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April 2003 · Historically Speaking 13 Random Thoughts of a Hedgehog Geoffrey Parker So Dennis Showalter has finally discovered mysecret: "Parker is a hedgehog!" I firstcame acrossMichael Roberts's Inaugural Lecture "The Military Revolution, 1560-1660" as an undergraduate in 1964, and the lastchapter ofmydoctoral dissertation in 1968 (with Roberts as an examiner) sought to explain why his "model" did not seem to fit the Spanish Army of Flanders. Thatchapter eventually appeared as an article in 1976. 1 began work on The Military Revolution in 1982 and published it sixyears later.1 This is indeed a hedgehog's pace comparedwidiJeremy Black, who firstpublished on the subject in 1991 but refers the persevering reader to no less than twelve of his books—covering several diousand pages— since dien. Small wonder that, looking back, Black finds that his "ideas have developed over theyears" and he "can spot differences in emphasis in [his] work." Nevertheless, as he says, his oeuvre has "remained consistent in emphasizing diversitywithin both the West and die Rest," and everybookbristles widi examples and counterexamples from around the world. This does not always aid historical clarity. Sir Isaiah Berlin's celebrated essay on "The Hedgehog and the Fox," cited by Showalter, discussed die lapidaryviews about history in Leo Tolstoy's "Epilogue" to War andPeace. Havingportrayed as the backdrop to his novel the enormous upheavals that engulfed Europe in the early 19th century, which his contemporaries ascribed to the So Tolstoy tried to portrayNapoleon as one man among manywrestlingwidi a variety of forces and influences over which he had little control and whose outcome he could not predict.2 History, as Tolstoy recognized, often works in a non-linear fashion. The simplest and mostcompellingillustration ofdie logic of the process is the "Polya urn" thought experiment. Imagine a large vessel containing two small balls, one red and one blue. Players are supposed to remove one ball, at random, and return it to the urn, accompanied by an additional ball ofthe same color. And theyare supposed to repeat this procedure until theurn has been filled. Ifdie Polya urn starts out widi one red ball and one blue one, dien die odds ofpickingeitherone start out as even; but once the first move is made and a playerpicks a ball (sayred), and returns it with a like ball, the odds shift. There are Time andagain, infantry volleyfire enabledWestern troops to defeatfar larger numbers of non-Western adversaries. now two red balls and onlyone blue. On the next move, the odds ofpicking red are now 2-1, and if a red ball is indeed picked and returned widi a mate, diere will dien be diree red balls to one blue. The chances ofpicking a red ball have thus risen from 50% to 75% 'genius" (sometimes "evil genius") of mjusttwo moves; and ifone keeps pickingin Napoleon Bonaparte, Tolstoy (who did not himself use the "fox" or "hedgehog" metaphors) questioned whether Napoleon had in factshaped those upheavals and concluded that he did not: A contemporary event seems to us indubitably die doing of all die men we know of concerned in it; but in die case of a more remote event we have had time to observe its inevitable consequences , which prevent our conceiving ofanything else as possible. And die farther back we go in our investigation of events the less arbitrary do they appear. accord with the prevailing chances, which increasingly favor red, the odds climb so swiftly diat red balls will soon be dominant. Itis thenveryeasyto forgetthatatone time the odds ofdie urn becomingvirtuallycompletelyred orvirtuallycompletelybluewere even. The rise of the West was just such a non-linear process.Jeremy Black's desire to "recreate the uncertainty and confusion within which choices and changes occur" is therefore commendable, but it can only take us so far in explaining how the West managed to acquire domination over 85% of the world's land and most of its oceans by 1914. After a certain point, the potential of"uncertaintyand confusion" to halt or derail Western expansion dwindles. Thus although between 1775 and 1842 Britain "intervened unsuccessfully in Argentina, Egypt, and Afghanistan," diese failures pale in significance beside the simultaneous acquisition ofdirect control over a numerous population and prodigious resources in India...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 13-14
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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