We & They

David Cannadine's 'The Undivided Past'

'The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences'
David Cannadine
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 352 pp.

Nature vs. nurture, evolution vs. revolution, universalism vs. particularism: the tug-and-pull of such polarities forms an enduring reality of public discourse. Over time the interpretative pendulum swings back and forth, so that yesterday’s winning argument finds itself contested anew today.

Historian David Cannadine’s stimulating and instructive book attests to the workings of this remorseless process. The Undivided Past signals its author’s intent to nudge the interpretative pendulum—stuck, he believes, at one particularistic pole—back in the direction of the other, more universalistic one. To this end he sets his sights on six human “solidarities” in which people across the ages have sought to ground their identities: religion, nationality, race, class, gender, and civilization. Cannadine argues that we are regrettably prone these days, in our public discourse and in the more recondite reaches of our academic exchanges, to focus obsessively on the differences these solidarities presuppose. Dwelling on what divides rather than on what unites, we view these solidarities as “disparate and incommensurable,” and our public discourse accordingly is fraught with “Manichaean cultural dichotomies.” Ours appears to be a world, as President George W...

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About the Author

Francis Oakley is president emeritus of Williams College.