In a history of the modern world, a sudden burst of glory

I’ve been slowly reading a 1965 edition of “A History of the Modern World,” by R.R. Palmer and Joel Colton, both of whom I’ve come to admire.

How can anyone compress a history of the entire world in one volume, and do it in a way that’s entertaining to read? Well, they’ve done it. The monumental story flows on the page, studded with occasional moments of humor. I’ve had nights when I get more excitement from this than from whatever mystery I’m also reading.

But given what was going on before we get to the “modern world” — millennia of primeval muck during which the notable human advancements were invasions — I’ve found it impossible to retain specifics.

The only incursion that sticks in my mind is when Sweden decided it wanted to become an empire, crossed the Baltic and somehow wound up with Pomerania. Then, in an exemplary passage summing up how I was regarding the entire enterprise called “world history,” Palmer and Colton made me laugh: “Subsequently, in a confused series of wars, in which a Polish king claimed to be king of Sweden, and a Swedish king claimed to be king of Poland, the Swedes won control of virtually all the shores and cities of the Baltic.”

“A confused series of wars.” Oh yeah.

By the time I reached page 258 and yet another peace settlement ended yet another war, I had relinquished any pretense of grasping what had happened. Although I no longer had to keep track of Sweden: “…in 1719 the Swedish sphere contracted to Sweden itself, except that Finland and reduced holdings in northern Germany [Pomerania, remember?] remained Swedish for a century more. The Swedes in time proved themselves exceptional among European peoples in not harping on their former greatness. They successfully and peaceably made the transition from the role of a great power to that of a small one.”

Thus, minus Sweden, I came to envision the world up to the 17th century as a gigantic crazy quilt, a hideous one, formed of random pieces of cloth tossed out of a rag bag, barely stitched together. And this quilt thing was constantly moving, as if it lay on top of a nest of irritable worms.

And then, and then, and then I came to Chapter VII, The Scientific View of the World:

The history of science is too great a story to be told in this book, but there are a few ideas about it which even a book of this kind must attempt to make clear. First, science, purely as a form of thought, is one of the supreme achievements of the human mind, and to have a humanistic understanding of man’s powers one must sense the important of science, as of philosophy, literature, or the arts. Second, science has increasingly affected practical affairs, entering into the health, wealth, and happiness of mankind. It has changed the size of populations and the use of raw materials, revolutionized methods of production, transport, business, and war, and so helped to formulate political and economic questions…Third, in the modern world ideas have had a way of passing over from science into other domains of thought. Many people today, for example, in the notions of themselves, their neighbors, or the meaning of life, are influenced by ideas which they believe to be those of Freud or Einstein–they talk of repressions or relativity without necessarily knowing much about them. Ideas derived from biology and from Darwin–such as evolution and the struggle for existence–have likewise spread far and wide. Similarly the scientific revolution of the seventeeth century had repercussions far beyond the realm of pure science. It changed the idea of religion and of God and man. And it helped to spread certain very deep-seated beliefs, such as that the physical universe in which man finds himself is essentially orderly and harmonious, that the human reason is capable of understanding and dealing with it, and that man can conduct his own affairs by methods of peaceable exchange of ideas and rational agreement. Thus was laid a foundation for belief in free and democratic institutions.

“…Science is one of the supreme achievements of the human mind…”

I found this thrilling. Let’s pity anyone who denies it.





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