age” by which it was known to the Italian humanists of the Quattrocento and now to moderns grown weary of the thought of “rebirth.” But one wouldn’t guess from his account that Burkhardt’s fabled epoch, so far from being a great burst of a new reason, was in truth one of the world’s more notable morasses of the occult, the demonic, the narcissistic, and the subjective, in many respects a suddenly raised barrier to development of the science and technology that had begun so promisingly in the 12th and 13th centuries. From the great pioneering researches of Pierre Duhem down to more recent historians of science, it has been evident that, as Herbert Butterfield has put it, the whole Renaissance could have been put in oblivion without affecting in one degree the development of science and technology in the West. It was no spirit of modernity that drove the Galileos, Newtons, and Boyles to their great works; it was instead a persistence of incentives and aspirations which had also driven Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste.

What I am saying is, if we must follow our forefathers—ever since Thucydides—in penning unitary and unilinear narratives, let us at least clean up the epic from time to time and rid the story line of some of the modernist superstitions about the philosophy of progress, the nature of medieval civilization, the Enlightenment, and so on. If it is the conventional, heavily cliched, pageant of the West the reader wants, he will get it here in well-edited, well-written form in Professor Roberts’ accompaniment to the television series. But that, sadly, is just about it.


[The Triumph of the West: The Origins, Rise, and Legacy of Western CiviUzation, by J.M. Roberts (Boston: Little, Brown) $19.95]