Professor David Cannadine’s approach to history favors ­agreement over recurring struggles.
Professor David Cannadine’s approach to history favors ­agreement over recurring struggles.

When historians describe past events, they ­typically frame them in terms of conflicts between antagonistic groups, says Dodge Professor of History David Cannadine. But always emphasizing strife may blind us to the points of agreement that connect people — even between factions that seem to have nothing in common. In The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences (Alfred A. Knopf), Cannadine seeks to draw attention to sharing, cooperation, and conversation as underappreciated forces in history.

He lays out six spheres that generally are thought to divide us from each other: religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization. But within each of these categories, even groups that dislike each other often are engaged in constructive dialogues. And no one sphere can be called essential in defining us to the exclusion of the others — as activists sometimes claim, says Cannadine.

Nor do hostile groups ever quite succeed in wiping out their foes, even if they talk of doing so. Cannadine emphasizes “the fact that humanity is still here, that no one has vanquished ‘us’ or ‘them’ on either side of any of these divides, despite such ‘ultimate’ confrontations and conflicts.” Perhaps, then, we lay too much stress on the battlegrounds and not on the behind-the-scenes diplomacy constantly going on.

In the category of religion, for example, Cannadine notes how, throughout history, many churches officially denounced marriages across Christian denominations — yet clergy routinely performed such ceremonies. And he cites examples of Christians and Muslims forming military unions in the Middle Ages and engaging in lucrative trade, even as they claimed to be locked in a life-or-death ideological struggle.

The binary worldview that Cannadine rejects is called Manichaeanism, for a long-ago religion that stressed the concept of light-versus-darkness — as if we all inhabited a battleground where good constantly fights evil. “I wrote this book for academics, politicians, pundits, anyone who engages in the easy and lazy option of Manichaeanism,” Cannadine explains. “Because the world isn’t like that.”

And yet such thinking remains common, he says, on both left and right: He faults President George W. Bush’s “polarized, apocalyptic perspective” that pitted Western civilization against evildoers, and criticizes liberal activists who fan the flames of identity politics and seek to build social movements by emphasizing “struggle and conflict against implacable forces and evil foes.”

Instead of seeing history as a grim chronicle of groups in conflict, Cannadine urges a more optimistic view: a reimagining to emphasize fruitful interactions, the many points of agreement that bind us all together.