Writing as catharsis

Book review: An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin

Posted in Book review by Lachlan R. Dale on July 11, 2012

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore ZeldinIt’s taken me some time (Goodreads informs me 3 months), but I have finally finished reading Theodore Zeldin’s ambitious book, ‘An Intimate History of Humanity.’

Zeldin’s stated objective is to provide us with a history of humanity that surpasses stale cataloging of kingdoms epochs, and ages. Instead, he turns his attention to some of the most important and defining dynamics of human society. He takes our fixed assumptions about the nature of humanity, and, through an exposition of engaging historical examples, reveals them to be far less fixed than we have previously assumed.

This quote perhaps sums it up best:

“Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulties of our existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between, the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable.”

That is the crux of Zeldin’s mission; he wants to provide readers with the tools and inspiration to look beyond narrow cultural and social assumptions, and imagine new ways of being; new forms of politics, ethics and morality. His is essentially an optimistic, humanitarian vision. Once more I quote:

“It is not enough to focus only on the minute synapses of personal encounters. It has become possible, as never before, to pay attentinon to what is happening in every corner of the globe. Humans each have a personal horizon, beyond which they normally dare not look. But occasionally they do venture further, and then their habitual way of thinking becomes inaequate. Today they are becoming increasingly aware of of the existence of other civilisations. In such circumstances, old problems take on a new appearance, because they are revealed as being parts of larger problems. The shift in interest away from national squabbles to broad humanitarian and environmental concerns is a sign of the urge to escape from ancient obsessions, to keep in view all the different dimensions of reality, and to focus simultaneously on the personal, the local and the universal.”

But how well does he succeed? The book begins with a brief introduction that outlines his intent. From there, we are presented with an almost relentless anthology of chapters that follow the same structure – pick a theme, provide an initial modern case study to open up the discussion of that theme, then delve into the other possibilities of being that are supported by examples cherrypicked from throughout human history.

Here is a sample of some of those chapter headings:

  • How men and women have slowing learned to have interesting conversations
  • How some people have acquired an immunity of loneliness
  • How new forms of love have been invented
  • Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex
  • How respect has become more desirable than power
  • Why the crisis of the family is only one stage in the evolution of generosity

Clearly Zeldin has not set his sights on low hanging fruit. Each chapter focuses on a particular thought or feeling, like toil, the art of conversation, voluntarism, compassion, attitudes on class and social status, and authority.

Throughout this book, there are signs that Zeldin would wrap up with an impressive, overarching concept – and indeed he does, but after finishing ‘An Intimate History of Humanity‘ I cannot help but think that a re-reading would be immensely beneficial. The concluding chapters provide essential context that I feel was missing from the introduction, and they really help illuminate the value in Zeldin’s approach and his objectives.

Perhaps his introduction is too brief – perhaps it would have paid Zeldin to revisit his objective in detail before the final concluding chapters – but I feel as though his concept was not explained as well as it could have been from the outset; and that this would have made for a more engaging book if he had taken more time to do so. Perhaps this is simple a flaw lies in my own comprehension.

Verdict: recommended.

Undeniably, many of the ideas in this book were intoxicating. Zeldin has immense scope of vision. His concept strongly appeals to my desire for a universal view of human nature and history – to cut through mere cataloging and classifying, and to draw out a better understanding of human nature drawn from across millenia.

While certainly not flawless in its execution, this book is groundbreaking in it’s approach, and will prove a worthy inspiration for anyone seeking a deeper level of understanding of human nature and the human condition. I finish this book very curious to where Zeldin’s thoughts and understanding are at today (the book was published in 1997), and hope that future writers can build off his concept. It might prove to be a exceedingly fruitful method of philosophical inquiry.

The sea is eternal: when it heaves
One speaks of waves but in reality they are the sea.

– Hamzah Fansuri

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2 Responses

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  1. marie-aude said, on July 12, 2012 at 7:28 am

    his great project : http://www.oxfordmuse.com/

  2. […] – Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity […]


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