Monday, November 23, 2015

Description of the World - Part 8

Edward N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire From the First Century A.D. to the Third (Military intellectuals usually cut a rather ridiculous figure, especially when they propose scenarios that look absurd in retrospect as Luttwak certainly did in his sequel to this volume, which dealt with the grand strategy of the Soviet Union and predicted everything but the celebrated quiet ending. Olaf Stapledon’s projected history of the world, First and Last Men, didn’t do any worse when he suggested (in 1930) that the next great European war would be a showdown between France and Italy. Luttwak was much better when he looked backwards. I think that reading this book helped me get through my thick skull that strategy is about preserving the state, not winning victories.)

Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece 1100-480 B.C. (I probably bought this book because I knew Hurwit at Yale. I can barely remember Hurwit now, but I wrote a note in the margin about how he was “a most quirky kid” so I probably had a clear image of him when I read the book back in the mid 80s. My comment was not a dig. I found a lot to like in this book as witness the many substantive annotations, which, unlike most of my marginal notes, are legible, if barely, and not even especially embarrassing. Hurwit spends many pages discussing influence—“weak cultures imitate, strong cultures steal.” Harold Bloom haunts the book: “Homer and Hesiod loomed large over the poet who followed, and the very existence of the Iliad, Odyssey, Theogony, and Works and Days deflected the best (and most anxious) poetic minds towards other genres.” I noted in the margin that Bloom doesn’t appear in the index.)

Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (I read books about this era in much the same way that unreconstructed Southerners read about the Civil war grieving for the Lost Cause though I’m well aware—partly from reading this book among many others—that the paganism of late antiquity had very little in common with the practices and beliefs of the 4th or 5th Centuries BC, i.e. what you see instantiated in the Elgin Marbles or dramatized in the tragedies. It had become, disappointingly, a religion in the modern sense. Fox is, I believe, an atheist but one respectful of Christianity. I tend to think that you are unlikely to understand a religion if you either believe in it or hate it.)

Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom (This book focuses on what happened after the conversion of the empire: the Christianizing of the barbarians, the organization of the church under Gregory the Great, the iconoclast controversy, the response of Byzantium to Islam, and the schism between Latin and Greek Christianity.)

Henry Kamen, Philip of Spain (I keep a scrap of paper on which my brother Will wrote me a note. He didn’t have a great deal to say, but I treasure this fragment like a holy relic because it’s all that’s left—Will’s been dead for a quarter of a century, which is not that long, at least compared to Philip II, who died almost 420 years ago. Philip, however, left behind an enormous mass of memoranda and letters—he was a relentless bureaucrat. I have a much clearer idea of his ideas than I do of Will’s, though even the few lines I still have from my brother preserve something of his gentle sadness. Of course the abundance of evidence doesn’t settle the question of what to make of the Prudent King, but I know his voice. Scriptura manet.)

Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (It would be an illuminating, if exhausting, exercise to map the argument of the Genealogy of Morals onto the known history of institutions. When and how did man become an animal that could make promises? How did pain become a currency in the economy of salvation? The invention of the modern self didn’t take place in a museum of ideal types but in Greece, Italy, Germany. Whitehead famously asserted that philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato but a great deal of anthropology and the history of mentalities is a set of footnotes to Nietzsche.)

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