The Pursuit of Power

The Pursuit of Power

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In this magnificent synthesis of military, technological, and social history, William H. McNeill explores a whole millennium of human upheaval and traces the path by which we have arrived at the frightening dilemmas that now confront us. McNeill moves with equal mastery from the crossbow banned by the Church in 1139 as too lethal for Christians to use against one another to the nuclear missile, from the sociological consequences of drill in the seventeenth century to the emergence of the military-industrial complex in the twentieth. His central argument is that a commercial transformation of world society in the eleventh century caused military activity to respond increasingly to market forces as well as to the commands of rulers. Only in our own time, suggests McNeill, are command economies replacing the market control of large-scale human effort. The Pursuit of Power does not solve the problems of the present, but its discoveries, hypotheses, and sheer breadth of learning do offer a perspective on our current fears and, as McNeill hopes, "a ground for wiser action." "No summary can do justice to McNeill's intricate, encyclopedic treatment. . . . McNeill's erudition is stunning, as he moves easily from European to Chinese and Islamic cultures and from military and technological to socio-economic and political developments. The result is a grand synthesis of sweeping proportions and interdisciplinary character that tells us almost as much about the history of butter as the history of guns. . . . McNeill's larger accomplishment is to remind us that all humankind has a shared past and, particularly with regard to its choice of weapons and warfare, a shared stake in the future." Stuart Rochester, "Washington Post Book World " "Mr. McNeill's comprehensiveness and sensitivity do for the reader what Henry James said that Turgenev's conversation did for him: they suggest 'all sorts of valuable things.' This narrative of rationality applied to irrational purposes and of ingenuity cannibalizing itself is a work of clarity, which delineates mysteries. The greatest of them, to my mind, is why human beings have never learned to cherish their own species." Naomi Bliven, "The New Yorker ""show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 416 pages
  • 138 x 212 x 28mm | 557.92g
  • The University of Chicago Press
  • University of Chicago Press
  • Chicago, IL, United States
  • English
  • Reprinted edition
  • Ill.
  • 0226561585
  • 9780226561585
  • 313,987

About William H. McNeill

William H. McNeill is the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of History and the College at the University of Chicago. His many books include "The Pursuit of Power, The Rise of the West, " and "Mythistory and Other Essays," all published by the University of Chicago more

Review Text

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. (Kirkus Reviews)show more