Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Third Eye Toward History

“All Seeing Eye” tatoo art, unknown artist.
I spend a great deal of my time learning about history because, well, I enjoy it. I suspect I am not alone in that and really, what better reason could there be? As a reader, I enjoy immersing myself in a world different from our own, yet one that did exist and is a part of what makes us who we are now. I also enjoy writing about history. As Samuel Johnson aptly observed, "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it." [1] Here at Conciatore, when I write, I try to give you that with the most accurate story possible. I verify the material with primary sources, which is to say documents that were written at the time. I also consult secondary sources, for the opinions of others who have seen those same documents. When there are problems, I let my readers know. 

As a reader of history, most of what I consume is from secondary sources, books, the web and sometimes television. Occasionally, I will wonder about the credibility of a source; at times you may have felt the same way. There is a lot of good material out there, but sadly, there is also a lot of garbage. If you have only a passing interest in history, it can be hard to tell the difference. As a writer of history there is a strong temptation to spend a lot of time and energy correcting and debunking false impressions about what went on in the past. Since this blog is devoted to seventeenth century glassmaker Antonio Neri, the subject of alchemy looms large and to put it politely, alchemy is an area fraught with misimpressions.

True, a good takedown of bad history is a thing of beauty, but as a writer, that is not my path. Debunking another's carelessness or stupidity can be tedious, painstaking work and you have to like it. The same wrongheaded statement that took ten seconds and no thought to put down, takes any number of reference books, hours of thought and more hours of carefully constructing a response that is at once respectful, accurate and decisive. The result, more time than not, is that the critic comes off sounding angry and the offending writer remains in their blissful little bubble of ignorance. Members of the historical "choir" applaud and innocent bystanders tend to wonder about all the bluster. In the end, one dime-store historian is refuted and three more pop up.

Rather than make some clueless sot into an example, I would much rather invite you to develop the critical faculty to detect historical nonsense for yourself and come to know it when you see it. If you care enough about history to care about when it is correct, a tool that you will find very useful is what I call a "third eye." In eastern philosophy, the third eye is an embodiment of greater awareness. The specific connotation that I am invoking here is to realize that when you read history, you look through a lens that is colored very much by the present. There is no choice in the matter, we are here, now and that colors our perception. We have a natural tendency to relate past history to our own lives and society and that is fine as long as it is done knowingly. Our concerns were not necessarily their concerns; our view of  right and wrong, of the world, of time, of the universe is likely quite different from a hundred or a thousand years ago. Using one's third eye simply means staying mindful that we ourselves are also in a period of history that has its own strange proclivities.

The more you use your third eye, the stronger it will become. One of the more common types of nonsense is generated when history is used to justify an unstated agenda. There is a very good example that relates directly to Antonio Neri's time and place, early seventeenth century Italy. Two of Neri's contemporaries who went on to become far more famous are Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno. Galileo's confinement and Bruno's burning at the stake are regularly bandied about as examples of the persecution of scientists by the Catholic Church and of the eventual triumph of science over religion. Did your eye blink? Both of these myths are a result of projecting current feelings about science and religion into the past. The short version: Galileo was a practicing Catholic and Bruno was executed for issues that had nothing to do whatsoever with "science."

Another common agenda is that history is a manifest destiny; that by definition, it describes one long march of progress; that we in the present are smarter, more intelligent, generally superior to our predecessors precisely because we have the benefit of all previous discoveries, innovations, etc. Did your eye blink now? This agenda has led to a particularly warped view of alchemy. 

When your eye starts to wince, there is a very simple remedy: Google the subject at hand. Wikipedia may not be infallible, but thousands of dedicated volunteers run the site and it is an excellent place to see if there is controversy involved. You may find actual events vary significantly from what you learned in school or on television. Whatever your level of interest, think critically about what you read and think about why the writer or speaker put it in those particular words. I can almost guarantee that with an attentive third eye, history will be even more rewarding. As a bonus, you will be on the way to thinking like a first class historian. I work at it all the time and I love it. In the next post, we will take a closer look at what alchemy really was for Antonio Neri in the seventeenth century.


[1] Review of Soame Jenyns' "A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, 1757"


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