Book Summary: The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel

The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel Book Cover

The Great Leveler is a book written by Walter Scheidel, a historian and professor at Stanford University. The book explores the various ways in which societies have experienced significant levels of equality in the past. Scheidel argues that while some societies have experienced periods of great inequality, these periods have often been followed by events that have led to a more equal distribution of wealth and resources. The book is divided into four chapters, each of which focuses on a different historical period and the events that led to a more equal society.

Chapter 1: The Bronze Age Collapse

The first chapter of The Great Leveler focuses on the Bronze Age collapse, which occurred around 1200 BCE. This period saw the collapse of several large empires, including the Hittites, Mycenaeans, and Egyptians. Scheidel argues that the collapse was caused by a combination of factors, including climate change, population growth, and the unequal distribution of resources. The collapse led to a period of great instability, but it also created opportunities for new societies to emerge. One of these societies was the Iron Age kingdom of Israel, which was founded by refugees from the collapsing empires. The kingdom was based on a more equal distribution of resources, and it was able to thrive in the chaotic environment that followed the collapse.

Chapter 2: The Rise of Rome

The second chapter of The Great Leveler focuses on the rise of Rome. Rome was founded in 753 BCE, and it quickly grew to become one of the most powerful empires in the world. However, the empire was also characterized by great inequality. The wealthy elite controlled most of the resources, while the poor lived in squalid conditions. However, Rome also experienced several periods of great instability, including civil wars and invasions by barbarian tribes. These events led to a more equal distribution of resources, as the wealthy elite were forced to share their wealth with the rest of society. This period of greater equality is often referred to as the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace.

Chapter 3: The Black Death

The third chapter of The Great Leveler focuses on the Black Death, which was a pandemic that swept across Europe in the 14th century. The Black Death was caused by a bacterium that was carried by fleas on rats. The bacterium killed millions of people, and it had a profound impact on European society. The sudden loss of life led to a shortage of labor, which caused wages to rise and the price of food to fall. This period of greater equality is often referred to as the “Great Divergence,” and it paved the way for the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.

Chapter 4: The World Wars

The final chapter of The Great Leveler focuses on the two world wars that occurred in the 20th century. These wars were characterized by massive destruction and the loss of millions of lives. However, they also led to a more equal distribution of resources. The wars led to the creation of welfare states in Europe and North America, which provided social services and support to the poor. They also led to the creation of international organizations such as the United Nations, which aimed to promote greater equality and cooperation between nations. The post-war period was characterized by greater equality and a more level playing field for all citizens.

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Conclusion

The Great Leveler is a fascinating exploration of the various ways in which societies have experienced significant levels of equality in the past. Scheidel argues that while some societies have experienced periods of great inequality, these periods have often been followed by events that have led to a more equal distribution of wealth and resources. The book is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of inequality and the factors that have led to greater equality in the past. Whether you are a historian, a social scientist, or simply someone who is interested in the subject, The Great Leveler is a must-read.

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