I’ve just started reading an epic book, “The History Of Christianity”, by Diarmaid (Dermott?) MacCulloch. It’s going to take me a long time. It’s 1016 pages long and the print is very small! Now that I am both short sighted AND long sighted (I used to think this wasn’t possible, that somehow they’d cancel each other out) this means that I can read it best without my glasses, but as my main reading opportunity is on the tube home from work, I’m not keen to be oblivious to my surroundings – especially when the iPod makes me half-oblivious already. But I digress… I’m already engrossed and I’m only on page 97. We’ve done Greek philosophy, Alexander the Great, the Egyptians, Babylon, the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people, the Romans, and Jesus has just been crucified and resurrected. Wow! And only page 97. Paul of Tarsus is next.
I love these big histories. You only get a superficial insight into any particular moment, but, especially if you know a bit about some of the subjects already (which I do, sometimes) you can just luxuriate in the narrative, see how events, looking back, flow into each other, hang together. The big picture. And there are always so many things you just didn’t know before. New knowledge, new connections – this is the sort of thing that gets my brain tingling. Learning. Inspiration.
Diarmaid MacCulloch writes beautifully and wittily. Already, only on page 97, I would say to anyone, buy this book! And read it. (Buying is the easy bit, I know from past experience). Anyone who is curious about how the stories, the history, of the Old Testament as well as the New, were written, and how this small Jewish sect came to dominate Western culture and philosophy from such unpromising beginnings, will love it.
Well, on the basis of the first 97 pages I say that. I hope the next 919 bear me out!
I’ve read a few other histories like this in the past. One, by the historian J.M.Thomas, had the grandest title possible: “The History Of The World”. It covered some of the same ground as MacCulloch’s book of course, as the West has dominated history over the last few centuries (though for how much longer?). It was an amazing story. The sense of a journey jumps out, excites, depresses at times (there is so much brutality, so much evil as well as good). It provides clues, no, more than that, it explains how we got to where we are today. We are the products of our past and if we ignore that, we blunder into the future without vision or strategy, making all the same horrible mistakes again.
Another that led me into pastures new was “The History Of Western Philosphy” by the great scholar, writer, polemicist, and lots of other things, Bertrand Russell. Now, I studied philosophy at university for a year, along with politics and economics. It was so limited. This was at Oxford in the late seventies. We worked on two papers for first year exams. One had to be logic. I hated it. It was like maths. I didn’t want to do maths! It had right and wrong answers. I preferred ambiguity, the acceptance that there is more than one answer to most problems. We then had a choice between Utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill) and David Hume. Only one of the two. I chose the former, but at a time when I had no idea about either. I scraped through the exam at the end of the year and dropped the subject as we were allowed to focus on only two subjects from the P, P and E for the last two years. What a shame, I now think, because as I explored what the study of philosophy had to offer, after I learned about a wider range of philosphers, I knew that I would never have given it up.
Russell’s book gave me that superficial knowledge of so many of history’s great thinkers. Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Spinoza, Hegel, Schopenhauer. And all the others. And like all the other histories I’d read, it gave me the opportunity to make connections, understand the flows from one to another, link the thoughts to wider history and politics… and science. Soon after, I read a wonderful autobiography by the philospher Bryan Magee. It was a combination of his life and an explanation of philosophical thought. The two, in his life, were inextricably linked. But the insight was at the start, when he described how as a child he’d look up at the stars and wonder how they all got there. How, when he shut his eyes, and all was black, how could he be sure that anything was still there. And many more such questions. The questions that all children ask are the questions that philosophers seek to illuminate. I say illuminate, because I’m not sure anyone has actually answered them. They’ve tried, but for every theory, there is a counter-argument. Religion seeks to nail down the debate, but only by delegating the really difficult stuff to God. The human mind, or enough human minds, find that unsatisfactory. So we continue to challenge, explore, and slowly but surely advance our understanding of the world we live in.
Phew! That’s what happens to me when I read these books. From time to time it sends me scurrying for more information, deeper knowledge. But there is so little time, when you play your part as a father, husband, friend, colleague, signed up member of the human race. And they are the things that matter most, that provide meaning to life. But the big questions are worth a ponder from time to time, and histories give me a vehicle.
Wish me luck on the next 919 pages. I’ll be solving the meaning of life as I go along. Especially if there is a glass of Chardonnay by my side!
Just one more waffeur Monsieur!….