A close examination of the world's societies, from the maritime civilizations of the Polynesians to the Dawada people of the Sahara. Rather than looking to the familiar spots of Rome and Paris, Fernadez-Armesto takes us to unfamiliar territories to redifine our understanding of what it is to be civilized. Filled with anecdotal historical tales, shrewd insights and engaging arguments, this book concludes that societies can be judged on how civilized they are by investigating their interaction with their own environment.
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"Civilization" is a tricky term, one that means many things to many people. For some, it denotes great buildings, canals, codes of law; for others, it offers a contrast between one group and another, with the advantage always going to the more "civilized" bunch against the "barbaric," "savage," or "primitive."
All such distinctions, writes Oxford University historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, are arbitrary and laden with subjective value; they speak to unscientific notions of progress, to hidden agendas. What matters, he continues, is the extent to which a culture has developed means to separate itself from nature: "Civilization makes its own habitat. It is civilized in direct proportion to its distance, its difference from the unmodified natural environment." A culture such as the ancient Han Chinese, the medieval highland Maya, or the Renaissance Venetian, then, is highly civilized inasmuch as its members dammed and diverted rivers, drained lakes, stripped forests, and built monumental structures to celebrate their achievements; people content or resigned to "live off the product and inhabit the spaces nature gives them" are markedly less so by virtue of that accommodation.
No culture, Fernández-Armesto writes, is inherently exempt from becoming civilized; nor, he adds, does "civilized" equate to "good." In exploring history as a branch of historical ecology, he sometimes abandons his thesis, intriguing and provocative as it is, to engage in a wide-ranging survey of the world past reminiscent of (but much better-written than) Toynbee and Durant, touching on the ancient Greeks here, the herding peoples of the African savanna and Central Asia there, the Moundbuilders of prehistoric North America and the hunting peoples of the Arctic there. Unlike many standard textbooks, his narrative manages to offer something new wherever he turns. Allusive and learned, his book repays close reading--and should inspire plenty of argument along the way. -- Gregory McNameeAbout the Author:
Felipe Fernandez Armesto has been a member of the Faculty of Modern History at Oxford University since 1983, was a Fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study for 1999/2000 and is currently Union Pacific Visiting Professor at the University of Minnesota. Honours won for his work on maritime and colonial history include the Caird Medal of the National Maritime Museum in 1997 and the John Carter Brown Medal in 1999. He is the author of numerous books, most notably Millenium: A History of the last Thousand Years (1995).
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