How Cultures Change, Evolve

By Walker, Ruth | The Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 1993 | Go to article overview

How Cultures Change, Evolve


Walker, Ruth, The Christian Science Monitor


As the world map is redrawn and new economic and political groupings are formed, questions of identity and culture - of civilization - loom. Three recent books illumine some of these issues: one a broad survey of civilizations; one an in-depth look at the civilization of medieval Europe; and one an essay on the nettlesome issue of nationalism.

A HISTORY OF CIVILIZATIONS, by Fernand Braudel, translated by Richard Mayne (Penguin Press, 600 pp., $30). Fernand Braudel is hardly to be faulted for too narrow a subject. He undertakes nothing less than a survey of major civilizations.

Refreshingly broad-brush in its approach, Braudel's book harks back to the time before general information overload, when it was still possible on any number of subjects to tell just about all that was known in a single volume. This history provides the big picture - not just the answer to the dozen questions most often asked of a given country, but the broad insights that more specialized volumes, for all their detail, may well never get around to.

Braudel, who died in 1989, was a founder of a school of history-writing that sought to get away from history as the record of government, and especially of war. The title of the English version of one of his most important works gives an indication of his approach: "The Structures of Everyday Life." He sought to give more emphasis to economic life and to the role of women in various societies, which he (rightly) saw as a good indicator on a number of different social skills.

He also sought to include non-Western cultures in his writing, as is evidenced in the present work. This book, originally intended as a textbook for French high schools, was at one point a few years after publication quietly withdrawn from school use because it was deemed inadequately supportive of French and, more broadly, Western culture.

Still, there is something old-fashioned about Braudel - and not just in the sweeping scope of the ambition of his project. He is politically incorrect enough to say, for instance, in a section about Australia, that however badly the Aborigines were treated, they could not have survived as long as they did without contact with whites.

This book comes across occasionally as Francocentric, which may provide a useful element of balance for an English-speaking readership, and also occasionally reads like a translation, which it is.

One of the most interesting parts is the introductory section detailing some of Braudel's ideas about civilizations generally, such as that what a culture decides to reject may be as important as what it decides to adopt: France, for instance, at a certain point parted company with the Protestant Reformation in a way its neighbors to the north did not. Religion is central to culture, Braudel maintains; and he provides an interesting discussion of how Western civilization is informed by both Christianity and rationalism.

Braudel divides the world into Europe and not-Europe (and defines Europe to include both the Americas and the Antipodes). …

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