“Little” and “Big” Histories

What does one do when one is torn between trying to get “the head” around 20th century international relations and finding a job? Short of coming to a complete standstill of unmotivated silence, inspiration, of some sort, is necessary and it can perhaps sometimes be found in strange places other than the crutch of “one more cup of coffee”.

Recently, in a second-hand bookstall, I spotted what seemed to be an unusual book. It was entitled A Little History Of The World (by E.M. Gombrich) and was published in 2005 by Yale University Press. My first thought on seeing this title was: “people do not write [general history] books like this anymore” and sure enough it was actually written in Germany during 1936 during a few weeks and published in Vienna. Intended for a very youthful audience, it has no footnotes, no references and deliberately featured no “big words”: this is the type of book that can confirm, if one was in any doubt, that the cat did indeed sit on the mat. Yet, it was published by a university press and features dozens of glowing descriptions from the usual reviewers of academic publications, praising it as a deeply “humanistic” work, albeit (as one Irish reviewer described it) an “opinionated” one. A vague impression one might form is that this is like the writings of Arnold Toynbee turned into a cartoon with a distinctly Germanic flavour or focus (no tears will be shed for Napoleon here). Gombrich, an art historian, suggests that the alpha and omega of aesthetics are to be found in Ancient Greece; that Alexander The Great truly was “great”; and that barbarians have always been found at the gates of “civilisation”. But he also has a broad take on the interchange of science and ideas across different cultures and ages; acknowledges that “the East” and “the West” (to say nothing of “the North” and “the South”) have opposite meanings depending on which part of the globe you are standing on (some classic common sense applied to the study of history there); and that human nature has never really changed all that much. In a sense, the latter view is its supposed positive “humanistic” message, although to many that idea might actually seem a negative message; even to some historians. A favoured buzzword among historians when I was younger was to refer to any reflections on human nature to be an “essentialist view” that was supposedly simplistic and, thereby, false. It was not historians’ “job” to reflect on human nature and no historical viewpoint should be entertained that has not been referred to in the work of others (and, in turn, how they referenced others) was the implicit assumption behind this viewpoint, which is perhaps essentially a “careerist view” based on the age-old peer review process. I recall reading once that Eamon DeValera said as a student that “the conception and expression of a single idea of one’s own is of more educational value than a cartload of other people’s ideas” and, in turn, he was rewarded with a failed degree because he seemed to have no respect for his “peers”. But I seem to have digressed.

Did Gombrich have any original ideas? Perhaps not…but here is a quote from his book (p.111, if you want a reference) that caught my imagination. He suggested that the “Dark Ages” were not really all that dark but were more akin to “a starry night” because:

“People no longer lost their way…for they were sure of one thing: God had given souls to all men, and that they were all equal in his eyes, beggars and kings alike [my italics]. This meant that there must be no more slaves—that human beings must no longer be treated as if they were things.”

Can this really have been true of the Age of Charlemagne, or whatever, or was the author taking poetic licence here, akin to Sancho Panza’s “bless the man who invented sleep” line in Don Quixote (1615) that partly inspired Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris (1972) or the druid who gives a seemingly “modern” theological sermon in 5th century Gaul in Eric Rohmer’s film Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), based on L’Astrée (1615)? Can a historian speak, as Quentin Skinner does, of a “genealogy of ideas” that follow on from each other, like a chronological progression of thought, or are all ideas in perpetual flux and none of them actually original? Personally, I’ve always found the latter idea attractive, while naturally being wary of allowing “poetic licence” to affect the historical imagination. What I mean to reflect on here, however, is just that: reflections, as indeed Gombrich did on the first page of his book when he compares all human history, since the dawn of time, with a mirror reflecting mirrors. This is, I think, what can surprise us in such “little histories” because most of us may be seeking instead “big histories” of interesting facts or details and not necessarily given to reflecting on those details in a purely humanistic way.

Gombrich’s “starry night” metaphor was quite probably inspired by familiarity with perhaps the most well known expression of human equality in the New Testament (Galatians, chapter 3 verses 25-29), which was certainly known to, or heard by, many peoples through the ages. Is he making too great an assumption to think it was common knowledge or a popularly held belief in medieval times? Put differently: can this idea have had a life of its own, in each age since its pronouncement? I recall, about ten years ago, going to a four-hour long production in the rain in the open-air Globe Theatre in London based on the life of Thomas Paine. Aside from confirming the English gift for theatre, I cannot say that I learnt anything from the play, but while watching it a frequently recurring thought passed through my mind: why do historians, to this day, treat the “revolutionary message” of human equality in Paine’s day with a complex intellectual history (a deeply philosophical ‘age of enlightenment’ etc.) when Paine actually titled his work Common Sense? Were he, Ben Franklin and their contemporaries not saying little more than what Gombrich’s medieval peasant may have thought on hearing in a remote chapel in the mountains about Paul’s letter to the Galatians? But did such a peasant exist? Put differently, have we any reason to assume that he did not exist if he did not put his thoughts to print? If so, what then does that say about our sense of history? Is it too literal in its search for evidence and, in the process, not truly “humanist” by denying the humanity of all those who either did not write or did not put their thoughts to paper?

Pointless questions, perhaps, beyond the realm of perspective, although words, like ideas, undoubtedly can have lives of their own. If one thinks of the influence of religious texts, it is certainly true that the Old Testament has some famous reflections on history, such as in the opening chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes: “there can be nothing new, here under the sun; never man calls a thing new but it is something already known to the ages that went before us; only we have no record of older days”. I have heard that thought expressed many times during my lifetime usually by people who have no interest in either religious writings or history, which can show how people can come to the same conclusion from what might seem to be opposite viewpoints. A less famous reflection, with seemingly significant historical connotations, can be found in chapter 8 of the First Book of Kings, when the Israelites resolve to have a king and the Lord indicates, with a Book of Job like reasoning, as a response that they are making a grave mistake but he cannot stop them. The parables in the gospels of the New Testament regarding the “kingdom” of God could also be read the same way, if one considers what audience is being addressed and why, but does this mean that the Lord of the Old Testament or the Christ of the New Testament reasoned like the egalitarian republican Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense? Clearly some people “in history” have been inclined to hold such a judgment while others have not, just as Jews, competing (western) Christians and Freemasons never seem to have come to an agreement (or, rather, have agreed to differ) “in history” regarding what value, if any, lies in the Book of Wisdom, the meaning of the opening of the third chapter therein and, indeed, based their competing views of life all upon that premise…but enough about biblical sources. Some have even argued that they are best read for reflections on war rather than for reflections on wisdom, which is probably the main reason why so many people down the ages have judged that they are best not read at all perhaps because they are so frequently misread, depending on one’s point of view. Discerning the meaning behind uses of language rather than literal thinking is certainly essential, as can perhaps best be demonstrated by the fact that if the most commonplace use of the word “philistine” is to refer to one who is indifferent to culture, its original and first meaning (according to the Oxford Concise English Dictionary) is “a member of the people opposing the Israelites in ancient Palestine”. As Israel has recently indicated it will leave the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for somewhat similar reasons, should one refer to UNESCO as philistine? In a strictly literal, or dictionary, sense, yes…one should. If one did so, however, I think it is fair to say that the term might seem to lose its most commonplace meaning, which could be a somewhat grave error.

Is there any value in “little histories”, such as Gombrich’s, or should readers only be satisfied with “big histories” with enough details, or references, in there to overwhelm all but the most inexhaustible of minds? Consider how this Little History was reviewed as a “humanistic” book: what precisely does that mean in our age? Are all humanists really “out-of-date” “essentialists”? Can the human heartbeat be its own zeitgeist, common to all ages and places? Why not, if human nature is pretty constant? And what does that tell us about the history of ideas? Does it lie beyond chronologies and genealogies? Is it more a question of how individuals are instinctually inclined to reflect on human nature in any or all ages? It is perhaps worthwhile to “stop and think” and ask these questions every now and then. I, like many a reader, usually jump to the reference section of a book before reading it, to get a sense of whether or not it is “something new” or something from which I can learn, but a sense of perspective, as much as chronology, can make all the difference to how a work of history is written. Just what question is it for which a historian is seeking an answer? That question is one that could be applied to any history book in existence as much as to any history book that may be written in the future. Furthermore, if the freshest of perspectives can seem to be the simplest of perspectives, is there not the danger that complexity can be but a mask for mental confusion? If there is value in a work like Gombrich’s, it is evidently in the fact that he asked himself this question every time before he put pen to paper to form a new sentence for fear of leading his youthful readers down a wrong path. Whatever about the result, this impulse is certainly admirable. A sound impulse can lead to a sound result, which is all the more reason for keeping more focused on questions of inspiration than on questions of evidence when one is attempting to explain human behaviour. Ultimately, is searching for this explanation not what historians are supposed to be doing? Which may indicate that there is more value in an inspired question than there is in a strictly literal processing of 1,000 PDFs of journal articles that may have been downloaded onto any contemporary scholar’s laptop. If we cannot keep that idea in our mind, then it is probable that our subsequent readings of texts will be uninspired. Great and original results can stem from little impulses. If we cannot believe that, then there is little reason to put pen to paper. Such is the genius of naivety and the antithesis of sycophantism that is open to all who are inclined to truly reflect on the meaning of that word “history”, even if that history may necessarily involve, to a greater or lesser extent, studying, or at least understanding, dry as dust volumes of international law and trade statistics.