William H. McNeill

Canadian historian and writer (1917–2016)
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William Hardy McNeill (October 31, 1917July 8, 2016) was a Canadian-American historian and author, particularly noted for his writings on Western civilization. He was Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago where he taught from 1947.

William H. McNeill, 2015


  • The decline of Indian Buddhism was centrally due to the fact that it never offered the Indian laity a complete religion. Early Buddhism knew no ceremonies for birth and death, marriage, illness, and other critical turns of private life... Only for the community of monks did Buddhism provide a complete and well-defined way of life. ...But Brahmins were needed for all the ordinary crises in life, ready with their rites and sacred formulas to ward off danger or minimize the damage. This elemental fact assured the survival of Brahminism in India.
  • The laws of nature, as analyzed mathematically and descriptively by Ptolemy and Galen, bore an interesting, and perhaps not entirely accidental similarity to the law of nations and of nature, as discerned by a long succession of Roman jurists. ...The concept of an objective law applicable to human affairs, yet operating in accord with Nature and Reason and apart both from divine revelation and from human whim or passion, was peculiar to Rome and societies descended from Rome.
  • Ssu-ma Ch'ien's many-volumed history of China established the frame within which Chinese history continued to be written almost to the present day. Ssu-ma Ch'ien accepted and made canonical the theory that each dynasty began with an especially virtuous ruler and then gradually dissipated that virtue until Heaven lost patience and substituted a new dynasty in its place.
  • The diffusion of alchemy westward, like the movement of astrology eastward, became significant only in the centuries after 200 A.D. The conservatism of learning was such that, even when commercial intercourse had made intellectual contacts possible, little serious interchange took place until severe social stress had disturbed the even tenor of the times in China, India, and Europe. Technology was a little, but only a little, less conservative.
  • The Chinese language lacked terms capable of conveying Buddhist meanings; and not until the fifth century did a handful of scholars become sufficiently at home in both Chinese and Indian learning to be able to translate Buddhist texts into Chinese with a modicum of adequacy. ...the novel and initially alien outlook of the Indian faith had somehow to come to terms with the various strands already woven into Chinese culture, ranging... from Confucian and Taoist learning to local sub-literate peasant magic. ...while accommodating themselves to older Chinese expectations, Buddhist doctrines and practices simultaneously widened and redefined traditional Chinese sensibilities and aspirations.
  • By the sixth century A.D., ...a distinctively Chinese Buddhist art had arisen, in which figures with Chinese dress and Chinese faces nonetheless continued to conform to Indian conventions of gesture and ornament.
  • In Korea and Japan, the Chinese example began to find fertile ground as the political and social organization or those regions developed toward civilized complexity. Buddhist monks became the principle carriers of high Chinese culture to Korea and Japan. ...The Chinese model, while of the utmost importance, never eclipsed the local differences that made Japan always and Korea sometimes so distinct from China as properly to constitute a separate civilization.
  • The principle obstacle to human dominion over the rain forests is still the rich variety of parasites lying in wait for intruders.
    • Ch.1 "Man the Hunter".
  • When variations could be so extravagantly successful, displacement of one humanoid population by another even more effective group of hunters must have occurred frequently. Survival was more likely for the more formidable in battle as well as for the more efficient in the hunt.
    • Ch.1.
  • Ever since language allowed human cultural evolution to impinge upon age-old processes of biological evolution, humankind has been in a position to upset older balances of nature in quite the same fashion as disease upsets the natural balance within a host's body. Time and again, a temporary approach to stabilization of new relationships occurred as natural limits to the ravages of humankind upon other life forms manifested themselves. Yet, sooner or later, and always within a span of time that remained miniscule in comparison with the standards of biological evolution, humanity discovered new techniques allowing fresh exploitation of hitherto inaccessible forms of life.
    • Ch.1.
  • Looked at from the point of view of other organisms, humankind resembles an acute epidemic disease, whose occasional lapses into less virulent forms of behavior have never yet sufficed to permit any really stable, chronic relationship to establish itself.
    • Ch.1.
  • Details of early domestications remain unclear. One must assume a process of mutual accommodation between humanity and various domesticable species. This involved rapid and sometimes far-reaching change in the biological character of domesticated plants and animals as a result of both accidental and deliberate selection for particular traits. Conversely, one can assume that a radical, if rarely deliberate, selection among human beings occurred as well. Individuals who refused to submit to laborious routines of farming, for instance, must often have failed to survive, and those who could not or would not save seed for next year's planting, and instead ate all they had, were quickly eliminated from communities that become dependent upon annual crops.
    • Ch. 2
  • Religious history also offers another striking parallel between Rome and China. The Buddhist faith began to penetrate the Han empire in the first century A.D., and soon won converts in high places. Its period of official dominance in court circles extended from the third to the ninth centuries A.D. This obviously parallels the successes that came to Christianity in the Roman empire during the same period.
    • Ch.3 "Confluence of the Disease Pools of Eurasia: 500 B.C. to A.D. 1200".
  • Like Christianity, Buddhism explained suffering. In forms that established themselves in China, Buddhism offered the same sort of comfort to bereaved survivors and victims of violence or of disease as Christian faith did in the Roman world. Buddhism of course originated in India, where disease incidence was probably always very high as compared with civilizations based in cooler climates; Christianity, too, took shape in the urban environments of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria where the incidence of infectious disease was certainly very high as compared to conditions in cooler and less crowded places. From their inception, therefore, both faiths had to deal with sudden death by disease as one of the conspicuous facts of human life. Consequently, it is not altogether surprising that both religions taught that death was a release from pain, and a blessed avenue of entry upon a delightful afterlife where loved ones would be reunited, and earthly injustices and pains amply compensated for.
    • Ch.3.
  • Painting responded to the plague-darkened vision of the human condition provoked by repeated exposure to sudden, inexplicable death. Tuscan painters reacted against Giotto's serenity, preferring sterner, hieratic portrayals of religious scenes and figures. The "Dance of Death" became a common theme for art; and several other macabre motifs entered the European repertory.
    • Ch.4 "The Impact of the Mongol Empire on Shifting Disease Balances, 1200-1500".
  • The practical basis of the medical profession rested on psychology. Everyone felt better when self-confident, expensive experts could be called in to handle a vital emergency. Doctors relieved others of the responsibility for deciding what to do. As such, their role was strictly comparable to that of the priesthood, whose ministrations to the soul relieved anxieties parallel to those relieved by medical ministrations to the body.
    • Ch.6 "The Ecological Impact of Medical Science and Organization since 1700".
  • New diseases like syphilis seemed to call for new and "stronger" medicines; and this became one of the stock arguments for resort to the Paracelsian chemical pharmacopeia and mystical medical philosophy. With every fundamental of medicine thus called into question, the only logical recourse was to observe results of cures administered in accordance with the old Galenic as against the new Paracelsian theories, and then to choose whichever worked better. The swift development of European medical practice to levels of skill exceeding all other civilized traditions resulted.
    • Ch.6.
  • Before the eighteenth century the demographic impact of the profession of medicine remained negligible. Relatively few persons could afford to pay a doctor for his often very expensive services; and for every case in which the doctor's attendance really made a difference between life and death, there were other instances in which even the best available professional services made little difference to the course of the disease, or actually hindered recovery. ...Only with the eighteenth century did the situation begin to change; and it was not until after 1850 or so that the practice of medicine and the organization of medical services begin to make large-scale differences in human survival rates and population growth.
    • Ch.6.
  • Decisive breakthroughs in military medical administration came just after the turn of the twentieth century. Until then, in even the best-managed armies, disease was always a far more lethal factor than enemy action, even during active campaigns.
    • Ch.6.
  • Birth control may in time catch up with death control. ...But for the present and the short-range future, it remains obvious that humanity is in course of one of the most massive and extraordinary ecological upheavals the planet has ever known. ...a sequence of sharp alterations and abrupt oscillations in existing balances between microparasitism and macroparasitism can therefore be expected in the near future as in the recent past.
    • Ch.6.
  • Ingenuity, knowledge, and organization alter but cannot cancel humanity's vulnerability to invasion by parasitic forms of life. Infectious disease which antedated the emergence of humankind will last as long as humanity itself, and will surely remain, as it has been hitherto, one of the fundamental parameters and determinants of human history.
    • Ch.6.

Discrepancies among the Social Sciences (1981)

"Discrepancies among the Social Sciences" Conspectus of History v.1, no.7, pp.35-45
  • Positivism... may be regarded as a secularized form of the systematic theology which had been considered the crown of all the sciences in medieval European universities.
  • Categories of understanding along with everything else alter as societies change.
  • Christian theology was a revised version of Greek philosophy and the effort Plato and his heirs made to discern the permanent behind the sensible, the Ideal and the Real behind the world of individual things — ever in flux, becoming and decaying and never, ever reliably and completely True.
  • Towards the close of the eighteenth century, Johann Gottfried Herder boldly proclaimed this idea, asserting that each age and every people embody ideals and capacities peculiar to themselves, thus allowing a fuller and more complete expression of the multiform potentialities of humankind than could otherwise occur. Herder expressly denied that one people or civilization was better than another. They were just different, in the same way that the German language was different from the French.
  • With the historicization of the heavens the age-old idea of discovering universal laws of behavior applicable everywhere and always seems to have lost plausibility, whether for sub-atomic particles or for human beings. ...all such patterns and regularities, it seems to me, should be understood to be limited, local, evanescent — including, now, even the laws of physics.
  • I am old enough to remember well the depression years of the middle 1930s, when economists were quite unable to agree on what public policy should be, and when President Hoover, in need of advice, turned by preference to sociologists to study and illuminate recent social trends. The circumstances of the 1980s seem similar; perhaps contemporary confusions and dismay will mark the dethronement of economics from its privileged place among the social sciences — but perhaps not.
  • When terms... evolve and change definition with time; and when the social reality which terms are intended to organize and render intelligible is also seen to be in flux, capturing the truth in a net of words becomes a matter of intuition and style more than of any scientific method that can be replicated by others and made to achieve the same result every time someone asks the same question, or undertakes the same operations.
  • There is a deep irony in the fact that the more nearly an ideal is brought to realization, the more acutely do the saints and heroes who have committed themselves to the task, experience a vehement sense of failure in not having perfected their ideal in its totality; and inversely, the more perfunctory is the pursuit of an ideal, the less are people troubled by discrepancies between practice and principle.
  • Predictive social science does not exist. Indeed, it seems to me that it cannot ever exist, since the behaviour to be predicted reacts to and is partly shaped by the words used by the predictors.
  • Social science is itself part of the social experience it seeks to interpret and explain.
  • So far as I can see, coalescence of faith and truth has not been achieved anywhere in the world, not even in American departments of economics...
  • I do not insist that I am right: I merely think so.
  • My principles require me merely to invite you to agree, while expecting the contrary. Missionaries do not make converts with such a message: millions are not mobilized by such tepid phrases. That is why the merely intellectual compulsion to regard human diversity and flux is unlikely to prevail against simpler systems of misunderstanding truly capable of altering the world in which we live.

Keeping Together in Time (1995)

  • The rise of Islam offers perhaps the most impressive example in world history of the power of words to alter human behavior in sudden, surprising ways.
    • Ch. 4: Religious Ceremonies.

The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian's Memoir (2005)

  • Inferences and large dosages of imagination actually have allowed the construction of a far more adequate understanding of the cosmic and human past than earlier generations achieved. I believe that this is the central intellectual accomplishment of the twentieth century. Innumerable cosmologists, physicists, mathematicians, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, ecologists, ethologists, and other specialists have played their part; a few swashbuckling intellects led the way, and the outlines of an evolutionary worldview, uniting natural and human history, has begun to emerge. It may be convincing for generations to come—or again may not.
  • I departed from parental paths significantly and abruptly one Sunday morning when, sitting in the family pew of the Hyde Park United Church and idly twisting a loose button on the cushion beside me, I said to myself, "I do not believe in God." Some months previously... when our minister fell back on St. Anselm's ontological argument to prove the existence of God, he entirely failed to convince me. Quite the contrary, the argument struck me as an abuse of language. Though I duly submitted to the ritual of confirmation... Horton's unconvincing argument had sown doubt in my mind; and for that reason I can assign, on that morning, listening to his more emotional, hortatory rhetoric... the balance tipped, committing me to a secret, personal rejection of the Christian piety my parents held dear.
  • In 1933-34, I took a full-blown college course on the University of Chicago campus. This was part of an experiment by President Hutchins to see whether combining the last two years of high school with the first two years of college might make a more rigorous curriculum possible for what he called "General Education." This he hoped might provide a rational, philosophical guide to adult life and citizenship, replacing the vanished religious certainties he had grown up to reject—and regret.
  • I came away from the two science surveys superficially acquainted with what was already a rather old-fashioned version of contemporary natural science. Relativity and quantum mechanics were mentioned... but not explained; the stars were still eternal; and both subatomic particles and biochemistry were discreetly omitted. ...The two courses persuaded me that, in some sense, I understood the natural world. The illusion endured, for later in life... I tagged along by reading popular accounts, believing that the natural world out there was somehow within my reach, even without the mathematics that made quantum mechanics so mysteriously plausible.
  • John Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct...What struck me... was the related idea that human thought is a reaction to frustrated habit— what people often do when the outcome of their action disappoints their expectation. I concluded that unthinking, habitual action is the natural and truly happy way of life; whereas thought is a symptom of dysfunction but conducive to survival all the same since, every so often, new thoughts find ways of escaping the frustration that provoked them by inventing satisfying new ways to get things done.
  • Communication always involves slippage, and intellectual discourse is particularly liable to being twisted since a recipient can only accommodate novelty by fitting it into a preexisting structure of ideas.
  • The single most important stimulus to my thought came by chance when I took a course from Robert Redfield entitled "Folk Society." …His approach was to set up antithetical ideal types, expecting to locate any actual human community somewhere along the spectrum of opposites his fieldwork had suggested to him. ...But in 1936 his typology had no time dimension. I was so strongly attracted to his scheme that it is scarcely an exaggeration to describe my subsequent intellectual effort as an attempt to explore the missing time dimension of social change as Redfield envisaged it, not in Yucatan but around the whole earth and across recorded time.
  • An irresistible cycle seemed to operate, repeating patterns of the ancient world where civil strife and war brought disaster... I surmised that patterned and predictable changes were in turn rooted in the very nature of civilization—the ineluctable breaker of custom and eroder of moral codes, and itself a product and expression of rapid technological and social change.
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