Jan 5, 2009

Old, Obscure, Great Books - Review No.1

If anyone wants a good education, I say a significant portion of that would come from old books. I have accumulated quite a wonderful - and large - collection of them. I have learned so much from the scholars of decades ago; learning that would be almost impossible were I to read books solely by today's scholars, who tend to be concerned with trivia and are not all that scholarly (though there are some exceptions). As one way to help save those wonderful old books from a much undeserved oblivion, I am, starting with this post, selecting a few for brief reviews. I am sure there are, besides me, plenty of others out there who would find them to be of value.

Shortly after returning to college to major in philosophy my intellectual curiosity grew quickly - and in many directions. What I was learning in college just was not enough for me. I had all sorts of questions about things, especially how ideas influenced Western history from its literature to its politics. I quickly saw that I had my own studying to do outside of college and that my work was cut out for me. As a student, I was quickly disabused of the notion that my professors would be of some help in guiding me toward the matters I was interested in that went beyond classroom material. Disappointed, also, with the books I found in the latest Ivy League book catalogs and with what was in the book stores, I came to the conclusion that old books might be what I need.

I shortly found that to be the correct conclusion.

Learning how to find good, old books was a bit difficult at first, as was identifying exactly what I was interested in. I was going in blind to new territory and found my way as I went and learned to use these old scholars as my guides until I could find my way through all this new, strange, complex, and wonderful "intellectual territory" on my own. I was enthused that with the right old books I could give myself an excellent education - and it would be dirt cheap!

Anyhow, here is my first semi-random round-up of such gems. As far as I know, these books are long out of print - unfortunately; but there are copies out there to be found.

Nationalism: Its Meaning & History (revised ed.), by Hans Kohn; Anvil, 1965; 191 pp.

This is a great little overview of nationalism from its 18th century origins to its 20th century manifestations. The first half of the book is Kohn's very concise and, at the same time, thorough, history of modern nationalism the world over. The second half of the book consists of short, primary source excerpts on nationalism from the writings of Machiavelli, Hegel, Mazzini, Napoleon, Dostoevsky, Renan, Nehru, Wagner, Mussolini, and others.

Kohn explains how the Enlightenment's nationalism that was of a benevolent, cultural nature was changed through a succession of historical events and the rise of new ideas, in to the collectivistic and militaristic nationalism of the last century - which still lingers in some ways. One of the most significant factors in this transformation was the French Revolution. The climate of ideas in revolutionary France led to a religious-like worship of the nation. "In all the communities in France an altar of the fatherland was erected with the inscription: 'The citizen is born, lives, and dies for the fatherland.' Before it the population assembled with patriotic songs, took an oath to uphold national unity and to obey and to protect the supreme law giver, the sovereign people" (p.25).

Especially significant in fostering the new conception of the nation was education: "The French Revolution established the first comprehensive system of national education to raise virtuous and patriotic citizens. Education was for the first time regarded as a duty and chief interest of the nation...[to] realize the unity of the fatherland and the union of its citizens" (p.26).

When nationalism spread from the West to the third-world it was easily adapted despite the vast cultural differences between the two. Kohn shows why this is so without, for whatever reason, explicitly naming it: third-world cultures were predominantly religious, therefore a religion of the nation was easily accepted. This, as Kohn does point out, was then used to assert independence from the West.

Dictatorship: Its History & Theory, by Alfred Cobban; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939; 352 pp.

It is with the 16th century political philosophy of Jean Bodin that Cobban begins his history of dictatorship that culminates in - well, the year he wrote this book says it.

Bodin gave a secular justification for the state, one aspect of which was deriving sovereignty from the will of society instead of the will of God. This was a preliminary step toward ending the notion of the divine right of kings which had long been the basis of governments. Cobban takes the reader through the history of philosophical and political developments that incrementally led to modern totalitarianism: the 18th century's "Enlightened despots"; the political philosophy of Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Sieyes; the French Revolution's terrorism and "dictatorship of liberty." This period climaxes in Napoleon. With his ascendancy "arose, in the modern world, the idea that one man might himself represent the will of the people, and be invested with all the authority of the most despotic ruler in the name of democracy. The idea of sovereignty, freed from all restraints, and transferred to the people, had at last given birth to the first modern dictatorship" (p.86).

After Napoleon the stage is largely set for Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and their lesser copies. In the paving of the way for them Cobban traces the development of nationalism and the impact of thinkers like Fichte, Hegel, and Marx. The idea of natural law, important in Enlightenment political philosophy of liberalism, is ended, Cobban argues, by the German Romanticists. The circle is closed, so to say, when Lenin's power-grab in Russia is modeled on the French Revolution.

In his summary of dictatorship, Cobban observes: "This is a return to government by faith: nationalism is the new religion, and the dictator is Pope and Emperor rolled into one"(p.283). And "there is a real spiritual principle in modern dictatorship, which makes it more than a mere technique of government. The new totalitarian dictatorship is powerful not because it rules men's bodies, but because it controls their minds. Its essential aim is, as we have suggested above, the identification of Church and State" (p.284).

The book also has an appendix on Greek, Roman, and medieval Italian dictatorships.

Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Vergilius Ferm; Littlefield, Adams, & Co., 1959; 844pp.

It is very simple to review this book: it has big pages with small print, so there are lots of entries! Just about any religious figure or concept is included. It is a great reference book on religion.

The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (revised & expanded ed.), by Norman Cohn; Oxford University Press, 1970; 412 pp.

Bluntly, the reader of this book is in for a wild trip! The subject matter - medieval end-of-the-world movements - is as creepy as it is comical, but Norman Cohn is very much the serious scholar who actually broke open a new area of study with this book's first edition.

Cohn's focus is on what he termed "revolutionary millenarianism" and "mystical anarchism" in western Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries, and in the ending of the book he briefly draws parallels between them and the 20th century's revolutionary communist movements. Of these Christian revolutionaries and anarchists, Cohn examines their histories, their doctrines and the ideas that originated them, the problems they caused for religious authorities, and their influence on theologians.

Cohn sets the larger context of medieval messianic cults in its distant origins: ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writings and how they influenced the Church Founders. Apocalyptic writings merged in the Christian mind with the ancient pagan notions of a long-lost state of nature, and the yearning to return to it, resulting in the vision of an end of the world and a new millennium. In history this idea has had formidable power.

Between the early Christian centuries and the 11th century there were who knows how many messiahs, and Cohn gives some examples of them before they became more prolific in the centuries his book concentrates on.

After not many tales of messiahs one can see a familiar pattern which is universally applicable: a self-proclaimed messiah gathers a following, even if it remains small, claims to have supernatural powers and witnesses claim likewise. Next he promises them some version of a new, heavenly world and they come to heads with the authorities who kill the messiah and many of his followers. Bewildered survivors nonetheless believe their messiah will return in the future to triumph in bringing in the millennium. "So it came about that multitudes of people acted out with fierce energy a shared phantasy, which, though delusional, yet brought them such intense emotional relief that they could live only through it, and were perfectly willing both to kill and to die for it. This phenomenon was to recur many times, in various parts of western and central Europe, between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries" (p.88). Every generation of medieval Christians experienced this; sometimes it was on a small-scale, sometimes it was on a large scale.

There were also the "mystical anarchists," the "amoral supermen" of the Free Spirit and similar sects (Cohn compares them to Nietzsche's notion of the "superman") who claimed to be one with God, who is good and divine, and therefore, they were above all morality. They were already saved so they could do anything they pleased - and they did, as Cohn chronicles for us.

Another religious angle some medievals took on the world's imminent end was premised on self-punishment. They believed that if they beat their bodies to bloody pulps, the punishment in the afterlife would not be as severe. This culminated in mass - and public - self-flagellating processions that would usher in the Second Coming.

Cohn concludes, "The old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends to obscure what otherwise would be obvious. For it is the simple truth that, stripped of their original supernatural sanction, revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism are with us still" (p.286).

The Pursuit of the Millennium is an in-depth look at those who took Christianity seriously and to its logical conclusion - over and over and over again, despite the horrific results of so doing. It is a history demonstrating how faith, if strongly held, is immune to reality.

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No.2

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