Discuss the significant themes of Peoples and Empires by Anthony Pagden.  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As Pagden writes, Peoples and Empires is fundamentally about "what drives people into contact—and conflict—with each other." It is also fundamentally about power. These three themes, contact, conflict, and power, inform the entire book.

European empires had a number of effects on the peoples that lived within them. When Pagden...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

As Pagden writes, Peoples and Empires is fundamentally about "what drives people into contact—and conflict—with each other." It is also fundamentally about power. These three themes, contact, conflict, and power, inform the entire book.

European empires had a number of effects on the peoples that lived within them. When Pagden writes about "contact," he does not simply refer to contact between the colonizers and the colonized, though this is of course important. He also means that empires as units of administration had the effect of bringing diverse cultures and peoples into contact with each other. European empires were, Pagden writes, "universal, cosmopolitan societies." Alexander the Great, for example, aimed to bring together East and West, assimilating the many cultures within the old Persian Empire with Greek civilization, which had previously dismissed all non-Greeks as barbarians.

At the same time, the very act of cultural contact led to conflict. Pagden writes that nationalism "swept the once massive imperial edifices away" in the twentieth century. One of the reasons they did so was that people began to turn to a specific cultural identity that was seen to be at odds with that of the polyglot empire. Empires represented an affront to this identity, which, it must be added, was as constructive and fictive as the ideology of empire itself. Pagden writes that this led to further conflict, as it was much easier for various peoples in the British Empire to recognize that they were "not English" than it was for them to assimilate to each other.

As for power, Pagden's narrative makes it clear that contact always occurred in ways that were imbalanced and exploitative. African slaves, for example, became part of an American creole culture that they deeply influenced, but they did so against their will. European power battered its way into Chinese markets, and continues to influence governments of former colonies around the world. Whether empires were based on cults of personality, like that of Alexander, or on vast administrative bureaucracies, they were fundamentally about power, however cosmopolitan and diverse they were.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of Padgen's significant themes in Peoples and Empires is the distinction between the land-based empires of the Greeks and Romans and the global maritime empires of Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain.

Another significant theme is the universalist civilizing rationale behind much of European imperial expansion. It is easy today to forget that philosophers from the ancient Greeks through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment considered human nature fairly constant, and human evolution was regarded as universally capable of improvement through cultural intercourse and exchange. By the late 18th and 19th centuries, international trade was considered to be the ideal peaceful alternative to war. Padgen does not dodge the controversies of empire, however. He deals squarely with conquest and devotes an entire chapter to the role of slavery.

Padgen emphasizes the irony that the Dutch and British empires regarded themselves as "empires of liberty" while deriving some of their workforces from slave labor. Slave labor was far from unique to European empires, however (the Ottoman Empire was far more reliant on slaves than any recent European empire). An important theme of the book is that even the subjected people of empire found opportunities as well as restraints. Padgen contextualizes the history of empire as a story of all of the human race.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The subject of Pagden's Peoples and Empires is the way European empires developed throughout history, starting in ancient Greece with Alexander the Great. Pagden defines empires as "government over vast territories" (page xxii). The themes of his book are the ways in which European empires conquered lands and people who were incredibly diverse. As Pagden writes of European empires, "It was in their sheer variety as much as their size that both their identity and their glory were to be found" (page xxiii). Pagden states that because of their diversity, most empires developed into cosmopolitan societies, as imperial powers had to become more tolerant to rule over vast territories.

Another theme is the dynamic way empires changed both the conqueror and conquered. Conquest and imperial control changed the conqueror, and conquest also changed the lands under control. Empires had diverse effects on conquered people, providing some with greater freedom and restricting the freedom of others (such as slaves during the Atlantic slave trade). As Pagden notes, sometimes conquest widens the horizons of the conquered people (xxiv). For example, the Roman empire offered conquered people not only access to Roman architecture and roads, but also access to the opulence and grandeur that defined the Roman Empire (page 26). At the same time, empires can also result in brutality and suffering; for example, the European slave traders who captured African slaves and forced them to migrate to the New World caused endless suffering.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team