- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Lyons Press; First Edition edition (October 3, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 159921122X
- ISBN-13: 978-1599211220
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,123,460 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Brief History of History: Great Historians And The Epic Quest To Explain The Past Hardcover – October 3, 2008
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Wells begins by arguing that history has two “parents” in the ancient Greek world, epic poetry and science, and that its first two practitioners, Herodotus and Thucydides, each took after one of those parents respectively. This dichotomy serves as a backdrop for the larger narrative that follows, in which “the scientist” dominates the writing of history until very recent times, when “the storyteller” makes a comeback.
A riveting blend of vibrant prose and penetrating insight, A Brief History of History is a must for anyone interested in how we look at the past.
From the Back Cover
Here’s a question: What if Thucydides had written smut? In the LatinWest, writers like Gregory and Bede may have abandoned secular history, but on its home turf in the Greek East, the tradition of
Herodotus and Thucydides proved more, shall we say, robust . . .
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Although not a historian (he's no relation to the late Roman historian of the same name), Wells seems to believe he can synthesize a popular book about the history of history from a few scholarly works on the subject--just as in my youth, the high school coach was often tasked with teaching history because it was assumed that its teaching took no special skills. Only a hearty amateur would attempt say, a history of mathematics or of physics without an academic background in those subjects.
Wells does not define history, nor does he try to describe the development of the discipline in any systematic way. The book is largely a series of tales about historians and other intellectuals that strike his fancy; having not defined history, he can drag in anyone he chooses: Gassendi, Rousseau, Montaigne, Henry Fielding, Heinrich Schliemann, Flinders Petrie. He spends seventeen pages on Las Casas, five on Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko (1688). By comparison, the philological breakthrough of Lorenzo Valla gets a paragraph, as do psychohistory and cliometrics--one less paragraph than does James Macpherson's Ossian. Sometimes Wells resorts to stream-of-consciousness: Vico lived in Naples, as had Lucretius seventeen centuries before, and Gassendi, who "had also been an Epicurean," once "visited Naples, where he became the first person in history to observe and record the transit of a planet, Mercury, across the sun." (192-93)
Wells is a decent wordsmith, though nowhere near as clever as he seems to think he is. When, for no particular reason, he compares the death of art historian Johann Winckelmann to that of playwright Christopher Marlowe, Wells notes that both were "exuberantly homosexual, walking very much on the Wilde side." (249) Sometimes a sentence simply goes amusingly astray: the work of Champollion and Young "meant that Egyptologists could read hieroglyphics, which definitely helps if you happen to be one." (275)
Wells also makes errors of fact that will stop the knowledgeable reader dead on the page. He claims that Paolo Sarpi wrote "for the Catholic Counter-Reformation" when, in fact, he nearly lost his life opposing it. Wells believes the "Columbian Exchange" to be developments in legal history, "ethnography and nascent disciplines like anthropology, political science, and political philosophy," with historians "noting the many good things--gold, potatoes, corn, democratic values--that crossed over to Europe from the Americas, though that begs the question of what exactly the Americas got in return." (143-44)
For a brief, scholarly (though somewhat dated) history of history, one could much more profitably read the appropriate chapters in Paul K. Conkin and Roland N. Stromberg, Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History (1989), which is about the same length as Wells. For an idiosyncratic, popular treatment, the reader would be better advised to tackle the much longer John Burrow, A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century (2008).
The subject is made difficult from the get-go by the word “history” itself. We use it to refer to the past, but we also use it to describe the things we say about the past. I might equally well say I’m studying the history of the Crusades (i.e. studying its past) or that I’m writing a history of the Crusades (i.e. I’m sharing with you my take on its past).
When we study the history of history, what we’re doing it examining the history of the various things that have been said about the past. It’s a triple regress, and I suspect few readers beyond a thin layer of academics would be interested in entering into such a fun house. (Perhaps the only thing worse would be the history of historiography: the history of the various things that have been said about the things that have been said about the past.)
But it’s to the general reader rather than the scholarly community that the author, Colin Wells, has addressed himself here. Bravo! Scholars will find the work breezy and uncritical (not quite fairly). The general reader will find it fascinating, up to a point. I was reminded more than once while reading it of another minor classic, The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold Schonberg.
Wells is good at keeping a narrative afloat.
But here the major problem of his work presents itself. With Schonberg, we can listen to a Mozart symphony or a Wagner opera, and then read up on all the scuttlebutt surrounding the man who wrote it. (In fact, having written that sentence, I just put Mozart’s 40th Symphony on the turntable. Ah, sublime!) When we’re reading about Einhard or Guicciardini, on the other hand, or Bayle or Champollion, the question we ask ourselves time and again is, “Who the hell is that?”
This can be a problem. And if Wells happens to hit on a historian we have heard of—Herodotus say, or Burckhardt—our first thought may be, “Damn, I’ve always wanted to read him. I think I’ll go do that now.” Good-bye Wells.
I had that thought more than once while reading A Brief History of History. Thucydides remains a gap in my education, though I have The Landmark Thucydides right here on the shelf. Also Bede. And Herder.
Well, there is no end to the list of the great historians I’ve never read. And Wells doesn’t shy away from bringing out not only obscure (to us) historians, but also compilations of historical fragments that no one outside the academic community has heard of.
He seems to be especially strong on Byzantine historiography—an era closer to a black hole than anything Stephen Hawking has ever met up with face-to-face. (And yet A Brief History of Time sold millions!)
The discerning reader may have come to suspect that I myself fall somewhere between the scholar and the “general reader.” I’m no scholar, yet I do have Hume’s six-volume History of England close at hand and also Phillippe de Commynes two-volume Memoirs, an eye-witness account of the history of Burgundy in the later years of the fifteenth century.
Wells doesn’t mention Commynes. I forgive him. Because what he has done is bring out how fascinating it can be to read histories written in times closer to the events being described than the ones we have access to today.
Undergirding any history of history is a definition of history, and Wells finds his in the first sentence of the first history ever written—The Persian Wars by Herodotus. He dwells on the fact that Herodotus, after explaining that he wanted to preserve the past from oblivion, also wanted to explain why things happened.
“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.” (trans. Rawlinson)
Wells notes that “to put on record” interpolates a verb that doesn’t exist in the original. He translates the final clause “and especially the reason why they went to war against each other.” Thus history’s purpose, according to Herodotus, was to preserve the glory of the past, but also to explain it. Hence the subtitle of Wells’s book: Great Historians and the Epic Quest to Explain the Past.
Yes, but does the past really need to be explained? Do the motives of human activity ever really change? Power, domesticity, expression, love, pleasure, stability, survival, vengeance, and that quality above all others—benevolence. People love to read history because they love to make contact with superhuman examples of those things. Depending on their temperament, they may read Helter Skelter or a biography of Winston Churchill.
Wells makes a very good narrative out of a disparate and challenging collection of thinkers. A Brief History of History is a book I'm sure I could read once a year with profit. Characters such as Bruni, Dilthey, Tacitus, Procopius demand our attention, and Wells does a good job of explaining why. But there are more than a few passages in which his attempt to be breezy ends up sounding trite. For example, of the Italian poet Petrarch he writes:
Before Petrarch, people looked at the past and saw an age of pagan superstition that had been succeeded by the light of Christian revelation. Petrarch flipped this idea like a pancake: The enlightenment of ancient Greece and Rome was followed by an age of ignorant superstition in which ancient knowledge disappeared and culture decayed.
Wells seems to approve of Petrarch’s re-ordering of history, which is also a re-ordering of values. But is it sound? This is an important point, precisely the kind of issue that Wells tends to ignore. Are Christian values worthless? Are there vast stretches of time that contributed nothing to civilization?
Casting around for a richer interpretation of the relation between historical eras, I opened Benedetto Croce’s History: Theory and Practice (1913) and came upon the following passage:
…historical thought knows nothing of returns, but knows that the Middle Ages preserved antiquity deep in its heart and the Renaissance preserved the Middle Ages. And what is “humanism” but a renewed formula of that “humanity” of which the ancient world knew little or nothing, and which Christianity and the Middle Ages had so profoundly felt? What is the word ‘renaissance’ or ‘renewal’ but a metaphor taken from the language of religion? And setting aside the word, is not the conception of humanism perhaps the affirmation of a spiritual and universal value, and in so far as it is that, altogether foreign, as we know, to the mind of antiquity…
These reflection are of a different order altogether from the ones we find in Wells’s book. They’re rooted in a command not only of historiography, but also of metaphysics, and Wells simply doesn’t possess such a background.
Yet A Brief History of History is a remarkable book all the same.The entertaining tales harbor subtleties of interpretation and judgment that Wells seldom lingers to defend. For example: "History has co-opted the ferocious post-modernists, who set themselves to drain it of meaning but only ended by presenting it with a new set of powerful tools."
The historians he choses to highlight from recent times--Natalie Zemon Davis, Peter Brown, Emmanuel Ladurie,Carlo Ginzburg--are an odd lot, none of whom carry name recognition on the order of Macaulay, Voltaire, de las Cases, or Julius Caesar. Yet I cannot help pulling my copy of Ginzburg's essay collection, Wooden Eyes:Nine Reflections on Distance, from the shelf to give it another look.
I am tempted to call Wells's effort a Quixotic one. He has read more, and knows far more about the history of history than you or I ever will. Yet he considers it worthwhile to call up names unknown to us, examine eras in history we've never given a thought to, attempting to tell the story in terms we can understand. As if we might be interested. And indeed, he does make it interesting.
At one point he writes, and it's true: "If historians downed pens right now, we could still never catch up on our reading."