The History of Civilization, Pt III

As stated in the previous post, I’m skipping over reading the book of Job, and instead taking a side-track into two of the lectures on history provided in what I’m calling Volume LI. To be clear, though, there is no volume number on this book. Rather, its spine simply reads “Lectures,” but as its the only un-numbered book of the fifty-one in the collection, calling it Vol. LI just makes sense to my mind. We have two essays here:

1–“General Introduction” by Prof. Robert Matteson Johnston

“In all directions, in almost every branch of literature, history may be discovered, a multiform chameleon; and yet history does not really exist. No one has yet composed a record of humanity; and no one ever will, for it is beyond man’s powers. Macaulay’s history covered forty years; that of Thucydides embraced only the Peloponnesian war; Gibbon, a giant among the moderns, succeeded in spanning ten centuries after a fashion, but has found no imitators. The truth is there is no subject, save perhaps astronomy, that is quite so vast and quite so little known. Its outline, save in the sham history of our text books, is entirely wanting. Its details, where really known to students, are infinitely difficult to bring into relation.” (7)

Johnston thus intimates that history, as a subject of study, is necessarily a reminder of human finiteness. History should humble us, and it is always ready to teach us and show us something old that is new to us, that is perpetually instructive to us. History thus performs the feeling of strangely exotic familiarity that I discussed with regard to Herodotus’s account of Egypt, but in a perpetual, never-ending sense that reminds us of how familiar and strange we are to ourselves.

Johnston briefly notes that we only know “history” back to about 1000B.C.; before then, we are only left with fragmentary archaeological evidence that tells us of great civilizations and nomadic tribes–and that these set the stage for the “history” that we do know, insofar as history is ever something that we might know. “History,” for Johnston, begins with Homer and Joshua–with the birth of Hellenic myth and civilization and the entry of the Jews into Palestine. These two events set in motion the birth of the civilization that produces us here in the West. And over the course of less than twenty pages, Johnston shows us the broad strokes of Western history from this point forward to the fin-de-siecle age of colonialism and expansion; language and the ideas it carries, economics and the need to compete for control and resources, and belief and the way in which it helps to codify and define men as belonging to disparate races all move forward the train of history.

2–“Ancient History” by Prof. William Scott Ferguson.

By “Ancient History,” Prof. Ferguson means Graeco-Roman civilization, from 1200BC to 300AD; before then, the civilization was an “Oriental” one, with “three distinct but interconnected centers, Egypt, Babylonia, and Crete-Mycenae” (24). Certainly, the first truly Occidental civilization borrowed liberally from its Oriental predecessors. But it developed into a civilization of its own, and is the source of our civilization. Ferguson makes an ironic statement at the end of the opening paragraph, ironic both in its unintended prophetic tone and in how it lines up with that he reveals in his rehearsal of Graeco-Roman history. Writing in the Edwardian era on the eve of the Great War, Ferguson notes that the 19th century “of our era may be regarding as the opening of [a period] of untold possibilities for human development” (ibid). Ferguson is not wrong, inasmuch as the last 100 years or so have shown us developments in life expectancy and alleviation of poverty unheard of in human history. However, we have undergone these developments at the same time we have learned to destroy ourselves with greater ease and more devastating carnage than ever before. The progressive view of history his statement espouses is challenged by the experiences that would come in the next few years.

But a greater irony in this progressive statement is how profoundly pessimistic Prof. Ferguson’s view of this period of history is; coupled with it seems to be a vision of the default mode of human nature that feels equally pessimistic. Beginning at the close the Homeric age and working towards the fall of the Western Empire, Ferguson shows us that Graeco-Roman civilization was one in which we see constant and regular competition between factions, factions whose greatest purpose is to define and codify who a people are, what it means to be part of that race. (What is a Hellene? What is a Roman?) As a result, throughout this period we are witness to a push and pull between union and disunion; union, Ferguson implies, is necessary for human flourishing, and unity puts us in service to those things beyond and outside of our individual selves. Athens and Sparta each provided Hellenic civilization with a vision of union, but these were competing visions, and thus Hellenic civilization was not unified. Even the rule of Alexander, and the rise of Graeco-Macedonian civilization, did not truly unify the Greek world, as its union was one done by power and coercion–by the Spartan, rather than the Athenian model, and certainly rather than a blending of the two (it should be noted that Ferguson insists that we understand that the brief period of Athenian hegemony was held together more by its maritime empire and naval power than its virtuous ideals; Athens was just as Spartan as Sparta, in a way).

Unity that comes by force of arms alone is always unity that can be undone, and Prof. Ferguson shows us this again and again. Another faction rises, and makes a claim to be that which will codify and define a world and a people, and conquers the previous faction. Yet this faction will itself fall. Ferguson would have us recognize that the particular genius of Augustus was producing a union that was finally not only produced via force of arms and autocratic power, but by having the people under his rule recognize that they belonged to something larger than themselves–that they belonged to a race, that they were themselves Romans. “This he did by establishing a peculiar compromise between republicanism and monarchy called the principate” (30). Augustus’s particular genius was the marriage of Spartan rigidity and strength of arms and Athenian democratic idealism. However, such a marriage of Sparta and Athens must be effected by those individuals who are singularly great enough to effect it; it was, in Ferguson’s view, Augustan inertia and the occasional rise of men his equal to rule the Empire that kept it in tact for as long as it lasted. The Caesars, on the whole, were all too human, and fell pray to the pettiness of despotism that would bring the Western Empire to its knees.

And thus the irony of Ferguson’s initial progressive notion: human civilization, in his presentation here, needs union, but necessarily tends to chaotic disunion because of the essentially flawed nature of all men. There was no reason to think that his age would truly open up new possibilities, and would not succumb to the same chaotic forces of disunion and human frailty. Ferguson provides a very perceptive overview of Graeco-Roman civilization in a few short pages that gives an excellent vision of what drives human history and moves civilizations forward. The world that was to come after him was to be controlled by the same forces he perceived drove the Mediterranean world of 1300BC-300AD.

Next time: I head back to that legendary time that Prof. Ferguson presents as the pivot point between the divergence of Oriental and Occidental civilization by diving into Homer’s Odyssey. I’ll be looking at the editorial introduction and Book I for Part IV of this series. I’m really excited about the next couple of dozen posts, as they’ll all have me considering the Odyssey, something I’ve never read in its entirety. The translation used by the Harvard Classics is the Butcher and Lang prose translation–the one Joyce read while writing Ulysses. I’ve included a facsimile of a 1906 edition of that translation below:

Comments are closed.