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It is the first Sunday of the term, and therefore the first Sunday I’ve had in a long time that fits the pattern of my Official Day Off. 

It’s also the first day in five without the depredations of Extreme Weather, including violent thunder and wind storms and ongoing tornado warnings.  Today is just pleasant and sunny and nice, and I don’t have to worry about the electricity going off any second.   I may even get a chicken cooked for dinner this evening without being on pins and needles that I’m about to lose the use of my oven. 

In other words, I’m actually fairly calm.

I therefore spent the morning with a huge cup of Stash Double Bergamot Earl Grey tea, a copy of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, and a lot of Elgar, including the Enigma Variations.

I have what I can only call a variable taste for Elgar.  The early work tends to a triumphalism that makes me uncomfortable.  A lot of the later work is so depressing it’s hard to listen to without drifting into thoughts of suicide. 

Johnson, however, is someone I can recommend without hesitation.  I discussed one of his books on this blog a couple of years ago–Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky–but most of what he writes is straightforward history, and that includes Modern Times. 

Johnson is interesting to me on a lot of levels, including being himself interested in the connection between the history of ideas and the history of events, but what I can never forget is that he’s made a life for himself as an historian outside the university. 

There’s a certain ongoing history of that in the UK that is not so evident here, especially lately.  It makes a difference, I think, to the way the history is understood and treated.

In Modern Times, Johnson traces the influences of four men–Marx, Freud, Darwin and Nietzsche–on the formation and eventual character of what we think of as, well, now.

What all this reading and calmness brought me back to was that long discussion about education back there, which stopped before the Enlightenment period. 

I always did mean to get back to that place, and I think I’m coming up on doing it in the next few days, but before that I want to ask a question:  why is it that all the periods of history that I truly admire are unstable?

In fact, it’s not just that those periods are unstable.  It’s that they seem to be inherently unstable.  It’s as if the aspects of them that make them congenial to me also make them incapable of lasting very long.

In a way, of course, this is less of a puzzle that it seems.  Western civilization is itself more unstable than many others. 

Every once in a while, when we have discussions about Natural Rights Theory (modern version),  someone here will chime in with “there are lots of civilizations which last for millennia without observing  individual rights!”

And, of course, there are.  But there is no phase of Western civilization that lasts more than a few centuries.  The Classical world gave way to the Dark Ages which gave way to the Medieval which gave way to the Renaissance which gave way to the Enlightenment which gave way to whatever it is we have now. 

And although there definitely were continuities between them, each phase was and is distinctly its own,

This is, I think, our legacy from the Greeks, a group of people who could never take yes for an answer–and if you think they’ve changed, you should pay more attention to the news from Europe.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates is supposed to have said, and we’ve been obsessively analyzing ourself, our neighbors, our institutions, and the very claim that existence is a fact ever since.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me think Aristophanes may have had a point.

(If you’re new here and you don’t get that reference, I suggest you get hold of Aristophanes’s play The Clouds and give it a shot.  You’d be amazed at how much nothing has changed in 3000 years.)

At any rate, the kinds of civilizations I admire seem to require lots of thinking and questioning and pushing and pulling, and because they require those things, they are unstable.

The bigger question here is why these periods always seem to collapse into awfulness of one kind or the other.

That’s not to say that they lead to nothing but awfulness.  They don’t. Without the Dark Ages, there could have been no Middle Ages and no Renaissance.  Without the mess in the wake of the Reformation, there could have been no   Victorian era as we know it.  Without the squalid and murderous Twenties-to-Thirties, there could have been no Forties-to-Fifties. 

I keep looking at things like that and hoping that the mess we created with the Sixties will eventually result in another admirable era down the road.

What’s undeniable, however, is that whenever the crash and burn happens, it happens because people are rebelling not against the worst of the era, but against the best of it. 

Luther wanted to obliterate not only the manifest crimes of the Renaissance church, but the movement to rely on reason and empirical observation as a method to understand the world.  The nationalist revolutionary movements that arose after the First World War sought to break up those consolidations that had finally put an end to ethnic warfare in Europe for close to 100 years.

It’s enough to give you the idea that Freud was right in one and only one thing:  that human beings do have something called a death wish, an internal and sometimes unstoppable craving  for suicide.

In the meantime, I have come up with some preliminary notes on what it is societies have to have to seem to be admirable to me.

Maybe I’ll get to that tomorrow.  It’s a nice day, for once, and I could actually be getting something done.


Written by janeh

September 9th, 2012 at 9:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Instability'

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  1. Don’t sell the US short on historians without university positions. I’ve got about half a shelf of Stephen Sears–the best man now living on the military side of the American Civil War, and he does seem to be making a living at it. Among the amatuers, S.C. Gwynne (EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON) is a confessed journalist, Gregory Michino (THE MYSTERY OF E TROOP) works for Michigan Social Services and Fred Eugene Ray, JR (LAND BATTLES IN 5TH CENTURY B.C. GREECE) is a geologist. Those were all picked from the shelves as recent or current historical reading, and they’re all respectable work from primary sources. The professorate sometimes does as well, but it can’t do any better.

    As for favorite eras, I’ll be interested in a list with dates, but I suspect you’ve touched the essence. You love the debate. There’s debate because there’s no agreement on the intellectual underpinnings, and a society that doesn’t believe in anything has a remaining lifespan of about one man’s lifetime. Set the time machine for about 2035, and I should be able to step out on my balcony and see the smoke rising from Washington. I’ll be sorry to see the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress go. Libraries are especially vulnerable at such times.

    No, I don’t know what will replace the present order. Call it a quantum point or maximum disorder, but there are times when relatively small decisions lead to vastly different futures. I just know we’ve lost a lot already, and we’re going to lose more. There could be gains, of course–but I won’t live that long.


    9 Sep 12 at 2:57 pm

  2. I’m not sure what Jane means by Western Civilization is more unstable than many others. China had many dynasties. And I know of several empires in India plus a lot of small states which were continually warring.

    I don’t know enough non-western history to make a judgment.

    Robert, I share your pessimism about the future of the US. There is going to be massive disillusionment when the public finds out that taxing 1% of the population will NOT pay for all the “entitlements” they’ve been led to expect.


    10 Sep 12 at 8:46 pm

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