William H. McNeill, the Father of World History, 1917 – 2016
William Hardy McNeill passed on July 8 th in Torrington, Connecticut. His accomplishments
were without parallel. He was born in Vancouver, Canada in 1917, served in World War II, took his doctorate at Cornell, and taught at the University of Chicago from 1947 to 1988. Of his many awards, two were outstanding: The Queen of the Netherlands honored him with the Erasmus Prize in 1996, an annual prize given to “individuals or institutions that have made exceptional contributions to culture, society, or social science in Europe and the rest of the world,” and in 2010 President Obama presented him the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal.Many see Williams McNeill as the “Father of World History,” as his contention that the human story transcends borders, governments, cultures, and ideologies was a sea change from the traditional view of history centered on man-made borders, conflicts, generals, and royals.
McNeill’s magnum opus, The Rise of the West (1963) was “a history of human community.”Other works that stretched beyond national history followed, including Plagues and Peoples (1976) on the global impact of disease; The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000 (1984) on the ways military transformations respond to market forces; Keeping Together in Time (1995) on group harmony via dance and marching; and (with his son and noted world historian John R. McNeill) The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History (2003) on the webs that have drawn humans together in patterns of interaction and exchange, cooperation and competition. In addition, he was the editor-in- chief of The BerkshireEncyclopedia of World History (2005, 2011) and published countless articles on such varied subjects as the cosmopolitan effects of the mold board plow, salt, and potato cultivation (his dissertation topic).
In Mythistory and Other Essays (1986), a collection he published on the occasion of his
inauguration as the president of the American Historical Association and the one I see as a must to really understand his inner thoughts, McNeill asserts that truth “does not reside in the exact recording of every detail.” Historians must move away, he argues, from the centuries-old paradigm that if they get “all the facts” they will find “truth.” Instead, he contends, “truth lies in finding what is common amid diversity… a myth (tradition) that describes what people have together… a set of shared beliefs that rise above petty divisiveness.” Historians should not focus only on narrow subjects and “wallow in detail that obscures the patterns,” but should “concentrate on myths that rise above trivia and illustrate what a people have in common.” Myths, he asserts, are “the motor of history.”
He recognizes that myths can be provincial, untenable and dangerous. “What one culture calls history; the other sees as myth” and “what one sees as myth, the other sees as history.” In an age of mutually annihilating technology, this is intolerable, he argues. Historians must generate views which unite myth and history, a Global Myth, a Mythistory. This must, however, be balanced, inclusive, and global. Exclusivity is incompatible with a volatile world.
In Myhthistory, he argues that group myths are combinations of locally-produced legends and traditions and exchanges with others. These encounters and exchanges are ubiquitous and ecumenical. They occur by way of trade, travel, and war. In meetings, “each party borrows from the other what it sees useful and adopts it into its culture.” This is the crux of McNeill diffusion thesis, which he developed through years of teaching, reading, and writing about our endlessly interactive community: “All people – all creeds, all cultures, all colors, and all countries – have been depositors and withdrawers at the world bank of knowledge.” In his introduction to The Rise of the West, McNeill distills this truism to a single sentence: “Innovation is not so much discovered [or revealed] as it is borrowed.” The irreducible generalization is expressed in all of his writings, as is his idea that true world history is universal and ecumenical.
The corollary is palpable: there can be no superior creed, culture, or color. Diversity is and always has beeni nherent to the world community. When people learn of their mutual
commonalities, they are more likely to accept the differences of others. When we accept this, we have taken a giant step toward understanding the “Global Myth” as McNeill envisioned it. In today’s world, having a Global Myth is not just important. It is existential. Martin Luther King was categorical: “Unless we learn to live together as brothers and sisters, we will die together as fools.”
McNeill was a visionary. David Christian contends that his call for a borderless history was a revolution, a call to historians to write about human commonalities, not differences. “The McNeill postulates are comparable to human history’s scientific turning points.” They are analogous to the Big Bang which verified humanity’s original origins, its singularity. McNeill’s thesis is similar to Newton’s work, revealing the unity between Heaven and Earth. Finally, McNeill’s postulates are on a par with Darwin’s Origin of Species which validated as did The Rise of the West the oneness, the consilience, the common “thread of life” on Earth.
The World History Association will dearly miss William H. McNeill academically, and I will
miss him personally. Since he sat in (I was terrified) on my session, “Organizing, teaching, and evaluating a world history course” at the WHA in Aspen, 1989, we have exchanged letters, ideas, and sources. In a 2003, I flew to Colebrook for a visit. After a marvelously enjoyable day (he even bought breakfast!), he handed me a note, saying, “Mark, I like your enthusiasm for world history. Kindly accept this note. I wrote it when I was a freshman at University of Chicago. Please read it on the way home.” The note read: “World history is a tapestry of tradition, a treasure chest of ideas, and a kaleidoscope of color. Always remember that teaching world history it is a high and noble undertaking that communicates these truths.”
Today, the note lies in my safety deposit box, and my heirs have strict orders to keep it in a similar secure place.
Mark Welter, Ph.D.
University of Minnesota, retired