Contents of Chapter|
Napoleon and Hitler
Goitein and Grunebaum
Other Modern Historians
Biographies and Autobiographies
I recommend A Little History of the World, by the renowned art historian, Ernst Gombrich. It’s a concise summary of world history, it’s highly readable, and it provides enough detail/anecdote to enliven the narrative. It’s intended for youngsters, but it has much to offer adults, too. It has been approved by a consensus gentium; it has been a worldwide bestseller since its publication in 1936. Gombrich didn’t work on an English translation of Little History until his last years. He laid aside this English translation after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which destroyed his faith in civilization. (His granddaughter completed the translation.)
Gombrich’s Story of Art is also intended for young people, and has also been very popular; it’s probably the best one-volume history of art. Students of art history should also consider Gombrich’s Art and Illusion.
Another history of the world that has long been popular is The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Van Loon; like Gombrich’s Little History, Van Loon’s book is short, readable, and intended for young people.
Jacob Burckhardt was one of the leading historians of the nineteenth century. Burckhardt was born in Switzerland, and became a teacher at Basel, where he was a colleague and friend of Nietzsche. Burckhardt is known as the father of cultural history. While earlier historians had concentrated on political and military history, Burckhardt discussed the total life of the people, including religion, art and literature.
Burckhardt’s most famous book is The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy; the Dutch historian Huizinga called it, “that transcendent masterpiece.” A rare meeting between the perfect author and the perfect subject has produced an extraordinary work. The first three parts of the book are especially good — readable and interesting, profound and philosophical. The two pages on Leon Battista Alberti are unforgettable.
Alberti was a “Renaissance man”: he was interested in everything. After describing how Alberti studied music, law, physics, math, painting and literature, Burckhardt says “he acquired every sort of accomplishment and dexterity, cross-examining artists, scholars, and artisans of all descriptions, down to the cobblers, about the secrets and peculiarities of their craft.”1 Alberti had an extraordinary appetite for life; Burckhardt speaks of, “the sympathetic intensity with which he entered into the whole life around him. At the sight of noble trees and waving cornfields he shed tears; handsome and dignified old men he honored as a ‘delight of nature’, and could never look at them enough.”2 Such an appetite for life, such an attitude of wonder in the face of reality, is the essence of the Renaissance.
According to Burckhardt, during the Middle Ages “man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation,” but during the Italian Renaissance, “man became a spiritual individual.”3 Individuality reached its zenith, according to Burckhardt, in the Renaissance humanists, who turned their backs on Christianity, revered the ancients, and tried to live and write like the ancients.
Burckhardt’s History of Greek Culture, which is as interesting as his work on the Italian Renaissance, also deals with individuality. Burckhardt argues that the Greeks had a highly developed individuality, while other societies of the time crushed individuality beneath the weight of group, caste and morality.4
In addition to his works on the Greeks and the Italian Renaissance, Burckhardt wrote The Age of Constantine, which deals with a decadent phase of Roman history.
Johan Huizinga was one of the leading historians of the twentieth century. Huizinga described himself as a cultural historian, as one who worked within the tradition that Burckhardt had begun. Huizinga concentrated on a period to which Burckhardt had paid little attention: the Middle Ages. Huizinga’s most famous work is The Waning of the Middle Ages, in which he argues that the late Middle Ages were a period of weariness, pessimism and decadence. The Waning of the Middle Ages is a superb historical work — profound, readable and well-written. Though it isn’t a long book, it discusses many aspects of medieval life: philosophy, literature, painting, chivalry, love, etc. Huizinga describes how medieval piety often found expression in rituals and external forms. Medieval man had considerable respect for saints, and for relics of saints: “In 1392, King Charles VI of France, on the occasion of a solemn feast, was seen to distribute ribs of his ancestor, Saint Louis; to Pierre d’Ailly and to his uncles Berry and Burgundy he gave entire ribs; to the prelates one bone to divide between them, which they proceeded to do after the meal.”5
Huizinga also discusses the Middle Ages in Men and Ideas, a collection of essays. Most of the essays in Men and Ideas are excellent. In an essay called, “The Task of Cultural History,” Huizinga describes the type of history that he and Burckhardt wrote. Huizinga argues that history should resurrect the past, and should give the reader a sense of what it was like to be alive during a particular period. Huizinga deplores the modern tendency to write romanticized history and romanticized biography, to try to make history entertaining and amusing: “No literary effect in the world,” writes Huizinga, “can compare to the pure, sober taste of history.”6
Other essays by Huizinga are collected in a volume called Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century and Other Essays. Much of this book is written not for the general reader, but for Huizinga’s fellow Dutchmen and contemporaries. Huizinga’s preoccupation with the Netherlands reminds one of Ortega’s preoccupation with Spain. In an essay called, “The Aesthetic Element in Historical Thought,” Huizinga declares that he has “faith in the importance of the aesthetic element in historical thinking,” and that he opposes the idea that history should attempt to be scientific. “The historian,” says Huizinga, “tries to re-experience what was once experienced by men like ourselves....The true study of history involves our imagination and conjures up conceptions, pictures, visions.”7
Huizinga’s In the Shadow of Tomorrow isn’t a historical work, but rather an analysis of Western civilization. It discusses the problems besetting the West, from moral anarchy to artistic decadence. Though it sometimes reminds one of Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses, it’s less pertinent to our time than Ortega’s work since much of it is a criticism of Fascism. It is, however, an interesting, brief and readable book. Huizinga notes that modern education and the mass media both have harmful effects on culture: “Our time [is] faced by the discouraging fact that two highly vaunted achievements of civilization, universal education and modern publicity, instead of raising the level of culture, appear ultimately to produce certain symptoms of cultural devitalisation and degeneration.”8
In looking at modern art, Huizinga finds a trend toward the irrational in both modern literature and modern painting. Literature and painting have become increasingly unintelligible. Throughout history, says Huizinga, poetry has always maintained “a certain connection with rational expression.... It is not until the closing years of the [nineteenth] century that one sees poetry purposely steering its course away from reason.”9
Huizinga had a special interest in America and American history. He wrote Man and the Masses in America and also Life and Thought in America; these two books are sometimes published together in one volume. These books look at American history before 1925, and they also look at modern society in general, including newspapers, movies and literature. Huizinga pays special attention to the economic forces that have shaped American history.
In many of Huizinga’s works, he discusses the play element in culture. Finally, when his life was drawing to a close, and he was a prisoner of the Nazis, he collected his thoughts on this subject into a book called Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Homo Ludens contains some very interesting ideas, but it presents these ideas in a rather dry and scholarly manner. Huizinga argues that play is one of fundamental facts of human life, and is at the root of poetry, music, philosophy — even jurisprudence and war. Anyone interested in plumbing the depths of human nature, anyone interested in the question of why people fight wars, create culture, etc., should take Huizinga’s ideas into account. Huizinga is discussing more than play, he’s discussing human nature, the fundamental drives within human nature.
Huizinga’s book on Erasmus is an uninspired work, perhaps because Erasmus himself was uninspiring.
Arnold Toynbee was born in England during the late nineteenth century, and did most of his writing during the twentieth century. Toynbee is best known for his multi-volume work, A Study of History, in which he argues that civilizations decline when the ruling elite can no longer control the rebellious working classes. According to Toynbee, the ruling elite tries to restore order by imposing a universal state, but this measure can only succeed temporarily. Meanwhile, the working classes develop a new religion within the universal state, and this new religion gradually takes the form of a universal church, which survives when the universal state disintegrates. The universal church becomes the seed of a new civilization. Toynbee’s theory is based on the decline of Rome and the rise of Christianity, though he insists that it’s a universal historical law. Toynbee is an ardent Christian, and his historical theories often reflect his piety. Like Hegel, Toynbee thinks there’s a divine plan in history.
Many of Toynbee’s books are about current events. Even if one has no interest in the theory that Toynbee sets forth in his Study of History, Toynbee’s other books will still be of interest. Toynbee’s best work is Civilization On Trial, a collection of essays. Toynbee’s prose is learned and poetic, his ideas broad and profound.
Toynbee was struck by the change in the role of Europe that occurred during his lifetime: during his youth, Europe was on top of the world, and had colonies on every continent, but by the end of World War II, Europe had lost most of its colonies, and no longer dominated the world. But Western influence is still strong, even though the West doesn’t dominate the world as it used to; Toynbee foresaw “a radical Westernization of the entire world.”11 But as Western culture, once the possession of a small elite, is gradually dispersed through all social classes and all nations, its quality is lowered; the wider its dispersion, the lower its quality.
Non-Western nations are faced with a dilemma: to imitate the West, adopt a low form of Western culture, and lose their spiritual vitality and creativity, or to isolate themselves from the West. Toynbee points out that Japan tried first one approach then the other, first isolation then imitation. While Japan has attained material success, this success has come at the cost of spiritual vitality and creativity. Toynbee argues that even nations that succeed in imitating the West, as Japan has, can’t accomplish anything except “to enlarge the quantity of the machine-made products of the imitated society instead of releasing new creative energies in human souls.”12 Thus, while the Western world is in a difficult predicament, a spiritual crisis, so too the non-Western world is in a difficult predicament.
Toynbee thinks it’s imperative that the power of the United Nations be increased, so that it will gradually become a world government. The best hope for civilization is, in Toynbee’s view, to develop a world government and to build a world civilization on a religious foundation, a Christian foundation. In addition to A Study of History and Civilization On Trial, Toynbee wrote Hellenism: The History of a Civilization, which is a clear and concise summary of ancient civilization, from Homer’s time to the fall of the Roman Empire; it emphasizes economics and military affairs. Toynbee also wrote — or rather, edited — Half the World: The History and Culture of China and Japan, which is an excellent introduction to China and Japan.
A study of ancient history should begin with the Russian historian Rostovtzeff, who wrote a two-volume History of the Ancient World. The first volume deals with Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece, and is entitled The Orient and Greece. The second volume, which deals with Rome, is even more interesting than the first. Rostovtzeff’s work is well-written, well-organized and profound.
Though Rostovtzeff isn’t famous, he has a high reputation among scholars; Huizinga, for example, thought highly of Rostovtzeff.
A popular book about the discovery and excavation of ancient cities is Gods, Graves & Scholars: The Story of Archaeology, by C. W. Ceram. If you want to look at the practical side of antiquity, consider Ancient Engineers, by L. Sprague de Camp.
The Ancient City, by Fustel de Coulanges, looks at the Greeks and Romans from the standpoint of cultural anthropology; it describes the primitive religious ideas that were the foundation of ancient society. The Ancient City is clear and readable, and throws light not only on the Greeks and Romans, but on primitive man in general. It describes how primitive man worshipped his ancestors, how each primitive family had its own religion, how the individual was submerged in the family, and how the eldest son carried on the family religion. It also describes how the ancient city-state developed out of the primitive family, and how the ancient statesman was both ruler and priest, just as the primitive father had been both ruler and priest.
No essay on the Western classics would be complete if it failed to mention the eighteenth-century English historian, Edward Gibbon, and his famous work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon is known for his prose style and for his irreverent attitude toward religion. Gibbon’s prose is ponderous and precious, but it can teach one much about the English language. If you want a taste of Gibbon, read Chapter 15 of his Decline and Fall, a chapter which deals with the early Christians.
Herodotus, a Greek historian, is often called the father of history. Herodotus’s Histories deals with the wars between the Persians and the Greeks, and with other topics in ancient history. It’s a readable and entertaining work, sprinkled with stories and legends. Thucydides wrote history in a more serious, sober and factual way than Herodotus did. Thucydides is the author of The Peloponessian War, which describes the war between Athens and Sparta (and their allies), a war in which Thucydides himself participated. Thucydides’s reputation is higher than that of any other ancient historian, with the possible exception of Tacitus. His work is profound and philosophical, as well as lively and readable. Thucydides views human affairs in a cold, unemotional way that reminds one of Machiavelli. Thucydides notes the changes in the Greek spirit that took place during the Peloponessian War:
Livy is one of the earliest and most famous Roman historians. Livy is the author of a multi-volume work that begins with the founding of Rome and goes all the way to the end of the Roman Republic; only part of Livy’s work is still extant. Livy has long been a popular writer, but his reputation isn’t as high as that of Thucydides. Livy’s work is interspersed with legends and superstitions.
Julius Caesar is another early Roman historian, best known for his Gallic Wars, which describes Caesar’s own campaigns in Gaul. Caesar’s work is famous for the simplicity and clarity of its style.
Tacitus lived several generations after Livy and Caesar, and his work is more sophisticated and refined than the work of Livy and Caesar. Tacitus is the only Roman historian who rivals Thucydides in philosophical profundity and psychological subtlety. “One object only,” wrote Tacitus, “is to be pursued insatiably: the applauding voice of posterity. For by despising fame, the virtues that acquire it are despised.”15 Tacitus has long enjoyed a high reputation; Montaigne, Gibbon, and many others revered Tacitus as one of the greatest writers of ancient times. Tacitus is best known for his Histories and his Annals, both of which deal with the Roman Empire. Tacitus also wrote brief works on oratory, on the natives of Germany, and on his father-in-law, the general and governor Agricola. Much of Tacitus’s work has not survived. Tacitus’s work is famous for its dense, complex style, and for its bitterness toward the tyranny of the Roman emperors.
Suetonius lived a generation or two after Tacitus, when Roman civilization was sinking into decadence. Suetonius is the author of The Lives of the Caesars, a collection of biographies of Roman emperors. Suetonius writes bedroom history; his work contains much gossip and rumor. In fairness to Suetonius, however, it should be said that his work is readable and lively — more so than Tacitus’s — and it can teach one much about later Roman history.
In more recent times, one of the most well-known historians of antiquity is J. B. Bury, who wrote a multi-volume history of Greece, a biography of St. Patrick, a study of the barbarian invasions in late antiquity, and other books. A product of the Victorian age, Bury had the vast erudition and wide range that is rarely found in the historians of our time. Bury even learned Russian and Hungarian in order to research the Eastern Roman Empire, and his works on Byzantine civilization are highly regarded.
As Bury is known for his history of Greece, and Gibbon for his history of the Roman Empire, so Theodor Mommsen is known for his multi-volume history of the Roman Republic. Mommsen’s work is still respected today — more respected than Bury’s, though not as respected as Gibbon’s. If you want to read a historian who’s more contemporary than Mommsen, and who wrote in English, try H. H. Scullard, who wrote about both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire; Scullard collaborated with Max Cary on A History of Rome.
One of Scullard’s most eminent contemporaries in the field of ancient history was Arnaldo Momigliano. It would be difficult to identify Momigliano’s magnum opus, perhaps because he focused on teaching rather than writing, perhaps because he wrote mostly articles rather than books, perhaps because he had such high standards that he hesitated to write anything. Momigliano had a special interest in the writing of history (historiography) — how the ancients wrote history, how Gibbon wrote history, etc. At the end of his life, when his health was failing, Momigliano saw students in his own quarters, an oxygen tank next to him.16
Like Momigliano, Ronald Syme was interested in ancient historiography, and wrote biographies of Tacitus and Sallust. But while Momigliano was content to study ancient historians, Syme tried to follow in their footsteps, and write like they wrote; with Syme, admiration became emulation. Syme’s fame rests on The Roman Revolution, a book whose style and tone reminded many readers of Tacitus. The Roman Revolution discusses the demise of the Republic, and the rise of the Empire.
If we move forward to our own time, we find two eminent historians who specialize in late antiquity: Peter Brown and Glen Bowersock. Brown wrote (among other books) a biography of St. Augustine, Bowersock wrote (among other books) a biography of Julian the Apostate.
Donald Kagan focuses on Greek history in the time of Pericles. He wrote a 4-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, a study of Pericles, and a more general historical work called On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. He’s also the co-author of an excellent textbook called The Western Heritage (and a more comprehensive textbook called The Heritage of World Civilizations). Donald Kagan’s two sons, Robert and Frederick, are prominent conservatives, and have written numerous books about international affairs and military matters.
If you want ancient history in fictional form, consider the fiction of Robert Graves, such as I, Claudius. Graves was an English man-of-letters, known for his numerous translations of ancient literature, and for his World War I memoir, Good-bye to All That. Graves prided himself on his poetry, and had a certain disdain for his prose works.
There are two criteria by which books can be judged. The first is Quality, or what a book is in itself. The second is Effect, or what a book can do for you, the pleasure and knowledge that a book can give you. The ideal book combines Quality and Effect, the worst books lack both.
An example of a book that ranks high in Effect, but is somewhat lacking in Quality, is The Year 1000: What Life Was Like At The Turn Of The First Millennium: An Englishman’s World. The authors of The Year 1000 (Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger) are experienced writers, journalists, people who make a living with their pen. They’ve succeeded in writing a readable, entertaining, interesting book; one is sorry when it ends. They haven’t succeeded, however, in writing a classic; their work is directed at the contemporary reader, not at posterity. Their knowledge of their subject is somewhat thin, and they lack the ability to reach general concepts, large ideas. But they’ve done a good job of collecting anecdotes, and weaving them into a narrative.
Another popular book about the Middle Ages is Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. Cahill followed this bestseller with books about the Jews and the Greeks.
Two of the most respected medieval historians are the German Ernst Kantorowicz and the Englishman Steven Runciman. After Hitler came to power, Kantorowicz left Germany, ending up at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he was a colleague of such luminaries as Einstein, Panofsky, and Kennan. (In his memoirs, Kennan has left us a vivid portrait of Kantorowicz.) Kantorowicz wasn’t a prolific writer, and his fame rests on just two books: his biography of Frederick II, and his study of the medieval cult of royalty, The King’s Two Bodies. As for Runciman, he started out as a student of J. B. Bury at Cambridge, and later wrote numerous books on medieval and Byzantine civilization, notably a 3-volume work on the Crusades.
If you want to read about Michelangelo, a classic in the field is the biography by John Addington Symonds. Symonds also wrote a multi-volume work on the Italian Renaissance, and biographies of various English poets (Shelley, Philip Sidney, and Ben Jonson).
Walter Pater is another 19th-century English writer who wrote a classic study of the Italian Renaissance. Pater’s book is shorter than Symonds’, and focuses on individual writers and artists, rather than the Italian Renaissance in general.
The Medici, by G. F. Young, covers a broad span of Italian history, and discusses both politics and culture. Young has the literary flair that was once common among historians, and is now rare. (G. F. Young should not be confused with G. M. Young, who is best known for his study of the Victorian period, Portrait of an Age, which Simon Schama called, “the greatest long essay ever written.”)
A talented and prolific Russian writer, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, wrote a historical novel about Leonardo called The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci. Merezhkovsky wasn’t a cool scholar, he was a passionate mystic, and his books reflect his passionate nature.
There are countless studies of Elizabeth I. I recommend J. E. Neale’s biography, Queen Elizabeth I, and Mandell Creighton’s Age of Elizabeth.
Anthony Grafton specializes in Renaissance intellectual life. Among his works are studies of the Renaissance scholar Joseph Scaliger, the Renaissance astrologer Cardano, and the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti. Grafton also wrote The Footnote: A Curious History. Another highly-regarded specialist in Renaissance intellectual life is Paul Kristeller.
If you’re interested in how ordinary people lived at this time, try Steven Ozment’s book, Magdalena and Balthasar: An Intimate Portrait of Life in 16th Century Europe Revealed in the Letters of a Nuremberg Husband and Wife.
There are several good surveys of American history. One is The Growth of the American Republic, by Henry Steele Commager and Samuel Eliot Morison. This book was long a standard text in American schools. Commager and Morison respect literary values as well as scholarly values. A more contemporary survey of U.S. history is The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, by Alan Brinkley.
If you want to read a biography of Washington, consider His Excellency: George Washington, by Joseph Ellis. Ellis also wrote an acclaimed biography of Jefferson, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Ellis’ work is both scholarly and popular. As for Lincoln biographies, I recommend David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln.
One of the most highly-regarded books on immigrating to America is Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted. A good book about colonial Boston is Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, by Esther Forbes; Forbes also wrote Johnny Tremain, a novel about colonial Boston intended for younger readers. David Hackett Fischer wrote Paul Revere’s Ride, and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Washington’s Crossing. If you’re interested in the role of the Mississippi River in American history, you may want to read Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. If you want to learn how average people lived in early America, consider A Midwife’s Tale, by Laurel Ulrich. If you want a brief history of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood’s book (The American Revolution: A History) might be a good choice.
The history of a town can provide a fresh and valuable perspective on the history of a nation. I recommend a history of Concord, Massachusetts called Concord: American Town, by Townsend Scudder. It’s written in a sugary, cute style (the style that Huizinga excoriated), but it illustrates the major themes of American history, and it does so in a readable, entertaining way.
Robert E. Lee on Leadership, by H. W. Crocker, is a short biography of one of the most remarkable figures in American history. The literary value of the book is impaired by the author’s attempt to teach leadership techniques that can be used by business executives. But despite this flaw, the book is still readable and interesting. It views the Civil War from a Southern perspective that is refreshingly different from the standard, Northern perspective. Its bibliography can lead the reader to other good books about this dramatic period in American history. One book mentioned in this bibliography is A Rebel’s Recollections, a charming, well-written memoir by a Confederate soldier.
Perhaps the most famous study of the Civil War is Shelby Foote’s three-volume work, The Civil War: A Narrative. Foote was a novelist, and he takes a literary approach to writing history; he prides himself on his lack of footnotes. Two short books were excerpted from Foote’s three-volume work: Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, and The Beleaguered City: The Vicksburg Campaign. Foote also wrote Shiloh: A Novel, which deals with one of the Civil War’s major battles.
In the early 1900s, Charles Beard was a leading American historian. Beard wrote An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, which argued that the Founding Fathers were motivated by economic interests, not philosophical principles. Beard wrote many other books, including a three-volume survey of American history (The Rise of American Civilization, America in Midpassage, and The American Spirit). Beard’s wife, Mary, was a supporter of women’s rights and labor unions; she collaborated with her husband on several books.
Among the younger historians who were influenced by Beard was Richard Hofstadter. In his early work, Hofstadter stressed conflicts between economic interests; his book Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 was critical of American capitalists. Later in his career, however, Hofstadter broke with Beard, and moderated his Leftist views; he emphasized consensus in the American polity, rather than conflict. One of his best-known books is The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, which consists of 12 biographical sketches of American statesmen. Hofstadter was a widely-read historian, a public intellectual; he won Pulitzer Prizes for Anti-intellectualism in American Life and The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. Hofstadter respected literary values, and was a friend of the literary critic Alfred Kazin. (Richard Hofstadter should not be confused with Douglas Hofstadter, best known as the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach.)
Richard Hofstadter taught at Columbia, where one of his students was Mike Wallace, co-author (with Edwin Burrows) of a two-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning history of New York City (as of 2011, volume two hasn’t been finished; Wallace is writing volume two by himself).
Another prominent historian in the mid-20th century was Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. He wrote books on the Presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jackson. His father (Arthur M. Schlesinger) was also a well-known historian.
If you want to learn about the native peoples of the Americas, consider Charles Mann’s book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Mann is neither an academic nor a specialist; he writes for the general reader.
Philosophers and psychologists will never tire of studying Napoleon and Hitler. The similarities between their careers have often been remarked: both were born outside the nations over which they ruled (Napoleon was born in Corsica, Hitler in Austria); both had genius; both rose from lowly positions to positions of absolute power; both created extensive empires; both were defeated in Russia, then attacked from the West, and eventually destroyed.
Many interesting works have been written about Napoleon. Napoleon: A Pictorial Biography, by André Maurois, is an excellent introduction to Napoleon. It’s as lively and readable as Maurois’s work on Voltaire. Napoleon the Man, by Merezhkovsky, is a brief and fascinating work. The quotations from those who were acquainted with Napoleon are the most interesting part of this book, much more interesting than the author’s own remarks. One who reads this book will want to read the primary sources from which Merezhkovsky gleans his quotations. But these primary sources are voluminous, and require far more patience from the reader than Merezhkovsky’s work requires.
As a boy, Napoleon was enthusiastic and idealistic. He was inspired by ancient history, by Plutarch’s stories of Greek and Roman heroes, and by French tragedies. He was determined to emulate the heroes of history and drama, and to do great things. He couldn’t understand why the people around him had no desire to be heroes. He turned his back on society; he was solitary and morose.
Napoleon combined a knack for practical affairs with dreamy romanticism; one person who knew him said that he was
The Personality of Napoleon, by J. H. Rose, is the opposite of Merezhkovsky’s Napoleon the Man: while Merezhkovsky deals with the soul of Napoleon, Rose deals with the policies of Napoleon — his legal, economic, political and military policies. Though it’s different from Merezhkovsky’s work, Rose’s work is well-written and interesting. Another interesting work about Napoleon is Herold’s The Mind of Napoleon, a collection of Napoleon’s remarks. The best full-length history of Napoleon is by Bourrienne, Napoleon’s schoolmate and secretary.18
My favorite book about Hitler is Steven Sage’s Ibsen and Hitler, which presents a startling new theory about Hitler, and contains much information about his life and personality, all in a short and readable volume. The best Hitler biographies are those by Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, and Ian Kershaw. Of the three, Bullock’s is the earliest and the shortest, Kershaw’s the latest and the longest. There are many books by people who knew Hitler, such as The Young Hitler I Knew by August Kubizek, Hitler Was My Friend by Hitler’s photographer Heinrich Hoffman, and Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer. Hitler’s conversations were published as Hitler’s Table Talk. Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, is occasionally interesting, as is Mussolini’s autobiography. Those interested in Mussolini should read Emil Ludwig’s Talks With Mussolini.
In the field of history, one of the best contemporary scholars is Elie Kedourie, who specialized in nationalism and in Middle Eastern affairs. Though Kedourie was Jewish, he was critical of Jewish nationalism. Kedourie’s political views were conservative. One liberal intellectual of whom Kedourie is especially critical is Toynbee; Kedourie’s essay, “The Chatham House Version,” is a scathing attack on Toynbee.19
Paul Johnson is another contemporary historian with a conservative orientation. Johnson’s book, Modern Times, is a survey of twentieth-century history. While Kedourie’s work is scholarly, serious and profound, Johnson’s work is anecdotal and journalistic. Johnson’s anecdotes often shock the reader, as when he describes a politician in India who began each day by drinking a glass of his own urine. But a great historical work is more than a string of anecdotes, it’s a serious commentary on the human condition. Unfortunately, modern historians have discovered that their books will be bestsellers if they’re crammed with spicy anecdotes.
Kedourie was a student of Michael Oakeshott, a conservative theorist best known for his essay-collection, Rationalism in Politics. Like Kedourie, Oakeshott was critical of utopian political plans. According to Oakeshott, the ship of state has neither starting-point nor destination; its goal is to stay afloat.
Another well-known historian of the Middle East is Bernard Lewis. Like Kedourie, Lewis had a high reputation within academia, and like Kedourie, Lewis was conservative in his politics (Lewis supported the effort to topple Saddam Hussein). But while Kedourie was little known outside academia, Lewis burst into prominence after the September 11 attacks. He came as close as any scholar to anticipating those attacks, and in the wake of the attacks, every TV channel wanted to interview him. Lewis is the author of numerous books, including The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years and What Went Wrong?
While Kedourie and Lewis often wrote about the modern Middle East, Goitein and Grunebaum are known for their studies of the medieval Middle East. S. D. Goitein specialized in Jewish studies, Gustave E. Von Grunebaum in Islamic studies. Both wrote in a scholarly, somewhat dry fashion; their works were never bestsellers. I recommend Goitein’s book, Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts Through The Ages. Though it requires some patience from the reader, it can teach one much about both Jews and Arabs. Goitein discusses the close connections between Jewish and Arab civilization. For example, he says that Muhammad was heavily influenced by the Jewish religion, while Jewish writers like Yehuda Halevi were heavily influenced by Arab culture. Goitein’s deep appreciation for literature is shown in remarks such as,
Goitein is best known for A Mediterranean Society, his five-volume study of medieval Jewish life. These five volumes are based on Goitein’s study of documents in a Cairo synagogue (actually the documents were in the archive or “geniza” of the synagogue). Goitein died in 1985, on the very day that he sent the last volume to the publisher.
Grunebaum is best known as the author of Medieval Islam. Grunebaum’s comments on Islamic literature are as perceptive as Goitein’s on Jewish literature. Grunebaum says that around the year 1000 A.D., Islamic civilization began to decline, and Islamic writers became preoccupied with style:
Grunebaum’s comments on Islamic literature and Islamic religion are so profound that they reach beyond Islam, and throw light on literature in general, and religion in general. He quotes a Muslim saint on sainthood:
One of Goitein’s friends was Gershom Scholem, the leading authority on Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah.
One of the most famous literary works created in the U.S. is Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville wrote Moby Dick when he was about 30, then, when it was coolly received, Melville lost interest in writing novels. Public appreciation motivates writers and artists; if their work is ignored, writers and artists sometimes cease creating. Conversely, if their work is appreciated, they may be inspired to put forth their best effort.
The American diplomat and historian George Kennan is a writer whose works were widely read and widely praised. Kennan is one of the few writers who have created enduring literary works based on 20th-century history. Kennan’s remarkable literary achievements may be due, in part, to public appreciation. Kennan was internationally famous even before he wrote his first literary work, Russia Leaves the War (an account of Russia’s departure from World War I, published in 1956). Kennan’s specialty was foreign affairs in general and Russia in particular. In Kennan’s time, these subjects seemed important and relevant, and Kennan himself seemed to be at the center of world affairs. While other intellectuals may have felt that they were outside American society, irrelevant and ignored, Kennan was at the hub of the wheel, and this may explain why Kennan produced a body of literary work such as few American writers have ever produced.
Fame is a threat to solitude, and Kennan noted that, in the modern U.S., “success brought down upon the head of him who achieved it so appalling a flood of publicity and commercial pressures that he had only two choices: to emigrate and live abroad or never again to write anything worthwhile at all.” Kennan says he was besieged by “people who wanted jobs, people who wanted me to read their manuscripts,” people who wanted him to deliver a commencement speech, etc. On the other hand, Kennan seemed to sympathize with intellectuals who weren’t famous: “to have one’s name not known at all is to confront a barrier that can be broken through only with much effort and luck.”23 In short, Kennan discusses the subject of fame in the same interesting and profound way that he discusses so many other subjects.
Kennan’s work is full of fresh ideas and fresh insights into international affairs. Kennan is a master at weaving together an interesting narrative; Kennan is able to transport himself into the reader’s shoes, and to serve up the sort of tasty and hearty fare that he himself would enjoy, if he were the reader. Kennan has taste.
Kennan is a penetrating critic of American society. He notes that, “our country bristles with imperfections — and some of them very serious ones — of which we are almost universally aware, but lack the resolution and civic vigor to correct.” Kennan laments the “headlong overpopulation, industrialization, commercialization and urbanization of society.” He doubts whether American democracy can cope with American problems, and wonders whether a different political system could cope with them better. Although he concentrated on foreign affairs, “the exercise seemed increasingly, with the years, an empty one; for what use was there, I had to ask, in attempting to protect in its relations to others a society that was clearly failing in its relation to itself?”24
William Manchester was a Wesleyan professor and a specialist in modern history. Many of his works were popular, especially his multi-volume study of Winston Churchill, a study that discusses not only Churchill, but also the waning of the British Empire.
Another historian who wrote about the British Empire is Niall Ferguson. Ferguson is known for his grasp of economics, and he has a chair at the Harvard Business School. One of his books is called The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000. Perhaps his magnum opus is his two-volume study of the Rothschild banking family. Ferguson’s War of the World is probably the best history of the 20th century — better than Paul Johnson’s Modern Times. Ferguson doesn’t believe in destiny; he believes that events are shaped not by grand historical laws but by individuals and their decisions. He’s interested in “counter-factual history” — that is, he likes to imagine what would have happened if certain decisions hadn’t been made. Ferguson’s politics are generally conservative, and he often comments on contemporary affairs.
Another historian who wrote about the British Empire is Lawrence James, author of The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. James’ work is both scholarly and readable. Jan Morris wrote a 3-volume history of the British Empire (Jan was known as “James Morris” before having a sex-change operation).
Morris also wrote travel literature, including studies of Oxford, Wales, Trieste, Hong Kong, Spain, the U.S., etc. Morris wrote a general study of Venice (The World of Venice), and also a concise history of Venice (The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage). Speaking of travel literature, the American writer Mary McCarthy wrote The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed.
Like Niall Ferguson, Ron Chernow often writes about economic history. Chernow has written about prominent business families such as Morgan, Rockefeller, and Warburg; he also wrote a popular biography of Alexander Hamilton.
Daniel Yergin is also a popular economic historian. Among his books are The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power and The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy. Yergin has converted some of his books into documentaries.
If you want to read about modern European history, a classic in the field is A. J. P. Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918. Like Niall Ferguson, Taylor didn’t believe in destiny; “Nothing is inevitable,” said Taylor, “until it happens.” Taylor stressed the role of accident in history, and insisted that one of the chief causes of World War I was a wrong turn taken by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur. Taylor wrote lively prose, and delivered lively lectures; at Oxford, his lectures were so popular that the hall became over-crowded. Like Niall Ferguson, Taylor often commented on current events, and often appeared on TV.
Another well-known writer on modern European history is R. R. Palmer, an American who is best known for his textbook, A History of the Modern World. Palmer’s study of the leaders of the French Revolution, Twelve Who Ruled, is a classic in the field.
If one wants to read about the dark side of twentieth-century history, one should read Auschwitz, by Sara Nomberg-Przytyk. It’s a concise, well-written, moving memoir of the author’s internment in Auschwitz. Consider also Primo Levi’s famous memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (also called If This Is a Man). Another classic from the period is the multi-volume diary of Victor Klemperer. Klemperer describes the indignities and cruelties to which Jews were subjected in Hitler’s Germany. Though he was Jewish, Klemperer wasn’t sent to a concentration camp because his wife was a Gentile.
Before turning to biographies and autobiographies, mention should be made of Kissinger’s two volumes of memoirs. Like many modern historical works, Kissinger’s memoirs are so lengthy that they’re suitable only for specialists, not for general readers. But Kissinger’s work has a combination of profundity and humor that sets it apart from most modern works. “It is not often,” Kissinger writes of his first trip to China, “that one can recapture as an adult the quality that in one’s youth made time seem to stand still; that gave every event the mystery of novelty.... This is how it was for me as the aircraft crossed the snow-capped Himalayas.”25
Boswell’s Life of Johnson is widely regarded as the best English biography. Boswell’s stately, formal prose reminds one of Gibbon’s prose. Boswell describes Johnson’s life year by year; Boswell gives a complete, detailed record of Johnson’s life. Since much of Boswell’s Life of Johnson is dry and uninteresting, it should be read in an abridged version.
Boswell recounts Johnson’s conversations, in which Johnson expresses his views on a wide range of subjects. Johnson’s political and religious views were generally conservative. Johnson didn’t agree with his contemporary, Rousseau, that everyone should work: “All would be losers, were all to work for all — they would have no intellectual improvement. All intellectual improvement arises from leisure: all leisure arises from one working for another.”26
The autobiography of the Italian artist, Benvenuto Cellini, is almost as famous as Boswell’s Life of Johnson. But Cellini’s autobiography is merely an adventure story — sometimes entertaining, but never profound. Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is more interesting than Cellini’s; Franklin’s autobiography was one of Kafka’s favorite books. But Franklin’s literary talents were limited, and his autobiography contains some heavy moralizing; it isn’t a first rate book. Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo, are a kind of autobiography. They should be read in an abridged version, and they’re usually published in an abridged version. Van Gogh’s letters are well-written, interesting and moving; they’re one of the outstanding works in world literature. Van Gogh vividly describes his struggles with poverty, loneliness, and lack of recognition. “My constitution would be sound enough,” writes van Gogh, “if I had not to fast so long, but I have had continually to choose between fasting and working less, and so far as possible I have chosen the former.”27 Van Gogh found solace for his sufferings in painting: “In my opinion I am often as rich as Croesus, not in money, but rich because I have found in my work something to which I can devote myself with heart and soul, and which gives inspiration and zest to life.”28
One of the most prolific modern biographers is the German writer, Emil Ludwig. Many of Ludwig’s full-length biographies (such as his biography of Napoleon) are mediocre. Some of his short biographies, however, are interesting. I recommend his book, Genius and Character, which is a collection of short biographies. Ludwig’s Three Titans — about Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Beethoven — is also interesting.
Lin Yutang is a modern Chinese writer who lived abroad, and spent his career teaching foreigners about China. One of his books is a biography of the eleventh century Chinese poet, Su Tungpo; it’s called The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo. This book can teach one much about Chinese civilization. Lin Yutang has some literary talent, but like many modern writers, he doesn’t write concisely. His biography of Su Tungpo is considerably longer than it should be.
If you’re interested in Chinese civilization, you should also consider the works of Arthur Waley. Waley wrote three books about the life and work of three Chinese poets: Yuan Mei, Li Bai, and Bai Juyi. Waley also published numerous translations of Asian literature, including a book called 170 Chinese Poems. This book was a favorite of the art historian, Kenneth Clark. “Of all the writers of my youth,” Clark wrote, “Arthur Waley was the most valuable. He combined a scholar’s feeling for truth (and what a scholar!) with a poet’s feeling for language.”29
Another way to approach Chinese civilization is to experiment with the ancient divination book, the Book of Changes, or I Ching. Divination means foretelling the future, or getting advice, by a random process, such as rolling dice, or flipping coins. Jung had great respect for the I Ching, which draws upon an affinity between the physical world (the falling coins) and the human world, just as Jung’s theory of synchronicity draws upon an affinity between the physical world and the human world. The most famous translation/analysis of the I Ching is Richard Wilhelm’s, but I find it complex and confusing. I recommend a shorter version called The Illustrated I Ching, which is pleasurable to read, and easy to experiment with.
If you want to learn about India, consider the works of Nirad Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri wrote two books about his own life and times: The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and Thy Hand, Great Anarch! Chaudhuri also wrote a study of Hinduism, studies of modern culture, and biographies of Max Muller and Robert Clive. Chaudhuri wrote excellent English, and had a deep knowledge of the Western literary tradition.
The best of all modern biographers is Lytton Strachey. Strachey was a friend of Virginia Woolf, and a member of the so-called Bloomsbury Group, which flourished in London in the early 20th century. Strachey admired French literature, and lamented that England had never produced a biographer capable of
Strachey is best known as the author of Eminent Victorians, which compresses into a few shining and witty pages the lives of four Victorians: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold, and General Gordon. Eminent Victorians is a superb literary work. I also recommend Strachey’s biography of Queen Victoria, and his Elizabeth and Essex, which brings the Elizabethan age alive in just 250 pages. Strachey’s Landmarks in French Literature might be compared to Gilbert Murray’s History of Ancient Greek Literature and J. W. Mackail’s Latin Literature.