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  • The Europeanization of the World: On the Origins of Human Rights and Democracy
  • Alice Bullard (bio)
John M. Headley, The Europeanization of the World: On the Origins of Human Rights and Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) ISBN: 978-0-691-13312-6, $26.95 hard-cover.

John Headley contends that Western European thought has made two essential contributions to world history: universalism and dissent. These contributions to the common heritage of humanity, according to Headley, are deeply rooted and defended in Western philosophy, distinctive to the Western tradition, and essential for human rights culture.

The spirit of this book is captured in Headley’s description of how ideals of human rights—even when expressed [End Page 286] imperfectly or espoused by unlikely candidates—are transmitted and pursued through the generations:

[T]he fact remains that given the human consciousness’s quest for justice, and with the ideal serving as an immortal spur according to its own inexorable, implacable logic, there will in time appear, far down the track, one who actually believes and takes seriously the ideal and has the power to render it effective, an Abraham Lincoln. . . . No matter how apparently inexorable the presence of this ideal, it must always wait upon the historical circumstances for its advancement.1

Headley’s book is at once provocatively sweeping in its arguments and rooted in erudite if not always detailed intellectual history. The book is a romp through European intellectual history with the intent of defending the best of the Western tradition while still acknowledging its failings. The best of the Western tradition must be valorized, in Headley’s view, because it is still our strongest foundation for human rights and liberties. The threat of tyranny, the natural form of human government, is ever present. The erosions of civil liberties in the United States in recent years, is taken by Headley as demonstrative of the need to fight vigilantly for freedom. This book, as I understand it, is Headley’s contribution to the defense of freedom; it is his attempt to roust academics from their idle post-modernist preoccupations and return them to essential and enduring labors in furthering the cause of humanity.

Not many serious academics steeped in ancient and Renaissance philosophy would dare to write a book such as this one. Three chapters are devoted to the intellectual history of universalism and dissent—chapters that reach back to classical philosophy and carry forward through the Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment—are followed by first an “Aftermath” (which covers 1900–1949) and then an “Epilogue” (which covers 2001 to 2007). Read independently, the Aftermath and Epilogue are cautionary laments that are a bit lacking in detail.Read in the context of the proceeding chapters, the Aftermath and Epilogue take on depth and weight so that they command authority despite their lack of detail.

Chapter One opens with a seemingly unlikely topic for such a strident book: the history of Renaissance geography. Reading Chapter One is not for the intellectually faint hearted nor will it be immediately appealing to those piqued by the polemic of the book’s framework. Headley launches quickly into a detailed recounting of the recovery of Ptolemy’s Geographia, the inter-mixing of geography with cosmography in the Renaissance, and the figuring of the Hapsburg Spanish monarch as the Planet King. Skipping over the engrossing details, I will tell you that Headley argues that the development of the ability to see the world as a unified whole, and to rise prospectively above the world, significantly contributed to the distinctively European attainment of the vision of a united humanity. The inconvenient correspondence between the rise of the new geography and the rise of European imperialism—that treated American and African peoples as less than fully human—is acknowledged by Headley as an internal tension; seemingly a conflict between the world of ideas and ideals and of materiality and worldly power. He acknowledges as paradoxical [End Page 287] that Europe needed to be displaced from power before the universality first envisioned by its geographers could be accomplished on the basis of equality. It is typical of the spirit of Headley’s scholarship, that he finds redemption for the...


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pp. 286-289
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