When I was in school, history was just a series of strange and unfamiliar stories -some interesting, most forgettable. Of course, I recognize the irony in describing the effects of teaching methods that are now, themselves, historical, but I still wonder how decisions were made about which facts to focus on. The date of a battle, or the names of the generals who were killed are easily agreed upon, and yet what about things like the beginning of the Enlightenment, or when the Little Ice Age began and ended? They are surely more approximations -opinions- than known ‘facts’.

Again, when I was much younger and my leaves were still green and tender, it seemed that most, if not all, of the important historical figures were male, and by and large, European. Females, if they were mentioned at all, were like adjectives that added colour to their male nouns. There were, of course, exceptions -Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century Abbess, polymath, and musical composer of sacred monophony is my favourite, I think- but only relatively recently have more historically important females been  ‘discovered’. Heaven only knows how many more lie patiently awaiting exhumation.

And, let’s face it, even when I was in high school, Columbus was still felt to have ‘discovered’ America, much to the amused astonishment of the original inhabitants, no doubt. And Africa had never been considered to have hosted any civilizations worthy of the name, let alone exhibited any philosophical thinking, or theological profundities.

I suppose, for an interested but no doubt naïve amateur, it has always been the arbitrariness of the choices about what happened in the past, and often, the seemingly limited perspectives of the almost infinite number of  possibilities available, that trouble me.

And yes, I understand that the sources from which conclusions are drawn may be unreliable, or reflect the biases of their creators (or historians), and I can imagine that even where the written documents may be clearly worded, their meanings are not fixed for all times. Societal norms, and expectations also no doubt influence what was felt to be important to record. So, although I am intrigued by History, I am wary of any lessons it might purport to offer those of us alive today.

Still, I continue to be attracted to new analyses, and I remain curious about novel ways of approaching and evaluating the Past. So, it was with a frisson of excitement that I embarked upon the exploration of a rather complex essay that suggested there may be a more objective way of appraising history -a mathematical approach that is no doubt old-hat to professional historians, but new to uncredentialled and only part-time acolytes like myself. Amanda Rees, a historian of science in the department of sociology at the University of York, surveyed attempts to objectivize History, and bring it more in line with the Natural Sciences with their use of statistical analyses and the like: https://aeon.co/essays/if-history-was-more-like-science-would-it-predict-the-future

Rees, ends her first paragraph with a question: ‘If big data could enable us to turn big history into mathematics rather than narratives, would that make it easier to operationalise our past?’ There have been several unsuccessful attempts to try something like this. For example, ‘In the 19th century, the English historian Henry Thomas Buckle used a broad-brush approach to the past in an effort to identify ‘natural laws’ that governed society… Buckle’s contemporary, the French positivist Auguste Comte, had earlier proposed his ‘law of three stages’ which styled human society as passing through ‘theological’ and ‘metaphysical’ stages, before arriving at a scientific self-understanding through which to build a better society.’

And then there was ‘the more elaborate social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. These views were an attempt to marry the organic nature of evolution to history, but unfortunately, became embedded in the Zeitgeist of the time and seem to us nowadays as distinctly racist.

Rees, however, spends considerable time explaining the views of Peter Turchin, who in 2010 was an ecologist in the  University of Connecticut. ‘Why, Turchin wanted to know, were the efforts in medicine and environmental science to produce healthy bodies and ecologies not mirrored by interventions to create stable societies? Surely it was time ‘for history to become an analytical, and even a predictive, science’… he proposed a new discipline: ‘theoretical historical social science’ or ‘cliodynamics’ – the science of history.’

Of course, unlike objective attributes such as, say, temperature or infective processes, ‘‘historical facts’ are not discrete items that exist independently, awaiting scholars who will hunt them down, gather them up and catalogue them safely. They need to be created and interpreted. Textual archives might seem relatively easy to reproduce, for example, but, just as with archaeological digs, the physical context in which documents are found is essential to their interpretation: what groups, or items, or experiences did past generations value and record… What do the marginalia tell us about how the meanings of words have changed?’

A good example perhaps: ‘is it really possible to gauge subjective happiness by counting how many times words such as ‘enjoyment’ or ‘pleasure’ occur in the more than 8 million books digitised by Google?’ Or another: ‘a quantitative study of American slavery, in which Fogel [Robert Fogel, joint winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in economic history] used plantation records to show that slavery was an economically efficient means of production, and to suggest that Southern slaves were better off than many Northern wage-earners.’ And yet, ‘plantation records didn’t fully capture the nature of slavery. How could they, when they were created by one group of humans at the expense of another?’

It is for this reason, among others, that ‘a positivist language of science – of testing hypotheses against data – sits uncomfortably with the practice of history.’ Are historical facts (a debatable term at best) really ‘things’? Turchin seemed to think so.  ‘Inspired by the work of the American sociologist Jack Goldstone, who in the 1990s had tried to translate Alexis de Tocqueville’s philosophy into mathematical equations, Turchin began to relate population size to economic output (and, critically, levels of economic inequality) as well as social and political instability… Social structure, for example, could be treated as a product of health and wealth inequality – but to measure either, you need to choose approximate and appropriate proxies. The process was further complicated by the fact that, when you’re working with a chronology that spans millennia, these proxies must change over time. The texture of that change might be qualitative as well as quantitative.’ You get the idea: apples and oranges.

And anyway, what makes anybody believe that the Natural Sciences (which Turchin was trying to emulate) are actually capable of producing ‘objective knowledge’? ‘Half a century of research in the history of science has shown that this perspective is deeply flawed. The sciences have their own history – as indeed does the notion of objectivity – and that history is deeply entwined with power, politics and, importantly, the naturalisation of social inequality by reference to biological inferiority. No programme for understanding human behaviour through the mathematical modelling of evolutionary theory can afford to ignore this point… meta-analyses and abstract mathematical models depend, by necessity, on manipulating data gathered by other scholars, and a key criticism of their programme is that cliodynamicists are not sensitive to the nuances and limitations of that data.’

By this stage in the essay, I was not only confused, I was also disappointed. But, could I really expect an answer to the arbitrariness of historical data when even my brother and I, in describing an event from our shared childhood, can never agree on what really happened? It’s all perspective in the end; as Nietzsche said, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’

And anyway, my brother doesn’t know what he’s talking about…

My crown is called content

Okay, time to come clean: despite my usually smiling face, I’m not happy all the time. Merely satisfied with my lot, I’m content that, among other things, I am not going bald, or plagued with excessive weight. And, on a day-to-day basis, I have to confess that I am rather at peace with the universe. But maybe most of us are like that, eh? Without a contrast, too frequent happiness would just be background -like white noise: hardly noticeable. Nothing special.

Now that I have earned my years, I think that I am entitled to wear the full regalia of emotions that I have been awarded. And yet, it seems obvious that the worth of some things can be measured in the difficulty of their pursuit, in their resistance to capture, and ultimately in the impossibility of their imprisonment. Happiness is one of those fleeting things; I think that is why it is so valuable. It is not a state of mind, but rather a condition of the moment: the twinkle in an old man’s eye, the giggle of a child with a puppy, or that initial rapture on first seeing your baby, newly born.

So, through the years, I have been content, as well, with the evanescence of happiness, treasuring its arrival, and sighing, not with displeasure but resignation, at its disappearance.

And yet, an essay I came across in Aeon made me wonder if, after all these years, I had misjudged the value of its ephemerality.

There are times when I wonder if the true value of philosophy is not so much in finding truth, but more in the pleasures of pursuit -much like, as with so many  journeys, it’s not as much the destination as the adventures that happen en route. Of course, to admit this outright might encourage a lax methodology and toleration of blurring the objective -of glancing outside the window as you reason your way along the road.

And, as I discovered in a rather lengthy essay by the philosopher Catherine Wilson in Aeon, there is a school of philosophy that actually tolerates stopping and smelling the flowers on the way home: Epicureanism. https://aeon.co/essays/forget-plato-aristotle-and-the-stoics-try-being-epicurean

The Epicureans have acquired a bad rap over the years, it seems: profligate pleasure-seeking. But as Wilson points out, ‘Rather than aiming specifically to maximise pleasure, the Epicureans concentrated on minimising pains, the pains that arise from failures of choice and avoidance… One must sometimes sacrifice appealing food and drink in the short term to avoid the long-term pains of addiction and poor health; and sacrifice sexual opportunity to avoid humiliation, anger or social or economic fallout.’

The morality of Epicureanism has also been a sticking point for some – ‘if life is limited to this life, and if virtues such as wisdom, moderation and justice are only abstract ideas… why be moral?’ Wilson thinks that the Epicureans had two answers to that dilemma: ‘One was that the people around you resent stupidity, cowardice, self-indulgence and injustice – the opposites of the traditional virtues. So, if you habitually engage in them, you will find yourself socially excluded and perhaps even punished by the law. Nonconformity to morality brings pain… The other answer was that it is possible to have an entirely pleasant life without causing injury to others through dishonesty, immoderation or other vices. The sources of innocent pleasure are all around us: in the sensory enjoyment of music, food, landscapes and artworks, and especially, Epicurus thought, in the study of nature and society, and in conversing with friends.’

Wilson also thought that in a society that is success-driven, power-hungry and consumerist, being an Epicurean had a distinct advantage because, ‘Fame and wealth are zero-sum. For some to be wealthy, powerful and famous, others must be poor, obedient and disregarded… the pleasure of being recognised, appreciated and rewarded… is different from the truly intoxicating moments of happiness in which we feel in tune with another individual or become totally absorbed in something outside the self… Real enjoyment arises from activities that activate concentration, that require practice and skill, and that deliver sensory enjoyment… Making things such as pottery, jewellery, knitted, embroidered and stitched items, and fixing things around the house is a profound source of human satisfaction.’

The Epicureans have a cure for excessive consumerism, too: ‘[the] strategy for avoiding being lured into pointless consumption, despite the curiosity most of us have about the material world and its incentives to buy, buy, buy, is to regard shopping trips as a museum experience. You can examine all these objects in their often-decorative packing and muse on the hopes and fears to which they are symbolically and magically attached.’


Sometimes children are surprising philosophers who have some things to teach those of us who managed to make it out of our teens unscathed.

“What do you think about Santa Clause, Grampa?” my little grandson once asked me as we plodded along a trail in the woods through the first substantial snowfall of the year.

I assumed he was already thinking about what he wanted for a gift, although Christmas was still over a month away. “You mean, how does he know what presents to bring?” I answered carefully, hoping he didn’t want an explanation of how Santa managed to squiggle down a non-existent chimney.

He glanced up at me for a moment as we walked, and shook his head. “No, I figure he talks to you about that…”

I chuckled, uncertain about whether to set him straight about Santa, or wait for a few more Christmases -he was only six years old, after all. “I…”

But he interrupted before I could organize any words. “I mean, how’s he going to manage with all the climate change that’s coming…?”

“You mean if there’s no snow for his sleigh?”

He actually rolled his eyes -I didn’t think little kids could do that.’ “No, silly -he’ll go electric or something. I mean with all the plastic most of his presents are wrapped in.”

Wow! Grade 1 had really moved on from my day. I was momentarily speechless.

He looked up at me with a twinkle in his eyes, and a face that was mature beyond his years. ‘Will you let him know just to use recycled paper for wrapping and not to give any more plastic to the elves?” Then he smiled and kicked at the snow in a tiny snowdrift on the trail. “Miss Morrow said we should bring the gift paper to school in the New Year so we can make up stories about what it might have been used for the first time.” He looked up at me, his cheeks rosy in the cool wind that was starting to make its way through the trees. “Don’t you think that’d be fun, Grampa?”

Actually, I wondered if his teacher subscribed to Aeon, too…

The Whirligig of Time

Every once in a while, I come across something that seems at odds with the history I’ve learned. Admittedly I’m the product of an older, more gendered Zeitgeist, and in the intervening years, have struggled to accept what I might once have termed historical revisionism. Each epoch seems to want to believe its own version of the past and interprets artifacts -whether newly discovered, or housed in dark drawers in museums- accordingly. Traditionally, of course, history has been written by the victors -the powerful- and so it has always been a matter of conjecture how accurately ethnographical descriptions of the time, captured the lived reality of the era.

It is often tempting, either through lack of sufficient historically corroborative evidence, or currently prevailing attitudes, to denigrate the achievements of women in the past. Evidence of the contrary, must needs run a gauntlet of well-entrenched, and therefore not entirely impartial judges. The current of paradigms run deep and largely unnoticed until challenged, and the resulting turbulence, no matter how insightful and epiphanous, can nonetheless be unsettling.

How can history change if it has already occurred? Is it merely interpretational -like the apocryphal two people crossing the same bridge seeing different bridges? Or more nuanced, more coloured by our present day conceits than we would like to think -the hammer judging everything to be a nail?

Sometimes a sturdier explanation arises from evidence being viewed with modern and, hopefully, more objective techniques -techniques like, say, DNA, or perhaps, sophisticated chemical analyses which largely remove any subjective biases.

One such study I discovered while strolling through the various online magazines to which I am habituated, seemed unusually compelling. It was an article written by Sarah Zhang in the Atlantic that outlined how the analysis of dental plaque in the remains of a medieval woman revealed the existence of hitherto unexpected female scribes in what had been seen as an almost exclusively male profession. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/01/the-woman-with-lapis-lazuli-in-her-teeth/579760

A brilliant blue was found in the dental tartar of a 1000 year old woman buried at a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. ‘It was ultramarine … a pigment that a millennium ago could only have come from lapis lazuli originating in a single region of Afghanistan. This blue was once worth its weight in gold. It was used, most notably, to give the Virgin Mary’s robes their striking color in centuries of artwork. And the teeth that were embedded with this blue likely belonged to a scribe or painter of medieval manuscripts… [T]hese embedded blue particles in her teeth illuminate a forgotten history of medieval manuscripts: Not just monks made them. In the medieval ages, nuns also produced the famously laborious and beautiful books. And some of these women must have been very good, if they were using pigment as precious and rare as ultramarine.’

Anita Radini from the University of York, and her co-author Christina Warinner, a microbiome researcher at the Max Planck Institute were actually looking for other things, but became captivated by the blue particles on the teeth.

Alison Beach, an historian at Ohio State University who studies female scribes from 12th century Germany has cataloged the overlooked contributions of women to medieval book production and she noted that ‘while most manuscripts with signatures are signed by men, the vast majority of manuscripts are unsigned. But a small number of surviving manuscripts are signed by women, and scholars have found correspondence between monks and nuns about book production.’

The question about the lapis lazuli was obviously how it got into the woman’s dental plaque in the first place, though. Was it through some sort of medicine, or even from devotional kissing the of the manuscript? Both of these things were ruled out by knowledge of contemporary practices, and the fact that the particles were particularly fine suggested that ‘the stones were purposefully made into pigment.’

Finally, it was concluded that ‘two scenarios are most likely: The woman was a painter who could have ingested ultramarine paint while licking her brush to a point, or she breathed in the powder while preparing pigment for herself or someone else.’

Either way, though, the findings are certainly evidence of the largely unreported roll of women in medieval life -and the respect accorded them in their areas of expertise. Admittedly, in this case the scriptors and illustrators were nuns, and presumably more educated than the vast majority of feudal peasants of the time outside of their walls -and yet, so were most of the men in the grips of that same system.

Given the intellectual equality of the genders, I wonder how much more there is about historical women we do not yet appreciate. Since women were not usually allowed to sign the religious scripts on which they had worked, how many other things were they contributing that has been lost to time? I cannot believe that men when confronted with problems, whether in trade or everyday practical issues, would not consult with their wives for solutions -especially if survival was at stake.

Of course, special cases like Hildegard von Bingen spring all too easily to mind. She was a German Benedictine abbess living between 1098 and 1179, and so roughly contemporaneous with the lapis woman (whose bones were dated to between 997 and 1162). As Wikipedia describes her, she was a ‘writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.’ I have to admit that I only became acquainted with her because of her music, not her numerous other talents, but the very fact that she was able to be fêted in her own time despite her apparent lack of instruction in ‘the Seven Liberal Arts, which formed the basis of all education for the learned classes in the Middle Ages’ encourages me to think that others, albethey less well known, were also able to succeed along with her.

Still, I suppose we may have to await future discoveries to appreciate just how much women in less publicized arenas contributed to the well-being of their families, or the success of their husbands engaged in other endeavours.

But hurray for teeth, eh…?