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.

Şevket Pamuk discusses the first comprehensive history of the Turkish economy

The population and economy of the area within the present-day borders of Turkey has consistently been among the largest in the developing world, yet there has been no authoritative economic history of Turkey until now. In Uneven Centuries, Şevket Pamuk examines the economic growth and human development of Turkey over the past two hundred years.

Taking a comparative global perspective, Pamuk investigates Turkey’s economic history through four periods: the open economy during the nineteenth-century Ottoman era, the transition from empire to nation-state that spanned the two world wars and the Great Depression, the continued protectionism and import-substituting industrialization after World War II, and the neoliberal policies and the opening of the economy after 1980. Making use of indices of GDP per capita, trade, wages, health, and education, Pamuk argues that Turkey’s long-term economic trends cannot be explained only by immediate causes such as economic policies, rates of investment, productivity growth, and structural change.

What did you try to do in this book ? / What does this book try to do?

This book examines economic growth and human development in Turkey during the last two centuries from a comparative global perspective. It establishes in both absolute and relative terms Turkey’s record in economic growth and human development and evaluates both the proximate and deeper causes of this record.

Why did you choose to focus on the last two centuries?

The Industrial Revolution that began in Great Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century had far reaching consequences not only for Western Europe but also for the rest of the world. During the next two centuries, along with industrial capitalism, modern economic growth spread unevenly across the globe. Most of the patterns of development as well as the disparities we observe around the world today have emerged during the last two centuries.

What is your main argument?

After studying the case of Turkey, I came to the conclusion that economic variables are necessary for understanding long term economic development but they do not tell the whole story. Long term economic development cannot be fully understood without taking into account the social and political environment as well as the historical causes.

What relevance does the book have for those interested in the developing countries and the economic history of developing countries?

Turkey is one of the larger developing countries. Like other developing countries, Turkey’s institutions and economy have received their share of influences from the outside. In each of the four historical periods I examine in the book, governments in Turkey pursued economic policies similar to those of other developing countries. Moreover, Turkey’s long term economic performance has been close to both the world and developing country averages during the last two centuries. For these reasons and in contrast to the more successful developing countries, Turkey is a more representative case and offers more insights into the experiences of other developing countries. Yet, in contrast to the more successful cases, Turkey’s long term economic development has not been studied well. An economic history of Turkey during the last two centuries has not previously been available in any language.

What are Turkey’s special features, in your opinion?

As is the case of other developing countries, Turkey’s institutions and economy have certainly been influenced by global forces and institutions. One of the special features of Turkey is that it has not experienced colonial rule in history. The area within the present borders of Turkey was part of a large multi-ethnic empire until the end of World War I and modern Turkey emerged as one of the successor states after the end of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, Turkey’s institutions during the last two centuries were shaped, in addition to the global influences, by the interaction between the new institutions shaped by the elites of the new nation state and those that existed, including the Islamic-Ottoman institutions of the earlier era.

Şevket Pamuk is professor of economics and economics history at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul. His books include A Monetary History of the Ottoman Empire and The Ottoman Empire and European Capitalism, 1820–1913.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A. A. Long on How to Be Free An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (according to Epictetus)

How-to-be-free-epictetus-ancient-romeHow to be Free is a book for every place and occasion. I can say this without any pride or self-promotion because the ideas of the book are not my own but those of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and they have stood the test of time. In fact his guide to life, which I translate and introduce here, is more relevant and needful today than at any period in its long and salutary history. I say this because the freedom that Epictetus promises and justifies—freedom to take charge of one’s own individual thoughts and actions—is under attack by market capitalism, commercial advertising, social media, and cyber aggression. By manipulating desires and infiltrating mindsets, these powerful forces are undermining autonomy and personal independence with disastrous results. They are a main cause of the anxiety and depression that oppresses so many people, through the fear of falling short in health, wealth, personal success, relationships, appearance, and status.

Epictetus counters the pressures of the external environment by making a deceptively simple distinction—between things that are up to us (call them U things) and things that are not up to us (call them N things). U things comprise our will and our motivations, our likes and dislikes, our actions and reactions, our feelings and emotions—in other words the essential person that each of us is. N things comprise everything else—the state of the world, the people around us, our work and income, even our bodies because our limbs and physical wellbeing are not absolutely under our direct control. This is a stark distinction. Its value is to highlight the notion that what we want or do not want, what matters or does not matter to us, depends primarily on our own individual decisions, and not what is done to us by others. On this view, it is we ourselves, and not outside forces, that ultimately determine our happiness and unhappiness and condition our reactions.

The freedom that this book seeks to promote has two sides: one side is freedom to act without constraint by external forces, whether people or media pressures or mistaken impressions that we have to react in certain ways; the other side is freedom from disabling emotions and anxieties that inhibit the full exercise of our will and mental capacity. Along with freedom Epictetus emphasizes self-sufficiency and competing with oneself to be as good as possible in facing the challenges of life. Read this book as you approach a cold shower. You will feel great when it is over, toned up and ready for anything.

A. A. Long is professor emeritus of classics and affiliated professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to LifeStoic Studies, and (with Margaret Graver) Seneca: Letters on Ethics. He lives in Kensington, California.

Seyla Benhabib: Exile, Statelessness, and Migration. Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin

Exile, Statelessness, and Migration explores the intertwined lives, careers, and writings of a group of prominent Jewish intellectuals during the mid-twentieth century—in particular, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Hirschman, and Judith Shklar, as well as Hans Kelsen, Emmanuel Levinas, Gershom Scholem, and Leo Strauss. Informed by their Jewish identity and experiences of being outsiders, these thinkers produced one of the most brilliant and effervescent intellectual movements of modernity.

The title of your book “Exile, Statelessness, and Migration” suggests many different issues that could be the subject matter of sociology, law, cultural studies, migration studies etc. Yet the book is about the “intertwinement” of the lives and ideas of some of the most significant Jewish intellectuals of the previous century: Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Emmanuel Levinas, and a generation of thinkers younger than them such as Judith Shklar, Albert Hirschman and Isaiah Berlin.

I am fascinated by how these thinkers experienced exile, migration, and statelessness in their own lives and how this is reflected or refracted in their writings. While these themes are central to Hannah Arendt’s, and in later years, to Judith Shklar’s work, Albert Hirschman did not write about the loss of citizenship but rather about “exit, voice, and loyalty.” Yet as I show in my chapter on him, “exit” can also refer to having to exit or leave a country, a homeland, and not just to leaving a firm, as is often supposed that Hirschman refers to. This dimension of political exit becomes clearer in Hirschman’s work as he revisits his birth city of Berlin many years after leaving it as a young socialist militant.

Isaiah Berlin’s case is very interesting in that rather than being an exile or a stateless person, he is a paradigm of successful integration into the host culture. Yet in his case as well, multiple loyalties and their conflicts continue, such as to the Russian culture of his childhood, to Israel and the Jewish people and to his Majesty’s UK. How do these loyalties influence his understanding of pluralism and his claim that there can be no universe that encompasses all human values worth cherishing and that one must choose one or the other among them? These are fascinating questions.

But why is your subtitle “Playing Chess with History” ?

Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin were political refugees in Paris from 1933 to 1940 and they taught Arendt’s future husband, Heinrich Bluecher, to play chess. I open the book with the correspondence among the three of them concerning these chess games.

Bluecher belonged to the Spartacist League of the German communist movement, which he abandoned after the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919. As is well-known, one of Walter Benjamin’s most famous writings, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” opens with the unforgettable description of an automaton in old Turkish attire playing chess. The movements of the puppet chess master are controlled by a dwarf sitting invisibly under the chess table. We know from historical sources that such automatons existed and were much cherished in the European courts of the Enlightenment.  We also know from Benjamin’s own writings that for him the image of the old Turk playing chess, but whose moves are controlled by an invisible dwarf, was a metaphor for those who believed, such as orthodox Marxists did, in the inexorable march of history. Individuals may have thought they controlled their own destinies but really only the dialectical laws of history did. Benjamin bought none of that and he thought that politically such a conception of history led to quietism and capitulation Rather, argued Benjamin, history does not consist of the inevitable march of uncontrollable forces but it is a contingent assemblage of events in the midst of which a Messianic, wholly unexpected, moment of redemption can emerge.

I argue that Arendt, as well as Adorno, were indebted to Benjamin’s idea of “constellations’’ and the eruption of the “new” and the unexpected in history. The tangled personal and intellectual relationship between Arendt, Benjamin, and Adorno is one of the central questions in the book.

The metaphor of playing chess with history is also applicable to Shklar’s escape with her family from Riga, Latvia over Sweden, then Siberia, to Japan, and eventually to Montréal, after a brief stint in New York.

We also learn from Jeremy Adelman’s fantastic biography of Albert Hirschman, The Worldly Philosopher. The Odyssey of Albert Hirschman (2013), that in the 1940’s, Hirschman was helping the American Friends Committee settle refugees in the US by forging papers for them in Marseille, France such as to enable them to cross the border from occupied France to Spain. Among those who were helped to escape via this route were Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Bluecher but, alas not Walter Benjamin, who would commit suicide in the Spanish border town of Port Bou. Hirschman certainly was among the few militants and resistance fighters of the time who helped refugees like Hannah Arendt to leave Europe. The pieces of the chess game were in place but not known to the players themselves.

Jewish identity and otherness runs through these chapters like a red thread; the others being, exile, voice and loyalty; legality and legitimacy, and pluralism and the problem of judgment. Can you say more about them?

I want to clarify that my goal in this book is to practice a form of thick historical contextualization that aims at elucidating central dilemmas of modern states and societies which have a lasting significance for us as well. That is how I understand the term “force fields” which I borrow from Martin Jay. In a “force field,” a cluster of ideas and themes develops as a result of the strength of the center pulling these elements toward itself, while there are also centripetal forces pushing them away from the center as well as one another.

The thinkers considered in this volume, Arendt, Adorno, Shklar, Hirschman, and Berlin, along with many others such Scholem, Benjamin, Leo Strauss, and Hans Kelsen with whom they were in dialogue, were challenged by Max Weber’s diagnosis of modernity as a process of “rationalization.” According to Weber, modernity brought the application of a form of scientific and technocratic world-view to culture and society, which he famously also described as one of “Entzauberung,” that is, the loss of magic in our understanding of nature and culture. Entzauberung also results in a pluralization and fragmentation of values such that it is only individual act choice and commitment that can now give meaning and significance to what is otherwise meaningless and inert. How can such a society and culture stabilize themselves, create political legitimacy as well as the spiritual resources for modern individuals to go on to “face the times like a man,” (sic) as Weber puts it?

Shklar was intimately familiar with Weber’s work and named her second book, Legalism, thereby evoking the well-known distinction between legality and legitimacy. Shklar’s concept of legalism, like Weber’s typology of legal-rational authority, means that the legal system is a formally correct and self-referential whole that generates correct statutes and rules in accordance with the proper application of procedures. Whether this machinery of legality produces justice, respects human rights or enhances citizens’ autonomy is a moot question. Legal-rational authority may presuppose a Grundnorm, a foundational norm, which once set into place, serves as the ultimate source of legitimacy, as Hans Kelsen argued. But what then justifies this Grundnorm? Weber himself thought that the machinery of legal-rational authority would fall prey either to “sensualists without heart and bureaucrats without spirit,” and/or be hijacked by charismatic and demagogic leaders. Modern systems of legitimacy remained unstable, and Weber did not have much faith that liberal democracies could endure without sliding into some form of authoritarianism.

Shklar understood Weber’s challenge and she turned to the moral psychology of the citizens of post-war liberal democracies and their practices of citizenship as well wage-earning; she saw such activities as providing new forms of dignity and forestalling cruelty. Departing sharply from system-building in the mode of German thought, Shklar sought to ask the important questions rather than provide tightly argued systematic answers.

Isaiah Berlin had so intensely internalized Weber’s challenge that, as I show in chapter 9, at times he acknowledged it while at other times denying Weber’s Influence of the fragmentation of values in modernity upon his own thinking. As opposed to Weber, Berlin’s thesis of the pluralism of values does not describe a condition unique to modernity but is characteristic of previous historical epochs as well. For Berlin, the human horizon contains multiplicity of values, not all of which can be realized either by individuals or by societies at any one point in time. Berlin is, of course, insistent that pluralism is not relativism and it does not mean that we must accept all values. Yet it is unclear how Berlin defends this distinction between pluralism and relativism without resorting to some conception of human nature, essence or condition. Berlin’s answers imply that although we cannot provide deductive, incontrovertible philosophical justifications for why some values are worth defending while others are not, nonetheless we can exercise correct judgment for which good reasons can be given.

I end the book with the “burdens of judgment” as Rawls calls them. Already Arendt as well as Adorno had turned to Kant’s distinction between “determinative” and “reflective” judgment to articulate a new relationship between the universal and the particular. Like Rawls, they had already argued that the work of judgment did not consist in the subsuming of the particular under the universal alone, but in the interpretative work of finding the proper universal -principle, model, or paradigm- if such existed at all. Arendt, in particular, followed Kant’s teaching of the enlarged mentality and the ability to think from the standpoint of others. For her, whatever else good judgment involved, it had to entail these qualities as well.

What about exile, voice and loyalty? You have not said much about that yet.

One of the best known answers to Weber’s question concerning legitimate authority was given by Carl Schmitt, who argued that the realm of the political was constituted by the distinction between ‘friend’ and ‘foe.’ For Schmitt, legality did not rest on a Grundnorm but on the existential decision of a political entity to constitute itself as one distinguished from others whom it considered “foes.” There is a long scholarly discussion about Schmitt’s Nazism and whether his concept of foe simply means an adversary with whom I can have interest conflicts or whether the foe is an existential other. I think that Schmitt cleverly left this ambiguous but that over time his thought evolved in the direction of naming liberalism, cosmopolitanism, world-Jewry and Anglo-American democracy as the existential enemies of his political vision.

Schmitt’s challenge is not easily dispensed with because every polity – including liberal democracies – distinguishes between a ‘we’ who are considered full citizens entitled to voice and of whom loyalty is demanded, in Hirschman’s terms, and ‘others’ who do not belong to the demos. Arendt faced the problem of statelessness in her own life when Germany denaturalized its Jewish citizens and she articulated the paradoxes of the right to have rights for those who had been rendered rightless by totalitarian practices.

As a political economist Hirschman’s concerns are different. He analyzes which schemes of development can enable local economies to utilize all their resources such as to jump start the move out of poverty and dependency. Yet, like Arendt, Hirschman is also concerned with the paradoxes and weaknesses of the nation-state and early on comes under the influence of the Italian socialist federalist movement, among whose members are Eugenio Colorni and Alberto Spinelli. They compose, while in prison, the Ventetone Manifest which envisages a radical restructuring of the institutions of post-war Europe along federalist lines and the taming of the power of nation-states.

This federalist vision resonates with Arendt’s proposals of the late 1940’s for a Mediterranean federation of peoples as a possible way out of the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire. Some scheme of federalism or federationalism constituted Arendt’s as well Hirschman’s answer to the choices of exit, voice and loyalty.

I end the book with the observation that a time when the crises of our republics are reaching Weimer-like proportions, recalling the lives and works of these emigré intellectuals gives one both fear and hope: fear, because the one country that opened its arms to so many of them, namely the United States, is reproducing the Weimar syndrome of xenophobia and lawlessness in its treatment of migrants and refugees; hope, because their reflections show that catastrophes can be overcome and new beginnings are possible in political life.

Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University. Her many books have been translated into more than fourteen languages, and include Dignity in Adversity, The Rights of Others, and The Claims of Culture (Princeton).

Green: Ten Facts You Didn’t Know about the Color Green

Pastoureau Green book coverGreen is the color of cash, and also of protecting the environment. A green light means go, but a green-tinged emoji means someone is about to be sick. Where did these cultural meanings come from, and how have they developed and shifted throughout history? Michel Pastoureau’s book Green: The History of a Color takes readers from ancient times to the present day, exploring the role of green in Western societies over thousands of years.

Green is just one title in Pastoureau’s acclaimed series on the history of colors in European society! This National Color Day, don’t miss Red, Blueand Black.

How many of these facts about green did you know?

1. The ancient Egyptian god Ptah was depicted with a green face. In Egyptian painting, green was a beneficial color that protected against evil.

2. The Roman emperor Nero was known for eating a large amount of leeks he consumed, which was unusual for a high-ranking person at that time. Leeks were strongly associated with the color green, and even lent their name to one of the Greek words for the color, prasinos.

3. The Roman Empire’s chariot races featured two opposing stables: the Blues and the Greens. The Blues represented the Senate and the patrician class, while the Greens represented the people. Each stable was backed by a large, influential organization with a network of clientele and a lobby that extended far outside the racecourse.

4. The prophet Muhammad favored the color green. After becoming the dynastic color of the Fatimids, green came to be the sacred color of Islam as a whole.

5. During the Middle Ages, green was the color of hope for pregnant women in particular. Pregnant women in paintings were often shown wearing green dresses.

6. Possessing a green shield, tunic, or horse’s quarter sheet often meant that a knight was young and hotheaded. One well-known example of a “green knight” is found in the late fourteenth-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

7. In Gothic stained-glass windows, green was the color of demons, sorcerers, dragons, and the Devil himself.

8. Dyeing in green was difficult during the Middle Ages. Green dyes from plants produced faint and unstable color that grew even more faded when mordant, or fixative, was applied. Because of this instability, green came to represent inconstancy, duplicity, and betrayal. Judas, for example, is often shown dressed in green.

9. Another obstacle to dyeing in green was the way the dyeing trades were organized. Professional dyers were licensed to dye only in certain colors. This made mixing colors—such as blue and yellow, which make green—next to impossible. Even dyers who broke the regulations and used both blue and yellow dyes had to possess the then-rare knowledge that blue and yellow combined make green. This combination may seem obvious to us now, but in pre-Newtonian color classifications, green was never located anywhere near yellow.

10. Schweinfurt green was a shade developed in Germany in 1814 and made from copper shavings dissolved in arsenic. It was used to make paint, dye, and painted paper. When exposed to humidity, the arsenic evaporates and can be toxic. According to some theories of Napoleon’s death, he was poisoned by his wallpaper.

Helena Rosenblatt on The Lost History of Liberalism

Lost History LiberalismThe Lost History of Liberalism challenges our most basic assumptions about a political creed that has become a rallying cry—and a term of derision—in today’s increasingly divided public square. Taking readers from ancient Rome to today, Helena Rosenblatt traces the evolution of the words “liberal” and “liberalism,” revealing the heated debates that have taken place over their meaning. This book sets the record straight on a core tenet of today’s political conversation and lays the foundations for a more constructive discussion about the future of liberal democracy. 

What led you to write this book?

 I became interested in the history of political thought in college and my interest grew in graduate school.  My PhD dissertation, which became my first book, was on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I wrote my second book on Benjamin Constant. Both these thinkers had a huge influence on liberalism, Rousseau as a kind of gadfly, and Constant as a founder. In the course of my work, I became aware of a curious fact: despite the importance of liberalism to our history and current politics, no comprehensive history of liberalism had been written in a surprisingly long time. So I began thinking about writing such a history myself.

I set to work, but soon confronted a series of perplexing questions and contradictions. In one way or another, they all involved defining liberalism. Why was it, I wondered, that liberalism means one thing in Europe and something else in the United States? Why do some people speak of a “classical liberalism” that they say is more authentic than today’s? Why are there so many different “founders” of liberalism? Some call Machiavelli a founder, while others speak of John Locke, or even Jesus Christ.  How can they all be founders of liberalism when they are so radically different? While pondering these and other questions, I couldn’t help noticing that liberalism was often called a “slippery,” “elusive,” or “vague” concept in the books and articles that I read. All of it led me to ask a deceptively simple question: what is liberalism? And how do you write a history of liberalism when you don’t know what it is? After struggling for some time, the smoke cleared and I fell upon a new approach.

What is original about your approach to the history of liberalism?

I made it my mission to let the past speak for itself. In my book, I trace the history of the words “liberal” and “liberalism” over the course of history, starting with classical Rome—when the word “liberal” existed, but not yet “liberalism”—and ending today. What did “liberal” mean to the people who used the term two thousand years ago and how did that meaning change over time? When was the word “liberalism” coined, why was it coined, and what did it mean to the people who used it? When was the first “liberal party” formed and what did it stand for? These are the sorts of questions my book asks and seeks to answer. And my approach leads to a number of surprising findings.

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

 It is hard to summarize the many interesting discoveries I made. One concerns liberalism’s origins. We tend to think of liberalism as an age-old and venerable “Anglo-American” tradition with roots stretching deep into English history. Some trace its origins as far back as the Magna Carta. From England, liberalism is said to have spread and slowly gained acceptance until it was transported to America in the eighteenth century. There its principles were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. During the 19th century, liberalism continued its steady and inexorable progress until it became the dominant doctrine of the West.

This is a nice story, but it’s inaccurate. “Liberalism,” as a word and cluster of concepts, emerged in France in the wake of the French Revolution, not before. Its first theorists were Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël, not John Locke. For most of the nineteenth century, liberalism was widely seen as a French doctrine and closely associated with France’s successive revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871). The Encyclopaedia Americana of 1831 did not contain an entry on “liberalism,” and the article on “liberal” explained that its political meaning came from France. Only half a century later was liberalism given an entry in the American Cyclopaedia of Political Science and, even then, it was a translation of a French article equating liberalism with the “principles of 89.” During the closing years of the nineteenth century, “liberalism” remained a rare word in the language of American politics and, when it was used, was sometimes spelled “liberale,” or rendered in italics, to indicate its foreignness. The word “liberalism” only gained currency in America’s political vocabulary in the early twentieth century and the idea of an “Anglo-American liberal tradition” half a century later.

What is the relationship between liberalism and democracy?

A common mistake we make today is to use the expression “liberal democracy” unproblematically, as if “liberalism” and “democracy” go together naturally. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably as if they were synonyms. However, for the first one hundred years of their history, most liberals were hostile to democracy, which they associated with chaos and mob rule. Certainly, the founders of liberalism were not democrats. Although he believed in popular sovereignty, Benjamin Constant insisted that it be limited and advocated stiff property requirements for voting and office holding. Madame de Staël championed the “government of the best,” which she distinguished from democracy.

To Constant, de Staël, and many other liberals, the French Revolution proved that the public was utterly unprepared for political rights. People were ignorant, irrational and prone to violence. Under popular pressure, the rule of law had been suspended, “enemies of the people” guillotined, and rights trampled upon. Napoleon’s despotic rule, repeatedly legitimized by plebiscite, only confirmed the liberals’ apprehensions about democracy.  They watched with horror as demagogues and dictators manipulated voters by appealing to their lowest instincts. It was obvious to them that the masses lacked the judgement necessary to know their true interests, and even less those of their country. Liberals accepted democracy very late and even then they thought hard about ways to contain it.  They pondered methods to “enlighten” and “educate” democracy and make it safe. 

What is the relationship between liberalism and socialism?

The relationship between liberalism and socialism is often described as antagonistic, but this is untrue. Again, the question has a lot to do with definitions, since “socialism” has always been a contested and evolving cluster of ideas. At first, the word “socialist” simply described someone who felt sympathy for the poor. Three more revolutions, in 1830, 1848, 1871, and the dislocations and hardships brought to the poor by the Industrial Revolution, caused many liberals to become increasingly receptive to socialist ideas. By the early twentieth century, some began calling themselves “liberal socialists.” In 1909, the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, championed what he referred to as a “socialistic” form of liberalism dedicated to improving the lives of the “left-out millions.” A leading British liberal weekly declared that “we are all Socialists in that sense.”

It was World War II and the fear of totalitarianism that caused the rift between liberalism and socialism with which we are now familiar. First published in 1944, the bestseller, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, warned that the “social liberalism” toward which Britain and America were headed would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. Such anxieties caused other prominent Cold War liberals increasingly to distinguish themselves from socialists.

How is your book relevant today?

As an historian, I tend to think that getting history right is important in its own right. But I also think that history can lend critical perspective on the present. It can tell us about the challenges people in the past faced, the options they had, and the choices they made. Today it is clear that liberalism is facing crisis. Alarming statistics indicate that people around the world are losing confidence in liberal democracy. Populism is on the rise, American hegemony in decline. And it is not just that liberalism is being attacked by enemies or losing adherents. Liberals are divided among themselves. Some say that they have lost sight of their essential values. Some are beginning to ask what liberalism’s essential values really are. One way of answering this question is to turn to the history of liberalism. That is what my book does.

Helena Rosenblatt is professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her many books include Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion and Thinking with Rousseau: From Machiavelli to Schmitt. She lives in New York City.

William R. Newman: Newton the Scientist or Newton the Alchemist?

Isaac Newton was an alchemist. Isaac Newton was perhaps the greatest scientist who ever lived. How do we reconcile these two statements? After all, to most modern people, alchemy was at best a delusion and at worst an outright fraud. But Newton’s involvement in chrysopoeia, the alchemical attempt to transmute metals, is undeniable. Thanks to a famous 1936 auction of Newton’s papers, it is now an indisputable fact that the famous physicist wrote extensively on alchemy. Careful estimates indicate that he left about a million words on the subject, or possibly somewhat more.  Nor can one assert that this material stemmed from Newton’s old age, when he had ceased to be a productive scientist. To the contrary, his involvement in alchemy occupied the most productive period of his life, beginning in the 1660’s, when Newton’s innovations in mathematics and physics were still in their formative stages, and continuing up to the early eighteenth century when he published his famous Opticks.

What then are we to make of Newton’s alchemical quest, which extended over more than three decades? In the last third of the twentieth century, when the academic field of the history of science still held alchemy in low esteem, scholars were perplexed at his devotion to the aurific art. Two complementary theories emerged that attempted to explain Newton’s involvement in alchemy. The first built on the modern idea that alchemy was a type of magic, and that Renaissance magic focused on the hidden sympathies and antipathies between material things. The reason why a lodestone attracted iron at a distance was because of a hidden sympathy between the two.   Couldn’t this sort of explanation have stimulated Newton to think of gravity in terms of an immaterial attraction? And wasn’t alchemy based on the idea that some materials react with others because of a similar principle of affinity? Thus the idea that Newton’s involvement with alchemy was part of a quest to understand gravitational attraction was born. But closer inspection shows that this historical explanation has little or no justification. When Newton actually does speak about gravity and alchemy in the same breath, as in his manuscript Of Natures obvious laws & processes in vegetation, he explicitly proposes a mechanical explanation of gravity that does not involve immaterial attraction. There is no evidence that his concept of action at a distance emerged from his alchemical studies.

The second major attempt to explain Newton’s alchemy in the last generation stemmed from a consideration of two fields: religion and analytical psychology. The pioneering psychologist Carl Jung had been arguing since the early twentieth century that alchemy was really a matter of “psychic processes expressed in pseudochemical language.” Moreover, Jung argued that the language of alchemy was remarkably similar to that of Gnosticism, a heterodox religious movement of the early Christian centuries that stressed the need for personal revelation (gnosis) and communication with God. The 1936 auction that revealed Newton’s alchemy to the world had also released millions of words in his hand that dealt with prophecy, biblical chronology, and the iniquity of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Newton was now understood to be a passionate Antitrinitarian and a deeply religious thinker.

Wasn’t it possible, then, that his alchemy was merely an outgrowth of his religion, and that he saw the philosophers’ stone in its role of perfecting metals as a material surrogate for Jesus, the savior of souls? After all, alchemists had long justified their art as a divine pursuit, which God would only allow to fall into the hands of the worthy. Like the argument about alchemy and gravitational attraction, however, the claim that Newton’s interest in alchemy sprang from his religiosity falls on hard times when one examines the evidence. In reality, Newton never develops the religiously tinted themes that his alchemical sources sometimes convey. When they speak of the Holy Trinity, for example, Newton ignores the obvious religious sense and immediately tries to decode the reference into the form of an alchemical recipe. And if one turns to the roughly four million words that he wrote on religious topics, the references to alchemy are vanishingly small. For Newton, alchemy and religion were independent domains, each to be treated separately.  

Why then did Newton believe in the aurific art, and what was the empirical basis of his generation-long alchemical quest? By examining the evidence upon which early modern alchemists based their beliefs, one can better appreciate Newton’s goals. In their world, minerals and metals came into being and then died beneath the surface of the earth, forming gigantic trees whose branches presented themselves as veins and stringers of ore. This idea seems less naïve when one considers mineral entities such as wire silver, which really does seem to mimic organic life.

In this world, nature seemed to delight in transmutations, as Newton himself would say in the final editions of his famous Opticks. A famous example lay in the blue mineral vitriol found in mines, which could rapidly “transmute” iron into copper by plating it. The continual sinking down and rising up of living, fertile, mineral fumes led Newton to his own early theory of subterranean generation and corruption. Basing himself on the old alchemical principle that art should mimic nature, Newton spent decades attempting to arrive at ever more volatile metal compounds, which he hoped would act as destructive agencies that could break metals into their primitive components and thereby release their hidden life. In my ongoing attempt to understand Newton’s goals and methods, I have replicated a number of his experiments in the Indiana University Chemistry Department. The results, even if they have not revealed the secret of the philosophers’ stone, can certainly help us to understand why Newton persisted in his quest for the philosophers’ stone over the greater part of his scientific career.

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.

Simon Levis Sullam on The Italian Executioners

Levis Sullam Italian Executioners book coverMost historians have long described Italians as relatively protective of their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. But Simon Levis Sullam’s gripping new history The Italian Executioners shows how ordinary Italians actually played a central role in the deportation and genocide of Italian Jews during the Second World War. Levis Sullam recounts in vivid detail the shocking events of this period, dismantling the seductive popular myth of italiani brava gente—the “good Italians” who sheltered their Jewish compatriots from harm. Here, Levis Sullam answers several questions about the Holocaust in Italy, the book, and the misconceptions it corrects.

How does your book supersede previous historiography on the fate of the Jews of Italy during the Holocaust?

Historians have long represented Italy during the Holocaust as a safe place for Jews, due to the many rescues of Jews by Italians, in particular by members of the Catholic clergy.  Some of the founders of Holocaust historiography, such as Léon Poliakov or Raul Hilberg, viewed the Italians’ benevolent national character as antithetical to violence and genocide. But following a new stream of research starting with the work of Michele Sarfatti and Liliana Picciotto, The Italian Executioners claims that Italians—including ordinary Italians—were accomplices in the genocide of the Jews. Over 8,000 Jews, about 20% of the Italian Jewish population, were arrested and deported from Italy. Nearly half of these arrests were carried out by Italians.

Why do you prefer the category of genocide to those of Holocaust or Shoah? How do you apply it?

In the book, I use “genocide” as it was coined by the Polish Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin during the Second World War, to indicate the attempt to eradicate a group, in whole or in part, based on ethnicity or race. I underline how genocide does not take place only in foreign or distant lands, but can happen during circumstances of distress in any society, when next-door neighbours are persecuted as internal enemies. On the footsteps especially of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, I stress the role of the fragmentation of tasks and the bureaucratization of functions in the machinery of destruction, which required the large-scale involvement of ordinary citizens.

What was the role of antisemitism among Italian executioners?

Italy had a centuries-old tradition of particularly Catholic anti-Judaism and, since the nineteenth century, had also developed a racially based anti-Jewish hostility of the type that had already spread throughout Europe. In the twentieth century, antisemitism was not a founding principle of Italian Fascist ideology, although certain streams of the Fascist movement used anti-Jewish propaganda, especially in the 1930s. The racial question rose within Fascism first with the proclamation of an Italian empire in Ethiopia in 1936 and later, starting in the fall of 1938, with Mussolini’s enforcement of antisemitic laws.

But were ordinary Italians who participated in the Holocaust motivated by antisemitism?

Some of those who participated in the arrest of Jews were ideologically motivated. The Fascist Party, which was reborn during the German occupation of Italy in the fall of 1943, declared Jews to be “foreigners” and “enemies.” Ideologically committed members of the Fascist Party and the Fascist press adopted this line. However, the arrest of Jews was mostly conducted by policemen and by military police (“carabinieri”) who obeyed higher orders from the government and from the prefects and chiefs of police who represented the State locally. Many Italians, however, participated in the arrest of Jews and the confiscation of their property while performing bureaucratic functions, such as drafting lists of people to be arrested or registering confiscated property. Other Italians were motivated by greed.

Speaking of greed, can you tell us what happened to Jewish property?

Greed, revenge, and sometimes envy were important motivating factors in ordinary Italian citizens’ involvement in anti-Jewish activities during the Holocaust. Very often, arrests were the result of Italians informing about the whereabouts of Jewish next-door neighbors or former business partners. Informants aimed to take hold of Jewish property or move into vacated houses or apartments after the arrests. Fees were also promised for those who reported Jews.

After the war, what happened to those Italians who were responsible of the deportation of Jews?

There was never an Italian Nuremberg trial. Only a few postwar trials considered anti-Jewish persecution among the defendants’ responsibilities, and anti-Jewish action was never treated as a specific crime. In 1946, a general amnesty for Fascist crimes was enforced. Major war criminals served short sentences of only a few years. Most, if not all, of the police personnel who had been active during Fascism and the war remained in place. And there were paradoxical episodes such as that of a police officer who had been in charge of the confiscation of Jewish wealth, and who after the war was put in charge of the return of Jewish property. The role of Italians in the Holocaust was basically never examined by Italian justice.

What motivated you to write this book?

I was concerned about the relatively benevolent representation of Fascism by international historiography, which often still considers it a lesser evil compared to Nazism. The criminality and violence of Fascism began, at the latest, in the mid-1920s, when the movement started persecuting and even killing political opponents. In this case, I wanted to look at one of its most criminal phases: Fascism’s active participation in the Nazi project of extermination. On a more personal level, I was motivated also by my family’s history. Part of my family was rescued during the war, and that is how my parents survived and I could come to life. Another part of my family, including elders and months-old children, were arrested by Italians and killed by Germans in Auschwitz. I wanted to tell this story, the story of the Italian executioners in the Holocaust, which has been too often overlooked both by historians and in the public memory.

Simon Levis Sullam is associate professor of modern history at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. His previous books include Giuseppe Mazzini and the Origins of Fascism.

How Did the Ba’al Shem Tov Observe the Days of Awe?

David Biale Hasidism A New History book coverIsrael Ba’al Shem Tov, also called the Besht, is known as the legendary founder of the Jewish movement of Hasidism. During his lifetime, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the Besht and his followers practiced a mystical, pietistic Judaism. Hasidism: A New History, by David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński, pieces together what is known about the Besht’s life and spiritual practices in order to examine his role in the development of what became Hasidism.

Like other holy men known as ba’alei shem, or masters of the name, the Besht was a shaman who used practical applications of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, to communicate with the divine, perform healing acts on earth. He tried to use his ability to communicate with heavenly powers to avert disaster for his community—not just the Jews in his own area, but the Jewish people everywhere. On rare occasions, he visited heaven in what was called an aliyat neshamah, or “ascent of the soul.” These events tended to occur during the High Holidays, also known as the Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The Besht claimed that on Rosh Hashanah in two different years he ascended to heaven. During each ascent, he learned of an impending catastrophe that would befall the Jewish community, and attempted to avert it.

    For on Rosh Hashanah 5507 [1746] I performed an adjuration for the ascent of the soul, as you know, and I saw wondrous things in a vision, for the evil side ascended to accuse with great, unparalleled joy and performed his acts—persecutions entailing forced conversion—on several souls so they would meet violent deaths. I was horrified and I literally put my life in jeopardy and asked my teacher and rabbi [Ahiah the Shilonite (I Kings 14:2)] to go with me because it is very dangerous to go and ascend to the upper worlds. For from the day I attained my position I did not ascend such lofty ascents. I went up step by step until I entered the palace of the Messiah where the Messiah studies Torah with all of the Tannaim [the rabbis of the Mishna] and the righteous and also with the seven shepherds. . . .

—cited in Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov, 2nd ed. (Oxford and Portland, OR, 2013), 106-107

    And on Rosh Hashanah 5510 [1749] I performed an ascent of the soul, as is known, and I saw a great accusation until the evil side almost received permission to completely destroy regions and communities. I put my life in jeopardy and I prayed: “Let us fall into the hand of God and not fall into the hands of man.”

—ibid., 107

These mystical experiences were sometimes precipitated by his entering a self-induced trance. One of these trances, which occurred on Yom Kippur, is described in the Shivhei ha-Besht, a book of hagiographical stories about the Besht published over fifty years after his death:

    Before Ne’ilah [the final prayer of the Yom Kippur liturgy] he began to preach in harsh words and he cried. He put his head backward on the ark and he sighed and he wept. Afterward [when] he began to pray the silent eighteen benedictions, and then the voiced eighteen benedictions … the Besht began to make terrible gestures, and he bent back- ward until his head came close to his knees, and everyone feared that he would fall down. They wanted to support him but they were afraid to. They told it to Rabbi Ze’ev Kutses, God bless his memory, who came and looked at the Besht’s face and signaled that they were not to touch him. His eyes bulged and he sounded like a bull being slaughtered. He kept this up for about two hours. Suddenly he stirred and straightened up. He prayed in a great hurry and finished the prayer.

—Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome Mintz, In Praise of the Ba’al Shem Tov, The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism, (Lanham, MD, 2004), 55. Translation slightly modified.

Are you observing the Days of Awe this year? The gates of heaven are open, just as they were to the Ba’al Shem Tov two hundred and fifty years ago. You can learn more about how eighteenth-century Jewish mysticism developed into modern Hasidism in Hasidism: A New History. A sweet new year!