Archive for the ‘religiosities’ Category


A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

2 June 2009

Yes, still horribly backlogged in both my review posts and my non-review posts. Here’s a nice chewy review for the moment; when I have a few spare minutes to clean up another post or two, I hope to have more to talk about.

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

In the early 1940s, British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell was living in the United States, attempting to find a job and attempting to hold his fast-dissolving third marriage together. He had lost several previous teaching posts, some because of financial difficulties at the scholarly institutions to which he had applied and some because he had fallen out with his employers, and the war made it all but impossible for him to try to return to England. Public protests against his controversial writings on sex and marriage had prevented him from taking an appointment at the College of the City of New York, and he was only saved from complete financial collapse by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which offered him a post teaching the history of philosophy. Very short on cash, and struggling to keep both his personal and professional lives afloat, he compiled his Barnes Foundation lectures into a single comprehensive survey of the history of Western philosophy and published them in 1945 under the straightforward title A History of Western Philosophy. Russell’s history became an unexpected best-seller, saved him from complete financial ruin, and provided an steady income stream upon which he would depend for the rest of his life. Indeed, the book was a strong contributor to the body of literature for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1950 — and today, outside of the philosophical and mathematical communities, is possibly second only to Why I Am Not a Christian as the work for which Russell is best known today.

Russell divides his History of Western Philosophy into three parts, focusing on ancient (Greek and Roman) philosophy up through the third century CE, Catholic philosophy (which also includes bits about Jewish and Islamic philosophy) of the Church Fathers through St Thomas Aquinas and up to the Renaissance, and modern philosophy from the 1500s through the early 20th century and Russell’s own works. The first two parts receive much more attention than the final part, mainly because Russell’s attempts to show the founding principles and evoluation of various philosophical schools of thought require him to delve deeply into the works of the most influential ancient philosophers, particularly Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle. Russell makes very little pretense of being objective in his comments; it is more than clear which philosophers he likes and which he dislikes. Aristotle’s Ethics, for example, have an ’emotional poverty’ that ‘will be useful to comfortable men of weak passions’ — he acknowledges the work’s effect and influence on future generations of philosophers, but dismisses the work itself (and, for that matter, much of Aristotle’s other work). In contrast, he has high praise for Spinoza as both a person and a philosopher — in Russell’s words, Spinoza is ‘the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers’ — and the loving descriptions and generous assessments carry through the description of the man’s life and personality and into his work. Comments such as these make for alternately interesting and frustrating reading matter, all the way through the nearly 900-page book covering nearly three millennia of philosophic history.

In his autobiography, Russell defended his approach to the History of Western Philosophy by stating that ‘a man without bias cannot write interesting history’. Yet one conclusion which appears to be nearly universal among reviewers (including this reviewer) is that the History of Western Philosophy reveals far more about Russell’s own biases, prejudices, and personal philosophies than it does about those of any individual philosopher or philosophic tradition he surveys. He is prone to making authorial comments that may raise a few eyebrows, such as his remarks on Jewish history during the time of the Maccabees: ‘In enduring and resisting persecution the Jews of this time showed immense heroism, although in defence of things that do not strike us as important, such as circumcision and the wickedness of eating pork’ (316). In another digression, Russell’s strong belief in the need for a world government creeps into his discussion of Thomas Hobbes’ writings on the government: ‘Every argument that [Hobbes] adduces in favour of government…is valid in favour of international government. So long as national States exist and fight each other, only inefficiency can preserve the human race. To improve the fighting quality of separate States without having any means of preventing war is the road to universal destruction’ (557). In this light, the conclusions drawn in A History of Western Philosophy makes a good deal more sense after having read Russell’s massive Autobiography — at least, having more information about Russell’s background and circumstances may reduce the general frustration of reading the book and attempting to accept the author’s often peculiar conclusions at face value. As a history of Western philosophy, there are better works available…but as a reflection and even a microcosm of Bertrand Russell’s own political philosophies, this is one instance in which the book shows far more than it tells.


The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain by Diane Purkiss

16 December 2008

I’ve been exceedingly remiss in writing up and posting reviews of books I’ve read recently, owing to a slew of end-of-year commitments that have cut back on my free writing time. I hope to have at least a few more reviews posted before the end of 2008, if nothing else.

The UK edition of this particular book has the far simpler title The English Civil War: A People’s History. I’m not entirely certain why the title was changed for the U.S. edition (too similar to Howard Zinn’s magnum opus, perhaps?), but the U.S. edition is the one being reviewed in this post.

The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain by Diane Purkiss

The English Civil War — or rather, wars, if you break down the overarching conflict into various sets of skirmishes from around 1642 to 1651 — is a classic example of a historical event that has been moulded over the years to fit many different kinds of historical narratives. The Whig historians scrutinised by Herbert Butterfield tended to regard the war as a struggle for power between Parliament and the monarchy, with the former championing the natural rights of the people and the latter attempting to reassert the traditional spiritual and temporal authority of the sovereign. The Marxist historians of the mid-20th century viewed it as a class war, a bourgeois revolution against the aristocracy that prefigured the greater radicalism of the American and French Revolutions. Other historians have played up the religious aspect of the conflict, framing it in the context of the Catholic-Protestant schisms that had never quite fully healed since the days of Henry VIII. Still others have suggested that regional politics are really at the heart of the matter, and that the war can only be truly understood by looking into the particular political, religious, and social situations in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, England (with London as its own separate region), and to some extent Cornwall. Generally speaking, most of these historiographical approaches focus on the larger picture or the top-down factors, often at the expense of the far more personal stories that are so often at the heart of any civil war. In that context, Diane Purkiss’s The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain is an attempt to provide a more intimate perspective that both reflects and challenges the overall understanding of the conflict.

Purkiss strives to bridge the gap between academic and popular history, drawing on a wide variety of sources to include the perspectives of individuals and groups that frequently are neglected in the more sweeping general histories. Women in particular play a prominent role in her narrative, from the aristocratic ladies who were caught up in the politicking and social intrigues within the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria to the working-class women who often embodied the Puritan religious movement that wished to eradicate Catholic elements from their way of worship. She also takes pains to show the effects that the war had on family life, with accounts of fathers and sons taking opposite sides and wives defending their homes while their husbands were off fighting alongside the King or the Parliament. Above all, Purkiss strives to illustrate the confusion and disorder of a ‘world turned upside down’ by the war, the reality that was often (both not always) exaggerated by the hysterical accounts of atrocities carried out by both sides. The English Civil War ends with the execution of Charles I and the exile of the Stuarts, a suitable stopping-point that allows Purkiss to tie up the loose ends of the stories that make up this people’s history.

That said, The English Civil War has a few disappointing aspects that detract from its generally engaging tone. Purkiss tends to speculate a little too freely on the thoughts and motivations of the individuals she profiles; even if her speculations are drawn from suitably accurate sources, they still inject a little too much fancy into the history. She also could have done a good deal more with the ‘witchfinders’ part of the history — her account of Matthew Hopkins and the witchcraft trials of the 1640s and 1650s feels like an afterthought, as if it had been crammed into the text in a hasty attempt to include something that had been left out of early drafts. Considering the use of witch trials as a social and political weapon during the Civil War years, especially against women, and the frequently invoked connections between witchcraft and the rituals of Catholicism and Laudian Anglicanism, a more in-depth look at the witchcraft angle might easily have occupied a sizeable portion of the text. But The English Civil War‘s main problem is that it seems to assume that its audience is a good deal more familiar with the history of the conflict than might be expected — even a dramatis personae or a simple timeline at the back of the book would have been invaluable for a reader coming to the subject for the first time. These weaknesses do not make the book unreadable — far from it — but they do encourage the reader to consult the extensive ‘Further Reading’ section at the back of the book for a broader selection of works to supplement Purkiss’s own.

(In addition: I generally agree with the statements and conclusions given in Gavin Robinson’s extremely detailed review of the book, though my review mostly approaches the text from the perspective of one who is not nearly as ‘genned up’ on the existing literature of the English Civil War as he happens to be.)


Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

29 August 2008

Posting this a little early, as I’m going out of town for the weekend. I’d intended to put this together with Studies in Words, the other C.S. Lewis book I’ve been reading lately, but this review’s long and complicated enough that it really needs to stand on its own.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

The myth of Cupid and Psyche is a fairly well-known story, one of the many tales involving the troubles of relationships between mortals and the gods. Venus, goddess of love, becomes jealous of the incomparably beautiful Psyche and orders her son Cupid to make the girl fall in love with the foulest creature on earth. Cupid, however, falls in love with Psyche himself, and has the West Wind whisk her away to a castle where he may keep her as his wife. He visits her nightly, but never allows her to see him. When Psyche’s elder sisters come to visit her in her new home, they become consumed with envy at her wealth and attempt to convince her that her husband is really a foul monster. They advise her to take a sharp knife and a lamp to bed with her so that she may look upon his face before she slays him. Half-convinced, Psyche brings the knife and the lamp to bed, but when she sees her sleeping husband for the first time she falls in love with him on sight. But when a drop of hot oil falls from her lamp and lands upon Cupid, he awakens and vanishes, leaving Psyche alone. In her quest to return to her husband, Psyche faces many arduous tasks and challenges put to her by a vindictive Venus, but in the end she is brought up to Olympus, given immortality by the gods, and reunited with Cupid.

The main character in Till We Have Faces is not Psyche herself, but one of her sisters. In Lewis’s story, the narrator is Orual, the eldest of the three daughters of the cruel king of the land of Glome. Orual often bears the brunt of her father’s anger for being ugly, because a girl who cannot even be used to broker a marriage alliance with a neighbouring noble family is nothing more than a worthless mouth to feed. Orual’s only real friend at the court is the Fox, a Greek slave who shares with her the basic teachings of his homeland’s philosophers and tries to give her more of an enlightened education than her ‘barbarian’ culture would normally allow. When her father’s newest wife dies in childbirth, Orual takes on the responsibility of raising her half-sister Istra — Psyche, in Greek — and soon grows to love the child more than anything else the world. Yet the small amount of love and happiness that Orual has been able to find in Glome is suddenly taken from her when Psyche is ordered to be sacrified to appease the wrath of the gods. As the story progresses, Orual struggles with her grief, anger, and desperate loneliness in her search for her beloved Psyche, and eventually has the opportunity to bring her grievances directly to the gods themselves as both accuser and accused in the greatest trial she will ever face.

Till We Have Faces reworks the Cupid-and-Psyche myth in a very novel way, adapting the basic framework of the tale to focus on the multifaceted nature of love and its ability to nourish or destroy the heart, mind, and soul. This particular theme is one of C.S. Lewis’s favourites — it appears in several of his other fictional works, most notably in The Great Divorce, and it is one of the primary themes in his nonfiction work The Four Loves. The love theme is only one of many Lewisian tropes that feature prominently in Till We Have Faces, to the point where a reader who is familiar with Lewis’s other fiction and nonfiction writings will have no trouble spotting the themes and ticking them off one by one, as if following a well-worn shopping list. Examples include a variation on his ‘lunatic-liar-lord’ argument, given in both Mere Christianity and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and his interest in the neo-Platonic approach to Christianity, which is a common thread in most (if not all) of his literary, academic, and religious writings. But considering that Lewis worked on this book off and on for nearly all of his adult life, beginning in his undergraduate years at Oxford, it is hardly surprising that it should contain most if not all of the themes and ideas that he incorporated into his other works. (Till We Have Faces was his last complete work of fiction; interestingly enough, it was published in the same year as The Last Battle.) Although the book is not nearly as well known as most of Lewis’s works, Till We Have Faces is quite possibly his most complex and thoughtful piece, an extended meditation on the capacity for love within all of us and how we may use it that love for good or for ill.

One additional point should probably be mentioned in the context of this review. C.S. Lewis has often been accused of misogynist tendencies or outright misogyny in his writings, especially in his fiction, and because Till We Have Faces is very much a story of women in a warlike, masculine world, it is difficult to know how to address these accusations in the context of this book. Those who go into the text hunting for misogyny can find it quite easily — most easily, for instance, in Lewis’s rather unsympathetic depiction of Orual and Psyche’s vain and silly middle sister, Redival. Yet Orual as both a character and a narrator is far from a simple stereotype, primarily in her position a woman who is uniquely aware that she cannot fit into either the men’s or women’s roles dictated by her culture and her place in society. Some reviewers have suggested that Lewis’s wife Joy influenced the final development of the story, and claim that her guidance was instrumental in smoothing out the rougher edges of her husband’s story and characters. Whatever may have influenced the final product, Till We Have Faces is the book that Lewis considered to be his best, and its blend of philosophy, religion, literary reflection, and storytelling may easily be seen as an embodiment of Lewis’s entire creative output.


Piers the Ploughman by William Langland

5 August 2008

For some time now, this book has been on my list of things that I ‘ought’ to read — not out of any particular obligation, but because I felt that if several of my favourite authors (for instance, C.S. Lewis) have read and enjoyed this book, I might as well see what the fuss was all about. So I picked it up in the library a few weeks ago, and finished the review for it a few days ago.

Piers the Ploughman by William Langland (Penguin Classics 1966 edition, translated by J.F. Goodridge)

Most anyone who works with literature written before the age of the printing press is well aware of the difficulties that come with studying fragile and often fragmentary primary texts. The epic poem Beowulf, for instance, survives only on a single manuscript dating from around AD 1000, and other handcopied works have fared even less well against the tests of time. Yet even for works where a number of copies or pieces of the same work exist, minute (and occasionally major) differences between each fragment further add to the challenge of studying a text. In English literature, one particularly complicated text dates from the later part of the 1300s, around the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A long allegorical poem written by little-known cleric William Langland, Piers Ploughman is a complex, multilayed commentary on the social, political, and moral state of England in the 14th century. About 50 or so manuscripts of this poem are known to exist, with three semi-definitive versions known the A, B, and C texts. Yet scholars are still sifting through what little is known about this poem, studying both the text and the different ways in which later generations regarded Langland’s pointed criticisms of the state of affairs in England in his day.

As a allegory, Piers Ploughman is told as a series of dream-visions experienced by the narrator, who is shown wandering through the Malvern Hills in what is now modern-day Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Periodically, he falls asleep and dreams vividly of a world where virtues and vices walk alongside men and women, encouraging them to be good and pious or tempting them to be false and wicked. Conscience and Reason, among others, are often beside the dreamer to teach him about good moral behaviour and help him avoid the traps of Fraud, Flattery, Worldly Wisdom, and their kind. The central figure in the dreamer’s visions, however, is a ploughman named Piers, a Christ-figure who provides a model for the narrator and others to follow. (The ploughman figure, an idealised image of the honest labourer, is a key component of a particular tradition of other politically charged ‘plowman writings‘ that date from around the same time as Langland’s work.) As the narrator wanders between the dreaming and waking world in search of the elusive Piers, he reflects on the evils he encounters, focusing particularly on the greed and corruption that have weakened the Church and her clergy, and ponders what is likely to happen to men’s souls in these dark and uncertain times.

This particular edition (Penguin Classics, 1966) contains a translation of the B-text of the poem (the best-known text) into modern English prose, as well as a introduction written by the translator, J.F. Goodridge. Goodridge explains in the introduction that he decided against trying to force a modern-English rhyme scheme out of the Middle English alliterative verse, instead attempting to keep as much of the sense of the original as possible. In addition, Goodridge’s comprehensive footnotes draw on the research and writings of other scholars to highlight particular themes and allegorical styles that Langland used in his work, and provide citation information for the numerous quotes from the Bible that are sprinkled liberally throughout the text. This translation is by no means a ‘dumbing down’ of the work; for those who are not at all familiar with the style and structure of Middle English, Goodridge’s edition presents Langland’s classic Middle English poem in a solid, basic format that does its best to be accessible and easy to read. And even though there may be newer translations of the poem with more recent scholarship, this version seems to be worth examining nonetheless as an example of the kind of effort that is required to work with such a dense and often obscure piece of literature.


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

27 July 2008

I wrote this review quite a while ago, and wasn’t entirely satisfied with the organisational structure of my first attempt. I think I like this version a bit better — it seems slightly clearer than my initial review — but I may end up revisiting it later on to make a few more tweaks to it.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

German political economist Max Weber wrote extensively on what sociologists today would consider the ‘sociology of religion’, specifically regarding the effects of religious beliefs on social structures and the economic activities that developed in different societies. His best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, coined the phrase ‘Protestant work ethic’ to represent one particular connection he noticed between religion and economics and its effect on the historical development and evolution of capitalism.

Simply put, Weber suggests that some Protestant denominations, specifically those of the Calvinist or ‘Puritan’ school of thought, came to view economic success as an outward sign of an individual’s chances of salvation. Those who worked hard, saved much, spent little, and prospered financially seemed to be marked (to mortal eyes) as God’s chosen, and their example fed back into the religious teachings of their communities and continued the same interconnected cycle of religion and economics. These teachings, Weber theorises, contributed to the growth and development of capitalism in the economies of European countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as in the American colonies — specifically, those of New England and the mid-Atlantic regions — where the more Puritan types of Protestant settlers made their homes. Weber also suggests that the religious basis of this school of thought and action gradually faded and blurred over time (as in Benjamin Franklin’s sayings, which emphasise thrift and hard work with less overt emphasis on the spiritual reasons for these practices), leaving behind only the more secular side of the drive towards personal financial prosperity.

Nonetheless, Weber takes care to state that this ethic was not the only factor in the development of the new economic order, nor still was it the most important factor. But he views the Reformation and the Protestant religion as one very specific influence on the modern system of political economics. As both a work of economic history (from one of the last political economists to emerge from the traditions of the German Historical School of economics) and a work on the sociology of religion (from one of the founders of this particular discipline), it is hardly surprisingly that historians, economists, sociologists, and religion students have all been able to find something of value in The Protestant Ethic over the year.

The edition I read was Talcott Parsons’ translation of The Protestant Ethic, which I found to be a very good English-language edition. At times, I almost appreciated his clear and concise footnotes (and the explanations they provided) more than the actual text of the book. My edition also has a superb introduction by Anthony Giddens, which goes into very interesting detail about the writing process that went into the creation of The Protestant Ethic and its relation to Weber’s other works on the sociology of religion. Since the notion of a ‘Protestant work-ethic’ has long since passed into common parlance, to the point where most people who use it would have a difficult time explaining what they actually mean by it, it’s certainly interesting to look at the work that coined the phrase and see precisely what the author originally intended by the concept.


Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer

20 May 2008

More on magic — this topic will probably need its own tag soon enough.

Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer

Historical and sociological studies of witchcraft and popular belief in magic in pre-Reformation Europe have to consider a very basic question: what exactly counted as ‘magic’ to a person in the Middle Ages? The accounts of witchcraft trials from the period often include macabre descriptions of child murder, crop destruction, and other acts of malevolent magic (maleficium) intended to harm persons or property. Equally, records of murder cases might refer to sinister-sounding methods — an accused poisoner, for instance, might have collected the herbs used for the deed on the night of a full moon, believing that the lunar influence would heighten the plant’s deadly effects. But what about herbalists and folk healers, whose remedies might include special formulaic prayers written on slips of parchment or nonsensical Latin- and Greek-sounding phrases said over a patient? Or the accepted scholarly texts on medicine, philosophy, and history that attributed quasi-magical abilities to notable figures from antiquity, such as Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Pliny the Elder? What of the stories of clerics who dabbled in alchemy or necromancy, or royal advisors who specialised in casting horoscopes, or organisations like the Templars that were accused of practising magic in addition to heresy? How can modern scholars make sense of these different facets of mediaeval magic, where law, religion, science, and folklore all seemed to be jumbled together?

In Magic in the Middle Ages, Richard Kieckhefer examines the complex and often confusing ideas of magic and its uses in the mediaeval world. He draws from a wide array of sources, from court proceedings to household records, to look at the origins of beliefs in magic (most notably in its connections to the writings of the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians) and attempts to differentiate among the various prevailing strands of thought about magic. He sets aside several of the traditional methods of looking at the magic/religion dichotomy — namely the idea that religion focuses on supplication (i.e., prayer) while magic focuses on coercion (i.e., compelling demons to do one’s bidding) — in order to study the places where the two overlap. In doing so, for instance, he describes how Christians beliefs clashed with the existing pagan traditions to produce distinct trends in the magic common to Norse and Celtic literature, such as Scandinavian rune-based magic and Irish tales of saints and secular heroes. The blurry line between magic and early scientific knowledge also features prominently in the text, most notably in his discussion of the influence of scholarly writings from the Arab world and their focus on mathematics and astrology. From popular imagery to persecutions, Kieckhefer provides a basic foundation for approaching the topic as a whole and in parts, and his prose remains readable and lively throughout.

Other reviews I’ve read of Kieckhefer’s book seemed disappointed by what the reviewers seem to regard as his oversimplification of the topic or his inability to produce a comprehensive and rigidly defined account of magical beliefs. It is true that the book relies (quite heavily, at times) on conclusions drawn from anecdotes, even going so far as to include handwritten notes found in the margins of certain books and parchments that indicate a particular reader’s opinion on certain statements in the text. Yet Kieckhefer’s anecdotal evidence and the willingness to be flexible with the evidence seemed to me to better indicate the fluid nature of belief in magic and the often contradictory views that people of the Middle Ages held about what constituted magical power. His scope may be too broad for some people’s liking, but his focus is predominantly on the areas where the boundaries of magic were less than clear and where a more rigid definition might exclude useful but lesser-known sources. For a brief but nonetheless thought-provoking introduction to subject, Magic of the Middle Ages is a sound choice — and for those who may find his work somewhat lacking, Kieckhefer has provided an extensive and excellent list of further reading for curious, dedicated readers to explore.


In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton

31 March 2008

Slipping this in a little late for a Sunday. I have a few other books I could add to my review list of other books on witchcraft, though I don’t happen to have any of them to hand at the moment. Possible notes for a future set of reviews, once I clear out a bit more of my existing backlog.

In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton

Mention ‘Salem’ nowadays, and the first thing that tends to come to mind is ‘witchcraft’. In the early months of 1692 (actually the later months of 1691, by the old Julian calendar), a small group of girls and young women in the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlement at Salem Village fell ill with a number of strange ailments. When the local physician was called in to look at them, he speculated that the illnesses were not natural and might have been caused by bewitchment…a diagnosis that was later to prove fatal for the 14 women and 5 men who would be hanged for maleficium, the practice of diabolic magic intended to bring harm to others. Several other accused witches died in prison without ever coming to trial, dozens of men and women (and even children as young as four or five) were arrested or fled the colony to avoid arrest, and still more bowed to outside pressure and confessed to being witches, implicating neighbours and family members in the process. Not even the wealthy and powerful of the colony were completely immune to being ‘cried out on’ as witches, a most unusual circumstance in the days when the most commonly accepted profile of a possible witch was a poor to middling older woman who had neither the friends nor the financial wherewithal to preserve her good name. The Salem outbreak was the largest of its kind in New England, and the records kept on the accusations and trials have been relatively well-preserved, making the study of the Salem witchcraft cases both popular and constantly open to new, revisionist perspectives — most of which attempt to make sense of why a few random accusations spread into a full-on outbreak.

Mary Beth Norton approaches the trials from a slightly different angle than previous works. Most books about the trials tend to focus on social aspects of the accusers, the accused and the accusations; why certain people were accused and others not, why certain people confessed or refused to confess, why the most powerful people in the colony were so willing to believe that Satan could be thoroughly bent on the destruction of the Massachusetts colony. Norton’s premise is less centred on social history than it is on politicial and military history. She argues that the Salem witch-trials cannot be studied without extensive reference to the ongoing wars between the settlers and the Indian population of New England, particularly the Wabanaki tribe of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In her closely-argued book, she draws connections between the Indian wars and the effect the wars had on many of the key players in the trials. The connections might be a little hard to follow (or credit) at first, but as Norton lays out and piles up the evidence, her conclusions seem very reasonable. What’s more, they take social history to a new level by showing how closely-knit the communities of settlers were, and how children and younger adults were often easily manipulated to settle long-standing grudges between their elders.

One important caveat, first and foremost: To get the most out of Norton’s research, it helps to have at least a passing familiarity with some of the primary participants in the Salem witch trials. Anyone who has read or seen Arthur Miller’s The Crucible will know of condemned witches John and Elizabeth Proctor, Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey, as well as the awful death of Martha’s husband Giles Corey, who refused to consent to a trial and was pressed to death with heavy weights in accordance with current English law. The names of Abigail Williams, Ann Puttnam and Mercy Lewis — three of the ‘afflicted girls’ — also appear frequently in the text, for they and their relatives were instrumental in the spread of accusations. There are several good general books on the trials that would work as an introduction, and reading one or two of those before looking at Norton’s work is likely to make Norton’s analysis and conclusions a good deal easier to follow. (I consider myself fairly well-acquainted with the standard literature on the trials, and I still had to stop and go back in a few places to ensure that I hadn’t missed something crucial in Norton’s dense narrative.)

That said, Norton’s book is a superb addition to the existing literature, exploring a side of the trials that has only been vaguely considered in the past. Granted, there are times when some of her arguments seem a little too tenuous, and she has a habit of making conjectures which she feels are warranted but which I feel make for awkward reading. But In the Devil’s Snare is one of the better books available about the Salem outbreak and the history of witchcraft in colonial New England, if nothing else for the extensive footnotes and solid historiography that underpins the text.


C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (edited by Lesley Walmsley)

25 March 2008

Since the book is so large, there really isn’t a good way to review all of its contents without going on for pages. More’s the pity, in a way.

C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (edited by Lesley Walmsley)

Clocking in at just over 1000 pages, this fairly impressive tome represents just about all of C.S. Lewis’s religious essays and sermons, various short academic pieces, and other stories and story fragments. The review of this edition lists the writings that were not included in this book, and it is disappointing to know that so far it is still not possible to obtain a complete collection of Lewis’s writings — not in the same way that it is theoretically possible to obtain the full twenty-volume set of George Orwell’s books, essays, journalistic works and letters (edited by Peter Davison), for example. But now that the third and final volume of Lewis’s collected letters has been released, it’s worth mentioning this essay collection as a fairly useful attempt at compiling many writings that have been scattered across a number of different books and their reorganised reprints.

The essay collection is organised in eleven sections by general topic: ‘Aspects of Faith’, ‘English and Literature’, ‘The Art of Writing and the Gifts of Writers’, ‘Letters’, and others. There’s a section devoted to several of Lewis’s short stories, including the manuscript pages of ‘The Dark Tower’, an unfinished science-fiction/fantasy piece featuring Edwin Ransom of Lewis’s Space Trilogy. I found the section on writing and other writers quite interesting, because it includes Lewis’s thoughts on the work of his contemporaries — J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, for instance, as well as short pieces about George Orwell, Dorothy L. Sayers and Charles Williams. Lewis’s poems ought to have been included as well; it isn’t as if they would take up that much more room, and they would have been a welcome addition to this collection. But for the most part, the essay collection serves as an impressive display of Lewis’s prolific output over the years.

Anyone who is interested in looking for a nice solid edition of the general bulk of Lewis’s non-fiction and collected shorter fiction works would welcome this volume. It is by no means fully comprehensive, as mentioned above, but it is certainly more comprehensive than just about any other edition currently available on the market. And because Lewis’s writings have been printed and reprinted and shuffled between new compilations over the years, it’s nice to have the better part of his writings available in one hefty volume — at least, until someone actually does us all the favour of producing a more complete compilation.


Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History (2nd ed.), edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters

23 March 2008

One of my side interests in history is the history of witchcraft persecutions in Europe and North America. I have a few other books that I may end up re-reading and reviewing, but at the moment they don’t quite justify a separate category for this blog. Perhaps they will, one day.

Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History (2nd ed.), edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters

The first edition of Witchcraft in Europe was a collection of translated primary sources dating from A.D. 1100 to 1600, the span of time which saw the rise of executions for heresy and witchcraft by Europe’s church-based inquisitors and secular authorities. The second edition greatly expands on the first one, including not only new documents from a wider range of sources but also relevant bibliographical citations from contemporary historical scholarship on the witch-craze. And the result is a very hefty volume, chock-full of snippets from both religious and secular authors — all of which form an interesting picture of how the ‘authorities’ regarded the strange phenomenon of ordinary men and women who appeared to be in league with the Devil.

The texts one might expect to find in a book like this are, of course, included. There is a long set of passages from Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), one of the ‘classic’ instructional texts used by the authorities who presided over the trials. Other familiar works, like Cotton Mather’s ‘A Discourse on Witches’ and Nicholas Remy’s Demonaltry present contemporary opinions on witches and their practices, often in lurid detail. There are accounts of trials and confessions and executions, extensive scholarly debates on what exactly constituted ‘witchcraft’ and what distinguished witches from heretics, and several illustrations of paintings and woodblock prints that show popular conceptions of the diabolical pacts made by fallen women. Yet Witchcraft in Europe also shows the other side of the argument, with selections from works like Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum (On the Illusions of the Demons), Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft and Fredrich Spee’s Cautio criminalis, which illustrate the strong doubts and misgivings that more than a few individuals had about whether witches even existed. And conveniently, every single text in the book has a short editorial passage before it that explains the context of the text and gives some useful biographical or historical information about its author.

I know that this book is used as a base text in many university courses that spend some time discussing witchcraft, and it’s fairly easy to see why. As a comprehensive selection of texts, I can’t think of a better individual book. If Witchcraft in Europe ever goes into a third edition, I have a feeling I’ll probably end up buying it as well.


The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

20 March 2008

Doubling up on two of Freud’s works here. It’s quite interesting to read the full text of these works after having read bits and selections of them in various school texts over the years. (Even if some people think Freud is an utter miseryguts no matter what work of his you happen to be reading.)

The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud wrote The Future of an Illusion (Die Zukunft einer Illusion) in 1927, after he had spent several years considering the idea of religion from a psychoanalytic perspective. He had examined religion from a more anthropological perspective in his work Totem and Taboo (1913), looking at possible connections between the beliefs of aboriginal socities and the influence that these beliefs may have had on the construction of religious ideas in the history of human civilisation. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud turns his earlier thoughts into a more systemic study of the role of religion in human behaviour and shaping the human experience, particularly with regard to how religious belief influences and regulates human behaviour.

Freud describes religion as an ‘illusion’ — in other words, a belief that is grounded in personal wish and desire. (Illusions are not necessarily false, he points out, but they are nonetheless grounded in wish and intended to fulfil a personal need.) As Freud sees it, ‘It would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.‘ He regards the illusion of religion as a creation of man’s unconscious desire for a protecting, guiding father-figure and as a social construct designed to curb the destructive instincts that would make civilised society untenable (such as cannibalism and incest). And though Freud does not advocate an absolute, wholesale jettisoning of the entire structure of the civilisation that currently rests upon a religious base, he claims that human beings are nonetheless capable of moving beyond this infantile kind of wish-fulfilment and towards a more mature and scientific understand of the universe and our place within it.

The Future of an Illusion is a very Freudian book; that is, it is very much a piece of self-analysis, a little like listening to someone who is a bit too fond of the sound of his or her own voice. He contradicts several of his own initial assertions, particularly towards the end of the book, and even someone who isn’t especially ‘religious’ (as Freud would define it) would be quick to point out Freud’s analysis is based more in his anthropological studies and his experience with psychoanalysing patients whose internal struggles with religious beliefs might have contributed to their troubled mental and emotional states. As a book, it is a very good indication of Freud’s personal opinions on religion and its role as the illusion that helps to underpin civilisation. As a treatise in favour of atheism and scientific rationalism…well, I can think of a few other authors I’d rather read on this subject. (Bertrand Russell, for one.)

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

The title of Sigmund Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kultur is a little tricky to translate idiomatically from German. A more literal translation of the title might be “The Uneasiness in Culture” or “The Discomfort in Culture”, but flipping the order of the words places more of the emphasis on the source of the uneasiness — culture, or as it might also be translated, civilisation.

Civilization and Its Discontents is Freud’s attempt to address the tensions that he sees between the instincts and impulses of the individual and the greater conformity required by civilisation. One of the most basic instincts present in human beings is aggression, an instinct that by its very nature is destabilising and impulsive and (in a word) antisocial. Coping with, controlling, or redirecting this aggressive instinct is vital to forming relationships with other human beings — indeed, doing so mitigates one of the three aspects of the human condition that Freud believes prevent individuals from being happy (the other two being exposure to the external world [i.e., weather and nature] and the fraility of the human body against aging, injury, and disease). The individual connection to this civilising force is not always very strong — as evidenced, for instance, by the number of people who will violate society’s norms if they think they can get away with it. Yet the human mind has come up with a means of internally enforcing civilisation: the power of guilt, which is controlled by an aspect of personality that Freud calls the super-ego.

According to Freud, the constant conflict between instinct and the super-ego is responsible for much of the discontent in man’s relationship to civilisation. One of the greatest societal tensions, he says, comes from civilisation’s deeply misguided commandment to ‘love your brother as you love yourself’ — a demand that not only contradicts our fundamental instincts of aggression, but also tends to be extremely difficult to put into actual practice. And when the super-ego chides us for failing to live up to these internalised expectations…well, Freud based quite a lot of his psychology on what can happen when individuals are unwilling or unable to reconcile instinct with the demands of society.

There are other side arguments in Civilization and Its Discontents, further thoughts on the often strained relationship between the individual and society. It is worth remembering that Freud wrote this book in the late 1920s and early 1930s, a time of great social instability in the wake of the Great War that would eventually lead to the series of historical events that ended with Freud fleeing his native Austria for England in mid-1938, where he died in September 1939. Even if Freud’s primarily psychological and rather pessimistic interpretation is no longer as influential as it was in his day, Civilization and Its Discontents provides a fairly concise summary of Freud’s thinking on the relationship between individual and society and the relative thinness of the veneer that provides the gloss we call modern civilisation.