In my 4 years of high school history, in the 1980s, I don’t think we ever learnt anything about north or south America, or Asia, or Africa. Amazing. A lot about WWI, nothing ever about WW2, or any war afterwards. Rather a lot about Australian explorers, ancient Greek buildings, Roman generals. Anyhow, what seems to me the two greatest gaps are the Crusades, and Rousseau. I don’t remember studying anything between the later Roman Empire and the European exploration of Australia (1600s-1800s). But still, in terms of their huge and continuing influence, it fascinates me why these 2 phenomena are comparatively little-discussed or known about generally. Well, they are huge subjects. “The Crusades” involves the whole transformation of Dark Ages into Middle Ages, the birth of Europe, of how life is to be organized on Earth becoming as important as how it’s organized in heaven, etc – the difference between the European 900 and 1300. “Rousseau” involves the French revolution, romanticism/cult of sensibility, novels, autobiographies, the role of imagination and emotion in life, the idea of childhood, democracy, totalitarianism, and communism, and many more ways that life in Europe in 1850 was different from 1750. Both seem like near-total revolutions in every area of life. (Interestingly, I suppose the two forms of “total revolution” we are most familiar with nowadays are the “born-again Christian” and the “Communist revolution”.)
Here are some of the places I’ve learnt about the two.
Guizot – History of Civilization in Europe
Mackay – Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, ch.9 The Crusades
Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians, ch.29-30
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius – Leo Damrosch
Cassirer – Essay on Man
Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France (very strongly anti-Rousseau)
essays of Hazlitt (who was a fan)
Russell – History of Western Philosophy (not a fan)
works of Rousseau – Social Contract, Emile, Discourses/essays. I’ve never managed to get into the Autobiography, or get my hands on the New Heloise when I tried years ago. All are hugely important in their different fields – politics, education, autobiography, novels/imagination/cult of sensibility.
The Histories – Herodotus (c. 450-420 BC)
The story of the Persian attack on Greece, by “the father of history”. Very readable, also lots of stories about strange places and peoples.
Plutarch’s Lives – (c. 100 AD) read online
The History of Civilization in Europe – Guizot (1828)
From its beginnings to the 18th C.
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy – Jacob Burckhardt (1860)
Democracy in America – Alexis de Tocqueville (2 vols, 1835, 1840)
Widely considered, I think, the best book written on the USA, and maybe still the most insightful into the USA of today, amazingly, although written in the 1830s. And by a visiting Frenchman!
Harriet Martineau in America
Legitimacy Versus Industrialism 1818-1848
Freedom Versus Organization 1776-1914
Two excellent works of econonomic and political history by Bertrand Russell.
Voltaire’s Bastards – JR Saul
Modern reason and how it went wrong. It’s a history of many things – technocracy, reason, politics, war, democracy, Enlightenment…
Culture and Society 1780-1950 – Raymond Williams
A history of leading British anti-industralist writers and thinkers.
Egotism in German Philosophy – Santayana
The story of the German philosophy of Idealism from the 18th C to the 20th, in Santayana’s wonderfully elegant, clear style. Would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. (Nah, it’s funny: “The German people, according to Fichte and Hegel, are called by the plan of Providence to occupy the supreme place in the history of the universe. A little consideration of this belief will perhaps lead us more surely to the heart of German philosophy than would the usual laborious approach to it through what is called the theory of knowledge.”) It explains the Nazis; in that you can feel them coming straight out of this insane tradition, although it was issued during WWI.
Deutschland Über Alles, or Germany Speaks – J.J. Chapman on the German WWI madness, entirely consists of German writing from the period, politicians, academics, it’s all the same insanity. Amazing.
Economic Consequences of the Peace – JM Keynes
The story of the Treaty of Versailles negotations by an eye-witness/participant. Fascinating, is particularly vivid on how devastatingly disappointing Woodrow Wilson was.
The Epic of Latin America – John A. Crow (4th ed. 1992)
The volatile and heart-breaking story of Latin America, from the Maya up to the 1980s
Humanity – Jonathan Glover
A sobering moral analysis of war and some of the worst moments and tendencies of the 20th C. Looks at WWII, Nazism, communism, Hiroshima etc in detail.
The Cult of Art – Jean Gimpel
The story of the changing place and role of art and artists, from ancient times, through the coming of photography, to Hitler as archetype of the artist as maladjusted human. I found it fascinating and extremely confronting, until I checked out one of his villains, the founder of art-for-art’s-sake decadent Theophile Gautier; the preface to his Mademoiselle de Maupin (1830s) at least, which I just LOVED! Evidently Gimpel is the one with the problem; he is exactly one of Gautier’s “utilitarian critics”.
The Long March – Roger Kimball
A look at the leading thinkers of the 1960s cultural revolution in the USA, and just how nutty they really were.
STIFFED – Susan Faludi
Work, masculinity, social groups, meaning in life, sport, the military etc in mid-late 20th C USA. An important and wonderfully insightful book.
The Life and Death of Democracy – John Keane
I knew Heidegger (sometimes called the greatest philosopher of the 20th C) was thoroughly a Nazi, never expressed regret about that although he lived into the 1970s, etc, but just how completely Nazi-ish he was, is appearing only now with the publication of his Black Notebooks. See this article