Reprinted from Gush Shalom
TWO WEEKS ago, Benedict Anderson died. Or, as we say in Hebrew, "went to his world."
Anderson, an Irishman born in China, educated in England, fluent in several South Asian languages, had a large influence on my intellectual world.
I owe a lot to his most important book, "Imagined Communities."
EACH OF us has a few books that formed and changed his or her world view.
In my early youth I read Oswald Spengler's monumental "Der Untergang des Abendlandes" (The Decline of the West). It had a lasting effect on me.
Spengler, now nearly forgotten, believed that all the world's history consists of a number of "cultures," which resemble human beings: they are born, mature, grow old and die, within a time span of a thousand years.
The "ancient" culture of Greece and Rome lasted from 500 BC to 500 CE, and was succeeded by the "magic" Eastern culture that culminated in Islam, which lasted until the emergence of the West, which is about to die, to be succeeded by Russia. (If he had lived today, Spengler would probably have substituted China for Russia.)
Spengler, who was a kind of universal genius, also recognized several cultures in other continents.
The next monumental work that influenced my world view was Arnold Toynbee's "A Study of History." Like Spengler, he believed that history consists of "civilizations" that mature and age, but he added a few more of them to Spengler's list.
Spengler, being German, was glum and pessimistic. Toynbee, being British, was up-beat and optimistic. He did not accept the view that civilizations are doomed to die after a given life-span. According to him, this has indeed always happened until now, but people can learn from mistakes and change their course.
ANDERSON DEALT only with a part of the story: the birth of nations.
For him, a nation is a human creation of the last few centuries. He denied the accepted view that nations have always existed and only adapted themselves to different times, as we learned in school. He insisted that nations were "invented" only some 350 years ago.
According to the Europe-centered view, the "nation" assumed its present form in the French revolution or immediately prior to it. Until then, humanity was living in different forms of organization.
Primitive humanity lived in tribes, generally consisting of about 800 human beings. Such a tribe was small enough to live off a small territory and big enough to defend it against neighboring tribes, which were always trying to take the territory away from it.
From there, different forms of human collectives emerged, such as the Greek city states, the Persian and Roman empires, the multi-communal Byzantine state, the Islamic "umma," the European multi-people monarchies, and the Western colonial empires.