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Cultural History

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World. By Harry Elmer Barnes. New York: Random House. $5.00.

Two years ago Harry Elmer Barnes published a two thousand page book called “The History of Western Civilization.” In between that work and the present “Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World,” the incredible Mr. Barnes has found time for other voluminous works, on economic history and on historiography. When one takes into consideration the vast amount of careful scholarship which goes into these volumes, one’s admiration turns into awe. The book under review shows the same high quality of scholarship and condensation as the previous works. As a short encyclopedia of cultural accomplishments in science, art, and philosophy, it should prove invaluable.

Mr. Barnes, however, attempts to accomplish much more than a presentation of facts in chronological order. He attempts a synthesis and thus an interpretation with a moral. It is here that the work shows its weakness. To illustrate, it is instructive to compare the title, “The History of Western Civilization,” with “An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World.” Plainly this indicates a dichotomy in Mr. Barnes’s mind between civilization and culture: the former book is “institutional history, merely indicating the intellectual and cultural outcome of institutional development”; the latter makes “no effort to present more institutional history than is necessary to understand the trends in thought and culture.” Now of course it is quite impossible to separate institutional from cultural history and make much sense out of either. Mr. Barnes himself has found it impossible; otherwise he would not have tagged cultural developments onto his institutional history, or introduced institutional history as a prelude to trends in thought and the arts. Nevertheless the effort to separate the inseparable renders the ambition of synthesis impossible. If it is true that the rise of humanism, for example, can be understood only in the light of the rise of the middle classes to economic power, it is equally true that Homer’s Iliad exerted a powerful influence over the forms of economic and political institutions in historic Hellas. No doubt the human will and intellect are limited, nay channeled, by the brute facts of the natural environment; but also, without doubt, the available factors which constitute the natural environment are largely determined by the development of human knowledge. Thus, for instance, petroleum, though known to the ancient Persians, was a neutral fact in influencing their economic life. Today petroleum, because of our advance in knowledge, is a dynamic factor in culture. In plain language, civilization and culture do not constitute a mere addition unit, but create a dynamic interplay. Or metaphysically speaking, mind and matter present an impossible confusion if viewed as the two primary elements of the world. There are no sharp lines which can be drawn between the accidental, the traditional, and the thoroughly rational aspects of human history.

This partial failure to present the dynamic interaction between the natural environment, traditional institutions, and the self-determined achievements of the artists and intellectuals, prevents this careful and admirably summarized work from becoming a true synthesis. Had the dynamism of events been understood, it would be impossible for Mr. Barnes to describe Fascism simply as “the application of dictatorship and force to suppress discontent and perpetuate capitalism,” and leave out entirely its cultural origins in late nineteenth-century romanticism. Nor would it be possible to discuss modern psychology without showing its twin roots embedded on the one side in the empiricism of Locke, and on the other in the voluntarism of nineteenth-century philosophy.

A catalogue, or a classification, set up by even so suggestive a thinker as Mr. Barnes, is no substitute for an organically articulated history. It leads too easily to the fallacy of supposing that the evils of society may be destroyed without a destruction of the whole fabric involving the goods as well. The fallacy is well illustrated in the final chapter of this book, which is entitled “A Glimpse at the Future.” Here Mr. Barnes drops all consideration of “cultural history” to indulge in a fairly pessimistic forecast because of the failure of “civilization,” that is, institutions. Warfare, crime, poverty, and sexual maladjustment, in the order named, are listed as the causes tending toward the destruction of civilization. Certainly he realizes that these are not independent of each other, but what apparently he does not consider is the part which cultural history has played in their promotion. As the causes of war we have listed: “economic rivalries, national jealousies, religious hatreds, the pressure of overpopulation, influence of the military class, the influence of profiteers.” But there is no mention of the long line of authors who have glorified war, from Homer and Herodotus to Nietzsche and d’Annunzio, or any realization that this glorification must contain some grain of value worth preserving, however wrongly embodied it be. Thus Mr. Barnes ends his book on the usual liberal and historically unjustifiable simplification which presents Fascism as black, Communism as black with white spots, and democracy as white with a few black spots. However much we may wish to agree that this is good mythology for propaganda, we must reject it as normative, and therefore underived from history—certainly from cultural history. The ending mars an otherwise excellent and convenient summary of the intellectual and artistic achievements of the Western world.


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