Conducted behind their backs

A striking methodological salvo from the opening chapter of James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism:

The populist tendency of anarchist thought, with its belief in the possibilities of autonomy, self-organization, and cooperation, recognized, among other things, that peasants, artisans, and workers were themselves political thinkers. They had their own purposes, values, and practices, which any political sys­tem ignored at its peril. That basic respect for the agency of nonelites seems to have been betrayed not only by states but also by the practice of social science. It is common to ascribe to elites particular values, a sense of history, aesthetic tastes, even rudiments of a political philosophy. The political analysis of nonelites, by contrast, is often conducted, as it were, behind their backs. Their “politics” is read off their statistical profile: from such “facts” as their income, occupation, years of schooling, property holding, residence, race, ethnicity, and religion.

This is a practice that most social scientists would never judge remotely adequate to the study of elites. It is curiously akin both to state routines and to left-wing authoritarianism in treating the nonelite public and “masses” as ciphers of their so­cioeconomic characteristics, most of whose needs and world­ view can be understood as a vector sum of incoming calories, cash, work routines, consumption patterns, and past voting behavior. It is not that such factors are not germane. What is inadmissible, both morally and scientifically, is the hubris that pretends to understand the behavior of human agents without for a moment listening systematically to how they understand what they are doing and how they explain themselves. Again, it is not that such self-explanations are transparent and nor are they without strategic omissions and ulterior motives—they are no more transparent that the self-explanations of elites.

The job of social science, as I see it, is to provide, provision­ally, the best explanation of behavior on the basis of all the evidence available, including especially the explanations of the purposive, deliberating agents whose behavior is being scruti­nized. The notion that the agent’s view of the situation is ir­relevant to this explanation is preposterous. Valid knowledge of the agent’s situation is simply inconceivable without it. No one has put the case better for the phenomenology of human action than John Dunn:

If we wish to understand other people and propose to claim that we have in fact done so, it is both imprudent and rude not to attend to what they say. . . . What we cannot properly do is to claim to know that we understand him [an agent] or his action better than he does himself without access to the best descriptions which he is able to offer.

Anything else amounts to committing a social science crime behind the backs of history’s actors.

This is an especially pernicious flaw in a great deal of historical writing, where motives and explanations for large-scale social transformations—say, the American Revolution—are often identified solely and unreflectingly with the motives and explanations of elites (intellectual, social, political). Writing history is very hard, at least if one wishes to be truthful. One way to characterize the error Scott discusses is to say that it turns all history into intellectual history: the history of what intellectuals have said and done. (I am reminded that when I expressed an interest in intellectual history to one of my math professors at MIT—a world-famous algebraic geometer—he mused, skeptical of the need for the adjective and with all the false confidence of the naif, “Isn’t all history intellectual?” He meant something banal rather than provocative—isn’t historical work intellectual work?—but I still wince at his reflex to dismiss what he found unfamiliar.)

I am struck by this passage in part because it helps to illuminate one dimension of the academic debate—never mind the more general culture war—about Nikole Hannah-Jones’s claims for the revolution in the 1619 Project (the most contested being that “one of the primary reasons” the United States fought the war was to preserve slavery): there is a historiographic contest over whose reasons for revolution matter—Ben Franklin’s and James Madison’s, your salt-of-the-earth antislavery New Englander’s, or that of the scale-tipping planter Virginian who had not yet gone over to the Patriot cause but was spurred to do so after Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation threatened to free his slaves.

The problem is not always political or ideological, or a residue of Great Man history writing (though it sometimes is, more than it ought to be). At bottom, the temptation to ignore the reasoning and views of nonelites is material and methodological: we typically have more records, more documents, more texts—or even if not numerically more, at least more easily accessible ones—from elites than from the masses. This is a lesson the full significance of which I have learned only gradually myself, not least because of my absorption in intellectual culture and my interest in the history of ideas. It is far easier for the graduate student, the journalist, or the researcher to reach for a popular book still in print, or a volume only an interlibrary loan away, or the carefully preserved archives of prominent or simply well-remembered members of society, than to try, painstakingly, to piece together a more faithful portrait of the full range of opinion from the vastly more unorganized mass of materials that record what the mass of most of us think. There is always more being said than what the most prominent or visible members of a society are saying. (And not only is there more being said; it matters, as a force of history. The conflation of history with elite history both rides on and reinforces the conceit that power only resides with elites—that only their beliefs and actions make anything happen.)

To put it more succinctly, this is just another example of selection bias. More than a half-century after the first broadsides in the new bottom-up social history of the 1960s were published, and forty years after the title of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States inaugurated a new formula for restoring agency to the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of history, the evidence historians choose to adduce remains predominantly elite, and the overblown conclusions they draw remain trained on a remarkably limited set of data. We like to criticize data scientists for analyzing whatever information just happens to be available, however biased, however unrepresentative a sample; we too readily forget that historians are data scientists, too, of a sort. All of them: even the ones who don’t do Franco Moretti–style quantitative social science or digital humanities. This is not to say that to write history one must do statistics. Historians just have a more capacious, less numerical notion of what counts as data. And when they choose to read whatever data is readiest to hand—off the shelf, in popular memory, national mythology, or other received wisdom—they almost inevitably distort the richness and complexity of the period they study. (As Sontag said in an interview for BR, “The main mistake people make when thinking about something, whether an historical event or one in their private lives, is that they don’t see just how complicated it is.”)

I say almost inevitably, because a few conscientious objectors at least take care to cast their conclusions in sufficiently modest language, acknowledging that their limited datasets do not license grand claims. (The price we often pay for this modesty is tedious prose: we sacrifice the stylistic thrill of a breezy narrative, propelled by the easy causation of a story, for more insipid accuracy. The pressure to oversimplify that no writer can escape is perhaps above all stylistic, even more than cognitive. It is not so hard to think about complexity. It is very hard to express it elegantly.) “My goal isn’t to portray the full complexity of this period, but only this very tiny part of it” is always a way out of this trap. But even these more responsible projects—the best kinds of micro-history, now the dominant mode of so much academic work, which has forsaken the writing of Bigger History precisely for some of the reasons I’ve given here—must be subjected to scrutiny: why not do the harder work of writing the history that is not so easily told (whether because it is the history of elites, or because it is the history of terrain so narrowly drawn that only very few readers will be interested)? We must always be on guard against only writing the history that is easiest to write, just as we must be on guard against only thinking about those things that are easiest to think about.

Without her, nothing follows

A mid-15th century manuscript of Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis, Digital Vatican Library, MS Urb. lat. 329, with illumination by the painter Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora

It is a commonplace that medieval education amounted to the teaching of the seven liberal arts, what we call the trivium and quadrivium—grammar, logic (or as it was then called, dialectic), and rhetoric, on the one hand; arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, on the other. But where, exactly, did this classification get codified, and how was it transmitted down through the centuries?

I did not know the answer until I read Charles Homer Haskins’s The Rise of Universities a few weeks ago. Cicero speaks of liberal arts, and Quintilian follows him, but the seven disciplines as we know them did not gain currency until Martianus Capella’s early fifth-century allegory De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (The Marriage of Philology and Mercury), sometimes also called De septem disciplinis and the Satyricon (not to be confused with Petronius’s). In Capella’s rendering, the seven arts, personified as women, are offered as wedding gifts by the gods at the marriage of Mercury and Philology; each offers a long speech describing her domain of study. (The term quadrivium itself appears to have been coined by Boethius, not Capella, and I’m still not certain about trivium.) The manuscript became a standard medieval textbook; it was copied and commented on straight up until the renaissance of the twelfth century, when the Latin-speaking medieval curriculum at last outgrew these rudiments thanks to an influx of translations of Greek texts—especially Aristotle’s—from Arab scholars in Spain. The images in this post are of a mid-15th century manuscript at the Vatican, with illumination and drawings by the painter Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora. (Some other representations of the seven liberal arts are here.)

And yet, in Capella’s hands, these rudiments are not so rudimentary nor as stale as we may imagine—at least, as I imagined. The portraits of the arts are vivid, modern, and cheeky. There is a strong undercurrent of irony in the understated manner of the best classical dialogues. The gods interrupt; the goddesses fire back. Dialectic snarks that she should be forgiven her neologisms since she is asked to speak in Latin rather than Greek. Bacchus, it is said, is “completely unacquainted” with her. The speeches are longer and richer—both stylistically and substantively—than the spare, plodding, sophistical medieval treatise I expected. The language, as far from the sermo humilis of the Christian church fathers as from the later casuistry of the high scholastics, relishes in ulteriority, taking obvious pleasure in finding the most resonant formulation and in saying many things at once. (My title is a case in point: without Dialectic, we read, “nothing follows”—a tiny phrase bursting its semantic seams, so dense is it with significance. I detect at least three different registers of allegorical reference: the concept of logical consequence, according to which one proposition follows from another; the epistemic primacy of logic as method, the tool of all other forms of inquiry; the historical or developmental primacy of logic, in the life of the student and the school—that which must be learned before the higher arts, and a rite of passage one must clear to prove one’s bona fides.) It is a token of our proximity to this past, rather than our distance from it, that I read and delight in it so easily, and find it more familiar than foreign.

Some of my favorite moments so far, from the speeches by Grammar and Dialectic, in the translation by William Harris Stahl and E. L. Burge (1977):


Fora’s 15th-century illustration of Grammar

Once again in this little book the Muse prepares her ornaments and wants to tell fabricated stories at first, remember that utility cannot clothe the naked truth; she regards it as a weakness of the poet to make straightforward and undisguised statements, and she brings a light touch to literary style and adds beauty to a page that is already heavily colored. (p. 64)


[…] an old woman indeed of great charm, who said that she had been born in Memphis when Osiris was still king; when she had been a long time in hiding, she was found and brought up by the Cyllenian [Mercury] himself. This woman claimed that in Attica, where she had lived and prospered for the greater part of her life, she moved about in Greek dress; but because of the Latin gods and the Capitol and the race of Mars and descendants of Venus, according to the custom of Romulus she entered the senate of the gods dressed in a Roman cloak. She carried in her hands a polished box, a fine piece of cabinetmaking, which shone on the outside with light from ivory, from which like a skilled physician the woman took our the emblems of wounds that need to be healed. Out of this book she took first a pruning knife with a shining point, with which she said she could prune the fault of pronunciation in children; then they could be restored to health with a certain black powder carried through reeds, a powder which was thought to be made of ash or the ink of cuttlefish. Then she took out a very sharp medicine which she had made of fennelflower and the clippings from a goat’s back, a medicine of purest red color, which she said should be applied to the throat when it was suffering from a bucolic ignorance and was blowing out the vile breaths of a corrupt pronunciation. She showed too a delicious savory, the work of many late nights and vigils, with which she said the harshness of the most unpleasant voice could be made melodious. She also cleaned the windpipes and the lungs by the application of a medicine in which were observed wax smeared on beechwood and a mixture of gallnuts and gum and rolls of the Nilotic plant [papyrus]. Although this poultice was effective in assisting memory and attention, yet by its nature it kept people awake. She also brought out a file fashioned with great skill, which was divided into eight golden parts joined in different ways, and which darted back and forth—with which by gentle rubbing she gradually cleaned dirty teeth and ailments of the tongue and the filth which had been picked up in the town of Soloe [i.e., solecisms]. (p. 64-66)

This phonetics primer, a sort of proto-IPA, comes to a surprising climax:

We utter A with the mouth open, with a single suitable breath.
We make B by the outburst of breath from closed lips.
C is made by the back teeth brought forward over the back of the tongue.
D is made by bringing the tongue against the top teeth.
E is made by a breath with the tongue a little depressed.
F is made by the teeth pressing on the lower lip.
G, by a breath against the palate.
H is made by an exhalation with the throat a little closed.
I is made by a breath with the teeth kept close together.
K is made with the palate against the top of the throat.
L is a soft sound make with the tongue and the palate.
M is a pressing together of the lips.
N is formed by the contact of the tongue on the teeth.
O is made by a breath with the mouth rounded.
P is a forceful exhalation from the lips.
Q is a contraction of the palate with the mouth half-closed.
R is a rough exhalation with the tongue curled against the roof of the mouth.
S is a hissing sound with the teeth in contact.
T is a blow of the tongue against the teeth.
U is made with the mouth almost closed and the lips forward a little.
X is the sibilant combination of C and S.
Y is a breath with the lips close together.
Z was abhorrent to Appius Claudius, because it resembles in its expression the teeth of a corpse. (p. 75)


While Grammar was saying this, and Jupiter and the Delian were urging her forward, Pallas spoke up: “While Literature here is hurrying on to discuss the connection of syllables, she has passed over the historical aspect.” At this objection by the maiden goddess, Grammar in great agitation answered: “I know I must pass over a great deal, so as not to incur the distaste of the blessed by getting entangled in details. So I shall perform my purpose, hastening along the shortest ways, to avoid getting lost, hidden in thick undergrowth or a dense mass of briars.” (p. 76)


When Grammar had said this as if she were merely introducing her subject, Minerva intervened, because of the boredom that had come upon Jove and the celestial senate, and said: “Unless I am mistaken, you are getting ready to go back to the elements and begin telling us about the eight fundamental parts of speech, adding also the causes of solecisms, the barbarisms, and other faults of speech which celebrated poets have discussed at length; you will also discuss tropes, metaplasms, schemata, figures, and all the faults which flow, as it were, from the fountain of embellishment, illustrating either the misconception of the writer who does not understand them or the labored ornamentation of the pedant. If you bring such matters from the elementary school before the celestial senate, you will nip in the bud the goodwill you have won by this display of knowledge. If you were to take up a discussion of rhythm and meter, as you would venture to do with young pupils, Music would surely tear you apart for usurping her office. The teaching you have given us will be well-proportioned and complete if you keep to your own particular subjects and do not cheapen them by commonplace and elementary instruction.” (p. 105)


Fora’s 15th-century illustration of Dialectic, with her hooks and serpent

Into the assembly of the gods came Dialectic, a woman whose weapons are complex and knotty utterances. Without her, nothing follows, and likewise, nothing stands in opposition. She brought with her the elements of speech; and she had ready the school maxim which reminds us that speech consists in words which are ambiguous, and judges nothing as having a standard meaning unless it be combined with other words. Yet, though Aristotle himself pronounce his twice-five categories, and grow pale as he tortures himself in thought; though the sophisms of the Stoics beset and tease the senses, as they wear on their foreheads the horns they never lost; though Chrysippus heap up and consume his own pile, and Carneades match his mental power through the use of hellebore, no honor so great as this has ever befallen any of these sons of men, nor is it chance that so great an honor has fallen to your lot: it is your right, Dialectic, to speak in the realms of the gods, and to act as teacher in the presence of Jove.

So at the Delian’s summons this woman entered, rather pale but very keen-sighted. Her eyes constantly darted about; her intricate coiffure seemed beautifully curled and bound together, and descending by successive stages [editor: “The Latin here, deducti per quosdam consequentes gradus, applies equally well to a logical argument “deduced through certain successive steps” as to Dialectic’s symbolic hairstyle], it so encompassed the shape of her whole head that you could not have detected anything lacking, nor grasped anything excessive [editor: Remigius remarks that this may refer to the requirements of a good definition […] More probably it simply refers to the rigor and completeness of logical argument]. She was wearing the dress and cloak of Athens, it is true, but what she carried in her hands was unexpected, and had been unknown in all the Greek schools. In her left hand she held a snake twined in immense coils; in her right hand a set of patterns [editor: formulae] carefully inscribed on wax tablets, which were adorned with the beauty of contrasting color, was held on the inside by a hidden hook; but since her left hand kept the crafty device of the snake hidden under her cloak, her right hand was offered to one and all. Then if anyone took one of those patterns, he was soon caught on the hook and dragged toward the poisonous coils of the hidden snake, which presently emerged and after first biting the man relentlessly with the venomous points of its sharp teeth then gripped him in its many coils and compelled him to the intended position. If no one wanted to take any of the patterns, Dialectic confronted them with some questions; or secretly stirred the snake to creep up on them until its tight embrace strangled those who were caught and compelled them to accept the will of their interrogator.

Dialectic herself was compact in body, dark in appearance […] and she kept saying things that the majority could not understand. For she claimed that the universal affirmative was diametrically opposed to the particular negative, but that it was possible for them both to be reversed by connecting ambiguous terms to univocal terms [editor: This sentence remains opaque. […]]; she claimed also that she alone discerned what was true from what was false, as if she spoke with assurance of divine inspiration. She said she had been brought up on an Egyptian crag [editor: The original text may, however, have had urbe [city] instead of rupe [crag].] and then had migrated to Attica to the school of Parmenides, and there, while the slanderous report was spread abroad that she was devoted to deceitful trickery, she had taken to herself the greatness of Socrates and Plato.

This was the woman, well-versed in every deceptive argument and glorifying in her many victories, whom the Cyllenian’s two-fold serpent, rising on his staff, tried to lick at, constantly darting its tongues, while the Tritonian’s [Athena’s] Gorgon hissed the the joy of recognition. Meanwhile Bromius [Bacchus], the wittiest of the gods, who was completely unacquainted with her, said […] (pp. 106-108)

[On the darting eyes, I think immediately of Ayn Rand in this interview with Mike Wallace.]

Pallas ordered Dialectic to hand over those items which she had brought to illustrate her sharpness and her deadly sure assertions, and told her to put on an appearance suitable for imparting her skill. Grammar was standing close by when the introduction was completed; but she was afraid to accept the coils and gaping mouth of the slippery serpent. Together with the enticing patterns and the rules fitted with the hook, they were entrusted to the great goddess who had tamed the locks of Medusa. (p. 109)


For assessing virtue as well as practicing it, Jupiter considered the levity of the Greek inferior to the vigor of Romulus, so he ordered her to unfold her field of knowledge in Latin eloquence. Dialectic did not think she could express herself adequately in Latin; but presently her confidence increased, the movements of her eyes were confined to a slight quivering, and, formidable as she had been even before she uttered a word, she began to speak as follows:

“Unless amid the glories of the Latin tongue the learning and labor of my beloved and famous Varro had come to my aid, I could have been found to be a Greek by the test of Latin speech, or else completely uncultivated or even quite barbarous. Indeed, after the golden flow of Plato and the brilliance of Aristotle it was Marcus Terentius’ labors which first enticed me into Latin speech and made it possible for me to express myself throughout the schools of Ausonia. I shall therefore strive to obey my instructions and, without abandoning the Greek order of discussion, I shall not hesitate to express my propositions in the tongue of Laurentum. First, I want you to realize that the toga-clad Romans have not been able to coin a name for me, and that I am called Dialectic just as in Athens: and whatever the other Arts propound is entirely under my authority. Not even Grammar herself, whom you have just heard and approved, nor the lady renowned for the richness of her eloquence [Rhetoric], nor the one who draws various diagrams on the ground with her rod [Geometry], can unfold her subject without using my reasoning. (p. 110)


You should put up with the strangeness of my language, since you have compelled a Greek to treat the subject in Latin. (p. 111)


While Dialectic was holding forth in this way and getting on to matters as complicated as they were obscure, Maia’s son [Mercury] grew impatient and nodded to Pallas, who cut in: “Madam, you speak with great skill; but now stop your exposition before you get entangled in the complexities of your subkect, and its knotty problems exhaust the goodwill of Hymen. You have said in summary all that is fitting from that which learned discussion ahs contributed for the development of the subject in a large volume. A modest spring from deep learning is sufficient; it brings to light things hidden from sight, and avoids tedious discussion, without passing over anything and leaving it unrecognized. The matters that remain are founded on great deceit, and false deception encompasses those who are caught by them, while you prepare sophisms fraught with guile, or seductively make sport with trickeries from which one cannot get free. And when you gradually build up a sorites, or fashion errors which truth condemns, then your sin, your wicked deed, resounds in the ears of the Thunderer, since the lofty denizens of heaven hate everything false in a woman of shame. If you ponder it, what is more cruel than making sport of people? You have had your say, and you will surely become a disreputable and itinerant charlatan if you go on to build up your snares. Away then with shifty profundity, and leave what time remains to your sisters.” (p. 153)

That unto logik hadde longe y-go

Two weeks ago I read Charles Homer Haskins’s slim volume The Rise of Universities (1923), a charming collection of three lectures—”The Earliest Universities,” “The Mediaeval Professor,” “The Mediaeval Student”—on the birth of universities, especially at Bologna and Paris.

I came to Haskins to get my bearings after the disorientation of discovering, while skimming David Bressoud’s new book Calculus Reordered, that the history of science took an important step forward as early as the early 1300s—centuries before Galileo, et al.—when William Heytesbury and colleagues at Merton College in Oxford clarified the relationship between kinematics and dynamics, giving the first purely mathematical treatment of motion. (Heytesbury’s most important work, the Regulae solvendi sophismata—Rules for Solving Sophisms—seems not to have been translated in full into English.) The dark ages were not quite so dark, after all. Clifford Truesdell sums up the contributions of these so-called Oxford Calculators in his Essays in the History of Mechanics:

The now published sources prove to us, beyond contention, that the main kinematical properties of uniformly accelerated motions, still attributed to Galileo by the physics texts, were discovered and proved by scholars of Merton college. […] In principle, the qualities of Greek physics were replaced, at least for motions, by the numerical quantities that have ruled Western science ever since. The work was quickly diffused into France, Italy, and other parts of Europe. Almost immediately, Giovanni di Casale and Nicole Oresme found how to represent the results by geometrical graphs, introducing the connection between geometry and the physical world that became a second characteristic habit of Western thought.

Contrary to the received image of abortive medieval scholasticism, Haskins paints a portrait of rich intellectual ferment, drawing a great deal more continuity with the present than we usually assume [cf. the dispute over the so-called “continuity thesis” in the history of science]:

The occasion for the rise of universities was a great revival of learning, not that revival of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to which the term is usually applied, but an earlier revival, less known though in its way quite as significant, which historians now call the renaissance of the twelfth century. So long as knowledge was limited to the seven liberal arts of the early Middle Ages, there could be no universities, for there was nothing to teach beyond the bare elements of grammar, rhetoric, logic, and the still barer notions of arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music, which did duty for an academic curriculum. Between 1100 and 1200, however, there came a great influx of new knowledge into western Europe, partly through Italy and Sicily, but chiefly through the Arab scholars of Spain—the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, and the Greek physicians, the new arithmetic, and those texts of the Roman law which had lain hidden through the Dark Ages. In addition to the elementary propositions of triangle and circle, Europe now had those books of plane and solid geometry which have done duty in schools and colleges ever since; instead of the painful operations with Roman numerals—how painful one can readily see by trying a simple problem of multiplication or division with these characters—it was now possible to work readily with Arabic figures; in the place of Boethius, the “Master of them that know” became the teacher of Europe in logic, metaphysics, and ethics. In law and medicine men now possessed the fullness of ancient learning. This new knowledge burst the bonds of the cathedral and monastery schools and created the learned professions; it drew over mountains and across the narrow seas eager youths who, like Chaucer’s Oxford clerk of a later day, “would gladly learn and gladly teach,” to form in Paris and Bologna those academic gilds which have given us our first and our best definition of a university, a society of masters and scholars.

Later in the book, Haskins notes that this renaissance

added to the store of western knowledge the astronomy of Ptolemy, the complete works of Euclid, and the Aristotelian logic, while at the same time under the head of grammar great stimulus was given to the study and reading of the Latin classics. This classical revival, which is noteworthy and comparatively little known, centered in such cathedral schools as Chartres and Orleans, where the spirit of a real humanism showed itself in an enthusiastic study of ancient authors and in the production of Latin verse of a really remarkable quality. Certain writings of one of these poets, Bishop Hildebert of Le Mans, were even mistaken for “real antiques” by later humanists. Nevertheless, though brilliant, this classical movement was short-lived, crushed in its early youth by the triumph of logic and the more practical studies of law and rhetoric. In the later twelfth century John of Salisbury inveighs against the logicians of his day, with their superficial knowledge of literature; in the university curriculum of the thirteenth century, literary studies have quite disappeared. Toward 1250, when a French poet, Henri d’Andeli, wrote his Battle of the Seven Arts, the classics are already the ancients, fighting a losing battle against the moderns:

Logic has the students,
Whereas Grammar is reduced in numbers.
Civil Law rode gorgeously
And Canon Law rode haughtily
Ahead of all the other arts.

If the absence of the ancient classics and of vernacular literature is a striking feature of the university curriculum in arts, an equally striking fact is the amount of emphasis placed on logic or dialectic. The earliest university statutes, those of Paris in 1215, require the whole of Aristotle’s logical works, and throughout the Middle Ages these remain the backbone of the arts course, so that Chaucer can speak of the study of logic as synonymous with attendance at a university—

That un-to logik hadde longe y-go.

In a sense this is perfectly just, for logic was not only a major subject of study itself, it pervaded every other subject as a method and gave tone and character to the mediaeval mind. Syllogism, disputation, the orderly marshalling of arguments for and against specific theses, these became the intellectual habit of the age in law and medicine as well as in philosophy and theology. The logic, of course, was Aristotle’s, and the other works of the philosopher soon followed, so that in the Paris course of 1254 we find also the Ethics, the Metaphysics, and the various treatises on natural science which had at first been forbidden to students. To Dante Aristotle had become “the Master of them that know,” by virtue of the universality of his method no less than of his all-embracing learning. “The father of book knowledge and the grandfather of the commentator,” no other writer appealed so strongly as Aristotle to the mediaeval reverence for the text-book and the mediaeval habit of formal thought. Doctrines like the eternity of matter which seemed dangerous to faith were explained away, and great and authoritative systems of theology were built up by the methods of the pagan philosopher. And all idea of literary form disappeared when everything depended on argument alone.

Perpetual and immense

Some choice passages from Renée Neu Watkins’s translation (Waveland Press, 1999) of Leon Battista Alberti’s magnificently shrewd De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (The advantages and disadvantages of books), written in Latin around 1430:

[…] I have meditated and thought long and hard, searching with all my ingenuity for a subject I could treat adequately and which would prove the quality of my intellect, so as to satisfy them if it lay within me. But nothing came to mind that had not been beautifully dealt with by the divinely inspired classical authors, so that no one of our time, however learned, could deal with it better than they, nor did there seem to be some topic left of the kind they had treated, that I could handle well and with grace. The ancients had encompassed all serious and comic material, leaving to us only the opportunity to read them and the obligation to admire. Older contemporaries of ours have seized on a few subjects that lay hidden, perhaps overlooked by the ancients, and have thus gained honor and fame. If one wants glory, however, one must be willing to write something that is not perfect and ideal rather than allow oneself to grow old in erudite silence.


I earnestly beg you, my brother (if I may borrow your own phrasing in Ephebis) to read this little book of ours, correct it according to your own unswerving judgment, and by your emendations kindly make it better and more beautiful.


The life men of learning live is necessarily hard and harsh; by this I mean the ones who, as they should, abandon all other things for the sake of intellectual work. No art, however minor, demands less that total dedication if you want to excel in it. What we know to be true of all arts is most especially true of reading and writing; there is no freedom from striving at any age.


In my experience, however, you won’t find many rich men who think books, let alone the delights of study, are worth the effort.


Who, with a mind occupied by love, will be able to focus whole and steadfast attention on texts? Who can then be fully absorbed in his work, intent on the teachings, ready and able to store up and retain them? Who, when captive to the madness of love, will have the will power and intellectual vigor and enthusiasm to perfect himself in any noble art? Don’t we know how love usually affects people? Sapping energy, corrupting conduct, perverting the intelligence, loading the mind with obsessions, filling the intellect with errors, driving a man to madness: these are its well-known services, the gifts that it bestows.


A brief period away from study has the power to disperse more material than many long hours of application can restore; things placed in memory slip away faster than they can be rememorized or recaptured.

[Cf. the pianist’s quip, variously attributed to Liszt, Rubinstein, and Paderewski: “If I miss one day of practice, I notice; two days, and my friends notice; three days, and everybody notices.”]

When you wish to buy clothes, isn’t it true that your library will say to you: “You owe me that money, I forbid…” If you wish to pursue the hunt, or music, or the martial arts or sports, won’t the books says: “You are stealing this energy from us, we will not bring you fame and reputation!” If you inquire into technical knowledge or painting or three dimensional design, the philosophical disciplines will react strongly: “This is the way you defraud us of your energies. From you we will withhold knowledge of the highest things…!”


If you want to refresh your spirit by a country excursion […] the vocation you have taken up will pull you back from there to books and writing, and if you do not with much labor and long hours devote yourself totally to these, the books themselves will threaten you with shattering disgrace.


But I would not want to obscure the true nature of scholars by concluding that they devote themselves to books with no idea of pleasure. They could not perform such great labors without some notion of pleasure in their minds. There are those who willingly go into mourning, because they take pleasure from being considered very faithful and true to the memory of friendship. Many actions by which we satisfy convention and public opinion seem less painful to us than they really are. The pleasure of study, however, is such that it might better be called pain: sedentary all the time, reading all the time, thinking hard, always alone, renouncing festivities and play. I am not so bitter and hard a man that I would dare call this a pleasant way to live. […] To satisfy the desire to learn is indeed a pleasure, but the very hard work of study and the accompanying anxiety that oppresses the spirit always bring more mental torment than joy. So if we indeed take a certain pleasure in learning, huge cares and labors undermine it. There is a big difference, moreover, between the burden of fighting the intrigues and assault of enemies, which is experienced relatively briefly, and the scholar’s daily anxiety, which is perpetual and immense. For there are innumerable things in books that are supremely worth knowing, nor is it easy to describe how the desire to learn presses upon a scholar. He may participate in difficulty scholarly debates, or explore some elegant, worthy, and learned subject; while he does so, he does not sleep, does not eat, does not rest, and feels almost no satisfaction. The desire to know and to remember it all is constantly gnawing at him. He takes on immense projects, is entangled in an array of possible rhetorical devices, is constantly tense. On top of this, he is always coming across things previously unknown to him: he encounters in his reading adroit, subtle, and clever ideas, finds some unusual illustrative anecdote, or learns new refinements of the power of persuasion; these things provoke in him the desire to learn more, and he is unable to set limits or stop, nor is he granted any peace of mind as long as he has not cleared up every obscurity. Thus, as you see, the scholar is a very complex puzzle himself, and neither physically nor mentally ever, or hardly ever, gets any rest. Bleak solitude, hard labor, endless hours, great anxiety, difficulty questions, total absorption, intense anxiety—as there is no pleasure to be found in this man, so in his whole life there is almost no break in the onslaught of work and worry.

To Alberti’s unremittingly bleak, if otherwise unsurpassed, characterization of the obsessively acquisitive and self-reinforcing anxiety at the heart of bibliophilia (epistemophilia?), one might counterpose a finer appreciation of the compensating blisses and ecstasies: Barthes’s “pleasure of the text,” Feynman’s “pleasure of finding things out,” Morris’s account of “pleasure in the work itself” (which he writes about here and here), something—appropriately, I cannot remember what—in Emerson. See also: Aristotle’s “desire to know,” Wordsworth’s “bliss of solitude,” Joyce’s “luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.”

The English Reformation and Puritanism in New England

The English Reformation

A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (1964)

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 (1992)

Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society Under the Tudors (1993)

Peter Marshall, Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (2017)

Dairmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (2003)

Richard Rex, “Disenchanting the English Reformation,” Los Angeles Review of Books (November 24, 2017)

Puritanism and Early New England

James Truslow Adams, The Founding of New England (1921)

Charles Andrews, The Colonial Period of American History, v. 1 (1935)

Patricia Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (1986)

Francis Bremer, The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards (1976)

Richard D. Brown and Jack Teger, Massachusetts: A Concise History (2000)

Bruce Daniels, Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England (1996)

George Francis Dow, Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1935)

David D. Hall, ed., Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology (2004)

Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco, eds., The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology (1985)

Perry Miller and Thomas Herbert Johnson, eds., The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings (1939)

Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953)

Perry Miller, The American Puritans: Their Poetry and Prose (1956) — an updated version of the earlier sourcebook with Johnson, without their long introduction

Marilynne Robinson, “Which Way to the City on a Hill?New York Review of Books (July 18, 2019)

Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2006)

Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury, From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature, chapter 1 (1991)

Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2002)

R. H. Tawney, “Puritanism and Capitalism,” The New Republic (1926) and Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1922)

Max Weber, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905)

Michael Winship, Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill (2012)

Michael Winship, Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America (2019)

The cultural Cold War

Jamie Cohen-Cole, The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (2014)

Greg Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (2015)

Loren Graham, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History (1993)

Sarah Miller Harris, The CIA and the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the Early Cold War (2016)

John Krige, American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe (2006)

Stuart W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (1993)

Christopher J. Phillips, The New Math: A Political History (2014)

Carroll Pursell, Technology in Postwar America: A History (2007)

Gregory A. Reisch, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic (2005)

Giles Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture (2016)

Valery N. Soyfer, Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science (1994)

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (1999)

Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War (1999)

Duncan White, Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War (2019)

Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (1991)

Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurtlizter: How the CIA Played America (2008)

Audra J. Wolfe, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science (2018)

Audra J. Wolfe, Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America (2013)

The tree of knowledge

The frontispiece of the first of Pierre Mouchon’s two-volume Table (1780), or index, to the 28 volumes and 5 supplementary volumes of the Encyclopédie originally edited by Diderot and D’Alembert (first edition 1751), engraved by Robert Bénard (whose name appears in the lower righthand corner), with epigraph

Au lecteur

Da veniam Scriptis, quorum non gloria
nobis causa, sed utilitas, officiumque fuit.

Ovid Trist. III. 10.

(which gives an incorrect citation of Ovid! it should be Ex Ponto III.55) and this inscription:

Selon l’Explication détaillée du Système
des Connaissances Humaines dans le Discours
préliminaire des Editeurs de l’Encyclopédie
publiée par M. Diderot et M. d’Alembert,
À Paris en 1751
Reduit en cette forme pour découvrir la connaissance
Humaine d’un coup d’oeil.
Par Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth,
À Weimar, 1769

The “tree” of knowledge in the first edition of 1751

came after the “Preliminary Discourse” (translated into English by Richard N. Schwab), with these remarks:

After reviewing the different parts of our knowledge and the characteristics that distinguish them, it remains for us only to make a genealogical or encyclopedic tree which will gather the various branches of knowledge together under a single point of view and will serve to indicate their origin and their relationships to one another. We will explain in a moment the use to which that tree may be put according to our claims, but the execution itself is not without difficulty. Although the philosophical history we have just given of the origins of our ideas is very useful in facilitating such a work, it should not be thought that the encyclopedic tree ought to be, or even can be, slavishly subject to that history. The general system of the sciences and the arts is a sort of labyrinth, a tortuous road which the intellect enters without quite knowing what direction to take. Impelled, first of all, by its needs and by those of the body to which it is united, the intelligence studies the first objects that present themselves to it. It delves as far as it can into the knowledge of these objects, soon meets difficulties that obstruct it, and whether through hope or even through despair of surmounting them, plunges on to a new route; now it retraces its footsteps, sometimes crosses the first barriers only to meet new ones; and passing rapidly from one object to another, it carries through a sequence of operations on each of them at different intervals, as if by jumps. The discontinuity of these operations is a necessary effect of the very generation of ideas. However philosophic this disorder may be on the part of the soul, an encyclopedic tree which attempted to portray it would be disfigured, indeed utterly destroyed.

Moreover, as we have already shown in the subject of Logic, most of the sciences which we regard as including the basic principles of all the others, and which ought for this reason to occupy the first places in the encyclopedic arrangement, do not have the first places in the genealogical arrangements of ideas because they were not invented first. Indeed, in the beginning we [human beings] of necessity studied individual things. It is only after having considered their particular and palpable properties that we envisaged their general and common properties and created Metaphysics and Geometry by intellectual abstraction. Only after the long usage of the first signs have we perfected the art of these signs to the point of making a science of them. And it is only after a long sequence of operations on the objects of our ideas that, through reflection, we have at length given rules to these operations themselves.

Finally, the system of our knowledge is composed of different branches, several of which have a common point of union. Since it is not possible, starting out from this point, to begin following all the routes simultaneously, it is the nature of the different minds that determines which route is chosen. Rarely does a single mind travel along a large number of these routes at the same time. In the study of Nature, men at first applied themselves, as if in concert, to satisfying the most pressing needs. But when they came to less absolutely necessary knowledge, they were obliged to divide it among themselves, and each one moved forward in almost equal step with the others. Thus several sciences have been contemporaneous, so to speak. But when tracing in historical order the progress of the mind, one can only embrace them successively.

It is not the same with the encyclopedic arrangement of our knowledge. This consists of collecting knowledge into the smallest area possible and of placing the philosopher at a vantage point, so to speak, high above this vast labyrinth, whence he can perceive the principal sciences and the arts simultaneously. From there he can see at a glance the objects of their speculations and the operations which can be made on these objects; he can discern the general branches of human knowledge, the points that separate or unite them; and sometimes he can even glimpse the secrets that relate them to one another. It is a kind of world map which is to show the principal countries, their position and their mutual dependence, the road that leads directly from one to the other. This road is often cut by a thousand obstacles, which are known in each country only to the inhabitants or to travelers, and which cannot be represented except in individual, highly detailed maps. These individual maps will be the different articles of the Encyclopedia and the Tree or Systematic Chart will be its world map

But as, in the case of the general maps of the globe we inhabit, objects will be near or far and will have different appearances according to the vantage point at which the eye is placed by the geographer constructing the map, likewise the form of the encyclopedic tree will depend on the vantage point one assumes in viewing the universe of letters. Thus one can create as many different systems of human knowledge as there are world maps having different projections, and each one of these systems might even have some particular advantage possessed by none of the others. There are hardly any scholars who do not readily assume that their own science is at the center of all the rest, somewhat in the way that the first men placed themselves at the center of the world, persuaded that the universe was made for them. Viewed with a philosophical eye, the claim of several of these scholars could perhaps be justified by rather good reasons, quite aside from self-esteem.

In any case, of all the encyclopedic trees the one that offered the largest number of connections and relationships among the sciences would doubtless deserve preference. But can one flatter oneself into thinking it has been found? We cannot repeat too often that nature is composed merely of individual things which are the primary object of our sensations and direct perceptions. To be sure, we note in these individual things common properties by which we compare them and dissimilar properties by which we differentiate them. And these properties, designated by abstract names, have led us to form different classes in which these objects have been placed. But often such an object, which because of one or several of its properties has been placed in one class, belongs to another class by virtue of other properties and might have been placed accordingly. Thus, the general division remains of necessity somewhat arbitrary. The most natural arrangement would be the one in which the objects followed one another by imperceptible shadings which serve simultaneously to separate them and to unite them. But the small number of beings known to us does not permit us to indicate these shadings. The universe is but a vast ocean, on the surface of which we perceive a few islands of various sizes, whose connection with the continent is hidden from us.

One could construct the tree of our knowledge by dividing it into natural and revealed knowledge, or useful and pleasing knowledge, or speculative and practical knowledge, or evident, certain, probable, and sensitive knowledge, or knowledge of things and knowledge of signs, and so on into infinity. We have chosen a division which has appeared to us most nearly satisfactory for the encyclopedic arrangement of our knowledge and, at the same time, for its genealogical arrangement. We owe this division to a celebrated author [Bacon] of whom we will speak later in this preface. To be sure, we have thought it necessary to make some changes in his division, of which we will render an account; but we are too aware of the arbitrariness which will always prevail in such a division to believe that our system is the only one or the best. It will be sufficient for us if our work is not entirely disapproved of by men of intelligence. We do not wish to resemble that multitude of naturalists (censured with such good reason by a modern philosopher) whose energies have been ceaselessly devoted to dividing the productions of Nature into genera and species, consuming an amount of time in this labor which would have been employed to much better purpose in the study of those productions themselves. What would be said of an architect, who, having to build an immense edifice, passed his whole life in drawing the plans for it? Or likewise what would we say of an inquisitive person who, proposing to inspect an enormous palace, spent all his time in observing the entryway?

On the Encyclopédie and the encyclopedic tradition, see:

Phillip Blom, Enlightening the World: Encyclopédie, The Book That Changed the Course of History (2005)

Robert Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775–1800 (1987) and W. Paul Vogt’s review, “Paideia for Profit” (1982)

Clorinda Donato and Robert M. Maniquis, The Encyclopédie and the Age of Revolution (1992)

John Lough, The Encylcopédie (1971)

Alan Rauch, Useful Knowledge: The Victorians, Morality, and the March of Intellect (2001)

Robert Yeo, Encyclopaedic Visions: Scientific Dictionaries and Enlightenment Culture (2001)

On the tree and other controlling metaphors for organizing knowledge and information, see:

Tore Frängsmyr, ed., The Structure of Knowledge: Classifications of Science and Learning Since the Renaissance (2001)

D.R. Kelley and R.H. Popkin, eds., The Shapes of Knowledge from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (1991)

Manuel Lima, The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge (2014)

Manuel Lima, The Book of Circles: Visualizing Spheres of Knowledge (2017)