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.)

Friday, December 04, 2015

Description of the Word - Part 18

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (In the Third Man, Orson Well’s character gives a famous speech that was probably inspired by Burckhardt’s appreciation of Italy as the land of amoral but creative virtu. “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” In fact, Switzerland produced rather more than cuckoo clocks. As he was going off the deep end, Nietzsche wrote he’d rather be a Basel professor than God. It really was an amazing academic scene in the 1870s. Besides Nietzsche and Burckhardt, the tiny faculty included Overbeck, who is most of us probably known to most of us as the poor guy who had to bring the raving Nietzsche back to Switzerland from Turin but who a notable church historian in his own right. Bachofen, a professor of Roman law, who promoted the influential idea of an ancient era of matriarchy—he was the father of Mutterreich—had given up his chair but was still in town as a private scholar.)

David Hackett Fischer, Champlain’s Dream: The European Founding of North America (Fischer is the creator of a wide-ranging theory of American history whose influence is easily detected in op-ed pieces and even conversations in coffee bars by those who’ve read Albion’s Seed.  Fischer understands much of what happened in these parts as a conversation/struggle between the folkways of the various populations that colonized the country: Puritans from the east of England, cavalier Anglicans from the west of England, Scotch-Irish from the borderlands, and the rather more mixed bag of folks who populated the Middle Atlantic states. Like other theories based on pattern recognition, it’s easy to find confirmation of this taxonomy everywhere. I’m obviously a Gemini—accounts for my skepticism about astrology—and the Tea Party populists are obviously descendants of the irritated Presbyterians who settled the hills and gave us Andrew Jackson and Ted Cruz. I mention Albion’s Dream and its redoubtable persuasiveness here because I no longer have the book in my library, having unwisely given it to a relative of mine who read it and immediately decided that it was a skeleton key that unlocked all the mysteries of American history. Giving books to people who don’t read a great many serious books is risky. It takes many drinks to intoxicate an alcoholic, but the teetotalers are tipsy from a single glass. Same principle applies if you’re teaching philosophy 101. Most people and certainly most freshmen have never encountered a powerful mind so that everything convinces them. They’re Platonists in February, Cartesians in March, Kantians in April, Hegelians in May, and graduate to sophomore as followers of Zarathustra. I think there’s something in Fischer’s take on the peopling of America and its lasting consequences; but I expect even Fischer is a little uncomfortable with the way his book has been received—sudden fantasy: John of Patmos telling everybody “It’s science fiction!” They don’t listen. O, and about the Champlain book: it’s an admirable and extraordinarily well researched account of the founding of French America. Two takeaways: 1. Champlain and the French in general related to the Indians in a vastly different way than the British and Dutch. 2. Founding colonies was extraordinarily difficult. Every single trip across the Atlantic—Champlain made several—was a perilous and miserable ordeal. Astronauts fly first class in comparison; and, in terms of time, at least, going to the moon is a much shorter trip. Of course, from the perspective of an individual settler, it was also a fool’s errand to travel to British America; but Quebec?)

Christopher Duffy, Russia’s Military Way to the West (I’ve collected many books on the Great Divergence, the question of why and how the West came to dominate the Earth, at least temporarily. One of the answers looks to the military and naval prowess of the Europeans, who invested a huge proportion of their resources and ingenuity into war making, in part because no single power was able to achieve hegemony. Relentless competition made them terrible. The other side of the military revolution was the way in which it affected the countries that weren’t simply subjugated. The European threat called forth a modernizing response, albeit one that was very selective. Duffy’s book is about that process in Russia.)

Die Zauberflöte, Metropolitan Opera (My favorite version of this opera is actually the Bergman movie where the opera is sung in Swedish, which works perfectly well.)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (I played a Monty Python movie for my parents maybe thirty years ago—I think it was the Meaning of Life. They were extremely offended. It hadn’t occurred to me how raw the material must have seemed to them, though watching it with them gave me cross-temporal binocular vision and allowed me to see something of what they were seeing. Watching the Holy Grail movie a few months ago produced a somewhat similar divided effect. One eye and one ear saw and heard the movie as they had when it first appeared and were duly entertained. The more contemporary eye and ear were vastly less impressed with what seemed to them a rather patchy performance, frat-house follies, albeit world-class frat-house follies.)

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Another Proof that Anvils Don’t Float

Heidegger originally planned to go into the priesthood. How might his description of human existence square with dogmas like the immortality of the soul? The problem isn’t that on his view Dasein is ineluctably corporeal. In a sense, Catholic belief implies the same, which is why the Last Judgment takes the form of a resurrection of the dead, not simply an assembly of disembodied spirits. Persons are judged, not just souls. To be sure, the eternal existence of the saved doesn’t mean that the saints will have to drag these leaky bags of meat around forever—our gross flesh will be transmuted into something appropriately luminous—but a soul without a body is not a person. Thing is, though, being-in-the-world, Heidegger’s way of characterizing our existence, is not simply embodied. It’s… Well, there is no word in English or in any other language I know of that captures the idea—embedded? enworlded? Which creates a fresh challenge for a Heideggerian Catholic over and beyond the difficulty of imagining what you’d be on the other side of death if you are, as Heidegger also said, being-towards-death. Along with a heavenly body, you’d need a heavenly world. Imaging such a thing might not be impossible—philosophers are good at that sort of thing—Leibniz managed to come up with a way of harmonizing the monadology with the real presence of Christ in the host, for example. At a minimum, though, it complicates matters.

This whole line of thought is just another way of making an old point of mine. The description of existence in Being and Time is incomplete. Since Dasein is ineluctably social and worldly, the possibility of no more possibilities cannot simply be an orientation towards my private demise but to the end of the world: the apocalypse. It follows that existential hope, if such a thing made sense at all, would involve a new heaven and a new earth. Since I’m not a theologian, I think I’ll pass on elaborating that project; but it’s harder to get around eschatology itself, even if you do sing the song in a different key. And, no, Heidegger exegesis isn’t the point of bringing this up.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Description of the World - Part 17

Studs Terkel, Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession (I’ve read other Studs Terkel books and admire his approach, but I never managed to get into this one. It could be that a book like this one, which was written or compiled a quarter of a century ago, would be especially illuminating just now .)

Lucien Febvre, A New Kind of History (This is a collection of essays. The brief piece on frontiers has stuck with me: Though Febvre didn’t use the metaphor, it got me thinking of the borders of nations as rather similar to the cell membrane, a complex, dynamic systems that are anything but a geometrical surface without depth. The essay has the same shape as some of Febvre’s longer works such as the Problem of Unbelief in the 16th Century, which also begin with philological detail and end with deep general insights. The title essay, a New Kind of History, is probably read more often now. Near the beginning Febvre writes “…ours is a civilization of historians.” That was probably a more defensible statement in 1949 than it is today. How about “ours is a civilization of amnesiacs?”)

Marc Bloch, Land and Work in Medieval Europe: Selected Papers (Febvre’s essay on history was largely an appreciation of Bloch. I note that many of the pieces collected in this volume are about the psychology of technical innovation in the Middle Ages. One idea that stands out to me: “As anyone who knows our countryside has observed on many occasions, it is chiefly the grandparents who more often than not see to the upbringing of children in peasant families. Their work in the fields, among the poultry and the cowsheds means that neither the father nor the mother has enough leisure to supervise them properly That is one of the causes, I believe, for the remarkable persistence of tradition in such communities.” It is commonly asserted that evolution selected for longevity in human beings because people improve the fitness of their descendants even after they are past the age of reproduction, in part by serving as a living memory. Whether ensuring the transmission of old cultural—or agricultural—forms is a plus or a minus depends upon the circumstances.)

Preserved Smith, Origins of Modern Culture: 1543-1687 (I read this book when I was in high school. It’s basically a textbook surveying every field of intellectual endeavor in the period in question. It’s very well written, and you have to credit anybody whose first name is Preserved; but you have to be a pedant in training to want to read such things. The upside of such efforts is the cozy sense of familiarity it creates. I’ve felt at home in the 16th Century for most of my life.)

John Peeble, The Lion of the North: One Thousand Years of Scotland’s History (Corking history. “…the brightly coloured knights were gaffed like salmon by the Scottish spears…”)

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.)

Monday, November 30, 2015

Description of the World - Part 15

Fourth Shelf

Carlo M. Cipolla, Faith, Reason, and the Plague (I would have loved this little book back in Junior High School when I was writing an epic poem about the great plague—imagine what the Decameron would have been like if the young people had stayed in Florence. Cipolla writes about an outbreak of plague that occurred in 1630 and how the church responded to the threat. Whatever else you can say about the Counter-Reformation, the church got things a lot better organized.)

Hiram Haydn, the Counter-Renaissance (I have a lot of patience for books like this that attempt to provide a synthesis of an age, especially if they contain long quotations from the writers of the times they study. The downside is that so many books quote the same few lines. I think reading Haydn was the first time I encountered Donne’s poem that features the bit about “’Tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone/All just supply and all Relation” or, just as likely, reading these lines in Haydn was the first time I recognized how exceedingly familiar the lines had become—sometimes the second or nth time is a first time in its own way. In any case, these verses have pursued me across the years like Mormon missionaries. Alright already. Looking at this book provokes a historiographical reflection. It’s becoming commonplace to end an account of some event with a history of how it has been remembered in literature and history—there are long books about the posthumous careers of Cleopatra and Sappho. Where does this sort of thing end? There can be and in fact are accounts of how old interpretations of the past have been interpreted in turn. “So naturalists observe/a flea….”)

Philippe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages (I opened the book at random and found a map of the Battle of Morat, which was the beginning of the end for Charles the Rash, Duke of Burgundy, the great enemy of Louis XI, whose biography is a shelf up. Charles is the guy who called Louis the universal spider. I don’t know what Contamine’s relationship is with the Annales school but he talks about the war in ways reminiscent of how they talk about mentalities, serfs, or amateur female saints. He talks about the art of war, which for a lot of readers is a dance of rectangles over a contour map, but also discusses the price of cannon stones in 1415 and the proportions of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal in gun powder from Roger Bacon to the mid 16th Century—lots more saltpeter as the years went on, which explains why royal governments had to spend so much effort and money to collected it—it was commonly made from horse manure and urine. Lazarre Carnot, organizer of victory during the wars of the French revolutionary, famously had the stuff scraped off the walls of latrines and stables. I do not believe there is a stanza of the Marseilles that refers to this activity.)

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (It’s fascinating that a book so relevant to contemporary political economics has collected adoring blurbs from Niall Ferguson and Robert Solow, Kenneth Arrow and Francis Fukuyama. Apparently it’s easy to endorse the author’s message about how the extraction of rents by powerful minorities retards prosperity while the rule of law and inclusive political institutions whether you are spokesman for neoliberal orthodoxy or one of its critics. From where I’m sitting the reason things go to hell is generally because of the unintelligent selfishness of elites. It’s always possible for the few to oppress the many, but it is wiser and certainly nobler to forgo the opportunity. The rabbis used to say that the creation of the world was an act of voluntary limitation on God’s part. He drew back so there could be room for something else in the universe. I don’t know if this piece of theology was originally a political allegory—the guys who start out in a position to lord it over the others are hardly Gods—but I do note that the founding act in the birth of democratic states is commonly one of forbearance. When the artist Benjamin West told King George III that Washington was going to resign command of the new nation’s armies, he said “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”)

Heinrich Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century: Mentalities and Social Orders (It’s rather a shame that I’ve lost the ability to write legibly. My old marginalia, though less amusing than monastic droodles, are sometimes pleasant to read. Commenting on the author’s mention that the medievals referred to clerics as men who held the stilus, I wrote “Unfortunately, among those who hold the stilus/Are numbered all the vilest,” which is a pretty good book end to another piece of marginalia of mine "Those who crave the Logos/Don't care if it is bogos." My annotations weren’t all nonsense. I underlined this passage, which conveys a great deal about a vanished world: “…even at the end of the eleventh century a shod horse was worth about twice an unshod one. In an age of mass-produced iron and iron products we can no longer understand why finding a horseshoe was once considered good luck.”)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Description of the World - Part 14

Horst Fuhrmann, Germany in the High Middle Ages c. 1050-1200 (Looking over all these books puts me in the position of a old billionaire living alone in a mansion so immense that he gets lost in his own place as he wanders about in the dead of night. I certainly don’t remember a huge hell of a lot about the reign of Henry IV or Lothar III though the underlings show that I actually read this book. I can’t even figure out exactly why I was moved to pick out one sentence or other. On the other hand, some random annotations seem accidentally apropos to 2015, for example the remark of the French king Louis VII, who tried to console himself at the thought of how much money the Holy Roman Emperor had by saying “we French only have bread, wine, and joy.”)

Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East 31 BC-AD 337 (The shiny spine of this volume frequently catches my eye, and for some reason noticing it always reminds me of Zeugma, which means crossing in Greek and was a strategic town on the Euphrates that frequently figures in the narrative of the book and is also a rhetorical figure—John Wilkes used zeugma when replying to the 4th Earl of Sandwich: “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox” said the Earl and Wilkes replied, “That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship's principles or your mistress.”)

Sun Tzu, The Art of War (I’m still waiting for the corpse of my enemy to float by. It’s been quite a while. When I was in the publishing business, various corporate types would quote Sun Tzu at me. The Art of War really is the ideal businessman’s book, i.e. it’s short.)

J.P.Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth (Where the Indo-European languages originated and whether it hugely matters are old questions by now. Mallory represents the scholarly consensus of a quarter of a century ago, which, so far as I know, has held up pretty well: Scythia it is. Mallory is a lot less fun to read than authors with a sharper ax to grind, but he has his entertaining moments, for example, when he illustrates Dumezil’s  theory of the Indo-European tripartite organization of society by reproducing a Breugel etching of the Land of Cockayne that depicts three louts, a clerk, warrior, and a cultivator, stretched out beneath a tree—looks like a group picture of me and my two best friends at grad school. Is that a satire on the pretentiousness of the New Mythology?)

Paul Veyne, Bread and Circuses: Historical Sociology and Political Pluralism (This is officially a treatises on eurgetism in antiquity, the largess that the well off owed to their city and its commons. Since it deals with the local, i.e., historical and contingent, contract between the powerful and the others, what Veyne calls the intermediate layer of politics, it is exceedingly relevant to the contemporary situation because so much of current politics revolves around defining or enforcing, or perhaps even changing our contract between our big men and the rest. “…in the United States, till quite recently, the very general acceptance of the dogmas of government by consent and free competition has concealed the purely local character of the contract, which has passed for the essence of democracy.” There is so much in this book: “It is much less costly to build what archaeologists and tourists call a high culture, rich in monuments, than to feed a population more or less adequately.” But think of this sentence, not apropos what governments do, since these day they don’t even build monuments, but when the corporate sponsor of a golf tournament with a million dollar first prize brags about how much money the affair is contributing to a children’s hospital.)

Claude Levi-Strauss, The View from Afar (I can’t remember a thing about this rather random collection of essays and prefaces written by Levi-Strauss. That’s rather odd, actually, since I was a diligent reader of the man for so many decades—I’m one of the eleven known individuals in North America who actually read all four volumes of his Mythologiques. I even got around to the Way of the Masks the month after Levi-Srauss died in great old age. When I deeply respect a thinker, I feel an obligation to consider their works in totality even if the exercise is largely ceremonial—I was going to write “an empty ceremony” but that’s almost a pleonasm since pointlessness is what makes a ceremony a ceremony, e.g., we see off the dead with elaborate rites even though or perhaps because they have already left.)  

Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen, The World of the Huns (This is a big book—600 pages—so you’d think would be everything you want to know about the Huns. Mostly it’s just a lament about the inadequacy of the sources. Maenchen-Helfen won’t even venture to taxonomize the Hunnic language or provide an firm answer to the old question of whether the Huns that so troubled Rome and Gaul were the same bunch the Chinese called Hsiung-nu. It obviously wasn’t a case of lack of effort on M-H’s part. I’m inclined to think of barbarian hordes as analogous to publishing companies. The names can last a long time, but the personnel change constantly so that its futile to expect that they had anything like a cultural essence or settled identity. The outfits that ravaged Europe were a bit like stock companies. Part of the reason it’s so hard to decide what language family Hunnish belonged to is that individuals from a large number of ethnic groups joined together in temporary associations for fun and plunder. Our historical memory of the Huns is mostly based on the Origin and Deeds of the Getae by “the stammering, confused, and barely literate Jordanes.” You can’t fault M-H for not trying to squeeze what he could from such sources and from archaeology, his own original profession—in his early career, he was an explorer who wrote accounts of Tuva, the mysterious Siberian region that so fascinated Richard Feynman.)  

A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium
, ed. Paul Veyne. (This is the first and by far the best of the four volumes in this series, mostly because it contains two really outstanding essays by Paul Veyne and Peter Brown, who are heroes of mine. The picture they paint of local oligarchs lording it over everyone else, not merely those who were legally slaves, says more about the reality of the old system than idealizing accounts of universal Roman citizenship. It didn’t help you to insist Romanus sum if you didn’t belong among the propertied classes. “Just as the Napoleonic Code stipulated that the word of a master should be accepted in a dispute with a servant over wages, so did the Roman master mete out his own justice if robbed by an employee, as though the employee were a slave.”  This book is another Goldhammer translation, by the way—he gets a great many good gigs.)

A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World
, ed. Georges Duby (This volume was a let down after the first, though its illustrations are fascinating. On the theory that you should take at least one thing from everything you read, how about this? “In feudal residences there was no room for individual solitude, except perhaps in the moment of death.”)