Cultures in Conflict

The Columbian quincentennial passed in a solemn and confused silence. The unquestionably horrific consequences of the European colonization of the Americas for the indigenous peoples has been acknowledged and regretted in what Lewis believes to be a historically unique sense. The widespread grief for conquered people and the collective remorse over the deeds of long-dead soldiers and pioneers remotely if at all related to most living Americans is a distinctive characteristic of Western culture. Lewis finds the guilty conscience of the West an admirable trait in danger of being overdone. The heart of these three essays, based on lectures delivered by the author at the University of Wisconsin in 1993, is Lewis’ call for a less self-absorbed perspective on modern history.

Lewis devotes one essay to each of three events he believes to be pivotal and interrelated. The most obvious is Columbus’ voyage. The reconquest of Granada by the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain are the other two events that Lewis links to present a picture, not merely of Europe but of the world—a world driven routinely by faith and greed and, where Christian faced Muslim, fear. Christian Europe was to the powerful, highly developed Muslim East a puny, inefficient but passionate rival that happened to be very good at making weapons. The Jews were to the victorious Christians a snag in the religious fabric of Catholic Spain.

The arrogance and the humanitarianism of the West are the direct by-products of these events. Lewis traces this paradoxical legacy with the wisdom and assurance of a historian attentive to the lessons of history.