Linkfest 2018-07-30

 Lord of the Rings by Frank Frazetta

Lord of the Rings by Frank Frazetta

The images from today's linkfest are Frank Frazetta illustrations of the Lord of the Rings. Frazetta was a prolific illustrator of comics, book covers, album covers, and paintings. His style is instantly recognizable to any fan of science fiction and fantasy, and perhaps is the epitome of SFF cover art. There are a lot of links this week about science fiction and fantasy works, so this just seemed right when it came through my Twitter feed. His children and grandchildren still benefit from his work, so please patronize their online shops.


THE MUD, THE BLOOD AND THE YEARS: WHY “GRIMDARK” IS THE NEW “SWORD AND SORCERY”

Warhammer 40k is the thing I had most often heard described as grimdark, but it turns out there is a wide variety of books that could be described by that label. I might have to check it out.


WHY WAS THE 20TH CENTURY NOT A CHINESE CENTURY?: AN OUTTAKE FROM "SLOUCHING TOWARDS UTOPIA?: AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE LONG 20TH CENTURY"

The first of two related Brad DeLong links this week. An nice capsule history of China's relative position in the world during the twentieth century.


Curing cancer statistically via mammography

Many modern diagnostic techniques, while quite accurate in absolute terms, can have false positive results in numbers higher than true positives because the actual occurrence rate of what is being sought is low.


A slightly gloating post, but arguably deservedly so, that self-published authors are overtaking traditional publishing at a rapid pace in science fiction and fantasy, with lots of graphs. Even more damning is the fact that much of the traditional science fiction and fantasy book sales of the traditional model are The Handmaid's Tale, currently trendy as an anti-Trump book.


Congress is giving the officer promotion system a massive overhaul

I once considered a career in the military. This is a big change in how promotions, especially the end of up or out.


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Robots and Jobs: A Check on Fear

A reasonable take, based on historical data about automation.


ARISTOTLE RETURNS

I might argue he never left, but there is a genuine neo-Aristotelian moment in analytic philosophy.



Underestimating the power of gratitude – recipients of thank-you letters are more touched than we expect

I just received a handwritten thank you note from my mother, so this came at the right time.


 Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in England?

Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in England?

Pseudoerasmus tweets a chart looking at how few people were employed in the English agricultural sector in the eighteenth century.


THE MEIJI RESTORATION: A PROBABLE IN-TAKE FOR "SLOUCHING TOWARDS UTOPIA?: AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE LONG 20TH CENTURY"

A counter-point to DeLong's piece on China above, but with a disputed claim about agricultural productivity in Japan.


Compulsory Licensing Of Backroom IT?

I would genuinely like to know if the claim that different executions of custom IT software are  a large differentiating factor in the market right now is true.


Dollars for Docs

Public records on payments to physicians from pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies in the US.


“WHY ARE DEVELOPERS ONLY BUILDING LUXURY HOUSING?”

Some data on why it makes economic sense [for developers] to build expensive housing right now.


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The Marriage of Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton

A beautiful reflection on the little touches that make Tolkien so great, and why the Fellowship was comprised of bachelors.


When Ramjets Ruled Science Fiction

Some of the most fun ideas in science fiction get disproven later. Ah well.


I need this for professional purposes.


The humanities are suffering from not being vocational.

 

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Linkfest 2018-07-09

 The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive

The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive

The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive – Introduction

Superversive is a neologism intended to be the contrary of subversive. H. P. at Every Day Should Be Tuesday tries to figure out what the term is really getting at. While there is a small group of authors that like to describe themselves using the term, broadly construed, lots of authors could plausibly fall into this mode of writing. H. P. describes it as books set in a moral universe, that can engender hope and wonder in the reader.  I think Will Wight, Timothy Zahn, and the duo of Jason Anspach and Nick Cole write books like this, but I have no idea whether any of them would want to be associated with the term, since its most vocal proponents like to make trouble.

A CEO who based his $700 million company in Pittsburgh says he's getting employees who want to work in tech but avoid the Bay Area

Luis von Ahn founded the language learning internet company Duolingo in Pittsburgh because it is cheaper to own a home. In theory, the internet is supposed to enable you to work from anywhere in the world, but the tech world has become insanely focused on Silicon Valley, to the detriment of living standards in the area. I would have thought this kind of move was a no-brainer, but all these rich guys keep acting otherwise.

Marine experiment finds women get injured more frequently, shoot less accurately than men

This article is almost three years old now, but I doubt the general landscape has changed much since.

Benefits of the American Revolution: An Exploration of Positive Externalities

An exercise in alternative history, that looks at what might have been without the American Revolution in order to assess whether it was worth it. Spurred by a question from Bryan Caplan, who is a hella smart guy, even if I wonder about him sometimes. This could be described as Whig history, but that doesn't mean it is all wrong.

British antiques expert ‘ran tomb-raiding gang’

The title is alarmist, apparently most of the thefts were as simple as stashing ancient coins in coin purse full of modern money.

The Opium War and the Humiliation of China

The Opium War still makes red-blooded Chinese mad, and I'm not sure I can blame them.

The coming 'labor shortage' in America is great news for workers

A shortage is a technical term in economics that does a lot of work. Strictly speaking, it just means a market condition were wages are going up. Most of the articles you see imply that business is idled and crops are rotting in the fields, which isn't yet the case.

MAKING A NEODYMIUM MAGNET - ELEVEN (NOT SO) EASY STEPS

Everything you ever wanted to know about making magnets.

Linkfest 2018-06-18

Perhaps Monday is the new Friday around here.


Conan the Barbarian: A Review, an Analysis, and a Little Bit of a Misunderstood and Improperly Played - While Talking About the Pulps

I found this reading the Conan roundup from Monday. I also rate the 1982 Milius Conan higher than Rick Stump. I love that movie, and I am astounded by how well it holds up. Nonetheless, this is a fantastic reflection on Robert E. Howard and his influence on the storytelling of the twentieth century.

THERANOS DIDN'T NUKE THE DIAGNOSTICS BUSINESS

There are reputable companies working in the same space as Theranos, but since there is either no hype or no scandal, we don't hear much about them.

There’s a Place for Us: Revoice and Gay Christian Futures

There’s a Place for Us Part II: More on Revoice & Gay Christian Homemaking

I really enjoyed Eve Tushnet's two-parter on being a gay Catholic, and I think she's completely right that an obsession on avoiding even the possibility of sexual feelings has cramped the friendships of too many people. As Eve rightly notes, this is not limited to those who identify as gay or lesbian, but affects all of us to some degree. This reminds of things the Art of Manliness has written about friendship, from a completely different direction. Anytime I find two people with completely different perspectives and agendas talking about the same thing, I take notice. 

The Murder That Changed Germany

I read John Schindler extensively for a while, then I started to be concerned that he had lost his mind. I'm glad to see he can still write a cogent column. The murders of so many young women in Germany by migrants of various sorts was the kind of thing predicted after Angela Merkel so unwisely threw open the borders. This prediction was then dismissed as racist trash, and inconveniently, happened anyway.

Violent crime rises in Germany and is attributed to refugees

This Reuters report states the facts succinctly.

Why Working on the Railroad Comes With a $25,000 Signing Bonus

Railroad work is irregular, hard, and dangerous. Consequently, it also pays well. Of course, this kind of thing can be highly cyclical, and under railroad union rules, the guys who get laid off will be the ones with the least seniority. Nonetheless, this is really good work.

The Lesser Cruelty on Immigration

Ross Douthat pens the kind of column on the fuckup at the southern US border that I wish I had written. I am resolutely against mindless cruelty, but there has to be some level of cruelty in a rich nation's border enforcement, or that nation will end.

McMoon: How the Earliest Images of the Moon Were so Much Better than we Realised

The more classified stuff comes out that we did during the Cold War, the more sympathetic I am to the idea that innovation in the US has slowed down.

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Time has been kind to Francisco de Orellana.

The Long View: Tokugawa America

 Tokugawa Ieyasu   [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tokugawa Ieyasu

 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tokugawa Japan is one of the more remarkable societies that have ever developed. It produced most of the culture that both we Americans and the Japanese find distinctive, and managed to be relatively stable and resistant to the outside world for nearly 250 years. When the outside world finally barged in, Tokugawa Japan responded more creatively than China did, although you could argue the mess Imperial Japan made in the early twentieth century mitigates this accomplishment.

Here, John Reilly asks the question: What would America look like if an isolationist policy as strict as the Bakufu's were implemented? This is the kind of fascinating thought experiment that John's fascination with alternative history made him well prepared for.


Tokugawa America

An Essay by John J. Reilly

With Thanks to Akatsukami

 

In this sixth year of the 21st century, one might argue that the American unipolar moment has ended, or that unipolarity has been revealed to be not at all identical with omnipotence. In either case, many Americans now feel less safe than they did ten years ago. The anxiety has many sources, all of them with an international component. There are the continuing wars in Central Asia and the Middle East, the ever more alarming terrorist threats, the relative decline of US manufacturing, the uncontrollable fluctuations in petroleum prices, the demographic transformation arising from Latin American immigration; and, an as yet insufficiently appreciated factor, the purely confessional tensions generated by the appearance of an aggressive Muslim minority in a Protestant-Christian country. For these and other reasons, there is now audible sentiment in the United States for less engagement with the wider world.

This sentiment is sometimes expressed in terms of an argument that the United States should share more of the cost of maintaining the global security and economic commons. The argument is, perhaps, incoherent. Quite aside from the fact that it assumes the existence of peer powers with an interest congruent with that of the United States in maintaining a liberal world order, the solution the argument implies would do nothing at all to shield America from the global forces that are causing the new anxiety. The opposite may be true: to wholly assimilate American interests to those of multilateral organizations in which the US does not have a preponderant voice would simply transform foreign engagement from a question of policy to one of legal obligation.

More interesting, if more radical, is the call by nationalists for far more radical disengagement. At least for purposes of this discussion, we will not consider the “civilizationist” variant, which holds that the West as a whole must fight off Islamist aggression. Though apparently of more than one mind on the subject, nationalists like Patrick Buchanan seem, on the whole, to be willing to write off the non-American portion of Western Civilization and concentrate on the defense and cultural preservation of the American homeland. In this essay will consider not so much whether such a policy would be possible or sustainable, but what it would look like if it were implemented.

As a metaphor for this project, we call the thorough-going recusant model “Tokugawa America,” after the period in Japanese history known as the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868). Japan under the Tokugawa Shoguns (essentially a line of hereditary prime ministers) was perhaps the most successful and sophisticated hermit kingdom in history. It began as an attempt to re-impose order, after a long period of civil war, using an ideology of Neo-Confucian hierarchy to support a feudal four-layer caste system. At least at the beginning, the regime was anti-commercial; it famously limited foreign trade to a minimum. It also undertook to suppress Christianity as a disruptive foreign influence. Nonetheless, the Tokugawa period was by no means a dark age. The arts of the Tokugawa period, particularly in painting, achieved a level of evocative subtlety that has rarely if ever been matched. Neither was the period socially immobile. The original feudal caste system developed more market features with the passage of time, as well as a lively intellectual life. Some Japanese elites had kept abreast of events in the rest of the world. When the challenge from America and Europe came in the middle of the 19th century, Tokugawa Japan had the resilience and self-confidence to respond creatively, though the Shogunate itself was abolished early in the following era of reform.

What the American nationalists are asking for is the Tokugawa period, but with American characteristics.

Let us imagine that, after September 11, 2001, the American political system had determined to protect America by hardening the target rather than by eliminating the source of the threat. “Hardening the target” is here taken to mean, not simply making the US less vulnerable to terrorism from the Middle East, but less vulnerable to any disruption from any quarter. This invulnerability would be accomplished by changes to the United States and its immediate environment, not by attempting to modify the economic or political evolution of other parts of the world.

There would be three strategic principles:

Economic Autarky: The survival, and even the prosperity, of the United States could no longer be allowed to depend on events outside the reliable control of the American state. Tariffs would become the chief instrument of macroeconomic policy, as they were in the 19th century. Increasingly punitive imports would promote withdrawal from world commodity markets, and most especially from the world oil market. Other areas of the economy would, presumably, produce the technological innovations needed to accommodate the new price structure. In addition to the oil question, the US would no longer import manufactured goods, except perhaps for some luxury items; neither would export industries be favored. The single greatest change would be that the dollar would no longer be the chief international reserve currency, or the preferred medium of international exchange. Taxes on fund transfers would accomplish these goals. One suspects there would be a return to an international gold standard for such trade as still occurred.

Military Disentanglement: The rejection of foreign sources of essential commodities would remove the Middle East, West Africa, and Latin America as possible spheres of small wars. Large wars, or at least large wars involving the United States, would be prevented by the withdrawal of security guarantees from Europe and Japan, and indeed from everyplace east of Maritime Canada and west of Hawaii. The military could shrink to the Coast Guard, missile defense, and the Marine Corps (with the latter including its air arm).

Closed borders: Except for policed transit points, the Mexican border would be closed. Areas that could not be continuously patrolled would be mined. Businesses unable to meet their personnel needs from the domestic labor force or by automation would be expected to close. Schools, particularly graduate schools, would be in much the same situation regarding students: student visas would be rare. Travel of all kinds to the United States would be rare. Even tourists are a potential threat, both in transit and once they arrive. Government functions connected with the franchise and the administration of justice would be conducted in English.

We should note that the condition of the United States did approximate these principles during the Great Depression. The US was, almost, resource independent in those days. It actually ran a small trade surplus, though of course the absolute volume of trade was small. The US military was trying to disengage even from residual commitments in Latin America and the Philippines. President Roosevelt, during his first term, came close to turning the Army into a paper force. During the early years of the Depression, immigration actually reversed: more people left the country than entered it. Important industries were subsidized and regulated to keep them in business and to maintain employment. On the many occasions when government sought to influence prices, from the cost of wheat to the cost of airline tickets, it usually tried to raise them to prevent deflation.

Internationally, of course, the 1930s ended very badly, but that was because the US recused itself during a period of manifestly growing threats from peer states. It is not certain that the same bad result would obtain in a context in which the rest of the world were turning to rubble.

Similarly, Tokugawa America need not be a gray place of persistently high unemployment, shabby flannel clothes, and Humphrey Bogart movies. The isolation of America in the 1930s was more a matter of necessity than design, as was the disengagement of the United States from European affairs in the 19th century. The spirit and structure of a recusant regime would be quite different if the isolation were a matter of policy.

We might, for instance, consider Robert Heinlein’s novel, “If This Goes On,“ first published in 1940. During the 1930s, Heinlein thought that the United States would and should prescind as much as possible from European affairs. In most of his scenarios for the future, a second world war does occur, but the United States remains neutral. “If This Goes On---“ uses a variation on that idea: a few generations after the date of publication, Heinlein posits, the United States has dropped out of world affairs because it has become a theocracy, ruled by a line of prophets. The military is a small internal police. Life goes on pretty much as it always had (there are flying cars, but there were many flying cars in Depression era stories), except that it has become almost impossible to leave or enter the country.

Avoiding personal foreign contacts is a fundamental feature of the prophet’s system: the isolation is designed to prevent ideological contamination. This objective does not bulk large in the writings of nationalists today; neither are the nationalists, for the most part, would-be theocrats. The closest that nationalists come to an exception in this regard is the question of Islam. In some circles, every Islamic neighborhood is regarded as an incubator of fifth columnists. At the very least, Tokugawa America would have to discourage the spread of Islam, a policy that would require attention not just to immigration and nationalization policy, but also the administration of prisons. A consistent policy would also favor conversion to some form of Christianity.

A Tokugawa policy for America, however, would require some broader rationale than anti-Islamism and economic protectionism. The economic and social configuration it would seek to maintain is not natural. Markets do not stop at borders except at gunpoint. Energy will have to be continually applied to prevent the system from dissolving, something that was not true of the isolation of the 1930s. Investments will be forgone and expenditures made where they would not be in the absence of public policy. In other words, Tokugawa America will be expensive to maintain. The political system will have to be firmly committed to doing so. The recusal of the United States would have to be understood not just as a policy, but as a way of life.

In any case, Tokugawa America would need more command and redistribution features than have been fashionable since the era of deregulation began in the 1970s. It’s not just that command would have to be continually applied to keep the system in existence. The fact that the system would so obviously be picking winners and losers, particularly with regard to tariffs, that the losers would demand compensatory subsidies of various sorts. Tokugawa America would be in persistent danger of becoming a “blocked society,” in which competing claims for rents would tend to freeze the political system.

The really interesting question is whether Tokugawa America would be recognizably American. The United States has a venerable history of holy horror at the corruption of the outside world; the United States has experienced periods of “isolationism” (the 1920s was not one of them, but that’s another story); for much of its history, the United States has practiced beggar-thy-neighbor trade protectionism. What the United States has never been is defensive or culturally protectionist. In this the US has been the opposite of all the world’s hermit kingdoms, including Tokugawa Japan’s. These societies usually felt that their cultures were in some sense superior to those of the rest of the world. However, far from attempting to spread their arts or institutions to other societies, they often went to some lengths to ensure that foreigners would learn as little as possible about these treasures.

Universal liberal democracy is not the only element in American political culture, but it is one of the earliest and most persistent. Only episodically has America attempted to spread its institutions to the rest of the world as a matter of official policy. Nonetheless, the American view of the world, and indeed of itself, has always incorporated the tenet that liberal democracy would or should spread, that it would be better for everybody if the world became a society of liberal republics, as Kant had speculated. Do not be deceived by the Americans who claim to overcome American chauvinism by asserting that the whole world need not be like America. They are, perhaps, the most naive of their countrymen, since they have simply globalized American patriotism by failing to see that the world society of liberal republics does not yet exist.

Tokugawa America would no doubt retain the language of its ancestral universalism, but the meaning of the words would have shifted. For the first time, liberal democracy would just be something that Americans do, like baseball; whether or not other societies had similar institutions would no longer be relevant to the American view of historical development. For that matter the idea of historical development as progress would not fit into Tokugawa America. America’s only imperative would be its own preservation. That might make America less peculiar, but it would also make it less American.

Finally, one suspects that America in recusal might shift its emphasis from the production of popular culture to the production of a new high culture. American popular culture has always in fact been idiosyncratic, from the loner heroes in films to the advertising industry’s ideal of the female figure. Nonetheless, this culture was produced by people who unselfconsciously thought their own assumptions about beauty and virtue to be universal. The same holds true from music to food to the size of cars. Tokugawa America, in contrast, would be the kingdom of self-consciousness. These themes and motifs would be taken up like popular tunes were taken up by the great classical composers and reworked into creations of a new order. America has had self-consciously American art before, of course, but heretofore it has always been drowned out by the commercial popular arts on the one hand and the acids of the avant garde on the other. In Tokugawa America, however, there would be no subsidy for the nihilist avant garde, not in a political culture whose first duty was national preservation. As for commercial art, its market will have shrunk with the geographical sphere of American culture. Discerning patrons would determine the flow of American culture.

The model we have considered is scarcely a dystopia. Tokugawa America need not be poor, tyrannical or even ugly. There are ways in which it would be superior to the America of history. However, let no one imagine that the establishment of this society would be the preservation of the Old Republic against a globalizing world. Tokugawa America would be another country.

 

End

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2006-08-09: Qinshihuangdi; Republican versus Conservative; Bernard Lewis; Mark Steyn

 Qin Shi Huang  By Unknown - Yuan, Zhongyi. China's terracotta army and the First Emperor's mausoleum: the art and culture of Qin Shihuang's underground palace. Paramus, New Jersey: Homa & Sekey Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-931907-68-2 (p.140), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=364539

Qin Shi Huang

By Unknown - Yuan, Zhongyi. China's terracotta army and the First Emperor's mausoleum: the art and culture of Qin Shihuang's underground palace. Paramus, New Jersey: Homa & Sekey Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-931907-68-2 (p.140), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=364539

When I was younger, I was much taken with the wild, Indiana Jones-style tales of the tomb of Qin Shi Huang. Alas, they are likely fables, but a young man can dream.

Also, the zingers just keep coming. Anyone who has ever had a run-in with an overzealous HOA can probably understand what John is getting at here. HOAs are extremely powerful within their small domain.

Readers will note that Steyn is really complaining about unresponsive, bureaucratic government. If by "big" you mean "affecting a large portion of everyday life," then no form of government is quite so large as the sort of busybody town-meeting government that the Puritans introduced to New England. This kind of government, and not the bureaucratic state, is government at its most powerful.

Qinshihuangdi; Republican versus Conservative; Bernard Lewis; Mark Steyn

 

Even for ancient Chinese history, this is not really news:

According to a news report from China, DNA analysis indicates that at least one of the workers who constructed the tomb of Qinshihuang, the first emperor of China, was in fact of west Eurasian ancestry.

What I find far more interesting is the preface to this question:

People are familiar with Qinshihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (260-210 B.C., r. 247-221 B.C.), in large part because of his army of terra-cotta warriors. Chinese archaeologists have refrained from excavating the emperor's tomb, so where was the "worker" found?

The delay in opening the tomb has now extended over decades. Historical accounts say that the tomb is ingeniously booby-trapped, so it would be difficult to reach the chamber where the emperor's sarcophagous floats on a pool of mercury. However, it is impossible to believe that these difficulties could not be overcome with modern tools and techniques. I want that tomb opened. I want it opened right now.

* * *

The gap between conservatism and the Republican Party widens, for reasons we may infer from this comment by Stephen Webb in yesterday's First Things:

Why do so many people these days sound like conservatives but still insist they are liberals? I recently had a conversation with a female lawyer who spoke as if she had just finished reading Oswald Spengler. When she learned that I was a college professor, she unleashed a torrent of vitriol against leftist academics. She knew more about the high-handed politics, the corrupting conformism, and the stifling relativism of humanities professors than any dean in America would be willing to admit to knowing. When the subject of the media came up, she understood instinctively that most journalists are out of touch with Middle America, and she had nothing positive to say about Hillary Clinton’s blatantly ingratiating turn toward a softer, more moderate rhetoric...OK, I said, I’ve told you why I think you are a conservative. Now you tell me why you think you are a liberal. At that point, a string of vehement blathering about how horrible Bush is came out of her like a broken doll whose string had been pulled one too many times.

The piece goes on about what being cool meant in the 1970s, but the explanation could stop with the irresponsibility of the Republican Party. One cannot take seriously a party that lowers taxes during a world war, and at a time when the economy is growing fast enough that the Fed raises interest rates quarter after quarter to prevent inflation. (I know the Fed did not raise rates yesterday; what will fiscal policy be if the economy slows and inflation increases?) And then, frankly, there are the limitations of George Bush. He is by no means a stupid man. If his foreign policy has a flaw, it is not excessive simplicity but over subtlety. The problem is that he is not the man to explain it. He was nominated because his party did not expect a complicated future and everyone appreciated his ability to campaign on a small number of easily comprehensible domestic issues. The choice over John McCain was a costly mistake.

* * *

Bernard Lewis predicts doomsday for August 22. At any rate, The Wall Street Journal yesterday ran an opinion piece by him in which he drew attention to the possible role of Shia eschatology in the Middle East. The full piece is now available here. I excerpt for your convenience:

During the Cold War, both sides possessed weapons of mass destruction, but neither side used them, deterred by what was known as MAD...[these]... constraints, the same fear of mutual assured destruction [would not] restrain a nuclear-armed Iran from using such weapons against the U.S. or against Israel...[because]...[t]here is a radical difference ...[in]...the apocalyptic worldview of Iran's present rulers. ...Even in the past it was clear that terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam had no compunction in slaughtering large numbers of fellow Muslims. ...The phrase "Allah will know his own" is usually used to explain such apparently callous unconcern...A direct attack on the U.S., though possible, is less likely in the immediate future. Israel is a nearer ...an attack that wipes out Israel would almost certainly wipe out the Palestinians too...an attack would evoke a devastating reprisal from Israel against Iran...The first of these possible deterrents might well be of concern to the Palestinians--but not apparently to their fanatical champions in the Iranian government. The second deterrent--the threat of direct retaliation on Iran--is...weakened by the suicide or martyrdom complex ...Mr. Ahmadinejad and his followers clearly believe that [the endtime] is now, and that the terminal struggle has already begun and is indeed well advanced. It may even have a date, indicated by several references by the Iranian president to giving his final answer to the U.S. about nuclear development by Aug. 22. ...Aug. 22 corresponds, in the Islamic calendar, to the 27th day of the month of Rajab of the year 1427. This, by tradition, is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the prophet Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to "the farthest mosque," usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back (c.f., Koran XVII.1). ...[there is no direct evidence that the Iranians plan any such thing, but]...[f]or people with this mindset, MAD is not a constraint; it is an inducement.

Very well, but could the assurance "we will tell you by the 27th of Rajab" be the equivalent of "we will tell you by Labor Day"? There may be no more to this than the accusations that the Bush Administration is try to provoke the Rapture.

* * *

Mark Steyn is now annoying the Australians in person, as we see from this transcript of the talkshow Counterpoint:

[Mark Steyn] I mean, basically in Europe, once the state takes care of every issue of life, from childcare to healthcare to looking after your elderly parents to giving you six weeks paid vacation a year, 30-hour work weeks...what have you got to worry about? You are basically the world's wrinkliest teenagers, you are left to go down to the record store and pick out your record collection, everything else is taken care of by the state. That's not a healthy principle on which to build society.

Michael Duffy: Is that one of the reasons you're a conservative or why you support smaller government?

Mark Steyn: Yes, I think big government is a national security issue. I live in the great state of New Hampshire in the United States which has...basically money is raised and spent at town level, so if you've got a budgetary overspend, it's generally your neighbour that's overspending, he's listed in the phone book so you can call him up at home and shout at him. And I think there's a lot to be said for small government precisely for that reason; it's accountable. And the minute you get this big, bloated government...

Readers will note that Steyn is really complaining about unresponsive, bureaucratic government. If by "big" you mean "affecting a large portion of everyday life," then no form of government is quite so large as the sort of busybody town-meeting government that the Puritans introduced to New England. This kind of government, and not the bureaucratic state, is government at its most powerful.

Note too that this power can be for good or ill. The oppressiveness of totalitarian societies is effected chiefly through the work unit and the block committee; the secret police are just a carapace.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! Book Review

 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria  By Ferdinand Schmutzer - Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv Austria, Inventarnr. LSCH 0029-C, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18361001

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

By Ferdinand Schmutzer - Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv Austria, Inventarnr. LSCH 0029-C, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18361001

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War I
by Richard Ned Lebow
Palgrave MacMillan, 2014
241 pages
ISBN 978-1-137-27853-1

I received this book for free as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

As part of my Lenten penance this year, I am choosing to work through my backlog of advance reader copies that I never quite got around to. I have a dozen or so sitting on my library shelves, quietly gathering dust.

This is another case where I have no idea why I haven't read this book yet. It is alternative history, a subject I find interesting enough that there is an entire static page dedicated to it on my site. My first introduction to the the subject was the volume What if? The World's Foremost Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. I think I read it as an undergraduate, and I happened upon John's site shortly thereafter. You see what happens?

Lebow summarizes alternative history thus:

Counterfactual means contrary to facts. A counterfactual describes an event that did not occur. In everyday language counterfactuals can be described as what-if statements. This nicely captures their purpose: they vary some feature of the past to change some aspect of the present. Some people use counterfactuals to imagine different futures, although strictly speaking they pertain only to the past.

Lebow takes the position that the Great War was truly an accident of history. It is not only contingent, it wasn't particularly likely. He lists six ways in which he thinks the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand altered what was an otherwise stable European political order:

  1. The assassination of the Thronfolger created a fear of escalation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The political leaders felt they couldn't let this go without encouraging more of the same.
  2. Franz Joseph and Kaiser Wilhelm were both shocked and offended by an insult to amour propre.
  3. Franz Ferdinand had been the primary advocate of peace in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  4. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, chancellor of the German Empire, may have been swayed to risk war by the assassination.
  5. The German Socialist party, the Social Democrats, were so appalled by the assassination that they were willing to throw their support to war to punish Serbia.
  6. Created an environment in which Kaiser Wilhelm and von Bethmann-Hollweg could feel like they hadn't actually chosen war.

I'm not enough of a specialist to really evaluate Lebow's list. (4) and (6) seem pretty speculative to me, but I'm not familiar with the character of Kaiser Wilhelm and von Bethmann-Hollweg, which is what Lebow says he based this judgment upon. I could buy the other four without too much fuss.

However, whether this historical judgment is correct isn't really the point of the book, in my opinion. We can learn something from alternative history, even if we think the alternative isn't particularly likely. What is interesting about alternative history is the attempt to understand the mechanics by which history unfolds, which is important in shaping what we choose to do.

Lebow has chosen a somewhat unusual point of departure for his alternative history. WWII is a much more common point of departure for alternative history. As it happens, John J. Reilly chose to investigate what might have happened if the Germans had won the Great War. Lebow went for something far more bold: let us posit that the Great War never happened, and peace really did have a chance. What might have followed?

 Peace never had a chance in our timeline

Peace never had a chance in our timeline

Lebow follows this down two paths: the best and worst plausible worlds given his departure from history were true.

Lebow's Best Plausible World

  • The British and Austro-Hungarian Empires survive, but the Russian Empire does not
  • Germany's early lead in science and technology is maintained
  • Europe remains the center of gravity of the world, but is closely pursued in most economic measures by the United States and Japan
  • Israel is never created
  • The rest of the Middle East develops in much the same way as Lebanon in the historical world

This is a more peaceful and multipolar world, but it does have some downsides. Mostly in absence of the many technologies that were created as part of the war efforts in both world wars. It is also less dynamic, staying much the same through the end of the twentieth century as it was in the 1950s.

Lebow's Worst Plausible World

  • The British and Austro-Hungarian Empires survive, but the Russian Empire does not
  • Germany's early lead in science and technology is maintained
  • Europe remains the center of gravity of the world, but is closely pursued in most economic measures by the United States and Japan
  • Israel is never created
  • The rest of the Middle East develops in much the same way as Lebanon in the historical world

If that list looks the same, that is because it is. Lebow's worst possible world is very much like his best, with the difference that the culture evolves in unpleasant ways. The Germans become more militaristic, the United States becomes more isolationist, and the Russians more paranoid.

In this worst possible world, all of the least pleasant features of the countries mentioned are exaggerated, and eventually Cold War between the German and British Empires turns hot. A nuclear exchange follows a breakdown in communication created by a false alarm. 

 Lebow's Worst World

Lebow's Worst World

I didn't find Lebow's alternative worlds particularly compelling, or plausible, even given his premise that preventing the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand could have completely prevented the Great War. Our models of history are just too different. This passage in the final chapter sums that difference up:

In an earlier collaborative study of the phenomenal rise of the West in the modern era, my colleagues and I argued that it had many causes, most of them contingent. The same can be said about China's cultural, military, and scientific superiority for almost two millennia. Above all it depended on the creation and maintenance of central authority over a vast land area and population. Nothing was inevitable about this development, and in its absence the landmass we call China would have developed into different political units with different languages.
 Map of the Yellow River, whose watershed covers most of northern China and drains to the Yellow Sea  By Shannon1 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Yellow River, whose watershed covers most of northern China and drains to the Yellow Sea

By Shannon1 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Everything about the creation of a central authority in the valley of the Yellow River was inevitable. It has now happened three times in the same place, with a remarkable continuity of culture and language. That is as close as we get to inevitable in history. Demography and geography and social dynamics all align to make this happen.

Lebow isn't really interested in these things, and it shows in the kind of worlds he imagines. Lebanon was different than the rest of the Middle East because the Lebanese, Maronite Catholics, were different. Less inbred, and less clannish, which are closely related things, the Lebanese were relatively Westernized and prosperous. Most of the rest of the Middle East lacks the human capital to do that. Banning cousin marriage could help fix both things, but it is unlikely to happen.

The other thing that rang false to me is the Whiggish stance that art would suffer under authoritarianism in the worst world. There have been many, many great artists in regimes that were authoritarian, and even in worse ones. As John Reilly noted in his own alternative history speculation about World War I, Weimar culture, which Lebow praises, and Nazi culture, which he does not, were the same artistic culture. The Nazis made some visually arresting art, in pursuit of horrible ends.

The one thing I truly appreciated was Lebow's attempt to make sense of what the Spanish Civil War would have looked like in the absence of its major outside sponsors in our world. It definitely would have still happened, everybody in Spain hated each other, but it might have had fewer repercussions elsewhere.

In the end, it looks like my reluctance to pick this book up was justified. Memento mori!

My other book reviews

John J. Reilly's Alternative History page

The Song of Roland Book Review

  Pater Europae

Pater Europae

Translation by W. S. Merwin, Notes, Glossary, and Select Bibliography by M. A. Clermont-Ferrand
The Modern Library, 2001
137 pages
ISBN 978-0375757112

The Song of Roland is a classic of Western literature, part of the mythology surrounding Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire. Probably composed in this form sometime in the 11th century, the Song of Roland was hugely popular for a very long time, and it informed what it meant to be a Christian knight during the High Middle Ages.

While the Song of Roland contains the fanciful embellishments common to all epic poetry [the superhero movie of medieval Europeans], the core of the story seems to have been transmitted substantially intact: the rearguard of Charlemagne's army, led by Hruodland, captain of the Breton Marches, was ambushed and killed to a man in Roncesvalles Pass in 778. The only things resembling a historical record of this come from a brief passage in a revised edition of the Life of Charles the Great, and a coin bearing the names "Carlus" and "Rodlan".

However, something noteworthy seems to have happened in that mountain pass, given that the story appears to have been already popular by the time it was written down. With the evidence thin on the ground, barring the discovery of any heretofore unknown manuscripts, a heroic folk memory is likely to be all we have.

My own interest in the Song of Roland has been developing slowly for fifteen years. I had heard of the book before then, but it was the game Halo that really sparked my interest. There is a tradition in science fiction and videogames of drawing upon the deep wells of classical literature and mythology. Probably because both are popular art forms that speak to our souls, and anything old enough to truly be classical usually has to also be popular, or to have been popular for a long enough time to survive accidents of history.

 Cortana

Cortana

Roland and the other paladins of Charlemagne carried named swords, weapons of unusual power granted as boons to worthy warriors. These swords, among them DurendalJoyeuse, and Curtana, all featured in the epics that grew up around the character of Roland. Real swords that still exist are known by these names, usually used as part of the mythology of legitimacy that surrounds kings of ancient lineage. It is at least possible that some of these objects might actually date to the periods in question, although many of them lack the supernatural qualities the epics describe.

 Ogier the Dane

Ogier the Dane

The statue that appears in the sidebar of my own website, Ogier the Dane, or Holger Danske, came out this same milieu. It is conceivable that Ogier actually lived in the eighth century, and that he was a servant or vassal of Charlemagne, although it is also possible that he is simply a figment of our collective imagination. In the epics, Ogier carried Curtana, a sword with the tip broken off, to symbolize mercy. Since it is the tip of a European style sword that is truly dangerous, this random bit of chivalric legend has appealed to me for a long time.

The more I learn about the myths and legends like the Song of Roland, the better I like them. Random bits of history, technology, and theology I learn tend to accrete to them in ways that make them more plausible as bits and pieces of real events passed down over many generations. Stories are never just stories.

My other book reviews

The Song of Roland
Modern Library

The Long View: The Rosicrucian Enlightenment

 Rosicrucians

Rosicrucians

The Rosicrucian Order is the kind of thing I couldn't get enough of when I was a teenager and a young man, and now bores me to tears. Accordingly, I'm sympathetic to John's critical reading of what the history of such movements really means.


The Rosicrucian Enlightenment
By Frances Yates
Routledge, 2004
(First Published 1972)
333 Pages, US$14.95
ISBN 0-415-26769-2

 

Did companies of English actors once prowl the capitals of western Germany and Mitteleuropa like Cathar troubadours, providing entertainment to the masses, to be sure, but also heralding to the wise a the impending arrival of an alchemical Millennium? And did the mind of modernity really spring from the Monas Hieroglyphica, John Dee’s dense and enigmatic little book, whose evangel Dee spread during his time in Europe in the 1580s, when he became a figure at the uncanny court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II at Prague? To answer a flat “yes” to either of these questions would be to put the matter more crudely than it appears in this careful classic study of the Rosicrucian moment in European intellectual history. (And actually, in asking those questions, I put in the comparison to the troubadours myself, though the author does make much of the role of Elizabethan drama.) Conspiracy theorists cannot be greatly comforted by this book, since it deals in large part with a public if overambitious political project, though the book does touch on the origins of the Freemasons and the other not-particularly-secret societies that began to flourish in the 17th century. Be that as it may, the real theme of the work is that the origins of the culture of modern science are closely linked with millennialism and a form of neoplatonism.

The centerpiece of the story is brief reign of the Winter King and Queen of Bohemia: Frederick V (1596-1632), Prince-Elector of the Palatinate, and of Princess Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662) of England. In 1619, the Kingdom of Bohemia rejected the Catholic Habsburg heir to the throne and chose the Protestant Frederick instead. His marriage in 1613 to Elizabeth, the daughter of James I of England, had been seen as a great strengthening of the Protestant cause in Europe. The offer of the Bohemian crown raised the possibility of a league of Evangelical princes that would break the hegemony of Habsburg and Spanish power. The supporters of the Bohemian project, as manifested in the literature of those years that purported to issue from an ancient but theretofore secret order of the “Rosy Cross,” also seem to have hoped that Frederick’s move from Heidelberg to Prague, the old capital of Rudolph II (1552-1612), might be the preliminary to Frederick’s ascension to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire (an elected position, remember: Frederick was one of the electors). Thus the connection between that ancient federation and the Church of Rome would be broken, and the empire would become the instrument, in the words of the Rosicrucian literature, of “a general reformation of the whole wide world.”

As it happened, few enterprises have ever turned out quite so badly. There had been a long truce in the wars of religion in the decades before the Bohemians chose Frederick. In those days, every state in Germany and Middle Europe seems to have been ruled by Ludwig the Mad, and the recluse Rudolph with his hermetic studies and keen interest in alchemy is usually denounced as the most frivolous of all. In retrospect, though, his absent-minded tolerance was probably the best course. His Habsburg successor (after the brief reign of his brother) refused to accept the loss of Bohemia to the Protestant cause (though it was largely a Protestant country). The Thirty Years War began with the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, when Frederick and Elizabeth were driven from Prague. Frederick simultaneously lost the Palatinate to invading Catholic armies. They then established a long-running but penurious court at the Hague.

The key documents on the Rosicrucian Furore, as it was called in Germany, were the pseudonymously published pamphlets, the Fama (to use the abbreviated title), which appeared in printed form in 1612, and the Confessio, which appeared two years later. To some extent, they were just partisan literature extolling the future of Frederick and his House. However, as we have seen, they also announced the existence of a secret society, an “Invisible College” of long-lived persons founded by one Christian Rosenkreuz, who was said to have acquired his knowledge in the East. This society promised to inaugurate an era of universal enlightenment in the very near future. The recovery of ancient wisdom was to be the foundation of this new reformation, but a crucial feature of it was to be the perfection of natural knowledge gained by experiment and by the consultation of scholars.

These documents and associated publications included the numerological reworking of ancient prophecies to prove that a great change was imminent. The model of history they proposed was not so different from the postmillennialism familiar from later centuries, which holds that the Millennium will be established on Earth by human effort before the Second Coming; this model is not so different from Age of the Holy Spirit forecast by Joachim of Fiore, to which the author of this book tells us the literature actually alluded.

The Christian Rosenkreuz after whom the Rosicrucian fashion was named was not so much a myth as a joke, an imaginary monk who was said to studied in Damascus and Fez. The spirit of the anonymous literature is captured in the work of a “Rosicrucian” whose name we do know, Johann Valentin Andreae. His allegory, written in German but appraently under influence of English drama, is known in English as The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. The work depicts a royal wedding spread over seven days, whose events track in some ways the alchemical process understood as a spiritual exercise. The Wedding ends with the sending out of “missionaries” to spread the new science. It is reasonably clear that this did not describe an actual missionary enterprise, but the spread of a new historical optimism based on the hope for a new synthesis of knowledge.

Persons less astute than Andreae took the Rosicrucian brotherhood literally. In Germany, until the defeat of Fredrick V in 1620 burst the bubble of irrational enthusiasms, there was a flood of literature by people defending and attacking the brotherhood; many sought admittance to it. The echo of in France of the German furore was a sort of witch hunt, occasioned by the appearance in 1623 of posters in Paris announcing the arrival of the invisible Rosicrucians. “Invisibility” was sometimes taken to mean not just “clandestine,” but unable to be seen. Young Rene Descartes, who had actually fought at the Battle of the White Mountain on the Catholic side, was rumored to be a Rosicrucian until his return to Paris proved him to be visible after all.

What was this new science that the Rosicrucian literature claimed to be about to transform the world? It was Renaissance Hermeticism, heavily focused on mathematics but with a keen interest in the mechanical arts developed by the engineers of antiquity. Frederick’s gardens at Heidelberg, for instance, were famous for their automata and other mechanical marvels. “Hermetic” in this context usually meant the theosophy of “Hermes Trismegistus,” who was purported to be a philosopher of ancient Egypt whom Renaissance had identified with Moses, though in fact the writings ascribed to him date from the Greco-Roman period. Like the earlier Renaissance, it included a systematic interest in alchemy, but in the “new” alchemy of Paracelsus (1493-1541), with its heavy focus on medicine and the philosophy of the parallel nature of the macrocosm and microcosm. The novel feature was the Cabala. This, too, had been an element of Renaissance thought since at least the 15th century, but the Rosicrucian Cabala was the new, Lurianic Cabala that developed in the Levant after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. It was not just Messianic, it was “reformist,” looking to the reconstruction of a damaged world.

The English element clarifies the story greatly. The order of the Rosy Cross itself, for instance, is plausibly explained as an allegorical reworking of the rose and cross among the symbols of the English Order of the Garter, which James I bestowed on his new son-in-law Frederick, and which had recently been given to the prince of Württemberg. Most significant of all, however, was the role of John Dee (1527-1609).

Dee was a serious mathematician and a notable statesman. He is sometimes credited, perhaps with a measure of exaggeration, with founding the British Secret Service. He was interested in the natural world as such; and to use Francis Bacon’s later phrase, he hoped to use natural knowledge for the relief of man’s estate. He was also quite chatty with angels.

In his Monas Hieroglyphica, Dee tried to unite all these themes in a synthesis whose ambitions are at least as great as, say, Thomism, or the search for a Theory of Everything. Empirical science was an element of what Dee sought to promote, but as a component of a grander structure whose focus was elsewhere. As we read in this history:

To return to the general analysis of the Rosicrucian outlook. magic was a dominating factor, working as a mathematic- mechanics in the lower world, as celestial mechanics in the celestial world, and as angelic conjuration in the supercelestial world. One cannot leave out the angels in this world view, however much it may have been advancing towards the scientific revolution. The religious outlook is bound up with the idea that penetration has been made into higher angelic spheres in which all religions were seen as one; it is the angels who are believed to illuminate man’s intellectual activities.

Readers will note how these ideas reflect the doctrine of Perennialism and anticipate later speculation about the transcendental unity of religions. In connection with ecumenicism, this reviewer notes that Dee’s Hermetic progressivism seems to have been an element of what Paul Johnson later called the Third Force: Johnson’s treatment of the topic in his History of Christianity (1976) is largely a paraphrase of The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. According to Johnson, this Third Force operated in both the Catholic and Protestant regions of Europe before the Thirty Years War to mitigate the friction between Catholic and Protestant, and between the different denominations in the Protestant camp, with a view to eventual reconciliation. The author of this book does note the existence of associations during that period whose members were systematically indifferent to confessional affiliation. They might claim to belong to any church, while adhering to their own version of slightly esoteric Christianity.

Sometimes the esotericism of these years overbalanced the Christianity. That seems to have been the case with Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), yet another familiar of the court of Rudolph II. Unlike the pious Evangelical Dee, Bruno espoused turning to the “Egyptian Religion,” by which he meant the new synthesis of Hermeticism and alchemy.

As for Dee himself, his version of what we must call “Rosicrucianism” (though that is not necessarily a term he would have heard himself) certainly had political dimension. In addition to his still somewhat murky adventures in Prague, during his stay in Europe in the 1580s he seems to have been attempting some such link between England and the Palatinate that the marriage of Frederick and Elizabeth later achieved. This policy was not necessarily anti-Catholic. Dee’s own Anglicanism had not quite gelled yet as a Protestant confession, for one thing. Dee could still talk to the Emperor Rudolph without a strong sense that each was a member of a different confession. The strongest insistence that Catholic and Protestant choose sides, this book suggests, came from the Society of Jesus. Officially recognized as an order in 1540, the Jesuits required some decades to become the ubiquitous, and allegedly omniscient, face of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Indeed, maybe the phantasm of the Order of the Holy Cross was intended as an image of the Jesuits as they should have been. (We may note that rumors were not lacking that the Rosicrucians actually were the Jesuits, presenting themselves in other guise.) In any case, by the time of the marriage of Frederick and Elizabeth, the Rosicrucian movement had become less generically reformist and more specifically anti-Catholic, or at least anti-Jesuit. At the same time, its focus on the improvement of the secular world had become more emphatic:

The Rosicrucian manifesto may now take a somewhat wider meaning. It calls for a general reformation because the other reformations have failed. The Protestant Reformation is losing strength and is divided. The Catholic Counter Reformation has taken a wrong turning. A new general reformation of the whole wide world is called for, and this third reformation is to find its strength in Evangelical Christianity with its emphasis on brotherly love, in the esoteric Hermetic-Cabalist tradition, and in an accompanying turning towards the works of God in nature in a scientific spirit of exploration, using science or magic, magical science or scientific magic, in the service of man.

The actual outcome of Frederick’s Bohemian adventure was sufficiently appalling to occasion what Richard Landes of Boston University has called “millennial disappointment,” which is what happens when the perfection of the world is promised but does not arrive. This was a key theme in Endless Things, the last novel of John Crowley’s Ægypt series. The series is based on an analogy of the Rosicrucian Enlightenment to the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960s; it tells tales from both eras in parallel. However, as The Rosicrucian Enlightenment reminds us, it is possible to argue that the Rosicrucian Millennium did arrive, though not quite in the manner expected by John Dee or Frederick V.

The later story of the Rosicrucians links in obscure ways to the other obscure beginnings of the 17th century. It had something to do with beginning of the Freemasons (of the real Freemasons, as distinct from the bogus lineage that runs from the Temple of Solomon through the Templars). It also had something to do with the foundation of the Royal Society in 1659. That august institution is, perhaps, the Invisible College made visible, however much its founders sought to distance themselves publicly from all the occult sciences, and especially from any taint of association with John Dee. The important link here is Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the statesman and philosopher who is sometimes credited, not altogether accurately, with the discovery of the scientific method.

Certainly some of Bacon’s ideas were diametrically opposed to those that we have been considering. He had no interest in secret societies or invisible colleges; he was keen, rather, to promote the exchange of scholars and discoveries among the visible colleges of Europe. Though he, too, urged the development of the sciences, mathematics does not seem to have been on his list of disciplines that needed perfection. Mathematics seemed to him to be too close to conjuration. (Some of his contemporaries thought the same, and supported the development of mathematics for just that reason.) No doubt his disinterest in this subject was related to his rejection of the Copernican model of the solar system. Be this all as it may, though, to read Bacon’s New Atlantis is to be confronted with a Rosicrucian utopia, down to the rosy crosses on the turbans of the Christian priest-scholars who benevolently manage the great temple and research institute on the hidden continent with which the story deals. These scholars dispatch secret observers to the rest of the world, to keep abreast of developments in every country. What more could a Rosicrucian ask for?

Bacon was certainly the spiritual founder to whom the first histories of the Royal Society looked back, though this book reminds us that the Society had a pre-history at Oxford before its official founding in London, a prehistory when its membership may have felt less need to be intellectually respectable. Be that as it may, the precautions of the founders to disassociate themselves from subjects that Bacon would have considered questionable was in vain. In its second generation, the world reputation of the society was made by the mathematical attainments of Isaac Newton, who was also an alchemist and a millenarian, though he was discrete about those interests. Unlike John Dee, he did not talk to angels, or at least not that we know of.

This book emphasizes the reciprocal Rosicrucian influences that went back and forth between England and the continent, particularly in the form of refugees from Germany and Bohemia. It may have been that the foundation of the Freemasons was “blowback” (a term the book does not use) from Dee’s sojourn in Europe. The most interesting political figure in this story is Elizabeth, the Winter Queen of Bohemia. She maintained her court-in-exile after the death of her beloved but not particularly useful husband. During the English Civil War and the Protectorate, she contrived to stay on good terms with both Roundheads and Royalists. Meanwhile, intellectuals and persons of a mystical bent flocked to the Netherlands to be near her. (Descartes was devoted to her daughter.) If she had seriously hoped to become empress of a magical transformed Europe, then no doubt she was disappointed. Still, she did live to see her son restored as ruler of at least part of the Palatinate. Much later, her grandson became George I of England.

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Forge of Christendom

Cricketer, historian, and author Tom Holland is here a proponent of the thesis that one of the things that truly differentiates the Christian West, Christendom, is the separation of powers between church and state that gradually evolved out of a fight over who was allowed to nominate bishops.

However, Holland also takes millennialism seriously, which adds a layer of interest for me. For many, it is one of those things that are just not mentioned in polite company. John also mentions here [I think elsewhere too, but I can't find it at present] the idea that Eastern Christianity never really developed the idea of just war. I find the idea intriguing, but I don't know the field well enough to confirm or deny. It is certainly plausible, with the relative unpopularity of Augustine in the Greek-speaking East, but on the other hand, Justinian also sent Belisarius to recover territory lost to Germanic barbarians. On the gripping hand, no one in the Roman empire after Belisarius managed to emulate his military successes.


The Forge of Christendom:
The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West

By Tom Holland
Doubleday, 2009
512 pages, US$30.00
ISBN-10: 0385520581
ISBN-13: 978-0385520584
(2008 British Edition: Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom)

 

The West has deep roots, reaching down past the Roman Republic to the level where Hellas differentiated itself from the societies of the Near East. Tom Holland, armed with an Oxford doctorate and a rolling prose style that the best Victorians might envy, has already written well-received popular histories on those subjects. (He also does vampire fiction.) Despite the West's continuities with antiquity, however, it's beginning in anything like the sense we mean it today was notoriously discontinuous. In the generation to either side of the year 1000, a new system booted that was clearly distinguishable from its Islamic neighbor and even from its sometime ally in Constantinople. In the author's telling, the first great characteristic act of the young West came at Canossa in 1077, when Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV conceded to Pope Gregory VII a right beyond the power of the state (the right to nominate bishops) in the Investiture Crisis. The concession was only temporary, and Gregory died in frustrated exile, but the pope's point stuck. Thereafter, the political and religious were recognized as different spheres with enforceable borders; the beginning of all civil liberties. This was something new in the world, but it was not the only novelty of the new society.

The two centuries that the book covers in detail, the 10th and the 11th, are among those stretches of history that make almost novelistic sense. The plot is driven by fear of the imminence of Antichrist and the hope for the Parousia.

The question of millennial expectation connected with the year 1000, whether that fear was important or even whether it existed at all, is one of those historiographical controversies that are prone to coup and counter-coup. 19th-century Romantic historians painted a dramatic and, well, Romantic picture of popular enthusiasm and even frenzy. The Romantics' successors, sometimes exaggerating what their predecessors had actually claimed, said the “terrors of the Year 1000” were a 19th-century myth and that the change of the millennium was little regarded at the time. Late in the 20th century, the American medievalist Richard Landes reopened the question (disclosure: I the reviewer am a member of his Center for Millennial Studies). His assessment informs Holland's book.

There was no revolutionary millenarianism around the year 1000 like that which occurred in late medieval or early modern times, Landes noted, but the fact is that the intellectual and political life of those generations was suffused by the preparation for a new age, impelled by a mood of expectation that had both a popular and an elite dimension. There was quite a bit of interest in the year 1000 itself. (Yes, people did know when it was: the information was available in every set of tables showing the dates for Easter.) There was at least as much interest in the year 1033, however, the millennial anniversary of Christ's Passion. One could argue that the West was actually born in the intervening years.

The term “postmillennialism” does not occur in this book, but something very similar to that doctrine was at work in the 11th century. Postmillennialism posits that Christ will return at the end of the Millennium; the millennial age itself, then, is a historical period during which human effort will perfect the world in preparation for that event. Postmillennialism was closely connected with the progressive, reformist Social Gospel that underlay much of the politics of the early 20th century. The idea of historical progress is really just a politely secularized version of postmillennial eschatology.

Medieval eschatology was different in detail but not in effect. St. Augustine in the fifth century (when the world did indeed seem to be ending, by any reasonable measure) had cautioned against the idea of a literal millennium as a period of historical felicity lasting 1000 years, though the Book of Revelation does mention a thousand-year reign of the Saints. He also cautioned against the temptation to apply information in the Bible to historical events in order to calculate precisely when the Second Coming would occur. He did, however, suggest that the reference in the Book of Revelation to a “millennium” could be taken as an allusion to an age of indefinite duration following the establishment of the Church by Christ that will end with his Second Coming.

In the tenth century, the condition of Western Christendom was dire enough to suggest that maybe the end was near and the 1000 years should be taken literally after all. In that century and the eleventh, sophisticated clerics tended to vehemently deny the possibility of predicting the End Time using calculations drawn from the Bible, all the while assuming a near-term eschaton in their worldview and planning.

The imminence of Doomsday had practical implications for medievals. Before the advent of Antichrist set the dramatic machinery of Revelation in motion, the world must first be evangelized and set to rights. This implied the revival or restoration of the Roman Empire in Christian form; even before Constantine, Christians had come to regard the Empire as “the Restrainer” of Second Thessalonians, the power in the world whose presence prevented the eruption of the worst historical evils, and whose final withdrawal would mean the end of the age. In the Byzantine Empire, where Rome never entirely fell, the hope for a penultimate age of peace became centered on the figure of the Emperor of the Last Days. He would restore the ancient empire and end his career by laying down his crown at Jerusalem, thereby marking the beginning of the end. This idea was easily transferable to the West, particularly after Charlemagne revived the imperial title in 800. (That was another possible date for the beginning of the endtime, by the way, arrived at through another set of calculations based on the seven-millennium model of history.)

We should recall that there is little institutional continuity between the Carolingian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. The last Carolingian “emperor” died in 905, long after anything resembling an empire had lapsed. The title was revived in 962 by Otto I, who had won the Battle of the Lech against the then-pagan Hungarians in 955. Both events were part of a process that solidified the idea of a German identity. Not incidentally, the battle also ended one of the several existential threats to the still inchoate West that were defeated in the decades before 1000.

The author emphasizes that Christendom was born in a near-death experience. The measure of security that Charlemagne had been able to bring to Europe scarcely survived him. From the east came Slavs and Hungarians. In the south were the Muslims: Sicily was an emirate for much of the period covered by this book, and corsairs sacked St. Peter's in Rome as late as 846. In the north and on all the coasts there were the Vikings, and in France there were the French.

“France,” “French,” “Germany,” “German”: all are anachronistic terms for this period, the author reminds us. “East Francia” and “West Francia” are better. Be that as it may, one of the themes of the ninth and tenth centuries was the trend among the elites in what would become France toward pure predation. In most of Europe, castles were usually places of refuge or barriers against barbarian invasion. In France, they were often prison towers to facilitate the plundering of the population and attacks against the bandit lords in the neighboring castles.

In such a situation, anyone who could impose legitimate order was clearly doing God's will, even if violence was necessary to do it. When bishops consecrated German kings, they left no doubt that one of their duties was to defend their people from their appalling enemies. The papacy began a practice of endorsing campaigns in Italy and Spain for the defense of Christian polities. The practice would evolve into the theory of the crusade.

This was in marked contrast to the Byzantine Empire, a church-state that regarded war as the greatest of evils. The Orthodox Church never developed an analogue of the theory of the Just War. The state favored defensive fortress warfare and acute diplomacy to solve its problems. Despite the contempt this posture often inspired in the Latin West, it worked at least as well against the Muslims as the Western preference for the offensive. At any rate, it did until the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, when a fresh invasion of Turks caused the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia. That defeat set the events in train that would lead to the request for help from Constantinople to the West that sparked the First Crusade. The book ends with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.

On the level of diplomacy and military affairs, the elites of the West were often sidetracked by impractical schemes of universal empire. They did nation-building, but by accident; what really interested them was universal empire, always with an eschatological dimension. That dimension was no less present in the reform of civil life, however, and usually to better effect.

Any outburst of disorder was regarded by medievals as a precursor of Antichrist, or at least a type. The violence of the lawless aristocracy of the West was just as evil and intolerable as the depredations of the Hungarians, and just as much a sign of the endtime. The remedy in this context was not counter-violence, but holy example, particularly holy example as set by the most innovative monasteries. The most important monastery of all, perhaps as important for the reform of the West as the papacy itself, was the monastery at Cluny, founded in 910:

Earlier generations of monks, following the prescriptions of their rule, had devoted themselves to manual labour, so as to display humility, and to scholarship, so as to train their souls; but the monks of Cluny had little time for either activity. Instead, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, they sang the praises of the Lord: for this, in heaven, was what the choirs of angels did. Indeed, on one occasion, it was claimed, a monk had ended up so lost in his devotions that he had actually begun to levitate. Prayers and hymns, anthems and responses: the chanting never stopped. [Abbot] Odo had required his brethren to recite one hundred and thirty-eight psalms a day: more than three times what had traditionally been expected of a monk. Barely a minute of a Cluniac's life went by, in short, but it was governed by ritual, as unwearying as it was implacable. Hence, for its admirers, the monastery's unprecedented nimbus of holiness: "for so reverently are the masses performed there,” as Rudolf Galber put it, “so piously and worthily, that you would think them the work, not of men, but of angels indeed.”

Cluny, at least in this telling, was Shangri-La, but a Shangri-La that succeeded in projecting its inner peace onto much of the outer world. The monastery was an important element in organizing the Peace of God Movement, under which the armored aristocracy swore before bishops and huge assemblies of peasants to respect the lives and property of the general population. The movement went on for decades, and as the author notes, it implied the formalization of a social structure based on the private appropriation of what had once been common property. Nonetheless, the commoners apparently believed that even an unequal law was better than no law. The Peace of God was not the Millennial Kingdom, but it was regarded as a preparation for that no longer distant prospect. As it ran its course, everywhere the cathedrals were built, and the landscape took on the look of ordered settlement.

Meanwhile, the borders of Christendom were expanding through missionary effort. The author plainly admires St. Adalbert, who left important posts at Magdeburg and Rome to die a martyr in 997 in the evangelization of the east. The conversion of the rulers of the Scandinavians and the Normans (and of the Russians, for that matter) seems to have been marked by a fair amount of Realpolitik. They had a lively sense that a Christian king or duke had far more legitimacy than even the most successful tribal plunderer. These accessions left the heartlands of Christendom more secure. Nonetheless, they too were evidence that the end was near, since the end could come only after the remotest parts of the world had heard the Gospel. Surely newly Christian Iceland was as remote was it was possible to be?

Much of the book's attention is given to Spain, where the famously wealthy and sophisticated Caliphate of al-Andalus made one last drive against Christian Leon before imploding from its own internal divisions. The recapture by Christian forces of the ancient Visigothic holy city of Toledo put the strategic position of Moorish Spain past remedy.

Fatimid Egypt also comes into the picture. Caliph al-Hakim entertained eschatological notions, in his case centered on himself. His destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem in 1009 simultaneously appalled the West and confirmed its view that the climax of history could not be far off. (Latterly, in some tellings, he joined the ranks of Hidden Imams; he is still venerated or worshipped by the Druze, depending on whom you ask.)

Though the West still interacted with Islam and with the Byzantine Empire in important ways, by some point in the 11th century it had become an “intelligible unit” in Toynbee's sense of “civilization,” a society with a story that can be understood only on its own terms.

The author allows the text to reflect the sources, usually to good effect. If someone said they saw a dragon, then they saw a dragon; why argue about it, since the dragon is rarely the point of the story? When the author wants to be critical, he lays on the solemnity a bit too thick, which is actually a very medieval thing to do. The downside of this approach is that the text glides over points that are controverted. It is also economical of explanatory digressions. Still, any reader who does not know about the filioque clause will no doubt find everything he needs in the substantial bibliography and large number of footnotes. This book is a delight to read.

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: A History of the Crusades

 Steven Runciman at Cambridge in 1925, photographed by Cecil Beaton

Steven Runciman at Cambridge in 1925, photographed by Cecil Beaton

Sir Steven Runciman's three volume history has seen quite a bit of criticism in the last twenty-five years. However, it tells a hell of a good story, and you can learn something even if you disagree with Runciman's take.


A History of the Crusades
By Sir Steven Runciman
Cambridge University Press 1951-54
(Paperback 1990: ISBN 0 521 34770 X)
Volume I: The First Crusade and the Foundations of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (376 Pages)
Volume II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1187 (522 Pages)
Volume III: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades (528 Pages)

 

Sir Steven Runciman (1903-2000) was the Edwardian That Time Forgot. Perhaps the leading 20th-century authority on both the Crusades and on Byzantine civilization, he tells the tale of the former largely with an eye to vindicating the latter. The resulting assessment of the Crusading movement was thus somewhat harsh. The last sentence of this history runs: “High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.” Gibbon, to whom Runciman was often compared, could not have coined a more telling anathema. What makes this a great history is that readers who do not accept that assessment will still find these volumes enjoyable and useful.

A History of the Crusades” is chiefly a military and dynastic history. Large tracts of it are densely genealogical. This was unavoidable: the string of Crusader states along the Levantine coast, collectively called “Outremer,” were small, feudal, principalities, whose politics was the interaction of a few great families. Runciman sometimes discusses economics, but gives surprisingly little sustained attention to culture and religious history. In any case, the work rises above the details to reveal Outremer as an incident in the history of the Near East. Outremer was possible only during an era of shifting balance, from the 11th to the 13th century, between the Caliphate of Baghdad and the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople. When the balance was destroyed, by the Mongols and by the Crusaders themselves, Outremer soon fell, too.

Byzantium had actually recovered nicely from the explosive Islamic expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries. By the end of the first millennium, there was a reasonably stable international system in the Near East. Byzantium was the acknowledged protector of Orthodox Christians throughout the region. Constantinople was by far the largest city of Christendom. The Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, which represented Sunni orthodoxy, was becoming more venerable than powerful; the allegiance of the rulers of places like Mosul and Damascus was increasingly nominal. Meanwhile, the Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo continued on its own Shia course. Jerusalem was under its control, but Cairo encouraged the profitable flow of pilgrims and traders to the Holy Land. In the 11th century, however, the Seljuk Turks arrived from the east. They quickly revealed the fragility of the region.

The Turks were largely but not exclusively Sunni Muslim. They reduced the Caliphate of Baghdad to ceremonial significance. In the countries they conquered, their rulers adopted the Arabic word “sultan,” meaning “authority,” as the title for the holder of real political power. They went far west, sacking Jerusalem (only Christians were spared), but failed to conquer Egypt. Most important, they ended Byzantine control over most of Anatolia in 1071, at the Battle of Manzikert. That battle was the proximate cause of the Crusades.

The 11th century is also the time when the Latin, Roman Catholic Church of the West and the Greek, Orthodox Church of the East are usually said to have split. The Great Schism occurred in 1054, when the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople exchanged mutual anathemas. Runciman makes very clear, however, that neither side regarded the differences between the Latin and Greek churches as permanent until the 13th century, or even the 15th. In fact, it was during one of the partial reconciliations between Rome and Constantinople that the Emperor Alexius I asked Pope Urban II, almost as an afterthought, for Western assistance in driving back the new Muslim encroachments onto historically Byzantine territory. The idea was that this would again make it possible for Western pilgrims to visit Jerusalem safely.

Western warriors fighting for Byzantium were not a novelty. The emperor's own Varangian Guard of Englishman and Vikings is familiar to every student of history (and indeed to every student of the better comic strips). Companies of Frankish knights had long featured in the empire's armies. (At least in the beginning, most of the “franks” in the east were from what would become France, but the term later referred to any Westerner.) Alexis I would no doubt have been satisfied with one or two thousand extra mercenaries. What he got was a mass movement.

Urban II preached the First Crusade at Claremont in France, in 1095. The nobility and the laity jumped at the chance to free the Holy Places from the infidel. Runciman makes much of the idea that the Crusades appealed most to the younger sons of feudal lords, who otherwise could have looked forward only to lives as landless poor-relations. This idea has been questioned since; certainly the leaders of the First Crusade were among the most eminent men of their time. He also never quite comes to grips with why the crusading movement so appealed to ordinary people. He suggests that the average peasant may have confused the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly one. Be this as it may, as long as the Crusade was a popular movement, it was liable to spark pogroms against the Jews in Europe. Before the Crusade proper even set out, rabbles of religious fanatics swarmed toward the east.

Not without a certain amount of pillage and rapine, the First Crusade arrived in the neighborhood of Constantinople in reasonably short order. The emperor tried, with mixed success, to extract promises from the Crusaders that any of the recently lost Byzantine territory they might recover would be returned to the empire. The Crusaders and the imperial army soon did recover big chunks of Anatolia and northern Syria. The Crusaders rather exceeded the emperor's expectations when they recaptured Antioch independently. To everyone's surprise but their own, the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. It was not actually true that they slaughtered all the inhabitants (many were ransomed), but their introduction to the region was not such as to endear them to the locals.

Nonetheless, the Crusaders settled into the region quickly enough. They became participants in local politics, fighting with and against the Muslim powers. There was much intermarriage between the Crusaders and the local Christians, particularly the Armenians. Franks newly arrived from Europe, eager to fight the infidel, were often shocked by the Franks of Outremer, with their penchant for native dress and relative religious tolerance. The newcomers thought the Franks of Outremer became soft, and maybe they were right. Though the Franks of Outremer had their territorial ambitions, they were not keen to launch further Crusades of their own. They welcomed Crusades from Europe only when their own situation was desperate. Of the five major Crusades, only the First was completely successful. Only the first three were even directed to the Holy land.

According to Runciman, the real beginning of evils between the Latin and Greek Churches was the Crusader tendency to install Latin Rite bishops into sees that had once been occupied by Greeks. The filoque clause, which was the nominal theological difference between the Greek and Latin churches, was negotiable. The problem was that the Crusaders were sometimes not above deposing an existing Greek hierarchy and replacing it with Latin incumbents. Gradually, despite many compromises, this led to overlapping jurisdiction, bishops in exile, and finally the end of intercommunion between the two rites.

Outremer, during the brief life of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was something of a fool's paradise. Runciman suggests that there may never have been more than 2,000 adult Frankish nobles, outside the military Orders that arose to defend Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself, for that matter, was a singularly bad place for a capital city. Far more durable was the string of coastal cities and forts, as far south as Jaffa or Ascalon, that owed some degree of allegiance to the King of Jerusalem. (Antioch, though a Crusader state, was nominally a vassal of Byzantium.) Nonetheless, the Kingdom was not without good points. Despite his antipathy, Runciman allows that it was a remarkably tolerant place. Oaths could be taken in its courts on the Bible, the Koran, or the Torah, as the witness chose. Indeed, the Kingdom was thick with law. The real power lay in a High Council, which was not quite either a parliament or a supreme court, where there was some representation for the bourgeoisie and the clergy, as well as the aristocracy. Runciman does note, however, that the only contribution of Outremer to civilization seems to have been its formidable military architecture; Frankish forts were designed with an eye to the fact their garrisons would be relatively small.

With its small population, exposed position, and threadbare economy, the Kingdom's survival rested on two conditions. The first was that the Sunni rulers of Damascus were scarcely on speaking terms with the Shia of Cairo. The other was that, despite the chronic friction between Outremer and the Byzantine Empire, the emperor probably would not have allowed the Kingdom of Jerusalem to be wholly overrun. The latter circumstance no longer applied after the Battle of Myriocephalum in 1176, in which the Byzantine army suffered a defeat at the hands of the Turks from which it never recovered. Meanwhile, the famous Kurdish leader, Saladin, eliminated the Fatimid Caliphate in a palace coup, and so united Damascus and Cairo under a Sunni dynasty. After a siege and negotiation, he accepted the surrender of Jerusalem in 1187.

Saladin might have gone on to destroy all of Outremer, but maybe he was not terribly eager. He needed Palestine to ensure communication between Syria and Egypt, but the Frankish ports had their uses. In any case, the Third Crusade soon arrived. (The Second, which occurred 40 years earlier, had been directed at Damascus; the less said the better.) The history of the Third Crusade makes the best story of the whole Crusading period. The conflict between Richard the Lion Heart of England and Saladin reads like a single combat. In any case, the result was that Outremer survived, with its capital at the port city of Acre. The Crusaders had to settle for access to Jerusalem, rather than actual possession. The second Outremer arguably made better sense than the first. It was more defensible. It also did not contain any provocative holy places. Maybe this was less important than we might think, though. One of the revelations of the last century of the life of Outremer was how little the powers of the Muslim world cared for Jerusalem as a religious site.

We see this point illustrated in the Fifth Crusade (we will get to the Fourth in a moment), which was launched against Egypt in 1217. The Crusade was supposed to take Cairo, and it petered out to a sad end. However, when it briefly seemed to have some chance of success, the sultan actually offered to give Jerusalem back to the Franks. In perhaps the oddest episode in the whole history of the Crusades, the Franks did get it back, in 1228, by negotiation rather than by war. The negotiator was the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who eventually ran out of excuses not to go on the Crusade he had long promised. Runciman presents him as an evil genius, half an easterner himself because of his upbringing in still partially Muslim Sicily. Be that as it may, he acted like no other newcomer from Europe ever had before. Relying purely on diplomacy, he acquired limited control of Jerusalem for the ruler of Acre, including an access route from the coast. He also acquired the title to the kingship of Acre for his own line, by marrying the princess with the best claim to the throne. She did produce an heir, dying soon thereafter. That line, as well as Frederick's provisions for Jerusalem, came to an end not much later. Still, Frederick's career in Outremer shows what you can accomplish in the Middle East, if you speak the relevant languages and are unburdened by scruples.

The second Outremer was also more commercially viable than the first, because it was becoming increasingly Italian. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was a vigorous feudal state in the Norman mold. The Kingdom of Acre, and the gaggle of tiny states it led, was more like Genoa or Pisa or Venice, whose quarrelsome citizens made up a larger and larger percentage of the inhabitants of Outremer's cities. Acre and Antioch, indeed, were governed by communes on the Italian model, though they also owed allegiance to feudal lords. The drawback to the Italianization of Outremer was that the whole Crusading movement was increasingly subservient to the interests and policies of the Italian maritime republics. The effects of their rivalries on the already fractious internal politics of Outremer was bad enough. More seriously, Italian influence also led to the greatest scandal of the whole Crusading era, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade.

Runciman claims that this atrocity set at naught the whole purpose of the Crusades, which was to defend Christendom against Islam. The Fourth Crusade, he says, so weakened Byzantium that it lost the ability to defend the Balkans from the Turks, thus leading to the sieges of Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries. Well, maybe, but Byzantium was clearly in decline long before the sack. It had been losing commercial ground to the Italians in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea for years. This was in part because the imperial government sold trading privileges for ready cash, but also because the trade routes of the world were shifting. Byzantium itself was losing population and territory in Asia Minor and the Balkans. It is not clear how much difference the Fourth Crusade really made.

We do know that the Venetians, with a pretender to the throne of Constantinople in tow, diverted the Crusade from its announced destination and seized the city by force and guile. (Runciman points out that the pope honestly thought the Crusade was headed to the Holy Land, though Eastern historians have claimed otherwise.) When the pretender proved unable or unwilling to pay the Crusaders the amount agreed for their services, they dispensed with him and his dynasty. They then began what must have been among the most remarkable three days of looting in human history. When they were finished, they created the Latin Empire of Constantinople, complete with a Latin patriarch instead of a Greek one.

The Fourth Crusade made Byzantium itself a Crusader state, but only briefly. The Latin Empire never controlled the Byzantine Empire's hinterland, where several successor states immediately sprang up. The Palaeologus Dynasty retook Constantinople in 1261 and reestablished the Byzantine Empire, but meanwhile the world had changed. The empire by then was just one of a number of Orthodox states, one with a great lineage but few resources. More important, the Islamic world had become a harsher place.

One of the impressions I took away from this history was that the legend of Prester John was essentially correct. The Mongols were not themselves predominantly Christian, but their neighbors and onetime overlords, the Kerait people of northeastern Asia, were Christians of the Nestorian variety. The Mongols absorbed the Kerait territory and leadership, as well as their script. Although the Mongol empire, at least in the beginning, made a point of religious tolerance, there was heavy Christian influence among the advisers of Genghis Khan. There was even more Christian influence on Hulagu, who conquered southwestern Asia and eventually became the Ilkhan of Persia.

In the 13th century, there was quite a lot of coming and going between the principal courts of Europe and those of the khans, all with an eye to coordinating an attack on Islam. European representatives to the Mongol capital at Karakorum were exasperated by the Mongol principle that there were no sovereign states in the world, only current and future vassals of the Great Khan. Nonetheless, encouraging words were exchanged. Rather more substantive talks took place with a Nestorian priest from Hulagu's court, who said Mass for Edward I of England and received communion from the hands of the pope himself.

None of this really came to much. The Franks of Outremer was actually more cautious about allying with the Mongols than were their cousins in Europe. It was the local Christians, the Armenians and the Georgians, who accompanied Hulagu when he destroyed Baghdad in 1258. Few world cities have been as thoroughly destroyed as Baghdad was. While they were at it, the Mongols slew the Caliph, who had surrendered to them, and ended the Abbasid Caliphate, along with the Old Regime of Islamic history. (That is the reviewer's phrase, by the way, not Runciman's.)

A shadowy line of Abbasids, whose legitimacy Runciman doubts, continued at Cairo for some centuries. This was merely for show, however. The new legitimacy in the Muslim world was passing to people like Baibars, the new sultan who came to power in Cairo at about the time of the Mongol disaster. A member of the Mameluk corps, and so technically a slave, he overthrew what was left of Saladin's genteel but decadent dynasty. He then set about creating a ruthless and rather intolerant order to the south and west of the new Turkic and Mongol powers. The destruction of Outremer was part of this process. There was none of the courtesy or moderation of Saladin's day. With some exceptions, the cities of Outremer were dismantled and the inhabitants killed or enslaved. Acre itself fell in 1291.

There were later campaigns, against Egypt or Anatolia or in the Balkans, that are dignified by the term “crusade.” The interesting thing is that it became harder and harder to organize crusades, even as the Ottoman threat from Islamic world began to crystallize. Runciman speculates about why. Though he does not use the term, one might say that the Crusade had become a Sorelian myth that had overstayed its welcome. Sorelian myths are not lies, or not necessarily lies. They are the justifications for which power is exercised. The Crusade had long been the reason that governments gave for raising taxes, or for making and breaking alliances, or sometimes just for a bit of piracy. Even when Crusades met with some success, the benefits were not the sort of thing for which one started a Holy War. People were still willing to fight for God and country. They just no longer saw a Crusade as the way to do it.

As we saw at the beginning of this review, Runciman's assessment of the Crusades is wholly negative. Quite aside from the question of religious tolerance, he disparages the secondary benefits that are often claimed for the Crusades. Outremer did little or nothing to facilitate contact between Islam and Christendom, he claims. There was fruitful contact during the Crusading era, but it happened in Sicily and Spain. Outremer itself produced advances in military engineering, but no new art. More to the point, it did not make Christendom any safer. Quite the opposite: by its assault on Byzantium, the Crusades left Europe open to invasion.

Runciman does allow that Outremer might have made a decisive difference, if it had cooperated with the Mongols. Though he restrains himself from elaborating the what-ifs, he hints that, in the 13th century, it might have been possible to end Islam as we know it. With some Western aid and encouragement, the Mongols might have become the ruling stratum all the way to Egypt. It is likely that they would have embraced some form of Christianity, then the religion of large minorities in the Muslim world, and in some places even majorities. Islam, with Baghdad in ruins and with Mecca and Medina soon to follow, might have shrunk to the status of the heterodox Christian churches of the Byzantine Empire. There are problems with this scenario, but not so many that it could not serve as the premise of a counterfactual novel.

More seriously, let me suggest that, if the Crusades did not do much good, they also did not do much harm. The Islamic world became a more desperate and dangerous place after the 13th century, but that was not the Crusaders' fault. Though Outremer never went entirely native, it was never regarded with holy horror by its Muslim or Byzantine neighbors. It was eccentric, but then eccentricity was normal in a part of the world where, for instance, the Assassin sect was a weighty international power. For the most part, Outremer seems to have offered more stable government, and indeed more just government, than the other societies of the region. It is even possible that the Crusades did contribute to the defense of Europe. Though the Byzantine Empire had reestablished a frontier after the Battle of Manzikert, it was a diminished frontier, one that would have left the ports of the Levant in hostile hands. Without the Crusades, Constantinople might have fallen far earlier than 1453, and more catastrophically than in 1204.

Considerations like these would not have impressed the men of the First Crusade, of course. They were on a mission from God. What God actually thinks of their enterprise has yet to be announced.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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A History of the Crusades
By Sir Steven Runciman

The Long View: Marcus Aurelius: A Life

 Bust of Marcus Aurelius  By Pierre-Selim - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

By Pierre-Selim - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954

Another Roman history lesson, courtesy of Frank McLynn's biography of Marcus Aurelius. 

I have been slowly re-reading [for probably the twentieth time] G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, and I also find Chesterton's description of Classical Rome strikingly allusive. For Eastern Christians, the Roman Empire was a living presence until 1453, but for Western Christians, with the outsize influence of St. Augustine, the Fall of Rome is far more distant. 

For Catholics especially, Rome is both the model of all future states, and the tyranny that executed Christ and a memorably large number of his followers. No one has ever captured that tension as well as Chesterton.

Another thing that strikes me about The Everlasting Man is how well Chesterton's anthropology and archaeology aged. The sections at the beginning about the Lascaux cave paintings sound like the comment section of Greg Cochran's West Hunter. For a guy whose education was in art and literature, his views on science were very robust.


Marcus Aurelius
A Life

By Frank McLynn
Da Capo Press, 2009
684 Pages, US$30.00
ISBN: 978-0-306-81830-1

 

No less an eminence than Edward Gibbon laid it down that the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius from A.D. 161 to 180 (Marcus was born in 121) was the happiest era in the history of mankind. The author of this long, rambling, thoroughly entertaining biography, Frank McLynn (a noted historical biographer and sometime visiting lecturer at Strathclyde University), will have none of it. Though he plainly admires his subject, calling him conscientious, careworn, and courageous, he judges that the reign of Marcus was the ragged end of a long period of ideological fossilization in a society being gradually undermined by demographic decay and a deteriorating strategic situation. Marcus continued the run of competent good government that the empire had enjoyed since the accession of Nerva, the first of the Five Good Emperors, in A.D. 96. However, in Marcus's time the structural unsustainability of the empire began to become manifest. When Marcus died in 180, the empire under his son and successor, the variously degenerate Commodus, broke out in a toga-party from which it never really recovered. Rather than being the happiest time in human history, the reign of Marcus was simply the last period in Roman history when the greedy and complacent upper class, stultified by their educations, and the degraded and brutal urban proletariat, mollified by deliberately erratic imperial subsidies and blood-drenched public spectacles, could pretend that their world was working normally and would continue to do so forever.

The notion that Marcus Aurelius marks the halftime of the Roman Empire is not a new idea. The author is well aware of the revisionist wars that have riven the study of Roman history since the 1970s. He addresses many of the issues that have become controversial, but he does not try his readers' patience by fighting with his sources or by trying to argue away the glaringly obvious. On demographic issues, he sides with “the upper range of the minimizers,” so that the population of the empire during the Antonine Dynasty (the time of Marcus and his predecessor, Antoninus Pius, who reigned from A.D. 138 to 161) was probably around 70 million and not the fantastically larger figures suggested by some of the revisionists. About depopulation, he holds that it was certainly happening in Italy and that the process had important consequences.

He also lays great stress on the Antonine Plague that afflicted Marcus's later years and which he says may have killed at least 10% of the imperial population. It certainly exacerbated the manpower shortages of those years, as well as probably killing Marcus himself while on campaign in the Danube region. Galen himself was Marcus's physician (though he prudently avoided going on campaign with the emperor), and from Galen's studies of the disease the author surmises that the plague was a form of small pox. Except maybe it was small pox plus something else. Or maybe it was something else entirely. Revisionism occurs in part because we have just enough information to raise a question but not enough to answer it.

The author brings some interests to this study that are peculiarly relevant to the period, but that some early 21st-century readers may find as exotic as the gladiatorial games that Marcus found so tedious. The author is keenly interested in depth psychology, particularly of the Jungian variety, which really was prefigured in the medicine of the second century. The famous second-century oneirologist Artemidorus gets several mentions (he is not very obscure, since he influenced both Jung and Freud). For that matter, so does the deified Asclepius, who offered advice in dreams to both physicians and patients; this was a culture in which valetudinarianism seems almost to have been a spiritual discipline.

Just as important as psychology, the author is also keenly interested in the traditional questions of philosophy. In modern times, Marcus Aurelius became the most widely read Stoic philosopher of the ancient world, this because of the compilation of his reflections (probably written on that last campaign in the Balkans) called the Meditations. The perennial popularity of the Meditations stems in part from their quotably aphoristic style, in part (at least during eras when such things are popular) from their pantheistic element, and in part from their appeal to the agnostically inclined as a source of ethical principles without an overtly religious basis. This biography makes clear how profound a mistake it is to view the emperor as a polite deist; he shared in no small degree the growing embrace of the numinous that characterized his century. It also makes clear the extent to which Marcus shared his time's philosophical eclecticism. Of the Four Schools that received public support, Epicureanism and Stoicism were losing their popular audience for being too theoretical and remote from real life; Platonism and, to some extent Aristotelianism were gaining support in no small part because they were friendlier to religious experience. Marcus's Stoicism incorporated quite a lot of Platonism, but not in a way to fill the inherent gaps or resolve the original tension in Stoicism; the author explains these points in remarkable detail. He also explains how Stoicism formed the emperor's attitude toward government.

Marcus got to be emperor because he was chosen when a small child by his distant relative, the emperor Hadrian. The book recites the dense web of family relationships that characterizes all genuine Roman history. The web grows even denser, perhaps, in the second century, since the senatorial class did not reproduce itself and made up the lack of living heirs through adoption; the practice of frequent divorce and remarriage exacerbated the complexity. Readers of this book will soon appreciate that the institution of “co-emperors” was not an innovation of Diocletian. Hadrian had two, one of whom did not live long, the other being the future emperor Antoninus Pius (all these people underwent complicated name changes when the emperor adopted them and again when they assumed the throne, and then sometimes again when they died; we may dispense with these matters here).

“Vespine” is one of the kinder adjectives that the author applies to Hadrian, who reigned from A. D. 117 to 138. That emperor is known in every high-school history text as the one who withdrew from those “empire at its greatest extent” borders created by his predecessor Trajan to more defensible lines. In graduate school, he is known as the emperor who was so upset that his catamite drowned himself in the Nile that he had the fellow deified. The author takes every opportunity to remind us that, although there was quite a lot of same-sex activity during this period of the empire, nonetheless early 21st-century ideas about homosexuality, much less “gayness,” simply cannot be mapped onto that era, and the emperor's behavior was considered scandalous. The emperor was vindictive and bore grudges, though he maintained a carapace of amiability until his personality decayed in his last two years. He humiliated the Senate in various ways, including the execution of its more unsatisfactory members. He humiliated Rome by spending as much time as possible traveling about the empire. Worst of all, he was a know-it-all polymath who was often wrong but whom it was not at all safe to correct. On the upside, though, a sympathetic historian might say that he was one of those unhappy people who are better than their nature. He at least took his role seriously, and he is not counted among the “Good Emperors” for no reason. He was a good judge of character, if we may judge by his selection of Antoninus and Marcus to succeed him.

Antoninus Pius was a dutiful senator who, by middle age, had never done anything very interesting and who ascended to the imperial throne apparently determined to maintain that record. Like his predecessor and his successor, he was a “Spanish” emperor, a man descended from Roman colonists in Iberia. As the author points out, he seems to have been the only Roman emperor who never waged a war. He was also the last emperor who was able to spend practically his whole reign in the neighborhood of Rome. He swore never to execute a senator; his greatest conflict with the Senate arose in connection with the deification of Hadrian. Antoninus did not like him either, but he felt the honor had to be bestowed for the sake of the imperial office. Beyond that, he rationalized the legal system at the margins and provided sound fiscal management, though the author claims that disaster relief and army bonuses left the treasury largely empty by the time Marcus succeeded him.

Marcus's biological father died when Marcus was young. “Verus” was the family name. Hadrian called the boy “Verissimus,” a play on his name that meant “most true” or “most trustworthy”; or perhaps in this case, as the author seems to suggest, it meant “For God's sake, Marcus, do you have to be right about everything all day long?” We know quite a lot about Marcus-the-student because his correspondence with his tutor Fronto has survived. Marcus never had much of a sense of humor, but the author suggests the letters show that he was by far the more intelligent of the correspondents, and sometimes he makes a witticism that goes over the old man's head. Fronto's notion of style seems to have gone against every precept of good usage that teachers of English composition have been trying to drill into their slacking students for sixty years. He encouraged euphuism, verbosity, archaism, and an arch use of literary references. He also, by the way, encouraged the use of Latin.

Latin was Marcus's working language all his life, but it was not the language he favored for philosophical discourse. The Meditations are written in Greek, a language in which the emperor was proficient but not, the author tells us, a master of style. This had some implications for his philosophical development. Seneca, who had lived about a century earlier, is generally thought of as the other important early imperial Stoic, but he wrote in Latin and seems to have made little impression on Marcus. For Marcus, the great exponent of Stoicism was Epictetus (A.D. 55 to 135), a former slave to one of Nero's freedman. He wrote no books, but he taught in Greek, and his lectures are preserved in that language.

Epictetus had suffered in the persecution of philosophers by the emperor Domitian, who reigned from A.D. 81 to 96, and who sometimes is regarded as a type of Antichrist. The philosopher was keener on duty than on the cosmological points that often engaged the Stoics, and one of the duties he discerned was a special one for emperors not to be tyrants. He also assigned the Roman Empire a higher ontological status than it had ever had before. The empire for Epictetus was cosmopolis, a universal polity that was part of the natural order of things, like the existence of the human race itself. Being part of the universal order had political implications, which Marcus was not slow to draw. The whole universe was a single unit in which each part affected every other. (The author makes much of the relationship between the Stoic version of holism and Whitehead's notion of prehensions; some readers may be reminded of quantum entanglement.) It was eternal but limited in time, since it moved in a great cycle that repeats itself absolutely. Nothing, then, could ever really change. The social order of the empire was natural and irreformable.

The part of the wise man in an essentially pre-determined and unalterable world, therefore, was to attend to the one thing in the universe that he could alter, which was his own internal states of mind. He must do his duty, but suffer neither joy nor despair at the outcome. This variety of fatalism conduced to an even temper and a certain measured asceticism in one's personal life. It also made thoroughgoing reform literally unimaginable. It made progress unimaginable. The author almost frantically draws our attention to the fact that Marcus's Stoicism, most of it derived from earlier thinkers but some original with him, eclipsed hope and deadened curiosity. And Marcus was the best the empire had to offer.

Marcus stayed with the Emperor Antoninus in central Italy as his deputy and aide for more than two decades before becoming emperor himself. He was given responsible work to do. Early on, he displayed a predilection for turning appointments that another man might have treated as an empty honor or a sinecure into real jobs. This part of his career made him thoroughly familiar with the technical aspects of administration, as well as with a big-picture view of the empire. It had the drawback of ensuring that Marcus would know the empire only from his paperwork. He had never been abroad, in the sense of outside Italy, and he had no military experience at any level. Nonetheless, when repeated crises afflicted the empire during his reign, he would perform better than any other imperial hot-house flower in world history.

The Emperor Marcus did have a private life. Unfortunately for historians, it was one of those private lives to which the term “exemplary” might apply and not leave much more to be said. He had 15 children by his only wife, Faustina, the daughter of Antoninus. That number was as extraordinary then as now; a typical Roman matron might have three. The survival rate of the imperial children was not unusual, unfortunately: of those 15, only six lived to adulthood. The author detects a genuine nihilism in the Roman upper class brought on in part by numbers like these. The upper class really did not care much about the future because they could not reasonably expect their direct descendants to be living in it. This assessment by the author is a little counterintuitive. Why should the Romans have been peculiarly depressed by what until the 19th century been the human condition? Still, when we judge Marcus's embrace of the Buddhist view that “he who has no love has no woe,” we should remember how many children he buried.

Marcus in office continued Antoninus's policy of constitutional punctilio, particularly toward the Senate. The author observes that Marcus's treatment of that body had less in common with how an American president might treat Congress than like how a scrupulous British prime minister might treat the monarch: the queen is kept carefully informed on every issue and deferentially asked for permission she has no power to refuse. Nonetheless, the author also notes that the trend toward absolute monarchy that had been apparent even under the Good Emperors continued in Marcus's time. Though it had been a long time since the emperor could not have his own way and his own way of having it, still the more tactful emperors had been in the habit of seeking a “senatus consultum” from the Senate regarding any important initiative. Essentially, that was a resolution from the Senate advising the emperor to do what he intended to do anyway. The senatus consultum would be the citable law. Under Marcus, however, his “oratio” to the Senate, an address in which he explained his acts and intentions, increasingly was treated as law. Under another emperor the expansion of this practice might have caused some unease, even in the second century. However, this was Marcus Aurelius, Mr. Constitution himself, so there was no reason to complain.

Roman emperors were a font of advisory legal opinions to pretty much anyone who cared to ask for one. They also conducted trials themselves. If they were as hardworking as Marcus, they would hold long proceedings and not just summary hearings. Marcus favored widows and orphans, in that he took care to amend the law to ensure that the beneficiaries of wills were not defrauded by their administrators or disinherited by technical error. Unlike his master Epictetus, he had no philosophical objection to slavery, but he did strengthen the presumption in the law (to use a later Common Law term) in favor of manumission. He also lent his own money to encourage landholding in Italy, quite likely in order to try to break the trend toward huge slave-worked latifundia that disturbed even the Roman sensibility.

Marcus suffered fools gladly, a duty enjoined on him by his Stoic convictions. This applied both to his work as a magistrate and as a scholar. Yes, it was safe to tell this emperor to his face that he was in error about something, or that he had done wrong. The satirist Lucian flourished during his reign because Marcus refused to take offense, even if he generally could not take a joke. A duty even grimmer than enduring stand-up comedy was the funding of and attendance at the spectacles that the people demanded; to refuse either was to risk insurrection. Marcus was not a sentimental fellow, but he had no interest in seeing animals slaughtered or criminals executed, and he seemed to think that if you've seen one chariot race you've seen them all. He learned, as Caesar had before him, that to do paperwork at the circus was to enrage the crowd. He hit on the trick of holding cabinet meetings in the imperial box during games. The people thought he was being one of the guys, and he managed to get some work done.

However, the author repeatedly reminds us that Marcus was on the side of the “big battalions,” of the class of large landholders for whose benefit the empire more or less openly operated. Even the kind of land reform that had occurred at earlier stages of the empire seemed beyond the range of possibility, or maybe beyond the range of imagination. Citizenship became increasingly devalued as the empire aged. In the first half of the first century, the author reminds us, the Roman citizenship even of the provincial tent-maker St. Paul was enough to activate an elaborate system of due process that kept him alive for many months until he could be tried at Rome. In Marcus's day, such a man would have been given a short hearing locally and probably executed on the spot. A few decades after Marcus, and citizenship would be bestowed on all freemen in the empire alike, not as a matter of civil equality but to spread the liability for direct imperial taxes. Under Marcus, the law increasingly recognized wealth and birth as dispositive of the rights individuals enjoyed and the duties to which they were obligated. A process of 500 years of legal evolution toward universal citizenship reached its logical limit at about the time it became irrelevant. This was just the kind of phenomenon that Marcus's anti-historicist education disabled him from seeing.

Keeping as always his attention on the things he could actually control, Marcus adopted one Lucius Verus as his junior colleague. He thereby honored Antoninus's wish to honor the plan of Hadrian to include Lucius in the succession plan, though Hadrian seems to have been the only person in antiquity who saw much merit in Lucius. Lucius was not a vicious man, but he was a party animal (“pansexual debauchee” in the author's delicate phrase). The emperors maintained separate courts at Rome, which from their descriptions must have been a bit like meetings of the Sensible Party and the Silly Party respectively. At Marcus's court philosophers of various sorts, usually as bearded as Marcus himself, could be found holding seminars on the perennial questions. Some shaved their heads as an added sign of seriousness. Lucius's court, in contrast, was Animal House with real togas. Nonetheless, when the test came, Lucius did not do too badly.

Marcus had barely settled into office when the first foreign shock struck the empire: the Parthians had invaded the eastern provinces. Rome had been at war with Parthia on and off since the late Republic, but this was the first war the Parthians had started. Hadrian's withdrawal from Mesopotamia had perhaps created an illusion of weakness, while the responsible Romans in the east had made a hash of the control of the succession in the client kingdom of Armenia. In any case, something had to be done fast, and Marcus made the surprising decision to send Lucius to do it.

Lucius took his time getting to the east, stopping at every city where a good time was to be had, especially if it involved the theater; he was a patron of thespians, to put it politely. Eventually, he made his base at Antioch. He had brought as good a staff as the empire had ever produced, however. He had the wit to endorse sound strategy when he saw it, and he made sure the Roman drive to the east had adequate logistics. The Parthians were creamed. As the author points out, Trajan and Hadrian had had comparable success; the empire had worked out the tactics to defeat Parthia long ago. Parthia remained an irritant because its feudal society was not of a kind that the empire could assimilate. The real problem would come in the next century, when Parthia collapsed and was replaced by the lethal menace of Persia. Meanwhile, though, Lucius was able to collect the credit for the successful campaign and return to Rome. Marcus indulged his request for Senatorial thanks for conquering territories he had not actually much bothered. Lucius's flacking was done by old Fronto as the campaign's historian, so perhaps Marcus felt the need to be even more than usually patient.

So far, so good, but the peace of the empire by that point was being hollowed out in certain areas. Several regions, particularly in the Balkans, southwest Anatolia, and part of western Africa were chronically infested by bandits by the late second century. As for Italy, the author characterizes the situation there as a great deal like that in 18th-century England: an exquisite aristocracy living in a landscape in which they did not dare to travel the roads, even during the day, without a formidable armed escort. That state of things, too, was probably a declension from the days of St. Paul, but the change did not constitute an urgent emergency. That was provided by the first of the German invasions.

The author provides us with a brief history of Roman relations with Germania, the loosely defined region north and east of the empire where the leading elements in the various tribes and kingdoms spoke a Germanic language. The empire had abandoned the attempt to expand east across the Rhine for much the same reason that Hadrian had abandoned Trajan's project of directly annexing Mesopotamia: the economy was too poor and the population too sparse to pay for the region's occupation or civil government. By Marcus's time the Rhine had long been a quiet frontier, however, and most of the empire's frontier troops were stationed on or near the Danube. The polities to the north of that line were not so primitive as they had been or so disorganized. They wanted the benefit of economic contact with the empire without political control. Since negotiation had not served particularly well with Antoninus's rather isolationist government, they decided to try organized plunder under the new emperor.

The extent of the coordinated raids from what is now southern Germany was serious enough: the invaders reached the neighborhood of Aquileia, from which they could have threatened the major cities of northern Italy if they had had a strategic plan. More alarming still, however, was the fact that the empire once again had a major war on its borders that it did not start. This time, the emperor went to organize the defense himself, bringing Lucius in tow to keep him out of trouble. (When Lucius died a few years later, Marcus chose not to complicate his succession plans for his own son Commodus by picking another adult colleague.) It was a difficult campaign, made more so by the fact there were no objectives whose capture might defray the cost of the war, or for that matter whose capture might decide the issue politically. In such a case there is no workable objective but extermination, or at least reaching a degree of superiority where extermination can be plausibly threatened. Marcus eventually was on the verge of complete victory along these lines, but then had to reach a compromise peace.

In another portent of things to come, the governor of Syria, Avidius Cassius, had declared himself emperor. He was under the impression that Marcus had died, an impression that may have resulted from a miscommunication from Marcus's wife Faustina, who seems in any case to have been provisionally ready to marry him. Trying to look as unruffled as possible, Marcus sauntered from the Danube to Rome and then to the east, with the avowed intention of clearing up the misunderstanding. In the event, Governor Cassius was killed by one of his own men, and Faustina died on route with her husband to the Levant, not altogether impossibly of natural causes. Marcus exacted no terrible revenge on Avidius's family or his few supporters, though a few executions were inevitable.

There were a few years of peace, and then the settlement that Marcus had created on the Danube began to fall apart. He initiated another campaign, this time a bit further east in Dacia. This went more smoothly than the first war, but was hampered by the outbreak of the plague. To that disease Marcus himself succumbed. He went through with the project of having his son Commodus succeed him, despite the fact it was apparent to everyone that the young man had not turned out well. Perhaps the emperor's Stoic fatalism at last persuaded him that the fate of cosmopolis was among the things he could not control, no matter what he did.

In some ways, the most interesting evidence of the great change that occurred to the empire in the second century is the mutation in imperial iconography. The earlier Good Emperors had favored the use of the heroes of Roman history on their coinage. Under Marcus, the figures tended to be religious or mythological. And then there is the Tale of the Two Columns. Trajan's Column (which this book does not discuss in detail) is an essentially political document extolling the emperor's numerous if ephemeral conquests. Marcus Aurelius's Column (which the author does discuss) also deals in large part with military matters, but depicts these events with significant supernatural intervention. The depiction of the first German war recounts the Lightening Miracle, in which Marcus is reported to have called down a thunderbolt on an enemy siege machine, and the Rain Miracle, in which a Roman contingent is depicted as being saved by a providential deluge. The water god shown creating the deluge does not look like any iconography before or since, or perhaps not until the 20th-century comic book.

The second century was a time of the stirring of the spirit. The author reminds us on several occasions that there was a general drift throughout the period toward monotheism among the educated, so that men like Epictetus often spoke of God in the singular. (Marcus rarely did, though. When he alluded to a Supreme Being, he normally used some pantheistic locution.) On a popular level, the era was full of wonder workers, preachers, and prophets of all sorts. Some of these last bore apocalyptic messages that another emperor might have taken in bad part: to predict the end of the world could reasonably imply a threat to the world's ruler. When such people were brought to Marcus's attention, however, he dealt with them indulgently. The exception to his attitude of toleration involved Christianity, of which Marcus is remembered as one of the most vicious persecutors.

This is more than a little odd. The author recites for us the history of the Roman attitude toward Christianity, of which the most striking feature is the general trend toward toleration under the Good Emperors. Trajan endorsed the policy of one of his governors of requiring reputed Christians to sacrifice to the Olympians to prove their loyalty, but forbade that the governor (Pliny the Younger, to be precise) to hunt down Christians to question. Hadrian and Antoninus had required strict standards of proof for the fantastic crimes of which Christians were routinely accused; local persecution of the sect was clearly disfavored by the imperial government, even if not quite forbidden. Then Marcus the humane philosopher came to power, a man who believed that logos governed the world, and persecution broke out everywhere. In some places, notably Lyon in Gaul, there were horror-shows in which hundreds of people were sent to the arena without a shred of due process. In other places, little Pilates tried to weasel their way around the law by offering the accused technicalities to snatch at, which even more disconcertingly the accused often refused to do.

No decree or rescript from Marcus survives ordering a general persecution of Christians, but it is certain that he knew what was happening. Some of the victims were locally prominent Roman citizens, and in any case, Marcus would have received many queries about these proceedings as an ordinary part of his legal work. Furthermore, there was a flurry of sophisticated “apologies” for Christianity, some of them addressed to the emperor himself. Even some of the Christians seemed to believe that the emperor would relent if only someone told him the tenets of their religion and that they prayed for him daily. We know for a fact that at least one person did tell him: Athenogoras delivered his apology to Marcus in person at Athens in A.D. 176. It did no good. The persecution eased under Commodus partly because he had a Christian mistress and partly as an aspect of the general paralysis of government during those years.

The author argues, persuasively, that the persecution of Christianity was the correct thing to do in the context of Marcus's world view. There were second-century Romans who opposed metaphysical monotheism; Tacitus comes to mind. However, the empire was willing to tolerate the monotheism of the Jews, even though the Jews had launched two catastrophic revolts against the empire, since it was the monotheism of a self-limiting sect. The Church, in contrast, claimed to be a cosmopolis in just the way that Epictetus's empire was cosmopolis: an eternal community that rightfully laid claim to the final loyalty of all mankind. In the light of such claims, it was irrelevant that Christians prayed for the emperor. To promise to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's is to imply that there are things that are not Caesar's. That is the sort of claim against the state that the Classical world, from first to last, was never able to accommodate.

Something more was at work in the second century than can be explained by political theory, however. Something new was trying to enter the world, and conscientious, careworn, and courageous Marcus Aurelius was moved to stop it. I recommend this book to all students of the period, but one of its effects has been to increase my appreciation for the treatment of its period in G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man.

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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Marcus Aurelius: A Life
By Frank McLynn

The Long View: The Menace of Multiculturalism in America

Seeing this book had a foreword by Dinesh D'Souza, who has descended into hackery in the twenty years since this review was written, made me think of the fantastic Twitter exchange above.

The book John reviews here isn't very good, but his discussion of the issues is much better than the book itself. For instance, Schmidt makes the argument that the supremacy of English in the US probably helped preserve national cohesion during the two world wars, since the US had [and has] a large minority of German ethnics, who might have otherwise identified with the states we fought against. There is probably something to this, but linguistic policy is too blunt an instrument to really speed along assimilation.

Some of my great-grandparents in Indiana spoke German at home, but forced their children to speak English in the years between the two world wars, probably to make sure that they were thoroughly Americanized. This was a topic of some controversy at the time, as Teddy Roosevelt's hyphenated American speech to Knights of Columbus indicates. In the US, a social and political compromise emerged over time, that seems to have worked well. Explicit prohibitions on the speaking of German, or the use of German for public business weren't common, or needed. Woodrow Wilson's administration was less-forgiving on this subject than Teddy's was, and you can see the kind of resentment Wilson's policies created in contrast to TR's.

Contra Schmidt, there is a kind of multi-lingual multi-cultural society that works well. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire that preceded it are notable examples. Precisely insofar as these were imperial enterprises, peoples of different nations and ethnicities were united under one banner. Wilsonian nationalism was the doom of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the current fad for fracturing identity to a million warring camps is a degenerate form of Wilsonian national self-determination.

I also appreciate John's critique of multicultural histories, which so often simply swap the good guys and bad guys in a potted history, without bothering to be interesting or really engage the times and cultures they are purportedly about.

Also, in a warning that was not heeded, John said that the cultural and political Right in America should be wary of adopting the tactics of the Left, insofar as many of the Left's winning tactics work by fragmenting people into smaller and smaller groups and identities. Any durable politial consensus will need to reintegrate the American polity. At the moment, nothing is on offer.


The Menace of Multiculturalism: Trojan Horse in America
by Alvin J. Schmidt
(Foreword by Dinesh D'Souza)
Praeger Publishers, 1997
211 Pages, $39.95
ISBN: 0-275-95598-2
(Order 1-800-225-5800)

 

The Road to Bosnia

 

In the summer of 1997, The New York Times ran an article on the topic of "Who Won the Culture War?" The gist of the piece was that the cultural controversies of the past 30 years had ended more or less in a draw, resulting in a society that had mixed many new elements with traditional ones. (Think-pieces don't have to be very original.) The most interesting thing about the article, however, was the unquestioned assumption that the culture war is in fact over. After all, hadn't President Clinton just achieved reelection? Wasn't the Republican Party becoming a culturally "moderate" big-tent presided over by the likes of Ring Mistress Christie Todd Whitman? I suppose if you are a staff writer for the Times, it seems reasonable to conclude that the 1960s Counterculture has completed the "Long March through the institutions" and is now so firmly in control that it can afford to make cosmetic concessions to the nation's reactionaries without undermining its own position.

The problem with this view from the Times is that it assumes the society the Counterculture is in control of can continue to exist for any length of time after the Counterculture's views have been implemented. According to Alvin J. Schmidt, Professor of Sociology at Illinois College, the ideology of multiculturalism (which is the form the Counterculture took in its glacial phase) is so intrinsically corrosive that it will eventually destroy any society that adopts it.

The Menace of Multiculturalism is not a terribly original book. It collects an appalling number of horror stories about the oppressive enforcement of political correctness, most of which you have probably seen before (and some of which are cited from the oeuvre of Rush Limbaugh). Nevertheless, Schmidt has a background that makes him peculiarly worth listening to on the subject of "celebrating diversity." He is Canadian born (a former Mounty, no less) who has watched the Anglo-French linguistic antagonism in his native land grow worse and worse since the 1960s, to the point where now he has little hope for the survival of the confederation. He is also the son of Silesian German immigrants who came to Canada in large part to escape the Polish-German interethnic strife of the years following World War I. Schmidt's first language was German, but he went through a public school system that coerced German-speaking children to speak only English while on school property. In other words, he has personally suffered a fair amount of ethnic and linguistic discrimination himself, but he also has some precise knowledge of what happens to a society that encourages its members to cling to their ethnic and linguistic identities. He concludes that there is no alternative to a national policy of thoroughgoing cultural assimilation.

This, of course, assumes that policy is being made with an eye to keeping the nation together. With multiculturalists, this is not always the case. Schmidt has a lively sense that multiculturalism is Marxist in style and sometimes in content. (Cultural policies very like it were also the reigning orthodoxy in most Communist states that are now usually referred to with the prefix "former.") Certainly committed multiculturalists tend to be people who think that the wrong side won the Cold War and that the United States is mostly what's wrong with the world. This comes out quite explicitly in the sentiment among some "language rights" activists for the creation of the "State of Aztlan," an entity that would essentially reverse the outcome of the Mexican-American War. The establishment of Aztlan would require a certain demographic critical mass of unassimilated persons of Mexican extraction in the Southwest, and so the supporters of the idea fight tooth and nail for things like bilingual education (or monolingual education in Spanish, where they can get it). The wealth of data showing that bilingual education does not educate very well is thus irrelevant to many of its proponents. The point really is not to educate. It is to create a revolutionary class.

Quite aside from the motives of the multiculturalists, multiculturalism is also objectionable because it isn't really multicultural. (The Foreword by Dinesh D'Souza is particularly good on this.) Schmidt makes the interesting observation that schools started talking about learning other "cultures" at about the same time they stopped making their students learn other languages, which is often a necessary predicate for the serious study of genuinely foreign societies, past or present. The treatment of other cultures in school curricula is awfully thin at best. For the most part, though, the accounts are so tendentious as to be little more than fairy stories. A particularly egregious example of this is the treatment given the societies of the pre-Columbian Americas, who through no fault of their own tend to be portrayed as paragons of matriarchal eco-sensitivity. In such a context, the fact that a large chunk of the Great Plains in the 18th century was an Indian artifact, and that North America has been gradually reforested since the coming of Europeans, becomes unmentionable in every sense of the word.

It seems to me that the problem with instruction like this is not just that it's propaganda, it's boring propaganda. It kills whatever interest students may have in history or anthropology. The major societies of human history are all of them both wonderful and monstrous, because virtues and vices are always linked. The heartless social rectitude of Neo-Confucian China, the damned nobility of Aztec Mexico, the ruthless piety of early (and late) Islam, these are the sort of thing that first grip the imagination. They can entice students to a detailed and sympathetic understanding of other societies. Unfortunately, as Schmidt notes, they are precisely the sort of thing that multicultural education gives no hint of.

In short, "multiculturalism" simply does not tell you much about other cultures. It does tell you a great deal about the prejudices of textbook-writers and the negligence of the public officials who buy their work. It is common enough (and Schmidt does it himself) to characterize multiculturalism as "anti-Western," but that epithet presupposes an informed perspective on the West and its place in the world that is frankly beyond the capacities of the proponents of multiculturalism. As D'Souza notes, multiculturalism is an event within Western culture. One way to look at it is as a didactic puppet-show in which the puppets wear crude representations of folk costumes. Whatever the puppeteers think they are doing, their performance is in fact inciting the members of the audience to quarrel with each other and start fist fights. If the performance goes on long enough, there is a good chance the audience will burn down the theater.

Well, so much for the problem. What do you do about it? Schmidt has no original ideas, though he is categorical about some things. As far as he is concerned, there is no way to fudge the language issue: multilingual societies just don't work very well, so there is no alternative to English as the single national language of government and public affairs. (He says this despite his Germanic impatience with the "chaos" of English, referring no doubt to its orthography.) He does not advocate that the use of other languages by private persons and groups should be in any way hindered (as, for instance, the commercial use of English is restricted in Quebec and Mexico). What he does want is for voting ballots to be exclusively in English, for public ceremonies to be conducted exclusively in English, for English to be the sole language of instruction in the schools. He knows from his own experience how harsh this can be, since it was the regime under which he grew up. He also knows that this regime saved him from living in a linguistic ghetto for the rest of his life. He further suspects it saved the United States and Canada, with their huge German immigrant populations from the nineteenth century, from disintegrating during the twentieth-century world wars.

For myself, I am inclined to think that Schmidt is too pessimistic. Extreme situations are self-correcting, and multiculturalism is close to the aphelion of historical possibility. Politically correct history is interesting only to people who know the traditional history it is supposed to refute: young people who encounter only sanitized history don't know what it's about, so they study as little history as possible. The linguistic assimilation of new immigrant groups is in fact ticking along at about its historical pace, if not faster. In any case, all those Red Diaper Babies from the 1960s are starting to get a little gray around the gills. (You can tell, since their memoirs have been multiplying in recent years.) They are indeed of the age when you get to run things, and they are far from retirement, but they are not being replaced. The generation that remembers Ronald Reagan as president during its adolescent years is not going to act the same way as the one that remembers Lyndon Johnson.

I think now about the American Counterculture what I thought about the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s: once it starts to crack, it will collapse very quickly. Frankly, it might not be out of order for cultural restorationists to start giving some thought to self-restraint in the years ahead. Schmidt cites (on page 94) what I think would be a very bad precedent, a case in which politically correct university administrators who had been prevented from suppressing a fraternity were forced to undergo several hours of "sensitivity training" on freedom of speech issues. There is undeniably a certain rough justice in this. Sessions of this sort are directly descended from what old-line Communists used to call "struggle sessions," and they have become the grossest instrument of liberal oppression in industry and the academy. That is why conservatives in power should resist the temptation to use them. They are a Maoist technique and they stink up the place.

More conventional conservative proposals are also due for reconsideration. For instance, are charter schools and school vouchers really such a good idea in a society whose chief task in the near future will be to reverse a generation of deliberately engineered fragmentation? Are term limits for legislators such a dandy notion when you are likely to be in the majority for some time to come? Do you really want to create precedents for the censorship of the Internet while it is the only means of communication that cannot be controlled by the liberal establishment? The great danger is that we will simply turn the instruments of the Counterculture against itself. We don't need to pass legislation that treats dissenting conservatives as a legally protected minority: we need to eliminate the whole mythology of minorities and minority rights, period. A lot less sensitivity all around would do us a world of good.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly. This article originally appeared in the February 1998 issue of Culture Wars magazine

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The Long View 2005-07-04: Supreme Invalidations; Churchill

The mention of Churchill myths in this post sent me to look and make sure that Winston Churchill's short story, "The Dream", was in fact real. I see no mention of it on the myths page. Whew.


Supreme Invalidations; Churchill

 

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has played an almost uniquely important role in the evolution of the Court. Any justice can make the Court contemptible to its enemies; she made it contemptible to its friends.

During her long tenure, O'Connor treated cases dealing with fundamental principles of constitutional jurisprudence as if they were disputes before a commercial arbitrator. Her famous swing-vote opinions give a little to one side, a little to the other, always refusing to be swayed by mere consistency: this at the one point in the judiciary where every ruling is supposed to have some systemic significance. Decisions in the O'Connor style are not law, because they turn on tiny matters of fact, and they depend on majorities with no claim to be anything more than political coalitions. The judges on the lower courts stopped expecting the Court to make sense, at least in certain areas, some time ago. Law professors now treat the Court like a retarded ward.

Even Justice O'Connor's resignation was in character. She did not actually resign: she promised to resign once a successor is chosen. Maybe if the nomination fight goes on long enough, she will finally have to issue a real resignation. The irony is that whoever does succeed her will inherit a place in an institution that Justice O'Connor herself has wounded, perhaps fatally. When she arrived on the Court, it still had something of the glow of legitimacy it had grained from Brown v. The Board of Education, the case that made the Court popular among elites for the first time in a very long while. As she leaves it, the Court has become a dangerous anachronism: it continues to deploy a power of judicial review that was predicated on textual and historical understanding of the Constitution that the Court, and indeed the legal academy, have largely repudiated. The Court is clearly fated for some test of strength with the political branches of government. It will lose.

* * *

One should note that the Court might come to grief over some decision that is not a systemic outrage. The recent eminent domain case, Kelo v. New London, which held that governments may take property from private parties, with adequate compensation, and transfer it to other private parties, has generated a remarkable degree of public hostility. To me, it seemed that the case was wrongly decided, but unlike the Casey decision, or the dueling decisions about the Ten Commandments the Court just issued, it was not the kind of mistake that undermines the law as such. Still, the Court's behavior in other areas has left it vulnerable.

Of course, things could be worse, as we see in China:

Up to 7,000 farmers are being evicted from the land, in a murky process that began when several of the village leaders were bribed into signing blank contracts with the local land administrative office in 1992, the institute said.

Land prices in Guangdong, the shop floor of China's booming export-oriented industry, have sky-rocketed in the past two decades as thousands of factories have sprung up to take advantage of the region's cheap labor resources.

Farmer's protests are becoming increasingly frequent in China, with most of the unrest stemming to heavy-handed government land requisition polices or the abuse of power by officials.

This is not going to happen in the US, but the Court has found a way to annoy a whole new class of people.

* * *

Here is a minor mystery that I wonder whether readers of this blog can help me with.

I am a long-time subscriber to The National Interest, the foreign-policy quarterly published by the Nixon Center. Imagine my surprise, if not quite my shock, to discover in the Summer issue that John O'Sullivan had been replaced as Editor by former Executive Editor, Nikolas Gvosdev. O'Sullivan had edited National Review for many years. He had taken charge of The National Interest only recently. The notice of Gvosdev's appointment in the Summer issue does not mention O'Sullivan, and does not thank him. The latter is also true of the online notice at the Nixon Center site.

I have nothing against Gvosdev (with whom I think I corresponded once or twice). The new issue does have a be-nice-to-Putin piece, and another that endorses a de facto alliance with India, the USSR's non-aligned ally, but these views are not new to the journal.

So, does anyone know what is happening?

* * *

Speaking of mysterious disappearances from public view, I find that I have been ontologically invalidated by evil robots. In recent days, all my content pages have disappeared from the Google index. A search for the Long View, for instance, will not find this blog. The top page of my site will still turn up in a search for "John Reilly," but only after a link to an obscure photographer. Searches for books I have reviewed no longer generate results for my reviews on this site, even those reviews that have been the first result for certain items for years.

I am inclined to blame RealPlayer for this, but then I always am.

* * *

Before I became an unperson, The Churchill Centre emailed to ask to quote something I wrote about an allusion that Dan Brown made in Angels and Demons to Winston Churchill being a Roman Catholic. He wasn't, but his book has apparently started an urban legend to that effect, which the Centre (not "Center," partner) has been trying to correct.

The website merits browsing. There is a whole section devoted to Churchill Myths. Some of those myths I think are defensible, but it is instructive to find that facts I thought were certain are in fact controversial. And of course, the Centre has lots of other good stuff, including appraisals of the principal biographies. Their print journal looks like a history-buff's dream.

Happy Fourth!

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Democracy and Populism

This is the money quote, John Reilly paraphrasing John Lukacs:

If you believe the author, the president of the United States is one of the two monarchs remaining in the world; the other is the pope. The presidency differs from the papacy in that its operation is becoming increasingly medieval. The president no longer administers a government, but is surrounded by an immense crowd of courtiers, whose interest is not so much government but the president's repute.

Don't say you weren't warned.


Democracy and Populism:
Fear & Hatred
By John Lukacs
Yale University Press, 2005
248 Pages, US$25.00
ISBN 0-300-10773-0

 

Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831 to study the penal system. He duly produced a report on that subject, but the chief fruit of that trip was Democracy in America, a book which sought to answer the question, “Is democracy compatible with liberty?” Somewhat surprisingly for his French readership, the answer was “yes,” at least in the American context. However, the book's qualifications and dark intimations, partly about democracy and partly about America, have kept commentators parsing the text ever since.

In Democracy and Populism, John Lukacs continues the tradition, with the emphasis on the dark intimations. The book is really a set of meditations on how terms like “conservative,” “liberal,” “national,” and “popular” have changed meaning over the past 200 years: at times, the book is an exercise in lexicography. However, there is a thesis, which is that liberal democracy in America is finally giving way to nationalist populism, a century and a half after the rise of populist nationalism began in parts of Europe. Lukacs is disenthused with President George W. Bush and such of his works as Lukacs can bring himself to mention, but he does not blame any individual or party. Rather, the devolution of democracy is a feature of the end of the modern age.

The terms Right and Left still have meaning, but we are cautioned to keep in mind that their content and their trajectories change over time. When Tocqueville was alive, there still were people who were of the traditional Right. They opposed electoral democracy and proposed to defend historical forms of society based on status. The Left they opposed was united chiefly by its belief in progress. It included Liberals, who were interested in extending personal freedoms to an ever-widening fraction of the population. It also the proponents of popular sovereignty, who were keen on advancing the economic and cultural integration of the new nation state. The Liberals and the Populists ran in tandem for many years. In the second half of the 19th century, they tended to sort themselves out into Socialists and Nationalists respectively, with the Classical Liberals gradually becoming irrelevant as their institutional reforms succeeded. During the 20th century, the Nationalists defeated the Socialists by absorbing their programs: Hitler was as much a child of the French Revolution as Stalin was.

In the early democratic period, it was the aggressive Left that hated and the Right that feared. After about 1870, the situation reversed, at least in Europe. Populist nationalism did many good things, but there was always an element in it of hatred: hatred for foreign things, certainly, but also hatred for those members of the national community who were insufficiently national. Patriotism and nationalism always overlap, but patriots had always been more concerned with concrete things they like about their country, and far less with abstractions that distinguished it from other countries. The Left, in contrast, and especially the Left in power, was driven in part by its dread of reactionaries, but chiefly by its terrified sense that it was not really well liked by the populace it claimed to represent. In Lukacs' telling, their fear was well justified. He also allows that fear is the beginning of wisdom.

In today's world, there are few Conservatives in a sense with which Lukacs can identify. In an American context, the term means a free marketeer with some optional suggestions about how other people should conduct their private lives. However, he does propose this use of the term: a Conservative is someone who believes in Truth, while a Liberal is someone who believes in Justice. It is a feature of the world at the end of the modern age, as Lukacs would have it, that quite a bit of justice is available, more than ever before. However, “all over this world hang enormous and depressing clouds of publicly propagated untruths.”

By “the modern era,” Lukacs means for the most part “the European Age,” from about 1500 to 2000. Particularly interesting, though, are his references to the “modernity within modernity,” the self-conscious “modernism” that began after the First World War and enjoyed what Lukacs holds to be a vulgar revival in the 1960s. He points out that the pre-modernist works of James Joyce, such as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, have aged pretty well, while Ulysses has become a period piece. More generally, he says that the modernist era was the last time when artists could claim, in Ezra Pound's phrase, to be the “antennae of society.” By the end of the century, art had become too sodden by commerce to cast shadows of things to come.

In this book, Lukacs continues his polemic against progress, or against what he calls “the myth of progress.” Both Communism and anti-Communism were informed by the premise that history was progressive. I find this particularly notable, since certainly there were anticommunists who believed their cause gained an added measure of nobility from the very fact that history had doomed it to ultimate failure. On the other hand, and this interests Lukacs more, anticommunism became not just a feature, but the key component of the new “Conservatism” in America in the last half of the 20th century. This Conservatism was in fact remarkably “Leftist” in the sense that Tocqville would have understood. Whatever its other concerns, it had no interest in conserving things, natural or human.

One notes how many horrible things over the past two centuries have turned out to be less formidable than was supposed at first. In the midst of a rather damning critique of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, for instance, Lukacs observes that her prediction that totalitarian states would become more extreme with the passage of time was disconfirmed within five years of the publication of the book, when the Khrushchev Thaw began in the Soviet Union.

He proposes counterfactuals that suggest ours is far from the worst of all possible worlds. Suppose that revolutions of Lenin and Kerensky had not occurred, and the Czarist Autocracy had been one of the victors at Versailles. Yalta in 1918 might have been substantially worse than Yalta in 1943, if for no other reason than that the division of Europe might then have been sustainable.

Also, Tocqueville was correct when he astonished his contemporaries by predicting that major political revolutions would become less common in advanced countries. This is because, in a condition of popular sovereignty, there is nowhere to stand against popular sentiment, whose very ubiquity tends to slow the development of ideas. The near disappearance of persons of genuinely independent mind is one of the key features of our present situation, which Lukacs does not consider altogether happy or promising.

If you believe the author, the president of the United States is one of the two monarchs remaining in the world; the other is the pope. The presidency differs from the papacy in that its operation is becoming increasingly medieval. The president no longer administers a government, but is surrounded by an immense crowd of courtiers, whose interest is not so much government but the president's repute.

This brings us to the most recent stage in the devolution of democracy, the one that troubles Lukacs the most. It was bad enough that the conflicts over policy that characterized the 19th century became, by the middle of the 20th century, a politics of popularity. That, at least, had historical precedent. The more disturbing transition was the change from the search for popularity to the generation of celebrity. On a practical level, celebrity has even less connection with a candidate's abilities and intentions than does his popularity. However, Lukacs finds something genuinely uncanny about the phenomenon of celebrity. To him, it smacks of the glamour of Antichrist, an association he says may not, in the long run, turn out to be altogether metaphorical.

As we have noted, Democracy and Populism does not present a connected argument, but a series of meditations on the mutability of the meaning of political language. So, strictly speaking, there is nothing to refute. Still, one cannot help but notice that, in many respects, Lukacs has simply not been paying attention.

His assertion that the Bush Administration decided on war in Iraq “for the main purpose of being popular” is nonsense on stilts. The war was the implementation of the recommendations of a school of policy that goes back to his father's administration. The current president's predecessor tried to implement this course, but could not do so because he could not generate the domestic support. The policy may be right or wrong, but the choice to implement it, far from pandering to public opinion, was the sort of thing one might have expected from a Viennese Habsburg before 1848, in an age when it was still possible to conduct high policy without regard to what the public thought. That would, actually, be more consistent with Lukacs' thesis that premodern conditions will return as the modern age ends.

The author goes on at length about the overwhelming influence of the media and its ability to stifle dissent before it even begins, so much so that the regime can ignore the small independent press. Is it really possible that he does not know that the major news media and the entertainment industry promote a politics quite inconsistent with the views of the Republican Party? About the blogosphere I will not speak: the term “Internet” does not even occur in the Index. Similarly, the author takes many pages to bemoan the rise in criminality as a mark of the decline of the state. And that was true, through the 1970s and 1980s. The situation turned around in the 1990s, at least in most of the United States. The civil peace may not hold, of course, but the notion that lawlessness is an irreversible trend has been as decisively refuted as the unstoppable march of totalitarianism.

Regarding the future, the author asserts at one point: “A new barbarian feudalism is bound to come in the future: but not yet.” If you wait long enough, I suppose anything will happen, including barbarian feudalism, but there is nothing in the current state of the West, or even of the world as a whole, to suggest that Mad Max will appear on the horizon anytime soon: quite the opposite. The trend toward the integration of the human race, which goes under names like “globalization” and “Americanization,” is quite real, and in that sense progress is real, too, even if you don't like where it is going. Lukacs aspires to speak for the universal perspective of the Catholic Church, and even of the Habsburg tradition. Surely such a perspective should see the potential for more in the world of the early 21st century than for mere chaos.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Holy Grail

 The chalice in question

The chalice in question

A nice overview of the grail stories, and how they fit into European history. This was part of my background reading for Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark and Last Call.


The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief
By Richard Barber
Harvard University Press, 2004
463 Pages, US$17.61
ISBN 0-674-01390-5

 

At the climax of the French prose romance, The Quest of the Holy Grail, Sir Galahad looks into the dish that was the object of the long and perilous search by himself and his companions, Sir Perceval and Sir Bors. This is his report:

“For now I see openly what tongue cannot describe nor heart conceive. Here I see the beginning of great daring and the prime cause of prowess; here I see the marvel of all other marvels.”

That is as good a description of the Grail as we have. This survey of the subject defends the sensible thesis that the original Grail stories, which were written between 1180 and 1250, were closely connected with the development of Eucharistic adoration and of the concept of the Beatific Vision. The audience for these stories was a class of increasingly sophisticated knights, who wanted a transcendent ground for their careers of adventuring and their ethic of duty and loyalty. Now that's simple enough, isn't it?

The great merit of this excellent study is that its author, Richard Barber, realizes there is no single key to understanding the Grail. He has written many academically serious accounts of medieval subjects for a general audience. In this work, he does the service of lucidly summarizing the major versions of the Grail story. We get accounts, sometimes necessarily speculative, of the Grail authors, and of the history of the texts that have come down to us. Just as important, Barber describes the revival of interest in the Grail in the 19th and 20th centuries, with particular emphasis on its new role in conspiracy theories of history.

None of this is a debunking exercise: Barber is willing to give Jungians and comparative mythographers a respectful hearing, and he at least entertains the possibility that the “secrets of the Grail,” so often alluded to in the Grail poems and romances, may have included some spiritual exercises that bordered on “white magic.” He does, however, let us know where evidence ends and speculation begins.

The chief source for all streams of Grail lore begins about 1180, with The Story of the Holy Grail by Chretien de Troyes. Little about him is known. His Story is an unfinished poem, not obviously of cosmic significance. Young Sir Perceval, who had been knighted at King Arthur's court, comes a across a mysterious castle. There resides a wounded lord. He invites Perceval to a feast, during which a procession occurs. It includes a lance, which drips blood, and a beautiful dish. (“Grail,” “graal,” “greal”: they are all variations on the word used for “dish” here: it is not a new coinage.) These objects are borne through the hall and into another chamber. Perceval had been taught not to ask questions, so he does not ask, “Whom does the Grail serve?” Had he done so, the lord would have been healed, and order would have been restored to that land. As it was, he awoke to a deserted castle. Then he began a career of aggression and cruelty, in the course of which he forgets about God. At the end of the poem, he meets a hermit, who turns out to be his uncle. The hermit explains that the wounded lord (the Fisher King) is yet another uncle. The Grail, which the hermit describes as “such a holy thing,” carries a consecrated host to the Fisher King's father, on which the old man subsists. Perceval repents. He promises to find the Grail castle again and ask the question. Meanwhile, the hermit teaches him a regimen of penitence, including some secret names of Christ that are not disclosed to the reader.

Bits of this tale might be traced, but not the ensemble: the basic Grail story is as original as Tolkien's Ring story. It is barely conceivable that the motif of the clueless young knight comes from Wales. It is also possible that the Grail is a refined version of the Welsh “cauldron of plenty.” However, there is no obvious way that those elements could have come to Chretien's notice, and it is not clear how our understanding of the story would be enhanced if they had.

As it stands, Chretien's account is little different from the sorts of adventures that fictional knights routinely experienced. What we do know is that Chretien's hints and omissions provided hooks for new story elements that snapped into place with lightening speed. New versions of the story said the Grail was not just present at the feast in the Grail castle, but magically provided the food. The Grail's ability to cure the Fisher king expands to the ability to cure all maladies, and eventually to confer immortality on those who remained in its presence. By the time we reach the Quest of the Grail, the chief Grail-quester is Galahad, whose spotless character and ultimate success in his endeavor is contrasted with the failure of his father, the adulterous Lancelot. The disorder of the Grail kingdom occasioned by the wounding of the king becomes the uncanny Wasteland, the suspension of the natural order while the quest is unfulfilled. In some versions, King Arthur himself becomes a Grail hero.

The Grail knights achieve their quest by finding the castle and asking the right question, thereby curing the Fisher King. Then, depending on the version in question, they may take part in a Mass using the Grail, at which Christ himself is seen to be present.

The Grail itself undergoes many modifications and improvements. The most important is that the Grail becomes associated with Joseph of Arimathea, a minor character in the New Testament. In Grail stories, he is said to have come to Britain, bringing various relics with him. Thus, the Grail becomes the dish used at the Last Supper, or the cup that Jesus used then, which is sometimes also the cup in which the blood of Jesus was collected at the Crucifixion.

That lance, by the way, becomes the Spear of Longinus, which pierced the side of Christ at the Crucifixion. It, too, is sometimes the object of a quest within the larger Grail framework.

If you want to explore the Grail stories, there are two versions to start with. One is The Quest of the Holy Grail , an anonymous prose work in French from about 1220-1230 (actually part of an extended romance called The Lancelot-Grail). The other is Wolfram von Eschenbach's epic poem, Parzival, from about a decade earlier.

The Quest is the basis, more or less, of later Grail stories in French, and also of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. (Written about 1470, it was one of the first books printed in English.) King Arthur's Round Table in the French and English stories might seem like an Order of the Grail, but if so, the Order is ephemeral: the beginning of the quest is often the beginning of chaos. Their Grail is generally a plate or cup; it might appear in several such guises in the same story.

Parzival established a somewhat different Grail tradition, which we see in Richard Wagner final opera, Parsifal, the work that so infuriated Friedrich Nietzsche. In the German version, the Grail is a mysterious stone, the center of a sort of Grail utopia from which the world is secretly regulated. In Wolfram's version there is even a Grail dynasty. The connection of the Grail with a sacred bloodline has been revived sometimes, rarely to good effect. Some bad etymology helps here: “Holy Grail,” or “Sangraal,” was quickly mistaken for “sangre real,” or “royal blood.”

Some of these ideas are not self-evidently orthodox, and conceivably they came from a theological underground. I for one would suggest that Barber pays too little attention to the Grail tradition that the first bishop was Joseph of Arimathea. That would give England priority over Rome; it would certainly give Joseph's traditional seat at Glastonbury priority over Canterbury. Still, the medieval religious authorities took no official notice of the Grail stories. Several relics were identified as “the Grail,” in the sense of the cup or dish used at the Last Supper, but no one tried very hard to connect them with the Grail romances.

Interest in the Grail waned with the Middle Ages. Because of the strong Eucharistic associations of the stories, the new Protestant establishments condemned the whole Grail tradition, to the extent that they knew of it. Even in Catholic countries, though, literary taste moved on to other things. It was only in the 18th century that systematic interest in the subject revived, largely for antiquarian reasons. With the beginning of the Romantic movement, the Grail reentered popular culture. It also began to acquire an esoteric dimension that, probably, it had not had before.

Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur was being reprinted by the early 19th century, and soon became a favorite source for artists. There was a revival, or a reinvention, of the rhetoric of chivalry and quest, quite often in the service of movements for social reform. The immensely influential Pre-Raphaelite Movement embraced the Grail. There was great demand for murals depicting Grail themes, for instance. In France, and especially in Germany, there were parallel developments.

There was a problem, though. The key scenes of Grail imagery were also often Catholic imagery. This was awkward in Protestant England when such works were commissioned for public places. It required tact on the part of the Anglo-Catholic artists to whom the subject most appealed. But it was also a problem in Catholic countries. People who might be attracted to the Grail material esthetically might also be alienated from the Catholic Church, whether theologically or politically. A trend began to separate the Grail from its obvious Christian context; or better, to show that the Grail was actually subversive of that context. Thus, perhaps inevitably, the Grail became part of the furniture of the occult revival.

Already in the 18th century, the suggestion had been made that the Grail knights were really Templars. The Masons had rather favored unsubstantiated theories that linked themselves to the Templars, too. One result was that, when a vast Masonic conspiracy was blamed for the French Revolution, the Grail tradition became an object of suspicion. In Metternich's Vienna, the theory was not unknown that perhaps the plot to overthrow Christianity had been operating as early as the 13th century. The people who identified the Grail with the Templars, and later the Cathars, generally regarded the identification as an indictment. However, even paranoids have enemies. By the end of the 19th century, there were people who were attracted to the Grail precisely because they thought that subverting Christianity was a really keen idea.

Of these perhaps the most flagrant was Otto Rahn, the Nazi researcher who is sometimes credited, on dubious evidence, with actually finding the Grail. What we know he did do was publish several books with titles like The Crusade against the Grail and The Courtiers of Lucifer. His argument was that the Grail legends masked Cathar doctrine. The Cathars worshipped Lucifer, understood as the liberator from the Jewish God, and the true Grail was the lost Cathar treasure.

One can see where these ideas might come from. In later German tradition, the Grail is made from a jewel that fell from Lucifer's crown, and of course Wolfram himself introduced the disturbing idea that the guardians of the Grail had been the Neutral Angels, who neither rebelled against God nor remained obedient to him. On the other hand, there is no way to connect these notions with the Cathars, much less with the Grail. There is also no reason to believe that these issues, or Rahn's researches, were especially interesting to the Nazi government. Still, they are not as idiosyncratic as one might suppose.

Much more intellectually serious was the attempt by Rene Guenon, one of the most influential of obscure 20th-century intellectuals, to incorporate the Grail into his theory of the Primordial Tradition. Tradition in this sense is the supposed orientation toward the transcendent that is shared by all the great religions. In their exoteric forms, these religions may be more or less corrupt, but Guenon suggested, along with other occultists, that the Grail stories might have been created by an esoteric Christian elite. Barber does not note this, but Guenon was always looking for means in the great religions of “initiation.” Guenon claimed to be frustrated in his search for a living initiatic tradition in Western Christianity. The vision of the Holy Grail, however defined, would have done quite nicely. Eventually, though, Guenon gave up on Christianity, and became a Muslim Sufi.

One of Guenon's disciples, Julius Evola, undertook to create, or recreate, an anti-Christian elite. Evola argued, along with Dante, that the Holy Roman Empire was a divine institution, and essentially the European expression of the primordial archetype of universal dominion. Unlike Dante, he dismissed Christianity, in both its contemporary and historical forms. Rather, Evola said the Grail represented the spirituality of the empire, and especially of a secret movement of knights and crusaders who were the true Grail knights. As a notable ideologist of fascism both during and after the Mussolini regime, he hoped to create a new Order of initiates around which the empire could form again, but this time without the Christian trappings. His success was mixed at best.

(But speaking of imperial Grail conspiracies, what about Lord Alfred Milner's Round Table Groups, so clearly derived from the Pre-Raphaelite Grail craze? But no: that way madness lies.)

The keynote poem of the 20th century was The Wasteland, a term from Grail mythology. In general, the 20th century tended to treat the Grail as an ominous symbol: Barber's survey of the literature is fascinating. The great exception he finds is the work of Charles Williams, who was a former occultist, a long-time editor at the Oxford University Press, and a friend of C.S. Lewis. He wrote several novels with Grail themes, and a major poem, Taliesin Through Logres. Barber credits Williams with doing what the medieval writers never quite managed: recasting the Arthurian material in a coherent structure around the quest, and giving the search for the Grail a universal significance. Moreover, Williams did this while returning to the idea of the Grail as the Beatific Vision, but with the added notion of the Grail as a mode under which the divine intervenes in history.

My quibbles with this book are very minor. Barber does not attempt a systematic history of the liturgy of the Eucharist, but his offhand remark that the Mass started as community morale-boosting sessions is almost certainly wrong. It might have been well to emphasize that there is more than one theology of the Real Presence, even though Aquinas's theory of Transubstantiation did become the orthodox one in the Catholic West. For that matter, it is a little misleading to define that latter doctrine as saying that the bread and wine at the time of consecration “are transformed into physically different substances.” Actually, they are transformed into different substances, but their physical “accidents” remain the same. (What's the difference? Go ask Aristotle.)

Despite the great length of this review, there is much more in this book than I have been able to cover. Anyone interested in the subject must read it.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Inventing the Middle Ages

 By Anton Graff - Originally uploaded to de.wikipedia (All user names refer to de.wikipedia):18:53, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte)18:51, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=529840

By Anton Graff - Originally uploaded to de.wikipedia (All user names refer to de.wikipedia):18:53, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte)18:51, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=529840

 By Julius Schrader - http://www.britishbattles.com/frederick-the-great-wars/seven-years-war/battle-of-kolin/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757267

By Julius Schrader - http://www.britishbattles.com/frederick-the-great-wars/seven-years-war/battle-of-kolin/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757267

Looking up images for this post, I was taken with portraits of Frederick the Great. The man's gaze pierces you even at the distance of 230 years. He isn't the subject of the book in this post, but I couldn't resist!


Inventing the Middle Ages:
The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century
by Norman F. Cantor
William Morrow and Company, 1991
447 Pages, US14.00
ISBN 0-688-12302-3

 

There is an old joke in literary criticism that is really a serious question: What effect did T.S. Eliot have on Shakespeare? While a time-travel story involving Eliot and Shakespeare would not be without interest, the import of this question is really about the development of critical method. Scholars had to invent new ways of looking at poetry in order to handle Eliot and the other modernist poets. When these methods were turned on Shakespeare, they revealed what almost seems to be a new body of work. In much the same way, scholars in the 20th century can be said to have "invented" the Middle Ages, since their own age has sensitized them to see things in the material that would have meant nothing to prior centuries. By the same token, of course, the study of these scholars will tell you almost as much about the 20th century as it will about the Middle Ages.

It is interesting to read this book in the year 2000, a decade after it was finished. Norman Cantor, a noted medievalist associated with New York University at the time this book was written, is familiar with the major US and British universities. (He was born in Manitoba.) Cantor has a taste for macrohistory and cultural speculation on the grand scale, so "Inventing the Middle Ages" preserves in amber many of the concerns and unconsidered assumptions that were common among thoughtful people just after the end of the Cold War. There is declinism regarding the United States, the off-hand dismissal of historical teleology, and a certain degree of exasperation with the politicization of the academy that occurred in the 1970s and `80s. Also, something that seems increasingly shocking these days, the author is completely credulous of Freudian psychology. Still, this book should never become dated. Cantor knew many of the scholars he discusses, almost all of whom were characters, and his gossipy accounts of their lives and ways will surely remain among the primary sources for these people. Last but not least, his conviction that the Middle Ages are the future will bear repeated examination as various futures arrive.

According to Cantor, the serious study of the Middle Ages really began only around 1900. While he expresses some admiration for the Romantic engagement of the Middle Ages found in the novels of Walter Scott and Victor Hugo, and even in the somewhat imaginative history of Jules Michelet, he says that it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that enough archival research and textual analysis had been done to make serious study possible. This is a bit odd, because certainly there were numerous people in the last half of the 19th century who were working in archives and writing lengthy studies on medieval art and law and politics. However, according to Cantor, even Henry Adams, who by his own account brought the pure Germanic gospel of the documentary method to Harvard, was not a serious medievalist; Adams' "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres" is dismissed as just a good read.

Frederic William Maitland, an English lawyer turned Cambridge don who wrote a landmark study of the origins of common-law procedure, is the first medievalist whom Cantor chooses to take seriously. (He died in 1906.) Maitland's approach was "modern." For Cantor, this means a sharp focus on the "thing in itself," on the concrete details provided to us by the records. Maitland's explanations were "self-referential," in the sense of not invoking larger principles or higher forces. Not all of the modern medievalists whom Cantor discusses were "Modern" in these ways, but they all resembled Maitland in favoring "thick," highly detailed descriptions of the medieval worlds they described. Recreating the context is the point of the exercise; explaining particular events is sometimes a secondary consideration. Histories with thick descriptions, in fact, sometimes forego narrative almost entirely.

The best known variety of historyless history is that associated with the French journal "Annales." One of its co-founders was the medievalist Marc Bloch. His martyrdom in the French Resistance during the Second World War gave both "Annales" and its materialist, soft-Marxist approach to history a degree of credibility that Cantor suggests it might not otherwise have had.

Readers interested in French academic culture will be fascinated by Cantor's somewhat jaundiced account of the French system of academic celebrity. The great French masters ("mandarins" they are called) are a lucky minority who come up through the elite schools. They become the centers of learned cults and end, if all goes well, as the founders of state-supported institutes dedicated to their greater glory. While Cantor is hardly dismissive of "Annales" and its worldwide Diaspora, he does note that this approach works best for subjects like peasant communes, Bloch's own area of study. When we do not know the names of individuals or what they did from day to day, it makes sense to focus minutely on their material and institutional circumstances. In situations where we do know quite a lot about individuals, however, and particularly when they lived in times of dramatic change, it is perverse to concentrate on the "long duration" of historical continuity. Additionally, "Annales" has had the unfortunate effect of discouraging the best historians from writing ordinary narrative history for the intelligent public, thereby leaving the field to popularizers.

Of the medievalists whom Cantor mentions, the names with the most resonance for most readers are certainly those of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Cantor is actually a bit patronizing about Tolkien as a scholar. According to Cantor, Tolkien, whose subject was Anglo-Saxon literature, was considered a burn-out case by the 1930s. He even says that there was some sentiment that Tolkien should have resigned his prestigious chair at Oxford in favor of a younger man. Oxford sentiment was rendered irrelevant by the explosive success of Tolkien's six-hundred-thousand-word work, "The Lord of the Rings." Cantor calls it a novel; Tolkien called it a "romance." Whatever it was, it disseminated a view of history and ethics and the human condition to a public that seems only to grow with time. Cantor suggests that the book is a permanent addition to the great works in English, one that will last after the more consciously propagandistic fiction of Lewis is in eclipse. On the other hand, Cantor finds little to fault in Lewis's work in medieval allegory and Renaissance literature.

Cantor suggests that Tolkien and Lewis are to be credited with making the spirit of the Middle Ages accessible to the general public, but here he is surely wrong. Tolkien and Lewis did popularize many of the themes and images that are found in medieval literature. They also conveyed something of the little epiphanies that the medieval mind found in particular things and people and places. Still, all this was put to the service of 20th century themes by 20th century minds. No medieval epic, and indeed no epic of which I am aware, conveys the sense of the world in motion that the "Lord of the Rings" does. The work is more like "The Winds of War" than "Le Morte d'Arthur." Though Lewis hated psychology (almost as much as I do), nonetheless his characters have an interiority that was not a prominent feature of medieval literature. The 20th century saw grace operating from an angle other than the one understood by the 13th.

Cantor comes close to hitting the nail on the head when he remarks that there is something apocalyptic about Tolkien and Lewis. Reading them, he says, one almost gets the impression that they would have liked to join with other wild people and take over the world to protect it from the Shadow. The remarkable thing about "Inventing the Middle Ages," at least to me, is the number of medievalists it discusses who had explicit thoughts along just those lines.

Take, for instance, the Weimar-era scholars whom Cantor calls "the Nazi Twins," Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz. The appellation is not entirely fair. It is true that they were both right-wing. Schramm spent much of the war as a historian attached to the General Staff; for a while, he was daily in Hitler's presence. Kantorowicz was a friend of Goering, and took care to have a swastika placed on the cover of the book that made his reputation. Still, Schramm was not a party member. His friend Kantorowicz was not eligible: he was a Jew who emigrated, to the United States, quite late in the 1930s. What ties them to the Nazi Party is the historical and even mystical support they gave to the doctrine of the "leader principle."

They did this through biographies that became wildly popular in the 1920s. Schramm's book covered Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 1000. He hoped to inaugurate the renovation of the world, aided by his ecclesiastical sidekick and reputed magician, Pope Sylvester II. Kantorowicz's subject was the even more uncanny 13th-century emperor, Frederick II, who was called Emperor of the Last Days by his friends and Antichrist by his enemies. Both Schramm and Kantorowicz hoped to aid the recovery of Germany from defeat in the First World War by reacquainting its people with the full depth and force of the ancient idea of kingship, thus preparing the way for a charismatic leader. Their work probably was not without effect. As Cantor remarks, you don't always get the messiah you asked for.

Less dramatic use of the Middle Ages was made by many scholars who nonetheless felt that the period was urgently relevant to modern times. Among the scholars of the "formalist" school, probably the best known is another German, Ernst Robert Curtius, whose book "European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages" still shows up on reading lists. The point of "formalism," as the name suggests, is to identify and describe the forms and typical ideas that run through medieval literature, indeed through all Western literature back to antiquity. The formalists, as Cantor describes them, seek to disclose and preserve an essential tradition in Western culture, one that can survive the tumults of modernity. As a practical matter, formalism is more than just nostalgia for the past. Indeed, since it emphasizes the degree to which the past is still with us, it is actually a bit anti-historical. One formalist, Erwin Panofsky, expanded the technique of "iconography" that had been developed for medieval studies to the criticism of film. Very few medievalists, in fact, seem to have been tub-thumping reactionaries, perhaps because reactionaries rarely wish to restore a past more than a generation old.

This discussion hardly exhausts the list or even types of medievalist whom Cantor discuses. He gives a great deal of space to his dissertation adviser from Princeton, Joseph Reese Strayer, a Wilsonian liberal who advised the CIA during the Cold War and emphasized the high level of instrumental rationalism that informed some medieval governments. There is the great proponent of neo-Thomism, Etienne Gilson, about whom Cantor seems to admire everything but his Thomism. Readers will also learn that Johan Huizinga's famous book, "The Waning of the Middle Ages," is not actually the beginning and the end of all wisdom about late medieval culture. Readers get a double helping of everything: the Middle Ages were a fascinating time, and during the last 100 years they have been studied by fascinating people.

Fascination is one thing, but is any of this relevant to the 21st century? Writing just at the end of the Cold War, Cantor suggested that it will be. Socialism may not be quite dead, he says, but its loss of prestige is probably irreparable. Capitalism is therefore being asked to underwrite hope and ethics, something that is beyond the capacity of a mere economic system. When the modern era declines from its period of inordinate greatness, then may come an age of "retromedievalism."

In Cantor's telling, retromedievalism sounds an awful lot like a more cheerful form of neoconservatism. For Cantor, the essence of the medieval heritage is two things: civil society protected by the rule of law, and a "sentimental formalism" in private life that leaves room for personal love and feeling. Something else that we may recover is medieval cheerfulness. It was the doctrine of the Incarnation that made the Middle Ages fundamentally optimistic. The good is visible, not just in heaven or in the future, but in the world around us: symbolically, we already live in the City of God. And even when the future looked dark in medieval times, the greater pessimism simply occasioned the greater optimism: Antichrist in the final analysis was just a harbinger of the Second Coming. The memory of the Middle Ages is indelible in the Western mind, Cantor tells us, and what once was can be again.

Well, certainly there was a sunny Middle Ages, the Middle Ages of the Peace of God and the Cluniac reforms. There were moments when, as St. Augustine counseled, Europe did not seem to take history altogether seriously. On the other hand, there was also the Middle Ages of Frederick II and Joachim of Fiore, when the whole West seemed to be carrying the same eschatological tune. Ten years ago it was hard to believe that such a thing could happen again. Those were the days of "the end of history." History looks less dead today, however, and teleology is making a comeback.

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: A History of the American People

I've never been able to read A History of the American People. I've tried twice, but something about Johnson's style makes his books unreadable to me. I want to read his books, if only because he covers topics that interest me. Maybe it is his partisan unfairness to people he doesn't like. Or his willingness to bend the truth in search of a narrative.

Perhaps all that doesn't matter. Razib Khan keeps saying you need to pick a side, because the contest is coming. I think it's coming too, but I hope that we might mitigate the damage by being a little less partisan than we might be.


A History of the American People
by Paul Johnson
HarperCollins, 1997
1088 Pages, $35.00 (US)
ISBN: 0-06-016836-6

 

The Emerald City on a Hill

 

How does Paul Johnson write these things? His list of brick-thick books now includes "The Birth of the Modern," "Modern Times," "A History of the Jews" and "A History of Christianity." Well, maybe part of the way you do it is by reshuffling research you have done for previous books. "A History of the American People" incorporates big slices of "The Birth of the Modern" and especially of "Modern Times." Still, this latest book is substantially a new work, in which Johnson provides new insights and picks new fights. The sharpness of his invective has not dulled over the years, and the result is as entertaining as ever.

Johnson starts this particular brick-book by propounding three questions. First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and atone for them? Second, can idealism be mixed successfully with the desire for material gain? Third, has America in some sense fulfilled the Puritan Father John Winthrop's ambition to become an ideal "City on a Hill" for the rest of mankind? Fernand Braudel this ain't, even though the book is dense with statistics and anecdotal information about everyday life in the United States at every stage in its history. This is a fundamentally moralistic history, but then American politics and culture have always been cast in fundamentally moralistic terms. Any other approach would falsify the subject.

One of the ways that Johnson looks at American history is as a dialectic between the founding impulses of the colonies, and later states, of Massachusetts and South Carolina. Massachusetts, of course, was originally founded by militant religious sectarians with a strong millenarian streak. They were ferociously literate and instinctively democratic, though they disparaged the word itself. The Puritans of Massachusetts believed in the individual conscience and in public order, and they often combined these principles by using civil authority to promote both personal virtue and institutions for public betterment. Nearly their polar opposites, except in entrepreneurial zeal, were the people who first settled South Carolina. According to Johnson, these were proto-oligarchs, slave-owners from Barbados whose idea of the state extended little further than the police power necessary to protect a tiny group of owners from an illiterate mass of helots.

Happily, Johnson does not play this dichotomy for all it is worth, but he does note the continuities from these traditions that appear throughout American history. The one he mentions most, from the Puritan side of the family, is the institution of the witch hunt. Johnson discerns this pattern of behavior, which first appeared in the treatment of persons alleged to be real witches, in the later treatment of abolitionists and communists, and even in connection with the downfall of the Nixon Administration (of which more later). He does not mention the 1980s fashion for using hypnotically-generated "recovered memory" as evidence in criminal cases, a baleful development that produced judicial witch-hunts in an entirely literal sense. Well, how much can you cover in a book that is only 1088 pages long?

To the extent he can, Johnson tries to fit this history around a political narrative, with special attention to the fortunes of the presidency. This works fine for the post-Revolutionary period, extending from the early debates about the adoption of the Constitution and through the Jefferson Administration (1801-1809). It works even better for the twentieth century through the Nixon Administration (1969-1974). However, Johnson does not attempt this for the whole of American history, since for much of it the presidency is important only during crises. Particularly for the period between the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, the story almost sinks into a swamp of statistics about things like the stupendous growth in the production of sowing machines. Similarly, after Nixon the only president worth mentioning is Ronald Reagan (1981-1989); the rest of the period is taken up mostly with reports on the culture wars.

There is more to history than politics and economics, so Johnson gives considerable coverage to certain aspects of the arts. American architecture did not start with the skyscraper, for instance, and we get an illuminating account of the various stylistic vernaculars that have appeared since colonial times. Johnson is particularly good on the Hudson River School of landscape painting. He notes its close connections with Turner, and does not dismiss its unique skill with natural light as merely pre-Impressionist. Johnson gives loving attention to the representational artists of the 20th century, particularly Andrew Wyeth. On the other hand, he says only the minimum about literature. The discussion of music concerns mostly popular culture. This may be understandable in light of the disproportionate impact of American popular music as compared to formal music. Besides, the later got interesting only after the appearance of Minimalism in the 1970s.

Johnson has certain pet revisionist theories. All these hobby horses are arguable, but usually only to a point beyond which he passes. For instance, he is at pains to rescue the reputations of the so-called Robber Baron industrialists and financiers of the late nineteenth century. He points out that they made what had been luxuries for the rich available to ordinary people for the first time in history, and they did this while lowering prices and increasing real wages. For myself, I am willing to be persuaded that J.P. Morgan was a considerable statesman. Certainly he acted responsibly as a one-man central bank until the Federal Reserve System was created in 1913. On the other hand, there is little to be said for stock swindlers like Henry Frick. We are repeatedly reminded that the palaces of all these amazingly rich people became considerable libraries and museums after their deaths, which is commendable but a little beside the point. More seriously, while Johnson has some useful things to say about the labor movement, he gives it stinting coverage. The United States had the most violent labor history in the Western world, on both sides, so this is a strange omission for a book keen on discovering instances of American exceptionalism.

This book is particularly cruel to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Johnson seemingly accepts the assessment of FDR's first critics that the man was an intellectual lightweight and an inveterate liar. Emphasizing the continuities between FDR's Depression Era economic policies and those of his much-maligned predecessor, Herbert Hoover, Johnson concludes that both between them contrived to extend what should have been a sharp, short economic contraction into a global catastrophe that lasted a decade. FDR gets no credit at all for trying to nudge the United States into alliance with France and Britain against the fascist powers. If you believe Johnson, Roosevelt had no particular intention of helping the Western allies. Rather, he blundered into the Second World War, in something of the way the British blundered into World War One.

Additionally, we learn that Roosevelt lacked gravitas, displaying a flippant demeanor in discussions of even the gravest topics. He was vindictive, sending the Internal Revenue Service after those whom he conceived to be his enemies, or sometimes after people like Andrew Mellon, President Coolidge's old Secretary of the Treasury, whom he just disliked. His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, it goes without saying, was even more of a menace to human life. While acknowledging there is no hard evidence she was a lesbian, Johnson takes care to tell us all the rumors.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy comes in for far worse. Well, not just JFK, but all the Kennedys. He puts most of the blame on Joseph Kennedy, "Old Joe," the father of JFK. The tale of Old Joe is in fact a little disedifying. By turns a real estate speculator, a stock swindler, a bootlegger and a pro-Nazi while ambassador to Great Britain, he seems also to have been at all times a lecher and the companion of gangsters. There have been enough anti-Kennedy books and documentaries in recent years to make another rendition of the alleged crimes and malefactions of this family unnecessary here. Suffice it to say that Johnson makes JFK nothing more than Old Joe's puppet. JFK's books were written by Old Joe's hirelings, his status as a war hero was an artifact of Old Joe's publicity machine, and his elections were bought with Old Joe's money.

All in all, Johnson leaves President Kennedy with not a crumb of credit, from the Apollo Program to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He does allow that Kennedy "did not go through the motions of a first-rate education. . . . without acquiring some worthy interests," but only to explain how the president's brilliant and cultured wife, Jacqueline, was able to apply a cultural sheen to what would otherwise have been a wholly sordid administration. (Johnson has a lot to say about all the First Ladies, by the way. The only ones he seriously dislikes are Mrs. Harding and Eleanor the Ugly, though he also suggests that Mary Todd Lincoln could be a bit trying at times.)

For what it is worth, it seems to me that John Kennedy had serious faults, and that the criticism to which his life is now routinely subjected has a certain rough justice. No president in American history had ever received the sort of cringing adulation that he did from the press and from academia. President-worship had been a growing feature of American historiography since FDR came to office, and it is probably just as well that the practice has fallen into disuse. Still, there is such a thing as fairness.

Johnson's assessment of Richard Nixon and his Administration is almost wholly positive. He credits President Nixon with negotiating a respectable exit from Vietnam and with strategic vision in making the opening to China. He also credits him with saving Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The economy did well during those years, and Nixon was for the most part fairly popular. Johnson describes the Watergate scandal, which eventually forced Nixon to resign, as essentially a coup organized by the press and liberal members of Congress.

Many people on the Left had long-standing grudges against Nixon. One reason was his successful red-baiting Senatorial campaign 1950 against Helen Gahagan Douglas, for instance. Nixon greatest sin, however, may have been his role in the espionage investigation of Alger Hiss, a respected East Coast establishment figure with a promising career in the State Department. Thanks in large part to Nixon, he was eventually convicted of perjury. (The underlying charges against him were pretty much proven when Soviet intelligence information became available in the 1990s.) Besides, Nixon had run against Kennedy and lost in 1960, and many progressive people still cherished the contrast.

I was in college during the Watergate investigations, and I cannot tell you what it was about. There was some minor political espionage against the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Building in Washington, DC, during the presidential campaign of 1972. The White House tried to hush it up, and then to hush up the fact that it had hushed it up. In a normal context, all this would probably have been beneath the notice of a prosecuting attorney, but presidents are subject to impeachment rather than indictment by a prosecutor. The Constitution does not say what an impeachable offense might be, except for treason and bribery. The matter is left to the political discretion of Congress.

Richard Nixon at every point made the worst of the business. He had his strong points, but he was often petty and self-pitying about personal slights. A reprimand from Congress might well have been in order for some of his behavior. Nevertheless, I am increasingly coming to accept Johnson's position that the fall of the Nixon Administration was in fact a kind of coup.

Watergate was payback for Alger Hiss, and an expression of the fury that the liberal establishment felt for having been deprived of their fantasy of the Kennedy Administration. Johnson is probably right that the pursuit of Richard Nixon almost destroyed Israel and may, perhaps, have been a necessary precondition to Communist victory in Vietnam. Certainly it began a corrosive period of national politics, in which the ordinary processes of politics are increasingly criminalized and political ambition is expressed by official investigation and counter-investigation.

Not long before I wrote this, Speaker Newt Gingrich made a speech in which he compared the condition of the United States to that of the later Roman Republic. He was referring to the invocation by President Clinton of executive privilege regarding one of the investigations into which the business of the executive branch of government has collapsed. The Speaker's historical analogy was defensible, though not his application of it. The politics of the late Roman Republic also eventually came to be little more than a factional duel of investigation and counter-investigation of alleged malfeasance, punctuated by ever more expensive election campaigns. The national political establishment of the United States began to work on similar lines after the Watergate episode, and it has been bleeding legitimacy ever since.

It is interesting to note that this book (like this review) just comes to a stop, in a single upbeat paragraph tacked on to the end. The fact is that it was published too soon. For this history, Johnson had retained and even expanded much of the downbeat material with which he ended "Modern Times" in the 1980s. He can thus only mention, without attempting to interpret, the reversal of many of the negative social trends that began in the 1960s. Crime rates are falling and illegitimacy is down, for instance, and since this book went to press the federal budget deficit has actually disappeared. The "declinist" school of American history is little heard from these days. Whatever else is happening to the United States, it is clearly not a society running out of steam.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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St. Augustine and Saxons

Ross Douthat posted a trio of links to articles about St. Augustine, in the service of criticizing Stephen Greenblatt's anti-Christian animus.

The articles are pretty interesting, but it was the second one that really caught my eye.

Similarly, it is a gross distortion to describe medieval people as “an anxious populace” scanning “the horizon for barbarian armies.” By “barbarian” Greenblatt presumably means the Goths, Vikings and other non-western-European peoples who migrated out of Asia and the Baltic regions beginning in the first century. Scholars of Late Antiquity know that this process of migration was primarily characterized by gradual colonization and assimilation, not decisive battles fought by bloodthirsty hordes. (The battles get more prominent mention in written sources but archeology tells a different story.) 

Greenblatt may dislike Christians, as the article quotes him at length on the subject, but Greenblatt has a better grasp on the reality of death by the sword than Jim Hinch does. We know from ancient DNA that 25-40% of the ancestry of the British is Anglo-Saxon, with a cline from East to West. Earlier invasions in the same place were far worse, with 93% population replacement during the Bell Beaker expansion.

Hinch cites archaeologists as his source, so he is perhaps only guilty of trusting the wrong people. Robert E. Howard turns out to be a better source than most archaeologists on this subject.

The Long View: Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages

Ignore doomsday at your peril.


Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages
by Eugen Weber
Harvard University Press, 2000
294 pages, US$16.95 (Paperback)
ISBN 0-674-00395-0

 

The University of Toronto asked Eugen Weber, the noted emeritus professor of modern European history at UCLA, to give the 1999 Barbara Frum Lecture on the topic of “fins de siècle.” This seemed reasonable enough, what with the end of the 20th century coming up and the fact that he had already written a book entitled “Fin de Siècle.” We must imagine his horror, however, as his preparation for the lecture revealed the matter did not allow of pluralization. There was only one fin de siècle, something that happened at the end of the nineteenth century and mostly in France. Western society had rarely taken much notice of century years before the 18th century. Even the kinds of millennial excitement that attended the ends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were different from each other. The apocalyptic atmosphere at end of the 19th century was, to a large degree, an aspect of the period’s famous “decadence.” There was probably at least as much decadence in the colloquial sense during the 1990s as during 1880s. Back in the Paris of the real fin de siècle, however, decadence was high theory. 

Happily freed of the media myth that all dates ending in “00” have incited millennium-mad masses to howl at the moon, Dr. Weber went on to produce this very engaging survey of the chief apocalyptic themes in Western history. I have never seen it done better. The author is particularly successful in demonstrating the continuing importance of millennialism for the study of intellectual history. Apocalyptic thinking is obviously relevant to an understanding of John of Leiden and the Reverend Jim Jones. It is also, however, just as necessary for a full understanding of Isaac Newton and Joseph Priestley, or even of Balzac. Eschatological scenarios informed the decisions of the participants in the English Civil War. They may also, more debatably, have had a hand in deciding that the First World War started when and how it did. The widespread opinion of the middle 20th century that millennialism was a historical curiosity has been pretty thoroughly refuted. We ignore Doomsday at out great peril.

Though the presentation in “Apocalypses” is roughly chronological, the author realizes that there can be no “history” of millennialism. The world seems likely to end in somewhat different ways to the people of different cultural periods, despite much continuity of language, and even of systematic eschatological theology. However, every period does seem to have a characteristic millennialism of some sort. Also, the persistence of detail is striking, all the more so because the specifics of the apocalyptic scenarios flip back and forth between natural and supernatural. For instance, the Book of Revelation is full of things that fall from the sky, notably the star “Wormwood” (Rev. 8: 10,11). This was a ludicrous notion in the Aristotelian physics of the first century, of course, and probably a bit of an embarrassment for Christian apologists. In contrast, the idea that the world may be in imminent peril of asteroidal impact was common by the end of the 20th century, due in large part to the dramatic Alvarez hypothesis about the Cretaceous die-off. Long before the dinosaur fashion, however, 20th century millenarians had appropriated pretty much the same idea as a gloss on the scriptural text. Now Weber tells us that, in 1773, a lecture to the Academy of Sciences in Paris on the menace of cometary flybys occasioned civil disorder. In a way, this continuity is comforting.

Readers generally familiar with the history of apocalyptic thinking in English-speaking countries will find “Apocalypses” particularly valuable for its attention to the francophone world. This is one of those books that reminded me of the full extent of my ignorance. I had imagined that Jansenists, members of a rigorous but condemned Catholic sect that had attracted minds on the order of Pascal’s, were essentially Calvinists without the whimsy. Only now do I learn about their ecstatic and visionary side, and how their long persecution drove them to view themselves as an elect living at the close of the age. I had been aware that the Métis rebellions in nineteenth-century Canada had an eschatological element, even a specifically Catholic eschatological dimension. A feature that you could not have made up, however, was the belief of the Métis leader, Louis Riel, that the Vatican would move to Canada. Last but not least, we are also treated to a summary of the French fin de siècle, with its colorful combination of Satanists, popular science, eschatological communism and Restoration-minded monarchists. What had our own etiolated flutters about the Y2K bug to offer in comparison?

Since the territory covered in this book is beyond anyone’s expertise, there are nits to pick. For instance, the authors says about the eschatology of St. Augustine of Hippo: “Since Christ’s coming, regeneration no longer depended on cosmic revolution or explosive revolution, but on individual effort to salvation; not on divine destruction, but on human decisions and effort.” While this summary is not entirely wrong, we should remember that Augustine is the father, not just of progress, but also of predestination. (This is not a coincidence.) To take an issue of social history, it is hard to see how, after reviewing all the odd dates that have excited millennial attention these last 2000 years (1260, 1484, 1844), the author can still link millennialism with the rise of numeracy. If anything, it’s dates like 1900 and 2000 that are the no-brainers, and they fell in literate centuries. These, however, are small matters that simply reflect the opinions found in the secondary sources from which a survey like this is necessarily written.

Just as “Apocalypses” does not purport to be a comprehensive history of millennialism, it also does not attempt to formulate a general theory about it. Weber is duly suspicious of the assumption by E.J. Hobsbawm and Norman Cohn that millenarian revolutionaries are really social revolutionaries suffering from false consciousness. The phenomena associated with millennial ideas are just too various for such an explanation to work, even as an approximation. Weber is obviously impressed, not just by the persistence of millennial thinking, but also by its uncanny, well, prescience. The age did not end with the planetary alignment of 1484, for instance, but the unity of the West did shortly thereafter, just at the moment when the horizons of the known world were exploding. He remarks about the flurry of Marian apparitions that occurred in the early 20th century (for some reason he calls them “Marial apparitions”) that the fire-and-brimstone prophecies they produced were “right on target.” St. Augustine may have been right when he said that signs of the end are present in every age. It is also true to say that those who pursue the millennium are not necessarily following a chimera.

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

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