June 14, 2007


A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium. By Robert Friedel. MIT Press. $39.95.

Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto. By Niccolò Capponi. Da Capo. $27.50.

      Robert Friedel has a fascinating idea: that the Western world’s belief system can be in large part defined as a “culture of improvement.” That is, the constant pursuit of better ways to do things accounts for the ever-increasing technological prowess of the West – and for its negative side, its ever-rising ability to destroy things (including its own culture). Friedel, a history professor at the University of Maryland, musters a fascinating series of narratives, dating back to the 11th century, to support his point. In chapters such as “Light and Time,” “Types of Change,” “Raising Fire” and “Airs and Lightning,” he argues that the urge to do things better helps explain the shift of the center of European life from southern to northern states just before the year 1000 – coinciding with development of a much-improved horse-drawn plow. The magnificence of Gothic cathedrals, Friedel says, derives from use of the Gothic arch, an improvement on the Romanesque form that allowed greater height and more building flexibility. And so on through the ages: canal digging, steam-engine development, the firing of ceramics, and inventions continuing on to the airplane and well beyond are all attributable, Friedel argues, to the desire to do things better. Indeed, even weapons improvements, however horrific their effects, are intended to win wars more efficiently – which means killing more people from a greater distance. Friedel argues elegantly, and many of his points are quite well taken. But there are omissions and lacks of clarity as well. At the height of Gothic cathedral building, for example, the dominant concept of knowledge was of “received wisdom,” meaning that “authority” – usually from the Church, but sometimes from pre-Christian antiquity – provided all that people needed (and indeed were allowed) to know. The relationship between the longstanding insistence on obeisance to this handed-down version of knowledge, which scientific thinkers violated at their peril (Galileo being the most famous example), and the very real technological breakthroughs that occurred during the years of Church dominance, is never explained or even explored. Nor are many negative effects of “improvement,” such as eugenics, given much space. Yet the pleasures of this book far exceed its failings. Interestingly, it is often when humanizing technological progress that Friedel is at his best – for instance, when discussing the engineer who suggested a grand tower to Gustav Eiffel, or the Italian preacher who first thought up eyeglasses.

      It can be argued (and has been) that modern Western technological superiority over the Islamic world rests precisely on the Western “culture of improvement” (even if those words are not used), compared with Islam’s continued reliance on received wisdom. Indeed, the rise of Islam in the 7th century was a major reason for the strengthening of counter-Islamic rulers, such as Charles Martel (of Poitiers fame) and Charlemagne. But history is not as neat as historians would make it, and “superiority” not as easy to pin down as authors and politicians would wish. This becomes quite clear in Niccolò Capponi’s exhaustively researched Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto. This is the battle that gave Cervantes the nickname “el manco de Lepanto” – the cripple of Lepanto – because he lost the use of his left hand there. Capponi, a fellow at the Medici Archive Project and a noted military and Renaissance historian, points out that Cervantes called the Lepanto battle “most noble and memorable,” while Voltaire minimized it as inconsequential, since no land or other tangible symbol of dominance changed hands in its aftermath. In our own time of Western-Islamic conflict, the differing interpretations are worth exploring, and Capponi does so at some length. What happened in October 1571 in the Gulf of Lepanto was the unexpected and total defeat of the Ottoman Empire by Christian forces. The Christians won by better use of technology – there’s that “culture of improvement” again, although not so labeled here. They deployed gunpowder more effectively and used heavy artillery to counter the Ottomans’ greater skill in boarding their enemies’ vessels. No single Western nation won the battle – it was staged by the Holy League, a rather ragtag alliance – and this fact made the outcome even more humiliating and troubling to the long-preeminent Muslim world, which was forced to face increasing dominance of the West in military and scientific fields. From these long-ago results, Capponi argues, come many resentments carried all the way to the present day. That argument is a stretch, and Capponi seems to know it, stating that his book’s title was “chosen with provocation in mind.” And the book itself, fascinated with its own minutiae, will be hard going for the casual reader. Yet Capponi is onto something here – not only the centuries-old ill will that is increasingly being tapped by fringe Muslim groups, but also the short and dismissive memory of the Christian West regarding events that loom large in the minds of so many Muslims.

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