A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.
In my mind there are four central parts to this tale: first, there is the story of state capacity. Polities vary in capability; some are better at ordering their realms than others. Next is the story of wealth, economic innovation, and productive capacity. Prosperity is a fruit of greatness, yet prosperity also feeds greatness. The sources of prosperity and technological progress are therefore just as critical to to the tale. Following this is strategic acumen. Rising and falling is relative and competitive; winning in the great power game means maneuvering—and outmaneuvering—both rivals and dependents. If the first two dimensions mentioned above center on institutional and societal sources of greatness inherited by any given statesmen, strategy is the element of greatness most dependent on the decisions and calculations of individuals in power. Finally, social and elite cohesion are an undervalued factor in the rise and fall of nations.Fortune favors the united. Civil war and civic violence derail any climb to grandeur; societies able to motivate their citizens, soldiers, and leaders towards sacrifice without recourse to coercion out compete those who cannot do the same.
The reading course that follows is oriented towards the first two concerns. The forum member did not specify the length of time his two-man reading group would be devoting to their quest, so the main constraints I imposed on the list were financial. I have tried to be as comprehensive as possible in as few books as possible. Thus the readings emphasize large, encyclopedic surveys over more focused monographs. Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization, the first two volumes of Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power, Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order and its sequel Political Order and Political Decay, Ronald Findley and Kevin Rourke’s Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium, Henrik Spruyt’s The World Imagined: Collective Beliefs and Political Order in the Sinocentric, Islamic and Southeast Asian International Societies, and Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers serve as the mainstays of this course. These books are huge—Gat’s book is over 800 pages; Fukuyama and Mann write their multivolume opums in 700 page increments—but someone who has read through them all will have a strong grasp of the course of human civilization, from stone age tribes to the internet.
I have arranged these books in multi-chapter length chunks meant to be read together. Sprinkled inside these core titles are various books intended to cover some of the biases or blindspots of the course core. Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance, Paine’s The Wars For Asia, 1911-1945, and Studwell’s How Asia Works rectify two of these blind spots—a general Eurocentric bias on the part of some of these big histories, and a tendency to analyze events from such a bird’s eye, century-scale remove that the importance of individual political decisions (and the decision makers who author them) is lost. Nexon’s The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe, Vries’ State, Economy, and Great Divergence, and Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism are meant to correct specific faulty assumptions in the state-building and great-divergence literatures. That literature also tends to portray technological advance and economic growth as mere functions of state capacity; Mokyr’s The Lever of Riches and Gordon’s Rise and Fall of American Growth provide important evidence to the contrary. Scott’s Seeing Like A State presents the downside of Fukuyama-style technocratic boosterism. Finally, Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, Turchin’s War and Peace and War, Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, and Olson’s Rise and Decline of Natuons present four important theories of societal collapse that any survey of this sort must include.
There are holes here. The role of ideology, particularly in the modern era, is given shorter shrift than it deserves. I struggle to find one single reading for the totalitarian experience. The story of Islamic and Turkic empire building in the Middle East deserves greater space. Military strategy and diplomatic acumen are not treated theoretically; historically, they are mostly covered in aggregate, from such vast heights that individual strategists drop out of view. Most importantly, there is comparatively little here about sources of elite cohesion, the dynamics of inter-elite competition, or the process by which political and social norms degrade. Individual books on specific case studies here exist—in the case of the Roman Republic or Weimar Germany many individual books exist—but nothing that attempts to integrate the mobbings, massacres, assassinations, coups, and civil wars of human history into one coherent whole in the style of a Mann or Fukuyama. Finally, readers should heed my earlier warning to distrust big-history books until one has read several narrower histories of favorite past societies. Otherwise, one has no material to judge the pronouncements of big theorists against.
All told, there are 29 readings below. I would prefer a round 30. Readers, tell me what one reading you would add to this list!