The history of the world has never been an easy thing to understand due to an enormous variety of interpretations and contradictory facts. However, the greatest amount of historical literature describes the world history from a rather limited and sometimes biased Western point of view. There is no doubt that Europe is the cradle of modern science and the motherland of many groundbreaking inventions, but there also exists an immensely rich Eastern world. Aiming to break with the commonplace one-sided approach to the historical development of the humankind, Robert Marks in his The Origins of the Modern World traces back the history of Eastern civilizations and their decisive impact on the West.
Marks’ alternative narrative
For the purposes of his alternative research, Marks establishes the alternative historical narrative. Its primary aim is to free the reader from the western-bound vision of the development of modern history. To Marks’ view, this narrative will give the reader a chance to define truly significant aspects of the western paradigm, and not those, which the historians try to impose in their works. The reader will be able to develop his point of view on the development of the world, apply critical thinking and follow his common sense. Moreover, the alternative narrative will help to evaluate our overall knowledge of the world history (Marks 10).
Examples of the alternative narrative in the book
Marks’ story starts with the description of the 13th century when the world became globally connected for the first time; then he follows from the Industrial Revolution of the 18-19th century up to the 20th century. In each of those parts of his story, he devotes the primary attention to Asian world. It is very convenient for one to judge from his stable and reliable tower of deeply entrenched views, but such approach seems to be far from objectiveness and scientific nature. Marks shows that the Western is the not only possible way of thinking and that a good research should encompass all possible points of view.
The concepts of historical contingency, accident, and conjuncture
Marks’ alternative narrative is supported by such concepts as historical contingency, accident, and conjuncture. The author assumes that the modern dominance of the Western world was not inevitable but happened due to contingency. Marks states that, “If not for a series of contingencies, accidents, and conjunctures, we might still be living in a world of agrarian empires” (13). The rise of the West was made possible thanks to the development of other states in the world, namely the Asian ones. Long before Europe became the mightiest subject of geopolitics, China and India had been highly developed and harmonious societies. And it was only in the 19th century that those countries from the ones that had “over half of the wealth in the world” turned into “the least industrialized and the poorest” ones (Marks 123).
The primary contingency for Marks was the China’s decision “in the early 1400s to abandon its naval domination of the Indian Ocean…and to remonetize its economy using silver, creating a new, global demand for silver that would soon be met by the New World suppliers” (200). India and China were highly developed agricultural societies, attractive for the Western traders. They were the principal suppliers of various goods, spices and crops, highly praised in Europe.
Another significant contingency was the discovery of immense reserves of precious metals and other natural resources in the New World, which motivated the Europeans to start the competition for the new lands. Marks also suggests that Islam was the key barrier to the European direct invasion to Asia; Europeans had to sail far away and establish business relations. The same way, the rise of the Industrial Revolution cannot be seen as the phenomenon caused solely by the internal European developments. If there were no countries to conduct trade with there would be no need for scientific progress and manufacturing technological development.
The issue of Eurocentrism
Referring to the issue of Eurocentrism, it should be noted that Marks emphasizes the difference between this concept and the notion of typical ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism suggests that there exist a big number of nations and people, they may interact with each other or be rivals. Each distinct nation considers herself the best. However, all the participants of this interaction will remain equal. In the case of Eurocentrism, there is only one European nation, which due to historical predisposition has to be the dominant one. It thus turns into the ideology that considers only the representatives of European continent the real masters of the world, culturally superior and the most progressive (Marks 8).
Marks concludes that Eurocentrism “is not only blind to the actual ebbs and flows of world history but now also informs the thinking of some American policymakers who attempt to impose those values on the rest of the world, by force if necessary” (200). In his research, Marks refuses from the Eurocentric approach. He emphasizes that Europe was not the only developed and prosperous civilization. When Europe suffered fragmentation, Eastern cultures remained stable and united. China had been the cradle of thousands of inventions long before Europe even emerged. Marks encourages us to look at the whole world as a subject of studies, not only its specific regions.
The Reformation from Marks’ point of view
It may be interesting to consider some other historical events from Marks’ point of view. Let us take, for example, the Reformation. The Reformation was an XVI-XVII movement in Europe aimed at changing the spiritual and social-political life instilled by the Catholic Church. It is usually seen as a phenomenon caused by the internal preconditions. The feudal society supported by the ideological dogmas of the Catholic Church was coming to the end because of the people’s rebellion against the oppression. But if to look from a broader perspective, this movement was caused by the struggle between the representatives of the new capitalist mode of production and the defenders of feudalism. Taking into account Marks’ thesis about that the Industrial Revolution traces its roots from trade with China and India, one can say Reformation is also connected with the changes in the Asian realities.
All things considered, it can be stated that Robert Marks’ The Origins of the Modern World is a truly distinctive historical work that breaks up with modern stereotypes. From this book, the reader may learn how to perceive the world comprehensively and take into account the variety of actors in the world arena. It also teaches us not to underestimate the significance of unpredictable far-reaching events as well as to accept various reasons for the existing world and not just one. The author motivates us to be tolerant towards the representatives of other cultures. Moreover, Marks makes us think that the future era may be the period of the Eastern civilizations, and it is better for the Western one respect them.
Marks, Robert. The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Century. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Print.