Conquests and Cultures

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Starting with the observation that modern western civilization has its origins in the Roman conquest of the surrounding peoples, Thomas Sowell examines first the British Empire, then the impact of conquest on Africa, the Slavs, and Western Hemisphere Indians in CONQUESTS AND CULTURES: AN INTERNATIONAL HISTORY. His conclusions are that, once the initial devastation and destruction have passed, there is a potential for the benefits of peace, wider economic markets, more intellectual contact, and cultural borrowing to take place.

How any cultural or racial minority responds to the opportunities afforded by being included in a larger political body determines its fate, not the attitude of the conquerors or larger economic forces. Geography plays an important role, of course, but geography is more important in creating conditions that make conquest possible than in what can or cannot be achieved afterward. Freedom is also significant, especially economic and social freedom, but not necessarily political independence or democracy.

Major themes include group stereotypes (often accurate), race (unimportant compared to cultural traditions), racism (stupid, but complex, and too easily used to justify backwardness by groups which resist cultural change), and slavery (an international phenomenon, eliminated by Europeans, especially the Britons). “Human capital” lies at the intellectual center of Sowell’s argument. This is a collection of traditions and attitudes which describe the potential for each group in a society to achieve stability, prosperity, and happiness. As societies evolve, some group characteristics aid or impede making adjustments to new circumstances. Those which embrace appropriate modifications in their culture thrive, those which resist decline. Conquest brings about the most rapid changes, and it provides the conquered with the greatest challenges and opportunities.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, April 15, 1998, p. 1401.

Forbes. CLXII, July 6, 1998, p. 52.

Foreign Affairs. LXXVII, July, 1998, p. 122.

Headway. X, September, 1998, p. 14.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 1, 1998, p. 116.

National Review. L, June 1, 1998, p. 50.

The New Republic. CCXVIII, November 16, 1998, p. 36.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 6, 1998, p. 68.

Reason. XXX, December, 1998, p. 70.

The Wall Street Journal. May 19, 1998, p. A20.