Archive for the ‘History’ Category

“The Sword of Lincoln” by Jeffry D. Wert reviewed

1 May 2009

Wert, Jeffry D. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2005. 404 pp.

The Sword of Lincoln

The Sword of Lincoln

The Sword of Lincoln is a competant Civil War history but breaks little ground for anyone who qualifies as a Civil War buff and isn’t accessible and broad enough to be an introduction to the conflict.  The book focuses exclusively on the Federal Army of the Potomac which the author, Jeffry D. Wert, calls “America’s most star-crossed army [who] would be cursed, even damned, with the burdens of defending Washington, inept leadership, and a splendid opponent.” (3)  In the same line, he quotes military historian Williamson Murray, who said that “The Army of the Potomac had a record of unambiguous failure matched by no other unit of equivalent size in the history of the United States Army.” (414)  Murray said the army only won two major battles, lots twelve, and drew one (Antietam) during the course of the conflict.  The book looks in more depth at the reasons for the army’s failures and how it eventually got to Appomattox.

The book’s many pages describing the battles are good enough, but nothing special.  The book has only about a dozen maps, but they’re not as helpful as they could be and none show theater-level features.  The book also has problems in the picture department.  It features 20 pictures between pages 178-179 and then the same exact 20 pictures again between pages 370-371.  I’m guessing that the book was supposed to have a different second set of images; as it is, the book lacks images of George McClellan, Joseph Hooker, and Ambrose Burnside, an otherwise inexplicable omission (there are no images of Confederates).

The book is good when describing the evolution of the army and when analyzing the army’s ever changing commanding generals and their relationship to President Lincoln and the political situation in the North.  The army did not start off very auspiciously;  when they first showed up in Washington to defend the capital they completely lacked discipline.  (Wert doesn’t mention this, but some Massachusetts troops being bivouacked in the Senate chamber bayonetted Jefferson Davis’s desk; it still bears the marks today.)  After their first combat at the Battle of Bull Run, William Tecumseh Sherman opined that “Our men are not good soldiers. They brag, but don’t perform, complain loudly if they don’t get everything they want, and a march of a few miles uses them up.  It will take a long time to overcome these things, and what is in store for us in the future I know not.” (28)   The early officers weren’t any better. The first commanders were basically just guys who happened to be at hand at the time—one guy tapped to command a division hadn’t been in the military for 30 years, but happened to be in Washington at the time.  This basically doomed the Union forces to lackluster and incompetant leadership until better commanders, like Sherman and Grant, could rise up.  Unfortunately, while Wert points out that the Army of Northern Virginia had much better leaders almost from the start, he fails to address why they ended up with so much abler commanders.

The author does a good job examining the strengths and weaknesses of George McClellan and his successors, like Joseph Hooker and George Meade.  His analysis is fair, and he pays due regard to their strong points, which were mainly apparent off the battlefield on the organizational and administrative side of things.  One interesting revelation from the book concerns the endurance of the men’s fondness for McClellan, even after he was dismissed for the second time by Lincoln.  Even shortly after the Army of the Potomac won it’s greatest victory at Gettysburg rumors were easily spread within the army that “Little Mac” was coming back.  Given how little regard history has for McClellan’s leadership, this is surprising to a modern reader.  Wert explains that the poor showing of McClellan among the troops when he ran against Lincoln for President in 1864 was due to a plank in the Democratic platform to negotiate with the South.  A book exploring the exact feelings of the men in the ranks for McClellan could be quite interesting based on these points.

Lincoln, of course, had less and less patience for McClellan’s reluctance to engage the enemy as the war went on.  When McClellan used the excuse that the army’s horses were too tired, Lincoln’s reply is classic: “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”  The President took to calling the Army of the Potomac “General McClellan’s body-guard.”  (177)  After Lincoln visited the army after Antietam and judged that he was more popular with the men than McClellan, Lincoln had the confidence to dismiss him for good.179)  Wert, who calls McClellan “the most controversial commander” of the army, explores some of the other excuses and reasons that Mac had for his less than fierce leadership style but breaks no new ground there.  What he does present that I found interesting concerns the president’s view of the military situation:

Lincoln saw, however, that neither Burnside nor any other general in the army seemed to grasp a truth about Fredericksburg.  There was, he told a secretary, an ‘awful arithmetic’ to the conflict.  The disparity in casualties between the Federals and Confederates in the battle had been staggering.  But in Lincoln’s reckoning, if the two armies fought each other every day for a week and sustained a similar casualty rate, the Rebels would be wiped out, and the Army of the Potomac would still be ‘a mighty host.’  According to his secretary, the president asserted, ‘No general yet found can face the arithmetic, but the end of the war will be at hand when he shall be discovered.'” (208)

It seems that most Civil War books have an inherent point of view that they’re pushing, and this one isn’t an exception.  Wert seems to strain to find praise to lavish on the Army of the Potomac, even when little is due.  After their poor showing at Bull Run he says that from that battle “came the beginning of one of the army’s enduring characteristics—a resiliancy in the aftermath of a defeat that approached defiance.” (28)  Of course, the Union army had many advantages in recruiting and materiel that the Rebels didn’t have and it was those factors, more than the army’s “resiliance” that ultimately decided the war in the North’s favor, factors that Wert doesn’t examine in much depth, due to the level of his analysis.  He also fails to really comment on the effect of men leaving the army at the expiration of their terms, which many men did in 1864 on account of their three-year enlistments.  Fortunately for the North, many subsequently re-enlisted, but often only after returning home and being out of the war for months. 

Those looking for a good overview of the Civil War obviously won’t find that here.  This book focuses only on the Army of the Potomac and mentions other theaters and aspects of the war only in passing (and in a way that presumes some knowledge of the larger war).  This book failed, for me, to sufficiently explain the political factors that weighed on the book’s subject, “Lincoln’s sword.”  Northern sentiment is hardly touched on and the word Copperhead doesn’t even appear.  The analysis is no more in depth than the claims that (1) Lincoln didn’t want Washington, D.C. to be captured and (2) Lincoln needed victories in the war to maintain public support for said war.  The book’s observations and analysis of the Army of the Potomac is insufficiently skilled and insightful to make up for the book’s narrow focus.  I’d recommend readers turn elsewhere for a good Civil War read.

“The Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius reviewed

6 April 2009

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Penguin Classics. Victor Watts trans. 164 pp.

The Penguin Classics edition shows Philosophy talking to Boethius while Fortune turns her wheel in the background

The Penguin Classics edition shows Philosophy talking to Boethius while Fortune turns her wheel in the background

The Consolation of Philosophy is a fairly well-known little work.  Wikipedia has good background information on it and it’s author, Boethius.  He was a sixth century Roman patrician who’d lost the king’s favor and wrote the book while in prison in 524 or 525 awaiting execution and musing on his fall from grace.  Though a Christian, he drew on classical themes and motifs for the work, which is fundamentally a theodicy.

The book is a dialog between Boethius and Philosophy, who is personified as a woman and contrasted with Fortune (cf. the image of Wisdom as a woman and Folly as a harlot in Proverbs—the work isn’t wholly uninformed by the Christian tradition).  Boethius, who had previously served as Consul and in other high positions while he had the king’s favor, complains to Philosophy that he had “never been moved from justice to injustice by anything.”

You and God, who has sowed you in the minds of wise men, are my witnesses that the only consideration to impel me to any office was a general desire for good.  This was the reason why I had no alternative but grimly to resist evil and why in the struggle to defend justice I have always been indifferent to the hatred I inspired in men who wielded greater power than mine—an indifference inspired by the knowledge that I had freely followed my conscience. (10)

He feels betrayed by Fortune, which had previously blessed him with respect and success.  “I cannot deny the speed with which I rose to prosperity.  It is the very thing, in fact, which makes me burn with grief as I remember it.  In all adversity of fortune, the most wretched kind is once to have been happy.”  Philosophy consoles him that Fortune hasn’t changed her attitude towards him, she is the same as always: changeable.

The author goes on to examine the things that he had lost and why he ought not to lament his dispossession of them.  He looks at wealth, and how people who pursue it above all else never have enough and end up serving their money and stuff rather than vice versa.  “No good thing harms its owner … but wealth very often does harm its owners.” (36)  Power likewise is not the summum bonum; it doesn’t bring happiness or safety, but frequently the reverse.  His insights on those topics is good, but I most enjoy his analysis of fame:

Just think how puny and insubstantial such game really is.  It is well known, and you have seen it demonstrated by astronomers, that beside the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point; that is to say, compared with the magnitude of the celestial sphere, it may be thought of as having no extent at all. … This is the tiny point within a point, shut in and hedged about, in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendour. (41)

I can’t help but wonder if Carl Sagan was thinking of that passage when he wrote Pale Blue Dot.  Beothius further comments out that

Many men have been famous in their time but their memory has perished because there were no historians to write about them.  And yet the very histories are of little use when like their authors they become lost in the depths of time which make all things obscure. … If you think of the infinite recesses of eternity you have little cause to take pleasure in any continuation of your name. (42)

He then analyses the good, identifies it as the summun bonum that all people desire and are drawn to, and identifies it with God.  These passages owe much to Plato and need little explanation for anyone familiar with his concept of the good.

The passages in the work on the problem of evil (or the problem of undeserved suffering) are interesting.  He states the problem quite well:

The greatest cause of my sadness is really this—the fact that in spite of a good helmsman to guide the world, evil can still exist and even pass unpunished. … But there is something even more bewildering. When wickedness rules and flourishes, not only does virtue go unrewarded, it is even trodden underfoot by the wicked and punished in the place of crime.  That this can happen in the realm of an omniscient and omnipotent God who wills only good, is beyond perplexity and complaint. (85)

Later, he calls the problem of evil “the greatest of all questions, a question that can never be exhausted.”  He says that “when one doubt has been removed, countless others spring up in its place, like the hydra’s heads.”  While the statement of the problem is excellent, The Consolation hardly the definitive solution.  Philosophy answers Boethius much as God answered Job out of the storm: “It is because you men are in no position to contemplate this order that everything seems confused and upset. … It is not allowed to men to comprehend in thought all the ways of the divine work or expound them in speech.  Let it be enough that we have seen that God, the author of all natures, orders all things and directs them towards goodness.” (106, 109)  As for suffering that the good endure, “in the very short space of a human life, nothing can be so late in coming as to seem to the mind long to wait for, especially as it [the mind] is immortal.” (97)

Another image of the Wheel of Fortune, from a 15th century manuscript

Another image of the Wheel of Fortune (Rota Fortunae), from a 15th century manuscript

But Boethius goes beyond this; he offers arguments that all things, both those apparently good and those apparently bad, are for the better, because “all fortune whether pleasant or adverse is meant either to reward or discipline the good or to punish or correct the bad. … [therefore] all fortune is good.” (111)  While there is a bit more to his argument, it is unconvincing and few readers will accept his claim that “evil is [only] thought to abound on earth. … if you could see the plan of Providence, you would not think there was evil anywhere.” (110)  The arguments he adduces to prove the nonexistence of evil are sophistical and detract from what preceded them.

The last matter dealt with is divine foreknowledge as it relates to free will, a topic which I normally find it useless to discuss, an opinion that Boethius does nothing to modify.  The penultimate sentence of the work reminds me of the verses appended to the end of Ecclesiastes: “Avoid vice, therefore, and cultivate virtue; lift up your mind to the right kind of hope and put forth humble prayers on high.”

The Penguin Classics edition contains the 1960s translation by Victor Watts, who adds a 26-page introductory essay that provides context and interpretive help for The Consolation. The poetic passages that intersperse the dialog parts don’t seem particularly skillful, and only a few lines stand out for their beauty, images, or form.  I don’t particularly recommend this edition above any other, but the work as a whole is well worth reading for anyone familiar with classical philosophy.

“Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: 1905-1931” reviewed

3 April 2009

The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: Family Letters: 1905-1931. Edited by Walter Hooper. Harper Collins. 983 pp.

Volume I of III

Volume I of III

At 983 pages, excluding the helpful biographical appendix, this is a pretty big book—and it’s just the first of three volumes of C. S. Lewis’s collected letters.  The man wrote a lot and this volume contains 95% of the extant letters that he wrote between 1905, when he was seven years old, and the fall of 1931, shortly after his conversion to Christianity.  While tedious at places, it contains interesting biographical details and accounts of his early life and reveals an impressive intellect and strong personality.

Much of the material is, of course, quite quotidian.  One letter, sent from school in January 1915 to his father, says “Yes; I did change my socks. No; there are no holes in my shoes. Yes, thanks, I have plenty of warm underclothing.” (101)  Almost half of the letters in the first 200 pages were sent to his father and until he became a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford requests for funds were a staple of his letters, along with itemized lists of expenses for which the money was needed.  His father, a solicitor, once apparently suspected Jack (as all of C. S. Lewis’s friends and family members called him) of cheating him out of about £1 and Lewis wrote a point-by-point letter arguing that the charge was illogical and contrary to the facts;  it was  probably more than what was called for (see p. 135-6).

The author’s mother died when he was ten and when reading his letters to his father, one wishes to have the other half of the conversation and to know more about just what sort of relationship they had.  Lewis wasn’t above pointing out how smart he was.  To his father he says he  “often wonder[s] how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?” (85).  They often debated abstract matters, Lewis once claiming that “no further disputation is possible after my crushing and exhaustive demonstration” (93) and elsewhere that “one of these days you will come round and ‘see my point'” (213).  These seem likes things one would write to an equal, not a parent.

Probably 90% of the letters in the first third of the book are either to his father or to his lifelong best friend, Arthur Greeves, with whom he shared many interests in music and literature.  Lewis similarly thought he won all of the arguments with Arthur: “How funny that I always prove everything I want in argument with you but never convince you! … be good and talk sense the next time you do me the honour of arguing with me” (129-130).  Of course, their relationship was very close and their philosophical conversations were vigorous but never mean spirited.  Some of the most interesting exchanges they had concerned religion and Christianity.  Lewis was, of course, an atheist from the age at which he was first able to form his own beliefs and make his own decisions and Arthur was a Christian, though he played relatively little direct role in Lewis’s later conversion.  The two best letters to examine for Lewis’s beliefs at this period are the ones to Greeves dated 12 October 1916 and its follow up dated 18 October of the same year.  To quote the former at length:

You ask me my religious views: you know, I think, that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.  All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name are merely man’s own invention—Christ as much as Loki. …

… Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it, though usually outwardly conceding it for convenience.  … ones views on religious subjects don’t make any difference in morals, of course. A good member of society must of course try to be honest, chaste, truthful, kindly etc: these are things we owe to our own manhood & dignity and not to any imagined god or gods.

Of course, mind you, I am not laying down as a certainty that there is nothing outside the material world: considering the discoveries that are always being made, this would be foolish. Anything MAY exist: but until we know that it does, we can’t make any assumptions.  The universe is an absolute mystery: man has mad many guesses at it, but the answer is yet to seek.

Lewis also pointed out how ideas of God evolved throughout the Hebrew scriptures from a tribal diety to a universal one (206) and often took opportunities to tweak Arthur, for instance pointing out that another person is “a rather violent athiest, so I suppose I shall meet him by ‘the fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” (240).

Lewis in 1947

Lewis in 1947

These disagreements notwithstanding, Lewis and Greeves had much in common.  Many of their letters involved planning visits to each other, and discussing the good times they enjoyed in each other’s company.  And it is almost disconcerting the vast number of books that Lewis mentions reading in his letters and the analysis he brings to them, frequently recommending works to Arthur. Lewis was not found of Thucydides, who he called “a desperately dull and tedious Greek historian” (145)—an assessment I disagree with—and also disliked Cicero and Demosthenes.  He did, however, enjoy The Histories of Herodotus, who he said pleasantly combined both history and romance (284), and also recommended The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (447).

The volume also contains a smattering of references to historical events, such as the appearance of Comet Halley in 1910 (14), the Battle of Jutland (204), and the 1918 influenza epidemic (416, 430, 442).  Regarding World War I, Lewis echoes the sentiments of his tutor, William Kirkpatrick (the inspiration for the Professor in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) and wrote in 1914, when the war was only three months old, that

one of the most serious consequences of this war is what Kirk calls ‘the survival of the unfittest'[.] All those who have the courage to do so and are physically sound, are going off to be shot: those who survive are moral and physical weeds—a fact which does not promise favorably for the next generation.

(Lewis would follow his older brother, Warnie, into the army and was injured in combat.)  Anyway, Lewis seemed to be something of an elitist, which is perhaps easier to understand if one remembers his privileged upbringing and education.  For instance, he criticizes a list of the 100 best books, saying he “abominate[s] such culture for the many, such tastes ready made, such standardization of the brain” (581) and elsewhere praises aristocrats for “having tradition in [their] outlook” and rues “the influx of commercial democracy” (746).  But a few months later he writes that “the aristocracy was not a bit better than the plutocracy that has replaced it” (772).  And while he evinces some disdain for socialism in several letters (see pp. 441 and 544), he wrote Arthur in 1917 saying “I am a bundle of contradictions, but I must say socialism does interest me.”

When you think of the way labourers in the factory live at home,—men & women slaving from half past five in the morning to six at night at hard, monotonous work in hideous rooms full of shrieking machinery year after year, with never a moments pleasure except when they are drunk (and you can’t blame them) it really does make you feel that the whole thing is wrong. Are you ashamed to think of us], blessed prigs, with our books and music and little grumbles about nothing, dawdling along … while half or more than half the people are slaves.  As much slaves as ever there were in Rome, their only liberty being to starve when the torture becomes unbearable!

Like all of us, C. S. Lewis was a product of his own time.  Thus, some of his letters from this period seem to reflect some of the racial views held by many of the time.  When writing to his brother who was serving in the Army in Sierra Leone, Lewis wrote “What a queer thing that black man … is: he’s been there as long as anyone else and has never adapted on quarter of a step.  Perhaps the really strange thing is that others have” (538).  Elsewhere, he refers to “an atrocious little blackguard of a French nouveau riche boy with negro blood in him and the manners of a swine” (613) and is critical of Chinese culture (see pp. 710-11 & 720n).

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

He was also not entirely comfortable around women, again probably because of his upbringing (his mother died in his childhood, he had no sisters, and he attended all boys schools).  For instance, when he was “bothered” into teaching a class of young women he writes to his father that teaching “girls, if one considers only their faculties, … might seem an easy task.  But then they would be reading for the same exams as the men: and that being so, the ‘weakness of the sex’ (assuming that they are dunces) would make the proposition all the tougher” (598).  He also wrote that “as a general rule, women marry their tutors,” but he wasn’t worried because in his class “the pretty ones are stupid and the interesting ones are ugly, so it is alright” (667).  As an Oxford don, he said he “did [his] duty” in voting for a resolution that “the university has a right to remain predominantly a men’s university” and was happy that it passed, being concerned that Oxford might become “the women’s university” and Cambridge “the men’s university” (702-4).  He also comments that “that mixture of Northern respect and Oriental suppression” is “not a bad answer” to “the female sex” (771).  These are all views which we would not be likely to entertain today.  However, he did say that women write very good novels (910).

Speaking of Lewis’s views of women somewhat naturally raises another topic dealt with in his early letters: sadism. Most fans of his work probably have no idea that Lewis entertained sadistic fantasies.  To quote from one of his biographies, C.S. Lewis: Creator of Narnia by Michael White,

In a letter written in January 1917 Lewis begins to explain that he is writing the letter on his knee and this seemingly innocent comment leads him on to a discourse on whipping and spanking.  He declares: “Across my knee … of course makes one think of positions for whipping: or rather not for whipping (you couldn’t get any swing) but for that torture with brushes … very humiliating for the victim”  Soon he was signing his letters to Greeves “Philomastrix” (“lover of the whip”) and detailing gruesome fantasies involving Arthur’s younger sister, in which he whipped her “for the good of her soul”.  In other letters he described a particularly beautiful girl he had seen in Oxford and what pain she would have suffered if she had received only half the torment he had inflicted on her in his imagination. (p 47)

Arthur later scribbled through incriminating passages in the letters, but those passages are restored (and noted) in the volume presently being reviewed.  In 1931, Lewis wrote Arthur “I am now inclined to agree with you in not regretting that we confided in each other even on this subject, because it has done no harm in the long run—and how could young adolescents really be friends without it?”  (Incidentally, Arthur was homosexual and, presumably, indicated some of his fantasies to Jack.)  At the time, Arthur indicated concern about confiding such details to paper, but Lewis wrote “if any person did read out letters, he would be an ill-bred cad & therefore we shouldn’t mind what he say” (274).  Hopefully he would except the present reviewer and his audience.  The material is certainly salacious, but I wouldn’t characterize it as “gruesome” as White does.  In any event, after considering some possible sources of Lewis’s interest, the biographer points out that that as an adult Lewis was somewhat embarrassed by his interest and

As far as anyone knows, Jack’s attraction to sadism never strayed beyond his own imagination, but no one will ever know what went on behind closed doors later in his life.  For the eighteen-year-old at least, these sadistic musings went no further than that: onanistic fantasies and bravura to impress Arthur. (p 48)

Anyway, some of the most interesting letters occur near the end of the collection, around Lewis’s conversion to theism in 1929 and ultimately to Christianity in 1931.  The roots of his conversion, which are familiar to anyone who read his autobiographical Surprised By Joy, are evident in his earlier letters.  For instance, in 1916 he wrote Arthur saying “I know quite well that feeling of something strange and wonderful that ought to happen, and wish I could think like you that this hope will some day be fulfilled.”  And to another friend, Leo Baker, in 1921: “beauty seems to me to be always an invitation of some sort & usually an invitation to we don’t know what.”  Though an atheist from the time he could form his own views until about age 31, Lewis was never a materialist, the main species of atheist that one sees these days.  He always seemed to sense that there was a “more” or something beyond the purely material, and that is was ultimately lead him to theism and Christianity, a journey described in his highly recommended Surprised By Joy and hinted at throughout the present volume.

This probably explains the interest he entertained in his 20s in the occult and magic, which he called “the burning subject” of the time and that it was difficult to obtain even enough evidence to disbelieve (543).  He said that he had “no doubt” that some people could see the future (640) but that astrology was “all rot” (597).

Some of the best passages come from his own self examinations, where he identifies his main sin as pride—which he calls “the mother of all sins”—and that he also experiences lust, wrath, and envy.

What I feel like saying … is “things are going very, very well with me (spiritually).”  On the other hand, one knows from bitter experience that he who standeth should take heed lest he fall, and that anything remotely like pride is certain to bing an awful crash. … Yet as long as one is a conceited ass, there is no good pretending not to be. (877)

He confides to Arthur that

I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realise I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me.  I pretend I am remembering an evening of good fellowship in a really friendly and charitable spirit—and all the time I’m really remembering how good a fellow I am and how well I talked. (878)

He says that fighting pride is like fighting the Hydra, which grew a new head every time one was cut off: once you stop one line of prideful thinking one is tempted to be proud of doing so.  The argument will be familiar to those who’ve read Lewis’s popular works, like Mere Christianity.  He also discusses his attempts to cultivate “the blessed sense of charity, so rare in me,” writing about an experience after Christmas Eve service in 1929, when he could view “even my worst enemies in college [as] funny and odd rather than detestable” (852).

The editor takes the opportunity of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity to bring the volume to a close, and I must say I am interested in obtaining its sequel.  I am especially interested in seeing how his views and outlook may or may not change as a result of his new religious views.  I also expect that theology will be a much more prominent subject in the two later volumes, once he becomes a well known theologian and apologist.  This volume, which you have gotten only a not particularly representative sample of in the above, is good in its own right, but is only recommended for those already familiar with C. S. Lewis’s popular works, especially Surprised By Joy, who want to learn more about the person behind them.

“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon reviewed

27 February 2009

Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Everyman’s Library. ca. 3590 pp. (Vol. VI: 650 pp.)

Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a work that most people have heard of but which few have read. The former is due to the excellence of this literary achievement, known for the quality and irony of its prose and its rigorous use of primary sources; the later is due largely to the fact that Gibbon takes six volumes to cover the thirteen centuries of history from the Age of the Antonines to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. While I cannot do justice to Gibbon’s 3000+ page magnum opus in this review, I do hope to avoid doing it a great injustice. Note that while this review applies to the totality of the work, I will confine the specifics to the sixth volume as it is freshest in my mind and most thoroughly described in my notes.

Firstly, Gibbon was an excellent historian; he was very rigorous about resorting to the primary sources in Latin and Greek whenever possible. The many footnotes often contain information on both these sources and his secondary sources along with quotations therefrom.  And though you can’t get the full effect of the notes unless you read Latin, Greek, and French, they are well worth perusing for Gibbon’s own comments, such as this epigram: “the true praise of kings is after their death, and from the mouth of their enemies” (120). In another note he takes to task the Hal Lindseys of his day: “The more pious antiquaries labour to reconcile the promises and threats of the author of the Revelations with the present state of the seven cities. Perhaps it would be more prudent to confine his predictions to the characters and events of his own times” (332). The editor of the Everyman edition also sometimes add clarifications of his own, especially in those few places where Gibbon’s own judgments were not born out by subsequent scholarship.

In addition to his writing ability and researching skill, Edward Gibbon brings his great wit and point of view to bear on his subject, remarking that history “is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” After thirteen centuries and six volumes, the reader is inclined to agree. I never fail to be amazed how, time after time, in just a paragraph—or sometimes a mere fragment of a sentence—Gibbon announces that 130,000 people were killed by Arabs (16), or that 300,000 crusaders died before they even captured a single city (57), or that 70,000 Moslems were killed in Jerusalem (95)—all of which occur in just the first hundred pages of this one volume. Later (page 364) we learn that Tamerlane constructed a pyramid of 90,000 severed heads in Baghdad, just three pages after he had 4000 Armenians buried alive. Such statements do not, of course, include all of the literally countless deaths from all of the wars and massacres, only those for which the author could come by reliable figures; for instance, the victim’s of the Tartar’s rampage, whose severed right ears filled nine sacks, cannot be accurately enumerated since the size of the sacks was not specified. The reader may be relieved to still be capable of shock if he or she pauses, on page 374, as the deaths of one million Chinese people are announced. “So familiar, and as it were so natural to man, is the practice of violence, that our indulgence allows the slightest provocation, the most disputable right, as a sufficient ground of national hostility.” Gibbon is right: “the paths of blood … such is the history of nations.”

The specific murders and mutilations of individuals or small groups, usually at the direction of some emperor or other, are equally horrifying: despite involving smaller numbers they can be imagined with greater ease.  For instance, 70 rebels were boiled alive by Genghis Khan, who had a harem of 500 wives and concubines (n.b. only half of Solomon’s total of 700 wives and 300 concubines). Elsewhere, a young Greek concubine is mutilated by having her lips and nose cut off. The Decline and Fall is so filled with murders, massacres, and mutilations that one almost laughs when given the opportunity to have the tension broken at the ridiculous contrivance of the Emperor Theodore, who sacrificed “the lives and fortunes, the eyes and limbs, of his kinsmen and nobles” to his own passions:

A matron … had provoked his anger by refusing to bestow her beauteous daughter on the vile plebeian who was recommended by his caprice. Without regard to her birth, or age, her body, as high as the neck, was enclosed in a sack with several cats, who were pricked with pins to irritate their fury against their unfortunate fellow captive. (248)

The matron’s ultimate fate is not recorded by Gibbon.  One hopes that she survived the ordeal.

Speaking of eyes, I was surprised at the great frequency with which men who had claims to the throne lose their eyesight (and/or ability to reproduce) at the hands of rivals, who are frequently their brothers or other relatives. Blinding, of course, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the claimant to oversee (no pun intended) and administer the government, effectively removing him from contention for the throne. In this concluding volume Gibbon finally gives some information on how the operation was usually conducted by referring to “the brutal violence of tearing out the eyes,” though it was also sometimes down by destroying the optic nerve with a red-hot implement. In a footnote, Gibbon dryly lists some of the more violent methods of blinding devised by “ingenious tyrants” through the ages: “scooping, burning with an iron or hot vinegar, and binding the head with a strong cord until the eyes burst forth from their sockets.” Absolutely barbaric to us, but not to so many of the potentates who furnish Gibbon with his material, since “in the balance of ambition, the innocence or life of an individual is of small account.”

Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) circa 1779

Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) circa 1779

Despite the vast amounts of immorality that it records, the Decline and Fall is a profoundly moral work, deeply concerned with right and wrong, and the reader with an ear for irony can perceive Gibbon’s scathing condemnation of barbarity on most of the pages where such crimes and follies are recorded. His harshest criticism is reserved for organized religion in general and those claiming to be followers of Christ in particular.  For instance, of the crusaders, who killed so many, he says “they neglected to live, but they were prepared to die, in the service of Christ.” When they capture Jerusalem and massacre those 70,000 Moslems Gibbon calls it a  “bloody sacrifice [that] was offered by his mistaken votaries to the God of the Christians.” Elsewhere:

such was the pious tendency of the crusades, that they [one group of Crusaders] employed the holy week in pillaging the country for their subsistence, and in framing engines for the destruction of their fellow-Christians. (212)

Note that Gibbon is most certainly not saying that Christians who pillage and kill are being truly pious—just as he wasn’t calling those tyrants geniuses for coming up with new ways of blinding people—or that those are things prescribed by Christianity; he is being ironic, and one gets the distinct impression that Gibbon, who was irreligious, was a great admirer of the Nazarene but bitterly disappointed with his followers, a sentiment indicated where he writes that “the God of the Christians is not a local deity, and … the recovery of Bethlehem or Calvary, his cradle or his tomb, will not atone for the violation of the moral precepts of the Gospel” (47) or that “the spirit of persecution is unworthy of a Christian.” (459)

Some of what came from his pen seems like it could have come from Christopher Hitchen’s keyboard. Consider Gibbon’s comments on the Popes, who came

from the mode of education and life the most adverse to reason, humanity, and freedom. In the trammels of servile faith, he has learned to believe because it is absurd, to revere all that is contemptible, and to despise whatever might deserve the esteem of a rational being; to punish error as a crime, to reward mortification and celibacy as the first of virtues; to place the saints of the calendar above the heroes of Rome and the sages of Athens; and to consider the missal, or the crucifix, as more useful instruments than the plough or the loom. (614)

Or elsewhere, where he mocks the mystical experiences of the monks at Mt. Athos: “the production of a distempered fancy, the creature of an empty stomach and an empty brain.” (299)  But such ridicule is not reserved for the Christian tradition alone; the whirling dervishes in Islam who “turn round in endless rotation” are called “fanatics [who] mistake the giddiness of the head for the illumination of the spirit.” (451)

Like many of today’s “new atheists” (a.k.a. “angry atheists”), Gibbon had a lot of anger towards Christians, never openly declared but easily detectable between the lines in his magnum opus. The depth of his feeling may be indicated by the fact that, less than a dozen pages after the quote on the popes above, he writes that “of the Christian hierarchy, the bishops of Rome were commonly the most prudent and least fanatic.” But the reader should keep in mind that Gibbon uses the term “Christian” for both people who truly follow the precepts of Christ and for those who only take his name for themselves. Thus he writes that “a Christian, a philosopher, and a patriot, will be equally scandalized by the temporal kingdom of the clergy,” referring to a true follower of Jesus.

Whether it contributed to his distaste for organized religion or, more likely, followed from it, Gibbon did not believe in the supernatural or miraculous and, as one reviewer put it, he “treated the Christian church as a phenomenon of general history, not a special case admitting supernatural explanations and disallowing criticism of its adherents.” Miracles, Gibbon wrote, were difficult to disprove, “except by those who are armed with a general antidote against religious credulity” and “such is the progress of credulity, that miracles, most doubtful on the spot and at the moment, will be received with implicit faith at a convenient distance of time and space.” Perhaps the reader can divine something of Gibbon’s attitude towards superstition, and gain some appreciation for his prose, in the following anecdote which he relates, where two competing schools came together to settle their doctrinal dispute in a trial by fire:

In the confidence of fanaticism, they had proposed to try their cause by a miracle; and when the two papers, that contained their own and the adverse cause, were cast into a fiery brazier, they expected that the Catholic verity would be respected by the flames. Alas! the two papers were indiscriminately consumed, and this unforeseen accident produced the union of a day, and renewed the quarrel of an age. (259)

Gibbon is most certainly an iconoclast, but I think he gets a lot of stuff right and was headed in the right direction with his moralizing.  The Roman Empire was a very barbaric place where a small number of very powerful people vied for power, wealth, and glory at the expense of their rivals and the people.  The story of the empire is one of endless wars, massacres, and murders with anyone who gets in the way being murdered or mutilated and everyone else being ruthlessly exploited.  Of course, “for every war a motive of safety or revenge, of honour or zeal, of right or convenience, may be readily found in the jurisprudence of conquerors” (353) and I’m sure such justifications may have helped them sleep better at night.  But Gibbon says this about one empire builder: “Perhaps his conscience would have been startled if a priest or philosopher had dared to number the millions of victims whom he had sacrificed to the establishment of peace and order.” (378)

The overwhelmingly vast portion of those casualties are known but to God, but among them we must number the Roman Empire itself, whose end was caused and hastened by the wasting of the empire’s resources in combat with itself.  One of the authors and victims of the calamity called civil war “the deadly heat of a fever, which consumes without a remedy the vitals of the constitution.” (292)  Instead of using the wealth and strength that they’d inherited to further build up their society and their civilization, they used those resources against each other in a short-sighted and selfish attempt to grab more for themselves without regard for others and the whole.  The Romans who did this were like

the Indian who fells the tree that he may gather the fruit, and the Arab who plunders the caravans of commerce, … actuated by the same impulse of savage nature, which overlooks the future in the present, and relinquishes for momentary rapine the long and secure possession of the most important blessings. (525)

Gibbon spent two decades of his life researching, contemplating, and writing about the Roman Empire and its decline and fall, a task he was inspired to undertake, as he famously put it, “at Rome on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, [when] the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started in my mind.” That inspiration launched one of the finest written works in the English language (one shudders to learn he’d initially planned penning it in French); the six volumes first appeared between 1776 and 1788.  Gibbon, who had lifelong health issues, died only six years later.  His works and their abridgments will undoubtedly remain in print for years to come—but not forever.  As Gibbon himself muses, “the art of man is able to construct monuments far more permanent than the narrow span of his own existence: yet these monuments, like himself, are perishable and frail; and in the boundless annals of time his life and his labours must equally be measured as a fleeting moment.”

Indeed, that impermanence is one of the chief lessons of the Decline and Fall.  It is perhaps most poetically and poignantly suggested in the 71st and final chapter of the whole, where Gibbon relays the observations of Poggius, a servant to Pope Eugene IV, as he looks out over the ruined city of Rome in the 15th century:

This Tarpeian rock was then a savage and solitary thicket: in the time of the poet, it was crowned with the golden roofs of a temple; the temple is overthrown, the gold has been pillaged, the wheel of fortune has accomplished her revolution, and the sacred ground is again disfigured with thorns and brambles. The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched with the spoils and tributes of so many nations. This spectacle of the world, how is it fallen! how changed! how defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill.

Desolation, the final painting in Thomas Cole's five-painting series The Course of Empire

Desolation, the final painting in Thomas Cole's five-painting series The Course of Empire

Not only the ideas conveyed but the language used by Poggius is evocative of that five painting series by Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, and I wonder if indeed that work was inspired by the passage in question.  Either way, the whole monologue, and the concluding chapter itself, are well worth reading, so I link to the full text here.

Thus concludes my review of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  I hope that my review has communicated something of the greatness of the work in question, but even if my review were flawless, and its subject greater still…  sic transit gloria mundi.

“The Path to Power” by Margaret Thatcher

27 January 2009

The Path to Power by Margaret Thatcher. (1995). 615 pp.

Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs are contained in two volumes; The Downing Street Years (1993) cover her time as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and this volume, though published second, largely covers her life prior to that point.  The book starts off with her childhood and upbringing, her time at Oxford, and then very quickly moves into politics; she is elected to the House on page 100, less than a sixth of the way into the book.

This is very much a political autobiography; you won’t learn much about Thatcher’s personal life, hobbies, or interests.  So don’t read this book unless you’re interested in British politics.  If the terms three line whip and Hansard are unfamiliar to you, this book probably isn’t for you; the author doesn’t stop to explain these things and you’ll be frequently at a loss when she mentions red boxes or tells how she wondered whether it was constitutionally possible for Alex Douglas-Home to become Prime Minister.

Many will find the path that Thatcher took to power to be interesting.  She never held any of the three principle offices or shadow offices (Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Minister, or Home Secretary) before becoming Tory leader in 1975.  She was Education Minister in the Heath Government, and then shadowed various departments in opposition before deciding to oppose Heath for the party leadership.  Throughout the book her disagreements with other Conservatives is a constant theme and she often critiques her colleagues who were less keen on market forces and more willing to engage in socialist policies.  However, she rarely, if ever, has any criticism of herself which makes the book less interesting than it otherwise might be.

Some, especially those on the left, may be annoyed at the frequent sniping she does at Labour, almost as if the book were a political speech and not an autobiography.  But she writes “of Clement Attlee, however, I was an admirer.  He was a serious man and a patriot.  Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show.”  Most of the compliments she has for other Labour members are of the “he was a good speaker” variety.  I am forced to wonder if this book would have turned out any differently if Thatcher hadn’t written it so soon after leaving office.  Perhaps her analyses would have been different.

Something I found interesting was the view of British government from the inside—how the opposition and government are at each other all the time, how frontbenchers interact with backbenchers, how various politicians rise and fall.  A disappointment that I had was that the book doesn’t really describe any of the debates and exchanges which happen in the House of Commons.  Anyone familiar with Prime Minister’s Questions will understand my dissatisfaction at this omission.  (Hint for those not in the know: debate in the British House of Commons is very different in tone that that on the floor of the U.S. Congress.)

Thatcher circa 1975

Thatcher circa 1975

Anyway, the last 140 pages or so cover her activities after leaving 10 Downing Street.  In the final pages she becomes somewhat more reflective and also comments on how her early life experiences shaped her political and other views.  Rest of the second part is only slightly autobiographical and tends to be more an exposition of her views on the European Union (she was skeptical or closer political integration), traditional values and the family (she was socially conservative on such issues), and the need to continue opposing socialism in all its guises.  Those seeking more information on her foreign policy views should check out her more recent book Statecraft.  Those wanting more on her views on social policy, fiscal policy, and how they interact should read The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher, which covers her entire time in politics.

To give you a bit more of the flavor of the book, here are some not necessarily representative quotations and fragments that I found interesting for one reason or another.  The second one seems quite Randian to me.

Market forces operating within the right framework make for fairness, and … even beneficent state control only makes for equality. (228.)

All collectivism is always conducive to oppression: it is only the victims who differ. (406)

So many people and so many vested interests were by now significantly dependent on the state—for employment in the public sector, for Social Security benefits, for health care, education and housing—that economic freedom had begun to pose an almost unacceptable risk to their living standards.  And, when that finally happened, political freedom—for example the freedom to join or not join a union or the freedom to have controversial views and still be entitled to teach in a state school or work in a government department—would be the next victim. (440)

The primary duty a free country owes, not just to itself but to countries which are unfree, is to survive. (365)

Youth cult of the 1960s whereby the young were regarded as a source of pure insight into the human condition. (186)

That one mortal sin in the eyes of mediocrities—he had shown “lack of judgment”, i.e. willingness to think for himself.

As indicated above, I would not recommend this book to most people, only those interested in politics and who have some background in British government.  For those who are and who do, I would recommend this book. It has me interested in checking out it’s companion volume, The Downing Street Years.

“When I Was a Young Man” by Bob Kerrey

20 January 2009

When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir by J. Robert Kerrey. (2002). 261 pp.


This is a short, autobiographical work by former Democratic Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey.  He describes his happy childhood in Nebraska, how he joined the U.S. Navy and became a Navy SEAL, and his various training.  Kerrey was sent of to Vietnam where he took part in several actions and was ultimately wounded seriously.

The portions where he describes his convalescence after the amputation of part of one leg, including how it impacted how people saw him, has lessons for us today as we face so many wounded Iraq vets.  Incidentally, Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Vietnam.

The book lacks direction and purpose, however.  Perhaps that is because, as he explains in the preface, he set out to write a different book: one about his father and uncle, the later of whom was killed in the Philippines in WWII.  There are some anti-war sentiments throughout the book, but they are never really developed or made explicit, Kerrey doesn’t truly make them his own.  Anyway, from the preface he sort of sets things up this way:

In the first half of my life, history was one of two things: sterile and meaningless information to be memorized for school tests of myths told to generate good feelings and memories.  The patriotic and heroic stories I heard in my youth caused me to believe that my nation was never wrong and that my leaders would never lie to me.  When the sand of this foundation blew away, I lost my patriotism.  In the second half of my life, I rebuilt this foundation on something sturdier: the observation that Americans at their best can be unimaginably generous and willing to put their lives on the line for the freedom and well-being of others.

There are some amusing points in the book, such as the club he was in that was to be called “the Angels” but ended up being “the Angles” because “we let our poorest speller write our name on the door” and then the account of what they saw from the tree house (p. 58).  Other material of interest to me were Kerrey’s comments on his religious upbringing and the evolution of his beliefs, his comments on racism, and the account of the serviceman who died in training.

This book is very light reading; I finished it’s 261 pages in about 5 hours despite a few distractions.  While not a bad book, I don’t particularly recommend it; time reading it won’t be wasted, but it would probably be better invested elsewhere unless you’re completely ignorant about the Vietnam war.