Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Description of the World - Part 16

Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance (Wherever you are, you’re someplace. Even philosophical works of the greatest generality were conceived in particular places and particular times. The passage of time washes away their topicality and gives them the grave colorlessness we expect from ancient monuments. Baron attempted to put the paint back on the marble by situating the writing of the early Florentine humanists in the context of the struggle of Florence against the Milan of the great tyrant Giangaleazzo Visconti rather as I once tried to understand Late Heidegger as a response to the Korean War. I didn’t appreciate the book as much as I probably would now—I hadn’t read Bruni or Salutati so reading it was rather like encountering the parody before the original. A familiar story. Well, I'll reread all these books if I turn out to be immortal.)

Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy (Macau has an embassy in Iceland, just a block and a half north of 49 at Brietartun 1. I looked it up because it wondered how all the little countries of the world afford representation with each other or if they even try. The hundreds of principalities of the Renaissance certainly didn’t have the wherewithal to exchange ambassadors. Diplomacy is very ancient indeed, the practice of maintaining resident agents developed gradually.)

Frederick C. Lane, Venice: a Maritime Republic (The Constitution of Venice was famous for the stability it gave to the state, though what looked like stability to the Americans at the Constitutional Convention looks like ossification now—of course Venice was still independent in 1789. The example of Venice and many other city states and commercial republics does show that oligarchies can have tremendous resilience. Contrary to Fukuyama’s conclusion, systems where closed ruling classes maintaining their power through co-option and elections are largely meaningless rituals seems to be as likely an end state as liberal democracy.)

C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History (This book was first published in 1960. This edition, with a couple of extra essays, came out in 1968, long enough ago for a serious, albeit brief book to be available for nine-five cents. So what has and hasn’t changed? “On the domestic front, the ironic incongruity is between opulence and the myth of equality and virtue. For a long time we managed to reconcile these incompatibles superficially by assuming that our prosperity was the reward of our virtue. And in answer to complaints that the property was unequally distributed we opened new frontiers or increase production so that the inequities of distribution were less obvious or more easily borne. This worked fairly well for a time. But now with production at an all-time high and ever accelerating, the inequities of distribution paradoxically increase and multiply along with the gross national product. And so do resentment and rebellion in the ghetto.” These lines were written at the end of a period now celebrated for its low level of economic inequality.)

John Addington Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, 2 volumes (These large volumes were published by Modern Library, which no longer carries the title, though it was famous in its day and for some time thereafter—educated Americans of the late 19th and early 20th Century seemed to have been infatuated with the Renaissance. If people remember Symonds now, it is because he wrote a memoir about his “impossible loves,” i.e., he was homosexual. To be fair to Modern Library, it’s hard to imagine very many contemporary readers tackling the Renaissance book, not only because of the untranslated Latin quotations but because of its remarkable thoroughness. I remember being overwhelmed by the detail when I read it many years ago: too many unfamiliar names, too much assumed historical context. The detail appeals to me now and its all I can do not to start reading it again. Opening the second volume at random, my eyes fall on a passage about the Inquisition.  “Only in a few cases was extreme rigour displayed. A memorable massacre took place in the year 1561 in Calabria within the province of Cosenza. Here at the end of the fourteenth century a colony of Waldensians had settled in some villages upon the coast. They preserved their peculiar beliefs and ritual, and after three centuries numbered about 4,000 souls. Nearly the whole of these, it seems, were exterminated by sword, fire,famine, torture, noisome imprisonment, and hurling from the summits of high cliffs.”

Richard Marius, Thomas More (I have a hard time being fair to a man like More because I can’t get beyond the men he sent to the stake. More, like other deeply religious people, was exceedingly hard on himself; and that probably made it easier for him to inflict pain on others. Still, Isis hasn’t done anything worse to a living human being than More did, presumably with a good conscience. Well, it’s probably merely a modern error of mine to think that saints should be good men. There was something grim and, ironically, Protestant about the man. He doesn’t fit in very well with the bucolic version of the old faith you get from a book like the Stripping of the Altars. No wonder Utopia has never appealed to anybody as a place you’d actually want to live. As Marius notes, Utopia didn’t appeal to very many people at the time of its publication either. Erasmus was much more popular.)

Jean Bodin, Method for the Easy Comprehension of History (The scientific developments of the 16th Century have often been celebrated, but the human sciences, especially history, began to take something of their modern form then as well, though some of the scholars of the time were rather like Kepler in astronomy, combining a careful—or pedantic—regard for the evidence with Pythagorean numerology. Bodin was like that. For all his mysticism, he’s proud of being a modern: “Machiavelli also wrote many things about government—the first, I think, for about 1,200 years after barbarism had overwhelmed everything.”)

Gary Forsythe, A Critical History of Early Rome (Critical is right. Fosythe quotes M.I. Finley’s “famous dictum that ‘the ancients’ ability to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated’” and then goes from there for the rest of the book, thus leaving things pretty murky, at least until the Gallic disaster in the 390’s, which Aristotle and other Greeks had heard about. What actually happened at that point is still obscure because the disgrace of losing Battle of the Allia, the ensuing occupation of the city by Celts from the Po, and the humiliating ransom were so traumatic that it set off a couple of centuries of myth making that include some of my favorite stories—it isn’t just the earlier epochs of ancient history that are hard to distinguishable from myth.)

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