Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: How The Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill

In my last entry, I vented my frustration at my Irish brethren, and charged them to remember our glorious past. We really DO have a glorious past, you know; we've just lost sight of it after a few centuries of famine and exile. So this week, I give a concrete example of it. There are many reasons to be proud to be of Irish descent, but Thomas Cahill's book, "How The Irish Saved Civilization," is perhaps the greatest reason of all. And it's worth discussing, and worth recommending to all of you.

This book is the first in a series that historian Thomas Cahill has undertaken, called "The Hinges of History." In this series Cahill endeavors to highlight some of the pivotal moments in the history of Western Civilization, and the peoples and cultures who were unsung heroes in making the modern world what it is today. And I have to say, he starts his series off with a bang. Even I, a proud Irish American, had some trouble wrapping my head around the concept: the IRISH saved civilization? Go on with you now! But, no, it's true. At least to a point. With the collapse of the Roman Empire in 475, so went a way of life that had dominated the known world for over a thousand years. A long, glorious Greco-Roman tradition of learning and culture gave way to a Dark Age of squabbling barbarian warlords. Yet, somehow, for some reason, a remnant of the old Classical way of life survived, in the most unlikely of places: Ireland. Dutiful Irish monks, many of them self-taught, gathered, safeguarded, and copied as many books as they could get their hands on. And then a few centuries later, they brought them back to Continental Europe, ushering in a revival of the lost arts. It's a fascinating story, and one that was long overdue for a telling.

Cahill's book is a lively one, written in a colloquial, punchy prose style quite appropriate for one discussing a people such as ours. He goes to some length at the beginning of his book to explain something of the Classical tradition, and to discuss what was lost when Roman civilization fell. He also discusses at length ancient Celtic civilization (if you can call it that), and just what it was in the Irish character that made them the ideal caretakers of Western Civilization. What was lost in the fall of Rome, Cahill states, was a specific kind of intellectualism. A capacity for abstract thought, an analytic insight, an ability to internalize complicated concepts, were all features of the Greek philosophers and the Roman intelligensia who emulated them. This way of thinking began to die a slow death in the 5th Century, when the first Germanic tribes began to encroach on Roman territory, eventually pushing into Rome itself, sacking it, and rendering the Empire completely irrelevant as they carved their own kingdoms out of fine Mediterranean real estate. These tribesmen, nomadic, pragmatic, and mostly illiterate, had neither the time nor the inclination to maintain such a tradition. It was a better use of a book to start a fire on a cold night than to read its contents. This Classical intellectualism was never fully rediscovered; the capacity to think like a Greek or Roman was simply lost. But the tangible works - the books - survived for future generations to rediscover. And it was due to the Irish? These strange barbarians on the hinterlands of Europe, not all that different from the Goths who sacked Rome (the Celts had done their fair share of city-sacking in their time as well)? These inhabitants of an island so damp and miserable and remote that even the ROMANS took one look and said, "It's too far, and it's too cold"? How did this happen?

Well, fortunately Thomas Cahill is here to tell us. It is due in large part, he says, to the Christian tradition. The Irish embraced Christianity, and the monastic tradition that went with it. And with that monastic tradition came a love of learning and a settled life in which to indulge in it. The impact this form of Christianity had on Western Europe is incalculable, particularly during the Dark Ages. As the Empire crumbled, and tribal warlords exerted more and more power, often the last bastion of anything remotely resembling Roman culture was the local church or monastery, with its learned and diplomatic abbot. And of course, in times of crisis, people often look to their gods for help and comfort. It's not hard to see how powerful a man of the cloth could become, particularly if he chose to ally himself with the new boss in town. 

And yet, this is a holdover of Roman culture. When Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, what was Roman also became Christian. It was just a given. The Romans had never conquered Ireland. Never, as far as anyone knows, even set foot there. The conversion of the Irish people to Christianity stands as the first of its kind: a conversion of a people beyond the Romanized world, without the trappings of Roman civilization that came with it. This may lose a little impact on the modern reader, but it was a thing unheard-of before the 5th Century. It took the efforts of one Patricius - Saint Patrick - the world's first true Christian missionary, to win over the Irish, but they embraced this new religion with gusto. And to understand why they did so is to understand the Irish character - which Thomas Cahill obviously does.

Cahill has a tendency to go a little overboard in discussing pre-Christian Ireland, but he does so to make a point. He discusses at some length many Irish religious beliefs and folktales, in particular the legendary Tain Bo Culainge - the Illiad of ancient Ireland, and talks about what these stories tell us about the character of the people who set them down. You can learn a lot about what a culture values from reading its myths and legends, and the myths and legends of Ireland are full of ridiculously mighty warriors, suicidally brave heroes, and capricious war goddesses. This is a culture that reveres courage and wit, and believes in enjoying life...because death can come at any moment. In many ways the Irish were the prototypical European pagans, and their outlook a typical one for pre-Christian peoples. This is a point that's often overlooked in the study of religious history, and one that's sadly losing relevance in modern Christianity: that, at its outset, Christianity WAS a vastly different religion than the ones it replaced. The gods of Greece, Rome, and Ireland (and yes, even the God of the Old Testament) were capricious, inconstant things. They bestowed their favor on champions, then withdrew it on a whim. They demanded cruel sacrifices in exchange for calm seas or good harvests, and even then they might just change their minds. They put ridiculous conditions on good fortune, guaranteeing that no mortal in his right mind could possibly get ahead in life. Jesus was a vastly different god than these, and Cahill posits that the impact of Saint Patrick's teachings on the Irish cannot be underestimated. Here comes a man telling of a new God, one who doesn't demand you give up your best lamb or your first-born son - in fact, this God has given HIS first-born Son as a sacrifice. A God who promises a blissful afterlife to those who believe, without all the strings that the Morrigan or Macha would attach. Saint Patrick's message must have sounded too good to be true - "you don't have to grovel before these wretched gods any more; a more generous god has set a place at his table for you" - and yet, too good to pass up.

And what happened then? Well, Cahill exposits, after embracing Christianity and calming its own petty internal wars, this crazy race of warrior-poets had to do SOMETHING with all its pent-up energy. So they translated their heroic tradition into a monastic one, devoting their lives to the new God with just as much enthusiasm as they would lay down their lives for their old ones. The uniquely Celtic love and appreciation of the written word soon had its part to play, as these Irish monks began to horde books. EVERY book they could get their hands on, religious and secular. Keeping them safe, and copying them out in those famously beautiful illuminated manuscripts that still survive today. And then, finally, the ultimate act of heroism: voluntarily leaving one's homeland for parts unknown. The tradition started by Saint Columba, of venturing forth and establishing new monastic communities when the parent communities became too large. Wherever these Irish monks went, they took their books with them, re-colonizing a Europe that had long forgotten itself.

How unbiased a view this book gives the reader is debatable. Like any man of Irish descent, Thomas Cahill is a born storyteller, which is not to say he's above embellishment. He makes some rather...interesting claims here and there (apparently the Roman Empire's active repression of a middle class was a contributing factor in its decline; not so sure about that), and he treats Saint Patrick as a true genuine historical figure, even though no one's quite sure if he even existed. The book also does suffer from being quite Euro-centric. The "Civilization" of the title - the one that the Irish apparently saved - is WESTERN Civilization. To be sure, a great achievement, but not without its difficulties. His depiction of the final days of Rome is quite evocative, if not a bit one-sided, portraying the Goths as the great unwashed masses without much of value to offer (granted, that's not all that far off, but it does seem a bit...insensitive). 

Cahill ends the book with a brief rundown of the modern world, and the inkling of a growing dread that Western Civilization may be heading for another meltdown, and there may be no way to predict what will survive, and what peoples will be its custodians. The further questions are posed. What in modern society is worth preserving? If so, who is to decide what that might be? And is it in their power to preserve it? Will these custodians of the past be revered as saints and sages? Or will they be lost forever to history, as were so many in the Dark Ages? We will never know; no one can predict the future. But if history is any guide, it will be the people who embrace the task with gusto and with love. 

People like the Irish. People like us. You see, we have a glorious past. And we must live up to it, if we are to have a glorious future.


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