Book Review: The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

Du Bois is perhaps the greatest and most under-read African-American voice of the 20th century. What he offers here is an analysis of race in the United States that remains as relevant now, more than a hundred years hence, as when it was first written in 1903. His prescription to remedying the racial divide and gap in achievement between African-Americans and European-Americans is a combination of political involvement and higher education which will result in African-Americans building up a cultural heritage from the primitive roots already in place while become at once part of the mainstream of American life.

Access to a liberal education for African-Americans is one of the most powerful points that Du Bois stresses, and it is one that has, unfortunately, not improved much since this book was written. In fact, it has become more difficult not only for African-Americans to receive a liberal education, but for all Americans to receive such an education. The current focus on “STEM” and “college and career readiness” in America’s public schools has only served to bolster the Book T. Washington-model of technical training over the Du Bois model of an education for thinkers and leaders.

The result is that all culture, including African-American culture, has been degraded. Not only does a black school child not have access to Shakespeare; he often no longer has access to the treasures of his own culture in Negro spirituals and in the great works of great men like Du Bois. Instead, “language arts” teacher, with their misnamed discipline, import rap songs into the classroom in a condescending and debasing attempt to make a curriculum without meaning seem, just for a moment, like it has real relevance to the lives of their students. Meanwhile, the true things of perpetual relevance — Truth, Beauty, and Goodness — are cast aside in favor of higher standardized test scores and employment in technical, service, and labor jobs.

Even the great liberal arts universities have gotten in on the debasement and condescension, with an Ivy League school recently publishing a book of annotated hip hop lyrics. Meanwhile, little boys and girls across the United States, both black and white, are further removed from access to the great ideas and the eternal things, the things that will make them not “black” and “white” but human in the fullest and truest sense of that word.

Du Bois is an essential read for anyone who is seeking to understand race in America, both in history and today, as well as anyone interested in giving access to a full and happy life to all people of whatever race.

That life which meat nourishes

The hundred hills of Atlanta are not all crowed with factories. On one, toward the west, the setting sun throws three buildings in bold relief against the sky. The beauty of the group lies in its simple unity: — a broad lawn of green rising from the red street with mingled roses and peaches; north and south, two plain and stately halls; and in the midst, half hidden in ivy, a larger building, boldly graceful, sparingly decorated, and with one low spire. It is a restful group, — one never looks for more; it is all here, all intelligible. There I live, and there I hear from day to day the low hum of restful life. In winter’s twilight, when the red sun glows, I can see the dark figures pass between the halls to the music of the night-bell. In the morning, when the sun is golden, the clang of the day-bell brings the hurry and laughter of three hundred young hearts from hall and street, and from the busy city below, — children all dark and heavy-haired, — to join their clear young voices in the music of the morning sacrifice. In a half-dozen class-rooms they gather then, — here to follow the love song of Dido, here to listen to the tale of Troy divine; there to wander among the stars, there to wander among men and nations, — and elsewhere other well-worn ways of knowing this queer world. Nothing new, no time-saving devices, — simply old time-glorified methods of delving for Truth, and searching out the hidden beauties of life, and learning the good of living. The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is to-day laid before the freedmen’s sons by Atlanta University. And this course of study will not change; its methods will grow more deft and effectual, its content richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college will ever have one goal, — not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, pp. 62-3

What is history?

Herodotus, the “father of history,” begins his Histories, arguably the first book of history, with an explanation of his method and purpose in writing his book. In the first sentence, he informs his readers,

These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.

Within this single sentence, the world’s first historian offers a succinct definition of the field of human knowledge which he pioneered.

Herodotus begins by referring to his work as ἱστορίης, or “researches,” knowledge attained by observation and inquiry. Here Herodotus indicates his most significant departure from those who came before him. The telling of stories about the past, of course, existed well before Herodotus wrote his book in the 5th century BC. Herodotus distinguishes himself from these earlier storytellers, however, by basing his stories upon his personal research rather than upon a received ancestral narrative. Rather than passing on old stories in a version of the “telephone game,” Herodotus used observation and reason to discover the past and create a plausible narrative based on available evidence. After mentioning his method, Herodotus goes on to delineate his purposes for writing.

The first of his stated purposes is “preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done.”  Herodotus, in other words, wishes to protect and perpetuate the memory of the activities of certain persons beyond the personal life span of those particular persons. History is, then, in a sense, an extension of the personal memory. The historian is therefore a guardian of the collective memory of mankind, expanding the memory of each particular person backwards to encompass the totality of significant events in the life of mankind as a whole.

Herodotus’s second stated purpose for his writing is “preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.” In addition, then, to merely preserving the record of past human activity, Herodotus wishes to render honor to those who were responsible for this activity. He desires not a mere chronology of dates and events but a narrative which inspires to reverence. In turn, of course, reverence will inevitably provoke imitation.

Herodotus’s final stated purpose for his writing is “to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.” He wishes to preserve not only the events and the activities of those involved in the events, but the causes of their actions as well. In preserving the causes of human activity, Herodotus imparts a doctrine of human beings as rational agents. Human activity is, for the historian, understandable and reasonable because it is traceable to particular motivations.

In his stated purposes, Herodotus makes implicit claims concerning human nature, claims which provide reason and basis for history as a discipline. In his desire to “preserve … remembrance” Herodotus claims for mankind the desire to remember the activities of other members of their species who lived before them, a claim that can be made for no other species than the human species. Herodotus also highlights further aspects of the discipline of history which can only aptly describe human activity. Activity that is predetermined or unfree is undeserving of any “meed of glory” and activity without “grounds” is random and irrational. Herodotus, then, in his second and third statements of his purpose, makes the implicit claim that human activity is free and rational.

Herodotus, no doubt, was merely prefacing his work with a statement of his own methods and purposes in writing. In so doing, however, Herodotus became the progenitor of a field of human knowledge which had not hitherto existed in its pure and independent state. By defining history as a field of research and inquiry intended for the preservation of the memory of human activities and their respective motivations, Herodotus discerned one aspect of the human drive to knowledge of self while setting its boundaries with other fields of human knowledge.

Book Review: The Poem of the Cid

Reading medieval romances is, for me, something like watching Western movies might be for those men of certain different tastes but the same proclivities as have persisted in the male members of the human species perennially. They are a window into a time when “men were men,” so to speak. Whether such an idealized time really existed is immaterial to the continued relevance of the idea as a powerful image and inspiration in the masculine consciousness. This particular work is a prime example.

El Cid is truly a man’s man. His long, flowing beard is a sight beheld with awe by those around him. His prowess in battle is legendary. His virtue is of the rigid principled sort that both justice and mercy, each in their own way, rely upon for existence. Even his piety, a virtue too often associated today with weakness and womanliness, is of the manly sort, with its fervent prayers and all-night vigils. And his love for his fellow-Christians, for his kingdom, his nation, and his family is unsurpassed and unquestioned. His perfection in chivalry is also exhibited by his presentation in the poem as a Christ figure, as one who embodies the virtues of Christ and whose life, in a mysterious manner, mirrors that of his Lord in many of its features.

The medieval tales of great knights are required reading for all men — and for women, too, who appreciate authentic masculinity. I recommend this book to all such readers.

Book Review: Christ & Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr

Niebuhr attempts to understand and evaluate the various ways in which Christians throughout history and today have understood the relationship between Christ and culture. These he divides into five types:

1. “Christ Against Culture” — Those who posit that Christ and culture are diametrically opposed and cannot be reconciled.

2. “Christ of Culture” — Those who attempt to domesticate Christ within the confines of whatever culture they happen to find themselves in already.

3. “Christ Above Culture” — Those who believe Christ to be reconcilable to culture, in some sense, yet apart from and transcendent of it.

4. “Christ and Culture in Paradox” — Those who posit that Christ and culture are opposed, yet man must necessarily live within both realms, whether simultaneously or intermittently.

5. “Christ the Transformer of Culture” — The conversionist model, as he calls it, posits that culture can be transformed through Christ.

Niebuhr does an excellent job a number of fronts. Perhaps most importantly, in a work like this, he allows each of these positions to speak for itself. He refuses to caricature and he does not offer criticism of a given position until he has allowed that position to explain itself fully. When he does criticize, his criticisms are consistently fair and incisive.

Niebuhr’s approach allows him to admit each of these positions into the mainstream of the heritage of Christianity and so into the collective Christian consciousness. The end result is one that explains and critiques without being weighed down by judgment and agenda. I recommend this work to anyone interested in the relationship between the Christian faith and the various culture contexts in which it has found itself as well as the new cultural contexts in which it finds itself today, both as it spreads to lands where it has not previously reached and as the traditionally Christian societies of the West experience numerous and rapid shifts in culture and mores.

Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

A symphony is perhaps the best point of comparison for the novels of Jane Austen. In a well-written symphony, each instrument works together (hence, the word “symphony,” whose roots are in the Greek words for “together” and “sound”) to bring about the effect desired by the composer. The conductor, himself a silent member of the orchestra, guides the members together and brings them through the symphony to its conclusion, a point of reconciliation in any well-written symphony.

Austen’s works are of a quite similar nature. Each character is not an individual, nor even a person, with all the peculiarities and particularities bestowed, for example, by Shakespeare upon his characters. Rather, each of Austen’s characters is an instrument, playing its part and never straying from the music already laid out by the composer. There is no real conflict, only, as in a concerto, apparent conflict which is, under its surface, really collaboration.

Each of the characters-as-instruments follows the written composition and watches carefully for the guidance of the conductor, who is Austen herself. Like a good conductor, Austen remains silent throughout her novels and allows her orchestra to shine, but she is, like a conductor, the ultimate and driving force. And the final destination, again like a good symphony, is a point of reconciliation, a point at which all has blended into such perfect symphony that the only thing left to do is allow the sound and movement to fade away into silence and stillness. Then the applause.

Sense and Sensibility may be the finest example of Austen’s uniquely symphonic approach to the novel. I recommend this book for all readers.

Book Review: Historical Consciousness by John Lukacs

The primary mode of thought for most of mankind throughout man’s history has been symbolic and mythological. This was the predominant way of thinking in nearly all ancient societies and has remained well into the Modern era the primary mode of thinking in the Eastern world. The West, however, has uniquely developed modes of thought which depart from this earlier model. The dominant mode of thought in the West since the 18th century has been the empirical model. So much force did this model exert that it has extended itself well beyond the realm of science, the realm in which it has shown itself to be useful, to nearly every field of human knowledge. In the realm of philosophy, for example, empiricism took on the form of positivism. Most of these non-scientific mutations of empiricism, however, have been far from useful but rather destructive. John Lukacs posits that there is another mode of thinking which must supplant empiricism from its dominant position. According to Lukacs, historical thinking, another uniquely Western development, presents a promising mode of thought for the future.

In his Historical Consciousness, Lukacs maintains the thesis “that the history of everything amounts to the thing itself.” By this, Lukacs means that to study the history of any field of human knowledge is identical with and, indeed, the key to understanding that subject. Lukacs envisions a day in which “chemistry, biology, perhaps even medicine could be taught and learned ‘historically.’” To learn biology, then, the student would not, as he does now, immediately plunge into a series of studies and tasks which presuppose the truth of empiricism. Rather, the student would begin with a study of the earliest biologists, tracing out the history of thought in biology. The student would examine the subsequent developments in the field, the theories that were proved wrong and why they are wrong, the theories confirmed by later biologists and the additional evidence that has been provided for these theories by subsequent generations of biologists.

The strength of this historical mode of thinking is that it avoids the inevitable pitfalls of the mythological and empirical modes of thought. The obvious danger of mythological and symbolic modes of thought is that they, in the end, they are “not so much expressions of ideas as a kind of imagery which may be on occasion beautiful but which is quite divorced from reality.” The uniquely “Greek and European tradition of realism,” on the other hand, protects against error through its consistent concern for the truth of the matter. While the empirical mode of thought features this realism as a central tenet, it turns too sharply in the opposite direction and results in “the increasing impersonalization of reality through … The Laws of Nature.” Historical thinking, however, includes the realistic component while restoring “the human being” to his proper position at “the center … of our universe.” As such, it is possible, as Lukacs points out, to see the historical mode of thinking as the crux of a “new humanism.”

There are, however, two dangers in the contemporary study of history which, if not checked, will sabotage the development of such a historical consciousness. On the one hand are the “specialists [who] … tend to know more and more about less and less” and, on the other, “the existence of great masses of people who tend to know less and less about more and more.” Any even cursory glance at the sort of dissertations that are being produced by students in the history departments of American universities provides ample evidence for Lukacs’s arguments concerning the dangers of specialization. The first result returned by a search of the American Historical Association’s database of dissertations completed in 2014 is titled “Controlling the Deviant Body: A History of Exclusionary Practices and Institutional Penal Confinement in Colonial Southern Nigeria.” Indeed, historical specialization has resulted in an obsession with minutiae, knowledge that is a mile deep but an inch wide.

The trend in historical knowledge among the non-specialist public, however, is the inverse of the trend found among historians. Instead, popular knowledge of history is a mile wide but an inch deep. “The rapid extension of literacy,” says Lukacs, “brought all kinds of historical literature to millions of previously unaffected readers.” This historical literature and education, “despite their often superficial nature, … had, in the long run, a definite impact on the minds of millions” of people. Indeed, it is as a result of this exposure to historical literature and the wide interest in that literature that it was possible for historical thought to be made available to those who are not and do not desire to be professional historians. While the shallowness of popular knowledge of history must be corrected lest it regress once more into the ancient mythological mode of thought, this popular knowledge has spurred popular interest and acted as an impetus toward the development of a historical consciousness.

As a remedy to both of the ailments plaguing the modern study of history, Lukacs proposes a focus in “study of the history of Europeans and Americans of the last three hundred years.” He reasons that it is this history which is the most interesting to the general public as it bears the most obvious effect on contemporary events due to its chronological and geographical proximity. Simultaneously, given that proximity, this history presents itself as the most important area of study for the specialist.

Through a focus upon this recent history of those of our own civilization, history is reoriented as a field of human knowledge which allows us to better understand ourselves. It is no longer a shallow list of facts or a deep pit of unnecessity and abstraction. The development of a historical consciousness which can proceed from this reorientation in turn opens up other fields of man’s knowledge about man, enabling a renewed humanism which seeks the truth about human life not in the impersonal universe of empiricism or the cyclical cosmos of mythology but in the authentic search for the truth of the human experience.