Review of “The Undivided Past”

Last week the Washington Post published my review of David Cannadine’s The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences. I enjoyed the book, though while reading it I was reminded of something one of my Wesleyan professors told me long ago. Hayden White joked that historians know they can always say, “things are more complicated than that, aren’t they?” It always sounds like a reasonable question (which means it’s really an empty question). Over the years, I have seen Hayden’s point made time and time again when we academics (not just historians) make similar rhetorical gestures. I play with that empty question in the review below.

Cannadine’s book is very thoughtful and wide-ranging. I’m now making the final revisions on a short book on liberal education — and I know someone will be able to say, “Roth, things are more complicated than that!”


THE UNDIVIDED PAST Humanity Beyond Our Differences By David Cannadine Knopf. 340 pp. $26.95

In the 19th century, historians liked to tell triumphal tales of how people came together in powerful, sometimes glorious ways. Sweeping accounts described how religious groups or nations managed to achieve great things, often after battling other groups. In recent decades, historians have very much taken the opposite tack, showing how groups that we once thought were unified were actually quite divided. Difference, not unity, has been the preferred category for thinking about the past. Triumphal tales of groups coming together have been replaced by studies of how divided we have always been from one another.

David Cannadine, a British historian teaching at Princeton, offers a critique of the major categories historians have used to describe how some human beings are fundamentally different from others. Ideas of religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilization have generated intense feelings of belonging but also feelings of antagonism toward rival groups. Hatred of “the other” is the flip side of the fellow feeling that unites people into these mutually “belligerent collectivities.” Historians have focused on the conflicts that have emerged from this process, on the particular ways in which solidarity has given rise to antagonism toward groups of which one is not a member.

In his wide-ranging and readable new book, “The Undivided Past,” Cannadine shows that a very different story can be told. Rather than underscoring perennial conflicts between mutually exclusive human groups, Cannadine emphasizes how people find ways to get along, to cross borders and to maintain harmonious societies.

He begins with religion, which in many ways seems an unlikely vehicle for showing how people can get along. Given the missionary monotheism of Christianity, a religion that is both exclusive and proselytizing, the stage would seem set for stories of endless strife. But Cannadine finds many examples of pagans and Christians collaborating, and he shows how the “intermingling” of Catholics and Muslims in the late medieval period “transformed Europe’s intellectual landscape and made possible its twelfth-century Renaissance.” He knows well the bloody divisions that swept across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, but he insists that for most ordinary people, religious affiliation did not lead to violent conflict.

Rulers did try to generate national ties that would motivate their subjects to love (or fear) their monarchs and to fight against rival kings and queens. But intense feelings of nationalism, Cannadine shows, were a short-lived late-19th-century phenomenon, not some natural feeling that people are bound to experience. Class solidarity, too, was never the defining figure of identity for most people, even during the heyday of industrialization when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed their theory that class conflict drove history. Sure, there are times when workers hate their bosses, but in any historical period there are “more important forms of human solidarity” than class. History is “more varied and complex than Marx or Engels would ever allow.”

Like any seasoned historian, Cannadine knows that one can always say of another’s account that “things are more complicated than that” as a prelude to offering one’s own. So it goes in “The Undivided Past.” He positions himself as an enemy of generalization, and so he can criticize Marxists for over-emphasizing class and feminists for over-emphasizing gender. Things are more complicated than that — not every worker has experienced oppression at the hands of the bourgeoisie, and not every woman has been stifled by patriarchy. Nations, though important for a brief period of history, were never monolithic entities inspiring universal devotion. Many French and English citizens, for example, had intense local allegiances that trumped national identity. When you look at history afresh while emphasizing different facts, customary generalizations can appear rather arbitrary. Things were more complicated than that.

Cannadine’s most pointed rhetoric comes toward the end, when he examines the idea of mutually antagonistic civilizations — an old notion recently popularized by the political scientist Samuel Huntington. Cannadine shows how “civilization” is intertwined with the idea of barbarism, and he quotes Montaigne’s quip: “Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice.” Huntington saw the world as irrevocably divided into groups whose practices — religions, cultures and ways of life — prevented any meaningful integration. The claim is that Muslim, Eastern and Western civilizations, for example, are fated to be in conflict with one another, but Cannadine can find neither facts to back this up nor a coherent logic to the argument. He is biting in his criticism of neoconservative warmongers who draped themselves in Huntington’s pseudo-academic “findings.” “Of all collective forms of human identity,” Cannadine writes, “civilization is the most nebulous, and it is this very vagueness that makes it at once so appealing and so dangerous.”

Cannadine knows that writers and political leaders can all too easily generate solidarity on the basis of one element of a group’s identity in order to generate antagonism toward those who don’t share that element. His book is a reminder that generalizations based on the supreme importance of any one concept (be it race, class, gender, religion, nation or civilization) are likely to fall apart when closely examined. The “exaggerated insistence on the importance of confrontation and difference . . . misrepresents the nature of the human condition,” he concludes.

In closing, he writes briefly of the “just inheritance of what we have always shared” and urges us “to embrace and celebrate [our] common humanity.” But he doesn’t even try to provide evidence or arguments for what this common humanity might be. After all, that would be to make woolly generalizations; he knows things are more complicated than that.


2 thoughts on “Review of “The Undivided Past”

  1. Dr. Roth:
    I enjoued your review of “The Undivided Past” and look forward to the upcoming Coursera course you are teaching. I have been deeply interested in the development of MOOCs and the current controversies about them and their potential impact upon higher education.

    You have taken a bold step in offering your class (a Wesleyan step), as a University president. Your voice will play an important role in the months and years ahead as teaching and learning technology develops.

    all the best,

    Merle Allshouse

  2. Hi Mr. Roth. I am 76 years old, never been to Weseleyan, and read your review of “The Undivided Past.” I am writing a small volume about the Jewish boxers of South Philadelphia, 1893-1924. In my book I come across divides and undivides. A big subject.
    Probably a big subject in any history since history is the study of divisions.
    I would like to quote a few sentences from your review of the book. In what I am writing I find examples of unity among peoples but the examples are few and far between. On the other side of the seesaw I find a lot of generalities, lots of them. Trying to balance the seesaw so it falls to the ground on one side or the other is giving me fits. In frustration I try and balance it so neither side hits the ground but the person on either end who each weigh the same are not allowed to put their feet on the ground. It is still very hard to balance. As the King of Siam would say, “T’is a puzzlement.”
    Thanks for writing what you have. It is helpful to me.
    Harry D. Boonin

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