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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West by Anthony Pagden


Anthony Pagden's Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West was a book I was really looking forward to reading. It sat on my wish list for months and when I saw it just sitting there at my local library I greedily snatched it up and considered myself lucky to even have found it checked in.

Thank goodness I did not waste my money buying it.

I suppose the problem with a book of this nature is that it is bound to disappoint - some things will be "too" highlighted, some left out. Even worse for this book, niggling factual errors crop up that bother the careful reader and throw into doubt the validity of the more complicated interpretations of the work as a whole.


The book is quite readable and you must give a tip of the hat to anyone who undertakes such a large and sweeping history.


The anti-religious comments taint large sections of the book: "...nor have I made any attempt...to disguise the fact that I believe the myths perpetrated by all monotheistic religions - all religions indeed- have caused more lasting harm to the human race that any other set of beliefs..." (p. xix) In my opinion, his anti-religious bias does immeasurable harm to this history because holders of religious belief are held in disdain. This is a history full of religious beliefs, perhaps even based on it. Viewing all of those beliefs as despicable and marginalizing them leads to some of the more simplistic interpretations noted in other reviews of this book.

-The author comments that in this book Christianity "seems to fare slightly better than Islam in this story..." (p. xix) but I really doubt that. At least he spent several pages on the life of Muhammad and the early history of Islam. He doesn't even bother to tell about the life of Jesus (not even a "supposed" version) or a history of St. Paul (whom he refers to in passing several times, but the uninformed reader is left, well, uninformed.) Imagine, a history of the West without even a page devoted to the beginnings of Christianity. The closest we get to an outline of Christ is a brief comparison to Mithraism (pp. 130-1). Christians are often slighted, such as on page 519 when he opines that Christians would like to make Shari'a law for the United States if only they could figure out how.

-Judaism fares even worse. It is rarely mentioned. Even then it has inaccuracies, such as on pages 151-2 when he notes, incorrectly that Moses was only given 10 laws. A passing glance through the book of Deuteronomy would tell the most casual of reader that dozens and dozens of laws were given to Moses.

-The Persian-Roman conflicts. I was looking forward to learning more about the Persian empire(s) that fought Rome to a standstill. Usually in this type of history there is just one paragraph that tells you little more than I've already mentioned - that the Persians fought the Romans to a standstill and an accomodation was made. He includes a fancier explanation, but it is still just the one paragraph. (pp. 175-6) I was hoping for much more - especially since this accounts for roughly 500 years of the 2,500 years of conflict that is discussed in the book.

--Refers to the year 1098 as being a part of the "ninth-century". (p. 231)

Martin Luther (1483-1546)
-Luther's teachings are misstated at times. "Mankind did not need to labor to win God's favor, as the Church had always maintained; it could be vindicated by faith alone. To be justified in the eyes of God, one had only to believe and lead a true and godly life." (p. 297) The part about leading a true and godly life would be the same as laboring to win God's favor. It is not Luther's theology. He stated the godly life would proceed from one's faith, it would not, in and of itself, do anything to get one into heaven.

Some might find the point about Luther trivial, but this is not a small thing. In the last 500 years there have been two large-scale organized religious movements in the West and both were inspired by Martin Luther - the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation (aka the Catholic Reformation). Failing to understand this simple part of Luther's theology means that those two movements are not understood as well. If you were reading a book that mentioned the philosopher Socrates and the author failed to grasp the concept that Socrates wanted people to question everything you'd have to question the author's competence as an authority on the topic. If the author also openly ridiculed philosophers in general and Greek philosophers in particular you'd question why he even bothered to write on the topic in the first place.   

-On page 74 there is a reference to "brothels in Pompey" (p.74). Pompey was one of Julius Caesar's rivals. Pompeii is the standard spelling for the city he is referring to.

-On page 249 he refers to the Afghan War of 1991. 2001, perhaps?

-There is a complete failure to mention the clash between Communism, Fascism and the East. The Ba'ath Party was influenced by the Fascist movements. Afghanistan was nominally Communist when the USSR invaded it to support the floundering government in 1979. He expounds on the murderous history of religious movements but blows off the terrible history of secular movements like Communism with one really long sentence (pp. 533-4) that fails to address the issue or the scope of their own murderous pasts.

-"Soviet Block"? (p. 526). The standard spelling is bloc, not block.

-On page 526 it is claimed that East Germany "took the first steps that would eventually bring down the Communist regimes of eastern Europe." (p. 526) Funny, I remember it being Poland with Lech Walesa and Solidarity being the first. The Wall came down only when Hungary and other countries had already lowered their barriers and made East Germany's Communist rulers irrelevant.

Final thought: Buy something else. Perhaps more specific histories rather than a more general, biased one that demonstrates little respect for the religious traditions of the peoples involved.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West.

Reviewed on October 28, 2008.

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