Monday, October 15, 2012

Last Week's Book: What Is the West?

This read about as quickly as First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. Needless to say the perspective was far different. For those who feel like a little Western congratulation, Nemo may be for you.

October 7-13: What Is the West? by Philippe Nemo

Politics (2006 - 121 pp.) 

What Is the West? is an ambitious project that sets out to answer the question its title poses: what are the defining characteristics that make the West distinct from other civilizations? Philippe Nemo answers this question by advancing the Greek, Roman, Biblical, Papal and democratic births that, all combined, give rise to the current West. The book is not very critical of the West, which is perhaps a criticism but is well in line with writers feeling passionate about their subject matter. The format he chooses is somewhere between a traditional academic tract and an op-ed, which allows the reader to pick up key information very quickly, if to the detriment of exhaustive historical research. 

Nemo's attempt at synthesizing all of these time periods works relatively well, following a narrative in which there are rarely more than a couple centuries unaccounted for. Perhaps the single most interesting takeaway I took from What Is the West? is the connection Nemo makes between the growth of the capitalist economy and the post-1750 world population boom. He answers the worries about rising numbers of poor in European cities around the time of the Industrial Revolution with a note that there were simply more people: "the city's poor were not people who became poor after being rich. They were people alive who would have been dead - or more exactly would have not been born. (91) [Nemo's emphasis] Another atypical viewpoint Nemo takes is the root of colonialism, as an extension of Western capitalism and technological innovation rather than as a predatory evil. The general dislike of the other is a common feature in politics, which Nemo brings to the fore with comparisons to various civilizations around the globe. (94) These are contentious points yet Nemo does well in his presentation of them. 

My qualms with the book are few but noteworthy. Firstly, the notion that the Medieval period represented the decline of anything but classicism is a notion that has been more or less debunked since the 1920s (first by Charles Homer Haskins, then by Lynn Thorndike, and the list goes on). Science indeed advanced during those centuries, which Nemo admits readily in his chapter on the Papal Revolution, so his initial suggestion that the Middle Ages were a dormant era feels inadmissible. Secondly, Nemo's boundaries of the West as given in his conclusion are mostly on point yet occasionally feel arbitrary. The most prominent example is that of Germany being firmly within the West but Poland only being partially within it. I would remedy this issue by placing both Germany and Poland within the West, as is consistent with Samuel Huntington's line dividing Europe between Catholic and Orthodox states. By that same token, I would place Eastern Europe farther away from the West than Nemo does, a main reason being that its traditional unification of secular and church power separates it from the West culturally. Finally, although Nemo braces himself for outsider criticism, I am curious to know what non-Westerners make of his conclusions. Ones like most of the world's population occurring due to Western-bred capitalism are especially interesting here. 

It is worth mentioning that the below ratings are given with an eye to mediating between a specialist's reading and that of a member of the general public. Those with backgrounds in history, philosophy or political science will likely find this an easier yet somewhat less educational book, as much of the material is summary and review. Those without backgrounds in those subjects will certainly find more undiscovered tidbits. 

Thanks to a professor for the recommendation. 

Ease of Reading: 6 
Educational Content: 6

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