March 03, 2011

A question of ego

Those were times when, to forget an evil world, grammarians took pleasure in abstruse questions. I was told that in that period, for fifteen days and fifteen nights, the rhetoricians Gabundus and Terentius argued on the vocative of 'ego', and in the end they attacked each other with weapons. (Brother William to Adso, Umberto Eco 'The name of the rose')
One of the enlightening moments of my undergraduate degree came in a tutorial on Edward Gibbon. We were discussing why Gibbon had written 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' and myself and the other students exchanged ideas about Gibbon's intentions to reshape the enlightenment, argue with Machiavelli, discredit Christianity or explain the course of history. Our tutor leant back on his chair and asked us why we didn't just beleive Gibbon's own explanation: that sitting on the Capitol Hill he had heard the monks singing above the ruins of the empire and decided that this was the subject that should consume his lifetime's energy. That explanation did not satisfy me at the time: I left the tutorial with a friend we both agreed that there must be a better more intellectual explanation. Over the years though, I've come to reject our view and embrace the view of our tutor.

Part of the reason that people do intellectual things- whether its write a history of Rome's decline and fall or whether its a philosophical essay because they enjoy doing it. That sounds pretty simple as an account of why people do things, but it can't be neglected as a description because it ties to a vital question in intellectual history. Intellectual history increasingly focusses, following Quentin Skinner's lead, on the reasons that a book is written. If you write something- you want to contribute to some debate, your argument is to be evaluated in that light. Of course Skinner is right and his method has become very fertile as a way of reinterpreting and understanding better the thinkers of the past. I don't think we can leave out the 'enjoyment factor' from our analysis. Hobbes did not just write Leviathan to answer an authority crisis or a de facto debate during the English Civil War, he wrote it because he enjoyed that particular form of argument. In some sense, Hobbes found the experience of writing the book both enlivening and inspiring and hence he wrote it.

Lets come back to the citation at the front of this post. Imagine you are a historian and you ask why did Terentius and Gabundus argue about the word 'ego' at that point: were they responding to a grammatical crisis in Latin? William's description implies that no they were not, they did this because they sought to drive out the evil and terrible events of their own lives. They responded to their immediate situation. One might say that Leviathan was written less because of a political crisis in 1650 and more because Hobbes was bored or was particularly interested in politics at that point in time. Reintroducing a work to its immediate context is a fair thing to do, but we must be sure that we do not imagine that works are written because of their contexts. Terentius and Gabundus argued about ego because they used a language which contained the word and had a vocative tense: they argued at that particular point in their lives because they wanted to drive other thoughts away from their consciences.


James Higham said...

Because he wanted to scribble, scribble, scribble?