In the fourth episode of the History Considered Podcast, I discuss new books critical of the right wing in American politics. I also conduct an overview of a new article from the Journal of Ancient History about the contemporary study of Herodotus. Please send your feedback about the podcast to historyconsidered [at] gmail [dot] com.
The works that I mention in the podcast are as follows:
Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism by George Hawley (2016)
Why the Right Went Wrong by E.J. Dionne Jr. (2016)
Dark Money by Jane Mayer (2016)
“Herodotean Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” Journal of Ancient History, by Hyun Jin Kim (2016)
I have finally recorded the first publicly-available episode of my long-promised podcast, History Considered. Although I’ve recorded two episodes prior to this one (see end of this post) I have decided to feature only the third as the “first,” which I recorded today.
The works that I mention in the podcast are as follows:
Pericles: A Biography in Context by Thomas R. Martin (2016)
Pericles and the Conquest of History by Loren J. Samons II (2016)
The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta by Paul A. Rahe (2015)
The Classical World by Nigel Spivey (2016)
The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand (2010)
“Baltimore Teaches, Göttingen Learns,” American Historical Review, by Emily J. Levine (2016)
Today’s selection of interesting new books ponders the origins of religious impulses and also their detractors. These works look interesting enough to read, in my humble opinion.
The first book is Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity, by Peter T. Struck, and it’s being published tomorrow, July 19. There has been a renewed interest in historical scholarship in what was once dismissively labeled as “magic” in history, and this book provides a deeper examination into divination–the reading of signs–as perceived by ancient philosophers. The thesis, in a nutshell, suggests that the philosophers saw divination as a form of human intuition and took it seriously, unlike academic scholarship until as of late.
In February of this year, Susan Jacoby published her book, Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Her approach looks at a slice of religious history related to the changing of faiths of various prominent people. Since faith exerts such a powerful influence in people’s lives, the locus where a person decides to accept one path over another seems like a worthy area of study.
Finally, published by Knopf last year, we have Tim Whitmarsh’s book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. The central theme of the work appears to be that atheism wasn’t invented during the Enlightenment but rather has its roots even in classical antiquity. As a religious person myself, such a book would be challenging (in a good way) to read, but I think it is important to remember the complexities of religious experience as well as the adherents of atheism that profoundly changed our world even for the better (such as Democritus, who posited the atomic theory of the universe).
Knopf is one of my favorite publishers because of their consistently high-quality printing and selection of titles. Here are a few books that stood out to me from their new history releases in 2015. I should also mention that in these types of post, I’m not reviewing the works (I have not read them) but rather indicating which ones have caught my eye among their list of newly-minted works.
The first is Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh. Although I am somewhat of a religious man myself, I recognize that religion in history has often been an oppressive and reactionary force. During such times, atheists and agnostics have done a lot to help move society forward. This work interestingly takes a look at philosophers and others who went against the grain of the theism of their times during the ancient epoch.
Next up is Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History by Bernard Bailyn. I know Bailyn from his highly influential work of scholarship titled The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1968). Unfortunately, I was bewildered by the dense writing style of that latter classic when I tried to read that work in college, so hearing what Bailyn has to say about the artistry of history writing would be interesting indeed.
Finally is Joseph J. Ellis’s work, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. The presidential campaign season in the U.S. always funnels me back into political inquiry, just as it is doing in 2015-16. The U.S. Constitution is frequently evoked by the presidential hopefuls, often in ways that are false in relation to the historical context. Reading about the time when the Articles of Confederation were in effect before the Constitutional Convention–which Ellis’s book focuses on–would shed some light on the true context of the issues that inspired the U.S. Constitution.
Tomorrow, I hope to take a look at some of the new offerings from the University of North Carolina Press, a powerhouse of classical studies.
Scholarship of an empire
There are really two narratives of the Roman empire. The first one picks up where the Iliad ends, follows the story of Aeneas until the time of the early kings of Rome, observes with admiration the Roman republic, and illustrates the glories and flaws of the Roman emperors. This is the traditional story of ancient Rome.
The second type of narrative is the academic one, which often leaves chronology by the wayside and examines the Roman empire by topic, often sociologically. Greg Woolf’s new book, Rome: An Empire’s Story, seems to be written for the niche of people who are well familiar with the first, traditional, narrative of Rome but have no knowledge of (but a desire to learn) the second, scholarly, dialogue about the empire.
Although Woolf’s writing didn’t inspire an enormous amount of enthusiasm from this reader, the most interesting chapter for me was the second one: “Empires of the Mind.” Reading this chapter made me wonder why it was that Rome apart from all other ancient empires has such a lasting existence in our world. Woolf here also discusses sociological categorization of empires and describes Rome as a conquest state, an entity dependent on political expansion for its very survival. I think such a breakdown of terms like “empire” is useful because, without further reflection, one may assume erroneously that the Roman empire was more similar to, say, the American empire than was actually the case. The United States may arguably be an imperial power but it is not a conquest state. (more…)
Origins of institutions
Four years ago, I wrote my senior history thesis about the beginnings of philosophical ideas in three ancient cultures. One of the most satisfying experiences in studying history is to learn the backstory of something ancient that still has a prominent place in current life. The following new books describe the origins of long-lasting institutions. Andrew Shryrock and Daniel Smail Lord’s new work, published last November, combines essays about language, food, kinship, and other topics related to life before humans started writing.
Half a year before that, political theorist Francis Fukuyama released a popular book about how bureaucratic and democratic political systems evolved from tribal societies and why imposing these sophisticated institutions on tribal cultures today causes problems. Sociologist Robert N. Bellah’s book, also published last year, about the evolution of religion seems a bit dry to read, but the ideas of this ambitious project are worth considering (my senior thesis was equally ambitious but only benefited from a year’s worth of work rather than a lifetime’s). Finally, rounding out the list is a new work coauthored by Kent Flanner and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. They describe their take on the origins of inequality in various social contexts and how to prevent it in the future.
Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Christopher Boehm. Since the days of Peter Kropotkin, scientists have tried to restrain the impulse to turn descriptive Darwinism into prescriptive selfishness. Boehm here argues that altruism in human society is as favored by evolution as selfishness. (more…)
Swords to plowshares
President Obama recently announced that the United States will recall all of its armed forces personnel from Iraq by the end of 2011. This is a strange outcome for those of us who remember the seemingly insurmountable setbacks created by the insurgency before the 2007 surge of American troops unraveled the extremists’ grip on the country. It was hard to see back then that the situation in Iraq could improve. But it did. The following books explore in a unique way the nature of organized violence in the contemporary world.
Although we may not realize it from all of the news dispatches dripping with depressing forebodings of disaster either due to economic or glacial meltdown, there are reasons to be optimistic about the current state of the world. Joshua S. Goldstein, in a new book called Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide, makes the case that the human race is freer from war now than it has ever been. The facts tell a counterintuitive but inspiring story: there are currently no nations at war in the world (only civil wars are going on) and last year had one of the lowest death rates from armed conflict in history.
Along similar lines, Steven Pinker has just published a similar work. Pinker makes the same observation – “we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence” – but approaches the subject from the perspective of psychology, his field of study, rather than international affairs. Both of these perspectives are worth keeping in mind the next time you hear a pundit on cable news or a sensationalistic author prophesying apocalypse for Western civilization just to get your attention. (more…)
One of my favorite things about reading good history books is that it changes the way you see your environment. Familiar places become more exciting, strangers begin to seem more intriguing, traveling becomes a richer experience, and, if you’re lucky, some of one’s ignorant assumptions are challenged and replaced with insights. It’s like discovering again the sense of wonder about the world that we all had as kids.
The new history books published in late June and early July of this year promise to stretch our minds and offer us to look upon our world with new, unwearied eyes. As I mentioned in the first “History Off the Press” post last month, the books I will feature here were or will be published in late June or July; this list is neither exhaustive nor objective; and I have as yet read none of these publications (except for maybe a preview of the first few pages on Amazon.com).
Rivals of the ancient world
Without imagination, historical evidence seems dull and tragic. We can’t help but feel a patronizing condescension toward our ancestors, whose eroded remains of buildings look like something a child sculpted from sand on a beach and whose stories and myths sound like the imaginings of acid trippers or chauvinistic patriarchs or both.
What I like about Andrea Carandini’s new book, Rome: Day One, is his almost playful combination of taking ancient myths seriously and using colorful narrative writing to vivify the ruins of the ancient imperial city in Rome. Carandini uses the archaeological evidence to argue that the myth of the founding of Rome by Romulus is not far from the truth, that “a king whose name might have been Romulus founded Rome one April 21st in the mid-eighth century BC, most likely in a ceremony in which a white bull and cow pulled a plow to trace the position of a wall marking the blessed soil of the new city.” (more…)
Inside my paperback copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems there is a yellowing bookmark. The book itself is rather plain: a Barnes & Noble publication with a faux-marbled cover and many sentimental poems, all rhyming. Nevertheless, the editor of the collection had taken great care in elevating this rather drab idea for a book into an endearing compilation of verse. He had even written his preface as a contemporary poem, meaningful line breaks and all. It ends: “It is the purpose of this little volume to enrich, ennoble, / encourage. And for man, who has learned to love / convenience, it is hardly larger than his concealing pocket.”
Maybe it was for that portable quality that I had decided to take the book with me on my three-week study abroad trip to Greece in the summer of 2006. It went halfway around the world with me and returned to the United States with a new bookmark: a receipt of purchase from an Athenian cafe. The receipt-bookmark, as I mentioned, now looks aged, and the ink has smudged deeper into the paper and lightened to a gray in the process. The top of it has creased where it protruded beyond the dimensions of the book, and on that portion is written in Greek letters the name of the establishment from which it came: *DIOGENES*.
Diogenes Cafe is located in the Plaka neighborhood of Athens, just below the base of the Acropolis, and its name strangely fit the purpose of my visits during that summer. During the trip, I lived with a group of about twenty American students from my university. When I felt like being as reclusive as the famous philosopher Diogenes (who lived in a tub in the marketplace of ancient Athens), I would walk from our hotel, then meander up the cobblestone alleys of the Plaka to the Diogenes Cafe, order a small cup of strong Greek coffee and a delicious local dessert of yogurt and honey, and read, sometimes from the small book of poetry that I had brought with me.
Reading poems in sequence, one after another, from a collection compiled by an editor is somewhat like watching a movie where every scene is acted by different characters in new settings and portraying unique storylines. Luckily the poems of this particular compilation were arranged with heart and style, so the expectations created by one author’s verse would be fulfilled by the emotions evoked in the next. The rhyming words ebbed and flowed from poem to poem like the waves of Homer’s wine-dark Mediterranean Sea, which wasn’t far away from me at the time.
Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel has reviewed a new exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum called “Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible”. The reviewer applauds the installation, which features objects from Qumran but also many general artifacts from biblical times.
Looking through the photo slide-show attached to the review, I perceive that the exhibit is laid out according to a new style of exhibit display. When I visited the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL a few years ago, I noticed that the museum had chosen a fresh approach to museum design. Instead of overwhelming the viewer with a plethora of artifacts and informational plaques, the museum recreated historical environments in each of its varying rooms. One room was Lincoln’s childhood cabin. Another was his funeral visitation room. Each display was artfully lit, engaging, and informative without being overwhelming.
From what I can tell, this style has caught on and the “Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible” exhibit appears to be equally refreshing. Perhaps it’s time for me to visit Wisconsin again.