Review: The History of England

Review: The History of England

The History of EnglandThe History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A traveler must be freed from all apprehension of being murdered or starved before he can be charmed by the bold outlines and rich tints of the hills.

Sir Thomas James Babington Macaulay, Baron of Rothley—more commonly known as Lord Macaulay—is yet another of those creatures of former ages who could fill volume after volume with excellent prose, seemingly without effort. He wrote reams: this work itself, in the original, runs to five volumes. And everything he wrote—from poems to essays, from speeches to history—was both instantly successful in his day and still remains a model of force and clarity. The power of his style is why Macaulay is most frequently cited nowadays. He is the only English historian (except perhaps David Hume) whose writing can be mentioned in the same breath as Edward Gibbon; indeed the two of them are grouped together as models of elegance, in much the same way as were Demosthenes and Cicero.

Brilliant stylists they both were; but quite different in their brilliance. Gibbon is stately, while Macaulay is luminescent. To borrow a phrase from Tocqueville, Gibbon tried to see history from God’s point of view: as a pure spectator, a neutral observer, emotionally unmoved but intellectually engaged. Macaulay imitated the more dramatic styles of Thucydides and Tacitus, narrating history as an enormous spectacle with heroes and villains. Here he is describing the fate of the Scottish colony of Caledonia during the failed Darien scheme:

The alacrity which is the effect of hope, the strength which is the effect of union, were alike wanting to the little community. From the councilors down to the humblest settlers all was despondency and discontent. The stock of provisions was scanty. The stewards embezzled a great part of it. The rations were small; and soon there was a cry that they were unfairly distributed. Factions were formed. Plots were laid. One ringleader of the malcontents was hanged.

Macaulay’s punchy, declarative sentences have an overwhelming effect when piled atop one another in cumulative description. Indeed, Macaulay never simply describes: he dramatizes. He pays at least as much attention to the emotional effect of his words as their literal accuracy. Granted, Macaulay is seldom as quotable or as graceful as Gibbon; but he is leaps and bounds more exciting to read.

This difference in style, as often happens, mirrors a difference in attitude. Gibbon had his fair share of prejudices, but he was not partisan. Macaulay is partisanship incarnate. He is largely responsible for popularizing what is commonly called Whig History. This is the thesis that sees English history as “the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement” caused by political reform. This thesis became historical orthodoxy for a time, until, like all orthodoxies, it bred a heresy that became the new orthodoxy.

Nowadays the idea that history is a grand progress from barbarism to civilization will strike many as terribly simplistic, mostly wrong, and nauseatingly complacent. After two world wars and the atom bomb, we are apt to view any suggestions of progress with skepticism. Nevertheless, to condemn Macaulay’s perspective for being old-fashioned would be to forget, what Hugh Trevor-Roper reminds us in the introduction, that the “severest critics themselves are generally unaware of the extent to which they depend on the achievement of their victim.”

The terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ appear with great frequency both within the book and in discussions of Macaulay; and yet these political positions can be bewildering for a non-British reader. This is in keeping with the general Britishness of this book. Macaulay’s history is a national history; it is a book written for Brits. For any British reader, I suspect this book will excite some strong emotions, positive or negative. For me it appealed mainly to my anthropological curiosity.

In fairness, Macaulay’s conception of Great Britain is wide enough to include Scotland and Ireland. And although this book is full of shocking insults against the Scots and the Irish (as a prophet of progress, Macaulay sees Scotland and Ireland during this time as hopelessly backward), Macaulay’s history was nevertheless important—or so says Hugh Trevor-Roper in the introduction—for treating those two realms as of integral importance to British history.

As Trevor-Roper also points out, Macaulay’s partisanship expresses itself most damagingly in his dealings with individuals. Macaulay is not an acute psychologist. He occasionally breaks off the narrative to engage in a lengthy description of some figure—such as his unforgettable portrait of George Jeffreys—but these descriptions are inevitably either philippics or eulogies. There are no memorable personalities in these pages; only flat heroes and villains. This tendency to choose good guys and bad guys often led Macaulay into errors or even chicanery. He deliberately misrepresents the evidence to blacken William Penn’s name, while going so far as to assert that “extirpate” is commonly understood to mean “disarm” rather than “eliminate” in order to clear William of the Glencoe Massacre.

Purists may have some misgivings about reading this abridgement. For me, I see abridgements like this as an ideal place to begin reading: it gives you a decent overview of the whole work, and allows you to decide if you’d like to commit to five volumes. Trevor-Roper did an excellent job with this edition, giving a satisfying overview of the narrative arc, providing the necessary connections between the missing parts, as well as enlivening the experience with his own cutting commentary. As a writer, Trevor-Roper is fully within the Macaulay school: sharp, direct, and unmerciful. The book is full of footnotes pointing out where Macaulay is erring or being underhanded. The introduction, too, is unsparing: “[Macaulay’s] descriptions of art, architecture, music are of a frigid, conventional pomposity if they are not positively absurd.”

To my surprise, I found this period of time to be relevant to contemporary American politics. James II—a bumbling, petty, egotistical monarch in league with a foreign ruler—couldn’t help but remind me of Trump’s Russia affair. The way that James would fill government posts with cronies, or would try to circumvent long-held traditions by browbeating his subjects in personal interviews, was eerily similar to what James Comey describes in his statement. Macaulay’s sections on the National Debt and the partisan squabbles between Tories and Whigs were also astoundingly applicable. This is curious, if not exactly meaningful.

Hopefully one day I will have the time and inclination to read the unabridged version of this masterpiece. Until then, I can say that Macaulay’s reputation is well deserved: as a stylist, and as a partisan.

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Review: A Study of History

Review: A Study of History

A Study of History, Abridgement of Vols 1-6A Study of History, Abridgement of Vols 1-6 by Arnold Joseph Toynbee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the perennial infirmities of human beings is to ascribe their own failure to forces that are entirely beyond their control.

One day, a couple years ago, as I was walking to Grand Central Station from my office in Manhattan—hurrying, as usual, to get to the 6:25 train in time to get a good seat by the window, which meant arriving by 6:18 at the latest—while crossing an intersection, I looked down and found a Toynbee tile lying in the middle of the street.

Toynbee tiles are mysterious plaques, pressed into the asphalt in city streets, that have appeared in several cities in the United States. Small (about the size of a tablet) and flat (they’re made of linoleum), nearly all of them bear the same puzzling message: “TOYNBEE IDEA MOVIE ‘2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.” Sometimes other little panicky or threatening messages about the Feds, Gays, Jews, and instructions to “lay tile alone” are scribbled in the margins. Nobody knows the identity of the tile-maker; but they are clearly the work of a dedicated conspiracy theorist with a tenuous grasp on conventional reality; and considering that they’ve been appearing since the 1980s, all around the US and even in South America, you’ve got to give the tile-maker credit for perseverance. (Click here for more on the tiles.)

I was stunned. I had heard of the tiles before, but I never thought I’d see one. I walked across that intersection twice daily; clearly the tile had been recently installed, perhaps just hours ago. I wanted to bend down and examine it closely, but the traffic light soon changed and I had to get out of the way. Reluctantly I moved on towards Grand Central; but I felt gripped by curiosity. Who is this mysterious tile maker? What is he hoping to accomplish? Suddenly I felt an overpowering desire to unlock his message. So instead of jumping on my usual train—I wasn’t going to get a window seat, anyway—I stopped by a bookstore and picked up Toynbee’s Study of History.

Toynbee, for his part, was apparently no lover of mystery, since he tried to explain nothing less than all of human history. The original study is massive: 12 volumes, each one around 500 pages. This abridgement squeezes 3,000 pages into 550; and that only covers the first five books. (Curiously, although the cover of this volume says that it is an abridgement of volumes one through six, it is clear from the table of contents that it only includes one through five. Similarly, though the next volume of the abridgement says it begins with book seven and ends with book ten, it actually begins with book six and ends with book twelve. This seems like a silly mistake.)

The abridgement was done by an English school teacher, D.C. Somervell, apparently just for fun. He did an excellent job, since it was this abridged version that became enormously popular and which is still in print. All this only proves what Toynbee says in the preface, that “the author himself is unlikely to be the best judge of what is and is not an indispensable part of his work.”

As a scholar, Toynbee achieved a level of fame and influence nearly incomprehensible today. His name was dominant in both academe and foreign affairs. In 1947, just after this abridgement of his major work became a best-seller, he was even featured on the cover of Time magazine. This, I might add, is a perverse index of how much our culture has changed since then. It is nearly impossible to imagine this book—a book with no narrative, written in a dry style about an abstract thesis—becoming a best-seller nowadays, and equally impossible to imagine any bookish intellectual on the cover of Time.

But enough about tiles and Toynbee; what about the book?

In A Study of History, Toynbee set out to do what Oswald Spengler attempted in his influential theory of history, The Decline of the West—that is, to explain the rise and fall of human communities. In method and content, the two books are remarkably similar; but this similarity is obscured by a powerful contrast in style. Where Spengler is oracular and prophetic, biting and polemical, literary and witty, Toynbee is mild, modest, careful, and deliberate. Spengler can hardly go a sentence without flying off into metaphor; Toynbee is literal-minded and sober. Toynbee’s main criticism of his German counterpart seems to have been that Spengler was too excitable and fanciful. The English historian seeks to tread the same ground, but with rigor and caution.

Nevertheless, the picture that Toynbee paints, if less colorful, is quite similar in outline to Spengler’s. The two of them seek to divide up humans into self-contained communities (‘cultures’ for Spengler, ‘societies’ for Toynbee); these communities are born, grow, break down, collapse, and pass away according to a certain pattern. Both thinkers see these groups as having a fertile early period and a sterile late period; and they both equate cultural vigor with artistic and intellectual innovation rather than political, economic, or military might.

Naturally, there are significant divergences, too. For one, Toynbee attempts to describe the origin and geographic distribution of societies, something that Spengler glosses over. Toynbee’s famous thesis is that civilizations arise in response to geographic challenge. Some terrains are too comfortable and invite indolence; other terrains are too difficult and exhaust the creative powers of their colonizers. Between these two extremes there is an ideal challenge, one that spurs communities to creative vigor and masterful dominance.

While I applaud Toynbee for the attempt, I must admit that I find this explanation absurd, both logically and empirically. The theory itself is vague because Toynbee does not analyze what he means by a ‘challenging’ environment. How can an environment be rated for ‘difficulty’ in the abstract, irrespective of any given community? A challenge is only challenging for somebody; and what may be difficult for some is easy for others. Further, thinking only about the ‘difficulty’ collapses many different sorts of things—average rainfall and temperature, available flora and fauna, presence of rival communities, and a host of other factors—into one hazy metric.

This metric is then applied retrospectively, in supremely unconvincing fashion. Toynbee explains the dominance of the English colony in North America, for example, as due to the ‘challenging’ climate of New England. He even speculates that the ‘easier’ climate south of the Mason-Dixon line is why the North won the American Civil War. Judgments like these rest on such vague principles that they can hardly be confirmed or refuted; you can never be sure how much Toynbee or ignoring or conflating. In any case, as an explanation it is clearly inadequate, since it ignores several obvious advantages possessed by the English colonists—that England was ascendant while Spain was on the wane, for example.

Now that we know more about the origins of agriculture, we have come to exact opposite conclusion as Toynbee. The communities that developed agriculture did not arise in the most ‘challenging’ environments, but in the areas which had the most advantages—namely, plants and animals that could be easily domesticated. But Toynbee cannot be faulted for the state of archaeology in his day.

The next step in Toynbee’s theory is also vague. The growing society must transfer its field of action from outside to inside itself; that is, the society must begin to challenge itself rather than be challenged by its environments. This internal challenge gives rise to a ‘creative minority’—a group of gifted individuals who innovate in art, science, and religion. These creative individuals always operate by a process of ‘withdraw-and-return’: they leave society for a time, just as Plato’s philosopher left the cave, and then return with their new ideas. The large majority of any given society is an uncreative, inert mass and merely imitates the innovations of the creative minority. The difference between a growing society and either a ‘primitive’ or a degenerating society is that the mass imitate contemporary innovators rather than hallowed ancestors.

Incredibly, Toynbee sees no relation between either technological progress or military prowess with a civilization’s vigor. Like Spengler, he measures a culture’s strength by its creative vitality—its art, music, literature, philosophy, and religion. This allows him to see the establishment of the Roman Empire, as Spengler did, not as a demonstration of vitality but as a last desperate attempt to hold on to Hellenic civilization. Toynbee actually places the ‘breakdown’ of Hellenic society (when they lost their cultural vitality) at the onset of the Peloponnesian War, in 431 BCE, and considers all the subsequent history of Hellene and Rome as degeneration.

But why does the creative minority cease to be genuinely creative and petrify into a merely ‘dominant’ minority? This is because, after one creative triumph, they grow too attached to their triumph and cannot adapt to new circumstances; in other words, they rest on their laurels. What’s more, even the genuine innovations of the creative minority may not have their proper effect, since they must operate through old, inadequate, and at times incompatible institutions. Their ideas thus become either perverted in practice or simply not practiced at all, impeding the proper ‘mimesis’ (imitation) by the masses. After the breakdown, the society takes refuge in a universal state (such as the Roman Empire), and then in a universal church (such as the Catholic church). (As with Spengler, Toynbee seems to have the decline and fall of the Roman Empire as his theory’s ur-type.)

To me—and I suspect to many readers—Toynbee’s theories seem to be straightforward consequences of his background. Born into a family of scholars and intellectuals, Toynbee is, like Spengler, naturally inclined to equate civilization with ‘high’ culture, which leads naturally to elitism. Having lived through and been involved in two horrific World Wars, Toynbee was deeply antipathetic to technology and warfare. Nearly everyone hates war, and rightly; but in Toynbee’s theory, war is inevitably a cause or an effect of societal decay—something which is true by definition in his moral worldview, but which doesn’t hold up if we define decay in more neutral terms. The combination of his family background and his hatred of violence turned Toynbee into a kind of atheistic Christian, who believed that love and non-violence conquered all. I cannot fault him ethically; but this is a moral principle and not an accurate depiction of history.

Although the association is not flattering, I cannot help comparing both Toynbee and Spengler to the maker of the Toynbee tiles. Like that lonely crank, wherever he is, these two scholars saw connections where nobody else had before, and propounded their original worldviews in captivating fashion. Unfortunately, it seems that coming up with a theory that could explain the rise and fall of every civilization in every epoch seems to be just about as possible as resurrecting the dead on planet Jupiter. But sometimes great things are accomplished when we try to do the impossible; and thanks to this unconquerable challenge, we have two monuments of human intelligence and ambition, works which will last far, far longer than linoleum on asphalt.

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Review: The Decline of the West

Review: The Decline of the West

The Decline of the WestThe Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All genuine historical work is philosophy, unless it is mere ant-industry.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of my favorite books, not only because it is written so beautifully, but because of the spectacle of decline—of a great empire slowly and inevitably crumbling. The scene is irresistibly tragic. Like a Macbeth or an Oedipus, the Empire succumbs to itself, brought down by its own efforts at self-expansion. Or perhaps the scene can be better compared to the Fall of Man in Milton’s poem, a grand cosmic undoing, followed by the heroic struggle against the inevitable.

Besides the sublime tragedy of Rome’s decline, it fascinates because it gives us a foreboding of what might happen to us. Indeed, maybe it is already? This would explain all the banality we see on television every day, all the terrible music on the radio. More than decline—a loss of political and economic power—this is decadence: a decay of taste, morals, artistic skill. Decadence seems observable in many historical instances: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines: they all petered out, losing cultural vitality until they disappeared completely. Couldn’t the same thing be happening to us?

Oswald Spengler thought so, and he turned this thought into the basis for an entire philosophy of history. He was not a professional historian, nor an academic of any kind. He worked as a school teacher until his mother’s inheritance allowed him quit his job and to devote all of his time to scholarship. This scholarship was mustered to write an enormous book, whose publication was delayed by World War I. Probably this was very lucky for Spengler, since the pessimism and anguish caused by that war set the mood for his grand theory of cultural decline.

The Decline of the West puts forward a radically unconventional view of history. Spengler divides up world history, not into countries or epochs, but into “Cultures.” There have been only eight: the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Meso-American, the Chinese, the Indian, the Classical (Greco-Roman), the Arabian (includes the Byzantine), and the Western (European Culture, beginning around the year 1000). Each of these Cultures he conceives as a super-organism, with its own birth, middle-age, and dotage. These Cultures all age at a similar rate, and go through analogical stages in the process (Napoleon is the Western equivalent to Alexander the Great, for example). Spengler believed that he had delineated these Cultures and traced their basic growth and aging process, thus providing a valid scheme for all future history as well, if any new Culture should arise.

Spengler is a cultural determinist and a cultural relativist. This means that he does not see these Cultures as dependent on the talent of individuals to grow; the individual is a product of the Culture and not the reverse. He also thinks that each of these Cultures creates its own self-contained world of significance, based on its own fundamental ideas. There is no such thing as inter-cultural influence, he thinks, at least not on any deep level. Each of these Cultures conceives the world so differently that they can hardly understand one another, let alone determine one another, even if one Culture can overpower another one in a contest of arms. Their art, their mathematics, their architecture, their experience of nature, their whole mental world is grounded in one specific cultural worldview.

Because Spengler is a determinist, he does not present us with a Gibbonian spectacle of a civilization succumbing to its own faults, struggling against its own decline. For Spengler, everything that happens in history is destiny. People don’t make history; history makes people. Thus, while often classed as a political conservative, it is hard to put any political label on Spengler, or to co-opt his views for any political purpose, since he didn’t think we directed our own history. To be a true Spenglerian is to believe that decline is inevitable: decadence wasn’t anyone’s “fault,” and it can’t be averted.

Much of this book consists of a contrast between what he calls the Apollonian (Greco-Roman) worldview, and the Faustian (Western) worldview. The Apollonian world-picture is based on the idea of definite form and definable shape; the nude statue is its most characteristic art, the delineated human body; its mathematics is all based on geometry, concrete shapes and visible lines. The Faustian picture, by contrast, is possessed by the idea of infinity; we make fugues, roving explorations of musical space; our mathematics is based on the idea of a function, an operation that can create an endless series of numbers. Spengler dwells on this contrast in chapter after chapter, trying to prove his point that Western Culture, far from being a development of Classical Culture, is entirely incompatible with it.

His own Culture, the Western, he traces to around the year 1000, at the commencement of the Romanesque. How or why new a Culture begins, Spengler doesn’t venture to say; but once they do begin, they follow the same definite steps. It was inevitable, he thinks, that the Romanesque transformed into the Gothic, and then eventually flourished into the Baroque, the high point of our Culture, wherein we expressed our deep longing for the infinite in Bach’s fugues and Descartes’s mathematics.

Sometime around the year 1800, the Western Culture entered its late, senescent phase, which Spengler terms ‘Civilization.’ This is the phase that follows cultural growth and flourishing; its onset begins when a Culture has exhausted its fundamental idea and explored its inherent forms. A Civilization is what remains of Culture when it has spent its creative forces: “The aim once attained—the idea, the entire content of inner possibilities, fulfilled and made externally actual—the Culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes Civilization.”

The ‘decline’ that forms the title of this book is just this transition from Culture to Civilization, wherein major creative work is at an end. Civilization is, rather, the age of Caesarism, the consolidation of political power. It is the age of world cities, major metropolises filled with cosmopolitan urban intellectuals. It is the age of academics rather than geniuses, the Alexandrine Greeks instead of the Golden-Age of Athens. It is, in other words, the period that corresponds with the onset of the Roman Empire, a period of no substantial innovation, but of magnificent stability. The Western Culture, Spengler thought, was entering just this period.

Whereas those who are actuated by a Culture during its creative period feel themselves driven by inevitable impulses, which allow even mediocre artists to create great works, people within a Civilization are creatures of the intellect, not the instinct; and instead of being given creative power and direction by their Culture, they are left to substitute their own subjective tastes and whims for cultural destiny. Instead of, for example, having one overriding epoch in our artistic productions—such as the Gothic, the Baroque, or what have you—we have artistic ‘movements’ or trends—Futurism, Dadaism, Cubism—which, far from being necessary phases in a Culture’s self-expression, are merely intellectual fads with no force behind them.

Spengler’s theory does have the considerable merit of being testable, because he made very specific predictions about what the immediate future held. We had gone through the period of ‘Warring States,’ he thought, in which country fought country and money ruled everything, and were about to enter a period of Caesarism, wherein people would lose faith in the power of self-interested capitalism and follow a charismatic leader. This would also be a period of ‘Second Religiousness,’ a period of faith rather than reason—a period of patriotism, zeal, and peaceful capitulation to the status quo.

Nowadays, one-hundred years later, it seems these predictions were certainly false. For one, he did not foresee the Second World War, but thought the period of internecine warfare was coming to a close. What is more, economic power has grown even more important—far more important than political power, in many ways—and no Caesar has arisen, despite many contenders (including Hitler, during Spengler’s lifetime, of whom Spengler didn’t think highly).

Aside from its breadth, one thing that sets this book apart is its style. Spengler is a remarkable writer. He can be poetic, describing the “flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. Strange is the feeling that then presses in upon you—a feeling of enigmatic fear in the presence of this blind dreamlike earth-bound existence.” He can be bitter, biting, and caustic, castigating the blind scholars who couldn’t see the obvious, satirizing the pseudo-sauve intellectuals who populated the cities of his time. He can be lyrical or epigrammatic, and can write ably about art, music, and mathematics.

His most characteristic mode, however, is the oracular: Spengler proclaims, predicts, pronounces. His voice, resonating through the written word, booms as if from a mountaintop. He sweeps the reader up in his swelling prose, an inundation of erudition, a flood that covers the world and brings us, like Noah in his ark, even higher than mountaintops. Perhaps a flood is the most apt metaphor, since Spengler is not only overwhelming in his rhetorical force, but all-encompassing in his world-view. He seems to have thought of everything, considered every subject, drawn his own conclusions about every fact; no detail escapes him, no conventionality remains to be overturned by his roving mind. The experience can be intoxicating as he draws you into his own perspective, with everything you thought you knew now blurry and swirling.

Spengler is so knowledgeable that, at times, he can sound like some higher power declaiming from above. But he was a man, after all, and his erudition was limited. He was most certainly an expert on music, mathematics, and the arts, and writes with keen insight in each of these subjects. But in politics, economics, religion, and especially science, he is less impressive. He completely fails to understand Darwin’s theory, for example, and he thought that physics was already complete and there would be no more great geniuses (and this, in one of the greatest epochs of physics!). He doesn’t even mention Einstein. Spengler also thought that our scientific theories were culturally determined and culturally bound; the Western conception of nature, for example, would have no validity for the Chinese (which doesn’t seem to stop the Chinese from learning Newton’s theories).

His grand theory, though undeniably fascinating, is also impossible to accept. What is the nature of a Culture? Why do they arise, why are they self-contained, why do they follow the same life-course? Why would one single idea determine every single cultural production—from mathematics to music, from architecture to physics—in a Culture from birth to death? All these seem like fundamental questions, and yet they are not satisfactorily addressed—nor do I see how they could be.

By insisting on the Culture as the unit of history, Spengler seems to be at once too narrow and too broad. Too narrow, because he does not allow for the possibility that these Cultures can influence one another; while it seems obvious to me that, yes, there was influence from the Classical to the Western, as well as from the Classical to the so-called ‘Magian’ (his term for the Arabian Culture), and from the Magian to the Western, and so on. And too broad, because within any given Culture there are not only different ages but different areas. Is the cultural difference between Spain and England ultimately superficial, but between the Renaissance and Classical Greece unbridgeable? Really, the more you think about Spengler’s claims, the less credible they seem. After all, if Spengler were right, how could he, a Western intellectual living in the Civilization phase of Western Culture, delineate the fundamental ideas of other Cultures and produce what he regarded as a major intellectual achievement?

I am certainly not saying that this book is intellectually valueless. By comparison, Walter Pater had this to say about aesthetic theories: “Many attempts have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, and express it in the most general terms, to find a universal formula for it. The value of these attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way.”

This seems equally true with regard to Spengler’s universal formula for history. Although I think his theory is untenable, this book is nevertheless filled to the brim with suggestive and penetrating observations, especially about art, architecture, music, and mathematics. Spengler may be a failed prophet, but he was an excellent critic, capable of making the most astonishing comparisons between arts of different eras and epochs.

Even if we reject Spengler’s proposed theory, we may still savor the grand vision required to see all of human history as a whole, to scan one’s eye over the past and present of humankind, in all its forms and phases, and to form conjectures as to its destiny. And Spengler was undeniably original in his inclusion of Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Meso-American Cultures as of equal importance as Western history; indeed, it is at least in part to Spengler that we owe our notion of world-history. Rich in ideas, set forth in ringing prose, invigorating in its novelty, breathtaking in its scope—here we have a true classic, yet another example of a book whose enormous originality outweighs every conventional defect we can detect in it.

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Crítica: La guerra civil española, por Anthony Beevor

Crítica: La guerra civil española, por Anthony Beevor

La guerra civil españolaLa guerra civil española by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Esto es una traducción de un post en inglés.)

Como demostró la guerra civil española, la primera baja de la guerra no es la verdad, sino la fuente de la que procede: la consciencia y la integridad del individuo.

Hace unos meses, esperando curar mi ignorancia total de la guerra civil española, comencé a buscar un libro. Había escuchado diversas opiniones sobre la famosa historia por Hugh Thomas, y en todo caso su extensión no me pareció ideal como introducción. Mi compañero de trabajo, un historiador militar, me recomendó Ángel Viñas; pero sus libros son largos igualmente, y además solo están disponibles en español—español difícil. Sin embargo, quería practicar de leer español, y no deseaba un “introducción breve” o algo así. La versión de Anthony Beevor tiene la longitud correcta; y su dificultad, cuando es traducido al español, es ideal: desafiante pero factible.

Anthony Beevor es un historiador militar; y su libro es principalmente una historia de ejércitos y batallas. Las fuerzas que desestabilizaron el gobierno y crearon tanta tensión en el país están resumidas rápidamente; y las repercusiones —su legado, sus efectos persistentes en la vida política española, su significado más amplio en la historia del siglo veinte— todo esto está mencionado, pero no analizado. Como cualquier historiador, Beevor necesita poner límites a su material. Se centra en la península ibérica en los años entre 1936-39.

Beevor es un escritor excelente. Sus párrafos son minas de información; él resume, ofrece estadísticas y da ejemplos memorables. Inspecciona el campo de batalla como un observador aéreo; informa sobre luchas de poder como periodista investigador. No deja que su material le agobie, pero condesa eventos complicados hasta formar frases elegantes. Su enfoque está más en eventos a escala grande que en historias individuales. La narración pausa con poco frecuencia para analizar el carácter de una persona concreta, o para contar un anécdota, pero mantiene la perspectiva de un general observando sus tropas.

A pesar de su habilidad de escribir, Beevor no puede cambiar el hecho que esta guerra es complicada. Tantos actores están involucrados—comunistas, anarquistas, republicanos, sindicalistas, conservadores, falangistas, carlistas, monarquistas, vascos, catalanes, alemanes, italianos, soviéticos, estadounidenses, británicos, franceses—que es imposible presentar la guerra como una historia sencilla. Beevor divide la materia en 38 capítulos cortos, cada uno sobre un aspecto, en un esfuerzo representar justamente la complejidad del conflicto sin agobiar el lector. Es una estrategia efectiva, pero llega con el inconveniente de una fragmentación desagradable.

Sin embargo, este libro hace lo que he esperado haría: ofrecer un resumen del conflicto, sus causas inmediatas, sus actores principales y el curso de la guerra. Dicho esto, tengo que admitir que la historia militar del conflicto—las batallas, las estrategias, las armas—es solo de interés temporal.

Lo que quiero saber es—¿Por qué? ¿Por qué un país decidió desgarrarse? ¿Por qué ciudadanos, vecinos, familiares decidieron matarse? ¿Por qué radicalismo triunfó en la derecha y la izquierda? ¿Por qué una democracia fracasó y un régimen represivo tomó el poder? Estas son grandes preguntas, que este libro no dirigirse. Para entender el trasfondo histórico y la inestabilidad que siguió a la guerra, quiero leer el libro de Gerald Brenan, El laberinto español.

Mientras tanto, me han dejando con una imagen de un derrumbe moral. Al principio del golpe, habían asesinatos en masa de curas, obispos, monjas en los cientos y los miles; y la Iglesia Español, por su parte, fue cómplice con frecuencia en represión y tiranía. Se cometieron masacres y ejecuciones en los dos lados. Por ejemplo, cuando los republicanos estaban al mando de Málaga, 1.005 personas fueron fusiladas. En la primera semana después de la conquista de los nacionalistas, fusilaron más de 3.000 personas; y dentro de 1944, más de 16.000 fueron ejecutados.

En el lado republicano, decisiones militares importantes fueron tomados por razones políticas; la propaganda política fue tan penetrante que los dirigentes se sentían ciegamente seguros que iban a ganar, y actuaron para justificar sus presuntuosas predicciones. Llevaron a cabo ofensivos inútiles—en Segovia, Teruel y el Ebro—costaron miles de vidas y perdieron los recursos de la República, para capturar lugares de ninguna importancia estratégica. Confiando ciegamente en la alta moral, los anarquistas se negaron a regular la economía y disciplinar sus tropas, dando una “una justificación ideológica de la ineficacia.” Eventualmente, facciones estalinistas se apoderaron el poder en el lado “republicano,” suprimiendo violentamente otros partidos.

Voluntarios valientes llegaron a España desde muchos países, la mayoría para luchar contra los fascistas; sin embargo, su entusiasmo fue malgastado por dirigentes ineptos. Al tiempo de todo eso, Francia, Inglaterra, y Estados Unidos manteniendo una póliza oficial de “no intervención,” mientras la Italia fascista, la Alemania nazi y la Rusia soviética enviaron tropas y armas a España, probando estrategias y equipo que iban a usar en la Segunda Guerra Mundial.

Al final, Franco ganó. Los perdedores tenían pocas opciones. Muchos escaparon a Francia, en donde ellos estaban encarcelados en campos de concentración, en que comían lo insuficiente, vivían en condiciones antihigiénicas, en temperaturas bajo cero. En Saint-Cyprien, morían entre 50 y 100 presos cada día, y los otros campos no fueron mucho mejor. Después de una indignidad inicial, la prensa francesa olvidó la situación de los refugios españoles. Aquellos que se quedaron en España encontraron un gulag de encarcelamiento, trabajo forzado, y muerte. Unos escaparon a las colinas, y otros lucharon en bandas de guerrillas; pero normalmente no duraron mucho. Y si los estalinistas hubieran ganado la guerra, no está claro que las condiciones habrían sido mejores.

Una cosa que me llamó la atención con frecuencia era la diferencia en eficacia entre los nacionalistas y los republicanos. Mientras Franco reguló bien su economía durante la guerra y tomó decisiones militares eficaces, el lado republicano fue inundado por decenas de monedas, preocupado por formar sindicatos, y se preparando para la revolución inminente. El mismo día en que Málaga cayó, cuando tantas personas fueron ejecutadas, en Barcelona el gobierno estaba preocupado por la colectivización de las vacas.

Esto mostró una característica persistente en la derecha y la izquierda. La igualdad y la autoridad son dos valores conflictivos; y la mayoría de gobiernos intenta encontrar un equilibrio entre ellos. Cuando la derecha se convierte en extrema, prefiere la autoridad sobre la igualdad; y cuando la izquierda se convierte en extreme, la igualdad es una obsesión. De este modo, observamos el ejército se organizaron bajo del mando de Franco, mientras los republicanos dividieron en facciones luchando entre ellos, más centrado en sus esquemas utópicas que ganar la guerra.

La igualdad sin la autoridad crea justicia sin poder. La autoridad sin la igualdad, poder sin justicia. El primero es preferable moralmente y totalmente inadecuado en sus medios; y el segundo usa medios eficaces para cumplir objetivos injustos. En la práctica, esto significa que, en competición directa, la derecha extrema va a ganar, por los menos a corto plazo; sin embargo, a largo plazo, su énfasis en autoridad, obediencia y disciplina crea sociedades injustas y pueblos infelices. La izquierda extrema, por su parte, después de colapsar en facciones peleando, a veces revierte a la forma autoritaria, mientras un partido se convierte en el más poderoso y pierde su paciencia con discutir (algo que ocurre rápidamente en un crisis).

Un camino en el medio es necesario para navegar entre estos valores. ¿Pero cuál es el equilibro correcto? Supongo que esta es una de las preguntas más viejas de los seres humanos. En todo caso, mientras dejo el libro, me quedo una oscura imagen con muy pocos áreas iluminadas.

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Review: The Battle for Spain

Review: The Battle for Spain

La guerra civil españolaLa guerra civil española by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the Spanish Civil War proved, the first casualty of war is not truth, but its source: the conscience and integrity of the individual.

A few months ago, hoping to cure my total ignorance of the Spanish Civil War, I set about trying to find a book. I had heard mixed opinions about Hugh Thomas’s famous history, and in any case its size didn’t seem ideally suited as an introduction. My coworker, a military historian, suggested Angel Viñas; but his works were equally long and, besides, only in Spanish—difficult Spanish. Nevertheless, I did want to practice reading Spanish, and I didn’t want a very short introduction or suchlike. Anthony Beevor’s account seemed to be just the right length; and its difficulty, when translated to Spanish, was ideal: challenging but doable.

Anthony Beevor is a military historian; and his book is mainly a record of armies and battles. The forces that destabilized the government and created so much tension within the country are quickly summarized; and the aftermath of the war—its legacy, its lingering effects in Spanish political life, its wider significance in 20th century political history—all this is hinted at, but not delved into. Like any historian, Beevor needs to set limits to his material. He focuses on the Iberian peninsula in the years between 1936-39.

Beevor is an excellent writer. His paragraphs are mines of information; he summarizes, offers statistics, gives striking examples. He surveys the battlefield like an aerial observer; he reports power struggles like an investigative journalist. He never lets the material run away from him, but compresses complex events into well-turned sentences. His focus is more on large-scale movements than on individual stories. The narration seldom pauses to analyze a person’s character, or to relate a telling anecdote, but instead maintains the perspective of a general examining his troops.

Beevor’s considerable powers of narration notwithstanding, he can’t help the fact that this war is complicated. So many actors are involved, all with different motives—communists, anarchists, republicans, trade unionists, conservatives, falangists, carlists, monarchists, Basques, Catalans, Germans, Italians, Soviets, Americans, British, French—that presenting the war as a clean story is impossible. Beevor breaks the material into 38 short chapters, focusing his gaze on one aspect, in an effort to do justice to the war’s complexity without overwhelming the reader. This is an effective strategy, but it comes at the price of a certain unpleasant fragmentation. The grand sweep of the narrative is obscured.

Nevertheless, this book does what I hoped it would: provide an overview of the conflict, the immediate causes, the principal actors, and the course of the war. Having said this, I must admit that the military history of the conflict—the battles, the strategies, the armaments—is only of passing interest to me.

What I really want to know is—Why? Why did a country decide to tear itself apart? Why did countrymen, neighbors, relatives decide to kill each other in mass numbers? Why did radicalism triumph on both the left and the right? Why did a democracy fail and a repressive regime seize power? These are big questions, which this book admittedly doesn’t address. To understand the historical background and the instability that led up to the war, I plan to read Gerald Brenan’s book, The Spanish Labyrinth.

In the meantime, I am left with little more than a picture of moral collapse. The really dreadful thing about this war is how few heroes there were in high places. Mass murders were committed on both sides. At the outbreak of the military coup, there are spontaneous slaughters of clergymen, monks, bishops, in the hundreds and thousands; and the Spanish Church, for its part, was too often complicit in repression and tyranny. Mass murders and executions were perpetrated on each side. To pick one example, when the republican side was in control of Málaga, 1,005 people were executed or murdered. In the first week after its conquest by the nationalists, over 3,000 people were killed; and by 1944, another 16,000 had been put to death.

On the republican side, important military decisions were made for political reasons; political propaganda was so pervasive that leaders felt blindly sure they would win, and tried to act to justify their boastful predictions. Useless offensives were carried out—in Segovia, Teruel, and the Ebro—costing thousands of lives and wasting the Republic’s resources, to capture targets of no strategic importance. Blindly trusting in high morale, anarchists refused to regulate the economy and discipline their troops, providing an “ideological excuse for inefficiency.” Stalinist factions eventually seized power on the “republican” side, violently suppressing other parties.

Brave volunteers from all over the world poured into Spain, most to fight against the fascists; and yet their zeal was squandered by careless leadership. Meanwhile, France, England, and the United States maintained a policy of “non-intervention,” while Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia poured troops and military equipment into the country, testing out weapons and strategies that they would later use in the Second World War.

Eventually, of course, Franco won. Those on the losing side had few options. Many fled to France, where they were imprisoned in what amounted to concentration camps, in which they were forced to live on insufficient food, in unhygienic housing, and in freezing temperatures. In Saint-Cyprien, there were 50 to 100 deaths daily, and the other camps weren’t much better. After initial outrage, the French press promptly forgot the plight of these Spanish refugees. Those who remained in Franco’s Spain faced a gulag of imprisonment, forced labor, and death. Some escaped to the hills to hide out, and others fought in scattered bands of guerilla fighters; but these usually didn’t last long. And yet if the Stalinists had won the war, it isn’t clear that conditions would have been any better.

One thing that repeatedly struck me as I read through this book was the contrast in efficiency between the nationalists and the republicans. While Franco regulated his wartime economy and made effective military decisions, the republican side was awash in dozens of local currencies, busy worrying about forming syndicates, and preparing for the imminent proletariat “revolution.” On the same day as Málaga fell, when so many were put to death by Franco’s forces, in Barcelona the government was worrying about the collectivization of cows.

This seems to show us a persistent feature of both the left and the right. Equality and authority are two ideals at odds with one another; and most governments concern themselves with finding a balance between these two values. When the right becomes extreme, it gravitates towards extreme authority at the expense of equality; and when the left is radicalized, the reverse happens, and equality is fetishized. Thus we see the nationalist army consolidating itself under Franco, while the republican side devolved into warring factions, more concerned with their utopian schemes than with winning the war.

Equality without authority produces justice without power. Authority without equality, power without justice. The first is morally preferable in its ends and totally inadequate in its means; while the latter uses brutally efficient means to achieve brutally unjust ends. In practice, this means that, in direct contests, the extreme right will most often triumph over the extreme left, at least in the short-term; and yet in the long-term their emphasis on authority, obedience, and discipline produces unfair societies and unhappy populaces. The extreme left, for its part, after collapsing into mutually squabbling factions, sometimes devolves into the authoritarian pattern as one party emerges as the most powerful and as they lose patience with discussion (which doesn’t take long in a crisis).

Some middle-path is needed to navigate between these two ideals. But what’s the right balance? I suppose this is one of the oldest questions of human societies. In any case, as I put down this book, I am left with a dark picture lightened by very few bright patches.

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Review: History of Western Music

Review: History of Western Music

A History of Western MusicA History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The audience for “serious” music—art music of a certain complexity that requires some effort to understand—has never been more than a small fraction of the population.

What seems like a long time ago, I worked in a university music department as a professor’s office assistant. At the time, I was trying to improve my meager understanding of art history by reading E.H. Gombrich’s excellent Story of Art. Seeing art as an integral part of civilized society, in the context of historical change—rather than as decontextualized globs of color on canvass—really helped me to appreciate it in a way I could not before; and I wondered if the same might not be possible with music.

One day I asked my boss if there was a book similar to Gombrich’s about music, and he responded with one word: “Grout.” Finally I’ve gotten around to following up his recommendation.

A History of Western Music is the standard music history textbook in use on college campuses, at least in the United States. Its first edition was written by Donald Jay Grout; later editions were revised, first by Claude V. Palisca, and then by J. Peter Burkholder. I bought the fifth edition, mainly because it was cheap. Between the previous edition and this one, Palisca had entirely rewritten the book, removing the last remaining traces of Grout’s prose. So in this review I’ll being talking about Palisca.

Any author of a general music history textbook deserves some sympathy. First, it is proverbially difficult to write about music. The poor writer is forced to choose between a vague string of adjectives, metaphors, and images, discussing the music’s subjective effects; or he can resort to the technical language of music analysis, which at least allows him to be precise and objective, but at the cost of being inaccessible to music newbies.

Somewhere between these two extremes is the narrow path that Palisca tries to tread, sometimes precariously—veering too much in one direction, and then too much in the other—but for the most part ably. Even so, this middle path carries its own cost: dryness. Since Palisca can neither describe his own tastes and aesthetic responses, nor make any incisive analyses with music theory, he is forced to be a somewhat unexciting guide—the fate of most textbook writers.

The other major challenge is compression. How do you fit 2,000 years of music history into 800 pages? How do you give a decent overview of medieval plainchant, Italian opera, German romanticism, and American minimalism, while also providing the names, biographies, and accomplishments of the major composers, as well as integrating the relevant cultural history—all in enough time to teach it in two semesters? The obvious answer is that you can’t, and Palisca doesn’t. There is simply too much material to do justice to it all. But he does succeed in giving his reader a generous spoonful of all the main dishes.

If I measure this book by my own progress, I must deem it a success. Beforehand, I had only a scattered and incidental knowledge of the major composers. I could rattle off a few names, but I didn’t know who influenced whom, who lived when, who was part of what movement; and I could only name about two composers who lived before J.S. Bach. Now, not only do I feel much more knowledgeable, but the chronological framework will make it easier to learn more.

One of my most pleasant discoveries was the wealth of wonderful music that was written before J.S. Bach even took his first breath, in 1685. There was Leonin and Perotín, Guillaume de Mauchaut, Guillaume Dufay, John Dunstable, Henry Purcell, Claudio Monteverdi, and Arcangelo Corelli, to name just a few of my favorites. Most surprising for me was how much I enjoy sacred music. Like the shadowy interior of a gothic cathedral, the music is tranquil, meditative, and otherwordly—pregnant with tragedy and hope.

So this book does its job. What prevents it from being as great as, say, E.H. Gombrich’s history of art, Kenneth Clarke’s history of civilization, or Bertrand Russell’s history of philosophy, is the lack of authorial personality. In all three of those works, the author is not afraid to opine and speculate. Palisca, by contrast, rarely offers his own judgment, and does not venture to make any theories. His writing is neutral and plain, simply serving up information. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; and many would think that it’s the correct approach. But I think that when you’re dealing with an art form, it is neither possible nor even desirable to be “objective.” Gombrich, Clarke, and Russell are experts, and thus have refined taste. Seeing how they think about their subject, and how they feel about it, is as much an education as the information they present.

As I went through this book, I downloaded and listened to most of the representative pieces discussed in each chapter. I ended up with a long playlist (which you can see here), which I replayed over the course of few weeks before writing this review. I recommend that any curious listener do the same. Several historical trends seem apparent when you do this.

First is the obvious rise of instrumental music, as music shifts from purely vocal, to vocal with instrumental accompaniment, to mainly instrumental. The second is the rise in the prestige associated with secular music, and the attendant fall in the importance of sacred music. The composer becomes increasingly important as time goes on, exerting ever more control over the performance, while the performer becomes merely an executor rather than a collaborator. With many notable exceptions, art music also seems to grow in harmonic and rhythmic complexity, at least in the time since Haydn and Mozart, until the traditional rules of harmony break down entirely.

Something strange happens in the twentieth century, especially in the second half. Music—along with literature and art—seems to split into a dichotomy: erudite and inaccessible, and popular and oversimplified. The first camp, represented most perfectly, perhaps, by Milton Babbitt, write music that does not make sense to the untrained human ear, while popular songwriters make catchy tunes with little depth. This division seems to correspond to sources of income: the university patronizes experimental music; while popular music is obviously commercial. To me it seems that neither of these extremes are desirable, but I don’t know a way out of this dilemma.

Now that I know more about European history than ever before, I can’t help drawing connections between composers’ styles and their cultural moment. The impish, dancing, and perfectly balanced melodies of Mozart now remind me of Voltaire’s prose, suffused with Enlightenment ideals of harmony and wit. I also mentally associate the fall of religious vocal music, and the concomitant rise of secular instrumental music, with widespread changes in attitude towards nature: Nature went from being conceived as animated by intelligence and oriented around humankind, to an impartial force, indifferent to humanity, driven only by mechanical laws.

I also wonder why so many first-rate composers—Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms, to name only some—are from German-speaking countries? (And I might also ask why relatively few first-rate painters have arisen from these same countries.) Is this something to do with language? With the Protestant Reformation? I’m sure there are a few monographs about this, somewhere.

To bring this review back to its purported subject, I think that this book is a competent, well-researched, and intelligent overview of the history of western music. And with this rather bland statement, and with this song, I will make my final bow.

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Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an AnswerHow to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It had the perfect commercial combination: startling originality and easy classification.

With the state of the world—especially of the United States—growing more unsettling and absurd by the day, I felt a need to return to Montaigne, the sanest man in history. Luckily, I had Bakewell’s book tucked away in the event of any crisis of this kind; and I’m happy to report it did take the edge off.

How to Live is a beguiling mixture. While purportedly a biography of Montaigne, it is also, as many reviewers have noted, a biography of Montaigne’s Essays, tracking how they have been reread and reinterpreted in the centuries since their publication. This double-biography is structured as a series of answers to the question: How to live? In the hands of a less able writer, this organizational principle could easily have become a cheap, tacky gimmick; but Bakewell’s skill and taste allow the book to transcend biography into philosophy—or, at the very least, into self-help.

Bakewell herself is hardly a Montaignesque writer. Her prose is disciplined and controlled; and though she must weave philosophy, history, literary criticism, and biography into a coherent narrative, she keeps her material on a tight rein. While Montaigne serves as the “massive gravitational core” of his own essays, holding all the disparate topics together by the force of his personality, Bakewell herself is mostly absent from these pages. Instead, she gives us a loving portrait of Montaigne—the man, his times, and his book. And this was especially interesting for me, since Montaigne, despite writing reams about himself, never manages to give his readers a coherent picture of his life or his society. Bakewell’s book is thus most recommended as a compliment to Montaigne’s Essays, providing a background for Montaigne’s rambles.

Montaigne himself was interesting enough. Best-selling author; modern-day sage; dissatisfied lawyer; literary executor for his deceased friend, Étienne de la Boétie; translator of the obscure theologian, Raymond Sebond; and the reluctant mayor of Bordeaux: Montaigne wore many hats, and most of them well. He even played an important role in the negotiations and maneuverings that took place after the death of Henri III over the question of succession. Today, however, Montaigne is remembered more for his painful descriptions of his kidney stones than his political accomplishments.

The career of Montaigne’s reception was, for me, even more interesting than the story of his life. At first, he was interpreted as a later-day Stoic sage, a Seneca for the sixteenth century. In the next generation, both Pascal and Descartes didn’t like him, the former because Montaigne was too cheerful, the latter because he was too comfortable with uncertainty. The philosophes were fond of Montaigne’s secularism, though they had a very different conception of good prose. Rousseau and the romantics liked Montaigne for his praise of naturalness, his fondness for exotic customs, and his exploration of his own personality. Later, more puritanical generations chided Montaigne for his open attitude towards sex and his detached attitude toward society. Nowadays Montaigne is seen as a prophet of the postmodern, with his emphasis on shifting perspectives and the subjectivism of truth.

As far as Montaigne’s pieces of advice go, I’m happy to report that I was already putting most of them into practice. I don’t worry too much about death (no. 1), I like to travel (no. 14), and, to the best of my knowledge, I have been born (no. 3). I am particularly adept at number 4, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted,” though I’m still working on number 13, “Do something no one has done before.” Well, as much as I’d like to be original, I’m happy following in Montaigne’s footsteps; indeed, I agree with Bakewell in thinking that Montaigne’s example is more useful now than ever. I will let her have the final word:

The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can ever outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

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Review: The Bible in Spain

Review: The Bible in Spain

The Bible in Spain; or, the journeys, adventures, and imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the PeninsulaThe Bible in Spain; or, the journeys, adventures, and imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula by George Borrow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Those who wish to make themselves understood by a foreigner in his own language, should speak with much noise and vociferation, opening their mouths wide.

In the year 1835, George Henry Borrow, British traveler and noted eccentric, embarked upon a voyage to Spain with the purpose of making the Holy Bible available to the populace of that hoary nation, and in their native language; freeing that sacred volume from the clutches of friars and priests, who, being papists, jealously guard and keep the scriptures in a language unintelligible to the majority of men and women,—or so opined the author, a proud and uncompromising Protestant.

Mr. Borrow undertook this journey under the direction of the Bible Society, and was chosen for this work due to his previous success, persistence, and tenacity, in propagating the Bible in the vast plains of Russia, where he laboured many long years among poor peasants; and this previous experience was bolstered by Borrow’s prodigious facility in acquiring languages, being possessed, if we are to believe his report of himself, of the Latin, French, Italian, Gaelic, Russian, Arabic, Romani, German, and both the modern and ancient Greek languages,—this list may not be complete,—in addition to his fluency in Portuguese and Spanish, the two dialects on which he was to rely during his time in the Iberian Peninsula.

This book, the record of this noble errand, was pieced together from journal entries, letters, and Mr. Borrow’s apparently remarkable faculty of memory; and narrates his misadventures suffered, voyages undertaken, obstacles overcome, and successes gained, in a style verbose and tending towards the periodic sentence, with hypotaxis being his most habitual mode of expression; a style, nonetheless, of vigour and charm; its only fault, being a tendency to unfurl itself in a monotonous, seemingly endless, series, built of commas and semicolons, that, if imbibed to excess, can have the same soporific effects of opium upon the senses of the reader.

Being a book of travels, much of Mr. Borrow’s narrative, if not the majority, consists of descriptions of noble edifices, foreign cities, strange landscapes, and other vistas of entrancing beauty; as well as many stories of incompetent footmen, derelict guides, incommodious accommodations, unscrupulous innkeepers, and all of the diverse and profuse inconveniences suffered by any traveler in a foreign land; these being supplemented by several vignettes, or sketches, of striking personalities encountered by Mr. Borrow, these personages being from many different classes, creeds, and nations; all of this detail and description serving as the backdrop to Mr. Borrow’s laborious task, selling the Bible in a land generally hostile and suspicious of the Protestant religion, the opposition of the authorities more than once thwarting Mr. Borrow in his noble errand; and this is not to mention the continual fighting, and concomitant destruction of land and property, and the resultant poverty experienced by the people, putting aside the brigandage and banditry rampant across the land, occasioned by the Carlist Civil War.

For all of its merits, and these are many and conspicuous, this book, however, cannot be recommended as providing any significant insight into the culture and history of the Spanish nation, being too absorbed in Mr. Borrow’s own private worries and concerns, and too involved in the slight and superficial impressions gained by the traveler; and seeing as this, namely, gaining knowledge of the Spanish nation, was my primary object in picking up the book, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed; this disappointment being, I should hastily add, partly counterweighted by the eccentricity and peculiarity of this book, whose style, and whose narrator, while perhaps not brilliant, nor profound, nor even greatly compelling, are, at least, so distinct, that they are impressed upon the soul of the reader, not to be erased by any subsequent experience.

(The above picture is the commemorative plaque, which is posted on Calle de Santiago, 14, in Madrid, where George Borrow stayed.)

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Review: Spiritual Exercises

Review: Spiritual Exercises

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the AutographThe Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the Autograph by Ignatius of Loyola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus, has a claim to being among the most influential Spaniards in history.

His beginning was quixotic. The son of a Basque nobleman, his imagination was fed, like the Don’s, on tales of knight errantry and romance. This led to a career in the army, cut short by a canon ball that struck and permanently crippled his leg. His shattered bone had to be set, and then re-set twice, in order to heal properly; and by then his injured leg was too short, and he had to endure months of painful stretching. He walked with a limp the rest of his life.

During his convalescence, deprived of his usual adventure stories, he read about the lives of the saints. This, combined with the pain and immobility, worked a religious conversion in him. When he healed, he resolved to devote his life, no longer to earthly glory and the favors of young Doñas, but to God and the Catholic Church. Thus, eventually, the Society of Jesus was formed, which bears the military stamp of its founder in its dedication, organization, and devotion.

The Jesuits soon acquired a reputation for being excellent educators. Voltaire himself, no friend of anyone in a robe or a hood, received his early education from Jesuits, and always had a good word to say about his instructors and his tutelage. The success of the Jesuits in education is somewhat ironic, considering its founder’s lack of interest in formal schooling. In the words of this edition’s translator, St. Ignatius wrote in “limping Spanish,” since he had “only the elements of an education” and used the Spanish language “with little knowledge of its literary form.”

I should pause to note that this translation, by Louis J. Puhl, a Jesuit himself, is excellent. The language is clear, simple, and idiomatic. To achieve this, he had to depart somewhat radically from the original sentence structure, as well as abandon the sixteenth-century Spanish idioms used by St. Ignatius. He justifies this by noting that the book is meant to be a practical manual, not a work of literature, and I think he is right.

The Spiritual Exercises is meant for a month-long retreat. To that end, the exercises are divided into four weeks. We begin with an examination of our conscience. What sins are we committing? We are invited to compare our many sins with the fallen angels, now demons in hell, who committed only one sin. Then we are instructed to contemplate the sin of the rebellious angels and the first sin of Adam and Even in the Garden. What is the nature of those sins? What makes them tempting? What makes them abhorrent in the eyes of God? After that, we shall vividly imagine the tortures of the damned: the smell of burnt bodies, the screams and cries of the hopelessly sinful, the burning flames and the sea of writhing flesh. (The epic of Dante or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are helpful.) This is the first week.

The schedule is demanding: “The First Exercise will be made at midnight; the Second, immediately on rising in the morning; the Third, before or after Mass, at all events before dinner; the Fourth, about the time of Vespers; the Fifth, an hour before supper.” I don’t know how many hours that would be in total. Elsewhere, he says: “One who is educated or talented, but engaged in public affairs or necessary business, should take an hour and a half daily for the Spiritual Exercises.” I imagine this total number of hours would increase for somebody on a spiritual retreat.

Before I mention what I liked, I will state my reservations. For me, the fixation of sinfulness and the terrors of hell have always been the most disagreeable aspects of Christianity. I don’t think it is healthy to despise one’s own body, to focus relentlessly on one’s faults, or to act in accordance with a moral code for fear of eternal torment. For somebody, such as myself, who has grown up in the post sexual liberation era, quotes like the following are hard to swallow: “I will consider all the corruption and loathsomeness of my body. I will consider myself as a source of corruption and contagion from which has issued countless sins and evils and the most offensive poison.”

In one section, St. Ignatius even recommends hurting oneself for penance: “The third kind of penance is to chastise the body, that is, to inflict sensible pain on it. This is done by wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging or wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerities.” And in another section, he states that all believers must submit unhesitatingly and completely to the church: “If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.” Neither of these strike me as a good idea.

All these reservations aside—and if a pagan such as myself can judge—I think that this book can be profitably used by contemporary Christians seeking to have a deeper spiritual experience.

I myself tried to do some of the exercises in this book. This was a challenge. I am not a Christian and my knowledge of the Bible is not as intimate as could be desired. What is more, I did not have an hour and a half every day; the most I was willing to spend was half an hour. In any case, even if I was a practicing Catholic, these exercises are not meant to be used by oneself. My attempt to do the exercise was an experiment to see if I could interpret the mythology of Catholicism in a way that had meaning for my own life. And I am happy to report that, despite some struggles, I made considerable progress in experiencing this grand faith, which I have long admired as an outsider.

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Review: Story of Philosophy

Review: Story of Philosophy

The Story of PhilosophyThe Story of Philosophy by Will Durant
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Story tried to salt itself with a seasoning of humor, not only because wisdom is not wise if it scares away merriment, but because a sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship to philosophy; each is the soul of the other.

A long time ago, as I began to set about learning philosophy, I bought a used copy of this book, which sat, unread, on my shelves for a few years, its yellowed pages only growing more yellow, and its already cracked and broken spine castigating me from my bookshelf every time I passed by. Thus, about four or five months ago, I finally decided to read this book; but I quickly lost interest. Every time I put the book down, I waited a long time before picking it up again; and it was only when I downloaded an audiobook, last month that I was able to finish Durant’s popular history of philosophy.

This difficulty in finishing is the clearest indication of how I felt about it: I was unimpressed. Though by no means a bad book, and one with many good qualities, I can’t say I would recommend this book to anyone, for I believe Durant does an injustice to his topic. Simply put, this is both a poor history of and introduction to philosophy; it fails to convey adequately what philosophy is, what philosophers do, and how philosophy developed. There is little of intellectual or academic interest in these pages, and despite its eloquence I often managed to find it quite dull.

The trouble comes early on, when Durant makes this announcement:

The author believes that epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy, and well nigh ruined it; he hopes for the time when the study of the knowledge-process will be recognized as the business of psychology, and when philosophy will again be understood as the synthetic interpretation of all experience rather than the analytic description of the mode and process of experience itself.

The absurdity of the above paragraph is obvious to anyone who has read a fair share of philosophy. Writing a history of philosophy while omitting epistemology is like writing a history of chemistry while refusing to talk about chemical bonds. Epistemology is a central part of philosophy, and, besides, a central concern of the greatest modern philosophers; so any treatment of the subject lacking epistemology is doomed to miss the mark. Besides this, I would also like to point out that the above paragraph reveals an intellectual weakness as well. How could epistemology be the subject of psychology, a science? Epistemology asks “What is knowledge?” This is clearly not a subject that can be investigated empirically or decided scientifically, for scientific investigation already presupposes that knowledge is empirical in nature. So already Durant is showing himself to be a poor philosopher, as well as a poor historian.

When we get into the thick of Durant’s book, we encounter an even more general problem. Durant’s modus operandi throughout this work is to treat the ideas of philosophers as byproducts of their experiences and their personalities. Not only does this often leads him into cheap psychoanalyzing (such as speculating about how Nietzsche’s father and mother influenced his outlook) as well as broad and often ridiculous generalizations about peoples and places (the Germans do this, the Jews do that), but, more damningly, turns systems of philosophy into mere quirks of personality and whims of fancy. In this book, philosophers are artists, not thinkers. Although Durant would have you believe that this is the wise and cosmopolitan perspective on the matter, this fails completely to do justice to these men.

Philosophy is, among other things, the art of argumentation. Philosophers, at least good philosophers, are extremely focused on the logical reasons for their beliefs. This is embodied in that great creation-myth of Western philosophy, Plato’s tales of Socrates, wherein that old sage wanders from citizen to citizen, perpetually demanding to know the reasons why they believe what they do. Plato’s Socrates is always asking, What do you mean by this word? And why do you mean it that way? The final goal of the philosopher is to harbor no dogmatic opinions—and by dogmatic I mean opinions that are accepted without scrutiny—but rather to probe and investigate every assumption, idea, and goal in life.

Durant’s treatment of philosophers does exactly the opposite. In Durant’s hands, philosophers are mere pundits, who spout theories left and right without taking the time to justify them. Durant’s chapters on their ideas are mere liturgies of opinions; and the final impression is that philosophy is just the art of having pompous and high-sounding views about grandiose subjects. It is absolutely worthless to know that Plato believed in a world of ideal forms without knowing why he did so; and the same goes for every other philosopher’s view. This emphasis on reason and argument is what separates philosophy from philosophizing; but you will find almost exclusively the latter in this book.

I would be being unfair if I didn’t acknowledge that many of this book’s faults are due to its genesis. This book was originally published as a series of pamphlets for the Blue Book series, which were inexpensive paperbacks for worker education. This origin largely explains why this book contains such a huge chronological leap, from Aristotle all the way to Francis Bacon, and also why Durant continually emphasizes the practical over the theoretical, the biographical over the intellectual.

Less excusable, perhaps, was Durant’s choice to write a chapter on Voltaire, who wasn’t even a philosopher, and Herbert Spencer, who was obsolecent even back when this book was written. Much better would have been a chapter on John Locke, who formulated many of the ideas later endorsed by Voltaire, and John Stuart Mill, a contemporary of Herbert Spencer who has had a much more lasting effect on the subsequent history of philosophy. While I’m at it, I think a chapter on Descartes would have been much better than a chapter on Francis Bacon (who is a fairly minor figure in the history of philosophy), for Descartes was also a pioneer of science, as well as a great mathematician, not to mention the father of modern philosophy.

For these reason, I would much more highly recommend Russell’s History of Western Philosophy over this book, as Russell, being himself a philosopher, at least does his best to reconstruct the reasons for other philosophers’ views, even if Russell sometimes falls short in this task. (I also want to note, in passing, that Durant considers Russell’s early work in logic and mathematics to be pure hogwash, whereas most philosophers today consider that to be Russell’s most enduring work.)

The only place that Durant surpasses Russell is in his chapter on Kant, which I think is a truly excellent piece of work, and a good place to start for any students seeking to understand that obscure German metaphysician. Other than this brief flash of sunlight, the rest of this book is nothing but passing storm clouds, rumbling ominously, constantly threatening to rain, and yet passing overhead with nary a drop, leaving us as parched as they found us.

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