Merchant, Soldier, Sage

Merchant, Soldier, Sage

A History of the World in Three Castes

Additional Formats
  • Hardcover
  • ISBN 9781594203107
  • 352  Pages
  • Penguin Press
  • Adult


A bold new interpretation of modern history as a continual struggle among three prevailing power groups: merchant, soldier, and sage

Noted Oxford historian David Priestland argues history is, at base, a conflict among three occupational groups, or castes: the commercial, competitive merchant; the aristocratic,militaristic soldier; the sage, or the bureaucratic, expert manipulator of ideas. Since the move of civilization into the city, merchants have vied for power with the soldier and the sage in every society. These groups struggle for power, and when one achieves preeminence, as the soldier did in imperial Germany, or the merchant did in theAnglo-American world of the 1920s, the result is cultural domination.

Yet the predominant group must adapt to changing circumstances or there will come a point of drastic change, as the world saw in 1914 and 1929. The result is economic crisis, war, or revolution, and eventually a new alliance of castes takes over. The last century bears the scars of these often very violent shifts of power between the castes.

After dominating the world order for decades, the merchant faced his greatest challenge in the financial crisis of 2008. Slowly, haltingly, the economies of the West seem to have regained their footing. But questions remain. Can we ensure that the merchants at the helm of our economy will not chart the same ruinous course they did in the run up to the crisis? How long will it be until we face another financial crisis?

We cannot gain perspective on our current challenges until we understand their position in a larger historical context. Priestland argues that we are now in the midst of a period with all the classic signs of imminent change. In the wake of the great recession, the merchant is weakened and discredited, but still clings to power. As the history of the last century shows, there is good reason to be fearful of the forces that the likely failure of the merchant may unleash.

Merchant, Soldier, Sage is both a masterful dissection of our current predicament and groundbreaking piece of history. Neither our past nor our present will look the same again.




“Mesmerizing… deftly combining academic rigour, personal histories and an engaging narrative.”—Tristram Hunt

“Priestland writes with elegance and style… he introduces art, poetry, film and literature to illustrate his themes, which makes this a riveting cultural as well as political history.”—Victor Sebestyen, Sunday Times

“The best and the most accessible one-volume history of Communism now available… A far-reaching, vividly written account.” —Foreign Affairs

“Entertaining… astute… a fine new history of Communism.” —John Gray, New Statesman

“In place of demonologies and apologies, a real history of modern communism from the beginning to the present.  It is an extraordinary story told with sympathy and with an incisive use of significant detail.” —Gareth Stedman Jones

“The story of man, Oxford academic David Priestland writes in his new big-idea history entitled, can be told through the will to power of three castes of civilization… The book covers almost the entirety of human history, but really serves as an extremely long-tailed investigation into the financial crisis of 2008 and how civilization’s failure to properly rein in the merchant in its wake might negatively affect the future… Priestland keeps things moving at a lively and readable pace.”
The Daily Beast

 ”Priestland is consistently engaging, whether in his discussion of the marshaling of Confucius’s teachings for political ends, or in pegging former President George W. Bush as a warrior… ambitious, well organized, and insightful, and will appeal to scholarly and popular audiences.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Priestland marches us through history, showing us how his model applies to and illuminates everything from the Reformation to Robinson Crusoe, Adam to Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie to Ayn Rand, Hitler to Putin, and Richard Wagner to Sinclair Lewis… He notes—no real surprise—that the world tends to get in trouble when it permits one caste to dominate… Useful, often-clarifying trifocals through which to view the world.
“Stimulating… In illustrating these larger processes of caste conflict and caste collaboration, [Priestland] offers crisp portraits of entrepreneurs, economists and warriors… Priestland has a wonderfully arch description of Davos, the Swiss mountain village where the world’s leading businessmen and pro-market politicians meet every January… [with] sparkling prose and often arresting comparisons”
Ramachandra Guha, Financial Times
“[A] concise but extremely ambitious book… a schema well worth pondering and reflecting on. And among the many contributions to the dissection of our current predicament, this is surely one of the most thought-provoking.”
—Sir Richard J. Evans, Guardian (UK)
“Lively, opinionated… The aim of this book is to use the lessons of history to understand the current financial crisis… Priestland has some interesting things to say about why power relationships shift and what happens when they do…”
“We have here a gripping, argument-led history, efforlessly moving between New York, Tokyo and Berlin, from the Reformation to the 2008 economic crisis … dazzling … here, at last, is a work that places the current crisis in a longer history of seismic shifts in the balance of social power”
—BBC History Magazine