December 05, 2009

History, Reading not Writing

History in the modern sense means analysis as a prelude to writing. Whether that is a child at school learning facts before he repeats them in an essay or exam, a student who strives to follow his professor's instructions before repeating and elaborating upon them in an essay, a graduate combining evidence into a PhD and even a scholar (not neccessarily an academic- see for example David Farr) assembling evidence and producing out of it a monograph, a lecture or even an article. History is an activity that leads to written output. But that is not how it has always been viewed. Whereas history books now are examples of, and history teaching at all levels is a preparation to, put pen to paper: history in the Renaissance was a prelude to action, it was an activity of reflection which led ultimately to princes and others taking action. What that means is that history books and history teaching were not guides to writing but guides to reading- that is what you did with history, particularly its main texts- the classical texts bequeathed by Greece and Rome to us.

Anthony Grafton has explored this world more than anyone else and this is really an introduction to looking at his most recent work- What was History- a work that explores and reinvigorates an ancient mindset. As he notes the noted humanist Jacopo Acconcio offered instructions to both readers and printers about how to prepare his and other texts and then how to absorb them. Baudoin and Bodin, two French intellectuals, even offered their readers elaborate rules for the way that they should read a classical text. Recovering the past for many of these scholars was an activity of teaching itself- teaching for modern politics. That was their root into the past. Vital to it was the concept which Lorenzo Valla developed- decorum. In the Declamatiuncula against the Donation of Constantine, Valla wrote speeches that he believed that those who would have been at Constantine's court should have given, given their position in that court. Reading such a speech enhanced the reader's prudence- their ability to imagine the politics of Constantine's day made them more able to discuss and inhabit the politics of his own day.

This created a need for great scholarship. In part, writers had to defend their texts- Bodin for example defended Tacitus from accusations of impiety because Tacitus was a pagan, but still wise. To expect Tacitus to inhabit a post-Constantine era is nonsense- but to derive wisdom from Tacitus is still possible. This opens up in part what was going on in history- what Grafton calls the ars historica- in this period. History was a means of education but not an education neccessarily prioritising knowledge of the past for its own sake, but prioritising it- as Machiavelli did- as a method of instruction for the present. Hence Valla's speeches which taught you something were important to read, even if they didn't actually happen (and Valla knew they didn't happen). This required the historian and his reader to educate themselves about the past and these men were educated- they had to contextualise what was happening in these texts that they were reading to understand the point of view with which the writers wrote. But their attention was not focussed on the past, the past was a means of discovering actions to be performed in the present- hence the fact that fictional speeches could be part of this discipline, fiction did not matter so long as it was appropriate fiction.

December 04, 2009


I want to mention a blog I've just come across- Podthoughts- its a set of reviews of podcasts which I've found very useful. It has introduced me to two fantastic podcasts- Entitled Opinions from the University of Stanford. The second is Leftfield Cinema. Both are really very good- entitled opinions surveys with expert opinion everything from the history of Jesus to the text of Virgil to Freud. Left field Cinema is the best film podcast that I have yet come across- broadcast by a young British film maker it surveys films from Bergman, Tarkovsky, Herzog, Hitchcock and so many others in an intelligent ways. I listened to Leftfield Cinema and thought for a moment that I wished that that was what I wished my own film reviews were like.

December 03, 2009

What is history for?

Tim Stanley's article in the Utopian about the purpose of history interested and provoked me. Stanley basically argues that history cannot instruct us about the future, cannot provide lessons which are directly relevant to today's politics and in that he is in a sense exactly right. You will not find out from reading about the Russian, French or English revolutions when the next revolution will happen: when someone tells you that looking at the current crisis or moment, it will repeat some pattern from the past, you are perfectly within your rights to tell them that they neither understand the past, the present, the future or the concept of time itself. Having said that, Stanley himself seems to row back on that sentiment when he says at one point in his essay,

But the future must be imagined and created afresh - again and again until no mistakes are undertaken at all.

The point about the true analysis he has undertaken above this though is that history cannot tell us that kind of lesson- there will always be lessons to learn, there will never be a future in which we have not made a mistake or facilitated the next revolutionary moment. One day London and New York will be as Babylon and Tyre, even the memory of China will have faded from the earth and figures which bulk large today like Bush, Blair or even Churchill will be as foreign to our great great great grandchildren as Commodus, Aurelius and Tacitus are to us. And the same thing will happen to their generations and unto infinity- the preacher in Jerusalem was right, if there is one thing that history teaches us it is that 'vanity of vanities, all is vanity'.

And in a sense Ecclesiastes should be our starting point for understanding what the study of history can do and why it can be useful to any intellectual to really try and understand history- you are not necccessarily going to derive practical political ideas from it (though in some fields where you study the behaviour of vast groups of human beings, there may be value- say in the history of economics). If you go to it to find an identity- as a woman, gay man, black man, white man, Englishman- you will end up doing one of two things- you will either end up living a lie and constructing an identity on nothing more substantial than a dollop of prejudice, a spoonful of self regard and a blob of stupidity- or you will end up realising that it is the particularity of every human being's experience that history confronts you with all the time. We all experience the world in different ways- Mother Teresa and Aggripina the Younger may have both been women, but their ideals and ideas of the world- even the smells of the world and its taste and touch were completely different for them. Agrippina had more in common with Augustus and Teresa with Peter Tatchell than either had with each other- and I could do that exercise with almost any group that you name. No it is not identity that you will find if you go to history- that is another one of the preacher's vanities.

Rather what you find when you go to history is a vast array of different lives and experiences- most of which are irrecoverable and lost forever to us. What you discover is fragments of other lives- and if you study it properly- lives that you can never understand fully or appreciate completely. History is the study of sceptics. I study history largely because the thing which fascinates me in the world is other minds- how people work, what they say and do. That fascinates me because I feel that in principle I cannot understand it. I do not know what you mean by good or truth- but I want to understand it and to appreciate it because it might alter what I mean by good or true. Vanity of vanities said the preacher and he was right- all men and women see the world through subjective glasses- that is not to say that every truth is equal (the earth does go round the sun)- but it is to say that any perception of the human world must start from trying to understand why actors act, and that their reasons for acting may be illogical or (in my and your view) stupid. History is less a means to teach you about what perception of the past is right-though part of history is about looking at why things happened and assessing evidence against other evidence- but it is also about understanding the way that people understood their own lives. The historian views the fact that James and Jane broke up through two sets of questions- why and when did it happen, and just as importantly how did the ways that both of them reacted shape our future lives and future perceptions of other individuals.

I have never been convinced and still remain unconvinced that history teaches you about what to do when confronted with a crowd, armed and menacing. I am totally unconvinced that it provides a narrative to tell you that you are a great person and so was everyone of the same religion/sex/gender/race/nationality. What I do think it does and can do is provide you with a sense of the complicated beauty of human life, the tangled nature of our interactions, the complexity of historical processes with which we live, the partiality of your own view and the partiality of the views of others. Caution, scepticism and an awareness of your fundementally tiny place in the world are all things that I think history can teach- whether it always does is a different matter, some prefer their consoling narratives, I like my harsh truths from the preacher in Jerusalem. Vanity of Vanities, all is vanity.

December 02, 2009

Review: 1688 The First Modern Revolution

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was one of the defining moments of the modern age. Most historians have followed the opinion of Thomas Macaulay that the revolution was notable because as a preserving revolution in the 17th Century, it preserved England from a destroying revolution (mention sotto voce France, 1789). Steve Pincus, Professor of History at Yale, takes a different view: he stands with those who opposed Macaulay and Macaulay's great inspirer- Edmund Burke- men like Dr Richard Price (whose lectures inspired Burke's great Reflections on the Revolution in France), who saw the Revolution as transforming the British constitution. Pincus thinks that it transformed it in three fields: it changed the relationship between the state and the people making the former depend upon the latter for its authority. It changed the way that the British state thought about economics- from relying upon land and empire, to relying upon manufactures and trade- cementing an economic trend that had already begun. And lastly it changed the direction of foreign policy in the UK- the alliance with France that Britain had pursued ever since the reign of Charles II began in 1660 was jettisoned, and the Dutch, against whom Britain had fought three wars in the seventeenth century (1652-4, 1665-7 and 1672-4), became the natural allies of Britain.

In 1685, Charles II died. Charles had come to the throne when his father was executed by Oliver Cromwell et al in 1649, and had formerly taken possession of Britain after Cromwell's death (1658) in 1660. His brother James Duke of York was Charles's heir thanks to the fact that Charles failed to produce a legitimate heir. James was a Catholic and in 1679-81, the opposition Whigs had led a campaign to deprive him of the crown because of his Catholicism. The campaign failed and its leaders (the Earl of Shaftesbury and John Locke included) were driven into exile in the Netherlands. When Charles died in 1685, his brother James II succeeded him to the throne and reigned for three years. The Dutch Statholder William of Orange was himself related to the Stuart dynasty in England and he had married James's protestant daughter, Mary, several years previously. In 1688 alerted by several English noblemen and alarmed by the arrest and trial of leading clergymen, William set sail with 21,000 men to the shores of England. This invasion resulted in the overthrow of James's government- whatever happened when William arrived- the simple truth is that many Englishmen abstained from fighting and others deserted the Jacobite cause, James fled preferring to take his fight (unsuccessfully to Scotland and Ireland). After the Battle of the Boyne in 1693, James was finally defeated and had to rely on the putative assistance of France to recover his kingdom- which he never managed to do.

I offer that brief summary because it is indispensible to understanding Pincus's book and what it represents. To reiterate some historians have seen these events as a truly radical moment within English history- others see these events as pretty mundane. Pincus is in the former camp. He makes his case for the Glorious Revolution being truly revolutionary, based upon a detailed reading of the documents and a thorough understanding of the political culture of the period, because he sees the core dynamic of the revolution as one of modernisation. In this sense, Pincus describes the Jacobite ideal of government as being modern absolutism and on the other hand, a Whig ideal of constitutional and republican liberty. Whigs were radical in one direction, James was a reformer in another. Between them stood the conservative Tories who resisted James in the 1680s and objected to Whig movements in the 1690s. Pincus offers some incredibly thorough and thoughtful discussions, particularly of economic policy, where he shows how the Whigs represented a new set of ideas about the movement of money and the importance of manufacturing. The best section of the book shows us that the Whigs sponsored developments like the Bank of England deliberately, in the belief that wealth was infinite and that if more money circulated freely, more investment would produce more wealth. Fundementally the Whig insight- the basis of John Locke's theory of money and Adam Smith's was the labour theory of value. The Tories though were committed to the idea that wealth was equivalent to land- they wanted to conquer more of an empire, to pursue a wet strategy in foreign policy, neglecting continental armies for ships which would conquer new colonies. The argument would return- but the way that Pincus shows us how Jacobite politics and Tory assumptions were involved in the creation and protection of a National Land Bank and the East India Company, and furthermore how the Bank of England was ultimately preserved by a failed Jacobite assacination of William III. The attempt gave the Whigs impetus at a key moment and the Bank of England survived.

The two other key strands of this argument surround foreign policy- the Whig insistance on fighting a war against the French seriously and in Europe and not on the sea. More controversially Pincus also argues that tolerance became an established value in 1688. As Alexandra Walsham points out in her own book about toleration, reviewed earlier on this blog, James actually advanced a more tolerant system than William ever did. However Pincus points out that such toleration was granted rather than secured via a Parliamentary act: most Whigs accepting a view of liberty which prioritised the state of freedom over a free action, believed that only when toleration had become legal would it be real toleration: to be at the whim of a prince for toleration was to live in a state that was de facto intolerant (Incidentally Pincus never acknowledges the obvious simularity of his Whig concept of toleration to Quentin Skinner's third concept of liberty). At least that is Pincus's view of what the Whigs thought and to some extent it is his view of James's toleration- advanced by grant so it could be recalled by grant immediately as soon as James could make England Catholic. In 1688, Pincus argues that most of the Williamite bishops were themselves tolerant both of Catholics and non-conformists- though theoretical laws still outlawed non-conformity and Catholicism, they were not implemented and they were not important. By 1688, England had become Lockian, in economics, politics and religion.

How seriously should we take these arguments? I am not sure. I have several objections to Pincus's approach- though I recognise that the work is a formidable edifice of scholarly talent- but here are my objections. Firstly Pincus continually plays down religion- he believes that the revolution of 1688 was modern and constitutional- if anti-Catholic only partly so and really directed against James's peculiar Gallican French influenced Catholicism not against the Catholicism of the Pope (who hated both James and Louis XIV). That may be true at a high level- but what Pincus never is able to prove is that outside of the elite circles in London there were many who understood the distinction between good Catholic and bad Catholic. He glosses several quotations as being 'anti-French Catholic' but they could equally as well support an argument which said the revolution was anti-Catholic. Secondly the protagonist who is invisible in all of this is the one who mattered most- William III became King and yet Pincus hardly analyses his reactions to the revolution that in some sense he lead. Pincus has to acknowledge that for the first years of his reign William relied upon Tory, not Whig, ministers and the Tories returned in the reign of William's successor Anne too. If the Tories were conservatives (small c) in this revolution, then the monarchs leading the revolution seemed more willing to work with Harley, Nottingham and Danby than with the radicals that Pincus identifies as the heart and soul of what happened. Thirdly this brings me on to another objection: Pincus says that the revolution of the 1640s was not a revolution because it did not last, and yet he himself says that the Whig interpretation of 1688 had become oppositionalist by 1720: indeed one might argue that save for the late 1690s, the Whigs (as Pincus describes them) never governed England post-revolution. Fourthly Pincus uses the word modern and modernisation with abandon- never really defining precisely what it means. He uses it to mean generating an efficient state- but doesn't really explain why it has to be connected to this concept (why not a modernisation connected say to a discourse of rights- in which case are the Tory objectors to the power of the state the real modernisers in this story?) or why it has to be connected to the concept of revolution.

I don't ultimately quarrell with Pincus's scholarship, I can't but with the way that he has put it together into the book he presents. Its a well researched and important book and save for some copy editing errors (the publisher Yale should be ashamed of the state they have let this book be published in- my edition quite clearly missed words out for example at points), it is written engagingly and interestingly. Like Bernard Bailyn, I beleive the book could be shorter but I also believe that Pincus could have been more disciplined with his ideas. Some of the arguments here are interesting and novel (the economic sections), deserve serious attention (on religion and James's links with France) and they are all exciting. The idea that 1688 was for many a violent and novel event- not a preserving revolution but very much a destroying one- is probably right. For some people it was- for some it was not and recasting the story of eighteenth century England as one of a battle over whether the revolution should become a Revolution is probably something that needs to be done. In that sense Pincus is right, 1688 fundementally changed the way that Britain was governed- whether it was the first modern revolution (why not award that title to Tiberius Gracchus's grain reforms or Solon's constitution or the orange revolution in the Ukraine?) is another point- but Pincus deserves praise for expanding the way that we think about it as an event. I came out of reading him with many many more questions and avenues of thinking to pursue- I didn't agree with everything I read, but my copy is scrawled over with pencil marks denoting strong agreement and disagreement.

Ultimately that is testament enough to Pincus's acheivement- wide reading and deep thought have been accompanied by an interesting thesis and style to acheive something very important and estimable.

November 29, 2009

Does God have a body?

Adam Kirsch reviews what seems to be an intriguing book from Benjamin Sommer in this week's tablet. Sommer's argument is that God in the Bible seems to have some kind of a body. In Genesis, God is described as forming Adam in his own nature, he even walks in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, he comes to Abraham as a traveller, he speaks to Moses face to face like a friend, Isaiah says that he saw him standing at his throne. This is an important insight because one of the things that appears to distinguish the Jewish God from the other Gods of the Middle East was his incorporeality. Another such thing is that the Jews explicitly were forbidden from carving an image of their God- and yet there is quite a lot of evidence within the Bible, from Jacob constructing a stone to worship to King Jehoahaz worshipping a pole that the Isrealites beleived that God inhabited their world. More and more, either from Professor Sommer's work or work like that of Professor Momigliano, we are getting the sense I believe that the Jewish religion and its sisters Christianity and Islam emerged out of a particular constellation of thoughts and ideas in the middle and near east in the centuries just before AD. The more we know of Ishtar and Gilgamesh, the more we know of Moses and Jehovah.