This will be something of a fluff post, possibly of interest to nobody but myself. Dear diary, right?
I’ve been reading some 4th century stuff which I’m discovering covers an area I’m really not all that interested in. This is not the first time this has happened. More than 10 years ago, when I started to really get into Medieval History, I realized I wasn’t that interested in warfare. This was a surprise. If you’d asked me right when I was getting started I’d have probably told you that learning about folks sticking each other with sharp, pointy objects and how they went about it would be high on my list. It hasn’t been, even though I realize that this is a very important aspect of history (and continues to be today, though the methods have changed – we are one violent species).
Up to the last month I’d have told you that the evolution of thought is something I’m very interested in. I still think so, but there’s a level of detail at which this does not seem to be true. 1
A couple of weeks ago I finished reading, Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma I: Conversion and Apostasy, 373-388 C.E., by Jason David BeDuhn. This book discusses Augustine’s early life, his time as a Manichean, and his conversion to Christianity. In large part, it analyzes Augustine’s story, based on his The Confessions and other early writings to examine what was going on inside Augustine’s head during this period. How did he think about himself? Realizing that The Confessions was written about ten years after his conversion, how does Augustine’s view of himself compare with what was likely happening internally? What do these writings tell us about Augustine’s development of “self?”
Guess what – I’m not buying Volume II when it comes out. There appears to be a whole branch devoted to discovering what Augustine thought of himself and really picking apart his conversion. This is fine. He’s one of the most important figures in the development of Western thought so figuring out how this thought came about and how his personal development impacted it is useful. But I also found out that it’s not something I’m interested in, not to the point of wanting to read 300-plus page books devoted to a subset of the topic. I suppose there could be a discussion of whether this is really history rather than one of the “ologies” (psychology, sociology, etc.) but I’ll leave that to others – those are intermingled with history anyway, as is anthropology.
I have always been interested in how our current Western European society developed its thinking and how this can be traced back to ancient Greece. I’ve read a lot of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato (in translation of course). I’ve read a fair amount of books discussing this in relatively (I now realize) general terms. However right now I’m reading Kevin Corrigan’s Evagrius and Gregory: Mind, Soul and Body in the 4th Century. This is an extremely detailed examination of Evagorius Ponticus and Gregory of Nyssa and how their writings reflect a Greek classical origin. I’m fighting through this and recognizing that at this level of detail, picking through Evagrius’ Praktikos concept by concept and looking for its origin in Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, goes deeper than I want to go.
The funny thing is, I find the source material very interesting. But the analysis of this material (which is detailed and seems quite well done), at least to this level, has been boring me. I’m reading this in 5 page or so blocks, not a good way to get through something.
Let me provide an example from the introduction (you know – where general concepts are, uh, introduced) of Chapter 6, “Gregory and the Fall of Intellect”:
“The formulaic phomen, “we say,” indicates agreement among members of a school and what is agreed upon is a problem of interpretation in Plato’s Republic and Symposium. The Republic posits the good as the supreme mathêma, beyond both intellect and being. The Symposium, by contrast, in Diotima’s ladder of ascent, posits the beautiful as the goal of desire and vision. Are the two equivalent? The question remains open in Plato. But in Plotinus, the “beautiful” is ambiguous, indicating the beauty of intellect secondarily and that of the Good beyond it primarily (cf. EnneadI 6, 6-7; V 5, 12; and VI 7, 31-3), though this has been debated.” (103)
There are other aspects of medieval history where I love attention to detail but reading page after page of this makes my head want to explode. I believe (though I’m really not qualified to assess it) that Corrigan knows his stuff. But what I want to read would be something more along the lines of, “Gregory’s concept of beauty could be summarized as the mind as a mirror designed to reflect beauty and the body as a further reflective element, capable of receiving and sustaining the beauty of the mind. This concept can be traced to Plotinus, however its origin can be found in the writings of Plato.” Then give me footnotes (Corrigan footnotes the above anyway).
This is not to say that books such as this are not useful or even important. It’s just at a level of detail beyond what I want to explore (for now anyway – who knows where I’ll be a couple of years, or even months, down the road). This is the benefit of my doing this as a hobby. I can choose not to dive so deeply as Corrigan would take me. I love my real job but there are pieces of it which are quite tedious. Just yesterday I viewed a 2 hour webinar designed to introduce a FEMA technical guide (755 pages) on earthquake safety which I’ll need to mine for information on a publication I’m working on. These federal technical folks know their stuff but are not noted for giving the most thrilling presentation. But I’m being paid to do this and I will.
I’ll finish Corrigan. I have this stubborn thing which happens whenever I open a book and the only two times I’ve closed a book without finishing was over disgust at the crappy level of information provided, certainly not because it’s overly informative. I’m sure I’m going continue to gobble up source material, in particular Neoplatonist sources. But it reminds me that I do this as a hobby and my level of knowledge will never reach that of professionals (overall anyway). I can set aside critical areas because I choose not to investigate them thoroughly. It’s a flawed approach to true knowledge but for certain areas of history, it’s an approach I’m choosing to take.
1 Understanding that Medieval (and Ancient) folks thought differently from us (moderns) is a fundamental concept which I think should be one of the first things anyone interested in either period should explore. The best general survey on this which I’ve read is; Lindberg, David C., The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1992). ISBN: 0-226-48231-6. For those familiar with this book, the level of detail I want to explore is somewhere between it and Corrigan.
BeDuhn, Jason David, Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma I: Conversion and Apostasy, 373-388 C.E.. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-8122-4210-2.
Corrigan, Kevin, Evagirus and Gregory: Mind, Soul and Body in the 4th Century. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing (2009). ISBN: 978-0-7546-1685-6.