A Little History of the World (1935), by E. H. Gombrich


I once saw a TV program about the popular question of whether birds of today might be descendants of dinosaurs. By far the most impressive and compelling argument took place wordlessly in this visual form: in a frame centered in the image area, you saw silently the rapidly sequenced morphing of descending species–progressively overlapping schematic images of early and late reptilian and then avian creatures’ heads and bodies flashed frontally and sidewise one upon the other–telling glimpses in a dawning, believing “Ah ha!”–so that big sprinting dinosaurs seemed magically, inevitably, and obviously to have descended into little hopping birds–the breathless compressing into a few jumpy seconds of one truth about millions of bloody seasons.

Ingenious and honest telescopings of lengthy sequences can be of precious value. E. H. Gombrich has written such a book.

A prominent art historian, Gombrich, born in Vienna and now gone, decided in his mid-twenties and jobless in 1935 to attempt against great odds (he was given six weeks to deliver a publishable manuscript!) what he calls A Little History of the World. The Yale Press paperback is 284 pages.

Gombrich telescopes the saga of Homo sapiens from prehistoric prelude to near the close of the twentieth century in forty pithy chapters, maps of conquest and empires included. The book has become widely read. Professional historians have praised it, as have many notable readers. If Gombrich had turned out to be a 193os vacuum cleaner salesman–and we must be thankful he didn’t–they’d have had to call him E. H. “Pithy” Gombrich.

Here is certainly a major truth in this wise and unlikely overview of history: “The history of the world is, sadly, not a pretty poem. It offers little variety, and it is nearly always the unpleasant things that are repeated, over and over again.”

It’s a drama–history as sped wondrously and selectively through by Gombrich–about whether a few ideas and strategies almost miraculously discovered during the desperate trek by Homo sapiens and which might sustain a rising from the swamps to higher ground, can prevail. In Gombrich’s little history, there isn’t, of course, any final act; he thinks it too soon and too perilous to prophesy what might happen. He comes across as gentle, realistic and, in the brave manner of his heroes–primarily the Enlightenment philosophers together with Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Confucius, Averroes, Galileo, DaVinci, Lincoln and a few of their ilk–hopeful even though his final touches to the book were done near the end of a long life in an especially brutal time in a consistently brutal history.

Gombrich champions reason, art, tolerance and humanity against ceaseless war, persecution, enslavement, and genocide done by what you’d sometimes almost want to call Homo “sapiens.” He offers no learned theories about who we are and why, and what we might become; he broadly displays what we have been for thousands of years, i.e., since records appeared. If his “little” drama were staged, the lead character might well be a power-mad war-making tyrant, morphing from one historical to the next, all of them infamous. The chief settings would be (a) the palace and (b) the battleground. Every now and then a true hero standing athwart the awfulness would be glimpsed. Constantly in the background would be a sad procession–millions and millions of nameless starving slaves, serfs, heretics, uprooted townspeople, captive pilgrims and on and on.

Gombrich is superb at getting to the heart of the major religions and belief systems of the world–Buddhism, Judeo-Christian traditions, Islam and others. He gives brief, inclusive explanations–typically a page or less–quoting quintessential scriptural passages. He doesn’t judge so much as compassionately understand the circumstances and thrusts of the faiths and philosophies of transcendence. He doesn’t try to explain why there have been so many followers of them all.

Gombrich  admires the open mind, skepticism, “secular” art, technological progress and critical thought, as well as showing thanks for those frighteningly precarious fortunate accidents of time and place in history–geographical barriers blocking enemy armies and allowing early cultural development, unexpected military technology that “multiplies” the power of small enlightened forces against large tyrannical invading ones, and other good fortune allowing some light and hope here and there.

Gombrich doesn’t offer many prescriptions. He would laugh, I feel sure, at Plato’s idea of the Philosopher-King–it doesn’t even come up–and he would say, I likewise feel sure, that great strong but benign leaders like Marcus Aurelius are all-too-sadly rare.

A Little History of the World is far from comfortable, telescoping tours of historical museums on full stomachs after pleasant lunches.

It is most of the time a somber procession.

Gombrich insists we know more than enough about ourselves, our history, to be sure of vital ideals, even though they are not often enacted. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have attempted such an outrageous summary of what seems to be so much but isn’t really: instead, mainly just those “unpleasant things” “over and over again.”

This one may well haunt you.