I’ve been reviewing a book* for an economic history journal that claims to explain, using rational choice theory, how Christianity developed over the first thousand years of its existence into a religious monopoly: in the marketplace of ideas, it undercut and outmanoeuvred its rivals through product development, cartelisation, vertical integration and ruthless price-cutting, so that it became the rational choice for religious consumers seeking to maximise their utility. Given the nature of the journal, my actual review will be short and limited in scope – roughly summarised, ‘the only economic history you’re going to find here is the assertion that the Christianisation of the Roman Empire must have ‘crowded out’ crime and immorality, so reduced enforcement costs and promoted economic growth’ – so I wanted to take the opportunity here to engage with some of the other problems I see with its approach to the history of religion. Where do we start..?
Archive for February, 2012
I’m a participant in an online seminar in David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years, a book that I heartily recommend. I also heartily recommend the debate, at http://crookedtimber.org/, but since it is primarily focused on economics and politics I thought I would also reproduce my contribution – I assume I was asked primarily as an ancient historian to comment on the historical dimension of the book – here.
David Graeber’s Debt is, in the most positive sense, rather an old-fashioned book, in its conception and approach if not in its matey and approachable style. It ignores disciplinary boundaries within the human sciences, especially those between economics, history and social studies, in a manner that recalls polymaths like Max Weber or the free-wheeling early years of political economy with figures like Smith and Malthus. In its search for the connecting thread between an astonishing diversity of cultural practices and texts from across time and space, it resembles the early classics of speculative anthropology – not Malinowski but J.G. Frazer. In its ambition to offer an account of the trajectory of the whole of human history, it undoubtedly runs the risk of being confused with the likes of Jared Diamond or Niall Ferguson, but it strikes me rather as in the vein of Arnold Toynbee, not least in the weight of scholarship that underpins this work of imaginative reconstruction. I feel the need to stress again that I don’t offer these comparisons as a criticism… (more…)
The list of topics on which Thucydides is believed to have something useful to say never gets any shorter; last week, an online columnist on economic matters for the Daily Telegraph, who’s been consistently critical of the German stance towards Greece, posted a large chunk of the Melian Dialogue (what else?) with the words “I have nothing further to add. Draw your own conclusions.” (weblink; many thanks to Dan Tompkins for this).
My initial reaction to the idea that Thucydides might be a useful authority on sovereign debt and the problems of the Eurozone was faint incredulity. For all the protestations of Wilhelm Roscher, the nineteenth-century ‘Thucydides of political economy’, that he had learnt as much about economic matters from him as from any modern theorist, there is simply nothing in the History that remotely resembles economic thought; Roscher is right to claim that ‘in all eight books of his work, as far as I can see there is no error of political economy to be found’ – because nothing at all is said on the subject. It’s like the anecdote. recorded by Reinhart Koselleck, in which the Prussian minister for finance is persuaded to change his policy with this line: ‘Privy Councillor, do you not remember that Thucydides tells of the evils that followed from the circulation of too much paper money in Athens?’ Only the most deluded believer in Thucydides’ absolute authority, whose knowledge of the actual text was shaky in the extreme, would fall for it. (more…)
Homer first appeared in translation, as far as we can tell, in the 3rd century BC, with Livius Andronicus’ Latin Odussia. Translating Homer has continued through the ages to be a process of reflecting on the power of that ancient poem, and the capacity of rendering it in other languages and cultures. The poet Keats said of reading Homer in Chapman’s translation that he felt like Cortez beholding the Pacific for the first time: a vast and hitherto unknown part of the world. Matthew Arnold, in his lecture On Translating Homer, protested at a translation which rendered the epic in English ballad form, thereby, for Arnold, reducing its grandeur. And in the 20th century, the poet Christopher Logue has produced a powerful adaptation in his War Music.
But what about translating Homer into different media? Most people will expect me now to talk at length about Hollywood and the movie Troy, but I’m far more interested in the Stitched Iliad currently being produced by Bristol graduate Silvie Kilgallon. You can find out more about her project here: it’s a rendition of the Iliad in cross stitch, with each stitch standing for a letter of the Greek alphabet. As Silvie explains, her translation is “a simple letter-for-colour substitution” and her aim is to highlight the “visual aesthetic” of the text. Looking at, and feeling the texture of, the finished product, I am reminded of the weight of Homeric epic, how its grandeur is partly conveyed through its sheer volume.
How should we think about intertextuality – the tendency for texts to echo/imitate/parody/rework/quote/vaguely remind one of/etc. other texts? In this week’s research seminar, Elena Lombardi from the Bristol Italian Department, as a prelude to her detailed discussion of how Dante, Ariosto and Tasso reworked episodes in Virgil and Lucan, suggested that we needed to think above all in terms of pleasure: the pleasure of the moment of recognition that something familiar has come back, just as children take endless delight in endless games of ‘now it’s here – now it’s gone’. The play between closeness and distance, possession and loss, the ever-ambivalent status of the mother, is reenacted in our experience of reading an author’s (pleasurable) revival of or reference to a text that might otherwise seem to be lost in the past.
Hmm. Well, as a jazz fan, with ears finely attuned to picking up that little allusion to Charlie Parker’s solo in the famously chaotic pre-breakdown recording of Lover Man, I can scarcely deny that this has to be part of the story. Is it the whole thing, though? I can’t help wondering whether it’s wholly accidental that a theory which establishes the pleasure of repetition as a basic human drive ingrained in childhood should be developed by a literary scholar who naturally takes pleasure in recognising textual allusions – it’s a little bit like, though much less dangerous, the way that the running-dogs of capitalist tend to claim self-interest as a basic human drive, purely by accident legitimising their own behaviour. There was talk in the seminar of other sorts of pleasure to be gained from intertextual repetitions – rather less talk of the pains and anxieties and sheer boredom that such repetition might arouse in a different reader. And isn’t this all a bit unilinear in temporal terms – the theory seems to assume that a significant part of the pleasure comes from the recovery of that which was thought lost (classical literature) through recognising it in a more recent artefact, but isn’t there also pleasure (as well as anxiety etc.) to be derived from recognising later ideas in a much earlier piece – finding Hobbes in Thucydides, for example? But perhaps my lack of appreciation for this simply comes down to a more troubled childhood…
Ever since Thucydides offered the apparently simple claim for the eternal usefulness of his history on the basis that, people being what they are*, events are likely to recur in more or less the same way in future, the question of whether or not history repeats itself and whether or not it can be predicted and anticipated has returned time and again to discussions of the usefulness of historical knowledge. Historians being what they are, such a claim is likely to recur in future; it’s been fairly prominent in recent debates about the 2008 economic crash and its aftermath, for example, as historians finally seize the moment to take revenge on those smug ahistorical economists who’ve been ruling the roost for so long…
Of course, the idea immediately creates paradoxes, at least for people who enjoy thinking of such things a little too much. If events do recur (and not necessarily as farce following tragedy), and history can predict them, and so people can learn from history to anticipate them, then the events won’t recur after all – and so we can never properly test the theory, unless we get lots of historians to write their predictions down in sealed envelopes and swear them to secrecy, and only open the envelopes after whatever’s supposed to happen has happened. Except that there would be at least eighteen different, more or less contradictory, predictions. And since no one listens to historians anyway, the swearing to secrecy probably isn’t necessary…
But it’s still an interesting question – and the fact that people do seek to learn from the past, albeit often in a pretty naive manner, is the starting-point for Marx’s brilliant essay on the 18th Brumaire. It’s also fodder for those who see history in terms of absurdity and irony; the alleged fact that the Russian revolutionaries knew their French revolutionary history and sought to head off the advent of another Napoleon by disposing of the person who looked most like another Napoleon (Trotsky), and passed over Stalin because he didn’t look the type.
I’ve only thought of this today because of a rather interesting variant on the theme of learning from the past in this week’s Die Zeit, on the subject of Germany’s relationship to its Nazi past and the increasing number of references to it in the context of its economic and hence political power in the current Eurocrisis. “The German past will only definitely not return so long as the Germans are never completely sure whether it might not return.” Which may be only a rewrite of Santayana (no, not the guitarist), but it makes the point nicely.
*This is just one of the ways in which the simplicity is only apparent; normally, the phrase quoted is something along the lines of “because of human nature”, a much stronger interpretation of the phrase kata to anthropinon than seems wholly warranted but a very handy claim for various of the appropriators of Thucydides…