Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Continuity of Philosophy

I mentioned before about the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast as a great survey of the history of philosophy. One thing that stands out is that I do not think that either of the two popular stories we tell ourselves about the history of (especially Western) philosophy stand up all that well. There is the account that praises the classical Greek tradition, and then disparages tthe Middle Ages only to rejoice at the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. There is also the account that gives credit to the Middle Ages as a further enhancement of the classical tradition only to be wrecked by the Enlightenment.

The totality of Western philosophy seems much more continuous than that though. The themes that many associate with the Enlightenment are already in play in the medieval period, and these in turn were brought forward from the classical world (often via the Islamic world). There is no way that the Enlightenment could have sprung fully-formed out of the tail end of the classical period, and yet it also starts to appear to me to be so much the expected outcome of the medieval period too.

The Reaper in the Room

Two remarks I recently came across.

(1) Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things. – Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 133.

(2) Ernst Kantorowicz, discussing the palpable contrast seen in funerary rites between juristic theories of the immortality of the king’s dignity and the mortality of his natural body:

In short, one revelled in strong contrasts of fictitious immortality and man’s genuine morality, contrasts which the Renaissance, through its insatiable desire to immortalize the individual by any contrivable tour de force, not only failed to mitigate, but rather intensified: there was a reverse side to the proud reconquest of a terrestrial aevum. At the same time, however, immortality–the decisive mark of divinity, but vulgarized by the artifice of countless fictions–was about to lose its absolute, or even its imaginary, values: unless it manifested itself incessantly through new mortal incarnations, it practically ceased to be immortality. The King could not die, was not allowed to die, lest scores of fictions of immortality were to break down; and while kings died, they were granted the comfort of being told that at least “as King” they “never died.” (The King’s Two Bodies, 437)

I suppose the trope is perennial, the human attempt to avoid and divert itself from its own mortality, but these days nothing represents to me this custom so much as the endlessly renewed but disposable constituents of the celebrity pantheon.

One More Gift Under The Tree…

…But it might not be one that too many people want to open. I’ve wondered for a while how much a role World War I played in the decline of European Christianity. I don’t know that it’s something that we look at a whole lot, but surely all the commemorations of the 1914 Christmas truce bear an examination. Here it is nicely packaged up by Sainsbury’s (who hope to remind you to buy chocolate from them as well) for a Christmas advertising campaign:

It’s impossible to imagine two groups of predominantly Protestant soldiers from northern Europe (the Germans who participated in the Christmas truce were mostly Saxons no less!) singing the same hymn on the same night to the same God and then being told by the horrified senior officer corps on each side to get back to killing each other in the name of, among other things, God, not having some impact on how they think about God. In the winter of 1914 perhaps a sizeable number of them still believed that the war would be a short-term affair, perhaps in those brief moments in no-man’s land they thought that this little gesture would hasten the conclusion of the war.

This little clip reminds me of how I learned about this story in school and how it is generally repeated in popular culture, that there was this brief, almost magical moment of truce and then war had to recommence because, well, because there was a war on and that hideous circular argument was enough. That Europe would destroy itself in such way at a moment when European civilization dominated the world surely has to have been as corrosive to Christianity as any argument by any philosopher, as any discovery in science or anything else that has been thought to shaken the foundations of Christendom.

C. S. Lewis on Going Back

As today is the 166th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’ birth, I thought I would post this quote from Mere Christianity on the importance of “going back.” It does my historian’s heart good.

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when we do arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 28.

The Bismarck Problem


There perhaps few figures from (relatively recent) history whom I find more fascinating that Otto von Bismarck. I remember being riveted hearing and reading about his exploits in my high school Modern Western Civ class. I’ll spare you the details (and therefore give you a gross oversimplification), but in a nutshell the aristocratic Bismarck moved over the course of a couple decades in the 19th Century to unite most of the Germany-speaking peoples outside of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into the German Empire – a state that was dominated by the landed classes of Prussia (i.e.: people like him). What made this accomplishment remarkable was that there were all sorts of powers working against Bismarck: German liberal and nationalist movements that would have preferred a more liberal and democratic state, Russia, France, Austria, Denmark, and a number of the smaller German states that Prussia absorbed. By the 1870s Bismarck had a united German Empire and was well-practiced in the skills needed to manipulate politics and diplomacy in Europe to ensure that German Imperial (read: Prussian) interests were protected. He did this from the position of Chancellor – one that he had more or less crafted to suit his needs.

The problem with Bismarck’s system was that it required Bismarck. The eventuality that his German Empire was not well suited for was the inevitable end of his time in the role of Chancellor. A weaker or less calculating or less intelligent person filling the role in the German Empire would be ill-equiped to handle the machinery of this state. In effect one of the major factors that led to World War I – and by extension the unravelling of the German Empire was that a succession of weaker men held the position of Chancellor at the same time as the Hohenzollern line produced a rather erratic and temperamental Emperor. Bismarck appeared to have a solution to every eventuality except for the possibility that there might not always be a Bismarck.

I’m thinking about this in the wake of Mark Driscoll rage-quitting his church only to have the whole thing implode. Churches and movements that make one human being indispensable are likely doomed when that person leaves. Does your church or network or denomination have a Bismarck problem? You may want to look into that question.

Craig Keener on Miracles

Dr. Craig Keener is unarguably one of the world’s top scholars on the topic of miracles, and he recently delivered a lecture series on the subject that is well worth hearing if you want to get a fraction of his argument from his massive Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. This will be of interest to cessationists, materialists, and those who are neither.

HT: Triablogue

Samuel Davies and Emotional Outbursts

When thinking about Great Awakening preaching we often think of the emotional outbursts that accompanied it. Consider the response to Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, how people openly wailed at Whitefield’s itinerant ministry, or how people fell as if struck under Wesley’s. In light of this, I was interested to read this comment by Hughes Oliphant Old about Samuel Davies, a revival preacher of the same period, who was known as one of America’s greatest orators:

His sermons are theologically sound, but even more importantly, they are theologically perceptive. Davies drew large crowds and was a popular preacher, as were George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent, and yet we never hear of emotional outbursts attending his preaching. He was a consummate orator, yet never a rabble-rouser. He was prophetic and preached about sensitive problems of the day without any trace of the contentiousness we find in some of the New Lights of lesser magnitude. He seemed to be equally at home preaching to black slaves and to Virginia planters. His preaching was both fervent and gentlemanly.

Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Volume 5: Moderatism, Pietism, and Awakening (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 154.

Eric Margolis on Margaret MacMillan

I thought this quote was relevant in light of Dan’s last post. Eric Margolis, reflecting on the centenary of the Great War, wrote:

This mournful anniversary has reopened fierce debate over who was responsible for the Great War.

On one side of the debate is historian Margaret MacMillan, whose new book “The War That Ended Peace,” lays primary blame on Germany’s military and commercial ambitions. MacMillan is a nice lady – I’ve debated her on TV – but her tedious new book is so steeped in traditional British/Anglo-Saxon bias against Germany as to be of limited value.

On the other is “The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914” by Cambridge professor Christopher Clark. This brilliant book is the finest, most instructive, best balanced book ever written on the origins of the Great War.

Two Kingdoms and the Great War

Philip Jenkins makes an insightful point about Lutheran two-kingdom theology and the Great War in his book The Great and Holy War:

German Protestants of this generation, though, had remarkably few qualms about presenting violence and warfare as legitimate tactics for a Christian state. Through its Zwei-Reiche-Lehre (two-kingdoms doctrine), Lutheran theology taught that the two kingdoms, earthly and heavenly, each had its own moral codes and ways of being. Although Christians lived in both simultaneously, it was impossible to apply the absolute demands of New Testament ethics to each: the state simply could not be expected to operate according to such standards. A state that turned the other cheek in the face of aggression or invasion would soon cease to exist. Even a nation made up almost entirely of devout Christians could never act politically according to strict Christian moral teachings. Potentially, this approach justified cynical state actions that seemed to violate Christian teachings or commonly accepted moral standards. In 1914, the doctrine overrode objections to the treatment of Belgium.

Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014), 84-85.

On This Day…

…if you get what that title means, then you know what this post is about. Today marks one hundred years since the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the event that triggered World War I. Apropos this anniversary I want to direct you to the CBC Ideas episode (also available as a podcast) in which they interview Margaret MacMillan on the matter. The most striking assertion she makes is that World War I was not, as conventional wisdom often puts it, inevitable.