Me? No. All the history I know comes from having read a fairly slap-dash set of books, and, in recent years, watching a few interesting videos on Youtube. Vast areas of history are a complete or near complete mystery. Yet, because I’ll chime in with some tidbit of history once in a while, I’ve been called a history guy. This mostly shows how low the bar on historical knowledge has become.
At St. John’s Santa Fe back in the 1970s, Charles G. Bell was a tutor, the universal title there for people who everywhere else are called professors. He was a character, to say the least: born in 1916 on the Yazoo Delta in Mississippi and picking up degrees in Virginia, and Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then teaching all over the place and doing research in physics at Princeton, Chuck, as we referred to him (not to his face) had the most confusing accent you’d ever hope to hear. He told colorful stories about his time in Oxford, where he would switch from a thick Yazoo Delta drawl to something like an Oxford don’s English, but, usually, he spoke in an ineffable accent all his own. From anyone else, it would have come off as an insufferable affectation; from him, it was just Chuck.
He was also just about the most widely read person anyone would ever hope to meet. The Mississippi Encyclopedia entry linked above says: “In a time when academic specialization is the rule, Charles G. Bell’s career as a physicist, poet, novelist, philosopher, historian, art and music historian, and professor was a dramatic exception.”I visited his home on occasion – wall to ceiling bookcases in virtually every room of a two-story house, and he’d read them all, and then some.
“Bell’s masterwork, Symbolic History through Sight and Sound, is a sixty-hour video cultural history of the world that brings alive history, art, music, politics, philosophy, and literature using thousands of images of art and architecture.” Back in the late 70s, it was a slideshow with a recorded voiceover. Chuck would run segments of them at school. I sat through a few. Somebody threw about 45 minutes of it up on Youtube. (Chuck either toned down the accent for these videos, or, more likely, he was toning it up for us kids.)
The slideshows themselves, with Bell’s weird, intellectually dense, if not out and out pretentious, voiceovers, were all but unendurable for me. But his introduction and Q & A were good, or at least, left a much stronger impression. For Chuck’s whole point, which came up repeatedly in those talks, was that all this stuff – history, philosophy, art, music, science – was not separable, at least not if you wanted to really understand any of it.
In this way, Symbolic History is nearly the antithesis of the Great Books Program taught at St. John’s. The Great Books throws a bunch of ignorant 18 year olds (but I repeat myself) into the intellectual deep end with nary a life-preserver in sight. Of course, you have to start somewhere, and it’s much more respectful to just have the students dive in than to treat them like children who need their food predigested.
And it wasn’t entirely fragmented. Herodotus and Thucydides do give one a little flavor for Greek history, and the Greek playwrights and poets help with cultural background, so Socrates and Aristotle aren’t totally untethered from their culture and time. But once you leave Roman times, you’re screwed. We students had no real context for the Middle Ages, Renaissance or the Enlightenment. I don’t think the Counter-Reformation came up much if at all, for example, nor did we discuss the absurdity of the Enlightenment writers dismissing Medieval art, architecture and philosophy as ‘Gothic’. Our sole sort of framing works for the Middle Ages were maybe Dante and Chaucer. Not bad, for sure, but not sufficient for such a cataclysmically important age. From then on, you get the occasional Don Quixote or War and Peace, and insufferable French poets and such, which do provide some flavor of the age, but hardly enough to qualify as context.
Bell’s talks left me dissatisfied. I knew nothing of history, little of art and music. I was getting a very good smattering of philosophy and literature but, again, without the context for the most part. It was up to us to notice Hegel’s (and Kant’s, and, indeed, everybody from Descartes on) near-total silence on the Schoolmen. Clearly, they were of the opinion that St. Thomas & Co. simply didn’t matter to the discussion. But having just read a bunch of Thomas, it was pretty obvious that, if somebody was irrelevant, is was much more likely to be the largely untethered and arbitrary Enlightenment philosophers than the broad and careful schoolmen.
But a lot of history had happened between 1200 and 1630 – not that we students had much of a clue at the time. And it continued to happen, and those Enlightenment thinkers found themselves riding shotgun while Thomas and Aristotle weren’t even on the stagecoach. Rather than have our country founded explicitly on the notion that rights were the flip side of duties, which the Founders might have made a lot more clear had they been precise Thomists instead of muddle-headed children of Rousseau and Locke, they set the stage for today’s collapse, where rights are discovered and invented daily based on who is whining most loudly at the moment, with no thought that duties (other than ‘bake the cake’ duties imposed on others) must accompany them, or rights become arbitrary and tyrannical.
For example. We could have at least argued about it, would have been enlightening.
So I’ve read some history, studied a little art and music, not a lot by any means, not as a real scholar, but enough to get at least an outline of the vast sweep of things. Thus, in conversation, I’m often the guy pointing out what else was going on at the time that lead to or colors what we’re talking about.
It’s a little scary, as I’m no doubt leaving off 10 other things that might be pertinent. But it’s still better if people are told that Galileo died of old age in his own bed; that Islam conquered about 2/3 of the Christian world between 634 and 732; that the Gothic building boom began in the time of Sts Francis and Dominic and was going strong when St. Thomas and Dante were writing – and there’s a connection; that in Les Miserables Jean Valjean was stealing bread at a time of famines, exacerbated by revolutions and social unrest, which meant that him feeding his meant somebody else’s were going hungry and perhaps starving to death; that Lincoln did not win the popular vote and was a very controversial figure right up until his secular canonization; that Nazism gained power not so much because thugs signed up as because the professional classes, who always love the idea of somebody controlling everything, got on board; and that the KKK was coextensive and staffed identically with the democratic Party over most of its range.
And a million other things. The main difference between me now and 18 year old me is that, slowly, I’ve gotten enough bits of history to start to see longer term stuff and repeating patterns, and am able to draw some conclusions. For example, knowing that Wells’ Outline of History (1920) occasioned responses by both Belloc and Chesterton – Europe and the Faith (1920) (1) and Everlasting Man (1920), respectively, helps frame the intellectual disputes current as of the end of the Great War. Which in turn makes the years leading up to WWII more interesting, and puts WWII itself in a different light. While there no doubt are many causes of such a great war, you can see the issues that gripped the two great Christian writers playing out in blood.
I wish I knew more history, which is in some sense is an indication that I’ve learned a little history. Only someone who knew no history could find it boring.
- Among other works – as a real historian, Belloc was clearly appalled and angered by the amatuer Wells’ Progressive, anti-Christian take, and wrote a number of works to counter it.