Friday, December 30, 2005

History the Way It Ought To Be


I have of late been refreshing and increasing my knowledge of the history of Western Civilization. I have tried to avoid the kinds of history books that are for the most part a chronology of political events – actions by governments or reactions against them. Those events are, on the whole, not terribly interesting. There have, of course, been times and places when history has taken a very dramatic and colorful turn. Those have very often been times of war, revolution or civil disorder. Well-written accounts of certain kinds of historical events or periods can be very entertaining but in the end are not particularly helpful in terms of providing insight into the forces and influences that have shaped Western Civilization. Economic and cultural histories are much more useful in that regard.

When exploring the historical foundations of contemporary Western civilization one is inevitably drawn to Hellenistic Greece and the Italian Renaissance. The very best cultural histories of those periods are those of Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. His “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” first published in 1860 remains the definitive work on this subject. You will find in it no mention of the Arab or Islamic world as it played no significant role in the development of the Italian Renaissance. The book, of course, has never been out of print. It is also available gratis on the Internet. In order to partake of the pleasures and insights of Burckhardt’s historiography you must first acquaint yourself with the political history of the Italian Renaissance. It is worth the effort.

Burckhardt’s “The Greeks and Greek Civilization” is a selection of his lectures on the subject. It became available to Americans in English translation 1998 and is derived from a five-volume work in German first published in 1872. There is no better cultural history of the ancient Greeks available in English and after reading it you almost feel as though you have lived among them and seen the world through their eyes. Burckhardt’s style of writing is lively and entertaining. Nevertheless, you must brush up on your ancient Greek mythology and political history before reading it or you will soon find yourself adrift in a sea of unfamiliar names and events.

“A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War” by Victor David Hanson is not a traditional political or military history. Hanson strives to convey a sense of what it was like to personally participate in that war. Military history buffs will prefer Donald Kagan’s “The Peloponnesian War” in either its abridged one volume version or in its full four volume manifestation. Hanson’s work is aimed at a broader audience. Together with Burckhardt’s “The Greeks and Greek Civilization” it leaves one with the feeling that the Greeks in general and Athenians in particular were a remarkably nasty lot.

The Belgian historian Henri Pirenne was a pioneer in economic history and his works are essential to an understanding of the European medieval period. His “Mohammed and Charlemagne” published posthumously in 1937 presents a very different picture of the fall of the Roman Empire than the once generally accepted interpretation advanced by Edward Gibbon in the “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. Pirenne persuasively makes the case that the fragmentation of the Roman Empire following the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476 did not lead to the collapse of Western Roman civilization. He argues instead that the Muslim conquest of the western and southern shores of the Mediterranean led to the economic collapse of Western Europe and that, in turn, led to the dramatic transformation in social and economic organization that characterized medieval Western Europe.

Pirenne was the most respected medieval historian of his era. His “Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe” paints a picture of the period very much different from the impressions one might acquire from conventional political histories. It is gratifyingly free of dates and names. As Pirenne equates the beginning of the medieval period in Europe with the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 810 A.D. his book continues on from where “Mohammed and Charlemagne” ends.

The Eastern Roman Empire lingered on after the demise of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D. It fell to the heathen Turks in 1452. It was only then that the last vestiges of Western civilization were eradicated from Asia Minor and the Middle East. Although Byzantine history is irrelevant in terms of the main influences that have shaped the development of Western Civilization it is nonetheless an entertaining blend of treachery, intrigue, venality, murder most foul and caprice. It has about it the quality of soap opera and there is no more entertaining account of this bizarre era than “A Short History of Byzantium” by John Julius Norwich. It is an abridged version of Norwich’s full three-volume series.

Respectable historians who specialize in American history hold one of two general views about the origin and nature of the American Revolution or one some place in between. There are some that argue that the American Revolution entailed a radical political and social transformation. The other and I think more balanced view is that the American Revolution was both conservative and reformist in nature. It was conservative in that it strove to preserve and protect traditional Anglo/American political institutions threatened by an increasingly intrusive and exploitive British colonial administration. It was reformist insofar as it required the formation of a national government that would be as good or better as the British government had once been in protecting personal property and individual liberty.

Indispensable to an understanding of American history is Bernard Bailyn’s “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”. In it Bailyn describes in exhaustive but not exhausting detail an American colonial political debate about the proper role and organization of government that had begun a very long time before the Corn Laws and Intolerable Acts. Bailyn’s primary sources are pamphlets, sermons, newspaper opinion pieces, diaries and the like. They reflect a lively public discourse inspired in significant measure by the works of John Locke and other liberal Republican Englishmen written in the early 1720s. John Adams once remarked that the American Revolution had been effected before hostilities began. Bernard Bailyn explains why this was so.

All of the books described above have the virtue of providing a broader and more useful historical perspective. None of them resemble the dreadful school textbooks we have all suffered through at one time or another. They help make sense of it all.

Jacob Burckhardt's portrait graces the Swiss 1,000 franc note shown above.

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