This is a big book on a huge subject — so huge, in fact, that one has to wonder whether it is a subject at all. According to the subtitle, it is about “the 2,500-year struggle between East and West”; according to the blurb, “when the Persian emperor Xerxes tried to conquer Greece, a struggle began which has never ceased”. The selling-point of the book is that it claims to explain the deep historical background to the present-day conflict between the West and Islamist terrorism. But would Osama bin Laden really accept the idea that he is keeping up a “struggle” initiated by a pagan Persian?
Anthony Pagden, a British historian who teaches at the University of California in Los Angeles, enjoys a high reputation. He made it as an expert on the theory of Western imperialism in the early modern period — above all, the Spanish conquest of the New World (a struggle between the West, so to speak, and the even further West). But this book is a very different enterprise: a broad-brush survey of a great span of history, most of which he has never written about before. Although it is full of incidental interest, it manages to sustain its overall argument only by dint of tremendous simplification; and it is also, unfortunately, riddled with misprints and odd errors (with, for example, Justinian’s law-book The Institutes called “The Intuitions”, the siege of Vienna happening in 1699, not 1683,and Iceland placed in the North Sea).
The big argument goes roughly as follows. The most distinctive thing about the Christian West is that Christianity carried with it, right from the start, a separation of Church and State. This meant that political power was secularised from a very early stage; and the conflicts between different varieties of Christianity, from the Reformation onwards, had the effect of turning people towards a secularised culture too. Islam, on the other hand, has always been a religion that claims full authority over politics, society and culture. That is the reason for the fundamental struggle, which still persists, between Islamic values and Western ones.