In The Future of Our Past, H.J. Blackham examines what he calls “‘universals’ of history.” Universals are cultures, religions or empires that can “claim to be a model for the human race.” In Western Civilization, these so-called “universals” have their origins in Classical Greece, Judea and the Roman Empire (Blackham, p. 8). After acquainting the reader with this view, Blackham presents a chronology divided into four parts.
Part One is sub-divided into three sections, “Hellas,” “Zion” and “Romanitas,” which describe the history of each culture and its contribution to Western Civilization. Part Two discusses the Middle Ages in Europe after the fall of Rome, with an emphasis on what information from the three universals was lost, what was preserved, and what was rediscovered at the end of that period. Part Three begins with the Renaissance, a re-awakening for which Blackham credits the rediscovery of Greek philosophy and culture. It ends with the secularization of Europe at the completion of the 19th Century. Part Four is devoted to the 20th Century, its various difficulties, and what the author calls “the final universal model…the One World which the West has brought about and organized as a consequence of technological innovation, and has inescapably laid on all humanity…a shared human self-awareness that is a new version and vision of what humanity is” (Blackham, p. 9).
A little ethnocentric? Discussing the development of Europe is a fine topic of history. But offering Europe’s so-called universal forebears as “a model for the human race,” and claiming in the end that the final universal is a model created by the West and “laid on all humanity” is a bit blinkered. He presents his theory as if the other continents on the planet are just passive receptacles of western gifts, rather than participants in the evolution of culture. This is nowhere more apparent than in his ignoring of Medieval Islam. When the West was experiencing a dearth of education, Islam was preserving a great deal of the Greek legacy, which it passed-on to the Christian West. In addition, Blackham inaccurately states that “The Greeks originated the scientific approach” (Blackham, p. 8). The Greeks employed empirical observation of the physical world; but observation alone is not scientific method. Most historians of science recognize Ibn al-Haytham (965 AD – 1040 AD), a Persian Muslim, as the first individual recorded to have performed experiments according to the scientific method. These too were passed-on to the West.
The most significant failure in the book is that Blackham drops his thesis less than half way through. After discussing the debt that the Renaissance owes to Greece, the author loses his thread connecting the three model universals to the following history. From that point on, the originality of the document, however flawed with traditionalism and ethnocentrism, reverts to a standard recap of events between the Renaissance and the present.
This recap has value. It optimistically depicts an evolution of culture from religious ignorance to science and rational secularism, with all the technological and medical benefits that accompany that change. Blackham understands that the prior “uniformity of Christendom…implied a rigid orthodoxy…enforceable if necessary by totalitarian power.” The freeing of thought, along with related scientific, political and cultural developments, “opened the door of obedience to the intrusion of questions” (Blackham, pp. 110-111).
As the narrative reaches the 20th Century, a chaos of wars, injustices, religious extremisms, ecological crises and other problems, threaten to drown the theme of civilized development. It is here that the author attempts to establish his “final universal”: “Responsibility for consequences, good and ill, is at last recognized as being global and shared…Everyone has the moral obligation to work out and undertake his or her appropriate part in the collective tasks…In fulfilling this obligation, one enacts one’s personal human identity. This is the bond of human union and the final historical universal that supersedes the claims of Hellas, Zion, and Romanitas to universality” (Blackham, p. 381). An inspiring goal for humanity. If only there was some confirmation that this so-called universal was anything more than a personal wish of the author’s. He offers no evidence of a worldwide trend or force moving in that direction. If anything, most of the final section makes the point that the activities of the 20th Century are driven by greed, violence and selfishness, rather than a sense of global cooperation. Blackham reached the end of his book, after having dropped his universals in the Renaissance, and attempted to cobble together a final universal that had no foundation in the modern portrait he had just presented.
Readers who undertake The Future of Our Past, will be rewarded with an effective presentation involving the currents of Hellas, Zion and Romanitas, which aided Western Civilization through Medieval times and affected the Renaissance. In addition, an encouraging synopsis of secular development in Europe between Renaissance and 19th Century, is exhibited. If one is mindful of the pitfalls of ethnocentrism and unsubstantiated theory, one will benefit from the information.
Blackham, H.J. The Future of Our Past. From Ancient Greece to Global Village. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996.