Saturday, December 05, 2015

Description of the World - Part 19

Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd ed. (I read this book before I realized how significant a historian Peter Brown is. If I reread it, I’d probably pay more attention to the author’s take on the first thousand years of Christendom instead of reading it as if it were a textbook.)

Maurice Mandelbaum, The Problem of Historical Knowledge: An Answer to Relativism (I keep thinking I ought to be interested in historiography, but I extract more about what history is or should be from the practice of historians than from books like this, which, to tell the truth, I have a hard time reading. It’s pretty arid country there in between studies of particular historians—the kind of thing Momigliano did—and balls-out philosophy of history. The relativism debate, which is what Mandelbaum’s book is about, is an especially dry biscuit. My version of an answer isn’t very tasty either: historians have an absolute obligation to respect the facts—what actually happened as best they can determine—but that’s not really what history is about. History is a struggle over what matters.)

William J. Bouwsam, John Calvin:  A Sixteenth Century Portrait (I advertise myself as a fan of the 16th Century, but that doesn’t mean that the great figures of that era are my heroes. For example, John Calvin both fascinates and repels me. It isn’t what I’ve learned about what the man did that created this strong reaction, though I have a mental image from contemporary accounts of what it must have been like to hear Calvin’s most famous victim, Michael Servetus, crying out from the pyre, “I can’t die” as his flesh crisped and fell away. I don’t know what, if anything, I took away from this biography except, perhaps, the idea that Calvin, like Tertullian, was a lawyer theologian rather than a philosopher theologian and all the scarier for that. It was reading the Institutes of the Christian Religion as a college student that gave me a permanent case of the willies about Calvin. I did get a booster shot much later by reading his commentaries on the Book of Ezekiel—the last thing he ever wrote. Of course, there is always an element of attraction in revulsion.  When I very young I took Neo-orthodox theology seriously and understood its psychological if not philosophical appeal personally. So I followed their advice and went back ad fontes, which meant, as it almost always does for Protestants and Protestant atheists, to the Reformers, not the New Testament. That’s how I came to buy the Institutes, even though the two volumes cost me more than I could reasonably afford at the time. As I wrote on a comment thread on John Wilkins’ now defunct website a couple of years ago, Calvin’s mysterium tremendum was the habenero pepper of its kind. If you take his God and the abominable doctrine of predestination at face value, the only options are fanaticism or atheism. Luther was an altogether more cheerful monster.)

Jean Bottéro, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods (You either forget about a book because it didn’t impress you or because you want to be able to steal some ideas from it later with a good conscience. Looking over the marginalia in this volume, I realize that I’ve been retailing some of Bottéro thinking as my own for a long time, especially his assertion that Mesopotamian religious thought was essentially empirical. A civilization obsessed with divination and suddenly able to remember the past accurately thanks to its invention of writing obssesively recorded what happened and then what happened next. Of course, granted the way the human mind works at all times and places, sheer succession was soon supplemented by analogy and metaphor contaminated metonymy. What happened next was somehow like what happened before. Still, the essentially inductive approach of all these gloomy Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians makes them come across as positivists avant le lettre, in fact before letters. Bottéro explains all of this in a chapter called Divination and the Scientific Spirit. Ought to make you think twice before thoughtlessly defining valid research as the application of a thoroughgoing empiricism. As I wrote in the margin at the time: “Anyhow, the content of most of our science was crap until quite recently.” Of course I also wrote in another place “it seems true that in the career of civilizations an apex is also a hapax.” What this neat but opaque statement means is lost to time, over and beyond the evidence it provides that I may have read the adjoining passage beverage in hand. Bottéro's critics probably blame him for the Gallic sin of trying to understand things too deeply. It’s the intellectual version of betting on a number instead of a color. I honor that. The risk of peering too intently is imagining that there’s more to your subject than is really there. In philology or for that matter, in philosophy, you don’t get anywhere without a certain programmatic hubris.)

Leopold Von Ranke, The Theory and Practice of History (This is an anthology of Von Ranke’s works, together with an essay by Wilhelm Von Humboldt that influenced and anticipated Von Ranke’s historiography (“The historian’s task is to present what actually happened”—that’s Humboldt, not Ranke) As for Von Ranke’s practice, the examples in this volume seem rather Protestant in outlook for somebody who is thought to have been a colorless court reporter. Or maybe I’m making too much out of some of his remarks on the Jesuits and the Popes—I can hardly claim to have made a study of the man and his work. To be honest, I read this book out of a desire to be able to claim that I read it. Hard to believe anybody ever read Ranke with much enthusiasm, at least after the first couple of pages.)

Henri Pirenne, A History of Europe: From the Invasions to the XVI Century (Pirenne, on the other hand, is eminently readable. I’ve never attempted to read his truly scholarly books, the ones that made his bones as a professional historian of Belgium and the early collisions of Islam and the West. This large-scale narrative is a history without footnotes or even very many dates. It was, in fact, written while Pirenne was held captive by the Germans during World War I and could only work from memory. That’s not necessarily a weakness and Pirenne took his situation as an opportunity rather than a handicap. He was in a situation analogous to an artist who perceives the masses before him all the better because he squints at his models, except the historian didn’t have a choice in the matter. The result was an account of the major events of a thousand years and what they meant by some one who spent a lifetime thinking about them. His thinking is deep, not complex, rather like Lincoln’s politics, though it was rhetorical necessity rather than the absence of reference books that made Lincoln focus so intently on the big simple things.)

Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (I forgot I still had a copy of this book. In fact, it’s a sad specimen, a yellowing mass-market paperback that has spent the last thirty years stuck behind other books. I remember it as a good read, but partly that’s because for somebody like me, reading another account of the beginning of World War I was effortless even in 1973. I knew the history of the outbreak of the war in such minute detail that hearing the tale afresh involved very little learning of names and places—I found a big Atlas of the war at a used bookstore when I was in Junior High and practically memorized it. Anyhow, I thought of World War as the great calamity of what was then my century. World War II was a huge fact in the lives of the people I grew up around, but it still struck me as a stupendous case of more-of-the-same like a typical movie sequel with a bigger budget and more impressive special effects. And, of course, you can make a case that WWII was really the last six years of the Thirty-One Year War.)

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