12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Approachable, Intelligent, Illuminating.,
This review is from: The Big Questions in History (Hardcover)
Big Questions In History was a most worthwhile read. It deals with twenty major themes, including:
* What is history?
* What makes a great leader?
* Why do revolutions happen?
* How does private life affect public life?
* Why do religious and spiritual movements grow?
* Can history have an end?
Each theme is introduced by a leading authority in the field, and this is followed by a commentary by freelance writers -- contributions which are equally interesting and profound. Each contribution is about five pages long -- dealing with the issues in an approachable way, and opening up intelligent discussion, with illuminating examples from history. As a mere glimpse at the content of the book, three subjects follow -- the first two being chapter themes, and the third being an underlying theme of the book.
Linda Woodhead deals with the question as to why religious and spiritual movements grow. She proposes the following. Religion is likely to flourish in alliance with worldly power -- or, on the other hand, in DEFIANCE of earthly power -- while spirituality (personal religion) is likely to flourish in the wake of the same. In this regard, she comments, "Islam finds itself in the sweet spot where the two most propitious conditions for religious growth coincide." On the other hand, Stephen Phillips proposes that those Christian Churches which are seeing the strongest growth today "feature a less intellectually rarefied, omniscient, interventionist God", which further appeals to "the poor and downtrodden".
The chapter which came as the greatest surprise to me was, What makes a great leader? Brendan Simms and Phil Baty describe characteristics which at first seem quite counter-intuitive. Leadership, firstly, should be unplanned -- a major example being Otto von Bismarck, who began as "a defender of a narrow conservative Prussian aristocratic interest", yet became the architect of German unification. Simms quotes Oliver Cromwell: "He goeth furthest who knows not where he is going." Secondly, great leaders tended to surround themselves with "enemies". Baty refers to Margaret Thatcher as an example, for "her willingness to keep critics".
As for the persons considered to have had the greatest impact on our modern understanding of history, Niccolo Machiavelli and Karl Marx rank high on the list. Machiavelli was a famous-notorious political philosopher, and a great realist and pragmatist. By and large, it would seem to be his realist approach to history that gives him his present appeal. Ideology is out, realism is in. Marx, on the other hand, has pride of place, not for his view of historical progress (which the book generally regards as a "blithe" attitude), but for the view that history is shaped by broad movements of men and women. Before Marx, history tended to be limited to "great men".
This book was a most worthwhile read, and gave one a good feel for "the state of history" today. It includes useful lists for further reading, and a comprehensive index.