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Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A History of the World in Three Castesby David Priestland
Synopses & Reviews
A bold new interpretation of modern history as a continual struggle among three prevailing power groups: merchant, soldier, and sage
Noted Oxford historian David Priestland argues history is, at base, a conflict among three occupational groups, or castes: the commercial, competitive merchant; the aristocratic,militaristic soldier; the sage, or the bureaucratic, expert manipulator of ideas. Since the move of civilization into the city, merchants have vied for power with the soldier and the sage in every society. These groups struggle for power, and when one achieves preeminence, as the soldier did in imperial Germany, or the merchant did in theAnglo-American world of the 1920s, the result is cultural domination.
Yet the predominant group must adapt to changing circumstances or there will come a point of drastic change, as the world saw in 1914 and 1929. The result is economic crisis, war, or revolution, and eventually a new alliance of castes takes over. The last century bears the scars of these often very violent shifts of power between the castes.
After dominating the world order for decades, the merchant faced his greatest challenge in the financial crisis of 2008. Slowly, haltingly, the economies of the West seem to have regained their footing. But questions remain. Can we ensure that the merchants at the helm of our economy will not chart the same ruinous course they did in the run up to the crisis? How long will it be until we face another financial crisis?
We cannot gain perspective on our current challenges until we understand their position in a larger historical context. Priestland argues that we are now in the midst of a period with all the classic signs of imminent change. In the wake of the great recession, the merchant is weakened and discredited, but still clings to power. As the history of the last century shows, there is good reason to be fearful of the forces that the likely failure of the merchant may unleash.
Merchant, Soldier, Sage is both a masterful dissection of our current predicament and groundbreaking piece of history. Neither our past nor our present will look the same again.
"Distinguished Oxford historian Priestland (The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World) offers a 'big history' based on the power struggle between three different castes, each of which, he argues, embodies distinct 'ideas and lifestyles, which they often seek to impose on others.' Citing figures and events from antiquity through to the present, he explores how tensions among the three groups repeatedly rise to a fever pitch, and eventually transform their host society, and sometimes the world — the most recent example of one of these 'tectonic shifts' occurred with the financial crisis of 2008, when the exploits of the merchant short-circuited the global economy. Priestland predicts that in the future, the Great Recession will be classed among the great shakeups of the 20th century: WWI and II, the Great Depression, the fall of the Berlin Wall — each of which he touches on. In the course of his 'broad sweep,' Priestland is consistently engaging, whether in his discussion of the marshaling of Confucius's teachings for political ends, or in pegging former President George W. Bush as a warrior. The author's project is necessarily exclusive — what, for example, of the laborer or scholar, or mother for that matter? — but it is also ambitious, well organized, and insightful, and will appeal to scholarly and popular audiences. Agent: Gill Coleridge, Rogers, Coleridge & White (U.K.)." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
A bold new interpretation of modern history as a struggle between three economic groups
We are now living in an age of merchants, but it was not always so. The history of civilization, in large part, is a story of a battle between agrarian aristocracy, the military, and a class of learned experts, or priests. Yet in seventeenth-century England and in the Netherlands, another group entered the mêlée for power: the merchants. For the last four decades, the merchant's power has been unfettered. In Merchant, Soldier, Sage, acclaimed Oxford scholar David Priestland proposes a radical new approach to understanding todays balance of power, and analyzes the societal and economic historical conditions required for one of these three value systems to dominate. Priestland asserts that, in the wake of the Great Recession, the weakened and discredited merchant still clings to power—but the world is again in the midst of a period of upheaval.
About the Author
David Priestland is the author of the widely acclaimed book The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World and teaches modern history at the University of Oxford. A fellow of St. Edmund Hall, he lives in Oxford, England.
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History and Social Science » Sociology » General