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Book Review: At The End of An Age

Lukacs, At The End of An Age, cover picture

At the End of an Age is a small book, and John Lukacs’ elegant yet simple prose could easily lull you into thinking it is an easy read.  It doesn’t take many pages, though, to realize that every paragraph in this book (or rather, book-length essay) is laden with complex ideas and meaning.  I found myself rereading whole pages to make sure I understood, and I suspect that I would need to read the whole book two or three times to pick up on all of his points.  That being said, the book is worth it.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the ostensible thesis of the book is that the modern age, which Lukacs calls the “bourgeoisie age” is nearing its end.  He offers cogent arguments and examples in support and, in general, makes a strong case.  As it happens, I agree with him; I wrote something very similar on this blog a couple weeks ago, before I had ever read Lukacs.  I think that anyone with some level of historical awareness can see that our civilization is gearing up for a drastic change.  Other historians I have read would have spent the entire book (or 12, in the case of Toynbee) expanding on their particular theory.  Lukacs, having laid out his arguments, then moves up to a higher, more meta-historical level.  Lukacs is interested not just in how history works, but in the epistemology and metaphysics of history and its relationship to the other sciences.  These are deep waters indeed.  Only Lukac’s strong voice and skill as a writer keep the reader from sinking.  Since I lack his mastery, I will not attempt to explain his points here, but will merely mention a couple of his main themes.

Lukacs believes that in history, as in quantum physics, the phenomena is ultimately inseparable from the observer.  The historian does not just record history but, in the act of writing it, actually influences and creates it.  This means that true objectivity is impossible for the historian, and that a purely deterministic conception of history is as obsolete as deterministic physics was after Heisenberg.  This matches up with comments I have occasionally made about history as a narrative.  History is based on fact but, ultimately, is a literary discipline.  This historian doesn’t just tell the story, he creates it.

Another major theme in the book is the role of the human mind in creating history.  Lukacs asserts that “the inclinations of men’s minds” and their beliefs are more important than their competence or any material factor.  “Mind” in this sense means consciousness or soul, separate from brain and body.  Lukacs believes in the power of the mind to influence reality and manifest different potentialities.  Comparative metaphysics is far from my specialty.  However, this sounds very similar to the writings of various New Thought philosophers,  particularly Earnest Holmes and his Science of Mind disciples.  I wonder to what extent the young John Lukacs was influenced by these metaphysical systems.  Regardless, the take away is that if a historian wants to understand a person or group he needs to go beyond studying their situation and strive to understand their minds.

Overall, I found many ideas in this book which I could agree with, or at least try on for size.  There were a few arguments, however, with which I did take minor issue.  In an early section of the book, as part of an overview of various ways the social structures of the current age are breaking down, he discusses the trend towards women’s equality in the workplace and announces that,

Women thought (or, rather, convinced themselves) that they were reacting against the age-old and often senseless categories and assertions  of male authority; yet their dissatisfaction often arose not because of the oppressive strength but because of the weakness of males.  The rising tide of divorces and abortions, the acceptance of sexual liberties, including pre-marital (and sometimes post-marital) habits of frequent copulation and other forms of cohabitation, the increasing numbers of unmarried women and single mothers, the dropping birth rate–thus the decline of the so-called “nuclear” family–were, especially after 1955, grave symptoms suggesting vast social changes.  They included the perhaps seldom wholly conscious, but more and more evident, tendency of many young women to desire any kind of male companionship, even of a strong and brutal kind, if need be at the cost of their self-respect. (pp. 23-24)

He offers no support for this complex, arguable, and potentially inflammatory claim.  This is not the sort of paragraph you just casually slip into a book without offering evidence to back it up.  This is the sort of thing which would have caused me, when I was still a teaching assistant grading papers, to circle the whole paragraph with red pen and write “BURDEN OF PROOF” in the margin.

Lukacs is also universally deprecatory of post-modernism in all of its forms, seeing it as a basically vague and degenerate direction for scholarship and culture.  That is a legitimate, if somewhat reactionary stance.  However, Lukacs, who escaped communist Hungary as a young man, is also blatantly anti-Marxist.  Since, as a historian, Lukacs could not help but be aware of the many contributions that Marxism has made to post-modern analysis and art, I have to question whether he might not be biased on the whole subject of post-modernism.

Finally, Lukacs is dismissive of any value in mathematics for the study of history.  As a “quant”, I feel compelled to respond.  As evidence, he cites his own non-deterministic, non-objectivist view of history as well as Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which say that 1) Any non-trivial mathematical system contains some postulates which can not be proven without going beyond the system.  2) No mathematical system is capable of proving its own consistency.  Personally, I have been fascinated by Gödel’s theorems since I first studied them in an Abstract Algebra class that I took as a college junior.   As an illustration of what they mean, consider Euclid’s geometrical system, as set down in the Elements.  Euclid begins “A point is that which has position but no dimension.”  The entire system doesn’t work without this axiom, yet there is no way to prove that a point has no dimension using only Euclidean geometry.  You would need to introduce propositions from topology and/or calculus–which are themselves systems which contain propositions which can not be proven without introducing even more complex systems of mathematics.

Kurt Gödel in 1925 [public domain via Wikimedia]

Kurt Gödel in 1925 [public domain via Wikimedia]

And yet, geometry works quite well enough for most purposes, as do topology and calculus.  Granted, the incompleteness theorems seem to imply that a grand-unified theory of history, in the sense of of a closed form solution (plug all the variables into the equation, predict what will happen next) is impossible.  But applied math and statistics are about approximations, empirical formulas, noisy data, and models that work “well enough”, with a quantifiable margin of error.  The incredible advances over the past fifty years in fields like data mining, complexity theory, machine learning, and signal processing have paved the way for a useful discipline of mathematical history, probably within our own lifetimes.  Such a system will only be one more tool for the historian to use, and the results must not be allowed to dominate the historical narrative itself.  But to dismiss all mathematical history out of hand because it will not be an internally provable system seems like a major error.  Even in a non-deterministic universe, mathematical modeling can still provide startling and useful insights.

Despite these minor qualms, I truly enjoyed this book and would recommend it.  Overall, in fact, it is the kind of book I would like to write myself some day.  I will absolutely be reading (and probably reviewing) more of Lukacs’ works in the future.

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Hebrew Bible: Genesis Through Numbers

I had originally planned to write one post about each of the traditional groups of books in the Hebrew Bible: The Law, The Prophets, and the Writings. As I read, however, I realized that this is not the most natural grouping. Therefore, this first post will concentrate on the first four books, of the five which make up the Law and also known as the Torah to Jews and the Pentateuch to Christians.

Most of the current arrangement of the Hebrew Bible is a result of the scroll-based book technology on which it was stored. Long scrolls are unwieldy, so the Hebrew Bible was divided into “books” which would fit on a standard 30-foot scroll.  Also, it was common practice to store the scrolls in clay jars and it was convenient to have one jar for “Law” books, one for “Books by Prophets”, and so forth. This traditional organizational scheme was retained even after the Bible began to be written on codex-type books with pages.

One of the Clay Pots Used to Store the Dead Sea Scrolls

One of the Clay Pots Used to Store the Dead Sea Scrolls (Dale Gillard [CC BY 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons)

Even though they take up three scrolls, however, it is fairly clear that the books of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers are essentially a single, continuous work. Leviticus is a closely related, but separate work; even though the author places it within the same time-line as the other books by adding the introductory words “And the lord spoke to Moses saying:” at the start of each section, it is really not a narrative work at all so much as a ritual handbook for the priesthood.

Deuteronomy, while it is presented as Moses’ last speech to his followers, is actually the prelude for a completely new series of books, a national history which follows the Hebrew people from the initial invasion of Canaan, though the golden age of King Solomon, to the final conquest of the promised land by Babylon. Deuteronomy sets out the major theme for the rest of the story, which is basically “As long as the people remain holy and follow the law they will be rewarded with peace and prosperity, but as soon as they transgress punishment will result.” I will be writing about this Deuteronomistic history in my next post. For now, however, I will return to the other four books of the Law.

The Genesis-Exodus-Numbers cycle and the book of Leviticus were compiled at a time after the promised land had been conquered by the empire of Babylon. The Babylonian government prevented a possible insurgency by deporting the priests and aristocrats of Judah to other parts of the empire. In a semi-literate society, the elite are the main preservers and transmitters of culture. After they were removed, the native Hebrew culture was in danger of dying out. Meanwhile the upper-class Hebrews, living abroad, were at risk of being assimilated and adopting foreign ways. With the old verbal traditions imperiled, it became imperative to create a single, definitive version of the Jewish origin story and to write down as many of their key customs and rituals as possible.

The project was a remarkable success. There is no question that the existence of the Torah is one of the key factors which have allowed the Jewish people to retain their unique cultural identity throughout history. According to Edgar Schein, MIT Sloan’s famous Organizational Behavior scholar, culture is made up of artifacts, values, and assumptions. All three of these are recorded in the Torah. Artifacts are behaviors and physical objects which are observable to outsiders.   Examples of behaviors would be the cleanliness laws (Lev 11-18) and the rituals of the Levite priesthood. Examples of physical objects are the furniture of the Holy of Holies (Ex 25-27) or a special hair style (Lev 19:27). Deeper and more important  than artifacts are values, such as the sanctity of marriage (“Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife.”, Ex 20:17) or proportionate punishment for crimes (“An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth” Ex 21:22). Deepest and most important are assumptions, such as the idea that God created mankind in his own image (Gen 1:26). By identifying and codifying all of these, the Torah provides a static snap-shot of Hebrew culture in the 6th century BCE, a fundamental baseline reference for all future Judaic culture.

In fact, some noted historians, particularly Arnold Toynbee, have suggested that Judaic culture never changed appreciably after this time. In A Study of History, Toynbee refers to the Jews as a “fossil society”. Toynbee probably should have chosen a more politic terminology; generations of writers have taken offense at the term and accused him of antisemitism. All he really meant was that the Jews, who 2600 years ago were one culture among numerous, relatively similar, Semitic cultures, have managed maintain their cultural integrity millennia after their neighboring cultures have become extinct or been assimilated into other civilizations.

So, having looked at why the books were written, let me turn to the story that they contain. I am, after all, a writer, so stories are my primary interest.

Genesis begins with two creation stories, then the story of the flood. In broad terms, these are similar to other surviving mythology which we have from the near and mid-east. Compare, for instance, the flood narrative in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, or the mythical battle between Marduk and Tiamat, which has echoes in the incident with the serpent (i.e. Tiamat) in Eden (Gen 3). Then, towards the end of Genesis 11, the book introduces Abram, who is herding sheep in Mesopotamia, where these myths come from. Abram, later known as Abraham,is the ancestor of all the Israelites. From this point on, the story follows his descendants from one generation to another.

The story itself is quite interesting from a historic point of view, even though we must make allowances for bias and the fact that the goal of whoever edited together to book was more to foster a sense of Jewish identity than to lay out an accurate historical account.

In the life of Abraham’s grandson Jacob his descendent, now an extended family of 70, emigrate to Egypt to become what we would now call guest workers. They are able to get permission to settle there because Jacob’s son Joseph has obtained a plum position in the Egyptian bureaucracy. They stay there for several generations, breeding prodigiously after the fashion of the poor everywhere. As time goes on, the narrative begins to describe them as slaves. Even today, in much of the world, the distinction between guest workers and slaves is often a blurry one.

Eventually relations between the Israelites and the Egyptian government deteriorate and they leave, either because labor conditions in Egypt had become intolerable, or because the Egyptians force them out. Probably, the political situation was complicated and messy and both sides were glad to see the last of each other. The Bible is only the Hebrew side of the story. The Egyptians of the time, while they kept extensive written records, were less interested in writing about what we would call “current events”. The first Egyptian work that mentions the episode at all was written at a much later period by the priest Manetho. All we have is a paraphrase of it as cited by the Roman historian Josephus from the first century C.E.. According to this account, the Hebrews were living in poverty and squalor when an epidemic had broken out among them. The Egyptians evicted them from the country because the plague was beginning to spread to the natives. Moses was an Egyptian priest who went among them to teach them rules of Hygiene and cleanliness modeled on those of the Egyptian priesthood.

Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh

Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh (Benjamin West [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The biblical account, on the other hand, is that the Hebrews were oppressed by the Egyptians, who resented the incredible fertility granted under the terms of their covenant with God. Moses, an Israelite spokesman, created the plagues to force the Pharaoh to let them go. Perhaps in reality some elements of both stories are probably true.

Whatever actually happened in Egypt, the Hebrews migrate into the Syrian desert. During this period, Moses receives the Law from God and the narrative begins to be interspersed with passages of law. After living in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites have bred and trained enough fighting men to surge forth from the wilderness and overwhelm several small cities on the East bank of the Jordan River. The story in the Torah ends with the Israelite horde preparing to cross the river and invade the country of Canaan, under their leader Joshua. In my next post, I will talk about what happened after they crossed the Jordan and conquered their promised land.