INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON
Over the course of books such as How the Irish Saved Civilization, Sailing the Wine-Dark Seas, and Mysteries of the Middle Ages, which was just newly released in a paperback edition, historian Thomas Cahill has done more for making ancient history readable and entertaining than all the cobweb-covered professors sitting in all the universities in the whole world put together. Cahill writes history the way it should be written—with great attention and care to the personalities and the details of everyday life. He seems to be on a mission to remedy the greatest crime (among many) that academia has ever committed against all of us, which was rendering the best stories in the world boring. Fuck school. Just read Thomas Cahill instead.
Jesse Pearson: The Middle Ages, especially the early years of that era, get a really bad rap. They’re called the Dark Ages and they’re seen as grim, diseased, brutal times in which to have lived. But in your book, the impression that I get is that this is wrong.
Thomas Cahill: A lot of the ideas that we have about the Middle Ages actually come from the Renaissance. You see, people during the Renaissance got to name everything. They called themselves the humanists, but they were really philologists when you come right down to it. They had learned Greek, which very few people had known in the earlier Middle Ages, and so they began to translate directly from Greek texts that had been preserved here and there, partly by Irish scribes but largely by Islamic scholars.
Which Greek texts were big with them?
Plato was the one Greek that they all knew. In the early Middle Ages, the foremost philosopher, Augustine, was a Platonist. And Plato had a very, very dark view. I mean, he believed that all humanity was in a cave and that we were not seeing anything that was real—we were just looking at shadows on the wall.
I wonder why Plato had such a lasting appeal.
Well, when you come right down to it, the ancient world—our ancient world, the Greeks and the Romans—was extremely pessimistic. It was the introduction of the Judeo-Christian optimism that things will turn out right in the end that really changes it. The ancient world really thought that things would turn out very badly. The majority of Greeks felt that the best thing you could do with your body was get rid of it as soon as possible. They believed that we were like sparks of spirit that had been unfortunately trapped inside matter, and if only we could get rid of all this we would be fine. We would return to the One—whatever they meant by that! In the early Middle Ages, people thought, “Well, when the Greeks say the One, they mean God.” But they really meant something a lot more—
It’s kind of an Eastern way of looking at things.
It is. I don’t have any doubt that the ideas of Pythagoras—who is really the great predecessor of Plato—came from the same thread as Buddhism. But you can’t find the thread anymore. It’s lost.
So there was a common antecedent for someone like Pythagoras and the early Buddhists?
Absolutely. They are far too similar, and in fact not only do they have the same ideas about matter and spirit, but they both have all this stuff about numbers and math. It can’t be coincidental. There were two great civilizations—Greece and India. So of course they traded with one another. Anyway, the minority view within Greece would have been Aristotle. He was the one who said Plato was full of shit. He basically said, “I was Plato’s student, and Plato can be very smart, but he’s got it wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the human mind. There’s nothing wrong with our senses. We actually see what’s there; we hear what’s there. Yeah, we make mistakes sometimes, but we’re not living in the darkness of a cave. We actually experience reality!” Aristotle really pushed the idea that the eyes see and the ears hear…
And coming from him, those are kind of the roots of scientific inquiry.
They didn’t have science yet in the sense of experiments, but yes, they observed.
And Augustine—he was the first great philosopher of the Middle Ages?
Yes, and he was a thorough Platonist. He was a Christian, but he was a Platonist.
Aren’t those things kind of opposed?
You would think so, except that the world that Christianity was born into was a Greek world. The New Testament is in Greek. Latin came later. The language of the first century is Greek. The little guy who sold sandwiches on the corner had to know a little Greek just to get by. Everybody spoke it. You can’t be a minority inside a dominant civilization without absorbing the ideas of it. There’s no way to seal yourself off. That’s what drives militant Muslims crazy today—or militants of any religious variety. It’s true of militant Jews in Israel. It’s true of militant Christians. They are driven crazy by the fact that their children absorb the ideas that are floating around everywhere.
So Augustine, being inundated with Greek culture even in his time, incorporated something of the ethos of Plato into his philosophy.
Right. In Augustine you have a very gloomy kind of Christianity. It’s antisexual. It’s just very sad. In many ways I love Augustine. He writes beautiful, beautiful Latin. It’s hard to hate him. But I do not like Plato or Platonism.
Who came after Aristotle?
In the 12th century there was Abelard. He had an off-putting personality—he was extremely confident and arrogant—but he was the first philosopher in the Middle Ages to say that Aristotle had it all right. And then Aquinas, who had a much more pacific personality, really took off with it in the 13th century. By that point, all of Aristotle had been translated into Latin. So not only does philosophy take off, but so does science. Much of what Aristotle wrote was science and also history. He’s the one who came up with things like metaphysics. That’s his word. The practice of dividing knowledge into fields comes from Aristotle. He gave us the filing cabinet of the Western world.
We haven’t really talked about the Romans yet.
Well, they weren’t as philosophical as the Greeks by any means. The Roman society was so full of cruelty.
It was entertainment to them.
Yes! I mean, they went to watch people being eaten alive by lions! That’s the original circus. Nero held frolics in the garden of the Vatican, where, in the evening, they would illuminate the party with human torches. You had people walking around drinking and eating by the light of men and women who were impaled on poles, covered in tar, and set on fire. The whole imperial circle was full of things like that.
It was interesting to me in reading your book to see that there was a sort of celebrity culture in the Middle Ages. For instance, you devote a chapter to Hildegard. She was this woman who was cloistered as a young girl—and this is when cloistered really meant being locked in a cell inside a church—but she gradually became a huge figure, a public speaker and an influencer of opinion.
There definitely was a celebrity culture. Some people really became important figures. When Hildegard did her tour of the Rhineland, giving sermons in one church after another, she played to packed houses. For one thing, nobody had ever heard a woman speak in public before. That in itself brought them out. But then what she had to say was so unusual and so nervy.
Is there a public figure now that you see as a parallel to her during the Middle Ages?
Maybe Barack Obama. [laughs] He’s really packing them in, isn’t he?
Your book How the Irish Saved Civilization tells the story of Irish scholars who were responsible for saving many texts from the ancient world.
It begins after the fall of Rome. You know that Rome fell under the impact of the barbarian invasions. But I think the barbarians were basically immigrants who just wanted to get in, even though it’s true that they were extremely primitive. To them, books were kindling. It took them centuries to learn to read. By that point, at least in Europe, there was no literacy left. By the sixth or seventh century, we can count only two libraries in all of Europe. There probably were more, but there are only two that we’re sure about.
How do the Irish come into this?
Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity and realized that, in order for it to stick, he had to teach them to read and write. Their Dick-and-Jane readers were the stories of the Roman martyrs. The ones who had died in the arena, getting eaten by lions. The Irish, who were very bloodthirsty, loved these stories. But more than that, they liked the whole experience of learning to read and write. They were very childlike, and they were happy to take up the task of copying out manuscripts. It became known all over Europe that Ireland was like this. Monks from places like the Egyptian desert arrived in Cork carrying their libraries. They knew that the texts would be safe in Ireland.
Did the Irish also send people out into Europe to find books?
Yes. The Irish became great wanderers and they ranged out all over the place and picked up whatever they could.
Do you have a sort of guiding tenet as a historian?
The question I am always asking myself when I examine the past is, “What is there here that remains valuable and still informs our lives to some extent?” For instance, in the Middle Ages there really was the first rise of feminism.
Is that related to the rise of the Virgin Mary as a religious figure?
That’s what starts it. We are all influenced by the images that we see. If every time you walk into a church there’s a picture of the mother and child, it changes your idea of the divine—even if the priest is saying that she’s not God. It also brings it down to earth, because there is no work that’s more ordinary than a mother breastfeeding her child. That’s what they showed over and over again in representations of Mary and child.
Before we finish, I want to get back to why the Renaissance slagged off the Middle Ages so badly.
The humanists of the Renaissance got to name the Middle Ages. And what they meant in their choice of name was, “There was this great period of the Greeks and the Romans, and then there was us.”
They portrayed the Middle Ages as just a bridge between great cultures.
Right. They were also the ones who named the architecture of the Middle Ages. They called it Gothic, and what they meant was that it was barbaric. They looked down on everything that had gone before them, even though what happened in the Middle Ages was often the genesis of things in the Renaissance. Someone like Giotto was the father of Leonardo and Michelangelo. There’s a great theory of Harold Bloom’s that’s in his work The Anxiety of Influence. Again and again, artists and writers deny the very person who really influenced them.
Right, because they want to be seen as original and inventive.
We all deny our parents [laughs]. It’s funny, because some of the things that they did in the Renaissance weren’t as interesting as things that the Medievals did. Gothic architecture is much more wonderful than Palladian architecture. And I would take Dante over Petrarch any day.