Sunrise in the West: Erudite Essays Chart a Theory of Historical Laws

Cape Times (South Africa), March 23, 2012 | Go to article overview

Sunrise in the West: Erudite Essays Chart a Theory of Historical Laws


Ian Morris

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In this very long book Ian Morris, a professor of history and classics at Stanford University, US, presents a theory of history in the form of a series of extremely erudite essays on various civilisations, from the dawn of mankind to the present day.

Such theories seek to explain history by constructing very general laws of development, which have explanatory value and, with luck, some predictive value.

The laws have to be very widely drawn, employing variables of such generality that the odd centuries here or there are irrelevant: what matter are the very broad sweep and tendency of events.

Morris's central concept is "social development", which means societies' abilities to shape their environments. Social development can be measured, and given a numerical value, in any society at any time, though of course retrospective measurement of periods before written records depends upon archaeological or other evidence being available.

His explanatory variables are energy consumption, geography, organisation (more or less the same as urbanisation) and capacity to make war. Of these by far the most important is energy consumption, covering everything from food to nuclear power.

This apparatus enables him to attack his central questions, what is the West, and why does it rule now?

He shows that "the West" is a changing concept. Throughout recorded history there have been western and eastern "cores" which have grown and contracted, and with globalisation established links with each other.

His index of social development allows him to tell us, for example, that the "eastern core" in the early 13th century was on the way up at 24, and the "western core" on its way down at the same figure. …

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