David Fromkin is professor of international relations, history, and law at Boston University. His earlier publications include In the Time of the Americans: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, The Generation That Changed America’s Role in the World (1995) and A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922 (1989), a well- written discussion of the diplomatic origins of the modern Middle East that was a best-seller and a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Unlike some academics, Fromkin writes for the general reader and not just the specialist, and this book is no exception.
The Way of the World has many predecessors. Fromkin refers to one, H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (1920), but there are many others who have attempted to encompass all of history, from Sir Walter Ralegh in the seventeenth century to Arnold Toynbee in his twelve-volume A Study of History (1934-1961). Few, however, have told the story in such a limited space—just 220 pages of text. Needless to say, much “history” has been left out, but Fromkin’s intent is not to relate all of history in a relatively short book; instead, he “concentrates mostly on the lives that led to the only civilization still surviving, the scientific one of the modern world and the prospects before it.” Also, as might be expected from a student of international relations, his interest and thus his focus in this work is not on literature or music or even science itself but rather on what he calls the high drama of politics and war. The Way of the World tells a selective story of the past, choosing to highlight only what “explains” the present and suggests the future.
Fromkin’s inclusion of Wells is apposite. Wells’s universal history is largely the epic of human progress rather than the story of decline, which was the theme of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West: Form and Actuality (1926). Like Wells’s work, Fromkin’s work is also the tale of humanity’s evolution and progress, and he obviously believes that the late twentieth century world and its history have reached their apogee of development—thus far. To arrive at the place where humanity resides today, The Way of the World takes the reader through eight milestones or turning points of history. These are presented in short chapters, roughly arranged in chronological order. “Becoming Human” deals with humanity’s biological evolution from the early hominids of Africa four million years ago to the emergence of Homo sapiens. The second milestone was “Inventing Civilization,” and here the emphasis is on the birth of civilization in the Middle East beginning with the Sumerians and Egyptians. Despite the title, unfortunately there is relatively little discussion of the origins of civilization in China, and civilization in the Indus River region gets very short shrift, which is understandable given Fromkin’s opinion that those civilizations ultimately failed and lost out to the West and its scientific modernism. The origins of Western civilization were in the early Middle East, and that Western emphasis continues throughout The Way of the World.
Fromkin’s third turning point in the evolution of human progress he calls “Developing a Conscience,” and here, too, westerners receive the attention. Although he mentions—almost in passing—Lao-tzu, Zoroaster, Vardhamāna (and Jainism), Buddhism’s Siddhārtha Gautama, and K’ung Futzu/Confucius, the development of Fromkin’s “conscience” was primarily the result of the Jews and particularly the Greeks, and far more space is allotted to the Greek wars of the fifth century b.c.e. than any other subject in the chapter. If one desires more than a superficial discussion of Eastern religions and philosophies, one is advised to go elsewhere.
The fourth stepping stone was what Fromkin refers to as “Seeking a Lasting Peace,” and here the concentration is upon the conquests and accomplishments of Alexander the Great and the development of the Roman Empire, with China’s imperial history receiving only a brief mention. To Fromkin, Alexander was one of history’s most significant figures because he set the standard of humanity’s potential, an exemplar of how far humans might endeavor to reach and achieve. Not every reader will place Alexander at such a pinnacle, and the one source he refers to would be considered out of date by many historians, but The Way of the World is much more a personal and interpretive view of the past and of the future than rediscovering and understanding the past for its own sake.
“Achieving Rationality” is the fifth of humanity’s crucial steps, and here Fromkin discusses the history of western civilization in the years between 1000 and 2000 c.e. Undoubtedly the most far-ranging—and disjointed—chapter in The Way of the...
(The entire section is 2052 words.)