World History and Me

Lascaux Cave Paintings
c. 17,000 BCE

World History and Me

Last night I watched a documentary about the “discovery” by Europeans of the Western Hemisphere – that vast tract of land between Europe and the India that the spice-hunters sought.

In my childhood, that discovery was chronicled without scare quotes, as the collected tales of intrepid adventurers and pioneers who stepped onto the shores of a virgin continent, and whose courage and future-directed hopes made it possible for my immediate forebears to live and be well in America. America! Where the government did not organize pogroms! Where the Good Guys won and the Nazis lost!

Anyway, that’s no longer quite the received view of how to tell this story. For example, the documentary I watched explained that the Western Hemisphere had been thickly populated from North to South. Millions of people had once lived here.

So how did it get to be a virgin continent? Where’d they all go? Even the most sweeping of massacres couldn’t kill millions with the weapons that 17th-century colonists carried.

What did most of the killing were the nice, well-meaning, soul-saving missionary monks who reached out and touched indigenous people with their Bibles, their crosses and their benedictory hands. Those open hands bore a host of European diseases to which their intended beneficiaries had no immunity.

“If you were the Queen of Spain,” I asked Jerry over breakfast, “and you knew in advance that the voyage of Columbus would open the process that would end up killing millions, would you still give him that charter?”

“No,” Jerry said immediately. He wouldn’t. But after a moment, he added that “they” (the Europeans) would have explored the New World at around that time anyway. Advances in ship-building, navigation and world trade would’ve sent others on the same voyage even if – in the thought-experiment I suggested – Columbus had been held back.

A recent book, whose name escapes me at the moment, has an even more horrific story, telling against our very species: homo sapiens sapiens. If we look at the fossil record, we see a succession of hominids looking more and more like us: the australopithecines, homo erectus, homo naledi, homo neanderthalensis et al. So where’d they all go? The hypothesis to which I refer offers an explanation for the absence of these close competitors. Our ancestors raped some and killed the rest.

A rival thesis, perhaps more generally accepted, it that our species survived because of its greater “adaptability” and the rival hominids obligingly died out without a struggle. On this view, wars of annihilation only began when homo sapiens developed sufficiently to have something to fight over.

In the Torah Study class I attend every Saturday morning, from time to time we read battle scenes, where God’s people are enjoined to slay them all (all the near competitors) lest their pagan ways prove contagious. If the Israelites were to fall back into idol worship, the whole demonstration of God’s sovereignty — over the empire of Egypt, over the sea and desert wilderness, and the scenes where divine power brings the moral basics down from Mt. Sinai and sets apart this people as the test case of His partnering with human beings in history – the whole long story recorded in the Pentateuch would come to nothing.

Whenever we come upon these battle scenes, my co-religionists express discomfort and unease. Are we content to say that my co-religionists are nicer than God? Or that God used to be rather brutal but that He’s gotten nicer? Or that none of this is true, that it’s a fable? If it’s a fable, and an unedifying fable at that, why are we reading it?

Were these ancient Israelites rather brutish while Jesus at least was much nicer? Jesus confined his ministry to the parts of the land where Jews lived. Judea had been reconquered by the Maccabees in some rather bloody engagements. And the Maccabees, or their descendants who ruled the reconquered land of Judea until the Roman takeover, were not particularly nice.

What is really going on here? If we attribute the emergence of complex cultures to the annihilation of their near rivals — or if we partly credit the emergence of states in the New World to the epidemics that accompanied European migration — it begins to look as if the “war of all against all” is the default position for the human race. The reasons may vary: defending a well, a territory, a culture, but violence seems to be the constant.

Hebrew Scripture suggests that God’s people would (at least temporarily) lose their Promised Land if they disobeyed the divine commandments. If, on the other hand, they had only followed God’s original blueprint, they would never have left their land. Theirs would be the oldest case of continuous occupation of a territory on record. Especially a territory with no natural borders, not mountainous like Switzerland nor an island like Great Britain!

(Here I think the rabbis would typically say, He offered it — the Chosen People-hood — to the Swiss and the Brits, but they didn’t want it!)

Be that as it may, even if the Israelites kept bungling their assignment, what did the indigenous peoples of New World do to merit smallpox and the other European diseases? And what did our hominid competitors do to deserve coming in second in the race for evolutionary survival?

What, to cite Homer, did the Trojans do to deserve to perish, with their Bronze Age city?

To broaden the question: Are the Darwinians right? Can we think of world history on any terms other than survival of the strong and conquest of the weak? Those are the terms that the Nazis used, but likewise many “advanced” thinkers of our own day, who echo Darwin or Nietzsche in scanning the human scene and finding there only variations on the will to power.

Rather inconsistently, some of these latter-day Nietzscheans and Darwinians, who claim to see the human being as just another species of predator, red of tooth and claw, are to be found wallowing in a sea of self-lacerating guilt!

“We built our country on the backs of slaves and the burial grounds of Native Americans … “ they repeat, like an incantation. “We are boundlessly guilty! guilty! guilty! We must begin to face it. We must begin to atone. We can only do penance. Did you hear me? We are infinitely undeserving. Getting to the bottom of our foulness would be an impossible dig!”

Their penitence is quite fetching. It’s a luxury wrap. They get to enfold themselves in the opportunities and goods they most desire and in their moral posturing too! Nice work if you can get it.

I don’t have a political theory wide enough to cover all these cases. Any political theory I know of sheds some light but leaves other features in shadow.

In my personal life, however, I have a somewhat surer sense of the terrain. I’ve seen people falsely accuse me with the aim of playing on a sensitive conscience in order to gain interpersonal power that they then misused. At first, agreeing to their accusations seemed the path of least resistance for me. But it left me open to abuse and tempted my accusers to become worse people than they were before I agreed to be as “guilty” as they claimed I was. Furthermore, my surrender wasn’t sincere. My trouble was that their accusations shocked me, numbing my natural defenses so that I could no longer find the words to fend off their condemnations. In light of that experience, I don’t send other people on a trip I would not take again myself.

So what about world history? So help me, I can’t get to the bottom of it and I don’t know anyone who can. It’s all we can do to untangle the threads that belong to our own lifelines and the plotlines of those whose lives become enthreaded with ours.

We don’t begin our lives at the beginning of world history. 

We begin where we are,

in the middle of it all.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to World History and Me

  1. Elmer Sprague says:

    Dear Abigail, Thank you for this meditation on world history. I like it that you condemn neither the harmers nor the harmed. I think that has to be the starting place. And the next move? I suggest the following with some diffidence: We are as you say not at the beginning of world history but in the middle of it. How should we go on? We should listen to Socrates who tells us to do no harm. (See “Crito.”) Indeed Socrates is one of a long line of moral teachers with that message. We may not be able to avoid doing harm all the time, but we should always try. Thinking globally can impart a hopeless tinge to life, while smiling at the next person you meet could make the world a better place.

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks very much for the Comment. When I was a Hegelian, I thought that philosophy’s task was to produce a logos of the cosmos and the definitive world-historical narrative. Now I think that showing a friendly face to a stranger is not such a bad Plan B.

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