Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Kells of A Tale: How the Irish Saved Civilization Review


I often talk about The End of Western Civilization, but after finishing Thomas Cahill's How The Irish Saved Civilization, I see this is not the first time our world has faced total extinction.

It's a short book, easily readable and could be finished within a week, two at most. Cahill starts with the fall of Rome and the ensuing chaos that it unleashed. With the barbarian hordes overrunning the remnants of the Western Roman Empire (Byzantium still hanging on, though shrinking and shrinking), it isn't just the actual knowledge of the ancients that is lost. Cahill argues that in a nutshell, people did not have time to think on great things. The struggle for survival took precedence over pondering the great mysteries of life.

Enter the Irish. There, in the wilds of Hibernia, the barbarians didn't seem interest in going--namely because the Celts were already wild, pagan, and dangerous. Their heroes slept around, were shape-shifters, and the population had deities all over. They also had slaves and abducted people into slavery. Among these abducted was a young Romanized Briton named Patricius. He lingers in Eire for several years, until he escapes, guided and protected by God, he is brought back home. However, he feels it in his heart to go back and bring Christianity to the Emerald Isle. With that, the future St. Patrick goes back to be a missionary.

His conversion efforts succeed, and scores of monasteries arise, not only to be thriving, but they now send missionaries back to Europe to convert the barbarian horde, founding monasteries as far as Scotland and Italy. With them, they bring their books. These books are a curious thing for the Irish to bring because before the monks Gaelic had not been written down. It was the Irish monks who began to copy down the works of the Greeks and Romans, and they copied down everything: not just the philosophical works of Aristotle or Cicero but the Aenid and Celtic legends along with the Scriptures. To them, all knowledge was valuable, all literature was worth writing down and preserving.

However, as Rome began to pull itself together and start dominating all branches of Christianity, Irish Christianity began to give way to the power of the Bishop of Rome. By a curious twist of fate, while it was the Irish monks who brought knowledge and a sense of civilization to barbarian Europe, once the Europeans regained civilization they clamped down on the more 'unorthodox' aspects of Irish Christianity, such as having WOMEN as heads of church or not banning pagan celebrations like Samhain (which would eventually evolve to the American Halloween). Eventually, Europe took what the Irish had given them and in a sense, ostracised them.

As I read How the Irish Saved Civilization, I was amazed at certain themes that emerged. For example, I am amazed that it was Christianity that brought civilization and a strong sense of peace to the warring Celts of Ireland. What makes it curious is that so often in today's 'post-Christian' world, faith in general and Christianity in particular is seen as backward, anti-intellectual, intolerant, narrow-minded, even dangerous to thought. We're constantly given the examples of the Inquisition or the creationist debate as proof positive that Christianity is against thinking itself. The book argues that it was the peace brought by Christianity, a faith that objected to violence as the solution to problems, that created the requirement for study.

This is the most important theme in How the Irish Saved Civilization: that is it PEACE that brings civilization and a flowering of thought. When there is war, conflict, and destruction, you can't have a space where thoughts and intellectual expressions can grow. To bring a modern-day context to it, this may be why the Middle East has not had a Renaissance since before the fall of the Ottoman Empire. There are other factors: dictators who want one thought and one thought only to be given (much like the barbarians like the Goths and Vandals who weren't interested in having their subjects question their authority) and a true anti-intellectualism (how else to explain how the Taliban can justify blowing up the Buddhas of Bamyan or the destruction of the National Museum of Afghanistan).

However, when the struggle to survive is dominant, those needs take the place of giving over to think, to contemplate, and the interest of knowledge is lost. In post-Roman Europe, people lost the ability to read and to a larger extent the interest to think. These books, this literature, weren't necessary to daily living, so they were discarded and in danger of being lost forever. The idea that knowledge is important was kept alive only by early Christians (the Jewish nation also has that idea that the Word must be preserved to keep their civilization alive), because they felt it important that the words and life of Christ and the letters of the apostles (especially Paul of Tarsus), so they began to write and copy them down. The Irish did that once the nation had been converted, but they expanded it to include the works of the ancient Greek and Roman pagans and their own literature. Without their work, so much would have been lost forever, and that would have changed the world we live in today. In effect, history turned with every one of those pen strokes.

I felt a sense of joy that the idea that words, thoughts, ideas, should be preserved was important. As someone who works in a library, I love words, I love literature, and am working to expand my worlds (and yes, my words). However, as I ended How the Irish Saved Civilization, I felt a certain sadness, because I think we're entering another post-Roman world, but this time it isn't the barbarians at the gate that are bringing civilization down (although we are facing an actual war against a certain mindset that distrusts individual thought and feels compelled to have group-think). It is apathy, laziness that will bring about the end. People are reading less and less for pleasure. It is a flaw of modern-day education, that gives the idea that reading is a task to be endured. People are now abandoning reading itself after their formal education ends. Instead, we go and rely on television, movies, the Internet. I love all those things, but newspapers are closing down partly because people are taking less interest in reading. Americans are having a harder time spelling because they are relying on 'text-style' writing to communicate (Side Note: sometimes I look at a text message and am baffled because I find it virtually indecipherable).

I won't be too critical: sometimes I make the same spelling mistakes because no one is perfect. However, Americans are having a harder and harder time thinking out an argument. "Literature" such as the writings of Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw or Jack London appear to be foisted on students who look on with horror while James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, and Stephanie Meyer are looked on as new Ovids or Homers. (Side Note: I find it hard to critize Patterson or Sparks since I haven't read their works--I may end up liking them--but I do wonder how the former can crank out so many books within a short amount of time while the latter appears to tell the same story if I judge by the film versions. I have read Twilight and found it utterly awful). We now have a sense that books are, instead of dangerous or necessary, rather boring and useless, so there's no need for them. As a result, we are in danger of slipping into a state of semi-civilization if not downright idiocy.

Let my digress to say we are facing a similar situation today when it comes to 'orthodoxy'. The Irish Christians didn't get into twists about pagan celebrations or vernacular literature. Today, some elements of Christianity are in fits about Halloween and Harry Potter, believing them so dangerous they must be burned or even banned, and of keeping women from being pastors. I find myself on the left of these issues, but I think my bretheren should be more concerned about how and why people are abandoning Christianity itself than whether a child dresses up as a princess or Batman and eats too much candy one day of the year.

How The Irish Saved Civilization is a short, fascinating read. We understand just how close we came to losing the foundations of Western Civilization...and by extent, world civilization, and how a small group of Irish monks kept the light burning while the world was plunged into darkness. I can only hope that we do not let it burn out due to apathy.