How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm Irish. Don't let my last name (Zimmerman) fool you. I'm the proud son of a guy whose surname unfortunately obscures the fact that my mother (of whom I'm also a proud son) is 100 percent Irish, so assuming my dad has a little Irish in him (who doesn't?) I'm at least 50 percent.
Not sure why that's so important to me, but it is. There's a mystique to Irishness that simply isn't there with other countries of distant origins. Ireland is ever green, it's charmed and charming, thick with thin space. So you would think that by now I would have made my pilgrimage there. But I haven't; Ireland remains a place of fanciful imagination for me. You would also think that by now a proud wannabe Irishman would have read the 1995 national bestseller How the Irish Saved Civilization, but again you would be wrong. It's been on my shelf for at least fifteen years, waiting for me to finally crack the spine and dig into it. I'm not sure what kept me otherwise occupied; it might be that my copy has a very distracting manufacturing error on the cover (the spot gloss over the title is offset by about an inch, or it might be that I have so much time-sensitive reading to do that I just left this one slow-cooking on the back burner, or it may be that I know that calling myself Irish is absurd and vaguely insulting to people who actually are from Ireland, so I felt guilty and avoided the uncomfortable feeling. Whatever: 2012 is the Year of Overdue Books, so I swallowed my pride and indulged my self-perception and dug in.
How the Irish Saved Civilization is popular history at its apex. Part of a series of audacious arguments from Thomas Cahill ("The Hinges of History"), this one observes that the fall of the Roman Empire, and the corresponding neglect of the archives of Western Civilization, was paralleled by the Christianization of Ireland, whose nascent monks saw their calling as twofold: with no real opportunity to experience the "Red Martyrdom" of persecution unto death for their faith, the Irish took first to "Green Martyrdom," or the cloistered life of studying the Scriptures and the works of the early church. The prodigality of the Irish mind (from p. 131: "In Patrick's world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. And though that success is of an ultimate kind--and, therefore, does not preclude suffering--all nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind's good, teaching, succoring, and saving") was such that enthusiasm for these early works extended to pagan classics and other ancient culture. Irish monks became archivists for the ancient West at a time when Roman civilization could no longer be bothered by its own history, its own legacy.
Simply archiving history wouldn't save civilization, of course. And the Irish historically were not known for sitting around all day. Irish folk history, told compellingly by Cahill, is lusty and brazen, sometimes violent and always earthy, painting a portrait of a culture consumed with life. Such virility informs monasticism in unique ways, and the Green Martyrs eventually created an outlet for Irish wanderlust with "White Martyrdom," self-surrender that involved taking to sea and going where the waves took you. White Martyrs went everywhere--some undoubtedly to their death--and some of them wound up in Europe, where they reintroduced Europe's classics to itself. Not only Western civilization's culture was restored but a culture of being cultured was introduced: the love of learning and the life of the mind, and ethical responsibility that flows from it, can be traced back to the missionary efforts of these White Martyrs.
Thomas Cahill made me want to be more Irish, not less. His writing is elegant and exhilarating; you assume the truth of his absurdist claim--that a tiny island in the North Atlantic known mostly for famine, fantasy and fatalism gave Western civilization its life and soul back. I'm struck by the lessons from Cahill's take on European history for people today invested in the mission of the church. There are plenty of parallels between late antiquity and the modern day, from the comparable dominance and moral vulnerability of ancient Rome and the contemporary United States to the increasing cultural irrelevance of the Christian church. Cahill does a great job of noting the different worldviews of the two great Confessors of the era--Bishop Augustine of Hippo and Patrick of Ireland--one who developed an intricate and complex theology that over time proved oppressive and confining, the other whose theology was informed by and responsive to the people who surrounded it. Patrick's Christianity, focused as it is on God's good desire for his creation, is more welcoming than Augustine's, which emphasized the fall from grace and led to an emphasis on human depravity and eternal conscious punishment. If the church wants to "win some," it could stand to learn from Patrick's winsome approach. From the last paragraph of Cahill's book:
"Perhaps history is divided into Romans and Catholics--or, better, catholics. The Romans are the rich and powerful who run things their way and must always accrue more because they instinctively believe that there will never be enough to go around; the catholics, as their name implies, . . . instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family, that every human being is an equal child of God, and that God will provide. . . . If our civilization is to be saved--forget about our civilization, which, as Patrick would say, may pass 'in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind'--if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints."
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