NPJ Book Review: An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin (1994)

I purchased this scholarly, broad stroke work (philosophical anthropology) in 1994 from Borders Book Store on Michigan Avenue, Chicago. The Borders bookstores regrettably no longer exist (bankruptcy 2011)…it got lost in “relationships”. I was also customer at the original store on State Street in Ann Arbor, Mi. 

I mention this as it also my entrance to this book. I had an intimate history with the bookstore. Whatever city I traveled I checked to see if there was a Borders. I loved the ambience and the customers. They were seeking information and knowledge about the world around them and each other while sipping coffee, chatting with each other, sitting on the floor between the aisles engaged in a book, meeting friends and strangers with a common purpose of exploring, seeking and knowing…it was about relationships. 

The Intimate History of Humanity is about the relationships we have with each other through people from various walks of life…portraits of some very well-known figures, others not so much…with the idea that we have more in common with each other than not, regardless of the hues of the skin, the colorings of our minds and the filters of literacy and illiteracy we bring with us. Just think if we all had transparent skin and could see our arteries, organs and so forth. Prejudice and intolerance would have to be redefined. Or if the person is in a wheelchair or are compromised with any disability, or whatever the condition along with their set of beliefs – being humane with the “other” is a struggle.

We live in a purposefully politicized environment where there’s real question about how united is the United States as a country and with each other. Humanity and intimacy feel distant in 2021 and not only in the Western hemisphere. 

Still as I reread through this work the prejudices, fears and ignorance are supercharged via social media and especially increasing amounts of disinformation, photojournalism, the emotional, physical, and intellectual distortions in the corporate workplace and the fear mongering generated by politicians seeking control over the individual and  the “crowd”.

 I have to ponder the words and examples in the book where Michelangelo is quoted as writing: “I am of all who were ever born, the most inclined to love all persons. Whenever I behold someone who possesses any talent or displays any dexterity of mind, who can do or say something more appropriately than the rest of the world, I am compelled to fall in love with him….” 

I found it to be philosophically thoughtful. The author writes that a deeper hospitality towards each other occurs when “people become hospitable to strange ideas, to opinions they have never heard before, to traditions that are totally alien to them and when encounters with the unknown modify their view of themselves.”  Many of the ideas are old but thoughtfully repackaged.

What does humanity have in common today when the seeds of discontent are so deeply and purposefully sown for the sake of assuaging an insatiable greed for power and money? 

The mark of good scholarship is generally one that provokes deeper questions. This work does just that. I found the study to be a useful comparative reference tool through the intimacy of its stories, portraits, readings, and assessments.