So it turns out the Harvard Classics are filled with the deathless works of literature that have endured for centuries -- plus book reviews! I think this is a good thing, myself, but then I'm someone who freely admits that he forms opinions on books and movies based solely on their reviews. But it's sort of funny to open these distinguished-looking volumes (except that I found an old blank golf scorecard in today's), and find this as the opening:
THOSE who have attended to this practice of our literary tribunal are well aware, that, by means of certain legal fictions similar to those of Westminster Hall, we are frequently enabled to take cognizance of cases lying beyond the sphere of our original jurisdiction. We need hardly say, therefore, that, in the present instance, M. Périer is merely a Richard Roe, who will not be mentioned in any subsequent stage of the proceedings, and whose name is used for the sole purpose of bringing Machiavelli into court.In other words, says Macaulay, the hell with the book -- let's talk about Italians.
And it is in this spirit that I'm going to throw out the Macaulay reading and just talk about some topics that he brings up.
• First of all, my dad gave me "A History of Histories" for my birthday recently, but I haven't gotten to the Macaulay chapter, so I have no idea whether his history is true, or whether he's such a Whig that everything he says needs to be taken with hypertension-inducing levels of salt. But if he's reliable, I found this interesting (actually, I found it interesting even if he's not reliable):
During the gloomy and disastrous centuries which followed the downfall of the Roman Empire, Italy had preserved, in a far greater degree than any other part of western Europe, the traces of ancient civilization. The night which descended upon her was the night of an Arctic summer. The dawn began to reappear before the last reflection of the preceding sunset had faded from the horizon. It was in the time of the French Merovingians and of the Saxon Heptarchy that ignorance and ferocity seemed to have done their worst. Yet even then the Neapolitan provinces, recognizing the authority of the Eastern Empire, preserved something of Eastern knowledge and refinement.Is that so? I dunno, but I like to think that it is. Also note Macaulay's lack of fear of lobbing a metaphor in there.
• It would also be nice if this were true, although it's not provable:
The people of that country had observed the whole machinery of the Church, its saints and its miracles, its lofty pretensions, and its splendid ceremonial, its worthless blessings and its harmless curses, too long and too closely to be duped. ...Distant nations looked on the Pope as the vicegerent of the Almighty, the oracle of the All-Wise, the umpire from whose decisions, in the disputes either of theologians or of kings, no Christian ought to appeal. The Italians were acquainted with all the follies of his youth, and with all the dishonest arts by which he had attained power.I suppose one could adduce our old friend Cellini as evidence of this. I like this attitude in religion, myself. A certain tolerance of imperfection and vice is becoming in the holy. It's as if God has to make the feast from the various leftovers and wilted lettuce He finds lying around the kitchen.
• There's also this pro-urban paragraph:
A people, when assembled in a town, is far more formidable to its rulers than when dispersed over a wide extent of country. The most arbitrary of the Cæsars found it necessary to feed and divert the inhabitants of their unwieldy capital at the expense of the provinces. The citizens of Madrid have more than once besieged their sovereign in his own palace, and extorted from him the most humiliating concessions. The sultans have often been compelled to propitiate the furious rabble of Constantinople with the head of an unpopular vizier. From the same cause, there was a certain tinge of democracy in the monarchies and aristocracies of northern Italy.Which makes me think of one of my favorite counterfactuals: what if New York had stayed the capital of the United States? There'd probably be more mob violence in our history (people don't riot as much in a company town). And maybe Hudson County, New Jersey would have become our nation's Left Bank. Real estate, on the other hand, would be even more out of control.
• Finally, our reading ends with a chill:
With peculiar pleasure every cultivated mind must repose on the fair, the happy, the glorious Florence, the halls which rang with the mirth of Pulci, the cell where twinkled the midnight lamp of Politian, the statues on which the young eye of Michael Angelo glared with the frenzy of a kindred inspiration, the gardens in which Lorenzo meditated some sparkling song for the May-day dance of the Etrurian virgins. Alas for the beautiful city! Alas for the wit and the learning, the genius and the love!My own mind would repose more happily if I knew who any of those guys were, but I get the point. This is the third straight reading with declining and falling in it. It's getting positively Lehmanesque around here.
A time was at hand when all the seven vials of the Apocalypse were to be poured forth and shaken out over those pleasant countries—a time of slaughter, famine, beggary, infamy, slavery, despair.
As an antidote, for a college football Saturday: