The Ethics of World History

Imagine that you are a British administrator in India around 1820. You hear that a Hindu in a nearby village has died, and that his widow has decided to “go suttee,” that is, to join her husband’s corpse on the funeral pyre. As a member of the colonial government you have soldiers at your disposal; it is in your power to stop the immolation of the widow, or allow her to die. What should you do? Respect local custom, and even perhaps the wishes of the widow? Or use your soldiers to save the woman? At the beginning of his book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom says that he uses this example (among others) to challenge what he sees as the rampant and unconsidered cultural relativism of his students.[1]

Some readers of this journal may find the reference to Bloom incendiary; the book is famous or fatuous, depending on your political point of view. World historians should, however, recognize that Bloom raises a legitimate issue here, which is intellectually interesting and politically fraught. The example is well chosen: few problems are so controversial today as the international promotion of Western-style “women’s rights.”[2] And Americans are citizens of a state that has the power to accomplish much, for good or ill in the world—if it has the will to intervene. But then, who are Americans to interfere in the domestic arrangements of other states? What gives Americans the right to agitate for “women’s rights,” or for that matter “human rights,” abroad? Whose are these “human rights” anyway? The specific problem quickly leads to very general questions: Are all values relative? Does every society have its own particular set, or do some transcend parochial circumstance? Do such things as universal human values exist? And if they do not, should people work to create them?

Historians typically do not have much truck with moral absolutes, except to deprecate them; to the contrary, they are typically and rightly held up as the very avatars of cultural relativism. Since the rise of nineteenth-century historicism, the first duty of the historian has been to interpret things “on their own terms,” in relation to their circumstances, without submitting them to the test of some transcendental, and hence unhistorical, criterion of judgment. World historians have if anything held themselves to an even more rigorous standard. The field has committed itself to a comparative vision of the world that challenges the primacy of Western civilization—or any civilization—as a standard for judging others. World historians insist on the importance of systems and relationships rather than essential identities; for them, the idea of civilization itself is problematic. The very nature of the project lends itself to charges of moral relativism: world history is amoral and hence immoral. Far from providing students with the ethical spine to stand up and be a force for good in the world, the study of world history can lead to nothing better than dithering academic paralysis, the hair shirts and switches of masochistic, liberal self-hatred. At worst it may positively erode moral character, producing the sort of people who sit inside their barricaded apartment houses with their ears stopped while the Kitty Genoveses of the world scream outside. It is not difficult to find academic writing critical of the ideals of world history; these are usually framed as defenses of the ideals of Western civilization.[3] The “heavy lifting,” however, is being done in the popular media, in public speeches and discussions on television and radio, and in the proliferating opinion pieces and blogs posted on the Web. Many of these discussions are explicitly directed at the relationship between the West and the Arab world in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.[4]

READ MORE: 16 Oldest Ancient Civilizations

For much of the twentieth century, the teaching of history in American colleges and universities centered on the Western civilization curriculum. The success of this curriculum was founded to no small degree on its ethical content. We are all familiar with the claims that instruction in Western civilization is morally salubrious, that the emergence of modernity and the technological preeminence of the West stems ultimately from the peculiar and defining virtues of the Western character. Consequently, study of the history of the West introduces students to the genesis of their own characters and values, so justifying and perpetuating them. In this way the Western civilization curriculum helped to produce solid citizens committed to time-tested values. The association of Western civilization with abiding values, it seems to me, accounts for much of the continuing vitality of the curriculum and for the unabated political support for it.

A world history curriculum has emerged as a serious rival to the older Western civilization curriculum only since the 1970s.[5] World history now serves as the core of the history, and even the undergraduate, curriculum in many universities—though not yet, I should admit, at my own—and it has the potential to become a generally acknowledged national standard, as the Western civilization curriculum did after the 1930s. Advocates have labored to advance the curriculum on at least two fronts. On the one hand, they have written textbooks and attempted to form alliances with government agencies and educational institutions to promote the curriculum in American high schools and colleges and with the general public. The justification for the teaching of world history has affinities with the traditional arguments for civic education: the world-historical frame provides a suitable background for life in a world that yearly grows exponentially smaller and more interconnected, while providing also a unifying base of knowledge for a culturally diverse citizen body.[6] At the same time, advocates have thrashed out an intellectual justification for the field in specialist research journals. As part of this debate world historians generated an impressive body of criticism of the idea of Western civilization and its place in education in the United States.[7]

In all of this, the question of the ethics of world history has gone unaddressed. In the current political climate this omission has left the field more vulnerable than it need be. World historians, though, should give attention to the ethical disposition of their field not simply so that they can anticipate attacks by political conservatives. With ethics, the intellectual and the political worlds touch. If world historians can articulate an ethical outlook, they will have provided themselves with the means to translate their historical research into a public policy debate, and they will put some steel into their desire to provide students with a practical civic education.

The scholars who successfully promoted the Western civilization curriculum understood the importance of ethics to historical education. World history will not fully inherit the moth-eaten mantle of Western civilization until it can provide students not only with the background required to understand the world, but also with the standards necessary to act in the world. The point applies equally to teachers. We historians, like other professional scholars, are pleased to think of our activities in terms of what we say. We need to try to think of them also in terms of what we do. What effect do we wish to have on students? Why is world history worth teaching? Why do we choose to teach at all? The answers to such questions must ultimately appeal to an ethics.

Conservatives and Morality

The question of the relationship between history and ethics should not be approached as simply an abstract, intellectual problem; it is a practical and contentious political issue as well. This muddle is encouraging—or it should be: history matters. The Closing of the American Mind was phenomenally popular when it was published in 1987, and eighteen years later it continues to sell well. Its enduring impact has been unquestionable: its publication was a seminal event in the emergence of neoconservatism as a force in American politics. Predictably it touched off counter-volleys from writers who mistrust moral absolutism and see some benefit in, and perhaps even a moral imperative to cultivate, a respectful sensitivity to cultural variety.[8] Readers of the day may be pardoned if they imagined that with this book they were being treated to the thoughts of Allan Bloom. In fact they were being introduced to thought of the political philosopher Leo Strauss.[9] Strauss (1899–1973) was a learned political philosopher, a Jew who emigrated from Nazi Germany to the United States where he taught at several institutions, notably the University of Chicago (1949–1967) and Claremont Men’s College (1967–1973).

Strauss’s influence has proved remarkably durable. His students (and students of his students), long known to political theorists as “Straussians,” are loyal to his memory, well organized, and committed to the dissemination of his ideas. Many of them hold influential academic positions, and certain universities have long been known as Straussian strongholds: Claremont, for example, has the Claremont Institute.[10] Until the 1980s many political theorists thought of Straussism as “erudition gone slightly bonkers.”[11] After the presidency of Ronald Reagan, however, the Straussian academic movement completed a remarkable and now notorious metamorphosis: it emerged from the cocoon of academe to take a central role in formulating ideals and policy for the Republican party; Straussians became the intellectual butterflies of American conservatism.[12]

Strauss was chiefly concerned with classical political philosophy, which he characterized, rightly, as essentially ethical. A political thinker such as Plato was in the first place concerned with the nature of the good: what kind of state should people aspire to make? What rules should govern their political interactions? The problem of the good is timeless: it remains an issue of crucial importance because it is the motivation for human action. As Strauss puts it in one representative passage, “All political action aims at either preservation or change. When desiring to preserve, we wish to prevent a change to the worse; when desiring to change, we wish to bring about something better. All political action is then guided by some thought of better and worse. But thought of the better or worse implies thought of the good.”[13]

We do what we do in order to realize some perceived good, whether that is the good of principle, of selfish advantage, or even of simple, carnal pleasure. World historians, for example, may write to draw attention to the immorality of the distribution of wealth in the world today, because they like the job security and steady paycheck of academic life, or to attract potential sex partners with their articles. In any case the decision to write is based on the perception of some good that we wish to realize.

The writing of modern social scientists may be descriptive or prescriptive; in either case, however, Strauss held that it is positivist, in the sense that its claims are ostensibly based on “facts,” while values languish exiled.

Positivistic social science is “value free” or “ethically neutral”: it is neutral in the conflict between good and evil, however good and evil may be understood. This means that the ground that is common to all social scientists, the ground on which they carry on their investigations and discussions, can be reached only through a process of emancipation from moral judgments, or of abstracting from moral judgments: moral obtuseness is a necessary condition for scientific analysis. For to the extent to which we are not yet completely insensitive to moral distinctions, we are forced to make value judgments. The habit of looking at social or human phenomena without making value judgments has a corroding effect on any preferences.[14]

Political scientists may be able to describe a political order, diagnose causes of its health or decline, and ideally even formulate “laws” that make it possible to forecast future events. If they are true to their principles, however, they will be unable to say what sort of state we should try to create and maintain, because that decision requires a decision based not on facts but on value judgments.

The practices of political scientists find their most extreme manifestation in modern historicism. For Strauss, “the serious antagonist of political philosophy [is] historicism.”[15] Historicism is to be distinguished from the positivism of the social sciences because in the end it must judge even contemporary science through the lens of history: as a particular, bounded form of understanding. For the historian, context, not truth, is what matters. The problem with positivism and historicism in the end is that neither attempts to provide a reasoned basis for taking action in the world.

To see how these ideas play out in the contemporary world of policy makers, we can turn to another scholar with Straussian affiliations: Samuel Huntington. In 1993 this Harvard political scientist published the article “The Clash of Civilizations,” which he later expanded into a book. Toward the beginning of the book he remarks that “[h]uman history is the history of civilizations. It is impossible to think of the development of humanity in any other terms.”[16] By civilizations he means discrete cultures, that is, distinctive repertoires of history, practices, and, above all, values. As amorphous or delusory as such qualities may seem to materialists and cynical advocates of Realpolitik, they clearly matter. Huntington argues that with the breakdown of the Cold War and its “bipolar” model of ideological conflict, worldwide patterns of “cohesion, disintegration and conflict” will be determined by a multipolar set of “civilizational identities.” Henceforth, international conflict will be predicated on differences in values.

A comparable and even more explicit version of the same argument is to be found in the collection of essays edited by Huntington along with his colleague Lawrence Harrison, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. Here authors from many disciplines consider the material prosperity of nations and groups within nations in terms of their relationship to values. Why, for example, is Central America mired in poverty? Why do American blacks remain impoverished after a generation of affirmative action and equal rights?[17] Endemic political and social inequality, they argue, are not merely due to such forces as racism, imperialism, economic exploitation, and the like, nor even to local material advantages or disadvantages, such as geographic situation and natural resources. Such factors may have a powerful, perhaps even occasionally determinative impact; but a more generally powerful force is the culture, that is, the values, of the group itself. So for example, Huntington contrasts the contemporary emergence of South Korea as an “industrial giant” with the relative stagnation of a state like Ghana: “How could this extraordinary difference in development be explained? Undoubtedly, many factors played a role, but it seemed to me that culture had to be a large part of the explanation. South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had different values. In short, cultures count.”[18]

The conservative challenge popularized by Bloom’s book has continuing resonance in America. It poses both an intellectual problem and a political problem (in the very narrowest and most brutal sense of that phrase) for world historians. Many historians will worry about the use of moral absolutes to support Western chauvinism. I certainly do. Granted that values are a defining component of a “civilization,” must we necessarily become advocates of one civilization over others? How do we choose our values? Must history promote a moral relativism? Examples abound. Before the Civil War, Southerners argued that Northerners did not understand their culture or their “peculiar institution” and so should butt out. Should historians respect that culture? Of course everyone is happy to condemn Nazi genocide, but are we instead bound to try to empathize? “Nazi-Schmazi” my colleague Tom Lehrer ironically sings in his song about Werner von Braun—and as some have tried seriously to argue about Paul De Mann. What about female genital mutilation—or, to balance it with something closer to home, male genital mutilation, that is, circumcision? Should we respond to such practices with moral outrage? Or should we shrug and mutter that such practices should not be condemned, but contextualized and understood? Even for professional historians value judgments are unavoidable. How do we reconcile them with the practices of historicism?

Morality in History

The relationship of history to morality has been a problem since the rise of historicism in the nineteenth century.[19] Up to that time, history had been essentially a form of ethical teaching: it was the “instructor of life,” the magistra vitae, to use Cicero’s often repeated phrase (from de Oratore 2.36). Thus the Roman historian Livy can remark at the beginning of his history that “it is particularly healthful and fruitful in understanding the past, that you contemplate instances of every sort, as examples that are set out on a luminous monument. In this way you may understand for yourself and for the state what you should imitate, thence what you should avoid as foul in its beginning and end” (praef. 10).[20] This attitude is not unique to the classical tradition. It is my impression that most, if not all, traditional historiographies—by which I mean historiographies not influenced by German historicism—are marked by a comparable ethical preoccupation. The point of studying the past is educational. By considering the great deeds and crimes of our ancestors we acculturate ourselves and develop a nuanced sense of our culture’s standards of right and wrong. This ideal of history, though rare in the practice of professional historians, is certainly not dead among the general public or in the personal lives even of academics. When Lynne Cheney, for example, calls on the National Endowment for the Humanities to promote a history that focuses on the deeds of great men and women, she appeals to this ideal. Or if I say that I love my father and that he is my model in all things, but that in certain respects he is the child of another generation, I am leavening an exemplary outlook with a historicist concession.

Ethics were decisively displaced from historical practice with the rise of German historicism in the nineteenth century. Historicist method is at base a form of systems analysis: actions must be understood in terms of their context, in accordance with the historical unities of time and space, rather than in light of some absolute ethical standard. Thought itself is understood to be historically conditioned. Moral outrage impedes historical understanding. Historians may allow themselves to be personally outraged by the material they study, but the task at hand for historians is not to condemn, but to understand. It is a fundamental mistake to evaluate the past according to the standards of the present. Consequently the past lost its power to instruct by furnishing eternal examples of behavior, and the present lost its prerogative to condemn or glorify. The essential ethical continuity between past and present was broken. The idea of history as exemplary was replaced by the notion of historical process. We cannot find eternal standards of behavior in the past; we may, however, get a sense of the trend of change: by studying the past we may come to an understanding of historical forces that allow us to prognosticate the future.

To put the point here in a nutshell, modern professional history is irremediably relativist. Ethics, by contrast, are absolute. They were comfortably at home in traditional exemplary historiography, but they cohabitate uneasily with the ideas of modern historicism. Questions such as “What is right or wrong?” and “What is good and virtuous?” do not, by their nature, have historical answers, except insofar as they are considered as contingent and parochial issues.

The Criticism of Western Civilization

Much of the criticism of Western civilization by world historians has focused on the history of the curriculum, on its institutional fortunes, and on the representations of influential or commonly used textbooks. Gilbert Allardyce’s 1982 discussion of the institutional history of the Western civilization curriculum set the agenda for this line of argument.[21] In addition, the idea that it is possible to treat the West as a pure and isolated garden, clear of infestation by the vicious weeds of other civilizations, has been repeatedly discredited, both on general grounds and by numerous examples. The proud claim of the West to be the originator of modernity has also come in for telling objections. The usefulness of the very notion of “civilization” has been debated, though it is not clear to me that there is a consensus even among world historians that the idea can be abandoned. Nevertheless, the Western civilization curriculum continues to attract champions; it survives and indeed flourishes in many places. It owes its endurance, I believe, to its ethical ambitions.

The study of Western civilization has been historicizing in its general orientation from the outset. The rise of the Western civilization in the curricula of American colleges was prompted in part by the move away from the traditional ethical instruction of the classical curriculum to the more vocational instruction of specialized, professional academics. It may therefore seem paradoxical that advocates of Western civilization nevertheless have also been committed to ethical instruction. The justification of ethics in the Western civilization course, however, takes a historicist form. The pragmatic justification of values in terms of their effectiveness begins from contextualization.

From its origins the Western civilization curriculum was intended to promote American values and create better citizens. These values were justified by making ethical “evolution” a central theme of the history, and by linking ethics to the Western triumphalist narrative. The preeminence of the West in the world is explained by its particular character and ethics, while character and ethics find their justification in Western victory.[22]

In the narrative of the progress of values from Greek democracy to early Christian asceticism to Protestant individualism, the West found an explanation for its own preeminence, and in its preeminence it found the justification of its values. One example of this reasoning might be Max Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.[23] Whatever Weber’s intention in writing it, its central argument is that Western capitalism is tied in its origins to specifically Western ethics. His argument contextualizes the values of Protestantism, linking them to the rise of Western-style capitalism. If you dislike capitalism, the book can be read as a criticism of Western values. If, on the other hand, you believe that Western-style capitalism is an unalloyed good whose virtue is proved by its proliferation in the world, then the book provides reason to be complacent about Western ethics as well. The affinities of this line of thinking with the earlier arguments of social Darwinists and the later arguments of Samuel Huntington should be patent: material prosperity justifies morality, and vice versa.

American textbooks on the history of Western civilization routinely trace the modern Western character and its ethical tradition to two ultimate sources: the ethical philosophical speculation of the Greco-Roman world and Judeo-Christian religion. For example, in the set of essays commissioned by Columbia College to support instruction in its Western civilization sequence, H.-I. Marrou emphasizes the importance of ancient thought for the development of modern ethics. Even so, he allows that “Pagan antiquity is certainly not the only source of our moral tradition, and I would not underestimate the Christian contribution to it….”[24] One of the chief movers in the University of Chicago’s Western civilization course, William McNeill, makes a comparable point: the fusion of Hellenic and Judeo-Christian morality accounts for the “unique character of Western Civilization.”[25]

I have made a point of quoting from books associated with what are generally acknowledged as the most influential Western civilization courses in America. The quotes are not particularly informative; authors of textbooks seldom “let their hair down” and express fully the implications of morality for the history of the West. Nevertheless, the picture we find in various textbooks is entirely consistent.

It is not, however, difficult to find other, more extended and detailed meditations on the subject. These are frequently inspired by a consideration of the moral degeneracy prompted by the industrial revolution and the necessity of preserving the spiritual legacy of the West in face of a corrosive mind-set that focuses increasingly on the expedient and the profitable.[26]

The most extraordinary example of this kind of thinking that I have encountered is a book titled The Western Tradition.[27] The book contains transcripts of a series of talks given on the BBC by such luminaries as Herbert Butterfield, Bertrand Russell, and Ernest Barker. At the end a “summing-up” was offered by Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee notes that the contributors have come to no agreement about what the essence of Western civilization is, which is all the more striking as all the contributors are Westerners: “you have heard no Russian view of the Western tradition, no Indian view, no Chinese view—in fact, no outside view at all” (p. 106). “As likely as not, the final verdict on our Western Civilization is going to be passed by a Chinese jury of hundreds of millions people some hundreds or thousands of years hence” (p. 107). Like others, Toynbee believes that technology has caused a crisis in Western civilization: “the Western product that we have exported to the rest of the world is not a liberty born of Christianity, but a technology divorced from both Christianity and liberty” (p. 108).

Technological innovation, according to Toynbee, is the immediate cause of Western domination of the world; even so, however, it is no better than an intermediate cause. For the root cause we must look at the essential character of Western civilization:

If the non-Western majority of mankind were called upon to sit in judgment now, I think we all know pretty well what they would say. “The characteristic achievement of the West,” they would say, “has been to raise Man’s organized collective power to a pitch never before dreamed of. With this new weapon of their own invention, the Western peoples were naturally the first in the field; they laid the rest of us flat; and now our only chance of getting even with the West again is to master this new form of power for ourselves. We have to master it or go under, for it has come to stay; but the price of survival which the West has imposed on us is almost prohibitively high; for, in order to buy this new Western form of power, Man has to sell his soul. He cannot work for the Western power-machine without enslaving himself, for regimented man-power is the only fuel that will make this horrible power-machine work.” (p. 109)

Ethics, and specifically Christian ethics, are for Toynbee the heart of the Western tradition and subsidize even its vaunted technological achievement: “Half-forgotten Christian virtues are at the root, not only of our precarious liberties, but of our terrible power” (p. 109). Come down to it, surely the notion of “the West” itself is a chimera. What really matters is the age-old ethical conflict between Jews and Greeks:

Though this series of talks has been called “the Western Tradition,” I should like to put the question: Is there such a thing? There is, I am sure, a Christian tradition; but for my part I do not believe there has ever been a Western tradition; I think there has always been a Western battlefield, on which a Christian tradition and an incompatible pagan tradition have been fighting for dominion over Western souls. The story of that battle is Western history, as I see it. (p. 107)

For Toynbee, Western technology is to be distinguished from Western virtues, and consequently alien cultures can adopt it and employ it against the West. For Samuel Huntington, by contrast, a society cannot produce and master modern technology—that is, it cannot successfully industrialize—without moral commitments comparable to those of the West. There is a difference between the accoutrements and the “essence of the West.” Compare the similar, but subtly different, orientation expressed in the following quotation:

The essence of Western Civilization is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac…. Somewhere in the Middle East a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner…. Only naïve arrogance can lead Westerners to assume that non-Westerners can be “Westernized” by acquiring Western goods.[28]


Many commentators, Arab and American, saw the war on Iraq in terms of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.”[29] George W. Bush responded by insisting that the war was prompted by a concern for human rights, and that human rights were not a civilizational value, but a human value that transcends cultural difference. “When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations.”[30] Bush’s claim sums up the problem and provides an example of the stakes of the discussion. Are there such things as universal human values? If so, what are they, and how should they be determined?

Perhaps, though, we approach the question too much as historians when we ask whether or not universal human values exist and can be isolated. Should we espouse values because they are commonly held, or because they seem to us right? If social and economic inequality is universal and accepted, should we therefore adopt it as a universal human value? If, for example, we believe in women’s rights, should we canvass the attitudes of various societies, or should we support them without respect for local social standards? There have been some attempts to legislate universal human values: I think particularly of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed on 10 December 1948.[31] Utopian goals are not alien to values; they are perhaps intrinsic to them. Utopianism has a long history as a force for change in the world.

Huntington and others have suggested that “culture matters.” By this they mean that the spread of certain values is required to produce material prosperity.[32] I personally do not find the proposition controversial: the decision to devote one’s life to acquisition and accumulation presumes that one regards the undertaking as worthwhile, and as a rule people will be more likely to obtain what they pursue than what they do not. For example, when I was twenty years old I could have chosen to become a Wall Street stockbroker; instead I decided to become a historian of the ancient world. Every professional academic has made a comparable decision. Do not mistake me: I think it is important to have the money to pay the bills, but the accumulation of money is only one of my goals in life, and not the chief one. Ideally I would like to have sufficient money to allow me to pursue the goals that I think are important. But this is an idea that comes straight out of Plato’s Republic.

What should be controversial in Huntington’s writing is the easy presumption that prosperity is the preeminent political good that trumps all others, and hence is the chief object toward which society should channel moral energy and (it follows) the leading criterion by which we gauge virtue. Leo Strauss’s great model, Socrates, frequently repudiated that notion (see the opening pages of The Republic); Jesus denied it in his parables (e.g., Mark 10:25); Strauss himself would have regarded it with contempt. For me the argument has troubling affinities with nineteenth-century Social Darwinism: I certainly would not characterize it as “moral.” The question that needs to be raised here is an ancient one: what lives should we as good citizens aspire to, and what is the virtue of a good state?

At the same time, speaking as a historian, I am loath to abandon historicism without a backward glance. Strauss has mounted a damaging attack on the values of historicism. Nevertheless, despite his claims that historicism must logically lead to moral chaos, many cherished American values—values that are shared, I believe, by most historians—are founded precisely upon historicist relativism; not the least of these are the ideals of nuanced empathy, mutual toleration, multiculturalism, and conscientious political dissent. Should relativist tolerance of ethical differences have limits? Of course—and by general consent it does in our management of present society.

While Strauss makes a compelling case against historicism, he never musters any critical distance on the moralizing speculation of philosophers. When implemented by states, ethical absolutism amounts to nothing but totalitarianism, as Karl Popper remarked of Plato.[33] Abstract philosophical reflection and speculation are insufficient safeguards. The proven modern remedy for philosophical absolutism is historical relativism, and historians have always known this.

The controversy between history and philosophy is ancient. I take an early example: in the sixth century b.c. the Persians controlled a vast and multicultural empire. One of the Persian kings, Cambyses, conquered the Egyptians and treated their religion and laws with contempt. The earliest surviving Greek historian, Herodotus, took this as evidence that Cambyses was out of his mind: “If someone should offer all humankind to choose the best of all customs, on consideration each would certainly think their own customs the best. And it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would ridicule such things.” The general point that customs were relative was proved, Herodotus claimed, by many examples, and in particular by a story about Cambyses’s father, Darius.

During his reign Darius summoned the Greeks who were at his court and asked them how much money they would want to eat their fathers’ dead bodies. They answered that they would not do it for any amount of money. After that Darius summoned the Indians known as Callatiae, who eat their parents, and asked them (the Greeks being present and learning through interpreters what was said) how much money they would take to burn their fathers with fire at death. The Indians shouted aloud and urged him not to mention so unspeakable an act. So firmly rooted are these beliefs; and in my view, Pindar rightly says in his poem that “custom is king of all.” (Herodotus 3.38)[34]

Herodotus is hardly a historicist in the mold of the nineteenth-century Germans, yet he is aware that there is a plurality of ethical orders in the world and he sees intolerant moral certainty as clear evidence of derangement.

Plato knows this line from Pindar’s poem as well. He has one of the characters in his dialogue, the Gorgias, the immoralist Callicles, willfully misconstrue the phrase as a reference to “the law of nature,” that is, as an assertion that justice is only the will of the stronger party (Gorgias 484b). This interpretation is perhaps not so far from Herodotus’ understanding as it may seem: if values are relative, then ethical order must ultimately be founded on force. Plato of course would deny this, as he has Socrates do in the Gorgias; for him there must be an objective, transcendent good.

Granted that some value judgment must prompt the decision to act, effectiveness requires detailed and empathetic knowledge of the context within which we act—as Straussians will continue to learn as they continue to translate their morality into public policy. Not only effectiveness but justice too requires such knowledge, if by justice we mean dealing with others according to their needs and deserts. Strauss errs in conceiving ethical philosophy and history as antagonistic poles of human understanding. We would better think of them as complementary: ethical philosophy can usefully remind relativists that they should be able to render an accounting not only of their actions, but also of their inaction. History, on the other hand, should be the unapologetic conscience of ethical absolutists.

Enough sermonizing. My ambition in this paper has not so much been to advocate a position as to provoke some opinions. Is there a place for morality in the teaching of world history? Is factuality enough of a justification for the study of history? Or does the study of history require an ethics? If so, whose? The ethics of the liberal, secular West? Or does world history have some particular morality of its own to offer? Can world history extend its criticism of the notion of Western civilization to the values of the West as well? What are the ethical lessons to be learned from the study of world history? We need to carve out a position for ourselves in the current discussion.


* In some academic fields, “values,” “morals,” and “ethics” are contrasted to indicate, respectively, individually held beliefs, socially held beliefs, and formal systems of belief. These distinctions are not particularly significant for the following article. Here I follow common English usage and employ them interchangeably.

1 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York, 1987), p. 26.

2 See for example Susan Okin, ed., Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (Princeton, 1999).

3 The theme runs through many of the popular writings of Victor Davis Hanson. Lately, see the dyspeptic book by the Australian journalist Keith Windschuttle entitled The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past (San Francisco, 2000).

4 Web-based search engines such as Google and databases such as Lexis-Nexis make it easy to gauge just how much has been said on this subject since 9/11: I base my assertion on searches of the words “Western,” “civilization,” and “relativism.”

5 For an account of the development of the curriculum, see Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York, 2003); and, more briefly, the introductory chapter of Ross Dunn, ed., The New World History: A Teacher’s Companion (Boston, 2000), pp. 1–11.

6 Since the 1920s, education in America has been justified in terms of the production of citizens. The classic statement is to be found in John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York, 1916). For the continuing vitality of the association between education and citizenship, see Dunn, ed., The New World History, p. 2: “The long-running debate over the question of what constituted a culturally literate and humanely educated American gave strength to the view that the histories and cultural traditions of Africans, Asians, and indigenous Americans should be assigned at least some space in the liberal curriculum.”

7 A fine collection of these is to be found in Dunn, ed., The New World History.

8 Of the various responses see particularly Robert Paul Wolff, “The Closing of the American Mind,” Academe 73 (1987): 64–65; L. Levine, Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History (Boston, 1996).

9 Bloom mentions Strauss only one time in the book, and that in passing (p. 167). Strauss, it should be emphasized, was by no means a contemptible scholar, though the politics he espoused, like those of his classic ideal, Plato, are certainly antidemocratic. For some concise and representative statements of his ideas, I recommend the essays collected in What Is Political Philosophy and Other Studies (Chicago, 1959).

10 See the Claremont Institute’s Web site at .

11 So Sheldon Wolin, “Elitism and the Rage against Postmodernity,” in The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution (Baltimore, 1989), p. 50.

12 The emergence of Straussians in American politics has been well publicized in the media; see notably the New York Times article of 4 May 2003 on “Leocons.” Shadia Drury has been much chastised by Straussians for her writings on the subject. See for example her book Leo Strauss and the American Right (New York, 1997).

13 Leo Strauss, “What Is Political Philosophy?” in What Is Political Philosophy and Other Studies, p. 10.

14 Ibid., p. 18.

15 Ibid., p. 26.

16 Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, 1996), p. 40.

17 See Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington, eds., Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (New York, 2000), especially the introduction by Harrison (pp. xvii–xxxiv) and the essay by Orlando Patterson, “Taking Culture Seriously: The Framework and an Afro-American Illustration” (pp. 202–218).

18 Harrison and Huntington, eds., Culture Matters, p. xiii.

19 See generally R. Koselleck, “Historia Magistra Vitae: The Dissolution of the Topos into the Perspective of a Modernized Historical Process,” in his Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), pp. 21–38. For German historicism see Paul Hamilton, Historicism (New York, 2003).

20 On exemplarity in Livy and the Roman historians, see J. Chaplin, Livy’s Exemplary History (Oxford, 2000).

21 G. Allardyce, “The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course,” American Historical Review 87 (1982): 695–725. The state of the discussion and bibliography can be approached through Dunn, ed., The New World History, pp. 13–72.

22 Other, loftier arguments have also been made for the moral benefits of the study of the history of Western civilization. See for example the first chapter of Christopher Dawson, Understanding Europe (New York, 1952), “How To Understand Our Past,” pp. 3–24; or the introduction to John Nef, The United States and Civilization (Chicago, 1942), pp. 1–4.

23 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York, 1958), originally published as two articles in 1904 and 1905.

24 H.-I. Marrou, “The Heritage of the Ancient World,” in Columbia College, Chapters in Western Civilization, 3rd ed. (New York, 1961), pp. 1–32, esp. 20–21; the quotation comes from p. 29. The first edition of this book appeared in 1948.

25 William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (Chicago, 1963), pp. 558–559.

26 One instance among many is a book by John Herman Randall, The Making of the Modern Mind (New York, 1940), which emphasizes the importance of the Christian tradition (see esp. pp. 9–16).

27 British Broadcasting Corporation, The Western Tradition (London, 1951).

28 Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, p. 58.

29 The phrase is everywhere in the media. I surveyed it with Google searches on the words “Iraq,” “conflict,” and “civilizations.”

30 The quotation comes from a speech delivered at West Point in June 2002; he expatiates on the theme in many other speeches.

31 And of course some scholars have been militant in arguing to promote generally accepted ethics: see for example the various writings and activities of Hans Küng promoting the notion of a “global ethic” (Weltethos).

32 Harrison and Huntington, eds., Culture Matters, p. xxiv.

33 Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (London, 1945).

34 For a full treatment of the complicated problems raised by the different treatments given the poem by Herodotus and Plato, see M. Gigante, Nomos Basileus (Naples, 1956).