Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Oxford History

In 1914, the French poet Charles Péguy wrote that the world
had changed more since he started going to school in the 1880s
than during the two previous millennia. If he had not died
shortly afterwards but had lived out his full biblical allocation
of three score years and ten until 1943, he would have experienced
even more dramatic changes. It has been this conviction
that the ground is moving beneath their feet which has characterized
modern Europeans. Among other things, it has given
them a strong dynamism: the world is changing, it can be
changed, and so it should be changed. On the eve of the French
Revolution, the German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
identified the essence of modern man as follows: ‘he often
achieves very accurate insights into the future, but he cannot
wait for the future to come. He wants to see the future accelerated,
and also wants to do the accelerating himself. For what is
there in it for him, if what he sees to be desirable is not brought
about in his lifetime?’
It is with no sense of triumph, rather the reverse, that one
records that modern Europeans have transformed not only their
own continent but also the world. What they could not conquer
directly, they ensnared in economic, social, and cultural bonds.
What is sometimes described as the ‘Americanization’ of the
world has been conducted by the descendants of Europeans
who conquered North America and eliminated most of its
aboriginal population. The European origin of the culture
which was then re-exported with such dazzling success in the
twentieth century is revealed not least by the name of its most
ubiquitous symbol—the hamburger.