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Book Review: Five Cities That Ruled the World

November 17, 2009

This post is part of Thomas Nelson’s BRB program (Book Review Bloggers, not Be Right Back). Have a blog? Like free books? Check this out.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Five Cities, and having read it in it’s entirety, I’m now not sure what to say about it.

On the one hand, each of the five main chapters – one on Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and New York – are fascinating, brief histories. We tend to study the history of nations, events, and people. Not often do we study the history of cities.

On the other hand, though, I’m not convinced we need to study the history of cities. Interesting, yes. Life changing? No.

Wilson packs a lot of information into each chapter, which makes the text seem very fast-paced. Each sub-section within those chapters addresses a specific event or aspect of the city’s history, but there’s not much tying them all together. Except, of course, the scenery. It’s almost as though someone picked a dozen of their favorite aspects of a city’s history and arranged them chronological order.

The Epilogue makes it clear that there is, in fact, a method to Wilson’s madness. He ties everything together very efficiently in discussing liberty, and as he does I started to recall the underlying theme. The fact that I couldn’t see it as I was going through the chapters, though, meant I don’t remember much of it. I’m sure if I read it again with the understanding that the concept of liberty is what is tying all of these cities – and all of their sub-stories – together, I’d remember more, and enjoy the book more.

But it wasn’t really compelling enough to make me want to read it again.

It’s a good read, but probably primarily because I happen to enjoy reading history – even if it seems a little haphazard. The Epilogue is great, and I enjoyed Wilson’s social commentary on government regulation and intellectual relativism as well as the over-all lesson on the merits and power (as well as weakness and downfalls) of liberty. That said, the structure of the book still left an over-riding bland taste in my mouth.

Quotes after the jump … “The historian Philip Schaff once argued that the greatest act of the Roman Catholic Church was the creation of Protestantism. Likewise, England’s greatest achievement – in terms of long-range impact – was the creation of the American colonies and the subsequent creation of the United States by losing those colonies.”


“There is something about freedom we have to understand. The point is not that liberty or freedom produces good results inexorably and universally, as though all those results were perfect ball bearings being manufactured in the factory of God. Freedom produces, among other things, countless screwups, mistakes, rebellions, apostasies, and more. … Robert E. Lee, with penetrating wisdom, put it this way: ‘The work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual s brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing ways, and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.'”


“As with every other form of freedom, this [the free exchange of ideas] has been radically misunderstood and misapplied. For some, academic freedom is just a fancy name for intellectual relativism. But this is self-refuting – if there is no truth, and all ideas are relative, academic freedom (itself an idea) is relative and can be abandoned as soon as someone pays us enough to abandon it or threatens us sufficiently. When Milton called for the untrammeled exchange of ideas, he fully expected truth to come out ahead in any collision. He was no relativist.

“That numerous people misunderstand intellectual liberty does not prevent the fruit of intellectual liberty from manifesting itself over time. Chesterton said the purpose of an open mind is the same as that of an open mouth – it is meant to close on something. Being perpetually open to all truth is indistinguishable from being closed to all truth. Unless truth is grasped, what good is it?”

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