Bruce's Reviews > A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World

A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark
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Aug 10, 07

really liked it
Read in January, 2007

Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights (2007)
Gregory Clark, A farewell to Alms (2007)
Hunt, a UCLA historian, tries in this book to explain why 18th century western Europe was the first society in history to develop a concept of “human rights,” as opposed to the earlier idea of political and other rights enjoyed by certain individuals, such as Roman senators or King John’s barons. Her answer is that the concept developed in large part because of the invention of the novel as a literary form, earlier in the century. The novel was important because of its focus on feelings and empathy, particularly the empathy that is stimulated by a first-person narrative. Rousseau himself, in the year prior to his Social Contract, wrote an immensely popular novel, Julie. This, together with Richardson’s Clarissa and others, permitted the enlarging literate classes to identify with the suffering of those deprived of human rights. The result was a growing indignation at such social institutions as judicial torture.
Like all searches for patterns in history, this makes a good read but a story so implausible in the range of its claim as to be a fiction in its own right—one requiring a “suspension of disbelief” by the reader. It makes little sense to claim that the novel or any other innovation of the 18th century liberated for the first time an emotion, such as empathy, that clearly evolved over millennia as a component of the successful strategy of a population under Darwinian stress. Other things equal, a population of primates that develops the ability to feel empathy is more likely to cooperate and therefore to survive than otherwise. The novel cannot have triggered the first expression of this empathetic capacity, because self-sacrificing cooperation among humans was not new in the 18th century. Furthermore, Rousseau, Jefferson, and the other “philosophes” certainly did not invent the explicit concept of human rights. Jesus of Nazereth, for example, was bent on reminding people of preexisting duties already familiar to them, duties grounded in empathy.
Hunt’s story of human rights makes an interesting contrast with another book just out this year: Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms. Clark is an economic historian trying to explain, not the struggle for human rights, but its necessary underpinning: having enough to eat while leaving time to read novels. Why did western Europe, alone among societies in human history, escape the Malthusian trap, generating a persistent surplus above subsistence for the great mass of its people? Clark’s answer: Darwin again, on a shockingly short timetable. It seems that economically successful Europeans had more children than poorer ones, eventually creating a mutated population of capitalist entrepreneurs, passing on to their heirs both a cultural and a genetic disposition toward hard work, saving, and judicious risk taking. For my money, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy makes a better read.
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