Roger Osborne: Writes a 500 page history of all of civilization

Historians in the News

For some years now a theatrical troupe called the Reduced Shakespeare Company has made its living performing all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in just over an hour and a half. It’s a highbrow joke. In “Civilization,” Roger Osborne speeds through more than 40,000 years of Western history in just under 500 pages, minus bibliography and index. This is definitely not a joke, although it comes close to being a stunt, an intellectual high-wire act that the author pulls off with deceptive ease.

Is anything missing? Apparently not. Socrates rates a long, considered look, but Mr. Osborne finds room for the lesser-known Cleisthenes. All the major rulers line up in good order, right down to Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Battles and wars, scientists and inventors, artists and tycoons, all get their turn in a smoothly rolling narrative that embraces Michelangelo and Fats Domino, Galileo and Dolly the sheep, the steam engine and the McDonald’s hamburger.

“Civilization” is not a recitation of greatest hits, or a checklist of events and dates. Mr. Osborne, with great skill, ties his disparate topics together into a coherent narrative, as absorbing as any novel, with felicitous turns of phrase, and tidy summations, on virtually every page. Theoretically it should be impossible to describe the life, thought and influence of Thomas Aquinas in less than two pages, but Mr. Osborne does it, showing no signs of strain. It would be hard to imagine a more readable general history of the West that covers so much ground so incisively.

But Mr. Osborne has profound doubts about his subject. His title might well have been followed by a question mark. At every point along the familiar trail of artistic achievement, scientific breakthrough and economic transformation, he stops to probe, often painfully, and to ask awkward questions. ...

As he speeds through the history of the past 20 years, Mr. Osborne goes on something of a rant, teeing off against elitist art, abstract philosophy, the injection of moral categories into foreign policy, privatization of public industries and virtually everything else in sight, including and especially Western rationalism, a guiding light for 2,500 years.

“The fundamental western belief that there are rational ways of organizing the world which will bring benefit to all has been at the root of every human-made catastrophe that has overtaken us,” he writes, “yet many of us still believe that we have a bounden duty to bring our simplistic, universalizing, ‘progressive’ systems of government, economics, education, policing, judiciary and morals to every part of every society on the planet.”

Whew. Only at the end of the book does it become clear that Mr. Osborne has been engaged in a very strange project. While painstakingly reconstructing the imposing, intricate edifice of Western civilization, he has planted a series of explosive charges. And then, when the job is done, he lights the fuses and watches as the entire thing collapses into dust.

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