(something I wrote for a friend who is a potential editor for me) - A Holisitic Approach to History (not the title at all)
The problem with most history writing these days, the problem with most history writing ever but particularly these days, is in its attempt to give history the rigor of science. The humanities require statistics to give its conceptions definition, but the humanities are about giving direction to understanding the inner human experience, and the inner experience of being human is not quantifiable. The humanities are about providing tools for speculation about questions that are by their nature unanswerable, not presenting answers to them as immutable truth. Statistical and quantitative analysis will, like a magnetic pull, almost inevitably be provided to support conceptual conclusions, but concepts can, almost inevitably, be contradicted by other concepts, which can then provide their own statistical backing.
That leads us to at least two possible conclusions. One is that there is no such thing as truth, as various postmodernists and critical theorists would have it, and that truth is therefore defined by people in positions of enough power to impose their vision of truth. The second, as liberal value pluralists would have it, is that the truth as we perceive it is by necessity incomplete, and there are therefore many truths which are true to the experiences and perceptions of many people, but which come into contradiction with the truths of many other people. I obviously tend more toward the second belief. So therefore, perhaps we have to consider that the proper approach to history is not to provide speculative explanations as truth but to provide speculative truths that requires explanations.
I understand that last sentence is vague, but to explain it, what I would take is various concepts. I remember Professor Shosky's class very well on the History of Prague. In retrospect, it was probably the best class I took at AU. It was a tour of the inner experience of what Prague meant, an immersion in all its aspects, not just its history and writers, not just its music and art, but its food and architecture, its scientific contributions.
This is the holistic approach which a common core curriculum should be but of course isn't, each class takes one aspect of study and puts everything else in the context of that particular thing. We could do it with any number of cities, any number of eras, any number of movements, ideas, beliefs. The possibilities are endless.
But my sense of how to do it is to do a version of 'The Atheist Reformation', not the exact same way that is done, but start around 1740, and take in as many major developments and achievements in culture as we can: literature, music, art, science, philosophy, even food and fashion if we can find them. Do not focus on politics, do not focus on historical personages, focus on the culture of that particular historical moment and how any or that particular cultural moment tells the story of what was happening historically. I think this is probably the strongest idea I have, but let me give you a bit of a synopsis of some others.
- A Cultural History of the Postmodern Age
This project would stand in direct contradiction to the first project. Taking its cue from the Viennese historian Egon Friedell's three volume A Cultural History of the Modern Age, which takes us through Europe in its dominant period, from the Black Plague in 1348 to World War I. It attempts an holistic approach to history which attempts in granular detail, perhaps unsuccessfully but nevertheless fascinatingly, to find the hidden inner patterns to the progress of history - trying to find patterns through its art of course, but also its philosophy, its math, even its fashion and artisanal crafts. Friedell takes what he calls the 'represenative man theory', which is different than the 'Great Man Theory' because history is not hewn by great men of powerful will, but rather that history chooses certain people to embody its ephemera, and that the characteristics of a certain era or place or movement is embodied in certain people.
The last hundred years is particularly distinguished from all periods before it in the sheer amount there is to study. As Henry Adams was probably the first to put it, history has evolved at a great accelerated rate that keeps accelerating. Historians like Friedell had to distinguish the character of individual centuries in the way an historian today would have to distinguish the character of individual decades. Perhaps one day soon it will be the character of individual years. Over the past one hundred years, there's probably just as much material to study as Egon Friedell had in nearly six hundred.
The essence of the postmodern age is, almost by definition, its fragmentedness. This sense of being at the verge of a new, perhaps higher, level of consciousness, with no two people seeming to agree on the details of what that more evolved state would be, and humanity never arriving at it. Utopian assumptions were mercilessly crushed, meanwhile the triumph of liberalism allowed for this state of a fragmentary to flower because it allowed people to pursue their personal transcendence, and the rise of the internet which allowed for our era's fragmented nature and utopian designs to flower exponentially to the point that the virtues of it became vice, and consequently the rise of authoritarian leaders who promise to stem the chaos of postmodernity, and may lead us into a kind of materialist mirror image of the Middle Ages, where true education is only disseminated in an elite, and everyone else lives in a kind of materialism consumer ignorance.
I don't necessarily think this is the right way to do it, but we could even do this as 120 book chapters or podcast episodes of indeterminate length, starting perhaps from 1900, and each of which tries to capture the essence of one year to the next. Take events from one of each of these ten fields: science, music, art, literature, philosophy, politics,
- The Atheist Reformation
The world has not evolved past religion, but as intelligent thought has grown more complex, the world has, perhaps for the first time, made true space for unbelief. Unbelief is not even a concept to the pre-modern world, because they were generally incapable of providing evidence that there was not an easily explicable animating force behind our own world.
When I first conceived of this project a number of years ago, it was a clear given to me that, with many setbacks, atheism was ultimately a door in the forward direction in evolution's progress. At this point in my life and in history I'm not at all sure it's anything more than a lateral step sideways. The more we evolve creatively the more we evolve as a destructive force. Mankind has probably evolved more in the last two hundred fifty years than it did in the first million, and yet global warming and weapons of mass destruction imply the possibility that we are at humanity's end point.
What religion implied was stability. For a million years, humanity still did not truly have that much more dominion over nature than any other animal. The progress of humanity is such that as we move further away from religion, our current relative prosperity and long lifespan may in fact be a temporary reprieve which we and the whole globe for which we are responsible may soon pay dearly, and weven if we can't go back to the days when religion dominated our lives, religion is going nowhere, even if it lives on as various kind of atheist religions which make theology out of capitalist economic liberty, or out of intersectional social justice, or, as it already has, the materialist equality of Communism. The fanaticism is the same, and even if the possible benefits to mankind are unprecedented, so is the destructive capability.
Madness: A History
Taking its cue from Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. All the ways in which madness has been viewed all throughout the history of thought, stories of the insane, writings of the insane, writings about the insane both from obscure testimony and from the great writers and figures of history. I don't meant to tell any kind of personal story in this, but the emphasis should be on how little, to this day, we know about the nature of mental illness and why linear consciousness goes awry so easily.
It would cover all sorts of madness from the benign madness of the everyday: obsessive interests, compulsive hoarding, post traumatic stress, compulsive lying, even religion, to the violent, dangerous madness which forces us to confront madness: serial killers, rapists, pedophiles, mass political murderers, soldiers in time of war, mass authoritarian movements. It would focus on the benefits of madness, the possible link (much derided these days) between madness and creativity, between eccentricity and finding new solutions, and how the potential genetic mutations which cause madness in people could be to the world's benefit.
But a confrontation with madness also forces us to ask, where is the line between madness as something benign, worthy of compassion, even charming or beneficial to us, and something dangerous, even lethal. We are, as a species, forced to confront again and again the line between stability and instability, walking again and again into unknown forces that unlock the dangers of our collective psyche, convincing millions at a time that other millions are trying to kill them and those they love, and therefore that they must become murderers themselves.
This would obviously be a powerful powerful subject to make a book on, and with the right writer could generate enormous interest, but it would also obviously be a controversial, dangerous subject. It forces me to think of that quote from Nietzsche about bewaring the abyss because the abyss might stare back.
- Jewish History: A Narrative
Taking its cue from the now unfashionable Civil War narrative of Shelby Foote, which may come back into vogue sooner than we know even if not in America as its a good way to tell history in a manner that engages the lay reader. The idea is to create a coherent, almost novelistic narrative of Jewish history which takes in, from generation to generation, the most important events and figures and what animated their appearance and disappearance, cause and effects, . As best we can, to attempt to find a cause and effect relationship between what happens in Jewish history and what happens to the civilizations which encounter Jews.
Much of history is unpredictable because life is unpredictable, but the story of Jewish history seems to be extremely predictable, because it is, in fact, the story of what happens when people who are uncomfortable with unpredictability come across people whose entire religion is based on what to do in unpredictable circumstances. The Jewish religion is, therefore, both the reason Jews are able to survive in the worst of circumstances and also, unwittingly, the progenitor of many of those circumstances. That's a very controversial point, but this is the price Jews pay for surviving 2000 years past when the Romans came ever so close to finishing us off forever. We are a peoplehood who has, in so many ways, lived on borrowed time ever since, cheating death all the way through.
This book would be an attempt to find the rhythm of Jewish history, a kind of monomyth from the one peoplehood for whom mythology always casts them in the worst possible light. A nomadic people equally comfortable setting up shop in urban areas for a generation or four, who conveniently always seem to be on the scene at the center of world history, who somehow are able to operate with a heavy emphasis for individual rights as Western Europe does and with a heavy emphasis on community responsibility as China does, and yet their brains have not completely fallen apart.
I could write paragraphs more but you get the point as you've probably heard this spiel from me many many times.
Reading Through the Great Books
One of the best things I did in It's Not Even Past was a few weeks in which I devoted two-and-change episodes to Machiavelli and The Prince. I thought it would make a great series to go through all the great books and relate them to current events. That's pretty much all I have to say about that.