Monday, February 7, 2011

Re: Alcock Review of Hughes

Hey all. I just wanted to post a little bit about our discussion of Susan Alcock's book review of Hughes today. The more I think about the review, the more I feel that we misrepresented her arguments in class. With all due respect to the anonymous student who wrote the e-mail that Professor Tantillo gave us today, I really don't feel that Alcock's criticism was that Hughes only focused on environmental reasons for the downfall of classical societies. As the student (who was not directly addressing Alcock's review, but a more general sentiment in class that Hughes only mentioned environmental problems) correctly points out, Hughes does make it very clear that he is not arguing for a simple cause and effect, but rather a contribution to the fall of ancient Greece and Rome. I don't think that Alcock would dispute this argument. Alcock states that she objects to Hughes second argument, that "environmental degradation can be linked to the 'decline of classical civilization'." Alcock goes on to say that "this teleological view of Mediterranean history (with everything going downhill from the Greco-Roman period) no longer seems so clear cut today." In that sense I feel that Alcock's argument is that Hughes wrongly picks the collapse of the Roman empire as not only an endpoint, but as evidence that his conclusions were valid. I understand that the book has to end somewhere, and the fall of the Roman empire is probably a good place for that to happen, but it does seem that Hughes made the fall of rome the end all be all of classical civilization, which only added to the credibility of his argument. Take Hughes' closing argument for the book (194), "Environmental changes as a result of human activities must be judged to be one of the causes in the decline of ancient Greek and Roman civilization, and in producing the stark conditions of the early Medieval centuries." While I think Hughes' argumentation in the previous chapters supported the first half of his statement, I'm pretty certain that the extension to the Medieval centuries, the post Greco-Roman period that Alcock is discussing, is both unwarranted and baseless given his claims. While I am no scholar on post Greco-Roman Mediterranean history, asserting that the environmental problems of classical civilizations produced hundreds of years of underdeveloped society simply doesn't sit right with me as no evidence is provided. Additionally, would Hughes argue that the only reason that the enlightenment and renaissance were able to rekindle what he thought was the greatness of classical situation was because there was a hiatus in which no environmental degradation occurred? I highly doubt there is evidence for that, and I wouldn't be surprised to find much environmental abuse throughout the middle and dark ages. Therefore, I do feel that Alcock's concerns were somewhat justified, in that Hughes dismisses all post-Roman societies as "stark" civilizations resulting from the collapse of Greece and Rome. Given her argumentation, I feel that this is not the consensus among modern historians.

1 comment:

Jim Tantillo said...

This strikes me as a good and thoughtful comment, one I have to think about a bit more. But the key phrase again in the quote on p 194 is "one of the causes" . . . . Obviously we can't quiz Hughes on his knowledge of the cause-and-effect here (re: early Medieval "stark conditions") or on his opinions about other potential causes, but that would certainly be an interesting question to ask him.

anyway, I really appreciated the comment.