Monday, July 28, 2014

The Age of Revolution 1789 to 1848 by Eric Hobsbawm.

Eric Hobsbawm is that rare combination of innovative thinker and immensely well-informed historian, whose writing enriches one’s understanding beyond the mundane communication of facts. He is the individual who coined the term “dual revolution” to describe that period in Europe between 1789 and 1848, when the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution combined to create dramatic social change.

To manage a discussion of two distinct and pervasive revolutions and their wide-ranging influences is a complicated task. Professor Hobsbawm accomplishes this labor by first narrowing the foci of each revolution to its starting point. After some initial words introducing the world of 1780, he discusses the inception of the Industrial in England, then the French Revolution in greater Paris. As the reverberations of these historical earthquakes emanate from their individual epicenters, Hobsbawm follows the cracking landscape to include the affected international areas.

It is a pleasure to read a history by a writer who has so thorough an understanding of his period. Hobsbawm examines his time frame from a wide variety of societal and cultural angles. Particularly rare are his book’s later chapters which look at the impact of the dual revolution upon fields as varied as art, religion and science. These digressions, from the pure politics and economics that mark most tomes about this period, are refreshing and insightful.

Few theories of history mesh in perfect comfort with the evidence. Our conceptions may be useful short-cuts to understanding an era, but life has a way of growing and acting beyond the boundaries we place for it. Hobsbawm’s theories are no exception. He has a difficult time inserting the USA into his equations. The historian’s claim that Andrew Jackson’s populist presidential victory was “part of” Europe’s “second wave of revolution [which] occurred in 1829-34” (Hobsbawm, p. 138) has only tenuous evidence to support it. His efforts to downplay the influence that the North American revolution had on Latin American liberation only serve to draw attention to the northern example (Hobsbawm, p. 76). Some South American leaders (e.g. Simon Bolivar) developed their revolutionary creed in Paris. Others were inspired by the thirteen colonies’ success; which provided a more accurate template for Latin colonial independence than did the French rebellion against monarchy. But these discrepancies do not detract from the upheaval caused by the dual revolution in Europe.

Some will refrain from reading this historian’s works because he has been called a “Marxist Historian.” What the reader needs to recognize is that a Marxist Historian is an entirely different organism from a Marxist Activist. A Marxist Activist seeks to overthrow the capitalist system and institute a collective ownership of property. A Marxist Historian is an individual who has a class-based analysis of history and discusses the evolution of relationships within and between classes over time. While there are occasional revolutionaries among them, Marxist Historians do not necessarily think that a communist system is the answer. Rarely do they support Soviet- or Chinese-style communism unless they have been employed by one of those states. The student of history may learn about different classes and their development without accepting collectivist propaganda.

One bewildering characteristic of this book is that Hobsbawm discusses developments leading to the outbreak of revolt in 1848, but he does not spend any time discussing the events of that continent-wide explosion. The Age of Revolution ends with “in 1848, the explosion burst” (Hobsbawm, p. 362). The historian’s next book in the series is entitled The Age of Capitalism. Throughout The Age of Revolution, there are references to 1848’s failure, but no details. I cannot begin to conjecture the reasons for this omission. It is as if one has created a play and left-out the final act.

Despite this missing piece, Hobsbawm presents a chronology of development from 1789 to 1848 that is unparalleled in depth and scope. It would be a shame to miss it. Two options that a reader has regarding the missing finale are 1) find another book and hope that it’s as insightful, or 2) supplement The Age of Revolution with an additional book. I have a time-saving suggestion for readers who really want to read Hobsbawm: I have now embarked upon Jonathan Sperber’s The European Revolutions, 1848-1851 (review to follow). It is a basic depiction of the events and players of those years without innovative analysis. If you have already read Hobsbawm, you can skip the first 104 pages (which will contain nothing new to you) and start with chapter three “The Outbreak of Revolution.” With just 155 pages to go, this will adequately illustrate the final act.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Revolution 1789 to 1848. New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1962.

For that review of Sperber's The European Revolutions 1848-1851, see:

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White.

A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom is both a part of history and a book about history. In 1865, Andrew Dickson White was the founding president of Cornell University.  He conceived it as an institution that “should exclude no sex or color” and “should afford an asylum for science” (White, p. 13). Almost immediately, White and Cornell were attacked by administrators of sectarian colleges, who described the new university as irreligious and immoral. White responded with a series of lectures defending his university. These lectures grew into written thoughts which, over a period of thirty years, (interrupted by duties at Cornell and ambassadorships to Germany and Russia), became the work we have today. It was published in 1896.

White’s thesis was that “theology” was the villain in the struggle against science; not “religion.” In his chapter on astronomy, White states that misinformation and attempts to hamper science concerning heliocentric theory were “not the fault of religion; it was the fault of that short-sighted linking of theological dogmas to scriptural texts which, in utter defiance of the words and works of the Blessed Founder of Christianity, narrow-minded, loud-voiced men are ever prone to substitute for religion” (White, p. 153). While this attempt to divide theology and religion is the author’s tactic throughout the book, it is unclear if White truly believes what he is saying, or if he is strategically attempting to drive a wedge between religious leaders and the believing flock.

Regardless of his motivations, White’s reasoning is unsound even to an atheist like myself: Theology is the study of religion. Religion, in the Judeo-Christian sense, is a revelation by God to his followers. The chronicle of that revelation is the Bible. Any reader of the Bible can easily identify the verses that support the notion that the Sun travels around the Earth: 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalms 93:1, Psalms 104:5 and Ecclesiastes 1:5, all clearly state this belief. It is not a matter of theological interpretation by church leaders, or the over-intellectualizing of medieval scholars; it is an aspect of revealed religious belief. But whether these wedge ideas were honest opinions of White’s, or just propaganda, is immaterial to the result. His generation of voices weakened the religious claim upon explanation of the physical world.

The structure of the book is simple. Each chapter is devoted to a scientific issue: Cosmology, Evolution, Geology and Archaeology, to name a few. Each example shows a consistent pattern by presenting Christian beliefs (identified by White as “theology”), presenting the scientific challenge, then showing the reaction of religious leaders. The response of religious leaders begins with threats, brutality and censorship, moves on to compromise and ends with the inevitable surrender of ground to science. This element of the book is methodical and well-documented, presenting a chronology of religious misunderstanding and the answers of science. With this evidence, White is most convincing.

The author concludes his tome with an attempt to drive the wedge deeper between leader and flock. He contends that “science in general has acted powerfully to dissolve away the theories and dogmas of the older theologic interpretation,” helping to purify the sacred texts of a confusing overlay (White, p. 500). This view places science on the side of religion and its followers, against interpreters of the Bible. What exceptionally bold misrepresentation: stating that science has done more for scripture than have Christian scholars and leaders. But it’s propaganda and one has to admire his temerity. More plausible are his chronologies, of science’s advance and religion’s retreat, concerning explanations of the physical world. In the end, it was writing like this which deftly slid between the grip of religion on the throat of science and dislodged it. We breathe more freely today, with unencumbered scientific study and fewer clerics administering universities, thanks to people like Andrew Dickson White.

White, Andrew Dickson. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. New York: The Free Press, 1965.

For review of a good general history of Western Science, see: