Favorite History Book of 2018: Civilizations, by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Not that I read a whole pile of history books year. But even if I had, this one would top the stack. I started reading Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Civilizations (MacMillan, 2000) a couple years ago, when I read a footnote of a Richard Bauckham essay in which he praised the book extravagantly. Since then sporadically chipped away, finally finishing the book on vacation in Maine this summer.

The book is a five-hundred page survey of the history of world civilizations. Fernández-Armesto, a professor of history at Notre Dame who previously taught at Oxford, says he wrote the book hurriedly, in something like a fever state. The organizing thesis of the book is that a civilization is any human society that recrafts the natural environment to any significant extent. So, unlike dominant trends in Western history-writing that tell a narrative of progress that reaches its high point in current trans-Atlantic culture, Fernández-Armesto’s survey organizes civilizations by biome. The result is a non-linear, non-Western-centric, marvelously detailed, beautiful written history of collective human settlement. It’s a stunning book, eye-opening on many fronts. It’s also written in a style that should make any writer of non-fiction prose at least a little envious. I now scatter a handful of the book’s ample hoard of gems:

  • “There is no such thing as common knowledge any more and each of us is surprised by everybody else’s ignorance.” (xiii)
  • “The study of mankind is man and, to historians, nothing human is foreign.” (7)
  • “For if there is such a thing as progress, tradition is the foundation of it. No society has ever prospered by forgetting the accumulated learning of the past.” (12)
  • “Real contempt for the other is a civilized vice rather than a universal trait.” (19)
  • “Believers in progress tend to place civilization towards the end of it.” (21)
  •  “Societies do not evolve: they just change.” (22)
  • “History is glimpsed between leaves: the more you shift your viewpoint, the more is revealed.” (25)
  • “The relentless grid of the streets repeats the orderly geometry which civilization has always tried to impose on nature: the reticulation in which wilderness is netted.” (60)
  • “The white man did not introduce imperialism to the plains: he arrived as a competitor with a Sioux empire that was already taking shape.” (92)
  • “Yet we have almost forgotten—or almost obliterated—this part of our past. In the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, the nature of Atlantic civilization narrowed. The New World became a reflection and extension of Europe for four reasons: abolition of the slave trade; acculturation of the Black slaves in a society dominated by white values; the decisive shift of the demographic balance of the Americas caused by huge accessions of white settlers in the nineteenth century; and above all the fact that the constituent environment of Atlantic civilization—the ocean—was traversable only by technologies which Europeans could control. Only in consequence of these changes could Atlantic civilization become ‘western civilization’, which is another name for a white civilization of western European origin.” (519)
  • “Civilization has come to seem not worth the effort.” (542)
  • “Civilization is skin-thin: scratch it and savagery bleeds out.” (546)
  • “The history of civilizations is a path picked among ruins.” (547)
  • “Free speech and free association favour the incubation of parties which want to destroy them. Free societies are disarmed against terrorists.” (557)

My Favorite Novel of 2018: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Easily my favorite novel I read this year was Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Penguin, 2017). It lifts the veneer off a picture-perfect suburb, and what’s beneath is rendered not just vividly but with aching empathy. The book is most of all about motherhood. If this paragraph doesn’t persuade you to read the book, then I don’t know what else to say:

Mia understood exactly where she drifted to. To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she’d been and the child she’d become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again. (122)

What Not to Do with Empty Hands

To covet is to want somebody else’s good so strongly (‘inordinately,’ as the Christian tradition says) that one is tempted to steal it. To envy is to resent somebody else’s good so much that one is tempted to destroy it. The coveter has empty hands and wants to fill them with somebody else’s goods. The envier has empty hands and therefore wants to empty the hands of the envied.

Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 162.

Chesterton: Man Is the Only Wild Animal

If you leave off looking at books about beasts and men, if you begin to look at beasts and men and then (if you have any humour or imagination, any sense of the frantic or the farcical) you will observe that the startling thing is not how like man is to the brutes, but how unlike he is. It is the monstrous scale of his divergence that requires an explanation. That man and brute are like is, in a sense, a truism; but that being so like they should then be so insanely unlike, that is the shock and the enigma. That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton. People talk of barbaric architecture and debased art. But elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory even in a rococo style; camels do not paint even bad pictures, though equipped with the material of many camel’s-hair brushes. Certain modern dreamers say that ants and bees have a society superior to ours. They have, indeed, a civilization; but that very truth only reminds us that it is an inferior civilization. Who ever found an ant-hill decorated with the statues of celebrated ants? Who has seen a bee-hive carved with the images of gorgeous queens of old? No; the chasm between man and other creatures may have a natural explanation, but it is a chasm. We talk of wild animals; but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type. All other animals are domestic animals; man alone is ever un-domestic, either as a profligate or a monk. So that this first superficial reason for materialism is, if anything, a reason for its opposite; it is exactly where biology leaves off that all religion begins.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 151–52.

How John McPhee Uses a Dictionary

With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you. So draw a box around “wad.” Webster: “The cotton or silk obtained from the Syrian swallow-wort, formerly cultivated in Egypt and imported to Europe.” Oh. But read on: “A little mass, tuft, or bundle . . . a small, compact heap.” Stet that one. I call this “the search for the mot juste,” because when I was in the eighth grade Miss Bartholomew told us that Gustave Flaubert walked around in his garden for days on end searching in his head for le mot juste. Who could forget that? Flaubert seemed heroic. Certain kids considered him weird.

John McPhee, Draft No. 4: The Writing Process (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017), 162–63.

Nineteen Quotes from Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family

Andy Crouch’s recent The Tech-Wise Family (Baker, 2017) is excellent. Highly recommended, especially but not only for parents. To induce you to read the book, here are nineteen of my favorite passages. I would’ve picked twenty, but then I would’ve had to ask Matt Smethurst’s permission before posting.

  1. “Here is the heart of the paradox: Technology is a brilliant, praiseworthy expression of human creativity and cultivation of the world. But it is at best neutral in actually forming human beings who can create and cultivate as we were meant to.” (66)
  2. “Technology is good at serving human beings. It even—as in medical or communication technology—saves human lives. It does almost nothing to actually form human beings in the things that make them worth serving and saving.” (66)
  3. “Work is the fruitful transformation of the world through human effort and skill, in ways that serve our shared human needs and give glory to God.” (83)
  4. “This pattern [of weekly rest] is fundamental to human flourishing, and to the flourishing of the whole world that depends on our care, but it has been disrupted and distorted by human greed and sloth. Instead of work and rest, we have ended up with toil and leisure—and neither one is an improvement. And strangely enough, technology, which promised to make work easier and rest more enjoyable, often has exactly the opposite effect.” (84)
  5. “If toil is fruitless labor, you could think of leisure as fruitless escape from labor. It’s a kind of rest that doesn’t really restore our souls, doesn’t restore our relationships with others or God. And crucially, it is the kind of rest that doesn’t give others the chance to rest. Leisure is purchased from other people who have to work to provide us our experiences of entertainment and rejuvenation.” (87)
  6. “Maybe the high-water mark of leisure at home was that 1970s invention, the ‘TV Dinner’—a prepackaged meal reheated and served in front of the television, the ultimate leisure device. Instead of conversation at a table set with a dinner prepared with care and often skill, the family ‘enjoying’ a TV dinner had both their food and their conversation provided by others.” (90)
  7. “What happens to families when the home becomes a leisure zone? One of the most damaging results, as the philosopher Albert Borgmann has pointed out, is that children never see their parents acting with wisdom and courage in the world of work.” (90)
  8. “When it comes to technology, most of us are more like alcoholics than we are like sourpussed teetotalers—and most of us desperately need an infusion of intentionality about technology into our lives more than we need release from overly limited, legalistic restrictions.” (103)
  9. “And even at their best, social media, like all media, substitute distant relationships for close ones. A fifteen-year-old overcome by anxiety late at night might once have had no choice but to turn to her parents, down the hall from her bedroom, for help and counsel. Now she can send out a blizzard of text messages to friends who, completely understandably, feel obligated to respond—and feel gratified by the sense of being needed by a friend. But this text- and emoji-mediated social support is thin, an echo chamber of teenagers with their limited perspective. It keeps a whole circle of friends awake late into the night and robs that fifteen-year-old and her parents (or even older siblings) of an in-person conversation, one that could be painful, challenging, reassuring, or even transformative.” (117)
  10. “The last thing you need when you are learning, at any age but especially in childhood, is to have things made too easy.” (127)
  11. “We most often give our children screens not to make their lives easier but to make our lives easier.” (130)
  12. “[T]he quest to cure boredom with entertainment actually makes the problem worse. But it works the other way around as well. The less we rely on screens to occupy and entertain our children, the more they become capable of occupying and entertaining themselves.”
  13. “In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that the more you entertain children, the more bored they will get.” (141)
  14. “There is nothing in our society that has surrendered more completely, and more catastrophically, to technology’s basic promise, easy everywhere, than sex.” (165)
  15. “All addictions feed on, and are strengthened by, emptiness.” (171)
  16. “At the root of the disappearance of shared singing in public life and our churches is one of the most profound changes in the history of human beings, who have made music, as far as we can tell, from the very beginning. Up until about one hundred years ago, there was only one meaning to the phrase ‘play music.’ It meant that someone had to take up an instrument, having developed at least some skill, and make music, in person, in real time. They were not always expert musicians—the diaries and novels of the nineteenth century are full of rueful comments about how poorly some cousin played the piano in the family parlor. But there was only one way for music to be ‘played’—and that was for someone to play it.” (185)
  17. “Worship calls us out of the small pleasures of an easy-everywhere world to the real joy and burden of bearing the image of God in a world where nothing is easy, everything is broken, and yet redemption is possible.” (189)
  18. “Simply, singing may be the one human activity that most perfectly combines heart, mind, soul, and strength.” (191)
  19. “Of course, much of the distance between us and people we love is itself the result of technology. It is partly because of air travel that we can imagine sending our children thousands of miles away from home in the first place; we can move away from our parents for a new job, or simply a more exciting location, knowing that we can visit them with a relatively easy car or plane trip. Technology, which does so much to close the distance, also enables much of the distance in our lives.” (198)

To Irrigate Deserts

“For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”

C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, in Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 403.

We never meant it to come to that!

“Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. Here lies the deepest tap-root of Pantheism and of the objection to traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as man but because it pictured Him as king, or even as warrior. The Pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be cleansed. It is with a shock that we discover them to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters—when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive’. And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back—I would have done so myself if I could— and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?”

– C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Harper Collins, 2012), 149–50.

Until the Shadow of Man Falls upon Them

“We are inveterate poets. When a quantity is very great we cease to regard it as a mere quantity. Our imaginations awake. Instead of mere quantity, we now have a quality—the Sublime. But for this, the merely arithmetical greatness of the Galaxy would be no more impressive than the figures in an account book. To a mind which did not share our emotions and lacked our imaginative energies, the argument against Christianity from the size of the universe would be simply unintelligible. It is therefore from ourselves that the material universe derives its power to overawe us. Men of sensibility look up on the night sky with awe: brutal and stupid men do not. When the silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal, it was Pascal’s own greatness that enabled them to do so; to be frightened by the bigness of the nebulae is, almost literally, to be frightened at our own shadow. For light years and geological periods are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myths, falls upon them. As a Christian I do not say we are wrong to tremble at that shadow, for I believe it to be the shadow of an image of God. But if the Vastness of Nature ever threatens to overcrow our spirits, we must remember that it is only Nature spiritualised by human imagination which does so.”

– C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Harper Collins, 2012), 84.

Screwtape on Humility and the Word “Real”

There follow two more bits from Screwtape well worth pondering. The first, on humility:

The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. . . . His whole effort, therefore, will be to get the man’s mind off the subject of his own value altogether. He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one. Your efforts to instil either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame. (71–72)

The second is on the word “real.” Screwtape boasts that “we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word.” If the topic is a great spiritual experience, what is “real” can only be bare physical facts; if some gruesome physical event, what is “real” are its emotional effects. Screwtape reasons:

Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word ‘real’ can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are ‘real’ while the spiritual elements are ‘subjective’; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are ‘real’, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death ‘really means’. . . . Wars and poverty are ‘really’ horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments. The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting ‘to eat the cake and have it’; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. (168–69)