Civilization: A New History of the Western World (2006) by Roger Osborne is a 500-page tour de force account of human history in the western hemisphere. Osborne regards his story not as a series of separate episodes but rather as a continuous narrative. There are obvious highpoints, here and there—the Roman Empire, for instance—but Osborne gives an impressively full account. A pervasive theme is the tendency of western nations to attempt to impose themselves—their values and cultures—on nations they conquer or influence. This tendency accounts for the success of many western states and at the same time explains such atrocities as the murder of native inhabitants of the two American continents and the extermination of Jews and others prior to and during the Second World War.
This well written book covers not merely political and military developments but cultural and artistic ones as well.
Among the more interesting arguments advanced by Osborne are his contentions that the middle ages were never really dark at all but a period of significant human activity. Only in the last half of the medieval period do we find reason for any of the notions associated with the so-called Dark Ages. He also suggests that western civilization is primarily a Germanic affair, not a Greco-Roman one. Osborne's account of the history and influence of the Christian church, and of the influence of philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Hegel, Kant, and others on the evolution of the Western mind, are particularly interesting.
As he moves towards the present day, Osborne's account becomes increasingly grim. With its rationalist tendency towards self-justifications, with the rise of modern capitalism and the nationalist ideologies that fueled it, the West in his eyes seems bound towards some future apocalyptic moment of self-immolation, a moment somewhere just beyond Osborne's grasp, which at last comes to rest as he approaches the present moment.
Under Osborne's gaze, under the gaze of any historian taking such a broad and comprehensive view, history seems not so much a human story as a relentless natural force in which the lives and fates of millions of individuals seem to matter not much at all. Great leaders rule for a time and then pass from the scene. Nations rise and fall. Multitudes are born and live their lives and die. Under this force, the notion that individuals can have a role in determining the course of events seems fatuous.