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Theodore Zeldin: An Intimate History of Humanity
(HarperCollins: 1994)

“The mind is a refuge for ideas dating from many different centuries, just as the cells of the body are of different ages, renewing themselves or decaying at varying speeds. Instead of explaining the peculiarity of individuals by pointing to their family or childhood, I take a longer view: I show how they pay attention to - or ignore - the experience of previous, more distant generations, and how they are continuing the struggles of many other communities all over the world, whether active or extinct, from the Aztecs and Babylonians to the Yoruba and the Zoroastrians, among whom they have more soul mates than they may realise. You will not find history laid out in these pages as it is in museums, with each empire and each period clearly separated. I am writing about what will not lie still, about the past which is alive in people’s minds today.”
(Zeldin, pp.vii-iii)

In an era when history in the popular imagination is all-too-often reduced to a blank parade of disembodied “styles”, public discourse is shackled by the seeming “inevitabilities” of narrow ideologies, and the world of human affect mainly abandoned to the ignorant ministrations of purveyors of “self-help” pabulum, the advent of a work such as this one is truly cause for celebration. Because, comparative history is perhaps the deepest resource we have - if correctly used - to aid in resolving our dilemmas, being the record of potentialities realized...rather than the merely postulated worlds of theory.

And, by focusing upon the felt world of individual relationships, Theodore Zeldin supplies us with an invaluable parallel to the traditional emphases of history - concerned as it usually is with the hows and whys of events and arrangements, rather than their more intimate outcomes. Furthermore, while this territory has now been well-explored by historians of “mentalities” - of whom Zeldin is one - this particular book is the first I know of to attempt to refocus the endeavour upon our current personal woes and, to suggest the full range of possibilities our histories encompass to a lay readership.

“What we make of other people, and what we see in the mirror when we look at ourselves, depends on what we know of the world, what we believe to be possible, what memories we have, and whether our loyalties are to the past, the present or the future. Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulties of existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between, the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable. The fact that the world has become fuller than ever of complexity of every kind may suggest at first that it is harder to find a way out of our dilemmas, but in reality the more complexities, the more crevices there are through which we can crawl. I am searching for the gaps people have not spotted, for the clues they have missed.... Whenever I have come across an impasse in present-day ambitions, as revealed in the case studies of people I have met, I have sought a way out by placing them against the background of all human experience, in all centuries, asking how they might have behaved if, instead of relying only on their own memories, they had been able to use those of the whole of humanity.”
(Zeldin, p.13)

And those “case studies” deserve particular note, here, before we plunge into the thick of the work. Zeldin opens each chapter in his book with a brief yet intimate portrait of a modern individual - concentrating upon their hopes and fears, and the ways in which these have shaped their lives. By doing so, he insistently re-grounds the text in the lived experiences of today, making the parallels and contrasts he then draws out from the annals of history and anthropology all the more immediate to his readers...

“What are the roots of one’s pleasures and emotions? These are quite different, deeper sorts of roots, extending further back than the genealogy of one’s own family, and one can only find them by searching across continents through all the centuries. The link with the days when humans were explorers setting out from the forests of Africa and Asia is a reminder that they have been on the move as often as they have settled down. Today, more and more people have a Chinese eye, which looks at nature as having its own life, most beautiful when irregular and untamed; the first person to have had that vision, and to be called an artist, was Ko Shou, the sister of the Emperor Shun, 2,000 years before Christ. More and more have an Arab and Persian heart, for it was from the Middle East that romantic love emerged. Europeans have chosen to forget not only that their language originates in India, but that it was there that the most modern view of sexual pleasures was conceived. More and more Westerners are discovering common emotions through African music and dance. [And,] as constant travel and escape from urban smog become indispensable to their sense of freedom, their imaginations register echoes in the fantasies of the Mongolian and Scythian nomads, who once mocked the dwellers of cramped cities. One may feel isolated in one’s own town, but one has forebears all over the world. However, the history taught in schools does not emphasise such links, nor is it designed to reveal what memories matter most.... In every life there is an element of victory over fear, which needs to be searched for, though it may be a false victory. Again and again, apparently intelligent people ooze contempt to protect themselves from what they cannot understand, as animals defend their territory with foul smells. Gains in liberty are regularly lost. Or else people become so broad-minded that they do not know where they are going.”
(Zeldin, pp.46-9)

However, attempting to précis such a book in brief is a doomed endeavour, to be frank. At nearly five hundred pages - and drawing on an vast range of specialist scholarship (the end chapter “suggestive reading” lists alone are worth the price of admission) - Zeldin’s work is best treated here by carefully sampling a handful of key chapters, of which the first clearly should take priority:

“We are all of us descended from slaves, or almost slaves. All our autobiographies, if they went back far enough, would begin by explaining how our ancestors came to be more or less enslaved, and to what degree we have become free of this inheritance.... [And] the world is still full of people who, though they have no recognised slave masters, see themselves as having little freedom, as being at the mercy of uncontrollable, anonymous economic and social forces, or of their circumstances, or of their own stupidity, and whose personal ambitions are permanently blunted thereby.... It is therefore important to understand what legal slavery meant.... There was slavery first of all because those who wished to be left alone could not keep out of the way of those who enjoyed violence. The violent have been victorious for most of history because they kindled the fear with which everyone is born. Secondly, humans became slaves ‘voluntarily’...overcome by depression, [and] wanting to be rid of their responsibilities.... The third kind of slave was the ancestor of today’s ambitious executive and bureaucrat.... Slaves had no family, no loyalty to anybody but their master. They made the most reliable officials, soldiers, private secretaries. The Ottoman and Chinese empires were often managed by slaves, who rose to the highest posts and indeed sometimes ended as grand viziers and emperors; castration made sure that they placed loyalty to the state before family. There are no statistics to say how many people are morally castrated by their employers today.”
(Zeldin, pp.7-10)

“The sting in the tail of this history of slavery is that once free, people often become robots, at least in part of their lives. There has been a great reluctance to abandon all forms of slavish behaviour...[because] to live outside the protection of someone more powerful than oneself was too frightening an adventure.... It is important to remember that it is tiring, and trying, being free; and in times of exhaustion affection for freedom has always waned, whatever lip-service might be paid to it. The conclusion I that freedom is not just a matter of rights, to be enshrined in law. The right to express yourself still leaves you with the need to decide what to say, to find someone to listen, and to make your words sound beautiful; these are skills which need to be acquired.”
(Zeldin, pp.10-11)

As these examples clearly demonstrate, the truths Zeldin tells us are not always comforting. Living as we do in societies which stress rights and competition over capabilities and co-operation, it is certainly not comforting to learn how this actively cripples the potential of many/most in our midst...and how closely it mirrors earlier forms of explicit slavery. In direct contrast, however, the second chapter’s conversations open up the possibilities for our growth, whilst history shows us how imperfectly we have pursued this route in the past...

“Is it inevitable that so many conversations should be fruitless? Why, after so centuries of experience, are humans so awkward, rude, inattentive in conversation, with even 40 per cent of Americans - brought up to regard silence as unfriendly - complaining that they are too shy to speak freely? The answer is that conversation is still in its infancy. The world’s memory has been stuffed full with the names of generals rather than of conversationalists, perhaps because in the past most people spoke much less than they do now.... So long as success in life depended on military strength, or noble birth, or having a patron to protect one, ‘to converse’ was understood to mean ‘to live with, to frequent, to belong to the circle of someone powerful’, with no need for speech beyond proclaiming one’s obedience and loyalty.... The language of courtiers for long remained coarse, their demeanour ostentatious, their model strutting cocks. But then, the ladies of the courts grew tired of this routine, and first in Italy, then in France and England, and finally throughout Europe and beyond, a new model of how a human being should behave was invented. demanding the opposite - politeness, gentleness, tact and culture.”
(Zeldin, p.31-5)

In this, in certain ways, we have - of course - merely returned to the approach of our mobile hunter-gatherer ancestors, for whom social work was mainly verbal, and more fluidly conversational than didactic or overtly antagonistic. Similarly, such cultures also generally have had more equitable power relationships between the sexes than other pre-modern societies, as well as a mobility of association we have only recently exceeded. Thus, it is perhaps not so surprising to find that the full cultivation of conversation is such a recent event - when it so clearly undermines relations of power - nor that certain older constrained forms, having relocated in social space, still retain their appeal in our far from having fully domesticated power.

“Conversation is quite unlike confession or its secularized variants, quite unlike the practice of pouring out one’s troubles to anybody who will listen, paying them to listen if necessary. The healer who listens aims to put an end to the confession.... Conversation, by contrast, demands equality between participants. Indeed, it is is one of the most important ways of establishing equality. Its enemies are rhetoric, disputation, jargon and private languages, or despair at not being listened to and not being understood. To flourish, it needs the help of midwives, of either sex: women have generally shown more skill at this task, but there were times in the history of feminism when some gave up on conversation and staked all on persuasion. [But] only when people learn to converse will they begin to be equal.”
(Zeldin, p.41)

And, whilst theorists of power are a legion, Zeldin joins Charles Taylor in noting just how debased this coinage has become in the public esteem of late, as affluent societies move further away from the mindset of earlier notions of “nobility” toward a higher valuation of respect, shorn of its age-old symbiosis with power itself. The point is well-made, albeit little-noticed by most social observers, and it has profound implications for future developments in a variety of spheres, as this attitudinal shift matures and bears fruit...

“To be king: that was once the universal dream.... [But] in real life, for the last 5,000 years, the vast majority of humans have been submissive, cringing before authority and...inequality was accepted for so long because the bullied found victims to bully in their turn.... But now the obsession with domination and subordination is beginning to be challenged by a wider imagination, hungry for encouragement, for someone who will listen, for loyalty and trust, and above all for respect. The power to give orders is no longer enough.... Two worlds exist, side by side. In one, the struggle for power continues almost as it always has done. In the other it is not power that counts, but respect. Power no longer ensures respect....Traditionally, respect was converted into power, but it has now become desirable for its own sake, preferred raw rather than cooked. Most people feel they do not get as much respect as they deserve, and obtaining it has become for many more attractive than winning power.... Imaginations are beginning to work in a new way. It has ceased to be be admirable to treat people like animals, whose domestication was once humanity’s proudest achievement.... [But, then,] few noticed how the slave master was often enslaved by his victim....[and] civilisation was for many little more than a protection racket. Under this system, respect went mainly to those who lived at the expense of others. There has never been enough respect to go round, because so far only small quantities of it have been cultivated.”
(Zeldin, pp.135-8)

“Humans have misinterpreted what they call their animal inheritance. They are no longer faced with the simple choice which has dominated all history, that they should either be ‘realistic’ and behave as if life is a struggle of brute force, or else withdraw into utopian dreams.... War is no longer regarded as the most noble activity. And yet politicians have not yet given up using the metaphor, ‘fighting’ for their principles, ‘defeating’ their rivals. A new language has not yet been found for ‘winning’ respect.... [However,] there is nothing unprecedented in the current uncertainty about where humanity’s daily meal of respect is coming from. It is not the first time that official sources of respect have crumbled, causing people to scurry back to old beliefs, and to nibble at new ideologies.... [But] respect cannot be achieved by the same methods as power. It requires not chiefs, but mediators, arbitrators, encouragers and counsellors, or what the Icelandic sagas call peaceweavers, who do not claim to have a cure for all ills, and whose ambition is limited.... The difficulty in the past has been that such people have often demanded too high a price, and have ended up demanding obedience.”
(Zeldin, pp.140-4)

While Zeldin is unafraid to confront the darker side of our felt lives, his prime focus - almost uniquely in a serious work of this sort - is on the positives, the lessons we should learn from our pasts which can offer real hopes for the future. Because, perhaps surprisingly to many, these are not in short supply...although they do not offer utopian “perfection”, by any means, as his outline of alternatives to loneliness should make clear:

“The fear of loneliness has been like a ball and chain, restraining ambition, as much of an obstacle to a full life as persecution, discrimination or poverty. Until the chain is broken, freedom, for many, will remain a nightmare.... However, loneliness is not incurable, any more than smallpox is. Its history shows that some people have developed more or less immunity from it by four methods. What these methods have in common is that they have followed the principle on which vaccination works, using loneliness itself, in calculated doses, to avoid being destroyed by it.”
(Zeldin, pp.59-61)

These methods, as Zeldin goes on to outline, were those pioneered by hermits, artists cultivating their own individuality, eccentrics who “combined loneliness with humour and extracted courage from the mixture” and those who find belonging in some broader coherence than their social world, whether theistic or not. And yet, he goes on to say:

“None of these four methods is a guarantee against loneliness. Their effect is not to abolish loneliness, but to diminish the fear of being alone: only then can one relate to others on terms of mutual respect.... But the stimulus of other people is necessary for clear thoughts, and for knowing where one wants to go; only knowledge of humanity’s previous experience can save one from suffering disillusionment. [And,] having won the right to be alone, to be an exception to generalisations (which can be even more dangerous to freedom than generals), having freed oneself from the generalisation that humans are condemned to suffer from loneliness, one can stand it on its head: turn being alone upside down and it becomes adventure.”
(Zeldin, p.70)

Similarly, perhaps, his treatment of love is both temperate and hopeful...informed by the vast flexibility humans have brought to this emotion, yet steering a careful course between the romantic and cynical extremes so easily aroused in this realm. And, as always, he has some fascinating observations to deliver:

“Love is no longer what it was. There are two types of women in the world today of whom there were very few in the past: the educated and the divorced. And every time new sorts of people emerge, they give new direction to the passions...[as] they take apart the different elements of which love is composed, and recombine them to suit themselves, twisting, adding, suppressing.... For about ten centuries, [however,] Europe has echoed mainly two of the strains in Arab love - the idealisation of women and the fusion of the lover’s souls - neither of which can satisfy the longings of those whose ambition is to understand their partners as they are, and to continue to exist as a more or less independent being. Idealisation once seemed to be a chivalrous answer to the impermanence of affection, and fusion offered a romantic solution to loneliness; in both cases love was used as a remedy, because the world was passing through a hypochondriac phase of history, dominated by the sense of sin, or guilt, or shame.... But now that boys and girls are being educated together, and forming friendships of a kind that have not existed before between the sexes, love can assume other shapes.”
(Zeldin, p.75-84)

Including, one would hope, the passionately playful one in which romantic love had its birth amongst the Bedouin, but which has been sadly neglected in European conceptions of love to date. However, as I noted earlier, the sheer range of feelings & relations touched upon in this work makes comprehensive survey an untenable proposition, so I will content myself here with one further observation I cherish, before moving to conclude this review:

“Geniuses do not find it easy to decide what is worth thinking about and what is not. They have the reputation of being totally absorbed in their speciality, but creative thinking is in fact the very opposite, a wandering in unknown territory, a search for connections where there seem to be none. What distinguishes geniuses is the conviction that they will one day find the clue, and emerge from the jungle; they are not afraid of being lost.”
(Zeldin, p.431)

Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity is a tour-de-force both stylistically and imaginatively, serving both as a marvellous introduction to historical work on “mentalities” and as an essential tool for re-thinking much about our emotional lives in light of the lessons of human history. Such re-thinking may be more difficult than its purely intellectual equivalent but, as contemporary neuroscience - and all cultural history - amply demonstrates, we disrespect our emotional lives only at our peril...

“The age of discovery has barely begun. So far individuals have spent more time trying to understand themselves than discovering others. But now curiosity is expanding as never before.... The shift in interest away from national squabbles to broad humanitarian and environmental concerns is a sign of the urge to escape from ancient obsessions, to keep in view all the different dimensions of reality, and to focus simultaneously on the personal, the local, and the universal. Justice - humanity’s oldest dream - has remained elusive because the art of doing this is only gradually being learned. In ancient times, justice was blind, unable to recognise the humanity that is in everybody. In modern times it has been one-eyed, narrowly focused on the principle of impersonality, imposing the same rules on everybody so as to avoid nepotism and favouritism, but unable to notice what people feel when they are treated impersonally and coldly, however justly or efficiently. The impersonal monetary compensations of the welfare state have not been able to heal the wounds of unfairness, because nothing can compensate for a wasted life, least of all when even in the USA, which has studied efficiency to its limits, it takes seven tax dollars to get one additional dollar into the hands of a poor person. Only with both eyes open is it possible to see that humans have always needed not just food and shelter, health and education, but also work that is not soul-destroying and relationships that do more than keep loneliness out; humans need to be recognised as persons. This book is a history of persons.”
(Zeldin, pp.466-9)

John Henry Calvinist