Big Questions In History Paperback – 1 Jun 2006
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"This excellent collection of essays certainly lives up to the grand claim of its title. Unusual and highly successful. Quite possibly one of the best summaries of modern historical theory available" (Good Book Guide)
"Liza Jardine, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Ian Kershaw, Richard Evans; some of the leading contemporary historians have been assembled in this innovative work. Enlightening little book. Learned yet accessible. Stimulating and thought-provoking" (Glasgow Herald)
"Quizzing the world's best historians, this book finds answers to the most frequently asked questions about the course of world events. The results are sometimes unexpected but always relevant to how we live today" (BMI Magazine)
A very distinguished group of historians answers key questions about the past - and, incidentally, about the present and future.See all Product Description
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* 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.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Yet on these topics, one could write books. Many of the questions should be summarized in one line "We don't know" maybe with a few examples and a discussion on some points of views. However what we get is a short essay on these questions sometimes with a second essay by someone else. Overall the quality of these essays I would rate as poor and simplistic.
For example in answer to the question how does personality affect politics? The conclusion is that it is accelerating or retarding to some extent processes which are in the main shaped by impersonal forces. I would argue that most forces in history are not impersonal, that many conflicting processes are occurring and that people can somewhat select different futures. For example a less forceful person then Alexander the Great, might have lost his army to the Persians. The Greek kingdoms of Ptolemy's and Seleucids would have remained under Persian rule. The Romans would have been less influenced by the Greeks and more by the Persians. More importantly Judaism would have evolved under Persian not Greek influence. If Christianity would have arisen it would have been a very different religion. History would be very different.
Another example to the question of Why do economies collapse? One essay states wars. Two examples quoted of Romans and Britain empire don't suggest this is true as both got rich and powerful though continuous wars. War made them great and rich.
The next essay on this topic seems to think the cause is economic collapse is Paul Kennedy's book which contains his theory of relative decline and growing burdens of an expanding empire. This controversial theory that predicted the decline of the United States as a world power proved to be totally wrong by the time this book came out. So why is it quoted as what most historians believe today?
Also some essays read like people are pushing a political agenda eg that the British prime minister Tony Blair is a great leader for his handling of the current war in Iraq. For books like this I would suggest that the writers stays away from current affairs as much as possible, if only as it takes time before one can get a chance to assess the relevance of current events in history.
I personally truly enjoyed this book, though, because this a sophisticated material written in a essay format about some of the most important questions in history. Each essay writer and their commentators is forced to delve into a discussion elegantly and intelligently in less than five pages. The concept of forcing you the reader, to question the larger questions of life without having to spend years understanding or researching a subject as difficult as "How Do Intellectuals Movements Begin?" is brilliant!
The book's weakness is in the disparity between writers in terms of quality. Some of the commentator essays feel like a bibliography! Some other writers used the discussion board on a general topic as a "spinning" opportunity to push for, what seems like, a personal agenda. "What Makes an Effective Leader?" and trying to make a case for Tony Blair is a shameful use of the 5 pages the author had!
I highly recommend this book, it will push your thinking into really interesting concepts without having to spend years delving into dense topics that make "Big Questions in History?"