The History Woman's Blog

Crisis and Renewal with Aristotle and Machiavelli

Posted in Academia, Conferences, History, Political Thought, translation by thehistorywoman on October 13, 2018
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Honoré Daumier, L’Équilibre européen (1866)

I’m just on the train back from the ESHPT conference on ‘Crisis and Renewal in the History of Political Thought’ in Heidelberg and, as so often happens after an event like this, I’m both completely exhausted but also in good spirits and keen to get back to my research full of new ideas. I also notice that I enjoy those kinds of conferences more as I get older because some of the people there I have known for years and several of them by now have become good friends. What brings us together is our passion for the History of Political Thought as well as our curiosity and love for debate.

In case you are wondering, the ESHPT is the European Society for the History of Political Thought which has been around for roughly ten years now. It was founded at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence by scholars from all over Europe to facilitate communication between people established in the field and the younger ones still trying to find a place in the research community.

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‘Crisis and Renewal’ proved a productive subject in the city where Reinhardt Koselleck once wrote his dissertation, ‘Kritik und Krise’, in 1954. While ‘turning crisis into opportunity’ became somewhat of a platitude during the Financial Crisis of 2008, the conference was a reminder that the word ‘crisis’ is not just used to describe a period of intense difficulty, but also a critical moment when a decision has to be made, and this decision can turn things around.

Andrea Catanzaro from the University of Genova analysed the use of the ancient Greek krísis in Plato’s political works (primarily the Laws), where it mainly carries the meaning of choosing, deciding or resolving an issue after due consideration. A crisis can have a positive or a negative outcome. It does not have to be something inherently bad. Thus, George Gallwey from Harvard University showed how economic crisis became the basis for constitutional reform in the early United States, while Erica Benner from Berlin pointed out in her keynote that a certain amount of drama is part and parcel of a functioning democracy.

In fact, Niccolò Machiavelli, who had studied and analysed democratic or popular governments, believed that tumulti were normal and necessary, while it was discordiae that he thought one should worry about because they did harm to a polity. Benner also made the point that citizens – by their lack of action – are often complicit in crisis and that it might sometimes be worthwhile thinking about what the people could do to help the situation.

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The Neue Universität in Heidelberg

The papers and discussions dealt primarily with the past, but present-day politics were always hovering somewhere: worries about a decline of democracy in the West, the shenanigans of an unpredictable individual like Donald Trump wreaking havoc on international security, the threats of climate change or even nuclear war.

Part of the reason why past and present talk to each other at political thought conferences is that some things don’t change. There will always be conflicts about power, the distribution of resources, the relationship between religion and secular government. While it is important to read political thinkers in their own context and to relate their ideas to their own immediate environment, there is also a part of political thought that is timeless based on general observations on humankind and that can be transferred and applied to other times and other situations.

It was no accident that about half of the papers I listened to referred to Aristotle, many to Machiavelli, a few to Thomas Hobbes and James Harrington, and others to Karl Marx. They are thinkers who have shaped our world and who can still offer important insights on political life. There is no harm in looking to the past to find answers for the present.

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Translation Matters

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, Journalism, Political Thought, Seventeenth Century, translation by thehistorywoman on September 7, 2018
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Some excellent books on early modern translation.

I work at the Foreign Services Desk of a news agency and I moonlight as an intellectual historian of early modern Britain. Both jobs have been fostering my obsession with translation.

Part of my day job consists in translating news stories into German – mainly from English, less frequently from Spanish, and occasionally bits and pieces from French or Italian.

During a seven-month stint of lonely night shifts in the newsroom, I even cobbled together the odd story from Dutch or Swedish sources with the help of Google Translate, various online dictionaries and a bit of common sense.

Admittedly, I’m still feeling a bit queasy about what might have happened if I had got it wrong, but I was lucky (and I wouldn’t have touched the stories had they been too complex anyway).

The titles of political office-holders alone are a major challenge because there are so many false friends. The US ‘Secretary of State’ in German is the ‘Außenminister’, the equivalent of the UK’s ‘Foreign Secretary’, while the literal translation of the concept’s individual components could be rendered as ‘Staatssekretär’, which however in Germany is used to describe an official in a government department below the rank of ‘Minister’. While the heads of German government departments are known as ‘Minister’, however, in the UK the term ‘minister’ is often used for someone equivalent to the German ‘Staatssekretär’, while the chief minister of a department is the ‘secretary’. You get me? (more…)

Translating Cultures in Early Modern Europe – What’s Next?

Posted in Academia, Conferences, Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, History, Seventeenth Century, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on August 4, 2018
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Myriam-Isabelle Ducroq (Paris), Thomas Munck (Glasgow) and Gaby Mahlberg (Berlin) (from left).

Sometimes a workshop is only a workshop, and sometimes it is the beginning of a whole new project. With the recent Translating Cultures event held at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany on 26 and 27 June, my co-convernor Thomas Munck and I soon had the feeling it could be the latter. We got some excellent papers on translation theories and practices, on cultural translation and tradaptation, and on the distribution and reception of printed texts in early modern Europe and beyond.

If you want to know more about individual papers, their arguments and the discussions we had around the big table in the Bibelsaal of this amazing early modern library that is the Augusta, you can read up on them here. The first is a report Thomas and I produced for the German historians’ mailing list HSozKult. The second is a blog post with some observations put together by Rachel Hammersley, who contributed an excellent paper on late C18th French translations of James Harrington.

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Some of the workshop participants on the front steps of the Herzog August Library.

Yet, while a lot was achieved on those two hot days in Lower Saxony, we also felt that a lot more still needed to be done to explore the ways in which early modern translators worked and which networks of authors, translators, editors, printers, publishers and booksellers were involved in the processes of translation, transmission and dissemination of printed texts. So we all decided to make this workshop an annual event to bring together scholars working on a range of European countries in the hope of moving the field forward together.

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Volker Bauer (third from left) giving us a guided tour of the library.

 

Plans for next year

Thanks to the HAB’s director, Peter Burschel, and co-ordinator of scholarly events, Volker Bauer, who have promised their support, we are now in the process of planning next year’s event. I hope I can tell you more about it soon.

In the meantime, feel free to contact us if you are interested in the project.

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Meeting Jacob Boehme in Dresden

Posted in exhibitions, History, Seventeenth Century, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on October 21, 2017
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Pieter van Gunst, Bildnis Jacob Böhme, 1686/1715, engraving, Kupferstich-Kabinett 
© SKD

I had a few days off work and went on a spontaneous trip to Dresden for some quiet writing time. Naturally, once I got there I spent more time wandering around the city and enjoying the sights in the last rays of the autumn sun than actually writing, and so I stumbled upon this little gem: an exhibition on the German mystical philosopher Jacob Boehme (1575-1624).

I was initially surprised to find a tribute to Boehme in Dresden. But, of course, he spent most of his life some 100 kilometres east of the city, first at Alt Seidenberg where he was born and at Seidenberg where he was apprenticed to a shoemaker, and later in the town of Goerlitz where he set up shop in the 1590s.

The ‘fanatical cobbler’ from Goerlitz

Boehme was a remarkable man. He rose from humble beginnings to becoming one of the most important German thinkers. His first and principal work, Aurora, the 1612 manuscript of which is currently on display at the Palace Chapel in Dresden set out his view of the world. According to Boehme, the unfinished tract was the product of a divine inspiration going back to around 1600 when the young shoemaker contemplated on a ray of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish which revealed to him the relationship between God and man and the mysteries of the universe. Copies of the manuscript circulated among his friends and acquaintances and finally fell into the hands of the chief pastor of Goerlitz, Gregor Richter, who confiscated the work, considered it heretical and got the local council to issue a writing ban on Boehme.

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‘ALL IN ALL. The Conceptual World of the Mystical Philosopher Jacob Böhme’ , exhibition at the Palace Chapel in Dresden, Royal Palace. © SKD, Foto: Oliver Killig

Its author subsequently came to be known as the ‘fanatical cobbler’ from Goerlitz. The humble shoemaker had clearly risen above his station, and the authorities tried to keep him under control. However, Boehme resumed his writing in 1618 on the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, which he considered as a sign of the dark powers of evil at work in the world, and outlined his ideas in On the Three Principles of Divine Being. He was to write another thirty-odd works before his death in 1624 dealing with a large number of subjects from readings of the Old Testament to disputes within the Protestant community.

Boheme’s work was well received at the court in Dresden

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The manuscript of Jacob Böhme’s first work, ‘Aurora’ of 1612 at the Palace Chapel in Dresden.
© SKD, Foto: Oliver Killig

Only one of his works, The Way to Christ (1624), was published during his lifetime. Yet, his other writings circulated in manuscript among his followers and Boehme managed to establish a considerable reputation during his lifetime and beyond. In the year of his death, he travelled to Dresden and reported in a letter that his Way to Christ was well received at the Elector of Saxony’s court. Nevertheless, the publication of his book caused controversy and he had to defend himself before the local authorities. He only walked free because he was able to prove that while he might have been the author of this work, he had not been responsible for its publication.

The current exhibition at Dresden engages both with Boehme’s life and work and with the broader context of his time. It is structured around key concepts of his writings, such as nature, darkness, creation, cosmos, rebirth, light and freedom, and it displays both manuscripts and editions of his works as well as later engagements with his thought by artists and thinkers. Alas, it is a very small exhibition. But it comes with excellent accompanying materials, including an exhibition catalogue (on which this blog post is based) and a collection of scholarly essays in English and German well worthwhile reading.

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All in All – The Conceptual World of the Mystical Philosopher Jacob Böhme, 26 August to 19 November 2017. Palace Chapel of the Dresden Royal Palace.

The eloquent ideologists of Germany’s New Right

Posted in History, Political Thought, Politics, Reviews, Twentieth Century by thehistorywoman on April 2, 2017

Weiß_imageThugs in combat boots they’re certainly not. The people Volker Weiss writes about are more of the nerdy variety, he told me over the phone a while back. They know their Greek and Latin, but that doesn’t necessarily make them harmless. It’s their words and their ideas we should be wary of.

Weiss is a historian of Germany’s New Right – a subject he has been working on for some fifteen years or more. However, what once used to be the niche interest of a select few scholars has suddenly become a hot topic as right-wing populists are making their voices heard across Europe and the US.

In his new book “Die Autoritäre Revolte“ (“The Authoritarian Revolt“), Weiss outlines a set of New Right ideas that can be found among the representatives of a variety of contemporary political groups and movements, including the right-wing populist AfD (Alternative for Germany) party.

Proponents of this rightist thought draw on the conservatism of 1920s’ Germany, while rejecting the “Third Reich” and some of the old-style nationalist ideas. Yet, Weiss cautions that the critical distance with which some contemporary New Right authors and politicians claim to approach National Socialism is not always entirely convincing. (more…)

An exile’s home: Algernon Sidney in Nérac

Posted in Early Modern, History, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on March 17, 2017

Nerac_castle2So, that’s the castle in France where the English republican Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) spent roughly five years of his exile during the Restoration period: le château de Nérac in the capital of the Pays d’Albret in the south west of the country.

The area was traditionally protestant and associated with rebellion and resistance to monarchical power. At the time Sidney lived there, between about 1672 and 1677, the castle belonged to Godefroi-Maurice da La Tour d’Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon.

The Duke’s father had fought alongside the Prince of Condé in the Fronde, the French Civil Wars of 1648 to 1653, to limit the powers of Louis XIV, and the English republican had found in Godefroi-Maurice a kindred spirit willing to offer him protection and shelter.

The building is much smaller than I expected and, located in the heart of this small town, also much less isolated than I would have thought. No wonder the locals were soon getting on Sidney’s nerves (or he on theirs for that matter). In the only known letter we have of his time there, he complains about the incompetence of the local office-holders as well as about the hunting restrictions imposed by the Duke. After all, there was not much to do for an exile trying to keep his head down than to stay in his local area and pass the time shooting things. Sidney had quite a reputation for being bad tempered and impatient, and the target of his anger, besides the local partridges, apparently were the townspeople. (more…)

Uncertainty and the post-truth society

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, Journalism, News, Political Thought by thehistorywoman on December 18, 2016
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Niccolò Machiavelli knew about the importance of appearances.

The word ‘Brexit’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time this month, only weeks after Donald Trump was elected as the next president of the United States and ‘post-truth’ was chosen as the word of the year. All three events are to a greater or lesser extent manifestations of anger with the establishment, a distrust in experts and the frustration of the losers of globalisation in a world of increasing uncertainty.

In the middle ages, the people in Europe had religion as their certainty and the Catholic Church as their guide. Life might not have been easy for poor peasants struggling to survive, but the rules to live by were: Be good, fear God and your reward will be in heaven. The reformations of the sixteenth century changed much of that, as individuals like Martin Luther came to question the authority of the Church and its hierarchies and the onus was laid on the individual to explore the Scriptures and establish a more personal relationship with God. Calvinists’ belief in predestination could also cause uncertainty in individuals who could not detect any signs of being one of the elect in their daily lives.

The Enlightenment tried to free the people from the shackles of religion, and faith increasingly became something they could opt in or out of. Society came to look for certainty through reason and science as scholars and scientists were trying to push the boundaries of human knowledge. The Industrial Revolution subsequently brought an increasing specialisation and division of labour as working processes were perfected, while the rise of the professions created the world of experts the twenty-first century has come to resent.

The people are craving security and they are increasingly finding it in self-delusion: in believing things they want to be true, be they the promises of salvation by sectarian movements, miracle weight-loss cures or fake news. (more…)

The British view of a nation that never was

Posted in History, Politics, Reviews by thehistorywoman on October 16, 2016
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Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros (1515). © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Kupferstichkabinett.

Dürer’s rhino, Luther’s Bible, Bismarck dressed as a blacksmith, a VW Beetle and a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp – the exhibits of the ‘Germany – Memories of a Nation’ show seem both somewhat random and predictable.

What I was missing most of all was a grand narrative guiding me through the exhibition, directing my view from one item to the next with that inevitable logic with which A leads to B leads to C, although, as a historian, I should really know better.

I was probably expecting the museum counterpart of the undergraduate introduction to modern German history, ‘From Bismarck to Hitler’, or, if we want to start in the early modern period, ‘From Luther to Hitler’. And this being a British exhibition originally created for a British audience about its World War II enemy, some of that was certainly there. But it seems that the collaboration between curator Barrie Cook of the British Museum, and his former boss, Neil MacGregor, also tried to avoid too much coherence and inevitability, and that was probably a good thing.

Yes, there was the Reformation with the invention of the printing press and Luther’s Bible translation, there was the Thirty Years’ War, there were references to the nationalist movements of the early nineteenth century with their romanticised depictions of the German countryside, and space dedicated to Bismarck’s German unification of 1871. Yet, none of those movements settled the national question in any sort of definite or satisfactory way. The Reformation left Germany divided into Catholic and Protestant states and any subsequent attempts at German unity were overshadowed by the question who should or should not belong to the club.

There was surprisingly little about World War I, but a broad selection of bank notes illustrating the hyperinflation of the Great Depression, while World War II was represented more through images of suffering in concentration camps or destroyed cities like Dresden rather than by the standard narrative of Hitler’s rise and fall. Post-war German history was represented by the new division of East and West, a labyrinthine model of Berlin’s Friedrichstraße station as a central border crossing and the rather unexpected wetsuit worn by an East German in his attempt to defect to the West by swimming across the Baltic Sea. You need a lot of imagination to fill the gaps. (more…)

Historians and the Fifth Estate

Posted in Academia, Comment, History, Journalism, Politics by thehistorywoman on August 6, 2016

IMG_0158Historians should get more actively involved in shaping policy, in particular foreign and defence policy. That is the gist of a recent call by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in The Atlantic for a Council of Historians to be established in the US.

Taking advice from historians, they suggest, could have helped President George W. Bush in 2003 to appreciate ‘the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam’s regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority’. It might even have prevented Bush from choosing to topple Saddam Hussein and leaving us with a great mess in the Middle East.

Allison and Ferguson also suggest, historians could have helped Barack Obama appreciate ‘the deep historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine’ and consequently ‘the risks of closer ties between Ukraine and Europe’, before Russia went to annex Crimea.

Applied History 

The political scientist Allison has long been involved in US policy making as an analyst, consultant and advisor, and his push for a Council of Historians is no doubt influenced or given additional urgency by a real fear that Donald Trump could win the US presidential election and embark on a wrong-headed and dangerous mission to ‘make America great again’.  Together with the British historian Ferguson, Allison co-directs the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project, so, it should be added, they are promoting their own work.

Now, I’m not normally known for agreeing with Niall Ferguson or the advice he has chosen to give to the UK Education Department for that matter, but I do think the two scholars have a point. It is essential for politicians to be aware of the historical complexities of the issues they are faced with, and they need historical experts to help them respond to those issues in an appropriate way. (more…)

Political Thought in Times of Crisis, 1640-1660 – Symposium, 1-3 Dec

Sponsored by the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought, Washington, US.

Execution_CharlesI_IIWas the mid-seventeenth-century crisis in Britain and Ireland essentially one aspect of a broader “global” crisis? How might scholars theorize the relationships between political thought and other verbal and non-verbal expressions of change and instability (political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental)? Extending its recent investigations of the discursive and spatial boundaries of political thinking in the early modern period, the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought will offer a distinctive symposium that demonstrates the continuing value of the study of political thought, not least in showing the relevance of early modern thought to the concerns of our own world. The symposium considers political thought as it crosses language and geo-political domains beyond Britain and Ireland. The geographical range includes the pan-European world in the culmination and aftermath of the Thirty Years War as well as such global contexts as the colonial Americas and Asia. Scholars whose work considers these issues are encouraged to apply.

Royalists_RoundheadsSpeakers and Session Leaders: The symposium will open with a forum that welcomes Geoffrey Parker (The Ohio State University), Michael Braddick (University of Sheffield), and Richard Tuck (Harvard University). On Friday and Saturday, the following speakers have been invited to frame discussions and inspire new lines of inquiry on a number of topics: Sharon Achinstein (The Johns Hopkins University), Jeffrey Collins (Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario), David Cressy (The Ohio State University, emeritus), Cesare Cuttica (Université Paris 8), Martin Dzelzainis (University of Leicester), Rachel Hammersley (Newcastle University), Helmer Helmers (Universiteit van Amsterdam), Ariel Hessayon (Goldsmiths, University of London), Ann Hughes (Keele University), Laura Lunger Knoppers (University of Notre Dame), Karen Ordahl Kupperman (New York University), Gaby Mahlberg (Berlin), Ted McCormick (Concordia University, Montreal), Nicholas McDowell (University of Exeter), David Norbrook (Merton College, Oxford), Carla Pestana (UCLA), and Joad Raymond(Queen Mary University of London)

Schedule: Thursday evening, Friday, and Saturday, December 1 – 3 , 2016.

ApplySeptember 6, for admission and grants-in-aid.

For more information, please see the Folger website.