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Cultures of the West: A History, Volume 1: To 1750, 3rd Edition
Authors: by Clifford R. Backman (Author)
Cultures of the West: A History, Third Edition, focuses on the ways in which the major ideas and passions of Western culture developed, internally, and how they interacted with the broader world–for good and for ill. The development of such key ideas as religion, science, and philosophy form the central narrative of this book. Cultures of the West stands apart from other textbooks in a variety of ways, the first being thematic unity. What did people think and believe, throughout our history, about human nature, the right way to live, God, the best forms of government, or the meaning of human life? Rather than maintaining a single interpretive stance, author Clifford R. Backman relies upon a consistent set of questions: What did people think and feel throughout the centuries about politics, science, religion, and sex? How did they come to their positions regarding the right way to live? Backman’s many years of experience in the classroom have informed his approach–students respond to engaging questions more than they are inspired by facts.
This new edition of Cultures of the West has given me the chance to correct a few minor errors, to connect with some new friends, and both to broaden the scope and sharpen the focus of the text. As several reviewers noted, the previous versions of this book paid too little attention to Eastern Europe, a lacuna I hope I have adequately filled. But as this was already a long book I hesitated to make it even longer, and so I decided that for every page I added to the text on Eastern Europe I would trim away a page from Western Europe and the Islamic world.
These cuts have been many and small rather than few and severe; most readers familiar with the previous editions will hardly notice them. Moreover, in order to make room for an additional chapter on ancient Rome—thereby giving one to the Republic and another to the Empire—I conflated what used to be two chapters on the ancient Near East into a single one. Such compression comes at a cost, of course, but I believe the end result makes it worthwhile.
I wrote this book with a simple goal in mind: to produce the kind of survey text I wished I had read in college. As a latecomer to history, I wondered why the subject I loved was taught via textbooks that were invariably dry and lifeless. People, after all, are enormously interesting, and history is the story of people. So why were so many of the books I was assigned to read tedious?
Part of the problem lay in method. Teaching and writing history is difficult, in large part because of the sheer scope of the enterprise. Most survey texts stress their factual comprehensiveness and strict objectivity of tone. The trouble with this approach is that it too often works only for those few readers who are already true believers in history’s importance and leaves most students yawning in their wake. I prefer a different option—to teach and write history by emphasizing ideas and trends and the values that lay behind them; to engage in the debates of each age rather than to narrate who won them. Students who are eagerly engaged in a subject, and who understand its significance, can then appreciate and remember the details on their own.
This book adopts a thematic approach, but a theme seldom utilized in contemporary histories. While paying due attention to other aspects of Western development, it focuses on what might be called the history of values—that is, on the assumptions that lay behind political and economic developments, behind intellectual and artistic ventures, and behind social trends and countertrends.
Consider, for example, the achievements of the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The advances made in fields like astronomy, chemistry, and medicine did not occur simply because individuals smart enough to figure out new truths happened to come along. William Harvey’s discovery of the human circulatory system was possible only because the culture in which he lived had begun, hesitantly, to accept the dissection of corpses for scientific research. For many centuries, even millennia, before Harvey’s time, cultural and religious taboos had forbidden the accept desecration of bodies. But the era of the Scientific Revolution was also the era of political Absolutism in Europe, a time when prevailing sentiment held that the king should hold unchecked power and authority. Any enemy of the king—for example, anyone convicted of a felony— therefore deserved the ultimate penalty of execution and dissection. No king-worship, no discovery of the circulation of blood. At least not at that time.
A history that emphasizes the development of values runs the risk of distorting the record to some extent, because obviously not every person living at a given time held those values. Medieval Christians did not uniformly hate Jews and Muslims, believe the world was about to end, support the Inquisition, and blindly follow the dictates of the pope. Not every learned man and woman in the eighteenth century was “enlightened” or even wanted to be. The young generation of the 1960s was not composed solely of war protestors, feminist reformers, drug enthusiasts, and rock music lovers. With this important caveat in mind, however, it remains possible to offer general observations about the ideas and values that predominated in any era. This book privileges those sensibilities and views the events of each era in relation to them.