Monday, October 16, 2017

The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization - Christian, Islamic, and Judaic - from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300 by Will Durant (1950)

I don't know enough about modern scholarship to question Will Durant's sources or his historiography in any meaningful way.  I like reading history; I don't write it, and what little I studied was nearing 30 years ago.  Modern historians still write in interesting ways (well, some of them) but Durant's style of writing, I think, has done out of style.  It's more flowering and really just beautiful.  He crafts prose that is quite stunning and memorable.  His books are long, but they are gardens filled with flowers he's carefully tended.  

My biggest complaint about this book - I think Durant tried to do too much.  There were four main parts:  about the rise of Christianity on the heels of Rome, the rise and triumph of Islam, the perseverance of Judaism, and finally medieval Christianity.  Each part was interesting.  His writing about Islam and Judaism was never done in a way to make the two religions less than Christianity.  But there was just so much of everything that it became muddled - there wasn't a clear narrative line or chronology to this, and I think it needed it. The shear size of it all made the entire thing occasionally unwieldy.  

Here are some passages I copied:

Describing the philosophy of John Scotus:  "Here is the Age of Reason moving in the womb of the Age of Faith."  Incredible metaphor.

"History seldom destroys that which does does deserve to die; and the burning of the tapes makes for the next sowing a richer soil."  Describing the Norse invasions of various parts of Europe; a harsh, sort of Darwinian sentiment.  On the heels of Nazi invasion and destruction of large swaths of Europe makes this line hard to swallow, although I also think he is describing a historic fact.  The phoenix is an apt metaphor for this.

"Every civilization is a fruit from the sturdy tree of barbarism, and falls at the greatest distance from the trunk."

"Institutions and beliefs are the offspring of human needs."

Some strong Byzantine women who ruled in their own right, usually as some sort of regents, but still kicked ass.  Two sisters Zoe and Theodora;
 Placidia who "for twenty five years ruled the Empire of the West with no discredit to her sex."  No one ever writes about these kick ass women.

Incarnadine:  Durant liked this word; he used it four times.  It means, as a verb form (which is how he used it) to color something red.  He was more using it as a word meaning "to give a special character or distinguishing quality to" "they had seen the masculine virtues incarnadine half the world"  "His path to power was less incarnadined than most of those what have opened new dynasties" "they incarnadined their capital with assassinations" "Feud revenge incarnadined their sagas."  All four uses are really clever and slightly different.  Masterful and interesting.

"A thousand years before Christ northern invaders had entered Italy, subdued and mingled with its inhabitants, borrowed civilization from them, and with them, through eight centuries, had built a new civilization.  Four hundred years after Christ the process was repeated; the wheel of history came full turn; the beginning and end were the same.  But the end was always a beginning."  Lovely, lovely passage; I love this idea of the end being the beginning.

Durant's reason for being:  "The Roman Empire had raised science, prosperity, and power to their ancient peaks.  The decay of the Empire of the West, the growth of poverty and the spread of violence, necessitated some new ideal and hope to give men consolation in their suffering and courage in their toil: an age of power gave way to an age of faith.  Not till wealth and pride should return in the Renaissance would reason reject faith, and abandon heaven for utopia.  But if, thereafter, reason should fail, and science should find no answers, but should multiply knowledge and power without improving conscience or purpose; if all utopias should brutally collapse in the changeless abuse of the weak by the strong: then men would understand why once their ancestors, in the barbarism of those early Christian centuries, turned from science, knowledge, power, and pride and took refuge for a thousand years in humble faith, hope and charity."  This is a dystopian warning from Durant; also it reminds me of the end of The Bone Clocks when civilization has collapsed and religion is once again Puritanically taking control.

"Civilization is a union of soil and soul - the resources of the earth transformed by the desire and discipline of men.  Behind the facade of and under the burden, of courts and palaces, temples and schools, letters and luxuries and the arts, stands the basic man: the hunter ruining game from the woods; the woodman fell in the forest, the herdsman posturing and breeding his flock; the peasant clearing, plowing, sowing, cultivating, reaping, tending the orchard, the vine, the hive, and the brood; the woman absorbed in the hundred crafts and cares of a functioning home; the miner digging in the earth; the builder shaping homes and vehicles and ships; the artisan fashioning products and tools; the pedlar, shopkeeper, and merchant uniting and dividing maker and user; the investor fertilizing industry with his savings; the executive harnessing muscle, materials, and minds for the creation of services and goods.  These are the patient yet restless leviathan on whose swaying back civilization precariously rides."

"Apparently there were village atheists then as now. But village atheists leave few memorials
"The power of Christianity lay in its offering to the people faith rather than knowledge, art rather than science, beauty rather than truth."

"It was a God-intoxicated age."  Unfortunately,  I think we also live in a God-intoxicated age, at least American public officials.  The mouthpiece is loud.

"And I wish that all times were April and May, and every month renew all fruits again, and every day fleur-de-lis and gillyflower and violets and roses wherever one goes, and woods in leaf and meadows green, and every lover should have his lass, and they to love each other with a sure heart and true, and to everyone his pleasure and a gay heart." From The Wandering Scholar.

"Those who cater to human vanity seldom starve."

"Next to bread and woman, in the hierarchy of desire, comes eternal salvation; when the stomach is satisfied , and lust is spent, man spares a little time for God."

Durant’s beautiful description of the Muslim's call to prayer:  “It is a powerful appeal, a noble summons to rise with the sun, a welcome interruption in the hot work of the day, a solemn message of divine majesty in the stillness of the night; grateful even to alien ears is this strange shrill chant of many muezzins from divers mosques calling the earthbound soul to a moment’s communion with the mysterious source of life and mind."

"Meanwhile, men loved life while maligning it and spent great sums to stave off death."

"So the continuity of history reasserts itself: despite earthquakes, epidemics, famines, eruptive migrations, and catastrophic wars, the essential processes of civilization are not lost; some younger culture takes them up, snatches them from the conflagrations, carries them on imitatively, then creatively, until fresh youth and spirit can enter the race.  As men are members of one another, and generations are moments in a finally line, so civilizations are units in a larger whole whole name is history; they are stages in the life of man.  Civilization is polygenetic - it is the cooperative product of many peoples, ranks and faiths; and no one who studies its history can be a bigot of race or creed.  Therefore the scholar though he belongs to his country through affectionate kinship, feels himself also a citizen of that Country of the Mind which knows no hatred and no frontiers; he hardly deserves his name if he carries into his study political prejudices, or racial discriminations, or religious animosities; and he accords grateful homage to any people that has born the torch and enriched his heritage."

"For that one death on the cross how many crucifixions!"

"The life of the mind is a composition of two forces: the necessity to believe in order to live, and the necessity to reason in order to advance. " 

"The isles of science and philosophy are everywhere washed by mystic seas.  Intellect narrows hope, and only the fortunate can bear it gladly. "

The Age of Faith (The Story of Civilization, #4)The Age of Faith by Will Durant
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not a scholar; I don't know the ins and out of modern historiography. I like reading history, and I know what I like. I like Will Durant. I'm sure he's considered old fashioned; I'm sure he can be picked apart for all sorts of modern sins of scholarship. I'm not interested in doing that. I like his writing style; he writes incredible and beautiful prose. That's enough for me. I will let scholars go to town on his research; I just know that I like reading his books and find them fascinating for the subject matter and moving for the prose. This particular book, although well written (as usual), was unwieldy. Durant is tackling something huge: the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire/Byzantium; the rise and successes of Islam; the perseverance of medieval Judaism; and finally medieval Christianity. The immensity of these themes are also the book's main downfall: because there is so much to cover, some things get muddled; the book feels like a whirlpool, with names and facts and figures all spinning around together, touching and then breaking apart. It can get confusing. Although some of the individual passages are amazing - this a quote factory for sure - the entirety was not completely successful. I'm not saying skipping it; but I am saying be prepared for a lot.

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