Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Those Who Don’t Know History

We are where we are today as a society because we do not know who we are. We do not know who we are because we do not know where we have been, and we do not remember the lessons we should have learned when we were there.

Okay, there are other reasons as well, but ignorance is a big part of it. My kids were never really taught either History or English in high school. Even in the first decade of the new millennium, the ‘woke’ monster was stirring within public education. History had already become a problematic subject, and the great works of Western literature, allegedly full of patriarchal prejudices and badthink, were being chucked aside in favor of contemporary novels propagandizing about teens and abortion.

Having already ruined math, they basically stopped teaching anything else useful. And it’s far worse today.

Low in High School

To be fair, I didn’t pay much attention to history or old books in high school either, and that was decades earlier when they still taught both. I learned much of what I know about Western civilization after the fact, looking it up for myself. But the point is that the knowledge was there to be consumed much earlier if I had wanted to. Today, not so much.

So now, in my sixties, I am reading (or re-reading) the classics of the West. Who knows, they may disappear one of these days, or else be rewritten chock-a-block with “diverse” characters, LGBTQ+ protagonists, and many, many deletions. It doesn’t hurt to have hard copies of the originals around.

If you can’t finish the saying begun in the title of this post, you probably need to type it into a search engine before they cancel it too. But my recent reading experiences have taught me there are other things people who don’t know history are highly unlikely to get a handle on.

1/ How the Bible Impacted History

Despite not bothering to read it, I have been vaguely familiar with the concept behind Dante’s Divine Comedy since high school. It’s where the nine circles of hell idea comes from. Small wonder I had neglected it to date: it’s an epic poem written in the early 1300s and considered the preeminent work in Italian literature. (And here I thought that was The Name of the Rose. I am not much of a poetry guy.)

And yes, getting through it was a struggle. Longfellow’s English translation runs 599 pages and 100 Cantos, and is divided into three sections: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Picture it as an imaginative vision of the afterlife heavily informed by Roman Catholic theology. The author is successively led through each of these destinations on his journey toward God, first by the (dead) Roman poet Virgil, then by an idealized version of a woman he knew in childhood.

A few observations:

  • The average Italian reader of the 14th century knew the Bible WAY better than the average Christian today. It’s not just Dante himself: he was writing for a mainstream audience, and the sophistication of his subject matter suggests they were well able to keep up with him. Our general knowledge of scripture today is comparatively impoverished.
  • Dante’s vision of hell as a series of misery-terraces getting more horrific toward the bottom is not without some minor biblical basis. The idea that the afterlife will be better or worse for some than others is thoroughly scriptural: “It will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom” than for Capernaum; “Those who devour widow’s houses will receive the greater condemnation”, and so on.
  • The average Christian’s concept of hell as a place where little red demons with forked tails torture sinners owes more to Dante’s imagination than to the Bible. I doubt many people read The Divine Comedy any more, but its influence on the public perception of theological ideas is still significant. There is a vast difference between what the Bible and Roman Catholicism teach about “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. But you knew that ...
  • Apparently it’s way easier to write about torment than bliss. Maybe that says something about the limits of human imagination, or maybe it says something about institutional church teaching. Inferno is vivid and moving, while Paradiso is comparatively tedious. It’s like Dante had 33 Cantos left to fill about heaven and not much to say about it. The glories of Beatrice (his idealized guide) get orders of magnitude more attention than the glories of Christ.

But then you have to really know Christ to enjoy him, don’t you.

2/ The Assurance with which Scripture is Written

Currently, I am reading Plutarch. At 1,500 pages or so, his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans makes Dante a walk in the park. At least it’s not poetry. Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus was a first century Greek historian, biographer and essayist. Lives is a work of considerable importance, both for the information it contains about individuals and about the times in which they lived.

What makes Plutarch of interest to a Christian is that his major work is contemporary with the later writings of the New Testament. Like the NT, it was written in Koine Greek. Most of us have little or no experience reading translations of other great Greek works of the first century, and it is instructive to observe the differences between how Plutarch approaches his subjects and how the writers of scripture approached theirs.

It has been said that Plutarch was more concerned with ethics than history, and this is probably the case. He was telling stories about human character and its consequences for society. Perhaps in an effort to be even-handed, he quotes numerous contradictory sources about each life he profiles. Which details are true and which false he often leaves to the reader’s imagination, though he will occasionally offer an opinion in areas he feels qualified to do so.

For example, Plutarch’s profile of Romulus quotes sources from the third century BC onward, so the gap between source material and text is 400 years or less. This is certainly comparable to the distance from which many of the Old Testament writers must have looked back on their subject matter, and yet the differences in tone could not be starker. Plutarch presents a veritable cornucopia of historical possibilities. The reader may choose to think this happened or that happened, that this person lived or didn’t — it doesn’t seem to matter much to the writer so long as a general-consensus thesis can be established by collating and parsing the available accounts.

When we contrast this with Old Testament history, we find nothing of the sort. If these narratives were not divinely inspired, they are surely written as if they were, bestowing upon us a single, confidently-delivered version of events in every instance. How far was Moses removed from Adam? Well over 2,000 years, more than five times the distance between the written accounts of Romulus and Plutarch. And yet Plutarch is not even sure Romulus actually existed, while Moses writes like he was a fly on the wall in the Garden of Eden.

Of course, that fact alone doesn’t prove Moses any more accurate than Plutarch, let alone inspired. But when you consider that every one of the many authors of holy writ seem to possess the same “Thus saith the Lord” assurance in their source material, we can at least say that they wrote like they believed in the absolute veracity of the details they were recording, and not just the usefulness to society of the moral message behind the stories. And then their readers went on to preserve what they had written with an attention to faithful reproduction and translation like nothing else in their time.

Which is pretty much what we should expect, right?

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