Category: Reviews

America’s Puritan Heritage (and a plug for The Wordy Shipmates)

It was like providence. Or Providence. Pun intended.

Less than a week ago, during the time when I was feverishly preparing myself to begin my American Philosophy course, I just happened to be browsing in the world’s best bookstore, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, when I caught sight of this winsome little book. It was all orange and blue and white, and glossy. And relatively slender. I like books of a certain size, and this was one.

And then, the author’s name caught my eye: Sarah Vowell. I love Sarah Vowell. What an American treasure! Vowell rose to fame because of her distinctly comic radio essays that can be heard with great frequency on Ira Glass’ excellent NPR show “This American Life”. (If you don’t know this show, well, consider that an assignment). Score! In truth, I was already on the lookout for books by her. I must have noticed the book because her name was on the cover.

You see, I had heard she was writing a book on the history of Hawaii; loving Hawaii, as I do, that sounded promising to me. Vowell is known for her funny travelogues and historical nonfiction, which sounds boring, but she brings her acerbic, critical, self-deprecating and almost macabre panache to every sentence of her work. This is mind candy.

This book, however, turned out not to be the one on Hawaii. It turned out to be a book on Puritan America.

This was amazing to me. I had just been studying the Puritans myself! and I had found my fascination with their writings steadily growing. My plan for American Philosophy is to begin by having students read primary source texts from such Puritan luminaries as John Cotton, John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson. And I had been puzzling about how to present these figures and their era without resorting to clichés and stereotypes.

And now here was funny lady Sarah Vowell, writing a full, book length essay, full of her good humor and intelligent insight and written in her crystal clear prose… and hadn’t she just done all my work for me. If it weren’t true, it would be too good to be true. If only I had assigned the book to my students when I submitted my book orders! Alas.

The way Vowell sees it, Americans mistakenly think of the Puritans as a bunch of killjoys. And because of their deep, evangelical — and let’s be frank, fanatical — Protestant Christian faith, they are usually also assumed to be early representatives of the anti-intellectual, anti-rational, pro-religion tradition of American thought. What Vowell sees, however, are “Wordy Shipmates,” literary proponents of an ideal society.

What Vowell points out is that these figures were passionately intellectual literary types, obsessed with ideas, books, and language. Vowell can identify, as can I. Those of us who are still literary types in an America where a love for language and for literature has fallen out of favor might look back to Puritan America as a potential wellspring for renewal. If we only cared to look.

But, weren’t they a bunch of misogynistic witch hunters and myopic bigots who perpetrated genocide on America’s native population? Well, yes, sort of. But that sort of description can only apply if you care to ignore the side of Puritan ideology that is so deeply and warmly oriented towards society viewed as community.

While the theocratic Puritan world they attempted to create in early colonial America is no longer on the top of most people’s lists of ideal societies, reading about their world and ideas demonstrates that they were also passionately idealistic about creating a society that was a true commonwealth (Massachusetts, to this day, is called a “commonwealth” and not a state; see their constitution).

When John Winthrop articulated his compelling vision of the Massachusetts bay colony as God’s “City on a Hill” — apparently appropriating ancient Israelite Zionism for English colonial interests — he created an image that has frequently been exploited in the service of what is today called “American exceptionalism.” America regards itself as the leader of the free world, the policeman of the world, and the guiding light given to the nations in politics and economic and culture. The image has often been exploited in American politics (most prominently by Ronald Reagan). And it has become steadily identified with a distinctly conservative brand of politcs.

Shrewdly, Vowell points out the discord inherent in this position. Our Puritan forebears may well have been arrogant exceptionalists (they did, after all, believe God Himself was guiding their progress). But what conservative politicos who have embraced the image of the “City on the Hill” have missed is that the Puritan idea of a Godly social order was deeply communitarian, being rooted in an ideal of self-sacrificial Christian charity and the obligations that come from our mutual interconnection in society. Once again, Vowell rescues the Puritans from that one-dimensional viewpoint that sees them merely as a bunch of Tom Delays in shiny black boots with big buckles on them. Those of us who care about the idea that people should work together in society to care for the general welfare of all, i.e. “we the people,” we have Puritan forebears too.

It’s a fascinating read. Highly recommended.

Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008; ISBN: 978-1-59448-400-1); preview it on google books.

American Philosophy (and a plug for The Metaphysical Club)

For the next sixteen weeks every post I make in this blog will be related to my American Philosophy course (PHI 216). I am a neophyte in this field, but it combines two of my intellectual avocations: philosophy and American history.

A few years ago a friend of mine encouraged me to read Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America and this book really astounded me. Menand’s fluid style, which owes more to the classic Transcendentalist essay than to analytic prose (he is a professor of English), brings to life the way ideas relate historically to institutions, events, personalities, ideologies and cultures. Real intellectual history. It is small wonder that in 2002, it won the Pulitzer Prize for History writing.

Besides presenting an outstanding overview of 19th century American philosophy, Menand lays bare the roots of America’s most important school of thought, Pragmatism. The book deals not only with powerful and complex ideas — and in a surprisingly straightforward and easy to understand way — it vividly portrays the personalities (William James, Chauncey Wright, Charles Sanders Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey), places (Cambridge in particular) and traumatic events (the Civil War) that shaped them. Menand manages to expose the organic stuff from which philosophy is composed; he makes one feel as if the concerns of the philosophers are one’s own; and he does so in a way that offers profound possibilities for thinking about what makes a thought American.

Highly recommended.

Speaking of “American thought,” one cannot raise the question, “what makes a thought American?” without offering at least a thought about the answer.

Since, for the next 16 weeks, I have to teach (that is, constantly think and read about, assign a syllabus of readings and topics for seminar meetings, lead discussions, and occasionally lecture on) the “subject” of “American Philosophy,” I would like nothing more than a clear answer to this question.

I would like that. It would simplify things.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a consistently American way of thought? Occasionally the phrase “American philosophy of” gets debased and used to make generalizations about typically American ways of doing things, things that are mostly practical, economic, and political (“American philosophy of war, business, government,” etc.). But the reality is that there is no consensus “American” view to teach on any particular subject in philosophy, be it natural, moral, metaphysical, epistemological or political.

It would also simplify things if I could tell a consistent narrative of development from a single point of origin. Wouldn’t it be Amazing if the study of American philosophy was a review of the progress of thought, a narrative that could be traced from early colonial inquiry to our well established and final, authoritative account of the world? Alas.

Yet, it would over-simplify the problem to claim that the only “American” thing about “American ideas” is the nationality of the philosophers. That would be a truly nominalist view of the subject! You might think (though for a few minutes only) that you could make a course on “American Philosophy” into a more or less comprehensive review of American philosophers. As if the series of thinkers being considered were related to one another by historical accident alone: they all happened to practice philosophy (or think and write deeply) within the borders of a place called America.

I take seriously a more organic view of history; by accident or no, proximity in time and place brings different individuals into relationship with forces that are larger than themselves. You could call these forces weather, or structures, or gods, or demons, or spirits, or ideologies, or cultures, or regimes, or even mechanisms… you might just be speaking about the impact of large-scale phenomena like climate, economic practices, wars, and even natural disasters.

Take Iraq and Katrina, for example. Ask yourself: how do things that happen in America, or that Americans do, impact “the American mind,” considered as a vast collection of wildly divergent and heterogeneous individual minds.

Time and place matter, so, with the help of like-minded historians (especially Bruce Kuklick, author of our textbook, A History of Philosophy in America, 1720–2000) and plenty of reading of primary sources found in the public domain, we are going in search of philosophy that is American in all senses of the phrase. We should have a relatively easy time finding freely available primary source material down to the early 1930’s. Thereafter we have to be much more selective in our coverage, because even Absolute Idealists seem to believe in copyright.

(On that topic, it might be interesting to talk about the recent re-emergence of the concept of the “public commons” and even of the idea of so-called copyleft in American intellectual life, a phenomenon which has been paralleled by the rise of huge free public databases like google and collective epistemological enterprises like Wikipedia. But I digress.)

We will consider the impact of the Puritan Colonial experience and origins of American political and religious life in the 17th century, pause to ask ourselves about the way of thought found among those native Americans that we displaced, and about the impact of our displacement of them upon our national character. We will explore the emergence of erudite philosophical speculation among America’s clergy in the 18th century, and examine the emergence of both liberal and conservative Christian thought in America from this milieu. We will look at and consider the intellectual preoccupations of various schools of Philosophy from the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially Trancendentalism, Idealism, Pragmatism, Naturalism, and Instrumentalism, and consider how the struggles against slavery and for national unity, for womens’ suffrage and rights, temperance, economic justice, and racial equality have impacted and been impacted by the way Americans have thought about philosophical matters. We will note the way our national debates on war, sexual orientation, the role of government, and the content of education are informed by and inform the changing landscape of the American mind.

American thought is shot through with fundamental contrasts that define its contours like the shadows on a mountainside. I hope we can highlight and explore a number of these areas of shared interest and debate that are peculiarly related to the American experience. Especially relevant is the pattern of thinking that emerges around the tensions that arise when a society is rooted in a notion of individual freedom but organized around the authority of an ideal community. We see this tension at place from the earliest Puritan fights over conscience to the much later struggles for equality in a pluralistic society.

The American experience has also brought a constant struggle with authority that is reflected not only in our political history (Puritan separatism, the Revolution, the Civil War, the struggle for civil rights, the culture wars) but in the preoccupation of our philosophers with epistemology and the philosophy of science. What emerges from the study of American philosophy is an awareness that Americans are in an ongoing process of debate on the extent of and meaning of what we might know and should believe. Americans have been particularly committed to searching for certainty in our beliefs, which has led to a recurring effort to reconcile or resolve the apparent tensions that exist between science and religion, or rather, between scientific and religious ways of knowing.

Ultimately, ours is a debate about authority. Who or what will lead the way: tradition, faith, and the God of our fathers? or reason and experience? God and country? or science and book learning? It is not safe to presume in advance that you know already who stands on what side of this debate. The debate runs far deeper and twists more complexly than you might presume.

Ultimately, I would like to suggest that the study of American philosophers in the context of the unfolding American experience can offer to those of us who are Americans a deep well of ideas about who we are and what we might be. What kind of America do we want to be, and why? What do we know, and how do we know it? What ought we to do?

Let’s begin (again).

Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures (Moers, 2004)

I have just finished reading the quite entertaining book Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures by German author Walter Moers. It is doubtful whether I ever would have purchased this book for myself — it being both outside of my typical choice of genres and relatively obscure — yet I did read it because it was given to me by one of my most intellectually distinguished friends, the anthropologist Alexander Mawyer (an old U of C buddy, now a professor at Lake Forest College). And because Alex is both a cultivated student of fine literature and a voracious consumer of culture both popular and fringe, and also has so often recommended fine reads to me in the past, I trusted his guidance, even though this dauntingly sized 600+ page trade-paperback promised to suck up many long hours of my precious and limited reading time.

After reading the book, I remain unsure as to how to categorize it. It is tempting to classify it as children’s literature. Moers is both a writer and an illustrator, and his book is animated in both words and pictures by a fanciful and delightful wit and whimsy that many people would associate with Juvenile fiction. A blurb from the Washington Post on the cover of my copy shows that its critic so classified it; the writer describes Rumo as “Equal parts J.K. Rowling, Douglas Adams, and Shel Silverstein … a work of monumental silliness.” In truth, that’s an inept and pathetic description, a failure of critical imagination. The only thing Moers has in common with Silverstein is that they are both self-illustrating writers. And while there could be many points of comparison with J. K. Rowling (a male central character, a school, a struggle with the forces of Evil, a prevalence of strange and inventive names and fantastic creatures), it is doubtful whether any of these comparisons would prove particularly fruitful, I think, since Rowling’s fantastic parallel world of English schoolchildren has an entirely different generic feel, literary purpose, intended audience, and, most importantly, stylistic level. Rowling is a writer whose simple style and schoolchildren’s theme is meant to ensnare the minds of (our inner) ten year olds longing to grow up. Her whimsical side is mere color; the humor found in her books has the stale feel of adolescent television programming, and the focus throughout is on the drama of coming of age. Whatever else Rumo may be, it is not really a “coming of age” story. The writing style could be argued to come closer to Adams, I suppose, whose central character in the Hitchhiker’s Guide books also wanders through a series of unfamiliar and fantastic adventures set in a twisted and humorous imaginary universe. But again, the comparison is fruitful only if one highlights the differences. Adams uses extremely economical language, tells a straightforward adventure story, and employs his humor in a satirical and critical fashion entertaining to both young readres and adults. His novels are short and uproariously, bitingly funny. That isn’t Moers at all. Rumo is sprawling, epic in scope, and, while it is occasionally quite funny, humor seems not to be its central purpose. Adams is a humorist; Moers is more like a dungeon master.

Seting apart the German Moers from these English authors, the Juvenile Rowling and the Adolescent Adams, is a literary fascination and preoccupation with violence, bloodshed, warfare, and destruction. Moers’ mixes a dead serious, Homerically clinical poetry of bloody violence with his madcap literary hallucination. In my view, this moves the book out of the category of Juvenile and adolescent fiction and into the domain of geek lit. He is a comic-book Tolkein. The story takes place in a completely fantastic imaginary world (Zamonia). This world doesn’t seem unfamiliar. In literary terms, Rumo seems rather to be a lampoon, or a lark, constructed from an unlikely literary composite of familiar epics, fairy tales, legends, fantasy novels, horror pictures, biology and physics textbooks, and natural history museum exhibits.

As a writer, Moers’ greatest gifts lie in two areas; the first is “the fantastic synthesis of unlikely juxtapositions” (for example, one of the main characters is an amphibious creature called a “Shark Grub”) and the second, even greater gift, is his talent for world-creation through composition of lists.

Hardly a page of this novel goes by without one of Moers’ fabulous lists. Moers uses lists to create and describe scenes, rooms, persons or creatures, histories, landscapes, events… you name it. For an example, consider this scene in which the main character, Rumo, a kind of bipedal horned talking swashbuckling dog called a Wolperting, visits a fairground:

Rumo pricked up his ears. The air was throbbing with sounds that were never to be heard on other occasions: singing saws, glockenspiels, demonic cries, Vulphead madrigals, wooden rattles, mouth drums, foot bells. Laughter rang out on all sides, mingled with shrill cries of terror from the ghost trains and the squeal of bagpipes. Hordes of musicians playing curious instruments competed for the public’s attention and strove to drown each other. Bassophonists made the ground shake, a Bufadista soprano sang of unrequited love in old Zamonian, stallholders did their best to outshout one another, rockets soard hissing into the air, paper ducks quacked, tin drums beat a tattoo (283).

The next paragraph lists the amazing sights that Rumo’s eyes beheld, and then, on the same page, comes this paragraph:

Then there were the smells: cinnamon, honey, saffron, grilled sausages, roast marsh hog, dried cod, mulled wine, smoked eel, baked apples, onion soup, incense, tobacco smoke, goose dripping. Outside most of the booths that sold food were small braziers in which garlic and onion bulbs were burnt to lend the night air an appetising aroma. Goose, chicken and turkey legs encased in clay cooked slowly in pits filled with glowing charcoal. A thick, fragrant soup of pigs’ trotters and peas simmered in a massive cast-iron cauldron. Potatoes and onions were sautéed in thyme-flavored oil, quail fried in lard, trout grilled on sticks. Legs of lamb sizzled over open fires, corn cobs and loaves of bread were baked in clay ovens. A whole ostrich revolved on a spit while ravenous Montanic Dwarfs sat round it clattering their knives and forks. Myrrh was burnt, joss sticks smouldered, masked Moomies tossed curry powder into the air. Rumo continued to cling to Urs.

This is an ancient and epic literary technique, found as early as the Illiad, where Homer makes frequent use of lists, both to sketch vast tableaux of actions and events, and also to describe ornate objects, such as Achilles’ shield. Moers uses and abuses the technique marvelously, transforming it into a style rococo, and in the process giving himself free reign to sketch in and invent the fascinating details of his imagined world. One can flip almost randomly through the book and find scores of them: “Saponic Leeches, Oilsnakes, Dungworms, Suckerfoot Spiders, Bateriomorphs, Plauge Frogs, Trogloticks, Speleovampires — those were the true masters of this dark damp domain” (521).

And his lists aren’t the only thing that remind me of Homer. Rumo’s adventures seem to be modeled after the Odyssey right from the start. When the Wolperting begins his adventures as a prisoner and potential food source, held captive in a floating cave by terrifying but incompetent one eyed “Demonicles,” one is hard pressed not to recall Odysseus and the Cyclops.

Rumo is self-consciously modeled on the form of a saga, retold in the world of the comic-fan convention. Near the end of the novel, Rumo’s telepathically talking sword Dandelion admonishes him for failing to speak up during a campfire session of storytelling:

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Dandelion demanded. “Our own experiences would surely have made the best story of all. The fight in Nurn Forest! Yggdra Syl! The casket! The Icemaggogs! The Vrahoks! General Ticktock’s innards! Ideal subjects for inclusion in lessons on the heroic sagas!”

“I’m no good at telling stories,” Rumo protested.

Rumo may not be a great Bard, but Moers is more than up to the task, the Arrian to Rumo’s Alexander.

I don’t have anything much profound to say about this book. I just want to indicate my appreciation for the imaginative impulse that brought this world to life. It’s a good read, and worthy of your attention, if you like macabre and bloody action stories set in improbable landscapes peopled by talking horned dogs and five-brained absent minded professors. Thanks Alex!

Walter Moers, Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures (trans. John Brownjohn; New York: Overlook Press, 2004; Paperback edition 2007) 688 pages; $16.95; ISBN-10: 1-58567-936-4 / ISBN-13 978-1-58567-936-2.

Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick (1965)

I recently finished reading Philip K. Dick’s wonderful novel Dr. Bloodmoney, which is perhaps the least read deeply influential masterpiece in twentieth century science fiction. The characters and situation of the novel could only emerge from the mind of Dick. Dick unfolds a tangled story set in post-nuclear holocaust Marin county. The characters include a schizophrenic expat German nuclear physicist who just might have brought on the war with his mind; a hostile telekinetic phocomelus mimic for whom the disaster is the key to personal power; an insouciant psychic fetus in fetu, the unlikely hero of the story; a plucky “negro” TV repairman, who survives by eating rats and sellin traps; a secretive and conniving nymphomaniac housewife, and a preternaturally charming celebrity astronaut who, stranded in orbit, runs a radio show for the end of the world. From this motley assemblage Dick constructs a eerie story of American culture, fear, transformation and redemption. That the plot of the novel is implausible, impossible, and bizarre stands not at all in the way of its greatness. Dick’s creation is a collective fever-dream hallucination, an uncanny exploration of post-nuclear insanity, a space-age cultural freakshow, a novel of race and infirmity, of hatred, stupidity, community, and desire, of madness, politics, and economics. Its imprint is everywhere in the fringes of literature. Highly recommended.

Further Reading

Wikipedia entry on Dr. Bloodmoney

Mysterium by Robert Charles Wilson (1994)

Spoiler Alert! Yes, this is a critical review of a novel by an academic. I do give away and discuss the ending, to an extent. I have already received one complaint (see below). Don’t be a victim. If you care about such things, come back and read what I have to say after you’ve finished the novel.

Yesterday I finished reading the novel Mysterium by well-regarded Sci-Fi author Robert Charles Wilson (Bantam, 1994). This book was the winner of the prestigious Philip K. Dick award in 1994. In fact, that’s why I read it. I’ve got a little plan to read a bunch of novels off of that list. I’m a science fiction fan, and it seems like a good way to discover great new authors and keep up with the highlights of the genre.

The problem is this: if Mysterium is any guide, some of my reading could be pretty disappointing. Mysterium starts out well, but whimpers and finally limps into a very unsatisfying conclusion. Like many novels and films in the genre, the plot is built around a MacGuffin, in this case, a mysterious undefined substance which is discovered during an archaeological dig. Ultimately, the object causes an entire Michigan town to be ripped out of this world and deposited in the same location but in a parallel earth. In the universe of the parallel earth, history diverged from the path of our world around the time of early apostolic Christianity, resulting in a world where Roman paganism never really died out and gnosticism became the dominant form of Christianity.

The results of this somewhat fascinating premise are then unfolded in a straightforward third-person narrative, utilizing a classic technique of shifting perspectives between characters chapter to chapter. The prose is clipped, precise, and workmanlike. Highly functional for the purpose to which it is pressed. Occasionally Wilson’s forays into poetic description are successful. Mostly they seem overwrought.

The trouble may be that the premise itself is too fantastic. Furthermore, a few of of the elaborations of the premise utterly fail to cohere with the narrative. The structure and outcome of the novel leaves the reader feeling that Wilson may have simply abandoned the loose ends, hoping that readers will be satisfied with their encounter with the “mystery” of it all.  In the end of the book, he literally (that is, literarily) blows them all away with a nuclear explosion, wiping the slate almost clean. The author appears to think that you will regard his apocalyptic finale as a new beginning and an opening to imagining the future of his fictional world. I see it rather as a narrative dead end, an authorial shortcut to getting out of an impossible storyline.

Like many authors before him, Wilson attempts to meld cosmology and metaphysics.  He does this by sketching a nexus between actual and possible worlds.  He endows this nexus with mysterious and patently magical properties — disembodied ghost-like beings of light, distortions of time and space, the apotheoses of two different characters, and the ad-hoc creation of new worlds — none of which are ever explained or given any other dressing besides a hackneyed language drawn from a shallow study of gnosticism.

Too bad. Parts of the novel are truly impressive. Many of the visual scenes the author constructs are stunning.  In particular, I was fascinated through all the early chapters in which the residents of Two Rivers, MI, became aware of their new situation. The chapters include the repeated image of a finished, paved road terminating abruptly, in a molecularly precise line, at an old growth forest. This image, for me, forms the heart of the book. It is a powerful illustration of the confrontation between the world as it is, and the world as it might have been. The image hints at something fascinating about human existence: our world is a construction of arbitrary forms. We inhabit an effectively random configuration of elements: in our religion, our “histories,” and our communities.

As Pascal noted, “Cleopatra’s nose: had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

Another aspect of the novel, however, counteracts this principle. The political and religious satire which animates the entire plot points to those elements of human nature which are consistent and apparently trans-historical, or even trans-universal. In particular, Wilson has something to say about the dynamics of human power. Even our curiosity and desire to understand each other and the world is tainted by our aggressive tendencies. We possess a deep streak of hostility towards the other, and an underlying impulse towards violence in defense of whatever arbitrary system has been defined as our “norm.” These tendencies emerge in an especially brutal and frightening way when too much power is institutionalized in church and state.

While these ideas are fascinating, ultimately, Wilson’s satire is flat and predictable. In short, I don’t feel he contributed to my understanding of the human condition. I nodded along at his portrayal of the religious and civil authorities of the possible world he had drawn, but I wasn’t provoked to a new insight by it. It’s a caricature.

Wilson asks a question that has often pre-occupied historians of antiquity, “what if, in Christian history, gnosticism had triumphed instead of proto-orthodoxy?” (For example, you can see the question asked and in fact connected to Cleopatra’s nose in the opening pages of Arnaldo Momigliano’s healthy little historiographical exercise Alien Wisdom). He answers the question with a highly plausible, if cynical, hypothesis: the gnostic mysterium would have been just as worldly, hierarchical, and blind as the catholic magisterium.

That’s probably true but in the end, I didn’t really get much of a thrill out of the thought experiment.

After Life in Roman Paganism (Cumont, 1922)

A few days ago I finished reading After Life in Roman Paganism by legendary French historian of religion Franz Cumont. The book publishes lectures originally delivered in English at Yale University in 1921.

My copy, a Dover Publications paperback edition from 1959, originally cost $1.35, was designed to last for a long time in a library, and is “an unabridged and unaltered republication of the first edition published by Yale University Press in 1922.” There is a stamp on the cover page which reads “The University of Chicago / Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion.” And the volume is signed J. M. Kitagawa / U of Chicago in blue pencil. Kitagawa is still a legendary name around the University of Chicago, although he is not very well known.

Back to the volume itself. There are no annotations in the book… at all. Nor was there sign of a lot of reading. Now, I don’t think that means Kitagawa didn’t read it, because my reading of it, which occurred on two coasts and included quite a few nights that ended with dropping the copy on the floor of a beach house, left very little trace as well, and I also did not make marginal notes. It’s a sturdy book, designed to be clothbound and reside on a dusty shelf (unread) for generations.

Concerning the contents of the book, I found Cumont an ingenuously knowing historian, but also a friend to knowledge. He offers discussion of a treasure trove of evidences taken from the Roman era of the broader Mediterranean world, and thus his purview encompasses Greece, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and even further afield. He loves the subject and conveys his love quite vividly. For instance: long flights of fanciful dreamlike prose extol astronomical immortality as the ultimate achievement of pagan eschatological thought. Other passages convey his own deep fascination with the existential problem of human life, namely, it’s apparent end. But such follies of a brilliant scholar are more than matched by the immense learning he brings to the task. Here is a teacher who will for years continue to master many of us students of religion. Cumont gives a variety of learned citations to ancient authors, monuments, and inscriptions from a spectrum of traditions and geographical regions. One could learn a great deal, chasing down the sources cited by Cumont.

Ultimately, Cumont’s approach is the problem. The variety itself cannot be sustained. Cumont uses a safely vague (and so totally implausible) tissue of statements implying causal and actual connection between his scores of points of evidence. He cites so many modes of piety, varieties of belief, common practices, popular expressions, poetic and dramatic utterances, epitaphs, myths and prayers that he apparently has no time left for offering a plausible case that the words things and images he discusses all properly relate to one another, or a common subject, historically. Which is not to say that they don’t — often they clearly do. For example, in the first half of the book, the Pythagoreans appear to have enormous and far reaching influence on many thinkers, and much of his exposition is at least plausible. But the details of the relationship remain unclear in his exposition. So, this book is untamed and speculative, but sometimes right.

More about this book on strata.

Read it on Google Books:

%d bloggers like this: