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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History and Rashomon

 

 

Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon in which a murder is told from four differing perspectives, including that of the ghost of the murdered man, details a problem that always plagues historians:   whenever you have more than one source for an event, they are probably going to differ, sometimes in small particulars, although not uncommonly in large ones.  The larger the event, a battle for example, and the more sources, the more differences.  What one reads in a typical history book often glosses over questions on particular points with the writer, assuming he is aware of the differing materials, picking, choosing and interpreting source material rather like an individual putting together a puzzle where some of the pieces have gone astray and some have been savaged by the family dog.  It is not easy work, and that is why some “historians” merely repackage the various books on the subject they have skimmed and eschew actual research by themselves.  If you read a lot on a particular topic of history, you can often tell what source is being used for a particular event.

On February 11, 1861, Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois with his family to travel to Washington DC to be sworn in as President of a very Disunited States of America.  He made a short and, for him, fairly emotional and personal speech to his friends and well-wishers at the train station.  Three versions of his speech have come down to us: (more…)

Published in: on February 18, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on History and Rashomon  
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Old Timers

 

A poem of Carl Sandburg I have always admired.  It reminds us that in the grand sweep of History almost all of us are destined to be spear carriers, but even spear carriers can appreciate the view afforded them of the passing scene:

 

I am an ancient reluctant conscript.

On the soup wagons of Xerxes I was a cleaner of pans.
On the march of Miltiades’ phalanx I had a haft and head;
I had a bristling gleaming spear-handle.

Red-headed Cæsar picked me for a teamster.
He said, “Go to work, you Tuscan bastard,
Rome calls for a man who can drive horses.”

The units of conquest led by Charles the Twelfth,
The whirling whimsical Napoleonic columns:
They saw me one of the horseshoers.

I trimmed the feet of a white horse Bonaparte swept the night stars with.

Lincoln said, “Get into the game; your nation takes you.”
And I drove a wagon and team and I had my arm shot off
At Spottsylvania Court House.

I am an ancient reluctant conscript.

Published in: on March 16, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Old Timers  
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Allan Nevins Online

 

Recently I have been reading about Grover Cleveland.  I recalled that I had Allan Nevin’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Cleveland in my library and I retrieved it.  Nevins was a masterful researcher and an artful stylist and he performs the art of historical necromancy well as he brings to life eras from the past to gracefully dance before the eyes of his readers.  Alas Nevins, who died in 1971, is largely forgotten today.

 

His magnum opus, The Ordeal of the Union, depicted the history of the US from 1847-1865 in eight fat volumes, the final four volumes dealing with the Civil War in microscopic detail.  I was recently delighted to discover that most of his work is online.  Go here to take a look at it, and hopefully you will learn what a master of Clio’s craft he was.

Published in: on August 26, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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Easter and History

 

I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.

H.G. Wells

How many movements throughout the history of Man have flourished briefly and then vanished into everlasting oblivion, forgotten entirely by History or relegated to the briefest of footnotes?  From a human standpoint that was clearly the fate of the movement started by the carpenter/rabbi from Galilee following His death on a cross.  His followers had scattered and went into hiding at His arrest.  He was denied by the mob, their choosing a bandit and murderer over Him.  Condemned by the foreigners occupying His country, His people observed His death by mocking Him.  The idea that He had founded a “Church” that would spread around the globe, altering all of human history, and causing Him to be worshiped as God by billions of people would have struck any neutral observer as mad ravings.  Yet that is precisely what happened. (more…)

Published in: on April 21, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Easter and History  
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History?

 

History is the bits of what happened that make it into the history books.  Example:

 

Livy:  ‘Can’t I? Indeed I can,’ said Livy. ‘Do you mean to say that I mustn’t write a history with an epic theme because that’s a prerogative of poetry, or put worthy eve-of-battle speeches in the mouths of my generals because to compose such speeches is the prerogative of oratory?’

Pollio:  ‘That is precisely what I do mean. History is a true record of what happened, how people lived and died, what they did and said; an epic theme merely distorts the record. As for your generals’ speeches they are admirable as oratory but damnably unhistorical: not only is there no particle of evidence for any one of them, but they are inappropriate. I have heard more eve-of-battle speeches than most men and though the generals that made them, Caesar and Antony especially, were remarkably fine platform orators, they were all too good soldiers to try any platform business on the troops. They spoke to them in a conversational way, they did not orate. What sort of speech did Caesar make before the Battle of Pharsalia? Did he beg us to remember our wives and children and the sacred temples of Rome and the glories of our past campaigns? By God, he didn’t! He climbed up on the stump of a pine-tree with one of those monster-radishes in one hand and a lump of hard soldiers’ bread in the other, and joked, between mouthfuls. Not dainty jokes but the real stuff told with the straightest face: about how chaste Pompey’s life was compared with his own reprobate one. The things he did with that radish would have made an ox laugh. I remember one broad anecdote about how Pompey won his surname The Great – oh, that radish! – and another still worse one about how he himself had lost his hair in the Bazaar at Alexandria. I’d tell you them both now but for this boy here, and but for your being certain to miss the point, not having been educated in Caesar’s camp. Not a word about the approaching battle except just at the close: “Poor old Pompey! Up against Julius Caesar and his men! What a chance he has”!’

Livy:  ‘You didn’t put any of this in your history,’ said Livy.

Pollio:  ‘Not in the public editions,’ said Pollio. ‘I’m not a fool. Still, if you like to borrow the private Supplement which I have just finished writing, you’ll find it there. But perhaps you’ll never bother. I’ll tell you the rest: Caesar was a wonderful mimic, you know, and he gave them Pompey’s dying speech, preparatory to falling on his sword (the radish again – with the end bitten off). He railed, in Pompey’s name, at the Immortal Gods for always allowing vice to triumph over virtue. How they laughed! Then he bellowed: “And isn’t it true, though Pompey says it? Deny it if you can, you damned fornicating dogs, you!” And he flung the half-radish at them. The roar that went up! Never were there soldiers like Caesar’s. Do you remember the song they sang at his French triumph?

“Home we bring the bald whoremonger,
      Romans, lock your wives away.” ’

I, Claudius, Robert Graves

 

Published in: on March 4, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on History?  
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The Man in the High Castle Season Three: October 5, 2018

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

Ecclesiastes 12:5

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61souSkwDk4

 

Well that took a while.  I have eagerly anticipated Season Three of the Amazon Prime Series The Man in the High Castle, and it will finally premiere on October 5, 2018.

The late Philip K. Dick, paranoid, left-leaning, mentally ill and drug abuser, was nevertheless a science fiction writer of pure genius.  His book The Man in the High Castle (1962) introduced me as a boy to the genre of alternate history, with his unforgettable evocation of a United States divided by the victorious Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  One of the main plot devices in the book is a novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which posits an alternate reality in which the Allies won World War II.  Like most of Dick’s work, the book suggests that the dividing line between alternate realities can be very thin.

Dick’s novel brings out the contingency of history, a factor overlooked by many people.  History is what has occurred.  While we are living it, making our contribution to what will be the history of our times, we understand that what will be is the result of many factors and predicting the future is a fool’s game.  The past seems rock solid by comparison.  Understanding however the events and circumstances that shaped the past, and also comprehending that different paths could easily have been followed, gives us a different view of the past and the present.    It is one thing to go through life with the philosophy that “what will be, will be” and quite another to appreciate that the future depends upon what we and our contemporaries do now.

Published in: on August 7, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Man in the High Castle Season Three: October 5, 2018  
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Bulgaria With Missiles

Chinese Premier Chou En Lai when asked his opinion in 1072  of the French  Revolution said that it was too early to tell.  (It is possible that he was talking about the French protests of 1968 in which case the quote goes from profound to banal.  Let us assume that he was being profound.)  Massive historical events usually require the perspective that only time can give.  For example:

This week, Russia will spend millions of dollars to put up yet another WWII victory parade in the Red Square. Tanks will rumble and jets will fly overhead. Nuclear-capable ballistic missiles will slowly crawl past the same old mausoleum with the same old corpse inside. But what about the people watching? Some are clinging to old glory. Many are beginning to see the absurdity of celebrating in superpower style victory over countries that are now vastly more prosperous than their own. Russia is a poor country that does not even have the technological and business expertise to exploit its own natural resources, letting foreign powers do it instead, akin to the literal banana republics of early 20th century Central America. Russia has roughly half the population it had a hundred years ago and in many metrics such as consumer goods production has yet to reach pre-revolutionary levels or levels that were achieved by Stalin’s GULAG slave labor in the 1930’s. In all ways that count, Russia is the sole loser of the Second World War.

 

So what happened? Why were the hopes and aspirations of those attending the first WWII victory parade so cruelly dashed against the rocks of history? The answer is not hard to come by; all it takes is to ask those Russians who lived through post-war Soviet history and did not belong to the communist or technocratic elites. In the USSR, there was simply no reason for anyone to work hard. It was not possible to make more money, to open a business, to invest for profit. If any disposable income materialized (a rare event indeed), there was nothing to buy, certainly nothing of any quality. The best way to live was to engage in tufta (pretend work) and whenever possible steal from your employer, the government. After all, the government shafted you, so why not shaft it back? As long as extra effort does not produce extra rewards, why bother? No dream, no aspiration, no amount of well-justified national pride can survive a system that rewards mediocrity and minimal effort. A life or barely clinging to the communist safety net of minimal (but guaranteed!) nutrition and healthcare is hardly a life worth living. It is a life that brings out the worst in people; it makes them lazy, stupid, belligerent.

 

Go here to read the rest.  Great military victories are very important in History, but more important is what the victor does with the victory in peace.

Published in: on May 11, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Bulgaria With Missiles  
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Christ and History

(I originally posted this at The American Catholic and I thought the history mavens of Almost Chosen People might enjoy it.)

I’ll tell you what stands between us and the Greeks.  Two thousand years of human suffering stands between us! Christ on His Cross stands between us!

Michelangelo, Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

Popular historian Tom Holland, whose work I have admired, writes how his study of history led him back to Christianity:

By the time I came to read Edward Gibbon and the other great writers of the Enlightenment, I was more than ready to accept their interpretation of history: that the triumph of Christianity had ushered in an “age of superstition and credulity”, and that modernity was founded on the dusting down of long-forgotten classical values. My childhood instinct to think of the biblical God as the po-faced enemy of liberty and fun was rationalised. The defeat of paganism had ushered in the reign of Nobodaddy, and of all the crusaders, inquisitors and black-hatted puritans who had served as his acolytes. Colour and excitement had been drained from the world. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean,” Swinburne wrote, echoing the apocryphal lament of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome. “The world has grown grey from thy breath.” Instinctively, I agreed.

So, perhaps it was no surprise that I should have continued to cherish classical antiquity as the period that most stirred and inspired me. When I came to write my first work of history, Rubicon, I chose a subject that had been particularly close to the hearts of the philosophes: the age of Cicero. The theme of my second, Persian Fire, was one that even in the 21st century was serving Hollywood, as it had served Montaigne and Byron, as an archetype of the triumph of liberty over despotism: the Persian invasions of Greece.

The years I spent writing these studies of the classical world – living intimately in the company of Leonidas and of Julius Caesar, of the hoplites who had died at Thermopylae and of the legionaries who had triumphed at Alesia – only confirmed me in my fascination: for Sparta and Rome, even when subjected to the minutest historical inquiry, did not cease to seem possessed of the qualities of an apex predator. They continued to stalk my imaginings as they had always done – like a tyrannosaur.

Yet giant carnivores, however wondrous, are by their nature terrifying. The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.

“Every sensible man,” Voltaire wrote, “every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” Rather than acknowledge that his ethical principles might owe anything to Christianity, he preferred to derive them from a range of other sources – not just classical literature, but Chinese philosophy and his own powers of reason. Yet Voltaire, in his concern for the weak and oppressed, was marked more enduringly by the stamp of biblical ethics than he cared to admit. His defiance of the Christian God, in a paradox that was certainly not unique to him, drew on motivations that were, in part at least, recognisably Christian.

“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.

Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian. (more…)

Published in: on September 18, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments (5)  
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The Man in the High Castle

 

 

 

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

Ecclesiastes 12:5

 

The late Philip K. Dick, paranoid, left-leaning, mentally ill and drug abuser, was nevertheless a science fiction writer of pure genius.  His book The Man in the High Castle (1962) introduced me as a boy to the genre of alternate history, with his unforgettable evocation of a United States divided by the victorious Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  One of the main plot devices in the book is a novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which posits an alternate reality in which the Allies won World War II.  Like most of Dick’s work, the book suggests that the dividing line between alternate realities can be very thin.

 

“The Nazis have no sense of humor, so why should they want television? Anyhow, they killed most of the really great comedians. Because most of them were Jewish. In fact, she realized, they killed off most of the entertainment field. I wonder how Hope gets away with what he says. Of course, he has to broadcast from Canada. And it’s a little freer up there. But Hope really says things. Like the joke about Goring . . . the one where Goring buys Rome and has it shipped to his mountain retreat and then set up again. And revives Christianity so his pet lions will have something to—”

(more…)

Published in: on July 18, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Man in the High Castle  
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