Christopher Columbus and Historical Optimism

Harvard professor Samuel Eliot Morison, who was about to become the official historian of the Navy during World War II and who would attain Admiral rank, in 1943 came out with his two volume Pulitzer prize winning biography of Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.  The prologue in that book is a standing rebuke of the historical pessimism that infests our own time:

At the end of the year 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science, and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune [boring] and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through studying the pagan past.

Islam was now expanding at the expense of Christendom. Every effort to recover the holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem, touchstone of Christian prestige, had been a failure. The Ottoman Turks, after snuffing out all that remained of the Byzantine Empire, had overrun most of Greece, Albania and Serbia; presently they would be hammering at the gates of Vienna….

With the practical dissolution of the Empire and the Church’s loss of moral leadership, Christians had nothing to which they might cling. The great principle of unity represented by emperor and pope was a dream of the past that had not come true. Belief in the institutions of their ancestors was wavering. It seemed as if the devil had adopted as his own the principle “divide and rule.” Throughout Western Europe the general feeling was one of profound disillusion, cynical pessimism and black despair….

Morrison goes on to note that the Nuremburg Chronicle was in preparation in 1492 which purported to be a universal history from the creation of the world.
Lest any reader feel an unjustified optimism, the Nuremberg chroniclers place 1493 in the Sixth or penultimate Age of the world, and leave six blank pages on which to record events from the date of print to the Day or Judgment. (more…)

Published in: on October 11, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Christopher Columbus and Historical Optimism  
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