Anyone who’s been paying attention to the news realizes that 2016 has been a year of portentous change. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the United Kingdom’s referendum on leaving the EU, Europe’s struggles to cope with a massive influx of refugees, the continuing threat of ISIS – these intertwined events give the impression of an unprecedented disruption to the status quo on a global scale.
The crumbling of the border between Syria and Iraq, set up by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Great Britain at the end of World War I, has caused a resurgence of borders elsewhere in the world. The border between Austria and Hungary, the 1989 opening of which marked the beginning of the end for Communism in Europe, is once again tightly controlled, despite the fact that the Schengen Agreement should have rendered it effectively nonexistent. At first glance it might seem counter-intuitive that events at two points more than 1500 miles apart could be so closely connected, but history has tied these lands together in curious ways before.
Throughout the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire, ruled by a Sunni Muslim dynasty, struggled with Shia Iran for control over Iraq. At the other end of their empire, the Ottomans recruited the Protestant king of Hungary as an ally against Austria’s Catholic ruling family, the Habsburgs. From the point of view of a vizier in sixteenth-century Constantinople, calculations over the fate of Baghdad had to take into account the situation in Budapest, and do so without smartphones, when information could only travel as fast as a swift horse. Religious differences played a role in these calculations as well, with Europe’s Protestant rulers viewing Catholicism as a far more serious threat than Islam.
Over the past decade-and-a-half, we in the West have often expressed surprise at the rapid resurgence of religion as a major factor in world affairs, and that events in some distant corner of a little-known land should send forth repercussions affecting people in New York, San Bernardino, or Orlando. Such shock is a result of forgetting, a forgetting that is a curious symptom of Western modernity: we who have the greatest means to survey both the world around us and the past before us also seem the most certain that we are insulated from that world, that we have broken from that past. Shouldn’t our access to such knowledge teach us the opposite lesson? Does the overabundance of data at our fingertips impede our ability to see the relationships between those data? Or does our confidence about our place in the world merely mask our ignorance thereof?
Here is where the study of history can offer insight. Historians can’t study the past per se (as none of us have yet gotten our hands on a flux capacitor), nor do we have access to “facts”; instead we have access to evidence in the form of documents, and it is from that evidence that we construct theories about the past. To study the world of the Ottoman Turks or the Austrian Habsburgs or the Iranian Safavids, the historian must also be an anthropologist and an interpreter. Even when we understand the language a document was written in, we often struggle to grasp the concepts it expresses. The people who wrote the documents that provide us with our evidence about the past made very different assumptions about human nature and about the world around them than we make today.
We came to our own such assumptions fairly recently, though. When George Washington was on his deathbed, his physician ordered that he be bled, relying on an understanding of the elemental makeup of the universe that had guided medicine for thousands of years. Only over the course of the nineteenth century did knowledge of cells and germs and genetics displace the belief that the human body, like the cosmos itself, was ultimately composed of earth, air, fire, and water. So the framers of the Constitution would have seen themselves when they looked in the mirror. These men, whom Americans are taught almost from birth to identify with, conceived of the very basis of their physical being in a way that appears alien to us today.
Modern institutions and the ideas that underpin them – state sovereignty, representative democracy, secularism, capitalism – were developed by men who held similar world-views. The historical documents that shaped so much of the modern world – whether the Peace of Westphalia, the US Constitution, or the Sykes-Picot Agreement – are now relics that we often have to strain to interpret, and yet we live in a world of their making. Perhaps that is why so many of us now feel that we are living, like Prince Hamlet after his father’s death, in a “time … out of joint.” Our sovereign is dead, we cannot agree on a legitimate successor, and yet still the old king’s ghost haunts us. Like young Hamlet, our uncertainty drives us from paralysis at one extreme to rashness at the other. And all the while Denmark rots….
I don’t pretend to know how to stop the rot. This is an essay, not a manifesto. I’m inviting others to join a conversation, not a movement. In the study of history, the farther back one goes, the more alien the world seems. And yet I suspect I’m not alone when I say that there is much about our present world that seems increasingly alien. If the study of the pre-modern is the study of the alien, then it stands to reason that insight into pre-modern history can aid in our understanding of the world today. This is what I believe I can contribute, but I do not wish to seal off the intellectual boundaries of this site. Postwestphalian is a project that I hope others will want to join, whether they be historians, social scientists, or just the interested and informed.