Matt McS's Reviews > The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama
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Jul 18, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: how-the-world-works
Read from July 18 to September 27, 2011

This is one of the best works of non-fiction I've read. I'm not sure if I can speak highly enough of this. Allow me to lay out, briefly, what FF is attempting with this work and its sequel; the best way to understand it, however, is to read his preface. I'm borrowing many of my words from that preface (as I remember it) for my review.

Fukuyama is attempting the sort of ambitious, systematizing work that hasn't really been done since the 1800s, when men like Karl Marx tried their hand at it. Works like these died off as men who did so were attacked, as historians learned enough about history to realize how much they didn't know, and as ambitions in general became much more humble. Historians, anthropologists and others gave up trying to understand history and pretty much became scribes. Fukuyama is nothing if not ambitious in this attempt, pulling together philosophy, history, anthropology, neurobiology and the anthropology of chimps, among other bodies of knowledge.

There have also been few works or authors who have written about the non-Western world without either romanticizing it or resorting to a hand-wringing description of the ways in which it has been victimized by the West. FF takes a relatively clear-eyed look at political order as it arose in China and India, as well as the eastern parts of Europe typically ignored in the "Greece-Rome-England-USA" narrative of civilization.

Fukuyama first dismantles a lot of early thoughts and philosophy regarding political order, ideas long since disputed by modern knowledge. An example is a take-down of Hobbes' "state of nature." FF then goes on to focus on 4 large areas of political development: eastern Europe, western Europe, China and India; he also fleshes out significant differences within these regions, differences typically glossed over by traditional narratives. For example, he contrasts England and France as medieval forms of order developed into more modern forms. This is interesting stuff, and we watch the different approaches taken by the French and British aristocracy pay off when revolution comes to each system.

This book is the first of two, and covers pre-history through to the French Revolution. The follow-up will pick up there and move through to the modern day. Fukuyama attempts to handle a few issues delicately in this first piece, as they may be controversial even today; I can't wait to see how he approaches a number of subjects in the second book.
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