on November 21, 2005
When Fernand Braudel originally published this text in the sixties, he became a pariah at the Sorbonne. In retrospect that disapprobation was the kind of seal of approval that "banned in Boston" came to embody. Previous histories drilled deep into one facet of history. Braudel's was a pioneering effort in multidisciplinary historical analysis. It captures the historical flow that evolves civilizations, sacrificing only the detail outside the themes. Even subsequent to "A History of Civilizations," other historians have been unable to write a thematic survey that matches this original. And don't be tempted to skip the "soft" introductory chapters with titles like "The Study of Civilization Involves All the Social Sciences," and "The Continuity of Civilizations." These tee up the hard topics, like "The Greatness and Decline of Islam." There's method in Braudel's approach, and it takes patience. Braudel's translator, Richard Mayne had his job cut out for him. The complex syntax is that of a French intellectual of the sixties, and it is retained in Mayne's text, but you become accustomed to it. Don't look for maps or photographs in this Penguin Paperback; the text alone is six hundred pages. There's only one other book in this space, "From Dawn to Decadence," by Jacques Barzun. In my view they are complementary.
on August 25, 2008
Braudel is considered one of the great 20th c. historians. He fought the French educational establishment to broaden the scope of history to include material from sociology, anthropology, geography, etc., and above all economics. This was in opposition to the traditional kings and battles approach, and this book was intended as a textbook (not accepted by the authorities). Arguably the movement's been quite fruitful, but this book is a very mixed bag - occasionally excellent, sometimes quite bad, and usually mediocre to good. It's also not a history of civilizations - it deals with what Braudel considered the great living civilizations - and rather than being history as usually understood, it describes primary characteristics of each with some development over time. Even the treatment of each "civilization" varies a great deal from one to the next, e.g. considerable space is devoted to the literature of Latin America while not to the others. The civilizations included are the Muslim World, Black Africa, the Far East (includes India), then Europe and European civilization elsewhere (to which he devotes half the book).
In spite of the many gaps, blind spots and weaknesses, there are some real high points and original insights. For example, Braudel points out that, while the Crusades are usually seen as unmitigated folly in the West, and while they achieved nothing lasting on land, at their beginning the Mediterranean was dominated by Islam while at their end it was dominated by the West. This had important consequences limiting Islamic power and culture while removing constraints from those of the West. He's probably at his best dealing with the West and Islam, and at his worst dealing with Latin America. To his credit he doesn't pass over Africa as so many do, but gives it reasonable attention, describing among other things the great trading societies which grew up as a result of contact with Islam. His take on the United States is fairly sane, with useful analyses of the evolution of American capitalism and of the centralization of power and growth of bureaucracy in the Executive branch of the Federal government. But the section on the US has its share of romanticisms and a couple chauvinisms (that statement probably applies to all societies outside Europe, and perhaps to European ones as well). His take on the Soviet Union is balanced to slightly sympathetic, although it's odd that we never hear of the millions killed by Stalin (or Mao).
Braudel's rejection of traditional historical narrative, with its landmarks and mileposts, sometimes leaves you wondering what, where and when it is that he's talking about. More importantly, he has a great weakness for making overarching generalizations, usually devoid of rational arguments stocked with facts which might lead us to share his conclusions. It's often transparently obvious that these generalizations can neither explain the entire phenomenon they purport to explain, nor can the explanation be so simple. After a few of these you start to question Braudel's judgment. He also spends a fair amount of time contemplating then-contemporary problems and speculating about the future. He defends this, but his performance is unconvincing, particularly in light of events since he wrote (1962). All the same, for someone who doesn't expect this book to be comprehensive or even, and who reads it along with world histories which are, it's still worth reading for its strengths and for the not-infrequent original insights.
on February 4, 1999
It was always going to be difficult to write a book about Civilizations. The decision tree alone of what information to include/exclude would be a significant problem.
Braudel's thesis is that religion, culture and geography, together with traditional tools of history are all important in understanding civilizations. This is a true and accurate perspective.
He concentrates on Nth America, Europe, Asia, Islam and Africa. His chapter on Islam, and the first civilization studied, was outstanding and certainly he was able to tie in his thesis to this examination. However, I got the impression he got lazy, and ended up providing cobbled sketches of the other civilizations, and concentrating more on history than analysis. Hence why Great to good.
Fernand Braudel first published this excellent, one-volume "history of the world" over 50 years ago. As Howard Zinn would later attempt in the United States, Braudel wanted to change how history was taught in France. He wanted to move away from what is now called the "Big Man" theory of history; that is, that all historical events are the results of the decisions of a very few men, who mainly lived in the West. He wanted to include numerous other factors, the lives of ordinary people, and their economic base, (and was admirably aided by Theodore Zeldin in this effort), and he strove for a greater emphasis on non-Western civilizations. In undertaking such an effort in the early `60's, he was ahead of his time, and to a very large measure, succeeded. Braudel is a synthesizer; striving for the "big picture" of historical actions, so it is only natural that early in his work he referenced the Hindu philosopher Chatterji, and his famous parable about the blind men and the various parts of the elephant that they can feel, yet cannot see or deduce the whole.
Others have criticized the amount of material covered on "other" civilizations (too much or too little); I felt it got it just about right. He starts, suitably enough, with the now very topical Islamic world. It was rather astonishing to have Braudel quoting from an Afghan intellectual, Najm oud-Din Bammat, on the requirements for Islam to undertake internal revolutions like the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and even that "...the Muslim countries are still waiting and searching for their Garibaldis." Braudel has been criticized for his thin section on Africa, less than 50 pages, before he moves on to the civilizations of the Far East, China, India, Japan and the "Maritime" countries, which he covers with 150 pages. Europe receives 120 pages; all of the Americas, 120 pages; a "nod" of 20 pages to the British Commonwealth countries, and he concludes with 50 pages on what was once called the Second World,--the Soviet Union, and associated "bloc" countries. The proportions in the coverage seem about right to me.
The book contains much that is prescient and insightful. Consider, on China: "In 1945, she was unable to make a motor-scooter; by 1963 she was on the brink of producing an atomic bomb." And what would he say now? On the concentration of power in the elites, consider his quote from Lenin: "If Tsarism could last for centuries thanks to 130,000 aristocratic feudal landowners with police powers in their regions, why should I not be able to hold out for a few decades with a party of 130,000 devoted militants?" (And indeed Lenin did!, before joining that proverbial dustbin). Braudel also covers why the world speaks English and not French, largely due to the fact that the English were sending out in the mid-18th Century a million colonists compared to 70,000 for the French, , since the latter had fears of becoming depopulated. And he gave a wonderful nod to one of my favorite cities, Avignon. The author's arguments on historical trends are cogent; his brush is broad, and the read enjoyable. He anticipated the "butterfly theory," without the name (the flapping of the wings of a proverbial butterfly in China might contribute to a tornado in Kansas). He did so by also referencing China, and spoke of the spread of the Chinese fashions of the T'ang period eventually reaching France, and the court of Charles VI; "... the heritage of a long vanished world-much as light still reaches us from stars already extinct."
Of course there are some flaws, and his political bias is sometimes extremely apparent. Concerning the Korean War, 1950-53, he uses the "party-line" term for the Chinese soldiers who intervened, calling them "volunteers" (p 272). And lawdy, did he ever get it wrong about America eventually adopting a European social model: "Despite special pleading by certain newspapers, Federal taxes are no longer seen as an unfair punishment imposed on the strong and able producers of wealth to benefit the lazy and incapable. Ever since the New Deal, the Federal Administration has been regarded `as essentially beneficent'..." No, it was the other way around, the so-called Reagan revolution, and assorted talk show hosts managed to paint government as "the problem," and helped spread the "revolution" to Europe, and weaken their social contract.
A wonderful view of the world from the perspective of historical research of the `60's. As Braudel says: "To see them (other civilizations) clearly one has to withdraw, mentally at least, from the civilization of which one is a part." The book also contains some excellent maps and charts. A wonderful, solid 5-star view of why things are the way they are.
This book by Braudel covers the history of the main civilizations of the world. Overall, I liked the book, but it is a very slow read I thought.
Braudel was French and intended this book as a high school textbook in France; perhaps for better students. It was not accepted for this purpose. I tend to agree that it might have been a bit much for people of high school age, but maybe his point was to raise standards to what they might possibly be. I'll leave that debate to others.
The author did not follow the usual "kings, dates and battles" approach. It seemed to me that he took the viewpoint of someone above the fray and included economics, arts and other important aspects of civilizations to a greater extent than usual, and put it all in some sort of context, including where different civilizations come into contact. Made the history all the more interesting I think.
As an American, I found it interesting to see how things looked from a French perspective. It was somewhat different from what I usually read by American and British authors. That being said, it is a bit difficult to explain that difference. Maybe it was the context and examples being taken from French history and experience that are often less well known to Americans (and the British perhaps as well). Given that there was a lot of ground to cover in a limited amount of space, many examples were mentioned in quick passing, so it could be hard to keep up so to speak.
This book was translated from French by Richard Mayne, who is British. Braudel apparently used some very complex sentence structure that the translator maintained using British English. The result was something that I found difficult to read other than slowly. Took a lot of the enjoyment out of the book for me.
The book was first written in the 1960's, but some updates were present in this edition, at least up to the 1990's. Not sure at all how that was done, since Braudel died in 1985.
There is a large amount of introductory material in the book. I'd say to read it as it explains Braudel's approach, among other things, which is helpful in making sense of the big picture he is going for in the book.
I found the chapters on Islamic civilization quite interesting. Made many current events in that part of the world make much better sense to me.
Braudel also seemed to be quite "respectful" when talking about American civilization which not every French author seems wiling to do. This is also much on how Anglo-Saxon civilization and the use of English became and still are (to large extent at least) so dominate.
There is more that could be said covering other parts of the book, but I will leave that to others to discuss.
The book is about 600 pages, and I think would take a while for most people to get through. Still, I think it a worthwhile read I think.
on March 28, 1997
A history that studies the meaning of civilizations. The author first covers the material by tackling the definition and meaning of the word "civilization." From there, the author dives in to the material and breaks the world into geographic and cultural regions. Country's do play a role, but civilizations continue to prosper. The material dates itself when referring to current events (the book was published in the 1960's). A great study tool for those with a strong command of history and wishes to understand the impact of religion, culture and geography
on September 23, 2001
This book is extraordinary! Meant for French lycéens in their last year before sitting for their bac exam, it was a failure. However, looking at today's situation of the west vis-à-vis the Islamic and other non-western worlds, it is a jewel. Among other things, it explains the origin of today's conflicting attitudes. For example, why the Egyptians and other Mediterranean peoples become in overwhelming majority Moslems several centuries after the conquest by the Arabs.
on December 27, 2013
Fernand Braudel examines history in terms of geography and in terms of economic, political, philosophical and spiritual trends. Men like Aristotle and Des Cartes are far more important in his view than Alexander the Great or Napoleon, whom he does not even mention! (In his view political and military leaders are the products, rather than the creators, of the societies they are living in.) Braudel is considered a leading practitioner of this kind of history, and he certainly does have a lot of very interesting insights. This book, though, is really for scholars or life-long hobbyists - it would be a bit heavy going for someone with a casual interest in the subject.
on March 30, 2016
If you like your history on a broad scale, leaping centuries and cultures, then this is the book for you.
Although it was first published in the early 1960s, many of the chapter headings have a contemporary ring, e.g. “The Revival of Islam Today”, “An English-Speaking Universe” and “Unity in Europe”.
Braudel anticipated modern political correctness and deliberately took a non-European approach by beginning his narrative with “Civilizations Outside Europe”, i.e. the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Indeed his famous description of Europe as being an “Asian peninsula – a little cape” puts Europe in its place in the eyes of the ancient world.
As I live in Brazil, I was particularly interested in Braudel's comments on Latin America. Unlike many European intellectuals, he had hands-on experience of this part of the world. There is even a research institute in São Paulo named after him.
At times he is very insightful in his description of the elements that make up Brazilian society. At others, I found his comments too general for such a vast area. For example, his claim that any South American on his way back to his own country would feel a “sudden thrill” in a stopover in Panama or his quote from the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre that “we all have a pint of black blood in our veins” sound like wishful thinking.
The maps are a letdown. One splits the whole of Central and South America and the Caribbean into Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, omitting the fact that English, French and Dutch are spoken in a number of territories and islands. Another captioned “The English-speaking universe” actually omits the United States!
on October 18, 2003
This book attempts to give an overview of all the world civilizations. However this book is a little dated now. Originally this was published in the 1960's, so it reflects a Cold War era point of view. This especially comes through when he isn't talking about western cultures. For example, he expresses a fear that the Islamic cultures, due to the large number of desperate and poor people, would abandon their traditional religion, Islam, and take up the banner of Communism. Well, as we can see today, Islam will last a few thousand years longer than Communism. Also there are a few mistakes in this book. On a map showing the division of Spanish-speaking Latin America and Portuguese-speaking Latin America, countries such as Jamaica and Haiti are shown to be a part of Spanish-speaking Latin America.
It's not all bad though. The section on the development of Europe is excellent. Also this might be useful as a sort of time capsule. Those who are interested in a Cold War view of history would like this. If you're looking for the history of civilizations though, you should look for a more modern and complete source.