Christie Henry on Shaping History–Through Books

The founder of the antecedent of Black History Month, Carter Woodson, astutely noted that “the mere imparting of information is not education.”  Adapting these profound words to the realm of publishing, publishers recognize that the mere imparting of information is not publishing.  In an era of an abundance of information, of words on the print and digital page, it is ever more vital for us to curate, with intention, a list of publications that educates and inspires.  As a University Press publisher, the education we commit to for our readers (and audio book listeners) is a publishing grounded in information that is transformed—through author intelligence and curiosity, the insights of peer review, and the art and science of book making, publicity and marketing, and sales—and, ideally, transformative in its impact and endurance. 

The books we are celebrating this month embody that transformative impact, and in doing so also contribute in meaningful and enduring ways to one of the key tenets of Black History month, to teach the history of Black America.  As books remain a vital component of teaching, and learning, this month is a critical time for publishers to reflect on our responsibility as partners in the pedagogical endeavor, and the narrative we shape with the books we publish.  We join our many peers in the university press, #ReadUP community, in a shared commitment to enrich knowledge about race, identity, society, history, politics and the arts—inspired by our authors and the university communities in which we thrive.

In December, NYU University Press author Safiya Umoja Noble visited Princeton University Press to talk about our role in offering a platform to as wide a population of scholarship as there are voices and minds, particularly in our responsibility as an interlocutor between the academy and the wider culture of reading and knowledge.  Peer review is the foundational element of this university press platform, and it shapes each of the books we publish, as does the editorial board that governs our peer review. 

We also commit to the tenets of peer review in assessing our own decisions as publishers.  Just as most authors take great pride (rightfully!) in the manuscripts they submit for peer review, so too are we incredibly proud of the list of nearly 10,000 titles Princeton University Press has published.  But we also know how critical it is to iterate, in the way every manuscript does, guided by a close and constructive scrutiny of that publications list.   When assessed against current cultural contexts and priorities, in the way that a manuscript’s references are held accountable to current scholarship, we recognize that we can grow from criticism, and benefit from revision, to bring more voices and perspectives to our list, and to broaden its intellectual impact and horizons.  I find myself incredibly inspired by another #ReadUP author, Hanif Abdurraqib, whose Go Ahead in the Rain is publishing this month at the University of Texas Press, “A big reason I write is rooted in the idea of building relationships”: the big reason we publish is rooted in the idea (and joy) of building relationships.

As we peer review our publications program, and celebrate in particular the ways in books about the African American experience have shaped that program, we are guided by Woodson’s enduring mantra that we need “a history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”  Our press is committed to books that shape that history, and inspire and educate through scholarship, creativity and collaboration.

–Christie Henry, Director

Thomas Crow on Restoration

Crow_Restoration book coverAs the French Empire collapsed between 1812 and 1815, artists throughout Europe were left uncertain and adrift. The final abdication of Emperor Napoleon, clearing the way for a restored monarchy, profoundly unsettled prevailing national, religious, and social boundaries. In Restoration, Thomas Crow combines a sweeping view of European art centers—Rome, Paris, London, Madrid, Brussels, and Vienna—with a close-up look at pivotal artists, including Antonio Canova, Jacques-Louis David, Théodore Géricault, Francisco Goya, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Thomas Lawrence, and forgotten but meteoric painters François-Joseph Navez and Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas. Crow explores how cataclysmic social and political transformations in nineteenth-century Europe reshaped these artists’ lives and careers with far-reaching consequences.

You say in your introduction, by positing that the essential subject of history is change, that periods of exceptionally rapid change contain a greater quantity of history than others.  Do you mean that a few years of upheaval might be equivalent in their historical density to a much longer epoch of more gradual transition?

The interval between my giving the Andrew Mellon Lectures at the Washington National Gallery in 2015 and their publication in this book strikes me as just such a period, in a way that few would have anticipated. The apartment provided by the Gallery in downtown Washington is only a few blocks from the White House, and it was always heartening to walk in that direction and think about the Obama family being inside. I wasn’t thinking much about the ominous portent in the signs across the street announcing the future Trump International Hotel hollowing out the gray stone of the old D.C. Post Office building.

Less than four years later, the dizzying reversals symbolized by the changed state of those landmarks hardly needs describing, and my proposition about the exceptional density of history between 1812 and 1820 may carry more intuitive resonance for everyone who has seen the most trusted form of order in domestic and international politics suddenly exposed as fragile or obsolescent.

Much the same can be said about the catastrophic effects of the Brexit referendum in the UK. In both societies, people share a pervasive anxiety over where these processes of history are taking us and what a suddenly uncertain future will be like.  Such were the states of mind among the artists whose personal stories make up this book. A friend (and former Mellon Lecturer) just wrote me and gratifyingly called Restoration “politically prescient for these dark times when all sorts of stuff we hoped had gone away seems to be restoring itself in unwanted ways.”

Paging through the book, with all of its splendid color illustrations, a reader wouldn’t immediately think of dark themes.

Firstly, I have the combined efforts of the National Gallery and Princeton University Press to thank for the number and wonderful quality of all those images. My hope for the book was that reading it would be as close as possible to being in the hall for the talks. I wanted the quickness of vivid images arriving just at the point they apply to the words. And the words would have as much of the immediacy of speech as possible, not slowing down or impeding the sense of rapid change and surprising innovation that Restoration tries to bring alive.

I think you can imagine, alongside all the devastation left by two decades of war, the wave of relief that swept across Europe at the apparent end of conflict. Rome, in particular, became the prime scene for this emotional release. Movements of armies and militarized borders had made normal travel in Europe nearly impossible. The British in particular had been shut out, and Rome became a magnet destination for them. The brilliant society painter Thomas Lawrence made the journey and created two of his most compelling portraits—one of the Pope himself and the other of his right-hand man, Cardinal Consalvi. The very fact that an artist from a deeply anti-Catholic society would undertake these at all speaks to the startling alterations of customary behavior engendered by Napoleon’s fall.

Lawrence was only one among an influx of artists from elsewhere, among them the brightest talents of the age. Théodore Géricault arrived in 1816, eager to absorb the lessons of Roman greatness in the arts. But his attention quickly wandered to the life of the city’s inhabitants, especially the rituals, ceremonies, and carnival celebrations that seemed to dominate their lives. And he had a companion in his artistic explorations of these exotic forms of life, a former Parisian rival named Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas, who left the most astonishing, up-close visual record of the teeming Roman streets.

Nothing sounds too dark so far, rather the opposite.

In the street-level studies by both Géricault and Thomas, the costumes, Baroque church liturgy, and exuberant festivity are shadowed by events like public beheadings, which were clustered at the opening of the carnival season. Both artists drew analogies between cruel punishments of human beings and the agonies of animals led to torture and slaughter, which they witnessed in the bullring (installed inside the ruined mausoleum of Augustus) and the meat markets that surrounded it. Géricault’s drawings of these subjects are relatively well known, but you can’t really get the measure of them unless they’re seen side by side with the astonishingly vibrant watercolors of the same subjects by Thomas. I only had the rather pallid prints done after them when I gave the Mellon Lectures, but discovered the unpublished studies in Rome afterwards, and they make some of the most spectacular illustrations in the book, including some great two-page spreads.

What would be an example?

Both Géricault and Thomas were fascinated by the races of riderless horses, careening along the Corso, right down the central axis of the city, as a prime spectacle of carnival season since the Middle Ages. Géricault even planned to make a monumental painting out of the maddened animals held back by their handlers. But Thomas reveals the excruciating goads and fireworks in their bridles that induced these specially-bred Barbary horses to complete the course.

Did Géricault ever produce that painting?

He never did, but he carried back an imagination of endurance in the face of suffering, both animal and human, that then motivated a series of extraordinary, monumental canvases.

The Raft of the Medusa, you mean?

Yes, that would be its ultimate expression, the bare collection of decimated shipwreck survivors, summoning their last strength to attract their rescuers, which everyone knows from the Louvre—and it is truly one of the greatest paintings in art history. I try to put it in that light, but also bring out some less familiar, but astonishing work that also subsumes what he’d witnessed by going to Rome, and participates just as much in the upheavals of the time.

Immediately on his return to Paris, he set about painting three gigantic landscapes in an ostensibly classical vein, but their desperate and dejected inhabitants seem to traverse gloomy stretches of devastated terrain. Nothing obviously topical there, unless you’re aware of the catastrophic changes in the climate that struck Europe during exactly the period that Géricault was traversing northern France and the Alpine region on his way to and from Rome. The cause, which no one could grasp, was the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Indonesian archipelago. Its spreading plume of high-altitude ash cut sunlight to the point that 1816 in much of Europe was called “the year without a summer.” Widespread crop failures, famine, and vagabondage continued though the next summer as he was returning home. It would have seemed that the cosmos itself had been warped by the enormous social and political upheavals of the moment. No evidence survives of any commission or exhibition of the works during the artist’s lifetime, making them in all likelihood a compulsive effort to reconcile the traumatized, post-Tambora condition of rural Europe with his drive to make major art.

A last question: can you say something about the title of your book?  Is it just about the crowned heads of Europe putting the French monarch back on the throne?

More than that, I hope. That’s the technical meaning of the word, but it contains an irony, in that nothing so momentously altered can ever be restored as it was. The artists, from the finest grain of their work to their frequently towering themes, speak most eloquently to that existential reality.

And art itself became a prime object of restoration, in that the period saw the first major controversy about the return of works looted or otherwise displaced from their place of origin. The Pope dispatched the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova as his ambassador to broker the return of the Vatican antiquities and major paintings like Raphael’s Transfiguration, which the French had appropriated for the future Musée Napoléon in Paris. But it was no forgone conclusion that they would go back; when they did, Thomas Lawrence celebrated by placing key antiquities like the Vatican Apollo and Laocoön at the right hand of Pius VII in his portrait, as if the pontiff again commanded their mythical might as a boost to his own.

The paradox of Canova’s embassy was that, when traveling to London to secure British support, he publicly endorsed the recent looting of the Parthenon sculptures by Lord Elgin, and there they remain in the British Museum, still the object of impassioned but unrequited pleas for their restoration to Athens.

Thomas Crow is the Rosalie Solow Professor of Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. His many books include Emulation: David, Drouais, and Girodet in the Art of Revolutionary FranceThe Long March of Pop: Art, Music, and Design 1930–1995; and No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art.

Browse our Ancient World 2019 Catalog

Our new Ancient World catalog includes the fascinating untold story of how the ancients imagined robots and other forms of artificial life—and even invented real automated machines, a new account of the famous site and story of the last stand of a group of Jewish rebels who held out against the Roman Empire, a new translation that captures the gripping power of one of the greatest war stories ever told—Julius Caesar’s pitiless account of his brutal campaign to conquer Gaul.

If you plan on attending AIA/SCS 2018 in San Diego this weekend, stop by Booths 204/206 to see our full range of Ancient World titles and more.

 

Two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women, and children—the last holdouts of the revolt against Rome following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple—reportedly took their own lives rather than surrender to the Roman army. This dramatic event, which took place on top of Masada, a barren and windswept mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, spawned a powerful story of Jewish resistance that came to symbolize the embattled modern State of Israel. The first extensive archaeological excavations of Masada began in the 1960s, and today the site draws visitors from around the world. And yet, because the mass suicide was recorded by only one ancient author—the Jewish historian Josephus—some scholars question if the event ever took place.

Featuring numerous illustrations, Masada is an engaging exploration of an ancient story that continues to grip the imagination today.

The first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention. More than 2,500 years ago, long before medieval automata, and centuries before technology made self-moving devices possible, Greek mythology was exploring ideas about creating artificial life—and grappling with still-unresolved ethical concerns about biotechne, “life through craft.” In this compelling, richly illustrated book, Adrienne Mayor tells the fascinating story of how ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese myths envisioned artificial life, automata, self-moving devices, and human enhancements—and how these visions relate to and reflect the ancient invention of real animated machines.

A groundbreaking account of the earliest expressions of the timeless impulse to create artificial life, Gods and Robots reveals how some of today’s most advanced innovations in robotics and AI were foreshadowed in ancient myth—and how science has always been driven by imagination. This is mythology for the age of AI.

Imagine a book about an unnecessary war written by the ruthless general of an occupying army—a vivid and dramatic propaganda piece that forces the reader to identify with the conquerors and that is designed, like the war itself, to fuel the limitless political ambitions of the author. Could such a campaign autobiography ever be a great work of literature—perhaps even one of the greatest? It would be easy to think not, but such a book exists—and it helped transform Julius Caesar from a politician on the make into the Caesar of legend. This remarkable new translation of Caesar’s famous but underappreciated War for Gaul captures, like never before in English, the gripping and powerfully concise style of the future emperor’s dispatches from the front lines in what are today France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland.

Browse our 2019 History Catalog

Our new History catalog includes a groundbreaking history of early America that shows how Boston built and sustained an independent city-state in New England before being folded into the United States, a reconstruction of the forgotten history of medieval Africa, and a major new history of how the Enlightenment transformed people’s everyday lives.

If you’re attending the American Historical Association meeting in Chicago this week, you can stop by Booth 207 to check out our history titles!

Peterson_City-State of Boston book cover

The City-State of Boston highlights Boston’s overlooked past as an autonomous city-state, and in doing so, offers a pathbreaking and brilliant new history of early America. Following Boston’s development over three centuries, Mark Peterson discusses how this self-governing Atlantic trading center began as a refuge from Britain’s Stuart monarchs and how—through its bargain with slavery and ratification of the Constitution—it would tragically lose integrity and autonomy as it became incorporated into the greater United States.

Fauvelle_Golden Rhinoceros book cover

The seventh through fifteenth centuries were an African golden age in which places like Ghana, Nubia, and Zimbabwe became the crossroads of civilizations, and where African royals, thinkers, and artists played celebrated roles in the globalized world of the Middle Ages. The Golden Rhinoceros brings this unsung era marvelously to life, taking readers from the Sahara and the Nile River Valley to the Ethiopian highlands and southern Africa. Drawing on fragmented written sources as well as his many years of experience as an archaeologist, François-Xavier Fauvelle painstakingly reconstructs an African past that is too often denied its place in history—but no longer.

Jacobs_Secular Enlightenment

The Secular Enlightenment is a panoramic account of the radical ways that life began to change for ordinary people in the age of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. Margaret Jacob, one of our most esteemed historians of the Enlightenment, reveals how this newly secular outlook was not a wholesale rejection of Christianity but rather a new mental space in which to encounter the world on its own terms. She demonstrates how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe, spilled into the American colonies, and left their lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come.

Jason Brennan on When All Else Fails

Brennan When All Else FailsThe economist Albert O. Hirschman famously argued that citizens of democracies have only three possible responses to injustice or wrongdoing by their governments: we may leave, complain, or comply. But in When All Else Fails, Jason Brennan argues that there is a fourth option. When governments violate our rights, we may resist. We may even have a moral duty to do so. The result is a provocative challenge to long-held beliefs about how citizens may respond when government officials behave unjustly or abuse their power.

What led you to write this book?

Almost daily for the past year, I have come across news stories about police officers using excessive violence against civilians, or about people being arrested and having their lives ruined over things that shouldn’t be crimes in the first place. I watched the Black Lives Matter protests and started reading histories of armed resistance. I watched as president after president killed innocent civilians while pursuing the “War on Terror.” I see people’s lives destroyed by the “War on Drugs,” which continues on the same course even though we have strong evidence it makes things worse, not better. Every day, government agents acting ex officio are committing severe injustices. 

I ascertained that contemporary philosophy was largely impotent to analyze or deal with these problems. Most political philosophy is about trying to construct a theory of an ideal, perfectly just society, which means philosophers usually imagine away the hard problems rather than consider how to deal with those problems. Philosophers often try to justify the government’s right to commit injustice, but they often rely upon irrelevant or incoherent models of what governments and their agents are like. For example, Suzanne Dovi’s theory of political representation is grounded in a false theory of voter behavior, while John Rawls’s argument for government simultaneously assumes people are too selfish to pay for public goods, and government agents are too angelic to abuse their power. I saw an opening not only to do original philosophy, but to do work that bears on the pressing events of our times.

You can see that in the book. The “thought experiments” I use are all based on actual cases, including police officers beating up black men who did nothing more than roll slightly past a stop sign; officers shooting unarmed, subdued men; governments spying on and wiretapping ordinary citizens; drone strikes on innocent civilians; throwing people in jail for smoking marijuana or snorting cocaine; judges having to enforce absurd sentences or unjust laws; and so on.

Can you give a summary of your argument?

The thesis is very simple: the conditions under which you may exercise the right of self-defense or the right to defend others against civilians and government agents are the same. If it is permissible to defend yourself or others against a civilian committing an act, then it is permissible to defend yourself or others against a government agent committing that same act. For instance, if I wanted to lock you in my basement for a year for smoking pot, you’d feel no compunction in defending yourself against me. My thesis is that you should treat government agents the same way.

My main argument is also simple: Both laypeople and philosophers have offered a few dozen arguments trying to defend the opposite conclusion: the view that government agents have a kind of special immunity against defensive resistance. But upon closer examination, we’ll see each of the arguments are bad. So, we should conclude instead that our rights of self-defense or to defend others against injustice do not simply disappear by government fiat. On closer inspection, there turns out to be no significant moral difference between the Commonwealth of Virginia imprisoning you for owning pot and me imprisoning you in my basement for the same thing.

To be clear,  I am not arguing that you may resist government whenever you disagree with a law. Just as I reject voluntarism on the part of government—I don’t think governments can simply decide right and wrong—so I reject voluntarism on the part of individuals. Rather, I’m arguing that you may resist when governments in fact violate people’s rights or in fact cause unjust harm.

Some will no doubt complain this thesis is dangerous. In some ways it is, and I take care to highlight how to be careful about it in the book. But on the other hand, the opposite thesis—that we must defer to government injustice—is no doubt even more dangerous. People tend to be deferential and conformist. Most people will stand by and do nothing while armed officers send people to death camps. Stanley Milgram showed most people will electrocute another person to death because a man in a white lab coat told them to. If anything, defenders of the other side—of the view that we should defer to government injustice—have a duty to be cautious pushing their dangerous view.

Can you talk a bit about the meaning behind the title? What exactly has to fail in order to justify the actions you describe?

Usually, lying, stealing, destroying property, hurting others, or killing others is wrong. However, you may sometimes perform such actions in self-defense or in defense of others. The basic principle of defense, codified in both common law and commonsense morality, is this: you may use a defensive action (such as sabotage, subterfuge, deceit, or violence) against someone else when they are initiating a severe enough injustice or harm, but only if it is necessary to defend yourself. Here, “necessary” means that you cannot use violence if a nonviolent means of defense is equally effective; you cannot use deceit if a non-deceitful means of defense is equally effective. So, the title is meant to signal that defensive actions—such as deceit or violence—are, if not quite last resorts, not first resorts either. 

What is the place of uncivil disobedience within a peaceful and successful polity?

What we call “civil disobedience” is a form of public protest. In civil disobedience, people publicly and explicitly break the law for the purpose of trying to have the law changed. They will often accept legal punishment, not necessarily because they think punishment is warranted and that even bad laws must be respected, but because it is strategic to do so to garner sympathy for their cause. Civil disobedience is about social change.

But self-defense is not about social change. If I kill a would-be mugger, I’m not trying to reduce crime or change gun policy. I’m trying to stop myself from being the victim of that particular injustice. Similarly, if you had been present and had acted in defense of Eric Garner, you would not necessarily have been trying to fix American policing—you would have just been trying to save Garner’s life. Defensive actions—or uncivil disobedience—are about stopping particular wrongdoers from committing particular harms or violating particular people’s rights. 

What are your thoughts on recent protests and movements such as Take a Knee, Me Too, and March for our Lives?

Globally, US policing and US criminal policy are outliers. American criminal justice is unusually punitive and harsh. We have 4.4% of the world’s population but around 25% of the world’s prisoners. We give longer, harsher sentences than illiberal countries such as Russia or China. Our police are unusually violent, even to the most privileged in our society. I applaud movements that bring attention to these facts.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s, though the US had a higher than normal crime rate, its sentence lengths, imprisonment rate, and so on, were on the high end but similar to those of other liberal, rich, democratic countries. But starting in the 1970s, things got worse. 

Right now, Chris Surprenant and I are writing a book called Injustice for All explaining why this happened and offering some ideas about how to fix it. We argue that the problem is not explained by racism (as leftists argue), the War on Drugs (as libertarians argue), or crime and family collapse (as conservatives argue), though these things are each important factors. Rather, the US criminal justice system became dysfunctional because nearly every person involved—from voters to cops to judges to politicians—faces bad incentives created by bad rules.

Are there examples from history of individuals or groups following your philosophy with success?

Two recent books, Charles Cobb Jr.’s This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back provide strong evidence that the later “nonviolent” phase of civil rights activism succeeded (as much as it has) only because in earlier phases, black Americans involved in protest armed themselves in self-defense. Once murderous mobs and law enforcement learned that they would fight back, they turned to less violent forms of oppression, and activists in turn began using the nonviolent tactics with which we are familiar.

Do you think there are changes that can be made that would lessen instances in which uncivil disobedience is justified?

A facile answer: all governments have to do is respect citizens’ rights.

More realistically: we need to train police differently, change recruitment tactics, and stop using SWAT teams so often. We should decriminalize many behaviors that are currently criminalized. We need to change tax codes so that poor localities are not dependent upon law enforcement issuing tickets to gain revenue. We need Congress to rein in the executive branch’s war and surveillance powers.

But even these kinds of ideas are too facile, because there is no willpower to make such improvements. Consider an example: violent crime in the US has been dropping since 1994 (and no, it’s not because we keep locking up all the violent criminals). Yet most Americans mistakenly believe, year after year, that crime is rising. They feel scared and vote for politicians who promise to be tough on crime. The politicians in turn support more confrontational, occupying-force style methods of policing. Here, we know what the problem is, but to fix the system we need to fix the voters, and we don’t know how to do that. To be clear, When All Else Fails is not a theory of social change, and not a prescription for fixing persistent or systematic social problems. As I often tell my political economy students, while we may know which institutions work better than others, no one yet has a good account of how to move from bad institutions to good.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. His many books include Against Democracy and The Ethics of Voting.

Ethan Shagan on The Birth of Modern Belief

ShaganThis landmark book traces the history of belief in the Christian West from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, revealing for the first time how a distinctively modern category of belief came into being. Ethan Shagan focuses not on what people believed, which is the normal concern of Reformation history, but on the more fundamental question of what people took belief to be. Brilliantly illuminating, The Birth of Modern Belief demonstrates how belief came to occupy such an ambivalent place in the modern world, becoming the essential category by which we express our judgments about science, society, and the sacred, but at the expense of the unique status religion once enjoyed.

What led you to write this book?

Good works of history often begin with a chance discovery that sticks like a splinter in the historian’s mind: something weird or surprising in the historical record that demands an explanation. In this case, that oddity was something I found in Martin Luther’s collected writings: his claim that most people do not believe that God exists. This struck me as utterly outlandish. Besides the fact that more or less everyone in sixteenth-century Europe believed in God, Luther also wrote elsewhere that atheism was virtually impossible because knowledge of God is imprinted on all human souls. So what on earth was going on? Upon further research, I found other versions of this same bizarre claim popping up elsewhere in the sixteenth century. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that anyone who follows their own passions in defiance of heavenly judgment “denies that there is a God”—the translator of the modern English edition changed this passage to “virtually denies that there is a God,” presumably because he thought the original must have been some sort of mistake. The radical spiritualist Sebastian Franck claimed, far more drastically, that “there is not a single believer on earth!” These remarkable and unexpected ideas were not written in obscure places, nor were they written by unknown people. So why had no historian ever written about them before?

These discoveries set me on a journey that has lasted seven years. I started with the intuition that “belief” itself had changed its meaning over time. Thus, for instance, Luther could say that everyone knows God exists, but he could still argue that most people do not believe God exists, because he took “belief” to be a more difficult condition. But from there I had to figure out what preexisting, medieval understandings of belief Luther was rejecting. Then I had to figure out how the different factions in the Reformation interpreted belief. And then, most importantly, I set myself the task of figuring out how a modern understanding of “belief” emerged. Hence this became a book about the birth of modern belief: a whole new way of imagining the relationship between religion and other kinds of knowledge, which we take to be absolutely timeless and natural but was in fact an invention of the seventeenth century and a touchstone of the Enlightenment. 

Can you explain a bit about the book’s argument? What do you mean by a modern category of belief?

Belief has a history; the concept changes over time. We take it for granted that “belief” means private judgment or opinion. From that assumption, which we assume is timeless but is in fact profoundly modern, lots of other conclusions follow which seem equally unquestionable. For example, if belief is private judgment, then our beliefs might change over time in light of new evidence or further reflection. Likewise, if belief is opinion, then our belief on any particular issue might be probable rather than absolute: we might reasonably say we believe something if we think it’s likely, even if we’re uncertain. Most importantly, if belief is private judgment, then I might believe a religious doctrine in more or less the same sense that I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or that our sun is part of the Milky Way galaxy.

None of this would have been taken for granted in the Western tradition before the seventeenth century, and indeed a great deal of intellectual energy was poured into denying that any of it was true. Of course, people sometimes used the verb “believe” (credo in Latin, glauben in German, etc.) in a colloquial way—“I believe this peach is ripe,” or “I believe my husband loves me”—but a vast range of theology and philosophy was devoted to the proposition that this was totally different from belief in its proper, religious sense. To believe required an absolute, certain conviction, guaranteed to be true by reliable authority. Anything lesser or different could easily be denounced as unbelief, a failure of the mind and soul; anyone who believed wrongly, or insufficiently, or for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way, might be taken not to believe at all. So my book is a history of how belief was freed from these constraints, creating the conditions in which religion could flourish in a secular age, but only at the cost of relinquishing the special status religion had previously enjoyed.

It seems intuitive that modern belief formed as a reaction against the Church, but how was it also a reaction against Luther and Calvinism?

Lots of people think that the Reformation produced religious liberty, because in the Reformation individuals—like Luther purportedly saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other”—insisted upon their own conscientious right to believe differently from the Roman Catholic Church. But this is quite wrong. Luther and his allies did indeed insist that their own beliefs were genuine, and that their own consciences were inviolable. But in the very act of making this claim for themselves, they insisted that all other beliefs were not simply false, they were not even beliefs at all. When early modern Protestants claimed the right to believe as they would, they were creating a new and exclusive category of belief to which others did not have access. So the Reformation did not inaugurate modern belief. Instead it produced a new kind of authoritarianism: whereas Catholics disciplined people to believe, Protestants accepted that belief was rare, and instead disciplined unbelievers. The reaction against these twin pillars of orthodoxy thus came from dissidents within both traditions. Modern belief emerged in fits and starts, not as a revolution against Christianity, but as a revolution from within Christianity by mutineers whose strained relationship to orthodoxy necessitated a more porous understand of belief.

How does the modern idea of belief travel through later intellectual movements such as the Enlightenment? Did it undergo changes there as well?

This is really a book about the Enlightenment, as much or more than it’s a book about the Reformation, because it was in the Enlightenment that modern belief truly emerged as a powerful force in the world. But the Enlightenment you’ll find in these pages may not be the one you expect.

First, it is an Enlightenment that is inclusive of religion rather than against religion. I do not deny, of course, that there was a “radical Enlightenment” which attempted, often quite explicitly, to undermine the claims of organized Christianity. But by far the more significant project of the Enlightenment was to reestablish religion on a new basis, to render it not only compatible with reason but a partner in the task of criticism which was at the heart of eighteenth-century ideas. The Enlightenment thus pioneered a question which we take for granted today, but which had received remarkably little attention previously: on what grounds should I believe? There were many different answers in the Enlightenment—as there remain today—but the task of Enlightenment religion was to tear down the medieval architecture of the mind which had strictly separated belief, knowledge, and opinion, and had thus made the question itself virtually meaningless. Enlightenment Christianity established what the Reformation had not: the sovereignty of the believing subject.

Second, my Enlightenment is not about the triumph of reason, but rather the triumph of opinion. Modern critics of the Enlightenment, on both the Left and the Right, often denigrate Enlightenment reason—and not without reason, if you’ll pardon the pun—as a false universal which allowed a new orthodoxy to establish itself as the natural frame of all argument rather than a peculiar argument in its own right. But this understanding of the Enlightenment, which takes Immanuel Kant as its avatar, misses huge swathes of late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century thought which instead privileged opinion, a kind of judgment that was particular rather than universal. In this book, I want to resuscitate an Enlightenment that privileged autonomous judgment rather than judgment constrained by someone else’s reason, and thus led to new kinds of spiritualism as much as it led to new kinds of scientism. At its worst, this modern spirit of autonomy produces the world of “alternative facts” and “fake news;” but at its best, it produces the conditions of freedom that allow for peace in a diverse society.

What is the relationship between the history of belief and secularization?

Every page of this book is engaged at least obliquely with the secularization question, but one of my key points is that secularization is the wrong question.

Secularization assumes that the crucial development in modernity is the creation of spaces outside or apart from religion; in modernity, this argument goes, religion has been relegated to a separate, private sphere. But by contrast, what I find is that modernity’s encounter with religion is not about segregating belief from the world, but rather about the promiscuous opening of belief to the world. Belief becomes, in modernity, not the boundary separating religious claims from other kinds of knowledge, but rather the least common denominator of all knowledge. Here my favorite example is the claim of many modern Christians that scientific knowledge—like the theory of evolution, for instance—is just another form of belief. This claim would have been literally nonsensical before the seventeenth century, because the whole point of belief was to preserve a special prestige for Christianity: science was a different beast altogether, belonging to different mental faculties and defended in different ways. The fact that scientific theories can now be understood as beliefs suggests that instead of thinking about the rise of a modern secular, we instead need to think about what happened when the walls separating religious belief from other kinds of knowledge-claims were breached.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

That belief has proliferated rather than waned in modernity, but only because the definition of belief has changed in our society to make it compatible with diversity, democracy, and freedom of thought. The old world of belief—where it was structured by authority, and where it functioned as an axis of exclusion to preserve orthodoxy—is dead and buried, and we should be thankful for its demise rather than nostalgic for the oppressive unity it once provided.

Ethan H. Shagan is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion, and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England and Popular Politics and the English Reformation. He lives in Orinda, California.

Illustrations from The Golden Rhinoceros by François-Xavier Fauvelle

FauvelleFrom the birth of Islam in the seventh century to the voyages of European exploration in the fifteenth, Africa was at the center of a vibrant exchange of goods and ideas. It was an African golden age in which places like Ghana, Nubia, and Zimbabwe became the crossroads of civilizations, and where African royals, thinkers, and artists played celebrated roles in the globalized world of the Middle Ages. The Golden Rhinoceros brings this unsung era marvelously to life, taking readers from the Sahara and the Nile River Valley to the Ethiopian highlands and southern Africa. A book that finally recognizes Africa’s important role in the Middle Ages, The Golden Rhinoceros also provides a window into the historian’s craft. Fauvelle carefully pieces together the written and archaeological evidence to tell an unforgettable story that is at once sensitive to Africa’s rich social diversity and alert to the trajectories that connected Africa with the wider Muslim and Christian worlds. The gallery below features a selection of original illustrations commissioned for the chapter openers of the book by artist Roland Sárkány. 

 

François-Xavier Fauvelle is senior fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France, and one of the world’s leading historians of ancient Africa. The author and editor of numerous books, he has conducted archaeological digs in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Morocco.

Daniel Rodgers on As a City on a Hill

Rodgers“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” John Winthrop warned his fellow Puritans at New England’s founding in 1630. More than three centuries later, Ronald Reagan remade that passage into a timeless celebration of American promise. How were Winthrop’s long-forgotten words reinvented as a central statement of American identity and exceptionalism? In As a City on a Hill, leading American intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers tells the surprising story of one of the most celebrated documents in the canon of the American idea. In doing so, he brings to life the ideas Winthrop’s text carried in its own time and the sharply different yearnings that have been attributed to it since.

How did you come to write this book? 

Like many book projects, this one began when with a sense of surprise. “We shall be as a city on a hill” has been part of the core rhetoric of American nationalism since the 1980s when Ronald Reagan began using it as a signature phrase in his speeches. In modern times, it is virtually impossible to discuss the “American creed” and the main themes in American civic culture without it. Like other teachers of American history, I had taught the Puritan text from which Reagan had taken the phrase to hundreds of students. “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop had titled his “lay sermon” in 1630. Here I said, with the confidence of repeating a rock-solid certainty, lay the origins of the idea of special, world-historical destiny that had propelled American history from its very beginnings.

But I was wrong. The closer I looked at the text that speechwriters, op-ed contributors, preachers, historians, political scientists, and so many others thought they knew so well, the more I began to realize that the story of Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” held a string of surprises. Rather than running as a continuous thread through American history, Winthrop’s text had almost immediately dropped out of sight where it stayed, unread and unimportant, for generations. When historians and social commenters revived it two and a half centuries after its writing, they did so in the act of making it into a radically different document than it had been at its origins. Winthrop had placed a plea for charity and intense mutual obligations, not greatness, at the heart of his “Model.” How had this core meaning been lost? How had Winthrop’s sense of the acute vulnerability of his project been replaced by confidence that the United States had a unique and unstoppable mission to be a model to the world? How had this story of forgetting and remembering, erasure and revision, reuse and contention actually unfold? It was when these puzzles began to accumulate in my mind that I realized this book about the continuous reshaping of the past needed to be written.

What exactly did John Winthrop mean by “a city on a hill,” then?

The chasm between Winthrop’s use of those words and what they were claimed to mean when his “Model of Christian Charity” burst into public notice in the mid twentieth century is immense. On the eve of the Puritan settlement of New England, Winthrop meant the phrase “we shall be as a city on a hill” as a warning. As he used the words, a “city on a hill” was a city exposed to the “eyes of all people;” it was a place of high conspicuousness. To live there was to live under the critical scrutiny of a God who might, in a moment, make it a “story and a byword through the world.” There was nothing comforting about it.

At its best and most demanding, Winthrop’s “Model” had urged, the mission of the Puritan project in America was to realize a mutual “charity” deeper than any modern society had yet achieved. It was to be a community where the temptations of unrestrained commerce and self-interest would be held in check by an ethic of love and mutuality. He and his fellow New Englanders fell short of that ideal, as the book’s sketches of some of the early New England recipients of Puritan public charity show. But Winthrop’s “city on a hill” promised, nonetheless, a radically different future than capitalist America was to realize.

When Winthrop’s phrase was reinjected into politics at the end of the twentieth century, it stood not for mutual love and obligation, not for the rules of fair lending and public responsibility for the poor, but for the cornucopia of goods and liberties that the United States was destined by history to spread to the rest of the world. It stood for the uniqueness of the United States among all other nations. It radiated the power of modern American capitalism. It reassured Americans in a globalizing world that their mission was timeless. How had a warning morphed into a conviction of enduring greatness?  How had a vision of a charitable society been reimagined as a celebration of American material abundance? How could a phrase be refilled with such radically different contents and yet, in the end, be made to appear as if it had been a stable foundation stone of the American “idea” from the beginning?  In the task of tracing that story across four centuries, in and beyond the United States, has been the challenge and the exhilaration of the book’s writing.

Many historians spell out powerful straight-line stories of America. You have said that you are more interested in the unexpected that lies, half-hidden, beneath the overly familiar stories we tell about our past.

All good history writing needs to hold both those impulses in play, but the past is often very different than the version that has been straightened out and encapsulated in public memory. Winthrop and his contemporaries were not the Founders of America as our linearized historical narratives routinely describe them. At the outset, they were English folk in flight from their worldly, commercial, and libertine culture. They had to be made post facto into founders of a nation they never envisioned. The “city on a hill” phrase did not have a continuous presence in American political rhetoric, as we conventionally assume; and it was in no way unique to Americans. You’ll find far more references to the phrase among the founders of Liberia (for good reason; they knew the world’s first black republic was going to be the object of intense critical scrutiny) than among the eighteenth-century founders of the United States (who rarely used it all). Although we conventionally describe a sense of uniquely high moral responsibility for the world as distinctive to Americans, it was not exceptional to them; they shared that sentiment with the peoples of almost all the great powers at the turn of the twentieth century. We associate the American sense of mission with the enduring force of the Protestant heritage in the American past. But among many contemporary evangelical Protestants the relationship of the “city on a hill” phrase to the nation of the United States is much more vexed and troubled than straight-line history imagines it.  

Part of the challenge of writing history is a willingness to take seriously these elements of strangeness, these crooked, disorienting departures from the expected and to follow them to the surprises toward which they lead. The other part is to puzzle out the processes by which this never-linear history, so full of close calls and contingencies, gets ironed out in the stories we tell about ourselves: how, under the pressures of nationalism, our history is made into something easier to swallow and more reassuring to live with.

Is the story of Winthrop’s sermon unique or are there similar examples of the invention of foundational documents in American history?

 No other text that we now think to be as fundamental to our statement of who we are went missing for as many centuries as John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity.” But many of the symbols of modern nationalism are much more recent than we imagine, and the meanings Americans have invested in them have changed almost as remarkably as in the case of Winthrop’s text. The Declaration of Independence is a critically important example. The Declaration that we know now, with its promise of equal rights and liberties to all, wasn’t a foundational document in its own time. At many July 4 ceremonies in the generation after 1776, those opening lines of the Declaration were not read at all. As the Declaration’s preamble began to be revived, contests over its meanings revived as well. The Declaration didn’t begin to be imagined as carrying a fundamental criticism of slavery until abolitionists read it again with a radically new moral urgency in the 1840s. It wasn’t imagined to carry the fully panoply of human rights that we now associate with it until the mid-twentieth century. It was a document continuously remade by those who used it. Those struggles and those reworkings—not the document itself—form our national story.  

John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon, written in a moment of high anxiety, eclipsed by hundreds of other patriotic texts as the nation took shape, its core theme of mutuality forgotten and misremembered and the rest embraced as if it had been part of the unitary American consciousness from the beginning, is a story of the same sort. Its story is a history of struggles to remake and remember a civic culture. We live within these struggles now and within some of the terms that Winthrop himself wrestled with. As they are reminded of that, I hope readers will see themselves—as well as an unexpected America—in this book’s pages.

Daniel T. Rodgers is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Age of Fracture, winner of the Bancroft Prize; Atlantic Crossings; Contested Truths; and The Work Ethic in Industrial America. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

François-Xavier Fauvelle on The Golden Rhinoceros

FauvelleFrom the birth of Islam in the seventh century to the voyages of European exploration in the fifteenth, Africa was at the center of a vibrant exchange of goods and ideas. It was an African golden age in which places like Ghana, Nubia, and Zimbabwe became the crossroads of civilizations, and where African royals, thinkers, and artists played celebrated roles in the globalized world of the Middle Ages. The Golden Rhinoceros brings this unsung era marvelously to life, taking readers from the Sahara and the Nile River Valley to the Ethiopian highlands and southern Africa.

How did this book come about?

This book came about for two reasons. The first is scholarly. As an historian and archaeologist, I have worked in several regions of Africa (the Horn of Africa, South Africa, and countries on both sides of the western Sahara) and have been lucky enough to visit archeological sites in other places. My research has made me understand that despite the profound cultural differences between these different regions there existed a point of convergence: their participation in a global system of exchange during the Middle Ages. This phenomenon had similar and synchronous effects on several African societies, particularly their participation in religious, economic, political and architectural “conversations” with other powers of the time, notably within the Islamic world. The second rationale behind this book is civic. French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech in Dakar in 2007 where he claimed that “the African has not fully entered into history,” made me understand that there was a severe shortage of works on African history that were both serious and accessible. Some Africanist historians took it upon themselves to respond to this scandalous speech. For my part, what I found scandalous was not that this speech could be delivered, but that it was audible in our society, that there was room for it to be heard. For me, the blame lies with scholars rather than politicians. The Golden Rhinoceros attempts to address this by making what we know about medieval African history available to a large audience.

Is there a method to how you structured the book? 

I have always been very sensitive to the argument of American historian Hayden White. He believed that historians generally narrate history in a conservative way. In my opinion, one of the conservative ways of writing the history of ancient Africa is to write it so that it conceals the characteristics of African societies and the available documentation in order to imitate the history of medieval and modern Europe. I wrote The Golden Rhinoceros to respond to a particular challenge presented by ancient African history: the fragmentary character of the written and archaeological documentation. Thus, this book is organized into small chapters that seek to embrace the fragmentary nature of the documentation by opening “windows,” but without covering up the lacunas, without leading the reader to think it is possible to tell this history in a linear fashion. I have also sought to lay out two different levels of reading: each chapter is followed by a short bibliographic essay that tells another story, that of the documentation.

How did the experiences of ordinary Africans of the Middle Ages differ from their counterparts in Europe?

This is a difficult question to answer because the written sources, primarily Arabic, which were produced outside of African societies, tell us mostly about capital cities, political elites, diplomatic relations, and the buying and selling of luxury merchandise. I have focused the book on these aspects, as they allow us to better observe the agency of African societies. Nevertheless, this approach sometimes opens small windows onto the lives of ordinary people. Take for example this request which was formulated before Sultan Sulayman of Mâli in 1352: a Muslim cleric had come from a village and presented himself before the sultan.  He said that locusts had spoken to him, saying that God had sent them to destroy the harvest because of the oppression reigning in the land. We have here a window, very small but very illuminating, onto the political order and the language in which recriminations regarding power in the medieval kingdom of Mâli were expressed.

What would you like readers to take away from this book?

I would like readers to understand that African societies were not “tribes” frozen forever in their landscape; that their social organization changed over time; that they participated in global exchange; that they created institutions and cities; that they adopted and adapted forms of religion coming initially from the outside, such as Christianity and Islam. That’s the first take away. There is a second: It’s one thing to understand that African societies have a history, it’s another to realize that medieval African societies were the contemporaries of the Islamic, European, Indian or Chinese societies of the period, and that they participated in a larger conversation. It’s why I speak of a medieval Africa that should be seen as part of a global Middle Ages that contained other provinces. For me, from the point of view of an Africanist, the goal is not, in the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty, “to provincialize Europe,” but to conceive of a multi-provincial world in which Africa has its place. Finally, a third take away: I would like for The Golden Rhinoceros to contribute to putting our knowledge of the history of Africa into the current conversation about history; to have it participate in the shared conceptions of world civilizations; and to influence teaching and discussion on the historical trajectories of societies and the methods of the historical discipline.

What did Africa offer during the Middle Ages that other regions did not?

Several very strong singularities should be highlighted. One is that forms of centralized power and the accumulation of prestige, sophisticated systems of exchange, and a cultural and material finesse existed without being accompanied by the widespread use of writing (except in Ethiopia). Another is that although the regions of Africa under discussion were not conquered by Arab armies in the seventh century, many of their societies, in any case their elites, adopted Islam because it allowed them to access a political, commercial, juridical and intellectual language common to the whole Islamic world (the Maghreb, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and Persia). These political elites, as in Mâli for example, invented ways for Islam and local religions to coexist. This coexistence is also found at the level of the linguistic, economic, and technological diversity of African societies: it’s a characteristic of the longue durée in African history, which distinguishes Africa from other regions of the world that became culturally homogeneous to a higher degree when they were integrated into centralized political formations. But far be it from me to promote an angelic vision of African history: we must not forget that several of these societies (the Ethiopian kingdoms, for example) raided their neighbors to export slaves to the Islamic world.

Why do you think the history of medieval Africa has been neglected?

This is a complex question. The Arab authors of the Middle Ages had no problem admiring the political sophistication of the African kingdoms (such as al-Bakrî, who wrote approvingly of Ghâna in the eleventh century) or investigating their history (such as Ibn Khaldûn did for Mâli at the end of the fourteenth century), although the Islamic societies to which they belonged imported massive numbers of black slaves from these regions. In contrast, the slave trade practiced by the Europeans and their American colonies was accompanied by a monstrous ideology that not only negated the humanity of the captives, but also the singularity, and thus the historicity, of their societies. This negation has stealthily managed to install itself in modern mentalities. It lives on in multiple forms, whether it’s coldly saying that Africans have no history, or shutting away African art behind museum showcases with “ethnic” labels which lead one to think that objects produced by Africans reflect unchanging African “souls.” History is a remedy against such beliefs.

François-Xavier Fauvelle is senior fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France, and one of the world’s leading historians of ancient Africa. The author and editor of numerous books, he has conducted archaeological digs in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Morocco.

UPress Week Blog Tour #TurnItUp History

The UPress Week blog tour continues today and we are ready to crank up the volume on History. Here’s what’s on the lineup: In the WLU Press blog post, Nil Santiáñez, author of the recently-published Wittgenstein’s Ethics and Modern Warfare, explores how the Great War impacted Wittgenstein’s philosophy. A post from The University of California Press celebrates the centenary of the Armistice of 1918 and focuses on the book’s main topics: The Western Woman Voter: The Women’s Suffrage Movement, Through the Perspective of the West – an excerpt taken from Shaped by the West, Volume 2: A History of North America from 1850 by William Deverell & Anne F. Hyde. For University of Nebraska Press, Jon K. Lauck, adjunct professor of history and political science at the University of South Dakota and the author of numerous books, will discuss the importance of Midwestern history. University of Alabama Press has published a roundup of new and forthcoming history books celebrating Alabama’s bicentennial in 2019. Rutgers University Press focuses on the recently-published history/memoir by acclaimed cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin titled Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War. University of Rochester Press has an interview with the author of their new book An Architecture of Education: African American Women Design the New South, which uncovers the role of African American women in the design and construction of schools in the post-Reconstruction South. Beacon Press will be looking at their ReVisioning Amerian History and ReVisioning American History for Young Readers Series. University of Kansas Press will discuss (and celebrate!) the passion of military history readers by interviewing authors, critics and customers. At Harvard University Press, Executive Editor Lindsay Waters looks back on HUP’s hisory of publishing Bruno Latour. University of Georgia Press puts the spotlight on one of their newest series, Gender and Slavery, and its inaugural book, Sexuality and Slavery: Reclaiming Intimate Histories in the Americas. The series seeks to shed light on the gendered experience of enslavement including and beyond that of the United States, and the book takes on a new approach of sexuality, including discussions of sexuality as a means of resistance, that can help inform our present day. At University of Toronto Press, Editor Stephen Shapiro reflects on the vast range and the staying power of UTP’s publishing program in history. MIT Press has a Q&A with  longtime editor Roger Conover (who is retiring next year) and one of his authors Craig Dworkin, about his history at the MIT Press.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on the future of science publishing by our own Christie Henry!

Browse our Middle Eastern Studies 2019 Catalog

Our new Middle Eastern Studies catalog includes a groundbreaking history showing how Egyptian-Israeli peace ensured lasting Palestinian statelessness; a definitive political picture of the Islamic Republic of Iran; an exploration of frequently neglected aspects of Iranian spirituality and politics; and a bold new religious history of the late antique and medieval Middle East that places ordinary Christians at the center of the story.

If you’re attending the Middle East Studies Association meeting in San Antonio this week, visit the PUP table to see our full range of Middle Eastern studies titles.

Seth Anziska Preventing Palestine book cover

How and why Palestinian statelessness persists are the central questions of Seth Anziska’s groundbreaking book, which explores the complex legacy of the Camp David Accords. Combining astute political analysis, extensive original research, and interviews with diplomats, military veterans, and communal leaders, Preventing Palestine offers a bold new interpretation of a highly charged struggle for self-determination.

 

Amin Saikal Iran Rising book cover

When Iranians overthrew their monarchy, rejecting a pro-Western shah in favor of an Islamic regime, many observers predicted that revolutionary turmoil would paralyze the country for decades to come. Yet forty years after the 1978–79 revolution, Iran has emerged as a critical player in the Middle East and the wider world. In Iran Rising, renowned Iran specialist Amin Saikal describes how the country has managed to survive despite ongoing domestic struggles, Western sanctions, and countless other serious challenges.

 

Alireza Doostdar Iranian Metaphysicals book cover

Since the late nineteenth century, modernizing intellectuals, religious leaders, and statesmen in Iran have attempted to curtail occult practices and appeals to saintly powers as “superstitious,” instead encouraging the development of rational religious sensibilities and dispositions. However, these rationalizing processes have multiplied the possibilities for experimental engagement with the immaterial realm. The Iranian Metaphysicals shows that metaphysical experimentation lies at the center of some of the most influential intellectual and religious movements in modern Iran.

 

Jack Tannous Making of the Medieval Middle East book cover

In the second half of the first millennium CE, the Christian Middle East fractured irreparably into competing churches and Arabs conquered the region, setting in motion a process that would lead to its eventual conversion to Islam. The Making of the Medieval Middle East recasts these conquered lands as largely Christian ones whose growing Muslim populations are properly understood as converting away from and in competition with the non-Muslim communities around them.

William R. Newman on Newton the Alchemist

When Isaac Newton’s alchemical papers surfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in 1936, the quantity and seeming incoherence of the manuscripts were shocking. No longer the exemplar of Enlightenment rationality, the legendary physicist suddenly became “the last of the magicians.” Newton the Alchemist unlocks the secrets of Newton’s alchemical quest, providing a radically new understanding of the uncommon genius who probed nature at its deepest levels in pursuit of empirical knowledge.

People often say that Isaac Newton was not only a great physicist, but also an alchemist. This seems astonishing, given his huge role in the development of science. Is it true, and if so, what is the evidence for it?

The astonishment that Newton was an alchemist stems mostly from the derisive opinion that many moderns hold of alchemy. How could the man who discovered the law of universal gravitation, who co-invented calculus, and who was the first to realize the compound nature of white light also engage in the seeming pseudo-science of alchemy? There are many ways to answer this question, but the first thing is to consider the evidence of Newton’s alchemical undertaking. We now know that at least a million words in Newton’s hand survive in which he addresses alchemical themes. Much of this material has been edited in the last decade, and is available on the Chymistry of Isaac Newton site at www.chymistry.org. Newton wrote synopses of alchemical texts, analyzed their content in the form of reading notes and commentaries, composed florilegia or anthologies made up of snippets from his sources, kept experimental laboratory notebooks that recorded his alchemical research over a period of decades, and even put together a succession of concordances called the Index chemicus in which he compared the sayings of different authors to one another. The extent of his dedication to alchemy was almost unprecedented. Newton was not just an alchemist, he was an alchemist’s alchemist.  

What did Newton hope to gain by studying alchemy? Did he actually believe in the philosophers’ stone, and if so, why? And what was the philosophers’ stone exactly?

Newton’s involvement in alchemy was polyvalent, as befits a pursuit that engaged him intensively for more than three decades and which traditionally included multiple goals. The term “alchemy” in the early modern period was largely coextensive with “chymistry,” a field that included distilling, pigment-making, salt-refining, and the manufacture of drugs alongside the perennial attempt to transmute metals. Beyond an interest in all these technical pursuits, Newton employed alchemical themes in his physics, particularly in the area of optics. Newton’s theory that white light is a mixture of unaltered spectral colors was bolstered by techniques of material analysis and synthesis that had a long prehistory in the domain of alchemy. But at the same time, he hoped to attain the grand secret that would make it possible to perform radical changes in matter. The philosophers’ stone as described by alchemical authors was a material that could transmute base metals into gold and silver and “perfect” certain other materials as well. At the same time, many authors believed that the philosophers’ stone could cure human ailments and extend life to the maximum limit that God would allow. Some of Newton’s sources even claim that the philosophers’ stone would allow its possessors to contact angels and to communicate telephatically with one another. Did Newton believe all of this? Suffice it to say that nowhere in his voluminous notes does he dispute these assertions, even while recounting them. Although he may have been exercising a suspension of disbelief in the case of the more extravagant claims for the philosophers’ stone, his long involvement in the aurific art implies that he must at least have thought the alchemists were on to something when they discussed transmutation.      

Did Newton also believe, as many contemporary alchemists did, that the totality of Greek and Roman mythology was just encoded alchemy?

It’s certainly true that Newton’s favorite sources thought Greek and Roman mythology to contain valuable alchemical secrets. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a particularly popular target of interpretation, since the whole book deals with radical transformations of one thing into another. Newton himself decoded the story of Cadmus and the founding of Thebes, one of Ovid’s myths, into practical laboratory instructions in one of his notebooks. In Newton’s early reading, Cadmus becomes the iron required to reduce the metalloid antimony from its ore stibnite, and the dragon who attacks Cadmus is the stibnite itself. But does this mean that Newton believed the originators of the myth to have meant it as a veiled alchemical recipe? If so, this would run contrary to Newton’s extensive interpretations of ancient mythology and religion that occur alongside his studies of biblical chronology. In these texts, which occupy about four million words and are thus even more extensive than his alchemical writings, Newton argues that the famous figures of ancient mythology were actual people whose lives were later embellished by mythologizing writers. It is likely, then, that Newton’s alchemical decoding of mythology is actually an attempt to interpret early modern writers who used ancient myth as a way of wrapping their processes in enigma rather than signifying that he himself believed Ovid, for example, to have been an alchemist.    

What did Newton make of the bizarre language that alchemists traditionally used for their secrets, including terms like “the Babylonian Dragon,” “the Caduceus of Mercury,” and “the Green Lion”?

Newton spent decades trying to decipher the enigmatic terminology of the alchemists. In reality, exotic Decknamen (cover-names) were only part of an extensive and well-developed set of tools that alchemists had long employed for the purpose of revealing and concealing their knowledge. Other techniques included syncope (leaving out steps and materials), parathesis (adding in unnecessary terms and processes), and dispersion of knowledge, which consisted of dividing up processes and distributing them over different parts of a text or even putting the parts in entirely different texts.   The bulk of Newton’s reading notes consist of his attempts to arrive at the correct meaning of terms, and he was aware of the fact that the same term often meant different things to different authors. His Index chemicus, for example, lists multiple different meanings for the term “Green Lion,” which Newton links to specific writers. In a word, Newton’s alchemy is as much about the literary decipherment of riddles as it is about putting his interpretation to the test in the laboratory.

Did Newton consider himself to be an “adept,” that is, one of the masters of alchemy who had acquired the great secret of the art?

Although Newton occasionally records eureka moments in his laboratory notebooks such as “I saw the sophic sal ammoniac” or “I have understood the luciferous Venus,” he never records that he found the philosophers’ stone or performed an actual transmutation. He seems to have viewed himself as being on the way to finding the philosophers’ stone, but not to have ever thought that he had attained it. Nonetheless, his rapport with the adepts is clear. Several of his manuscripts record instances where he copied the early modern alchemical practice of encoding one’s name in a phrase that could be interpreted as an anagram. Michael Sendivogius, for example, a celebrated Polish adept, became “Divi Leschi Genus Amo” (“I love the race of the divine Lech”). The most famous of these anagrams in Newton’s case is “Jeova sanctus unus,” which can be rearranged to yield “Isaacus Neuutonus,” Latin for Isaac Newton. This is not the only such anagram in his alchemical papers. One manuscript in fact contains over thirty different phrases in which Newton concealed his name. Along with other clues in his papers, this suggests strongly that Newton believed himself to belong rightly to the band of the adepts, even if he was only an aspirant to their ranks.        

How does your book Newton the Alchemist change what we already knew about Newton’s alchemical quest?

Thanks to scholarly work done in the last third of the twentieth century, there is currently a widespread “master narrative” of Newton’s alchemy, though one with which I disagree. The major scholars of the subject at that time argued that alchemy for Newton was above all a religious quest, and that its impact on his more mainstream science lay in his emphasis on invisible forces that could act at a distance, such as gravitational attraction. Contemporary sources ranging from popular outlets such as Wikipedia to serious scholarly monographs echo these themes. In reality, however, there is little to no evidence to support either view.  Although there was a constant bleed-through from his alchemical research to his public science, Newton pursued the philosophers’ stone neither for the sake of God nor for the sake of physics. Instead, he practiced alchemy as an alchemist. In a word, the celebrated scientist aimed his bolt at the marvelous menstrua and volatile spirits of the sages, the instruments required for making the philosophers’ stone. Difficult as it may be for moderns to accept that the most influential physicist before Einstein dreamed of becoming an alchemical adept, the gargantuan labor that Newton devoted to experimental chrysopoeia speaks for itself.

A common view of Newton’s alchemy is that he kept it a secret from the world. Is this true, and if so, why was he so secretive? Did he think that alchemy was somehow dangerous? Or was it disreputable?

Newton generally kept quiet about his alchemical research, though he did engage in collaborations with select individuals such as his friend Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, and later, the Dutch distiller William Yworth. The main reason for his caution lay in his concern that alchemy might lay claim to secrets that could be dangerous if revealed to the world at large. The social order would be turned topsy-turvy if gold and silver lost their value as a result of the philosophers’ stone falling into the hands of the hoi polloi, and other disastrous consequences might result as well. Newton’s anxiety emerges quite clearly from a letter that he sent to the Secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, in 1676. The occasion was a publication by another alchemical researcher, Robert Boyle, who had recently published a paper on a special “sophic” mercury that would grow hot if mixed with gold. Newton was alarmed at Boyle’s candor, and suggested to Oldenburg that the author of The Sceptical Chymist should in the future revert to a “high silence” in order to avoid revealing secrets that the “true Hermetick Philosopher” must keep hidden lest they cause “immense dammage to ye world.”

You argue in your book that it’s not enough to read about Newton’s alchemical experiments, but that historians actually need to do them in a laboratory. Tell us what you have found by repeating Newton’s experiments and why this is important.

Anyone who tries to wade through Newton’s laboratory notebooks will be struck at once by the multitude of obscure expressions that he employs for materials. Although terms such as “the Green Lion,” “sophic sal ammoniac,” and “liquor of antimony” already existed in the literature of alchemy, they meant different things to different authors. In order to determine what their precise meaning was to Newton, one must look carefully at the properties that he ascribes to each material and to the protocols that he applies when he uses it in the laboratory. A good example may be found in the case of liquor of antimony, which Newton also refers to as vinegar, spirit, and salt of antimony. Extensive examination of these terms in his notebooks shows that they were interchangeable for Newton, and that they referred to a solution of crude antimony (mostly antimony sulfide) in a special aqua regia. Having made this material in the laboratory, I was then able to use it to make other Newtonian products, such a “vitriol of Venus,” a crystalline copper compound produced from the dried solution of copper or a copper ore in liquor of vitriol. This product is volatile at relatively low temperatures and can be used to volatilize other metals, which helps explain why Newton thought he was on the path to alchemical success. He hoped to liberate the internal principle of metallic activity by subtilizing the heavy metals and freeing them from what he saw as their gross accretions.      

Was alchemy considered a deviant or “occult” practice in Newton’s day? Did doing alchemy make Newton a sorceror or witch?  

It is a popular modern misconception that alchemy, astrology, and magic were all part and parcel of the same “occult” enterprise. To most medieval and early modern thinkers, these were distinct areas of practice, despite the currently reigning stereotypes. Newton had little or no interest in astrology, which did not distinguish him from most European alchemists. If by “magic” one means sorcery or witchcraft, this too was an area quite distinct from alchemy, and entirely alien to Newton’s interests. There was an overlap with alchemy in the domain of “natural magic,” however, and Newton evinced a marked interest in this field in his adolescence. One of the things that I have been able to show is that his earliest interest in alchemy, as revealed by his copying and reworking of an anonymous Treatise of Chymistry in the 1660s, may have grown out of his youthful fascination with works on natural magic and “books of secrets.” But natural magic was considered a legitimate field of endeavor by most experimental scientists in the seventeenth century, not a transgressive or deviant activity.

William R. Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University. His many books include Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution and Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.