Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review of H.G. Wells' Outline Of History

If history of humanity feels a lot like the following video to you, then you need to read this book, or at least my review of it: (PG-13 for violence and some language, but it is VERY relevant!).

The premise of this monumental work of H.G. Wells’ is staggering: sketch all of history as succinctly as possible while critiquing major figures and events, noting their contributions to the evolving story and progress of humankind, and imagining for the reader the trajectory along which everything is barreling. Wells pulled it off quite nicely, although it was inevitable that sections of the work would became bogged down by a litany of names, dates, and places; but I’m assuming there were critics to please, and people who would feel he was doing history buffs a disservice by leaving out names and events that meant a lot to a particular demographic. His chronological table alone spans 15 pages. You can’t please them all, but Wells did as well as anyone I’ve read.

I have been asked a couple of times why I am reading an out-of-date historical work. The last revision to the Outline in Wells’ lifetime was published in 1937. Later, Raymond Postgate updated it, trying to preserve the ‘voice’ of Wells (which I think he did a fine job of); and Wells’ son, G.P. Wells, updated the final edition in 1971. It appears that since the last update in 1971, more has been added to our understanding of history than overturned. Mostly, Wells was timeless in the unique way he chose to outline and summarize happenings and, more importantly, ideas, for he believed that “all human history is fundamentally a history of ideas.” His remarkable storytelling stands out far beyond other histories that are a mere recitation of facts.

The goal of this review is to accomplish at least one of two things:

1)      I hope to interest people to read the Outline for its insight, if not for factual information.

2)      I hope to distill the insights that I’ve gathered to offer them in condensed form for those who will never be interested enough to read the entire two-volume work. The work as a whole may better represent historiography or philosophy of history instead of history per se, so, as much as I hate to say it, it is most likely already going the way of the dinosaur as far as a plain chronicle of episodes is concerned. This is an assumption, but there are probably other works out there that can do that job better. So, I want to share my gleanings. There is so much rich stuff here. I wish people could make the connection between what they love in H.G. Wells’ other writings, and infer that the same creative mind is at work in this Outline to help readers understand the deep meaning of humanity’s experiences, but that isn’t likely. So, my peeps, allow me to regurgitate for you.

Wells fully commits to the story of early humanity in a way that few seldom know to do. He seems to really understand all that was and is hanging on humanity’s evolution, and all the ramifications of the nuanced changes and milestones. His grasp of the origins of religion is especially illuminating. He reduces much early religion to a fear of the Old Man in a tribal culture who was the dominant male that ensured the survival of the tribe, monopolized the females, and demanded the fear, servility and absolute reverence of the other males. The taboo associated with tampering with any of the belongings of the Old Man carved deep grooves in the tribe’s psyche—“the fear of the Old Man was the beginning of social wisdom”—and probably influenced posterity’s fear of the Old Man coming back, since a fetish-awed mentality shrouded the dead in supernatural possibilities. Slowly but surely, “The fear of the Father passed by imperceptible degrees into the fear of the Tribal God.” There are traces here of Herbert Spencer’s ideas, one of the fathers of evolution who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, which developed the idea that religion’s root lies in the chief of a tribe whose mastery over his people and environment began to be understood by his contemporaries and successive generations as a difference that is “not of degree only, but of kind” (from Universal Progress).  The chief was a superman to his ordinary brethren, and the dead chief became the archetype of the aboriginal deity. 

Wells stretches this theory further to account for the growing fear and respect for priest-craft, which cultivated a hegemony of power by forging “secrets in order to have secrets to tell.” This groping veneration culminated in what we now consider to be the most barbaric of rituals and self-sacrifice. The blood-letting which characterized many of the primitive cultures was a matter of course. “To lift curses, to remove evils, to confirm and establish, one must needs do potent things. And was there anything more potent in existence than killing, the shedding of life-blood?” What began as fetishism in the late Paleolithic period morphed over the epochs into full-blown animism and later, as language developed in the Neolithic stage, into crudely systematized and heavily ritualized religious belief.

“Out of all these factors, out of the Old Man tradition, out of the emotions that surround Women for men and Men for women, out of the desire to escape infection and uncleanness, out of the desire for power and success through magic, out of the sacrificial tradition of seedtime, and out of a number of like beliefs and mental experiments and misconceptions, a complex something was growing up in the lives of men which was beginning to bind them together mentally and emotionally in a common life and action. This something we may call religion. It was not a simple or logical something, it was a tangle of ideas about commanding beings and spirits, about gods, about all sorts of ‘musts’ and ‘must-nots’. Like all other human matters, religion has grown. It must be clear from what has gone before that primitive man—much less his ancestral apes and his ancestral Mesozoic mammals—could have had no idea of God or religion; only very slowly did his brain and his powers of comprehension become capable of such general conceptions. Religion is something that has grown up with and through human association, and God has been and is still being discovered by man…Hitherto a social consciousness had been asleep and not even dreaming in human history. Before it awakened, it produced nightmares.”

Wells makes the fascinating observation that the appearance of civilization and temples are simultaneous in history. “It was in the early temples that the records and tallies of events were kept and that writing began. And knowledge was there.” It was there that people put their trust for a good crop, or health, or a better life for their children. People invested in the temple, it drew the creativity and intelligence of the community, and people paid homage and dues to it of a substantial kind. It was the wealth of the village. While the common people worked out in the fields and toiled in mind-numbing, exhausting labor, the priests had leisure and sanction to think at a more complex level. This does not necessarily imply that the priests and religious leaders were always conscious of deception or manipulation, but they were in a position of power, privilege, and convenience, and the lower level of their culture could have no integral part in the ideation and decision-making of the priests because they believed, and contributed to the priests’ belief, that the temple leaders were part of a higher order of beings and therefore completely justified and inscrutable in how they handled their responsibilities as community rulers par excellence. The disparity would only increase over time, with an exaggerated intensity during crisis or war.

As civilization advanced, the administrative/political tasks of the community became specialized beyond the interests or abilities of the priest, and ultimately separated out the role of a king; and the priest and king led the community together, albeit with frequent clashes. As people settled into civilized life under these authorities, free from constant nomadic wandering, hunger, war, and fear, there was a certain sacrifice that had to be made. “A certain freedom and a certain equality passed out of human life when men ceased to wander. Men paid in liberty and they paid in toil, for safety, shelter, and regular meals.” The road to stability with a 3-meal plan, within a sphere of limited freedom, has been slow and arduous. “All animals—and man is no exception—begin life as dependents. Most men never shake themselves loose from the desire for leading and protection. Most men accept such conditions as they are born to, without further question.”

It is interesting to see the development of the back-and-forth conflict between the settled/civilized, and the nomads, which Wells imputes to a fundamental difference in mentality and practices between the two types who attempt in different ways to reconcile freedom with civilization. “It seems as inevitable that voyaging should make men free in their minds as that settlement within a narrow horizon should make men timid and servile.” Rome, we know, fell to the nomadic ‘barbarians’: Visigoths in Spain, Lombards in Italy, Anglos/Saxons in England, Celts in Scotland and Ireland, Vandals in Tunisia, and Franks in France. Then the Monguls came from Asia, and gave Eurasia a spanking like it had never experienced. Wells addresses the ending of the era of nomad-city conflict:

“For thousands of years the settled civilized peoples…seem to have developed their ideas and habits along the line of worship and personal subjection, and the nomadic peoples theirs along the line of personal self-reliance and self-assertion. Naturally enough, under the circumstances, the nomadic peoples were always supplying the civilizations with fresh rulers and new aristocracies. That is the rhythm of all early history.” 

The cycles of invasion, settlement, opulence, decadence, and fresh conquest continued until a new blend of civilized people came about who were zealous for their freedoms while committed to an idea of social collaboration and security.

The industrial revolution was another watershed in the rise of equalitarian ideals and human progress in terms of, well, people not killing each other so much. It is very interesting to read Wells’ differentiation between the mechanical revolution and the industrial revolution, both of which happened simultaneously in the late 18th/early 19th century first in England, and later in Western Europe and the United States. Though this era is usually referred to simply as the Industrial Revolution, Wells is emphatic in helping the reader understand that a mechanical or technological revolution, with new and improved machines for production of goods and efficiency of labor, was not the same thing as an industrial revolution, although it may influence or be influenced by the latter, including new ways to structure labor and financial processes. The factory method, for instance, came before the actual new-fangled machines and consisted of a new division of collective labor, “herding poor people into establishments to work collectively for their living.” But there was a definite redeeming value to an industrial revolution’s concurrence with a mechanical revolution. Because machine power was being harnessed to do the work of human beings, it became more necessary to educate the common man to secure ‘industrial efficiency’, and his intelligence was slowly distinguished from and valued above the muscle and drudgework of manual labor which was left to the machine-works.  This higher valuation of the common laborer didn’t happen immediately (read any Dicken’s novel for a sense of how the immediate confusion the machines brought with them precipitated much suffering and death until their role was better understood), but it was only a matter of time before the human asset was clearly seen as wasted potential when competing with machine labor. “If, for a generation or so, machinery had to wait it’s turn in the mine, it is simply because for a time men were cheaper than machinery”, and, I would add, men, women and children were better understood, traditionally entrenched, and more readily available for the moment. Wells even dares to imagine some dubious benefit to children involved in factory labor who were always obligated to find what work they could to support their family, but now could do it in an environment which would make child-labor in general more “systematic, conspicuous, and scandalous.” This is an instance in which the industrial changes “challenged the quickening human conscience.”  The industrial revolution, as opposed to the mechanical revolution, would have happened regardless of coal, steam and new machines, but without the machines it may have shared a similar end as the social and financial developments (revolutions) of the later years of the Roman Republic in “dispossessed free cultivators, gang labor, great estates, great financial fortunes, and a socially destructive financial process.”

Wells had such a unique way of summarizing a culture’s beginnings and meanings. I felt like I was learning some historical lessons for the first time, even with narratives that I had believed I was thoroughly familiar with. The customs of ancient Egypt, which I have always viewed as highly creative and idealistic in many ways, he characterized as mostly practical and unimaginative, and even their approach to an afterlife was supremely pragmatic in that they primarily helped the deceased prepare essentials for the next part of a journey. For them, metaphysics was a packing list.

When commenting on the early history of Israel, Wells continued to shoot straight about the ‘Holy Land’, although it was clear he was cognizant of the possibility of offending religious readers. “[The story of Israel’s civil wars] is a tale frankly barbaric…For three centuries the life of the Hebrews was like the life of a man who insists upon living in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, and is consequently being run over constantly by omnibuses and motor-lorries…The plain fact of the Bible narrative is that the Jews went to Babylon barbarians, and came back civilized. They went a confused and divided multitude, with no national self-consciousness; they came back with an intense and exclusive national spirit.” Why did Wells care about what happened with this small nation of people? Because he saw in it a seed of something far greater that would one day grow so large and global that it would ignite the passion and imagination of all people in the world to see themselves as part of something larger, and this theme of world unity would be later spearheaded by Jesus of Nazareth himself.

“The jealous pettiness that disfigures the earlier tribal ideas of God gives place to a new idea of a god of universal righteousness…From this time onward there runs through human thought, now weakly and obscurely, now gathering power, the idea of one rule in the world, and of a promise and possibility of an active and splendid peace and happiness in human affairs. From being a temple religion of the old type, the Jewish religion becomes, to a large extent, a prophetic and creative religion of a new type…Two thousand four hundred years ago, and six or seven or eight thousand years after the walls of the first Sumerian cities arose, the ideas of the moral unity of mankind and of a world peace had come into the world.”

It is very evident that Wells loved the dirty, bold, revolutionary Jesus that believed in universal peace and preached a united kingdom of peoples of all types in which there were no lower class citizens. But much in the same way that Gautama Buddha, who left his palace to mingle with the poor and speak about earthly peace, has been transfigured into a teacher of metaphysics and detached escapism—a  “stiff squatting figure, the gilded idol of later Buddhism”—so Jesus has been emasculated by an attempt to make him and his down-to-earth, revolutionary teaching more palatable. “The lean and strenuous personality of Jesus is much wronged by the unreality and conventionality that a mistaken reverence has imposed upon his figure in modern Christian art. Jesus was a penniless teacher, who wandered about the dusty sun-bit country of Judea, living upon casual gifts of food; yet he is always represented clean, combed, and sleek, in spotless raiment, erect, and with something motionless about him as though he was gliding through the air. This alone has made him unreal and incredible to many people who cannot distinguish the core of the story from the ornamental and unwise additions of the unintelligently devout.”

The core teachings of Jesus as propagated by Christians certainly took at turn by the 4th century CE. The Roman Emperor Constantine was brilliant in taking advantage of the passion and solidarity represented in the Christian faith to unite the empire. He is cited by Wells as being extremely authoritarian and autocratic, but he shrewdly harnessed the energy of a movement that was obviously a force greater than his politics alone could muster. The First Council Of Nicaea was an opportunistic attempt by Constantine to increase this solidarity because theological rifts were diminishing the swell of religious fervor he wished to tap. He was a pagan following after the Roman pantheon of gods, and his involvement in the council was a major conflict of interest, though it was overlooked in his day and in our own by many traditions that refuse to be uprooted from his council’s decisions. The church leaders wanted stringency of doctrine, while the Emperor wanted more political power through unity. He probably would have proclaimed vampirism as the official Roman religion if they would all have agreed on that! Constantine most likely couldn't care less about Christianity as a personal awakening but more as a “unifying moral force.” He was a shrewd autocrat, and established church council meetings to “stamp out controversy and impose a dogmatic creed upon all believers” which would stop the doctrinal fighting and give him free reign to make peremptory decisions, “free from opposition and criticism.” The church councils all amount to what Wells keenly labels a “rough summons to unanimity” to establish the authority of the emperor.

In general Wells actually treats religious history very fairly and sympathetically, and sees in religious expansion a growth of education, a concept of unity, and a dispossessing of social orders and political systems that had grown defunct.

“Throughout all its variations and corruptions, Christianity has never completely lost the suggestion of a devotion to God’s commonweal that makes the personal pomps of monarchs and rulers seem like the insolence of an overdressed servant, and the splendors and gratifications of wealth like the waste of robbers. No man living in a community which such a religion as Christianity or Islam has touched can be altogether a slave; there is an ineradicable quality in these religions that compels men to judge their masters and to realize their own responsibility for the world.”

Muslims, for instance, conquered and ruled in some areas which were quite happy for the change in government, and fundamentalism may have helped to provide strict order and consistency until a people felt a secure enough foundation beneath them to be able to make changes and explore new ideas. Islam offered a sense of equality “that made the believing negro the equal of the Caliph” and Islamic societies were “more free from widespread cruelty and social oppression than any society had ever been in the world before.” That is not to say that oppression and tyranny wasn’t a problem, especially for those who resisted Islam, Christianity, and other invading religions; but Wells sees a lot of meaning in the timing of religions and revolutions. Even the Papacy of the12th/13th century he viewed as a “first clearly conscious attempt to provide such a government [of universal peace] to the [entire] world”, though he believed the buttresses of ancient religious forms would eventually fall away so that “communities of faith and obedience” could grow into adulthood as “communities of knowledge and will.”

The true wealth of this outline is in the way Wells interprets, and not merely reports, history. He has such a great balanced perspective, and has a good idea of what it all means. His imagination is profound, and often he seems not only informed, but, dare I say, prophetic. He’s as much concerned with the ‘why’ of history, and the ‘what now’, as he is any dry fact. History is not information for Wells, it is inspiration and a loud clarion of warning. He looks at ancient Israel and sees a world peace that is the moon half-hid by the clouds of religious forms. He refuses to revere, only appreciate, the works attributed to Homer. Of Plato and Aristotle he marks the quintessence of bravery and consistency. He says of them, “[Aristotle] was terribly sane and luminous…Plato says in effect: ‘Let us take hold of life and remodel it’; this soberer successor [Aristotle says]: ‘Let us first know more of life and meanwhile serve and use the king.’ It was not so much a contradiction as an immense qualification of the master.” In Alexander The Great he sees a garish façade (“that precipitate wrecker of splendid possibilities”) eclipsing the light of his brilliant luminary of a father, Philip, who did most of the work towards Greek unification, and trained his military in the use of cavalry charges, catapults, and artillery preparation. He was disgusted with the return of the ‘red eyes of the ancestral ape’ in the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, of which he says, “The history of the Second and Third Punic Wars (between 218 and 146 BCE), it is plain, is not the history of perfectly sane peoples…the true spirit of the age is shown in the eager examination for signs and portents of the still quivering livers of those human victims who were sacrificed in Rome during the panic before the battle of Telamon.” That, along with slavery, incensed Wells enough to write, “If republican Rome was the first of modern self-governing national communities, she was certainly the ‘Neanderthal’ form of them.” He was also unimpressed with the exaggerated stability of the later Roman Empire, and attributes the modern well-faring reputation of Rome as mostly legend. The Crusades were a joke, with states kings and popes waging crusades against each other (I laughed out loud when reading this for the first time)! In his perspective, the later European ‘Powers’ were nations with capriciously set and flexible boundaries which changed constantly forming ‘entirely fictitious unities’.  The scuffle over North American ground is highly embarrassing to all nations involved in the power/money grab, and all are incriminated for the annihilation and oppression of native groups they came into contact with.  

He wasn’t a big fan of the Apostle Paul for turning Christianity back to a priestly-atonement idea of Christ as high priest, who had actually freed his followers from the priestly tyranny; or of Rudyard Kipling’s misunderstanding of Darwinian principles and literary effort to “lead the children of the middle and upper-class British public back to the Jungle to learn ‘the law’” which Wells’ thought amounted to a ‘might makes right’ sort of doctrine; Lord Byron was a “doggerel satirist with the philosophy of a man-about-town”; Sir Walter Scott wasted his powers on “regretful fiction” recalling the romantic, chivalrous past; he wants us to get it very clear in our heads that Napoleon was an neurotic momma’s boy (no, really) with only intermittent strokes of genius whose disastrous career obviously nauseates Wells as “an interruption, a reminder of latent evils, a thing like the bacterium of some pestilence…Even regarded as a pestilence, he was not of supreme rank”; and I’m sure Wells would surely have included Hitler on his black list, if he had been around long enough to see that young toadstool blossom.  

His favorites in history seem to be Jesus and Buddha, who he believed inaugurated freedom from caste systems, and religious/political oppression; 12th century German Emperor Frederick II who challenged and excoriated the Pope, and brought together people of different religions in his court; Roger Bacon in the 13th century, forerunner of William of Occam; 16th century essayists Montaigne and Rabelais; Robert Owen, the founder of experimental socialist methods and communities in the early 19th century; Shakespeare, of course; Charles Darwin who connected us to the significance of our pre-historical roots; Lincoln who bore the weight of the world on his shoulders to attain higher ideals of human fraternity and peace; and President Woodrow Wilson who worked to grow the embryo of the idealistic United Nations in the form of the League Of Nations.

Wells reminds us again and again that human development is extremely complex, but we have come a long way. Everything we see in civilization’s history is only the tip of the iceberg. “Half the duration of human civilization and the keys to all its chief institutions are to be found before Sargon I [king of the old-Assyrian empire 1920 BCE].” That’s why he spent a lot of time narrating prehistoric human evolution and tracing the branching out of the human species.

Wells sees that social unity is a primary goal that has been slow in coming, but is coming nonetheless. “[Humanity is] feeling its way blindly towards some linking and subordinating idea to save it from the pains and accidents of mere individuality.” And though progress has been long in coming, it could also go out in the blink of an eye. It is apparent near the end of the Outline that Wells’ bubble was officially burst at the outset of WWI, and perhaps it is fortunate he wasn’t around long enough to see the terrors of WWII, which would probably have pushed him to the brink of despair. He states that up until the beginning of WWI it was possible to look at the world and see that much progress had been made, “interrupted but always resumed, towards peace and freedom.” But the illusion shattered, and Wells sensed the extremely fragile nature of human progress, “Progress [is] not automatic. It must be fought for, not even the most elementary rights were secure.”

Wells continually circles back to three areas in which progress has often been delayed, but has struggled on consistently, precariously, and necessarily.

1.       Language

Language has been a key to the advancement of civilization and intellectual development for many reasons. Wells states that language has a far greater purpose than merely signaling our intentions or desires to another. Words and language helps to solidify our thought. “Speech gave man a mental handhold for consecutive thought, and a vast enlargement of their powers of co-operation.” Without language, thoughts and ideas faded away with faintly imprinting intuitions, and fell prey to the phantasmagoric feelings of the moment which were only ‘true’ as long as they lasted. A concept of truth or reality beyond transitory emotional experience was easily shoved behind the freshest sensations of pain or elation. Over time, language as ‘mental handholds’ grew more impermeable and developed a substantial thought life for individuals, and the effect increased cumulatively in community. “Human thinking became a larger operation in which hundreds of minds in different places and in different ages could react upon one another; it became a process constantly more continuous and sustained.”

The 20th century philosopher Susan Langer wrote in her essay Language And Thought that the purpose of symbolic language is to “bring an object to mind” and “transforming all direct experiences into imagery.”  Words as symbols spoken or written add permanence to quickly dissipating thoughts, and help to record the quality and behavior of the objective world by steadily monitoring it across temporal changes. Language, then, is humanity’s notepad and file system for experiences that can be drawn upon in the future for helpful advice. One can understand why this was such a prodigious achievement that is enough on its own to separate man from the animals.

2.       Large Scale Communication and Education

Once language developed, one would think that community-wide communication would be valued and increased at a rapid pace. Not so. It took a long time for societies to develop methods and understand the importance of communication, especially communication with what was considered superfluous peasantry. We must not forget that most people, for a long time, “knew nothing, except for a few monstrous legends, of the rest of the world in which one lived. We know more today, indeed, of the world of 600 BCE than any single living being knew at that time.” Imagine the ramifications of an inability to share information and failing to bring your citizens up to speed on societal events on a regular basis. It may be argued that an uncommunicative autocracy is efficient, but it isn’t most effective in the long run.  Writing, railroads, steam engines and the like eventually provided the tools necessary, but the understanding of the importance of communication to all citizens which would speed along technology was delayed. The failure of the Roman Empire can be reduced to a few factors, one of the most gaping holes being the absence of “any organization for the increase, development, and application of knowledge”, and this included the neglect to expand the road system that the Roman Republic had begun in earnest. In contrast to this neglect Wells applauds the early United States efforts to connect and inform all of its territories, without which he believes The U.S. would have become another disunited Europe.

State-wide education as a close corollary to communication and was also set aside for millennia as a matter that didn’t concern the state because its dividends were slow in coming, and mostly not recognized at all. Wells admits his amazement again and again that the world continued so long without taking seriously the need to instruct the masses. From the second century BCE writers and thinkers were commenting on the lack of education for the common man, and yet no one did anything about it. Until Christianity. “It was only with the development of the great propagandist religions in the Roman world, of which Christianity was the chief and the survivor, that the possibility of such a systematic instruction of great masses of people became apparent in the world.” Evangelism was, in Wells’ mind, the first real attempt of wide-scale instruction, education, and indoctrination on any subject. Even religious controversies sped the process along by developing competition for adherents, though for many centuries to an unhealthy extreme. Wells goes so far as to believe that “massive movements of the ‘ordinary people’ over considerable areas only became possible as a result of the propagandist religions, Christianity and Islam, and their insistence upon individual self-respect.”

Some religion-bashers see the promulgation of religion as a bad thing in history with devastating effects even today, but in the bigger picture, something was sparked by religion that may never have happened without a deeply personal passion to reach large numbers of people with a message that people felt mattered. For instance, let’s not forget the first Western printing press published Bibles and doctrinal theses! “We may think [Christianity and Islam] did their task of education in their vast fields of opportunity crudely or badly, but the point of interest to us is that they did it all. Both sustained world-wide propaganda of idea and inspiration. Both relied successfully upon the power of the written word to link great multitudes of diverse men together in common enterprises.” This was a huge step in human evolution.

The industrial/mechanical revolution in the late 18th century also gave rise to an understanding of the importance of education. As mentioned earlier in this review, the mechanical revolution prompted the more insightful people in society to view human labor as a waste when it was utilized for mere drudge work which a machine could accomplish more quickly and cheaply. Education of workers from the top down became important to ensure efficiency in industry, and from the bottom-up unionized labor began to speak for itself and force the state to listen to the concerns of the lower classes to be educated. The education of the masses could no longer be ignored by forward thinking people. People were forced to view their fellows at any station in life, not merely as a tool, but as a partner in rising above the insensate earth and drudgery of machines to establish a unity of purpose and, in the words of Charles Dickens, “to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”  

3.       Unity

The idea of a world unity is by far the most recurrent them in this Outline, and I believe that Wells saw this as one of the most necessary things to work towards in any age, not the least our own. The most recent hope Wells rejoiced over was the dawn of the League Of Nations, seed of the United Nations, which is still far from a full realization. Wells writes like an optimist, but he is shaken to the very core in considering the cataclysmic blows to progress. Nevertheless, his hope is firm in humanity’s forward movement, even if that progress is erratic and at times temporarily regressive. “The last twenty-three centuries of history are like the efforts of some impulsive, hasty immortal to think clearly and live rightly.”

I can see how Wells grieved to witness human beings refusing to acknowledge the power that two minds have over one. Besides the obvious benefit of teamwork, humanity is so much happier and fulfilled in relationships in which each person feels expanded by connection to another being. Wells’ elegiac utterances of impatience and disappointment with the roller-coaster progress of humanity and nature is truly striking:

“It is barely a matter of seventy generations between ourselves and Alexander; and between ourselves and the savage hunters our ancestors, who charred their food in the embers or ate it raw, intervene some four or five hundred generations. There is not much scope for the modification of a species [in] four or five hundred generations. Make men and women only sufficiently jealous or fearful or drunken or angry, and the hot red eyes of the cavemen will glare out at us today. We have writing and teaching, science and power; we have tamed the beasts and schooled the lightning; but we are still only shambling towards the light. We have tamed and bred the beasts, but we have still to tame and breed ourselves.”

Nations beginning to think as one people may seem like a step in the right direction, but even this can produce a false sense of accomplishment, given that a ‘nation’ is a concocted notion designed to create artificial boundaries which are always shifting. Wells’ cynicism here is clear, and his words are a blinding light of revelation to the absurdity of chauvinistic patriotism:

“We may suggest that a nation is in effect any assembly, mixture, or confusion of people which is either afflicted by or wishes to be afflicted by a foreign office of its own, in order that it should behave collectively as if its needs, desires, and vanities were beyond comparison more important than the general welfare of humanity…[when in reality] the affairs and interests of every modern community extend to the uttermost parts of the earth.”

But even state-wide unity, not to mention global, is extremely difficult to realize. Wells, a socialist in the broad sense of the word (would anyone with a perspective as sophisticated as his misuse the word of socialism in a restricted, specific sense as manifested in any of the myriad regimes and expressions of an ideal in an un-ideal world?), pressed for ‘oneness’ and human solidarity more than anything, yet he realized that there are no easy answers to vast economic disparities regarding property, currency, and international collaboration. Ownership is a huge obstacle to overcome, but the very point of society is that it challenges a less effective, isolated individualism. Wells was sufficiently stirred on this subject to say quite profoundly, “Society, therefore, is from its beginnings the mitigation of ownership.” However, he wasn’t a communist, or what he called a “primitive socialist”, who wanted to abolish property. People in time began to see that “Property was not one simple thing, but a great complex of ownerships of different values and consequences, that many things (such as one’s body, the implements of an artist, clothing, tooth-brushes) are very profoundly and incurably personal property.” How do we decide what is mine and what is ours? Every society in every time will decide a little differently, but it must be decided for any civilization to make progress.

Wells felt like one of the greatest blows to stagnant thought and old religion which was fast becoming the moribund foundation for human solidarity was struck by the critical thought introduced by the discoveries of Charles Darwin. It was good news for the world, though some struggled with how to push forward through the immediate sense of a loss of faith. Soon, it became apparent that a new faith must replace the old.  “The new biological science [Darwinism] was bringing nothing constructive as yet to replace the old moral stand-bys. A real demoralization ensued…Prevalent peoples at the close of the nineteenth century believed that they prevailed by virtue of the Struggle for Existence, in which the strong and cunning get the better of the weak and confiding...They soon got beyond the first crude popular misconception of Darwinism, the idea that every man is for himself alone.”

Now, on to some good meaty controversy about H.G. Wells. Many people, especially in his day, were/are pretty irked with Wells. The writer of this article for instance: Frankly, it’s not badly written, and it shows how much C.S. Lewis felt compelled to dedicate of his Space Trilogy to responding to Wells’ ideas (even G.K. Chesterton wrote The Everlasting Man in response to Wells’ decentralized role of religion in history).

It appears from this article that Wells went through phases in his life in which he overcommitted to his understanding and persuasions about the future of humanity, and proposed some radical and racist measures to establish world peace and more specifically a world state. However, I did not gather ANY of this from Well’s Outline. I can attest to the fact that his ideas in this work, though at times unpleasant to admit, were, as far as I have understood, completely egalitarian, compassionate, selfless, and pretty fairly balanced. I see there only an authentic concern for individuals and humanity, not merely an abstract and detached regard for humanity as an idea as the article appears to contend. Wells even writes, “The idea of the world-State, the universal kingdom of righteousness of which every living soul shall be a citizen, was already in the world two thousand years ago, never more to leave it.”

He definitely believed our future was in our hands, and it was up to us to care for our kind in the absence of a manifest God. Maybe he became desperate and, as I said, overcommitted to his ideas and became a bit fanatical, but I question whether the extent of his fanaticism was as severe as the article claims based on other biographical information on Wells, including the Wikipedia article about him which mentions a softening of Well’s position towards the Jews, and his apology for pre-war statements of specific forms of utopian strategies. Though none of Wells’ fanaticism or racism was evident in the Outline, that is not to say that it couldn’t have been edited out in one of the later editions; but the tenor of this work in its final form is completely and utterly hopeful for peace for all people and all races.

It seems to me that humanists like Wells have always been criticized by the religious right for trusting in man-made solutions, but critical theists haven’t come close to offering any long-term solutions. Rather, they trust in a miracle in which God makes everything right in the end, which, in my understanding, amounts to a form of pessimism regarding humanity’s potential for harmony. In one case you have thinkers like Wells that hope for a better end and are doing everything in their power to help bring people around to try and actualize their possibilities; and on the other hand you have those who hold no hope whatsoever that we can make a better world, and they expect God to come and do it for us. The latter appears to be an abdication of responsibility while criticizing those who toil and bleed for what may be a noble dream. Who’s the more valiant and honorable?  Granted, any human solution will be finite, short-sighted, and fraught with problems and setbacks...but will we use that as an excuse to close our eyes to the suffering around us and neglect to plan for the reduction of long-term evil because that is humanistic and an abstraction? I think Wells got his hands dirty trying to care for his fellow human beings in distress...and some find his courage as offensive simply because he may be doomed to failure? Who's proud? Who's fanatical? Lewis and Chesterton were brilliant, to be sure. But so was Wells.

Pre-written and written history is so vast. It blows my mind. Some experts say that we can only picture a small number of separate, concrete units in our mind at one time—I think that number is ten—and the rest is abstraction and generalization. There are so many factors to consider in historical surveys. What factors are we classifying in history as significant, and what myriad elements have those factors combined with in their time, and over the eons, that adulterate the isolated fact, making it a mélange of influences, or an altogether different thing from the original fact? Billions of data are interacting with billions of data, and those billions upon billions of results interacting with old and new data to form objects, acts, events, people, ideas, cultures, civilizations and worlds. Where does one datum end and another begin? Where do we draw the lines for meaningful memories and studies, and if we could draw the lines of discrete facts and interactions, how do we hold it all in our little mind? History is infinitely complex, as is each of our experience in history, and the best we can do is redraw our internal maps and strategies using the most significant and reliable information as we can receive and understand. This is one of the reasons Wells titled his book as an Outline, a bird’s-eye-view, which, if we’re being honest, is the best any of us can do. Even as an outline the book in places became bogged down in names, dates, and deeds, much of which couldn’t be well-described for lack of space. The amount of material one has to summarily skip over is in itself mind-numbing. I’m sure the decision about what to include may not have been nearly has difficult to determine as what to exclude.

In the end, Wells has hope for humanity, but he’s not a blind optimist…not after the World Wars. He has been criticized over the years for his materialistic notions, socialist leanings, and utopian ideals, some of which he gave verbal apologies for, but his Outline Of History is a very balanced and cautiously optimistic approach to hope and progress. He does seem to understand the tenuous and fragile thing peace and intelligence is, and I think he was doing his utmost to help the world realize its fullest human potential. “Modern civilization…is an embryo, or it is a thing doomed to die…our present civilization may be no more than one of those crops farmers sow to improve their land by the fixation of nitrogen from the air; it may have grown only that, accumulating certain traditions, it may be ploughed into the soil again for better things to follow.”

I did, however, disagree with Wells on one issue that I can think of. He hammered some philosophy as dreamy, and he referred several times to the possibility of a pure pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. With one sweeping gesture of disdain he condemned the whole Romantic era in literature as a “refuge of minds passionately anxious not to think.” He said he agreed with R.L. Stevenson’s lampoon of himself as a “mental prostitute”, and he said of European theater, novels and romances that they had a “disposition to waste time agreeably.” But I see in the Romantic era a respite and rejuvenation of passion, desire, and contemplative choice to fuel new empirical pursuits! Leave our passion behind, and we risking becoming instruments of someone else’s passion that has not yet been thrown out with the bathwater. I can understand one finding science to be intrinsically rewarding as an adventure full of thrilling discoveries and healthy challenges, but the thrills and mastery ARE the rewards. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge—without mention of the emotional satisfaction brought by the act of acquisition of knowledge which alone brings a sense of fulfillment—is nonsense. “As scientific men tell us continually, and as ‘practical’ men still refuse to learn, it is only when knowledge is sought for her own sake that she gives rich and unexpected gifts in any abundance to her servants.” Well, then, the “rich and unexpected gifts” sort of rule out ‘knowledge for her own sake’ now don’t they? We’re not robots. We are human beings who desire, and sensible ideas are not ever sought after by ANYONE if they don’t satisfy a desire somewhere. Maybe he should have emphasized the need for people to make of science and knowledge better tools to get us all what we want, but to pretend that the Great Ones were great simply because they were will-less, emotionless readers and experimenters is missing the point entirely. What’s worse, emotional detachment in the scientific method can bring murderous results and a lack of empathy may have caused more suffering in the world than too much emotional involvement. Why or how would people ever work towards something like world unity without a strong human desire for relationships, and a very refined yet powerful empathy? “Pure science” (‘purified’ from our humanity?) won’t take us there. Only acts of will and love, and utilizing knowledge as a tool, can bring positive change. Wells, did you learn nothing from writing your history of the world?

So, in the big picture, have we as humans come far? I think Wells’ answer is yes, but not without loss. His wrap-up to his chapter ending WWI is probably how he ultimately tallies the results of wins/losses throughout history, and how far he could see from where he last stood. “Nearly everyone had lost too much and suffered too much to rejoice with any fervor.” Well said. But not nearly as well said as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (who Wells considered out-of-touch with the other romantics) brave expression of hope in his poem, To The Autumnal Moon:

“Ah such is Hope! As changeful and as fair

Now dimly peering on the wistful night;

Now hid behind the dragon-winged Despair:

But soon emerging in her radiant might

She o’er the sorrow-clouded breast of Care
Sails, like a meteor kindling in its flight.”

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