Tag: History

12 History Books to Read

A reddit reader posed the question “I want to read 12 history books in one year to know ‘all the things’, what should be on the list?”

After much debate, the 12 below were chosen.

1. A History of the Modern World

…offers a wide-ranging survey that helps readers understand both the complexities of great events (e.g., the French Revolution, the First World War, or the collapse of great imperial systems) and the importance of historical analysis. It also provides a careful summary of the modern political changes that have affected the social and cultural development of all modern cultures.

2. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

This is the best history we have of Europe in the postwar period and not likely to be surpassed for many years.

3. Walking Since Daybreak

Part history, part memoir, this unconventional account of the fate of the Baltic nations is also an important reassessment of WWII and its outcome.

4. A People’s Tragedy

Written in a narrative style that captures both the scope and detail of the Russian revolution, Orlando Figes’s history is certain to become one of the most important contemporary studies of Russia as it was at the beginning of the 20th century.

5. China: A History

Keay’s narrative spans 5,000 years, from the Three Dynasties (2000–220 BC) to Deng Xiaoping’s opening of China and the past three decades of economic growth. Broadly chronological, the book presents a history of all the Chinas—including regions (Yunnan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Manchuria) that account for two-thirds of the People’s Republic of China land mass but which barely feature in its conventional history.

6. The Arabs, A History

No better guide to the modern history of the Arab world could be found than Eugene Rogan. He is attentive as much to the insider accounts in Arab memoirs as to the imperial schemes hatched in drawing rooms in Paris and London, as concerned with popular movements and uprisings as with elite reformism, and unafraid to confront directly and with the best evidence and documentation available the vexed issues of colonialism, Orientalism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

7. Orientalism

Regardless of whether the reader agrees with it, anyone with an interest in the Middle East should have read this book at least once.

8. The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

The twentieth century is usually seen as “the century of total war,” but as the historian David Bell argues in this landmark work, the phenomenon actually began much earlier, in the age of Napoleon. Bell takes us from campaigns of “extermination” in the blood-soaked fields of western France to savage street fighting in ruined Spanish cities to central European battlefields where tens of thousands died in a single day. Between 1792 and 1815, Europe plunged into an abyss of destruction, and our modern attitudes toward war were born.

9. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution

a work of majestic scale, written with great skill. It explores the growing consciousness, during a half century of revolutionary change, of the oldest and most extreme form of human exploitation. Concentrating on the Anglo-American experience, the historian also pursues his theme wherever it leads in western culture. His book is a distinguished example of historical scholarship and art.

10. Old World Encounters

…examines cross-cultural encounters before 1492, focusing in particular on the major cross-cultural influences that transformed Asia and Europe during this period: the ancient silk roads that linked China with the Roman Empire, the spread of the world religions, and the Mongol Empire of the thirteenth century. The author’s goal throughout the work is to examine the conditions–political, social, economic, or cultural–that enable one culture to influence, mix with, or suppress another. On the basis of its global analysis, the book identifies several distinctive pattern of conversion, conflict, and compromise that emerged from cross-cultural encounters.

11. Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1550: Age of Discretion

I believe this is the best medieval history textbook.

12. Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age

Green offers a particularly trenchant analysis of what has been seen as the conscious dissemination in the East of Hellenistic culture, and finds it largely a myth fueled by Victorian scholars seeking justification for a no longer morally respectable imperialism. His work leaves us with a final impression of the Hellenistic Age as a world with haunting and disturbing resemblances to our own. This lively, personal survey of a period as colorful as it is complex will fascinate the general reader no less than students and scholars.


Ten Commandments For Living From Philosopher Bertrand Russell

Philosopher Bertrad Russell:

The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Still curious? Russell is the author of many books including Why I Am Not a Christian, History of Western Philosophy, and The Problems of Philosophy.

5 Things Cicero Can Teach You About Winning An Election

In 64 B.C Marcus Tullius Cicero was running for the post of Roman consul.

Cicero, a political outsider, was a brilliant man and gifted speaker with a burning desire to gain the highest office in the ancient republic.

As the campaign approached, his brother Quintus wrote to him offering some advice on how to win the election that would make Machiavelli proud.

“My dear Marcus,” he wrote, “you have many wonderful qualities, but those you lack you must acquire, and it must appear as if you were born with them.”

Quintus knew that the odds were against his brother: “To speak bluntly, since you are seeking the most important position in Rome and since you have so many potential enemies, you can’t afford to make any mistakes. You must conduct a flawless campaign with the greatest thoughtfulness, industry and care.”

In a short pamphlet, Quintus laid out an election plan for Marcus that still rings as true today as it did 2,000 years ago.

Here is a sampling of his political wisdom:

1. Promise everything to everyone. Quintus says that the best way to win voters is to tell them what they want to hear: “Remember Cotta, that master of campaigning, who said he would promise anything, unless some clear obligation prevented him, but only lived up to those promises that benefited him.” As Quintus says, people will be much angrier with a candidate who refuses to make promises than with one who, once elected, breaks them.

2. Call in all favors. If you have helped friends or associates in the past, let them know that it’s payback time: “Make it clear to each one under obligation to you exactly what you expect from him. Remind them all that you have never asked anything of them before, but now is the time to make good on what they owe you.” If someone isn’t in your debt, remind him that if elected, you can reward him later, but only if he backs you now.

3. Know your opponent’s weaknesses—and exploit them. Quintus practically invented opposition research: “Consider Antonius, who once had his property confiscated for debt…then after he was elected as praetor, he disgraced himself by going down to the market and buying a girl to be his sex slave.” A winning candidate calmly assesses his opponent and then focuses relentlessly on his weaknesses, all the while trying to distract voters from his strengths.

4. Flatter voters shamelessly. Quintus warns his brother: “You can be rather stiff at times. You desperately need to learn the art of flattery—a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office.” A candidate must make voters believe that he thinks they’re important. Shake their hands, look them in the eye, listen to their problems.

5. Give people hope. Even the most cynical voter wants to believe in someone: “The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you.” Voters who are persuaded that you can make their world better will be your most devoted followers—at least until after the election, when you will inevitably let them down.

Still curious? Read the original (translated) “On running for the Consulship” and also How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politician.

Source: WSJ

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of the most important person you’ve probably never heard of: Poggio Bracciolini.

Although Bracciolini’s contribution to society can’t be measured directly, we feel the effects of it to this day. He was, perhaps, the greatest book hunter in the world. And one of his finds would significantly alter the course of history. Located in a German monastery, Bracciolini found the last surviving manuscript of Lucretius’ poem On The Nature Of Things, which had been lost for more than a thousand years. It’s survival was pure luck.

What is astonishing is that one magnificent articulation of the whole philosophy—the poem whose recovery is the subject of this book—should have survived. Apart from a few odds and ends and secondhand reports, all that was left of the whole rich tradition was contained in that single work. A random fire, an act of vandalism, a decision to snuff out the last trace of views judged to be heretical, and the course of modernity would have been different.

The twin pillars of the poem were the denial of the afterlife and the denial of Providence. To Christians the book was filled with scandalous ideas.

…the recovery and recirculation of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things had succeeded in linking the very idea of atoms, as the ultimate substrate of all things that exists, with a house of other, dangerous claims. Detached from any text, the idea that all things might consist of innumerable invisible particles did not seem particularly disturbing. After all, the world had to consist of something. But Lucretius’ poem restored to atoms their missing context, and the implications—for morality, politics, ethics, and theology—were deeply upsetting.

“In a universe so constituted,” Greenblatt writes, “Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and remaking of forms.”

Anyone arguing “there is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design,” could not expect a warm welcome in ancient Rome. “The difficulty was not in reading the poem but in discussing its content openly or taking its ideas seriously.” Bracciolini, without having read the poem, had “unleashed something that threatened his whole mental universe,” something that helped abate the power of the very institution he once served.

By the time the clergymen prohibited the reading of the poem it was too late. Editions began popping up all over from Paris to Bologna. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, much of what Lucretius claimed in On The Nature Of Things seems deeply familiar.

Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

“The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other.”

The progress of science is commonly perceived of as a continuous, incremental advance, where new discoveries add to the existing body of scientific knowledge. This view of scientific progress, however, is challenged by the physicist and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argues that the history of science tells a different story, one where science proceeds with a series of revolutions interrupting normal incremental progress.

“A prevailing theory or paradigm is not overthrown by the accumulation of contrary evidence,” Richard Zeckhauser wrote, “but rather by a new paradigm that, for whatever reasons, begins to be accepted by scientists.”

Between scientific revolutions, old ideas and beliefs persist. These form the barriers of resistance to alternative explanations.

Zeckhauser continues “In this view, scientific scholars are subject to status quo persistence. Far from being objective decoders of the empirical evidence, scientists have decided preferences about the scientific beliefs they hold. From a psychological perspective, this preference for beliefs can be seen as a reaction to the tensions caused by cognitive dissonance. ”

* * *

Gary Taubes posted an excellent blog post discussing how paradigm shifts come about in science. He wrote:

…as Kuhn explained in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, his seminal thesis on paradigm shifts, the people who invariably do manage to shift scientific paradigms are “either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change… for obviously these are the men [or women, of course] who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.”

So when a shift does happen, it’s almost invariably the case that an outsider or a newcomer, at least, is going to be the one who pulls it off. This is one thing that makes this endeavor of figuring out who’s right or what’s right such a tricky one. Insiders are highly unlikely to shift a paradigm and history tells us they won’t do it. And if outsiders or newcomers take on the task, they not only suffer from the charge that they lack credentials and so credibility, but their work de facto implies that they know something that the insiders don’t – hence, the idiocy implication.

…This leads to a second major problem with making these assessments – who’s right or what’s right. As Kuhn explained, shifting a paradigm includes not just providing a solution to the outstanding problems in the field, but a rethinking of the questions that are asked, the observations that are considered and how those observations are interpreted, and even the technologies that are used to answer the questions. In fact, often the problems that the new paradigm solves, the questions it answers, are not the problems and the questions that practitioners living in the old paradigm would have recognized as useful.

“Paradigms provide scientists not only with a map but also with some of the direction essential for map-making,” wrote Kuhn. “In learning a paradigm the scientist acquires theory, methods, and standards together, usually in an inextricable mixture. Therefore, when paradigms change, there are usually significant shifts in the criteria determining the legitimacy both of problems and of proposed solutions.”

As a result, Kuhn said, researchers on different sides of conflicting paradigms can barely discuss their differences in any meaningful way: “They will inevitably talk through each other when debating the relative merits of their respective paradigms. In the partially circular arguments that regularly result, each paradigm will be shown to satisfy more or less the criteria that it dictates for itself and to fall short of a few of those dictated by its opponent.”

But Taubes’ explanation wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity.


The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

To learn more on how paradigm shifts happen, I purchased Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and started to investigate.

Kuhn writes:

“The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other.”

Anomalies are not all bad.

Yet any scientist who pauses to examine and refute every anomaly will seldom get any work done.

…during the sixty years after Newton’s original computation, the predicted motion of the moon’s perigee remained only half of that observed. As Europe’s best mathematical physicists continued to wrestle unsuccessfully with the well-known discrepancy, there were occasional proposals for a modification of Newton’s inverse square law. But no one took these proposals very seriously, and in practice this patience with a major anomaly proved justified. Clairaut in 1750 was able to show that only the mathematics of the application had been wrong and that Newtonian theory could stand as before. … persistent and recognized anomaly does not always induce crisis. … It follows that if an anomaly is to evoke crisis, it must usually be more than just an anomaly.

So what makes an anomaly worth the effort of investigation?

To that question Kuhn responds, “there is probably no fully general answer.” Einstein knew how to sift the essential from the non-essential better than most.

When the anomaly comes to be recognized as more than another puzzle of science the transition, or revolution, has begun.

The anomaly itself now comes to be more generally recognized as such by the profession. More and more attention is devoted to it by more and more of the field’s most eminent men. If it still continues to resist, as it usually does not, many of them may come to view its resolution as the subject matter of their discipline. …

Early attacks on the anomaly will have followed the paradigm rules closely. As time passes and scrutiny increases, more of the attacks will start to diverge from the existing paradigm. It is “through this proliferation of divergent articulations,” Kuhn argues, “the rules of normal science become increasing blurred.

Though there still is a paradigm, few practitioners prove to be entirely agreed about what it is. Even formally standard solutions of solved problems are called into question.”

Einstein explained this transition, which is the structure of scientific revolutions, best. He said: “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under one, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere, upon which one could have built.

All scientific crises begin with the blurring of a paradigm.

In this respect research during crisis very much resembles research during the pre-paradigm period, except that in the former the locus of difference is both smaller and more clearly defined. And all crises close in one of three ways. Sometimes normal science ultimately proves able to handle the crisis—provoking problem despite the despair of those who have seen it as the end of an existing paradigm. On other occasions the problem resists even apparently radical new approaches. Then scientists may conclude that no solution will be forthcoming in the present state of their field. The problem is labelled and set aside for a future generation with more developed tools. Or, finally, the case that will most concern us here, a crisis may end up with the emergence of a new candidate for paradigm and with the ensuing battle over its acceptance.

But this isn’t easy.

The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by an articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications.

Who solves these problems? Do the men and women who have invested a large portion of their lives in a field or theory suddenly confront evidence and change their mind? Sadly, no.

Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young, or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. And perhaps that point need not have been made explicit, for obviously these are men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.


Therefore, when paradigms change, there are usually significant shifts in the criteria determining the legitimacy both of problems and of proposed solutions.

That observation returns us to the point from which this section began, for it provides our first explicit indication of why the choice between competing paradigms regularly raises questions that cannot be resolved by the criteria of normal science. To the extent, as significant as it is incomplete, that two scientific schools disagree about what is a problem and what is a solution, they will inevitably talk through each other when debating the relative merits of their respective paradigms. In the partially circular arguments that regularly result, each paradigm will be shown to satisfy more or less the criteria that it dictates for itself and to fall short of a few of those dictated by its opponent. There are other reasons, too, for the incompleteness of logical contact that consistently characterizes paradigm debates. For example, since no paradigm ever solves all the problems it defines and since no two paradigms leave all the same problems unsolved, paradigm debates always involve the question: Which problems is it more significant to have solved? Like the issue of competing standards, that questions of values can be answered only in terms of criteria that lie outside of normal science altogether.

Many years ago Max Planck offered this insight: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

If you’re interested in learning more about how paradigm shifts happen, read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Vaclav Smil: Why America is not a New Rome

On television, modern histories of Rome lead one to think that Romans were rather well off, enjoyed a lot of free time, and commanded the largest and most powerful empire in the history of the world. That is, until the Americans came along.

America’s post WWII strategic and military dominance combined with affluence inspired comparisons to ancient Rome at its most powerful. With trouble in Iraq, mounting debt, and a teetering economy, America no longer seems invulnerable. Comparisons have shifted towards the ineffectual, bloated, later empire as Rome collapsed. Commenting on the fall, Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said it was “the greatest perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind.”

The vision of America as a new Rome resonates with us. There are obvious parallels and amusing similarities. In Why America is not a New Rome, Vaclav Smil, a scientist and lifelong student of Roman history takes a closer look at the America-Rome analogy.

Smil excels as he methodically unearths the meaning of empire and the relevant periods-of-time necessary for meaningful comparison. Smil ends up agreeing with Patricia Schroeder’s view that an empire “means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from it and alien to it.”

Depending on how you measure an empire, the Roman Empire wasn’t even the greatest. Consider the amount of land controlled as a proxy. Rome was the most extensive empire for only about 150 years, between 220 and 370 C.E. At the peak, the Romans controlled about 3% of ice-free land. To put this in the proper perspective, at the peak of its empire the British controlled about 23% of the ice-free land. If you were to rank empires based on land sizes throughout history, Rome would not even make it into the top 20.

After a close examination of modern US history, Smil concludes that if we are to “pay any attention to the root meaning of our words, hegemony makes a much better descriptor (of the United States) than empire. Smil quotes Schroeder in saying “Those who speak of an American empire bringing freedom and democracy to the world are talking of dry rain and snowy blackness. In principle and by definition, empire is the negation of political freedom, liberation, and self-determination.

Finally Smil offers a recent example of how the US is not cut-throat enough to be considered an empire. “Would an imperial power allow a prime minister of a country that it had recently conquered (and whose reconstruction and defence cost it thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars) to repeatedly visit a neighboring nation (which had been the great power’s avowed enemy for more than a generation and which actually helped to kill some of its soldiers stationed in the neighboring land by providing lethal explosives) and to have a cordial tête-à-tête with its president, who openly calls for the destruction of the great power whose very existence he deems satanic?”

The answer, of course, is no. But that is precisely what the Americans have done by allowing Iraq to engage in diplomatic relations with Mohammed Ahmedinejad, whom Smil refers to as “president of harshly anti-American fundamentalist Islamic theocracy in Tehran.” So depending on how you look at it, America is either too nice or too weak to be considered an empire. While not an empire, that does not mean that comparisons about various aspects of society and culture cannot be made.

On innovation

Taking a closer look at the cultures proves exceedingly difficult as well. Much of what we know about Rome is unverifiable best-guesses. Of the Romans, Smil says they “were neither impressive inventors nor the leading technical innovators of their time and that their legacy of systematic, incisive intellectual inquiry compares poorly with that of their Greek predecessors and their Chinese contemporaries.” American creativity, on the other hand, is a bright spot.

Intellectual inquiry

While we know the Romans undoubtedly possessed excellent organizational capability, they were, Smil says, “oddly incurious in most fields of intellectual inquiry, content to live largely off the Greek legacy.”

On energy

America’s high energy consumption makes “the two societies fundamentally incomparable. America is an unequaled example of a large modern economy that derives most of its power from the combustion of fossil fuels, supplemented by generation of primary electricity that converts it to useful tasks with high efficiency and that consumes energy at a very high per capita rate. In contrast, Rome’s energetic foundations, much like those of every ancient society, rested on the low-efficiency combustion of wood and the muscular exertions of people and animals,with overall per capita energy use being a small fraction of modern rates.” While easy availability of energy enables opportunity in America it constrained every aspect of Roman society.

Life expectancy

Romans were handcuffed with an extremely short life expectancy. While most Americans can expect to live until around 80 years old, the average Roman would have been happy to hit 35. While there were many causes for this, including poor medical care, war, poor sanitation, famine and disease, the greatest cost might have been a seemingly glacial pace in societal progress.

On city life

“For an ordinary Roman citizen,” Smil says, “the city was not a stunning cosmopolis of marble temples and showy fora; it was a squalid, fetid, unsanitary, noisy, and generous amalgam of people, animals, wastes, germs, diseases, and suffering.”


One of the differences between the American economy and the Roman one was structural. “In 2005 only about 1.5% of the US labor force was engaged in agriculture, about 11% in manufacturing, 9% in extraction, construction, and transportation, and the rest (78.5%) in a multitude of largely urban-based services. The Roman economy, like those of its ancient contemporaries, was fundamentally different. Classical writers left a record in which urban and military affairs take center place. … Given the low productivity of traditional agriculture, it was inevitable that most Romans spent their lives in fields and yards and along seashores, cultivating crops, threshing grains, pressing olives, producing wine, taking care of domestic animals, and harvesting marine foods.”


Smil does agree with the popular notion that the US is in a constant state of decline, having apexed long ago. “A closer critical look at US power reveals the country to be a weak, ineffective hegemony that has little in common with all those tiresome labels about “only remaining superpower” and “global domination” … while many of its indicators have increased in absolute terms, it has been in gradual relative retreat for more than two generations.”

Smil concludes that the most notable commonality between ancient Rome and modern America is the “vastly exaggerated perception of their respective powers, be they judged in terms of territorial extent, effective political influence, or convincing military superiority. If words are to retain their meaning then I am far from alone in concluding that America is not an empire, but I believe that even American’s undoubted global hegemony is of a very peculiar kind, much less effective and much more fragile than commonly thought.”

Polybius, the Greek historian of ancient Rome, should get the last word. At the outset of his great opus, The Histories, he remarked that those studying isolated histories are like a man who “after having looked at the dissevered limbs of an animal once alive and beautiful, fancies he has been as good as an eyewitness of the (living) creature itself in all its action and grace.”

If you’re interested in learning more, purchase Why America is not a New Rome.