Books by William H. McNeill

Released: Nov. 1, 1983

In two papers (delivered at Baylor in 1982) and 61 pellucid pages, McNeill (The Rise of the West, Plagues and Peoples, The Human Condition) revives and renews Walter Prescott Webb's thesis that European expansion created a Great Frontier around the globe—where not only progress, freedom, and equality prevailed, but also destruction, compulsion, and slavery: "the persistent double-edgeness of change." The aim is to rid us of provincialism—put "the States back into the world as one of a family of peoples and nations similarly situated"—and also to expose the "romantic delusion" of an Arcadian past. The evidence derives from McNeill's unsurpassed knowledge of steppe and veldt and Outback, of disease and demographics, of transportation, communication, agriculture, and trade—in which he perceives patterns. The two papers divide at 1750. In the two centuries before, the Europeans' diseases ("epidemiological superiority"), combined with their "greater or lesser superiority of skills," destroyed native populations (in the US, USSR, Latin America); the resulting labor shortage, for agricultural or mineral production, brought recourse to compulsory labor (slaves, serfs, indentured servants, peons); "the arts and skills of civilization" made little headway. After 1750, however, transportation and communication links grew—and, most crucially, population soared. (McNeill reviews the possible reasons—with particular attention to the spread of American food crops, like potatoes and peanuts, yielding "more calories per acre than anything grown before.") When there was no more land to be tilled, and no other livelihood at hand, migration set in (to Australia and South Africa, as well as North and South America)—reducing the differences between European and frontier societies, and bringing the legal abolition of slavery and serfdom. But, McNeill emphasizes, "legally sanctioned compulsory labor" persisted—in Australia and the Congo, in the transport of Indian and Chinese "coolies" to the fringes of British and American settlements (carrying "three times as many persons across the world's oceans as ever left Africa in Atlantic slave ships"). Once again: a monumental thesis, compactly and matter-of-factly put. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 1982

In his Plagues and Peoples (1976) University of Chicago historian McNeill surveyed world history from the perspective of the influence of microparasites in human life and social organization; this much longer overview is based on "macroparasites"—i.e., other human beings. Plato called those who were entrusted with the physical defense of the community, and nothing else, Guardians. McNeill calls those who, specializing in violence, are able to secure a living without producing, macroparasites. But if McNeill's characterization suggests that he doesn't share Plato's view of the warrior as an organic part of society, he nonetheless winds up showing that warfare is never independent of other factors. The technical means of movement and supply, for example, posed physical limits to the scale of ancient empires: Xerxes' invasion of ancient Greece stretched those limits too far, and resulted in catastrophe. For a long time, Chinese leaders were able to maintain restrictive control over growing commercial practices within their realm; but commercial practices did proliferate, and contributed to the material provisioning of nomads who were eventually able to break through Chinese defenses. In Europe during the same period (10001600), the development of commercial practices—together with the establishment of well-organized, tax-supported military units (a "self-sustaining feedback loop," as McNeill puts it)—represented a new fusion that resulted in European military predominance. From then on, McNeill concentrates on Europe and America, chronicling such transformations in war-making as those resulting from the development of staff officers who prepared written battle plans, or from blast-furnace innovations that made possible new and more accurate cannons. Napoleon's vast French army is attributed by McNeill to population pressure (which he considers a main cause of the French Revolution); the Crimean War's sudden, overwhelming demand for weapons is seen as ushering in the era of mass-produced weapons made possible by new industrial production techniques. Thereafter, manufacturing and war went together, from the new technologies of transportation to modern notions of integrated weapons systems. But while McNeill is able to chronicle all of this, he is unable to show that war was the critical factor in historical developments; instead, war properly comes across as, at most, supplying new demand for goods the social and economic system was already capable of producing. As a survey of military history, though, it's a work of exceptional breadth. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 10, 1976

McNeill's global history of infectious disease and its effect on the political destinies of men is built on a stunning analogy: the "microparasitism" of viruses and bacteria—carriers of typhoid, malaria, et al.—is intimately bound up with the "macroparasitism" of human predators, be they Chinese warlords, Roman soldiers, or Spanish conquistadors. Epidemological upheavals produce disarray in political and social structures; conversely microparasitic stability which allows for population growth and food surpluses seems to be a prerequisite of macroparasitic equilibrium. McNeill develops this thesis initially by examining the "disease pools" of ancient China, the Indian subcontinent, and the Mediterranean. Rome's decay between 200 and 600 A.D. demonstrates that when a new disease (in this case smallpox and measles) strikes a previously unexposed population, catastrophic die-offs occur. Much later, the age of oceanic exploration (1450-1550) brought similar cataclysms to Mexico and Peru where the native Amerindian populations (who had no immunity to Eurasia's "common childhood diseases") died off by the millions. Nothing escapes McNeill's reckoning: the Hindu caste system; the impetus epidemics gave to early Christianity which stressed the evanescence of human life and—no small matter—the nursing and care of the sick; the lethal blow which the advent of the bubonic plague in 14th-century Europe dealt to the rational theology of Acquinas; the "disease barrier" which until the 19th century kept the technologically advanced "macroparasites" of European imperialism from effective penetration of Africa. To be sure the scanty and often indecipherable medical writings of the ancient world force McNeill to rely on a great deal of speculation, deduction, and even guesswork. The book will provoke arguments from countless specialists. No matter. Plagues and People, a glorious successor to The Rise of the West, integrates ecology and demography with politics and culture on a vast scale. A brilliantly conceptualized and challenging scholarly achievement. Read full book review >
Released: May 9, 1974

McNeill wishes to "demonstrate the feasability as well as the importance of explicitly seeking an overall interpretive scheme for European history." Such an "architectonic vision" already permeates the conventional view in the form of the growth of liberty. McNeill offers an apologia for the "grand design" approach to history and sketches an alternative "cultural pattern," his model being "metropolitan centers"; he says, "Successful innovations tend to cluster in time and space," producing a "cultural slope" of developments in technology and economics. Such centers (McNeill particularly stresses the impact of the Italian city-states) are emulated by neighboring peoples, characteristically as they — the centers — begin their own cultural decline. It is a model which has tacitly informed his work for some time; its explicit enunciation is enlightening. Read full book review >
A WORLD HISTORY by William H. McNeill
Released: April 27, 1967

William H. McNeill's The Rise of the West is perhaps the most lucid and intelligent one-volume presentation of world history in narrative form ever written. Winner of the National Book Award in History and Biography in 1964, it is surely one of the most scholarly and exciting histories of our times. The reader expecting something dramatically new in McNeill's A World History will be disappointed. It is little more than a condensation of the larger history, written in slightly simpler language. In The Rise of the West the author divided history into three eras: Middle Eastern dominance to 500 B.C., Eurasian cultural balance to 1500 A.D., and the era of Western dominance to the present. His central thesis was that the civilizations of mankind had important interrelations at every stage of their history. He says exactly the same thing in the new book: "Such a survey as this ought to bring home the uncertainty and open-endedness of cultural interactions between Western and non-Western mankind. (In mankind's future) there will surely be blending and intermingling of cultures, as there has always been in the past when men of divergent styles of life met and mingled." Although it is completely re-written, A World History is chapter for chapter a simplified parallel to The Rise of the West. Not having the benefit of pertinent front matter, this reader can only assume that the new version is intended as a student text or as a "reading" edition for those incapable of dealing with the original. One wonders why anyone needs A World History when the complete text of The Rise of the West is available in paper for only a dollar and a half. Read full book review >
Released: May 28, 1947

Current interest in and concern with Greece and our commitments there will make this book of immediate interest to many who have not previously provided a market. Stationed in Greece for more than 18 months as a military attache (1944-46) the author made it his business to inform himself through study and first hand investigation of the perplexing situation he found there. This book shares those findings with a similarly perplexed public. He has succeeded in keeping an objective viewpoint, while not hesitating to recognize the compensating circumstances and contributing causes which have led to a virtual elimination of any middle ground, with which we should like to deal, and the pressure factors which have resulted in extremes of right and left psychology and performance, with which- in almost equal measure- we are basically out of sympathy. The historical steps which led to the development of these forces of conflict, to the inevitability of civil war, are recounted in concise terms, shorn, perhaps, of the drama and color and anecdotal quality which would make this more vivid reading, but with an authoritative sense of sound reporting that gives the background the reader needs today. A useful book, quick highspotting of modern history in the making, brief pen portraits of the leaders. Read full book review >

The reputation of Arnold Toynbee—whose Study of History was called by Time magazine "the best available guide to the meaning of history and the destiny of humankind"—has over the intervening years slipped into a scholarly limbo. Toynbee's type of sweeping overview of the rise and decline of civilizations has become suspect; specialization is now the watchword among historians. In this gracefully written, subtly reasoned, warts-and-all (thought not vindictive) biography, McNeill (History/Univ. of Chicago; Rise of the West, 1964) does not aim to set Toynee back atop a pedestal, but merely to stimulate a reevaluation of the British historian's theories and works. The result is a cogent, evenhanded, and consistently involving study. The author is just as scrupulous in his depiction of Toynbee's personal life. He makes no attempt to gloss over his subject's many shortcomings: Toynbee's combination of outward modesty and inward craving for adulation, his near-pathological concern for financial security, his coldness toward his children, his snobbery. The only son of a middle-class family aways terrified of toppling into genteel poverty, Toynbee was an intellectual wonder. He was awarded scholarships to prestigious schools and consistently walked off with honors. He remained a researchaholic all his life, turning out masses of detailed papers and books; and later married the imperious Rosalind Murray, daughter of Gilbert Murray and his aristocratic wife, Lady Mary—a connection that eased his rise to prominence. As his monumental Study of History appeared in volume after volume, his reputation likewise burgeoned. Ultimately, after several children, Rosalind converted to Roman Catholicism, and the marriage split asunder. Toynbee was devastated, but in time he married his research assistant. Over the years, he formed his own peculiar version of religiosity; it was this spiritual "awakening" that accounts for the switch in tone between the earlier and later volumes of his masterwork, a disparity often noted by subsequent critic/historians. A fair and stimulating look at an immensely gifted, immensely flawed figure. Read full book review >