Geoffrey Ashe’s The Discovery of King Arthur connects a historical person named Riothamus with the legendary King Arthur. When I read the book (late 1980s) I thought it might be interesting to incorporate the ideas into a novel-like structure where the historical aspects are recorded in some monastery after the death of Riothamus, then elaborated by accreting legendary aspects, and becomes the source material leading to Geoffrey of Monmouth and beyond.
Beyond the Northlands
Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas (2016)
by Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough (-)
The sagas are an interesting mix of historically-based story-telling and fantasy, hard for a modern reader to understand without knowing their manner of composition and context. The “Vikings” are thoroughly stereotyped in most people’s minds, to the extent that the actual roles of the Norse in history is little known to most of us. Barraclough does an admirable job of putting all of this into a coherent picture.
One of her points is that succeeding versions of saga stories were reinterpreted to reflect the culture in which they were refined. Of course, this interests me because it is exactly what I am doing with Njal’s Saga (Neal’s Story). Her writing is vivid and full of humor. I can recommend this book to anyone with an interest in any aspect of the Vikings or sagas. It might be interesting to send her a copy of Neal’s Story.
I particularly liked the part on the West, primarily Greenland. Coincidentally, just after reading it, the Smithsonian Associate magazine (March 2017) had an article describing the latest research on the nature and fate of the Greenland colonies.
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea
Why the Greeks Matter (2003)
by Thomas Cahill (1940-)
This is Volume 4 of Cahill’s Hinges of History series, with three to go. Chronologically it is mainly earlier than Volume 3, though Volumes 2 and 3 go naturally together. Cahill suggests that those who haven’t already read Volume 1 read that volume after Volume 4. I enjoyed this book, and probably marked more passages than in the earlier volumes of the series; I will certainly read the next volume, and look forward to the two that are supposed to follow that.
Cahill’s introduction explains his views on history. Here is the beginning of it:
History must be learned in pieces. This is partly because we have only pieces of the past – shards, ostraca, palimpsests, crumbling codices with missing pages, newsreel clips, snatches of song, faces of idols whose bodies have long since turned to dust – which give us glimpses of what has been but never the whole reality. How could they? We cannot encompass the whole reality of the times in which we live. Human beings never know more than part, as “through a glass darkly”; all knowledge comes to us in pieces. That said, it is often easier to encompass the past than the present, for it is past; and its pieces may be set beside one another, examined, contrasted and compared, till one attains an overview.
Like fish who do not know they swim in water, we are seldom aware of the atmosphere of the times through which we move, how strange and singular they are. But when we approach another age, its alienness stands out for us, almost as if that were its most obvious quality; and the sense of being on alien ground grows with the antiquity of the age we are considering.
Cahill quotes Hanson critiquing Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel): “The efforts of those who seek to reduce history to biology and geography deprecate the power and mystery of culture, and so often turn desperate. . . . Land, climate, weather, natural resources, fate, luck, a few rare individuals of brilliance, natural disaster, and more – all these play their role in the formation of a distinct culture, but it is impossible to determine exactly whether man, nature, or chance is the initial catalyst for the origins of Western civilization.” (Cahill’s emphasis)
Having described the Greek approach to warfare, and the related reliance on citizen participation, he goes on: “To inquire into the ways in which an unpredictable historical combination – in this case, the combination of dogged military practicality with unprecedented citizen responsibility – may generate a new cultural force that has tremendous impact on the world over many centuries brings us as close as we are likely to come to the deep mysteries of the historical process.”
Naturally starting with Homer, he quotes Oliver Taplin: “The poems [of Homer] seem to emerge … as a kind of opener of discussion, an invitation to think about and scrutinize the structures and allocations of power and of respect. Thus, while everyone in the poems agrees that honour … should be given where honour is due, they do not agree on the criteria for its allocation. So while Homer does not positively advocate any particular kind of political change, this is surely not the poetry of political conservatism or retrenchment either. It is part and parcel of an era of radically widening horizons; and it is a catalyst to change.” Cahill contends that this change continue from Homer’s day until Greece gave way to Rome, about 500 years. Early along the way (c. 550 BC), Solon established a code of laws. He is credited with the saying, “Men preserve the agreements that profit no one to violate.”
Cahill quotes Aristotle, showing what Greeks thought of themselves: “Europeans, as well as peoples who live in cold climates generally, are full of spirit but somewhat lacking in intelligence and skill; and because of these deficiencies, though they live in comparative freedom, they lack political organization and the ability to rule others. Asians, on the other hand, though intelligent and skilled by nature, lack spirit and so are always subject to defeat and slavery. The race of the Greeks, however, which occupies the center of the earth, shares the best attributes of West and East, being both spirited and intelligent. Thus does this race enjoy both freedom and stable political institutions and continue to be capable of ruling all humanity.” Cahill asserts that for the Greeks, everything was a competition.
Competition apparently ruled relations between the sexes as well, and men considered women distinctly inferior, and valued relations between men as superior to relations between a man and a woman. Cahill made a point of Homer’s extolling the long-term love between Hector and Andromache, and between Odysseus and Penelope, and now points out that such insights “are never spoken of again in Greek literature”.
In the chapter on philosophers, Cahill mentions Democritus’s On Cheerfulness. An online source says that Democritus traveled widely, might have been to India. The three paragraphs immediately available certainly indicate a common attitude between Democritus and Buddhist thought. One story of his death makes him sound very much like a Zen master. Another point of similarity between Greek and Indian thought is in the organization created by Pythagoras, which Cahill says has aspects of monastic life, as developed in India.
Understandably, Cahill admires Thucydides, saying he, “following the path blazed by Herodotus, had succeeded in creating an entirely new mode of knowledge, independent of philosophical inquiry. No longer would knowledge be the sole province of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers, those who observed natural phenomena or tried to discover the essences of things or contemplated a world beyond the world. Close attention to human activity – society and politics, war and peace – could yield another kind of knowledge. And this knowledge, the result of meditation on the past and close consideration of human affairs, could yield new principles, quite unlike anything established by philosophy or the sciences to guide humanity in the future.”
In discussing art, and in particular the way that the serenity and confidence apparent in Athenian sculpture waned after a series of catastrophes at the hands of Sparta, Macedon and Rome, Cahill says, “It is a general rule of culture that new ideas appear first in literature, only later in the visual arts. This is probably because ideas are so intimately linked to words, which are their primary vehicles, and because the tools of literature are so negligible and transportable, compared to what an artist must use.
While writing these notes, and working through the passages I had marked, I discarded many of them, more than I usually do. Apparently I was in a somewhat enthralled state of mind while reading the book. That excitement has calmed somewhat, but it is a good quality of a book. I recommend the book.
Desire of the Everlasting Hills
The World before and after Jesus (1999)
by Thomas Cahill (1940-)
This is volume 3 in Cahill’s Hinges of History series, a series devoted to “retell[ing] the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West. This is also the story of the evolution of Western sensibility, a narration of how we became the people that we are and why we think and feel the way we do.”
This volume is about the events that made the foundations of Christianity. It naturally draws on the conclusions from volume 2, The Gifts of the Jews.
Cahill’s approach is to describe the writers of the Gospels, their own viewpoints and the ways that those viewpoints affected their messages. He also describes Paul’s perspective and the ways it affected his views as expressed in his letters.
He starts with a description of the conquest of the Asian side of the Mediterranean by Alexander, and the effects that had on the peoples who lived there, such as the Jews, and on subsequent regimes, such as Rome. He mentions the Sibylline Oracles, and repeats a theme from volume 2: “The message of the Sibyl …, haunting various shrines and caves throughout the Greco-Roman world, seems to have been that, though some times are better and some worse, there can be no permanent safety. Peace will be followed by war, prosperity by poverty, happiness by suffering, life by death. This was indeed the constant message of all ancient literature and its principal insight into human existence. … But whereas Greeks and Romans and all other ancient peoples tended to see history as an ultimately empty succession of triumphs and tragedies, the Jews believed that history had a beginning … and would have an end and that each human being … had an individual destiny to fulfill ….”
Cahill goes into significant detail on several differences among the Gospel writers, such as the fact that the story of the good Samaritan appears only in Luke, and explains how these differences are natural for the individual writers and their specific backgrounds and objectives. But after discussing these differences, he says
These books and letters of the New Testament are of varying quality and importance. Because they are the work of many hands, they exhibit some of the quirks and contradictions of the Old Testament, the story of of whose composition spans more than a millennium and a half. But because they were written over a fifty-year period by two generations of authors, many of whom had some contact with one another, they also exhibit a marked consistency and even unity.
In nothing is their unity so evident as in their portrayal of Jesus. Though he is presented in various lights and shadows, depending on the concerns, personality, and skill of each author, he exudes even under this treatment a remarkable consistency, so that we feel on finishing his story, whether it is told well or badly, simply or extravagantly, that we know the man – and that in each telling he is identifiably the same man. This phenomenon of consistency beneath the differences makes Jesus a unique figure in world literature: never have so many writers managed to convey the same impression of the same human being over and over again. More than this, Jesus – what he says, what he does – is almost always comprehensible to the reader, who needs no introduction, no scholarly background, to penetrate the meaning of Jesus’s words and actions. The Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, the Washing of the Feet, the Empty Tomb: all these and many more gestures, instructions, and symbols are immediately intelligible not only to the simplest reader but even to the unlettered and the immature.
Near the end of the book, when he is assessing the impact of Christian thought on subsequent history, and the effects of its institutions, Cahill considers the example of the leprosariums set up by Mother Teresa and the unlikelihood of such work being done by humanists without the impetus of Jesus’s instruction. He goes on:
But it is also true that the West could never have realized some of its most cherished values without the process of secularization. The separation of church and state was achieved in the teeth of virulent Christian opposition, as was free speech, universal suffrage, tolerance, and many other values we would not be without. That these values flow from the subterranean river of authentic Christian tradition points up, once more, the paradoxical validity of the distinctions Jesus made between the religious establishment and true religious spirit.
The book opens with mention of the “Axial Age”, a term which is somewhat explained in the notes: a term invented in 1949 by German historian Karl Jaspers, to describe “an age of extraordinary worldwide creativity with the fifth century B.C. as its white-hot center.” The Axial Age was roughly three hundred years, from the late seventh century B.C. to the late fourth. “In Confucian China … burgeoning of reasonableness and courtly moderation, as well as the mystical depths uncovered by the Tao of Lao-Tsu. In India … the ineffable example of Gautama Buddha, reforming the chaos of more ancient systems and revealing the steps to personal peace. … Zarathustra …. the Hebrew prophets rose, giving to the bizarre monotheism of their singular people an ethical foundation so profound the Jews could never entirely forsake it. In the isles of Greece, the Axial Age saw the flowering of what would come to be called ‘philosophy’ … and of a noble ‘politics’ … that took the name of ‘democracy’. This same time and place saw the invention of drama and its division into ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ … as well as the first attempts to write … ‘history’.”
The Gifts of the Jews
How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (1998)
by Thomas Cahill (1940-)
This is the second volume in a series based on the success of Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization; the series is aptly called The Hinges of History. The notion appeals to me, as I’m much more interested in the history of ideas than in battles or personalities.
In this book, Cahill traces the evolution of the worldview that sets the Jews apart from all other people of their time and place. He opens with a description of the Sumerians, and accepts the hypothesis that they were typical of their time, with a cyclic view of time (“the wheel of time”), in which everything that happened had happened before and would happen again, and was an expression of the changeless natures of the gods and goddesses who ruled the various aspects of the world and people.
Out of this worldview (if not literally out of Sumer), came the semitic trader Avram (Cahill uses a translation by Fox, with names spelled as closely as possibly to the original), to become Avraham, following a voice that directed him to Canaan. The innovation here is the individual directed by the voice (of God) directed to him personally. The other innovation with this covenant is circumcision. The most peculiar aspect of Avraham’s story is his willingness to follow the voice to the extent of sacrificing his son, Yitzhak. Yitzhak’s son Yaakov/Israel is the last of the patriarchs to have the personal experience of God. Another innovation by this stage of the story is faith. Sumerian or Egyptian religion was founded on ritual, not faith. Avram, Yitzhak and Yaakov had faith in the voice they heard. Prior to this, there was no sense of history; after, there is the sense that God is a real personality, who intervenes in history, changing its course, making it unpredictable.
Yaakov’s son Joseph does not hear the voice, but has talents that stand him and his people in good stead. Then centuries pass until Moshe. By his time, the Israelites are numerous in Egypt but not free to go: their labor is needed. By some chance, this Egyptian-named Israelite has a position in and access to the Pharaoh’s court, but knows who his people are. He identifies with the underdog, and defending one, kills an Egyptian official, and becomes a fugitive. In the Sinai desert, he not only hears the voice, but sees the burning bush that is not consumed. Though obviously ill-suited for leadership, he is called to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and successfully does so.
In the process, another innovation becomes apparent. Anyone who knows God, even a simple nomadic herdsman, can have wisdom greater than the earthly representative of a great god like Ra. God is on the side of little people with no worldly power.
Cahill addresses the reality of the Exodus story, and contrasts it with the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic makes no attempt to convince the reader that it is historical; it is all once-upon-a-time, indeed timeless, archetypal. The story of the Israelites on the other hand is embedded in earthly time. And for us today, this is the sort of time that is Real, not the archetypal cycles of myth. The tales that were passed orally (in multiple forms) through generations before being written (in multiple forms), edited, and redacted have the sort of specificity that convinces us that the writer has no doubt that the events actually happened. Furthermore, the fact that they happened is the whole point; otherwise the stories have no point at all, no Avram, no Moshe, no God. For the others of the time, anything unique was typically monstrous (e.g., Oedipus); for the Israelites, everything was unique, as was each person’s relation to God. The importance of the past is that it brought us to the present. Hence the Israelites’ concern with genealogies, including wives. History doesn’t repeat; it isn’t a cycle. History is a process unfolding in time, whose end we don’t know, but whose ruling precepts can be discerned.
When Moshe hears the voice, he brings commandments. Cahill points out that other cultures had ethical guidelines, but they were always in a legal framework or worldly-wise advice. The Commandments are the first and last time such a code is given to humans without justification or elaboration (other than the later scribal commentary). At this point Cahill refers to the story “The Blue Cross” by G. K. Chesterton, which is a nice setting for a similar moral lesson. The Commandments are in two sets: those about God and those about man. Among those about God is the innovation of the weekend (Sabbath). This is not derived from any earlier society. The proper Sabbath behavior developed by the scribal commentators included study, or “the universal duty of continuous self-education.” This innovation leads to “a democratic obligation that those in power must safeguard on behalf of those in their employ. The connections to both freedom and creativity lie just below the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free finds quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made.” The covenant is made more explicit: those who keep the Commandments are God’s people.
Cahill points out that the benefits of following the Commandments do not include rewards, such as eternal life. Instead, virtue is its own reward. The elaboration into the detailed laws retains something of the brutality of the ancient world, but also includes protection for widows, orphans and travelers. “The bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law. However faint our sense of justice may be, insofar as it operates at all it is still a Jewish sense of justice.”
Following the rebellion of the tribe while Moshe is on Sinai, there is a great slaughter at God’s inexplicable behest. In describing this, Cahill quotes Augustine of Hippo: “We are talking about God. Which wonder do you think you understand? If you understand, it is not God.” So Taoist. Cahill also contrasts the figures of Avraham and Moshe: the one “a wily character who seemed up to any challenge”, the other “the humblest man on earth”. The final lesson from Sinai concerns the fire as transforming from “a symbol of the storm god’s anger to the refining fire of God’s love”. “There is no way around life and its sufferings. Our only choice is whether we will be consumed by the fire of our own heedless fears and passions or allow God to refine us in his fire and to shape us into a fitting instrument for his revelation, as he did Moshe. We need not fear God as we fear all other suffering, which burns and maims and kills. For God’s fire, though it will perfect us, will not destroy, for ‘the bush was not consumed.’” Cahill also quotes Allen Ginsberg: “The only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush.”
Cahill starts the description of Israel’s transformation from tribe to nation with the story of Moshe looking over the Promised Land, knowing he will never set foot there, and then quotes Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.” He then says, “That accomplishment is intergenerational may be the deepest of all Hebrew insights.”
Cahill describes the establishment of the kingship, and finds David, as expressed in the Psalms, the first literary figure with a sense of self, a figure referred to as I. This is the beginning of the interior journey that occupies most of the rest of Cahill’s book. In the struggles of the kingdom, Israel and Judah split, and many defeats are inflicted. The prophet Elijah seeks refuge in Sinai, and experiences God’s hurricane, earthquake, and fire. But God is not in them . “And after the fire, a still, small voice.” This is the message that God is not in any of the elements of creation. He is in us, the personal conscience. As prophets like Amos said, to serve God is to act with justice. “One cannot pray and offer sacrifice while ignoring the poor, the beggars at the gates. But more radical still: if you have more than you need, you are a thief, for what you ‘own’ is stolen from those who do not have enough. You are a murderer, who lives on the abundance that has been taken from the mouths of the starving. You are an idolator, for what you worship is not the true God. You are a whore, for you have bedded down with other gods, the gods of your own comfort and self-delusion.” In these days, this was a radical innovation. For the surrounding peoples, and for many Jews, religion was about sacrifice. As the shattered nation sought to understand what was happening to them, they recalled the prophets’ words, and understood that God wanted not sacrifice, but justice. Cahill points out that there was no such word as spiritual in the ancient world. The Jews came to learn and teach that humans have an inside, where God dwells and teaches them how to behave, if they can only listen.
Cahill closes with:
The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside – our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews.
This book is well worth reading, and I look forward to the next volume in his series.
The Cave Painters
Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists (2006)
by Gregory Curtis (1944-)
This book and another new book on the same subject were reviewed together, somewhere. The other seemed more interesting from the reviews, but this one was available at the library.
The book has a lot of history of the probing mentioned in the subtitle, but makes no new hypotheses and draws no conclusions.
There are a few interesting tidbits. At Lascaux, excavations found remains of habitation, including bones from meals and broken tools. The bones indicate a diet of nearly 100% reindeer; however the painting in Lascaux contain no reindeer. This would appear to argue against the paintings as hunting magic, at least of a routine sort. In some places, great compositions adorn galleries as if for the benefit of a community; at other places, paintings or engravings are tucked away in places only reachable by one person at a time, or only with great effort and special tools.
Curtis interviewed many paleontologists and other experts, and some of them knew the earliest discoverers of the caves. It is really a quite young field, and the material to work with is still being discovered. While reading, I wondered how many paintings might have been made outdoors, lost to 20,000 years of weathering.
The subject is interesting, and the sample pictures are nice to look at, but the book is unsatisfying.
The Oxford History of the American People (1965)
by Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976)
This book was recommended by Kevin Drum’s blog at www.washingtonmonthly.com. The appeal was in large part that the book ended with JFK, and so can provide a view of American society untainted by “The Sixties” and all that followed.
Although the book is interesting, and well enough written (though it emphasizes naval power for unexplained reasons), I was reading several other books at the same time, and exceeded the number of renewals allowed by the library. Following are brief notes, up to the election of Andrew Jackson, p. 422.
Page 182, regarding the attitudes of the colonists in 1776:
Thus the situation between England and her American colonies, while it had points of friction, was far from explosive. “The abilities of a Child might have governed this Country,” wrote Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut in 1776, “So strong had been their Attachment to Britain.” But the Americans were a high-spirited people who claimed all the rights for which Englishmen had fought since Magna Carta, and would settle for nothing less. They were not security-minded but liberty-minded. That is why they met the attempts of the government of George III to impair these liberties, first with loyal expostulation, next with indignant agitation, finally with armed resistance.
Make no mistake; the American Revolution was not fought to obtain freedom, but to preserve the liberties that American already had as colonials. Independence was no conscious goal, secretly nurtured in cellar or jungle by bearded conspirators, but a reluctant last resort, to preserve “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Page 268, regarding the perceived import of the American Revolution to old Europe:
They were right. As the English historian Lord Acton stated, “It was from America that the plain ideas that men ought to mind their own business, and that the nation is responsible to Heaven for the acts of the State – ideas long locked in the hearts of solitary thinkers, and hidden among Latin folios – burst forth like a conqueror upon the world they were destined to transform, under the title of the Rights of Man . . . and the principle gained ground, that a nation can never abandon its fate to an authority it cannot control.” Many, alas, have done so, but their people have always suffered for it.
Page 307, regarding the reconciliation of rival interests, during the Constitutional Convention:
How were the rival interests of seaboard merchants and back-country farmers (expressing the age-old antagonism between town and country), creditors and debtors, produce-exporting Southerners and trading Yankees, to be reconciled? Madison observed that the larger the political unit, the less likelihood of class or sectional injustice; he pointed out that Rhode Island was the place where one class had been riding roughshod over every other. “All civilized societies,” he said, were “divided into different sects, fashions, and interests, as they happened to consist of rich and poor, debtors and creditors, the landed, the manufacturing, the commercial interests, the inhabitants of this district or that district. . . . Why was America so justly apprehensive of Parliamentary injustice? Because Great Britain had a separate interest. The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that a majority will not be likely to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or of the minority.”
Enlarge the sphere, and balance the interests: has not American history proved Madison’s wisdom? And has not the completely contrary communist theory, of recognizing no interests except those of the “workers” and the state, brought an end to personal liberty wherever put into effect?
Page 338, regarding the formation of political parties in 1794:
That year, 1794, saw the crystallization of unstable political elements into national parties. European issues are apt to reach America without shadings, all black and white. Thus the French Revolution seemed to some a clean-cut contest between monarchy and republicanism, oppression and liberty; to others it was a fresh breaking-out of the eternal strife between anarchy and order, atheism and religion, poverty and prosperity. Americans of the first way of thinking joined the Republican party; others, the Federalists. Sectional and economic groups were polar to the completed parties; but in the reverse order to general expectation. Formerly democratic New England, especially the seaports, became the headquarters of the pro-British Federalists; whilst the landed interest, particularly in slaveholding communities, was swept by Gallomania.
The explanation is largely social and economic. In New England the clergy had been worrying over the younger generation: students preferred to read Voltaire and Gibbon rather than Jonathan Edwards. Tom Paine’s scurrilous Age of Reason caused the sincerely religious to repudiate the party that supported France. Paine himself, by a nasty attack on Washington, identified Jeffersonianism with Jacobinism in the mind of the average Northerner. But the planters of Virginia seem to have been immune to religious panic and so certain of the loyalty of their own slaves that the massacre of white people in Haiti when “”liberty, equality and fraternity” were applied in that French colony did not alarm them. Virginia’s opposition to British capital and sea power was part of her hatred for Northern capital and Hamiltonian finance schemes. The writings of the French philosophes and économistes enabled country gentlemen to rationalize their instincts that land was the unique source of wealth, that trade and finance were parasites. Chief local philosopher was Colonel John Taylor “of Caroline” a Virginia county. His pamphlets declared that every dollar made by merchants came out of the farmer’s pocket, that England through her disregard of “true economic principles” was a “sinking nation,” and that trade with her was draining America of her wealth. These absurd notions became doctrine in the South; and it took them long to die.
Page 375, regarding the legacy of Thomas Jefferson:
Of all the ironies in American history, the career and influence of Thomas Jefferson are the greatest. This Virginia aristocrat and slave-owner proclaimed the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal.” In so doing he undermined and overthrew both Tories and Federalists, who believed that man was created highly unequal and that the best, not the most, should govern. The Federalists, but for Jefferson – and their own folly – might have continued for another generation to direct the government along conservative and national lines; might even have settled the Negro question without war, which Jefferson’s disciples were unable to do. His Southern supporters accepted Jefferson’s principles with the reservation that they applied only to white men, and used them mainly as a stick to beat the Federalists and win power. But the Northerners whom Jefferson converted to his views took him seriously and literally. They came to believe that political equality meant all Americans, no matter what race or color; that democracy meant rule of the majority, not by a cultivated minority of merchants and landowners. Long did the art of politicians ignore or muffle this ambiguity; but when the issue became really acute in 1860-61, the society which Jefferson loved, and which still worshipped his name, repudiated both his basic principles; and in so doing was overthrown by the society which had taken those principles to heart.
Kings and Queens Of Early Britain (1990)
by Geoffrey Ashe (1923-)
This book is about the people who ruled in the island of Britain from earliest known times to 899, the death of Alfred, the only British ruler to be called “Great”.
It begins with the mythological names provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth, dismissing most of them and explaining a few. It ends with Britain divided among the Anglo-Saxons, Welsh, Danes, and Scots-Picts. In the middle is the uniquely British matter of the once and future king, Arthur.
Ashe has dealt with Arthur in a separate book, and I don’t think there is anything about him in this book that isn’t in The Discovery of King Arthur. His theory of Riothamus, the King of the Britons, acting against Saxons in Gaul, and disappearing from history after defeat, seems fairly convincing to me, and could be the basis for an interesting story.
The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (2001)
by Anthony Everitt (1940-)
This book was recommended by one of the progressive bloggers, perhaps Steve Clemons or Josh Marshal.
As the subtitle indicates, it covers two subjects: Cicero’s life, and the political times in which he lived. A lot happened in his lifetime, and he was a big influence in his time. More or less coincidentally, Cicero’s voluminous correspondence was preserved, and complements his more formal writing. Together, his works had an important influence in preserving the Greek ways of thought for many centuries.
The book itself is quite interesting, opening with the assassination of Caesar. Cicero played no part in the conspiracy, and yet Brutus, brandishing his bloody dagger, hailed Cicero as the natural beneficiary of its effects. Cicero seems to have been miffed that he wasn’t included in the plot.
I found the book interesting for its descriptions of the political strains of the transition from the Roman Republic to the Empire. The constitutional norms had begun to break down in the century before Cicero, but he was a strong proponent of restoring the former forms. The new approach, founded on naked force and disrespect for traditional governmental and family values, could not be stopped by rhetoric and appeals to logic and foresight.
Cicero was not from a family with a tradition of influence in politics, but through application and thoughtfulness he advanced himself. Without a traditional power base or an illustrious past to support him, he was obliged to continually promote himself; in this effort he made himself somewhat of an object of ridicule. Generally fond of topical witticisms, and enjoying the typically cruel joke at the expense of someone else’s reputation, he had a tendency to alienate those who might forgive and later support him. Most dangerously, he incurred the ire of Octavian, which eventually contributed to his proscription and death.
Of course, we can’t know if we are in a transition such as Rome experienced in Cicero’s time. If we are, the parallels in breakdown of political comity and appeal to the baser natures of the people are available for detailed comparison.
Everitt mentions the excellent sources available for this period, but also alludes to the missing information. Apparently the exact nature of the Roman ‘constitution’ is not certain. In addition, certain parts of Cicero’s own record are missing, perhaps censored in the period following his death, during which Octavian became Augustus.
I would like to look a bit into Cicero’s letters, and perhaps some of his later philosophical writings. Everitt recommends the Loeb Classical Library. He also mentions Polybius as a source on the Roman constitution, and the portion of Appian’s history covering the period from Tiberius Gracchus to Caesar’s assassination. Cornelius Nepos wrote about Cicero’s friend Atticus.
Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty (ca. -100, tr 1993)
by Sima Qian (ca. -100), tr Burton Watson (1925-)
This is (part of) one of the works recommended by Kenneth Rexroth in Classics Revisited, and so has been on my list for many years. Watson has translated parts of the work and published them in digestible chunks, rather than the entire work.
I think Rexroth was interested in Sima Qian as among the earliest historians; he also likes Thucydides. Sima Qian wrote of the dynasties for which he had records, or at least stories, and certainly felt he was writing for posterity. He suffered castration for some crime, and says that he should have committed suicide rather than suffer this humiliating punishment; but he felt it was more important to complete his project.
The actual incidents and the insight they give to the times are not as interesting to me as the fact that a man of this time was able to take such an approach. He clearly had insight into the minds and ways of the ruling class of his time.
Will in the World
How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004)
by Stephen Greenblatt (1943-)
Greenblatt is a Harvard professor, editor of The Norton Shakespeare, and has clearly pondered the ways in which a person’s background thought affects his expression, or at least the ways in which the known, surmised, and conjectured background thought of William Shakespeare affected his expression in the sonnets and plays.
I read this book not long after Michael Woods’ In Search of Shakespeare, and the early parts of this book contained a lot of familiar material. However, the two works have different objectives and approaches. I found them both very interesting.
Greenblatt describes the constraints on players of the Elizabethan period, and the religious, social, and entertainment communities in which Shakespeare came of age. Addressing his later work, Greenblatt describes Shakespeare’s innovations, particularly what he calls the opacity of motivation: a way of describing a character’s actions without explicitly describing his thought processes, rather allowing the audience to infer them from more or less subtle hints implicit in the behavior. The final chapter describes how thoughts of retirement must have influenced his latest plays.
I found it interesting to learn how the fortunes of his company were affected by the accession of James, and the ways in which Shakespeare probed the limits of censorship or royal acceptance. I also hadn’t known of his business success in setting up for a long retirement.
Greenblatt acknowledges many scholars and biographers. Interestingly, among them is Woods and the movie Shakespeare In Love.
As often happens, this work inspires me to read further. I would like to look into the Norton Shakespeare, though I can’t tell if I will give this project enough priority to actually accomplish it (it’s over 3,000 pages!).