In this episode, we talk with Dr. Reid Barbour about Francis Bacon, the study of history, and the English Civil War. Reid is the Roy C. Moose Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
Sir Thomas Browne a Life by Dr. Reid Barbour
Will Jarvis 0:04
Hey folks, I’m William Jarvis, along with my dad, Dr. David Jarvis, I host the podcast narratives. narratives is a project exploring the ways in which the world is better than it has been the ways it is worse in the past or making a better, more definite future. I hope you enjoy it. So Reid, how are you doing today?
Reid Barbour 0:34
I’m doing pretty well, I have to say, you know, taught today, I didn’t think that I was going to enjoy doing a class on zoom, because I love the classroom and love interacting with students, you know, getting in their faces in the classroom. But I have to say that it’s given my teaching almost a sense of urgency for the very reason we just experienced, you know, are we going to have sound? Exactly gonna go out? It’s gonna work. You know, the basic conditions of teaching are imperil every class meeting a kind of urgency. And I’ve got to say that the students are really kind of impressed me. That’s great. They’ve been under enormous stress and, and disappointment to some degree. Definitely. Yeah. You know, I’ve just been grading some papers on john Milton today, and they’re just really, really good. That’s, that’s really, that’s really cool. And do you mind if I call you read, by the way, please? Of course, okay. So read and for the audience, I just want to paint a picture, you were my favorite professor in undergrad, and you would come into class and, and I probably got the most out of your class for my like modern thinking, just how I think about the world from reading everything we read in your class and in your teaching, but I just want to paint a picture, you would come to the class, and he would take your shoes off. Yeah, he would lecture without notes. For you know, you could go an hour now. And you would just, it was the most amazing you. I don’t think it’s like watching Michael Jordan play basketball or something. It’s like, I don’t think many people ever reached the level of understanding about subjects like this, that you do or anything. Well, you know, the the method of,
I don’t know if I did this in your class, but sometimes I start lecturing before, I’m actually in the room, like one foot out one foot in. And it’s like I am. And I think what I want to do is to sort of shock my students, like, this is weird, I kind of want that response. This is weird, right. And it also, you know, there’s complete focus on the past, I want them to get the sense that what happens in this room is special. What we’re doing in here is different from what you’re going to do outside the room. So everything that I do, and you can’t do it on zoom, really, to have that kind of dramatic effect on them. I don’t think you can recreate, but I want them to think that studying history, that the past is wack is wacky, and really intriguing and perplexing. And that what we’re doing in this room is really special. I mean, that’s what I want to try to get out. And I like your point well about how it helps you think about the modern world. Because if you think about my approach, what I say to my students is I’m just a historian, I don’t have I’m not a philosopher, I’m not a theologian, I’m not going to solve for you the nature of truth, or whether there’s God or any of that. I want us to focus on what the people in the past cared about. What did they care about? What did they believe? What were they willing to fight for? What were they unsure about? They’re really focused my students rigorously on understanding the past, so that once they ask, What has this got to do with me, then they’ll be able to answer that question meaningfully. Because the alternative is a kind of modernist narcissism, that the past matters only to the extent that it mirrors us, and that I’m only going to care about those writers in the past who agree with me. And I really want to get my my modern students out of that framework. It’s not that it’s not relevant it is, but relevant, can be relevant can be purchased really cheaply. Like you’re not really drawing relevance from these tacks, because you haven’t really bothered to understand them in their own terms. You’re basically just imposing upon those texts. And those writers, those people who are long dead, you’re imposing upon them your own identity. So I’m really pleased to hear that you drew less than from it. And I think you probably did it in the right way that you really took the time. And I remember some of your papers, you really took the time to study history rigorously. So that once you applied it to your own condition, you did it fairly. You didn’t do it cheaply. And by the way, I mean, I’m glad you asked me talked about my teaching. One of the reasons I’m not ready to retire yet is because I really
Think that at UNC, maybe everywhere but at UNC, the study of history is imperiled. If you look at the new curriculum, which was designed in large part by social scientists, and natural scientists, they’re minimizing the extent to which students have to study history at all. This is incredibly unfortunate. And by the way, it’s it’s at odds with what I feel my students understand. It’s like these people my age, who are designing a curriculum that they think is appropriate for students who are 20. Whereas in fact, if you just look at the silent Sam controversy, right, and what students understood about the silent Sam controversy is that you can claim anything about silent Sam, it until the History is brought in. And when the History is brought in, wait, you can’t just claim anything? Because you can’t just make it up. And my sense is that if the political culture has taught us anything in America right now, is that if you don’t have history, you can just make it up. It can’t be what you say it is. And that’s terrifying to me. So my sense is that, you know, the study of history rigorously, is enormously relevant to the modern age, the study of the 17th century, enormously relevant to the modern age, scientifically it is, politically it is, but we have to be historians. It’s interesting when I teach theology or religion, my students have no idea what my religious beliefs are. They’re curious, they asked me, but I never talked about it with them until after the semester is over. And that really is pleasing to me that I can present a point of view that doesn’t coincide with mine, and you don’t know whether it’s my point of view. That’s because I’m exerting the historical imagination, I’m able to enter into someone else’s subject position, and recreate that subject position compassionately and compellingly, even though I might not agree with it. So I just want to just because this is probably the only podcast I’ve ever gonna be on a great, thank you very much for this platform. I just want to make a plea for how much we need history in 21st century America. And you know, guys, I really think my my 20 year old students understand it. Not that the designers of curricula at UNC understand it, but but my I think my kids understand it. So anyway, enough about that next question.
Unknown Speaker 7:21
Maybe wilske I asked you this, but can you go back and swerve up where we started and didn’t
Reid Barbour 7:28
get there? I sure can. David. So one of the issues that that is raised with the 17th century and with some of the work I’ve done, is the extent to which we’re already encountering a modern world in the 17th century, and in a secular world. And this book to swerve was written by a very distinguished scholar at Harvard, who also is a very popular writer, he’s, he’s really gotten the distinction of being both he’s a very serious scholar, but also, you know, his books are in you know, the airport and the airport bookstore, he wrote a book called The swerve how the world became modern. And the swerve is a reference to an physics idea
that goes back to an ancient poet called lucretius. And lucretius is always been fascinating to me because lucretius he lived in the first century before Christ at first century BCE, and he was an Epicurean
and one of the things that has to be established about Epicurean thought is that through the medieval centuries, it was completely misunderstood the idea of the epicureans as hedonist in the sense of, they love carnal pleasures, they love gluttony, they love promiscuous sex is completely wrong,
that they did believe that life should be pursued for pleasure, but by pleasure, they meant simple health of body and tranquility of mind. This is not ambiguous. That’s absolutely what they believe. And the ancient epicureans including lucretius, including his mat, his mentor, Epicurus, for whom the philosophy is named, actually didn’t live gluttonously or excessively at all, the reverse. Epicurus was famous for eating a very spare diet, drinking very little wine, drinking only water, eating roots, and vegetables. And so they got villainized and demonized and caricatured over the Christian Middle Ages. For reasons we can get into later anyway, their moral philosophy of pleasure defined is I just defined it was based on a physics and this is where this work comes in. And this is where modernization comes in. The physics was actually a physics of atomism, which we think is a modern idea. The world is made out of particles of atoms. Ancient epicureans argued that the world is made out of two constituent things, particles, atoms and emptiness, what they call the void or
vacuity. And these atoms are very different from our atoms, for the very word atom means indivisible, so you could not break the ancient atom. It was the only thing in fact, in the physical world that you could rely upon everything else was breakable. Everything else was mutable, but not the atom. And the idea was that these atoms sort of fell through a kind of infinite space. And by the way, they’re among the first to have the idea of an infinite universe. So they’re atomists, their universe is infinite. They’re also the basis for science fiction. And as much as they believe that out there, in that infinite universe, you have these different worlds. And these worlds are inhabited by beings that we don’t really know much about. But the swerve comes up, when lucretius, who’s a poet, but also a philosopher, he wrote this amazing epic called on the nature of things, but it’s a philosophical epic. It’s not like Homer. It’s not like, you know, the Iliad, or the Odyssey, or the Iliad. In fact, it’s very anti militaristic lucretius lived through civil war, he hated warfare, war and violence. The poem, which is called on the nature of things, is filled with condemnation of war and violence. And that’s one of the reasons why the 17th century was really interested in it, they also it was a generation of civil war and violence. Anyway, his his physics is what he tried to explain why the atoms collide when they do his and his argument is they’re all falling sort of through space through infinite space. And they collide, because they swerve, they swerve, and they hit each other. And sometimes when they hit each other, they’re shapes in tail that they can’t make compounds. But sometimes, you know, there’s a kind of chance meeting of atoms that can come together and and make a compound and then they end up making larger compounds and larger worlds. So this word is a way to account for, you know, the collision of atoms that make up compounds. Well, Greenblatt turns this into a metaphor for how, in the Renaissance period, the rediscovery of lucretius, his poem meant a swerving away from the Middle Ages, and from a word dominated by religion and the church. And to be fair to his argument, there’s some truth in that because if the moral philosophy of pleasure is founded on physics on atomism, the idea is you need to live a tranquil life, you need to have a very fair diet, you need to be very healthy, because you’re made of atoms. And those atoms are very volatile. They’re always jostling. And so because you’re constituted by atoms, you need to really be called, you really need to be tranquil, and you need to be healthy because you’re trying to keep your atoms together, right? But so there’s a physics there’s a moral philosophy on top of that, but Epicurus and lucretius, added on top of that, a theology. Interesting. And this is where they get interesting. I mean, they’re already interesting, but their theology went something like this. There are Gods they exist, they’re not atheist in the modern sense of the word. But from the Renaissance sense of the term, and even from the ancient sense of the term. They’re atheists because their gods don’t care about the universe. They are, they aren’t creators. They’re not destroyers. They, they don’t intervene. They’re not going to punish you, they’re not going to punish you in this life. They’re not going to punish you in the next life. By the way, there’s not going to be a next life. Because when your atoms break down into atoms, you’re done. There’s no immortal soul that’s going to linger in the next world. Will Jarvis read Barber, David Jarvis, there’s no more your Adam’s will, will break down and then they’ll reform and make other people. But what made you you is gone. So they’re their gods, but they’re what we call anti providential. They don’t they don’t care. In fact, they’re models of tranquility. They’re just chilling out out there in the universe. Right. So for Greenblatt, this basically represented this idea represented a break from Catholicism, a break from the medieval church, and the secularization of the period, I should say that what made lucretius important to my period, which is basically the 16th century in fifth and 17th century, is that manuscripts of this poem on the nature of things they were lost, for, so they nobody could read lucretius, after about after Cicero, Cicero and some some ancients read him, but then the poem got lost. Well, in the 15th century, some book Hunter was going around in medieval monasteries looking for manuscripts and found a copy. I don’t know why. And once they found a copy edition after edition of lucretius started to be published, people started to realize that the epicureans had been caricature and gotten wrong. But what took hold right away was the philosophy of pleasure, because Christians in the Renaissance period understood that that can be reconciled to our Christian
believes, you know, tranquility of mind, be calm, avoid excess. Don’t be a drunk. Don’t be, you know, promiscuous. I mean, there was something really virtuous, about Epicurean pleasure that can be reconciled with Christianity and so many 16th century readers of lucretius just picked out the moral philosophy. But that left those two other dimensions, the atoms, the physics, and the theology, those gods who don’t care. And it was in my main century, the 17th century, where people started thinking, you know, we got to deal with this. The physics just makes more sense than the old air to tilian way of explaining causation. It just makes more sense. But where it gets tricky, of course, is that if you buy into the atomism into the science, does that necessarily mean that you buy into the theology? And the answer in the 17th century? Whether you’re talking about Descartes, or the famous scientists, Robert Boyle, or Francis Bacon or any of the great sort of Sciences in 17th? century? The answer is emphatically No. Just embrace atomism? Does it mean you have to embrace their gods, you can argue that the Christian God made the atoms in the first place. You can reconcile Christian theology with ancient animism. And that’s precisely what happened. And so one of the issues that gets raised in the 17th century is, did the revival of this atomism. Did the revival of the physical swerve constitute a kind of cultural swerve away from religion? And my sense is that that that’s absolutely not the case.
The rise of science of the 17th century, far from an undercutting the Protestant faith in religion actually served to reinforce it, so that you do not get the modernization of the world if by modernization we mean secularization, gotcha. The modern world is secular. But I mean, if you just pick up a list of the members of the Royal Society, the big scientific society, in the 1660s, there were so many church men in it, so many bishops, so many clergy. And bacon himself had argued that far from impugning, the Protestant Reformation, the scientific revolution was an extension of it, and bake interesting makes that argument and that’s for my students, that’s just mind blowing.
That that idea that for bacon, of the Actually, it was an extension of what Luther had done, Luther basically had returned our attention to the Bible, as God has written, written it and the scientific revolution was about returning our attention to the book of nature, as God has written it that science, you pay attention to the evidence as it is for bacon that wasn’t secular. That wasn’t atheists ago, that was precisely Christian.
So so the whole swerve issue is about did the world become modern once you discovered, you know, atomism? Did it become secular once? You did? And I think the answer to that is that, you know, the answer to that is no, that it didn’t, but it’s a big issue. I mean, I guess I shouldn’t say emphatically, no. I mean, to some degree, I guess we’re still living with these ideas, as you say, well, right. We’re still atomists to some degree, although I haven’t kept up with all the physics theories, you know, beginning of the 20th century, but Adam ism is clearly a part of who we are and what we are.
Will Jarvis 18:20
But it’s trickier than that. I guess. I guess I’m saying. I do remember that was quite mind blowing.
Reid Barbour 18:27
When in class, you brought that up how Francis Bacon saw it as an extension of the Protestant Reformation not is like this brand new project? Yeah, exactly. In fact, it’s interesting that Victorian historians of science, who wanted to see the world is becoming increasingly secular, they would basically say bacon didn’t mean it. He just couldn’t say what he really meant.
And the evidence is just overwhelming that he absolutely meant it. I mean, he just absolutely meant it. And he saw himself as doing for the book of nature, what Luther had done for the book of Scripture, removing human intervention, so that you get back to the way that God did it. And in fact, I mean, you know, bacon will say, Well, does that does that mean removing theology from the study of the nature? And his answer is, to some degree, yes. But the point that he makes is when you remove theology, you’re not removing God. theology is not God. theology is the human imagination. It’s like now what theories like intelligent design. Those theologies are not in their somebodies imagination, of how nature ought to be or how they think nature should be. Where’s your bacon, you look at nature as it is. That’s what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. They looked at nature as it is, if nature is weird, and messy as it sometimes proves to be, so be it. And then you can ask, Well, why did God make it messy? Why did God make it wacky? And they can, like we don’t know why. That’s exactly the point of the Protestant Reformation. There’s so much about God that we don’t understand it.
like asking, you know, to know the mind of God, God could have created the world in a million ways. God just chose to create it in this way is the Protestant god of will and power. You know, the God who also elects some people we know not why. So to God made the world, the phenomena of the world in this way we know not why. So Bacon’s mind blowing, and remember to defer bacon and we can talk about bacon more. But all of this is part of the attempt to transform everything. You know, how we approach the natural world, how we relate to God, social institutions, how we think being bacon is, you know, you, Bacon’s big. He’s a big deal in terms of changing European culture at this time. So actually, I want to talk about that. And, and how do you get the sense you’ve read a lot? A lot. So do you get the sense that Bacon’s theories around empiricism and inductive reasoning? Were really like that new with a Yeah, I’m sorry. Well, go ahead. No, yeah. Okay. That’s great. Yeah. So they were they were that new? I mean, well, let me let me modify that. Because I mean, certainly, it’s a great question. I mean, bacon certainly wasn’t the first to argue. So let’s, first of all, let’s take your two terms and separate them. Because there’s inductive reasoning, and then there’s empiricism. Not necessarily the same thing. inductive reasoning is a methodology and, and bacon is very elaborate one. It helps you to sift and analyze data. Whereas empiricism is more about collecting data, you just collect data, right? Gotcha. Bacon actually didn’t like the word empiricists. He uses it, but almost always pejoratively. Precisely because if you’re not analyzing the data or the evidence, then you basically are never going to come up with scientific axioms. And if you don’t have scientific axioms, you’ll never be able to do anything. Well, let me just put it this way. There were certainly people before bacon, who believed that knowledge should be gained from experience. So in the Middle Ages, his namesake Roger bacon, the the medieval thinker, argued for the value of experience. Chaucer’s character, the Wife of Bath,
argues that experience can be really valuable. If you go back to antiquity. I mean, bacon would point out, there’s a whole full there’s a philosopher in antiquity called sextus empiricus, a skeptical thinker who believed that you know, you need to gain knowledge from experience, they can found kindred spirits in antiquity, democritus and Epicurious, the atomists, he believed that they were sort of on the same page with him. Even Aristotle, whose approach to the natural world can be very deductive That is to say, axiom an axiom driven.
Aristotle, for the most part is axiom driven. But Aristotle wrote a whole treatise on animals that seeks to actually pay attention to actual animals. So there are certainly writers before bacon who said you need to pay attention to experience you need to pay attention to phenomenon. But bacon work that into a program into a whole movement. That was a game changer. And it was really about changing the way people think and what they focus on. And I do think and that’s why it’s important to separate the inductive method, which he talks about in a text eight, he called the new instrument.
His bait, his method is certainly distinctive, but he’s not the first person to articulate a theory of induction mean, that’s an old old idea. But one of the things that he did do toward the end of his life, is he started focusing on what he would call not empiricism, but he called it the natural history. And by history, he just meant inquiry. And you basically just spent a lot of time in the lab, looking at phenomenon, looking at material phenomena.
And for bacon, I think there was something new about that, that just dedication to looking at all the phenomena of the natural world, and allowing those natural phenomena to be what they are not imposing upon them some paradigm of order, or purpose that you know, everything has a purpose. Maybe, maybe not. I mean, that was a big aresty tilian idea. Everything has a purpose. Nature never does anything in vain. Bacon said maybe you’re maybe not. That was a really risky, adventurous thing for Baker to argue, because it might impugn divine providence to say that something might not have a purpose. So just look at nature as it is. And in the laboratory, bacon believes not only should you allow nature to be weird and wacky and monstrous and irregular, you should try to force nature to be weird and wacky and messy and monstrous, because until you understand all the things that natural phenomena can be, you really don’t understand nature at all. One other thing about the game changer, that bacon was not just that focus on natural phenomenon, a lingering focus on it, but the uses of that knowledge will and David bacon is off
been quoted as having said, and this is really important for I think the modern world and are concerned about climate change and, and technology and what we’re doing to the environment. Bacon is really famous for having said knowledge is power, right?
And he did say that. But people, people who quote that, and stop there, I know they don’t know anything about bacon. And they’re two things wrong with quoting knowledge is power. That bacon said that, first of all, they’re usually quoting an English translation of Latin. And if you look at the Latin, it’s clear what they can meant by power. He’s talking to Adam and Eve, and how they were given dominion over the creatures. God did not mean for them to wield tyrannical power over the natural world, to get us to support that idea, you know, Adam and Eve just go racket.
You know, Dominion meant caretaking, that they had the responsibility to take care of the natural world, the Garden of Eden, rather than racket as they ended up doing. So So power is really dominion, and dominion is really caretaking. And you really see that in the second thing that’s gotten wrong about knowledge is power. They can always ends up saying just after that, and knowledge is charity, he always says that, so that it’s not just for bacon, that you have scientific knowledge, what’s crucial for bacon is what you do with that knowledge that you have to make the world better. You have to make human life better.
And, and he’s really concerned, for example, about health and longevity. So so that So what makes bacon interesting, is not just how he changed the way we think about the natural world, or what that had to do with Christianity in the 17th century. But the whole technological, social and cultural implications and environmental implications of, of the knowledge that we gained from scientific experience. So So yeah, my sense is that is that Bacon’s a real game changer in a lot of ways. But that’s really well put, do you have the feeling that it was? Do you know how he came about, like these ideas? Was it just like in the water? You know, I know, it’s so long ago, right? It’s difficult to it’s not we actually know a lot about how he came up with his ideas. And and I’m so glad you asked that, because we know a lot more about it now, because there’s these really dedicated scholars who have discovered manuscripts. So a lot of the old Victorians historians of science just went on big what bacon published. And what what we know now is that he left a lot of manuscripts that were never published in his own day. And so we can track a lot of his sources in in 16th century thought, for example, but I’m glad you asked about his sources, because it helps to complicate this narrative, that what bacon represented was the modernization of the world, right and secularization of the world, because what we’ve learned from studying his manuscripts is this Bacon’s interest in atomism, that activists physics was very powerful, but it was relatively early in his career.
He eventually abandoned atomism as his go to physics, and ended up preferring a notion of the universe as constituted by spirit.
And the word for for Spirit that He usually would use was numa p n EUMA. As a pneumatology the word spirit is very tricky, because it can represent a can seem to represent something religious right, the Holy Spirit.
Bacon insisted that for him spirit was material as it was, for that matter for ancient medical writers, such as Galen or ancient stoics, such as ancient philosophers, such as the stoics. numa was an old, old old idea. They can wanted to turn this idea of spirit into something decidedly scientific, something decidedly physical. But nonetheless, I think this idea that he moved from sort of atomism to a physics of spirit really complicates our sense of, of a bacon who was just increasingly modern and, and secular. And a lot of the sources that we know for his thinking, really were like Italian scientist who cared about about notions of spirit of him. There were a lot. So yeah, there’s some sources, but his inductive method will.
I don’t think there is a clear source for that. There’s a lot of about method in the Renaissance. But his method is pretty distinctive. And in fact, his readers said as much. They’re like, well, this is Bacon’s method, take it or leave it, but it’s pretty distinctive to him. Gotcha. And I’m curious how widely read was The novum or
Will Jarvis 30:00
Autumn was it and pronunciation?
Reid Barbour 30:05
How? Yeah. How widely read was that was was that manuscript? It we have a sense. Yeah, it was it was widely read. He published in 1620. The preface to this new instrument was his announcement of his great plan, what we would call the scientific revolution, he had another phrase for it. But he laid out a six part plan to change it review education, change, education, change, human thought, focus on natural phenomenon. So this was a big deal. It was written in Latin. So remember, that meant that people in Europe I mean, basically England at this time, if you were, say, in France, or Italy, people didn’t look at England as likely to produce a lot of genius. Like if you were in Italy say, yeah, there were very few English writers who made any difference at all to say Descartes.
Yeah, but bacon bacon was read. It’s not everybody agreed with him. But he was he was very, very influential, even for people who were like, this is wrong, or this is misguided or whatever. Yeah, it got read. That’s really that’s really interesting.
interview you mentioned to England is kind of like, viewed as an intellectual backwater, to a certain extent, you know, if a modern person was to be plopped down, and I’d love to know, you know, how much we know about the 16th 17th centuries. But and I guess that’s, I guess that’ll be my first question. How much do we know about the 16th 17th centuries? Do we have a really good grip on that or not? We do, we have a lot of evidence to go on. Now, the crucial thing, though, that in terms of historical methodology, is print versus manuscript. Okay. Remember that even at the printing press has been around since the late 15th century, we still have a lot of writers even in the 17th century who don’t want their stuff printed, they keep it in manuscript interesting only go on what’s printed, you get a very limited, very, very partial sense of what people care about. So increasingly, scholarship, historical scholarship has insisted upon going into the archive, and digging up manuscripts. And that’s been really important to my work, that you find you find new manuscripts that people didn’t know about. So that helps fill out our understanding of what average people cared about. And, and what they were willing to articulate when it wasn’t going to go into print. Because remember, that print was censored, except for a very short period in the 1640s. This is a this is a culture that has a very powerful apparatus of censorship. And so, you know, satire was sometimes you know, the saturates of john donne kept in manuscript, he didn’t want them to get into the hands of people who might really object very powerful people might object. So when you’re trying to gather evidence about the past, you really need to deal with manuscript material, archival material, as well as print material. Obviously, we’re discovering new stuff all the time, which is what makes it incredibly exciting. You know, you know, one of the most exciting things in my whole 30 year career is to actually discover a fact. You know, scholars love to offer up interpretations, and I’ve done my share of that. But there’s nothing like discovering a fact. That’s great. Can you talk about that a little bit? Yeah, yeah. I mean, I wrote a biography of this really amazing physician and writer, Sir Thomas Brown. And ever since Sir Thomas Brown had lived in the 17th century, his fans had wondered, well, you were a doctor, you had a medical dissertation. What was it about?
And, you know, for centuries, people guess? Well, we don’t know. But let’s guess based on what we know. And I actually discovered it, I found his medical dissertation. And, and the subject of his medical dissertation was smallpox. Finally, finding that out was really fascinating, because then I realized, Oh, he’s also really one of the first medical writers and thinkers to be interested in dermatology didn’t really become a thing until the 18th century, he’s one of the first medical writers to think of skin. skin is interesting, because if you look at old anatomy books, you know, the cover of anatomy books, you’ll have a cadaver, and the skin has been sort of peeled away, right? The skin is just the cover, don’t know, who cares. But in the 17th century, you know, brown keep talking about skin. And, and you know, what skin tells us about the human and skin diseases, and then when I realized he’d written about smallpox, that helped to explain that. So discovering a fact there’s nothing like it. You know, and it really helps to advance our understanding of the past.
Will Jarvis 34:36
Yeah, before we get all by the way, I want to make sure we talk about the Civil War. So just Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Let’s move on to that. English Civil War, I think not talked about enough.
It really just wild stuff happens. Well, what so I guess put up some of the big important takeaways that you’ve had from studying English.
Reid Barbour 35:00
civil war that people would just not encounter think, well, I’m so glad you asked that. Because one way to sort of think about the modernization and secularization of the world in 17th century. Another twist on that is, and this is really fascinating to my students, when they discover people who live in the 17th century, might well have been more radical than people. Now, that’s really hard to stand. Yes, for those in the audience who don’t know about English Civil War. And you also asked me in your preliminary, you know, how, as john Milton then gotten wrong, john Milton, one of the great voices of the English Civil War, let’s just say that the English Civil War, which started in 1642, led not just to the execution of a monarch, Charles to first on January 13 1649, but it led in 1649, to the overthrow of the monarchy. Now, I would bid your audience to walk around the streets of London today, and ask, you know, English people now? Are you prepared just to get rid of the monarchy? Maybe nowadays they are.
And all the stuff that’s coming up
with Harry and Megan, but you know, I mean, there was like a very brief, you know, you know, Republican movement in London, and like the 1980s, but it died are pretty fast death, right? People love their monarchy. And yet, here in 1649, we have the overthrow of the monarchy, and the establishment of a government that centered on the House of Commons, because they got rid of the House of Lords as well. So no House of Lords, no monarchy, the House of Commons, and then an Executive Council of State. That’s the freakin government in the 1650s. I mean, it was a very volatile unstable period, the 1650s, they ended up changing the constitution the government a few times. And then of course, because setting up a whole new government is hard. You have to establish international relations with every country you do business with, like ever in France and Italy in the 1650s. Or like, what happened?
What’s going on? What’s going on? There are a lot of royalists around Europe who think that the English people have done a horrible thing. So this is a, you know, a period of incredible instability and uncertainty, but incredible radicalism. This is a period in which you know, they had a state religion until this period they do away with that the Church of England has done away with, so you start getting in the 1650s, a group groups of Christians who are wildly radical, you basically believe that they’re moved by the Holy Spirit, that means they don’t need a church, they don’t need any kind of church at all. One of those groups, by the way, is a group that we like to call the Quakers. Right. But in the 1650s, the Quakers were called the Quakers not because they like to sit around in meeting houses and seek to buy yachts, and be all peaceful and quiet. In the 1650s. They were badass. They were called the Quakers because they were so moved by the Holy Spirit that they were just quake with zeal. And they were also kind of really politically politically radical. You know, they would go into churches, including women, by the way, women move by the Holy Spirit, and these women, Quakers we go, you male preacher stepped down from your pulpit, you do not have the Holy Spirit with you, you get these other radical groups that have these really colorful names like the those Levellers, whose name basically meant they wanted to level political power, they wanted a lot more people to have voting rights unheard off in this period, the diggers, who basically said there shouldn’t be private property, we should have communes, and they literally went out and started digging up private property, as though it was theirs, the fifth monarchist who thought the kingdom of heaven was coming back to Earth now, and that they needed to take action. So you get this outbreak, all these really interesting radical groups, politically radical, socially radical, religiously radical. And yet, obviously, all this stuff happens almost overnight. And the people of England are, you know, made anxious by it, by the uncertainty by the volatility in by the end of the 1650s. They’re kind of tired of the chaos. And so they restore the monarchy, they restore the House of Lords, they restored the Church of England. And so there’s a real sense of Do we have a kind of progression toward democracy? Yes and no. I mean, a lot was changed before the 1640s. a monarch could call parliament and send Parliament home at will Parliament’s were really subservient to monarchs in the 1640s. They passed a law that basically required there to be a meeting of Parliament. Every three years this is a huge deal. Now they restored the monarchy but
You all know that somewhere along the line really in the late 17th century, 18th century, the monarch became increasingly without power. Right? The Prime Minister became the powerful figure and Parliament became increasingly powerful. So did we get modernization in the 17th century? That’s a hard one to answer yes and no, a lot changed. But some things didn’t change this. They’re still paying a lot of taxes to Elizabeth the Second.
So, so it’s a really incredible period and john Milton, one of my favorite writers, and I teach a class on him, you know, he’s usually you know,
no known as a kind of Puritan, right. And people when they translate Puritan into killjoy doesn’t like, you know, the body doesn’t like pleasure. It’s, it’s preposterous. Milton wrote a famous poem called Paradise Lost in the witch, just about everybody is having sex,
or having sex and by the way, not just for the purposes of procreation, the be fruitful multiply formula. On the Genesis, they’re having sex because it’s what is pleasurable. even notice angels have a version of sex. Milton is not Puritan in that sense of Let’s be buttoned up and against the body.
In fact, Milton to some degree, that is the profound Christian also materialist, he believes everything’s made out of out of physical body. He’s also politically radical, and very bold. He’s one of the voices that defends before before just about anyone else is the killing of Charles the first, the overthrow of monarchy. When the monarchy gets restored in 1660, you can bet the Milton is on a hitless it’s amazing, he survived the wrath of King Charles the second, the son of the of the executed King Charles the first. It’s amazing Milton survived to write his poem Paradise Lost. So Milton and this period are really, really radical and out there and in a lot of interesting ways. And obviously, I mean, I should say this will
when the american revolution happened, right, you, you can bet that the English revolution English Civil War was much on their minds. Milton, very popular among the American revolutionaries.
So so the English Civil War was really seen by the American revolutionaries as a prelude to what they stood for, in the 1770s. That’s, that’s really interesting. I wanted to bring up that so there’s a book I can’t read the name. So history, I just finished on the American Revolution, and abused the American Revolution more in the light of it’s actually kind of an English inner English conflict, not like and so it’s kind of a kind of like a class conflict or something. Well, functionally, how can we think of the English Civil War like who is a royalist and who is, you know, a question with Oliver Cromwell is such a great question. There have been attempts to explain the English Civil War as a socio economic phenomenon to offer up to a Marxist interpretation of it. There was a very, very wonderful historian called Christopher hell, who basically argued that these groups, the Levellers, the the diggers, that they were it was history from the bottom up that you’re talking about lower class or lower rank people who are now empowered to to change the world to turn it upside down. There’s something misleading about that, though, because Cromwell was pretty well off
this counter elites, I mean, there was this counter like culture of elites or something. I don’t know if that’s precisely right. Chroma was a man of property. In fact, when the Levellers started arguing that they should you should extend voting rights. chromo said, No, he said, You need to have property to have a vote. The leader of his problem was second in command of the army against the king. The leader was a guy called Thomas Fairfax, Sir Thomas Fairfax, a man of property with a country estate in Yorkshire. So it wasn’t a Marxist revolution. In fact, the best way to think about it that royalists tended to be actually
many royalists were from the lower class that the supporters and in fact, you probably would find something similar today, you would probably find among the lower classes in England, a very heartfelt support for the monarchy. I’m not sure that’s true. But there was something about the monarchy that really was comforting to poor people at this time. The monarch really, for example, supported holidays, Christmas, so so a lot of poor people will like a lot of laborers were like we can get on board with that. But a lot of the people who oppose the king were from the elite, from from the social elite. And if you think about the history of revolution against monarchy in England, the Magna Carta, the Magna Carta, in the 13th century, was basically engineered by a lot of the chief leading subjects of the crown. So I think Christopher Hill is right that there are some social economic implications when you
have groups like the diggers and Levellers right, standing up for their rights, but I think predominantly the power structure of the Parliament and and the opponents of the king were from the social elite.
Interesting. Yes. It’s very interesting just to kind of think about and hear those echoes, you know, today, and you mentioned that, you know, this conflict, it happened quickly, like people were surprised by it. Yeah. Do you have any sense? Why was it like, you know, food prices shot up? Was it? So glad you asked that, because I now realize that what I’ve said is very controversial. The thing about overnight and but and by the way, just a point about the American Revolution, too. We’re still with Electoral College, for example, we’re still struggling with the extent to which what happened with the American Revolution was elitist versus you know, popular. It’s we’re still struggling with that issue, which was it? And of course, the answer, it was kind of both and historians will are profoundly divided over whether or not the English Civil War was long term in its causes, or short term, and its causes, I tend to think that the Civil War of the 1640s was relatively short term,
debt that even though the ideas that were in play, Royal sovereignty versus parliamentary authority, obviously, that conflict was to some degree long standing. But, frankly, here’s how history is weird. The guy who came into power in 1625, Charles the first had an older brother.
His name was Prince Henry.
Prince Henry was loved, just and Prince Henry just was so different from his brother Charles, the first, Charles The first was highly inflexible. His father James had theorized divine right monarchy, but Charles practiced it rigorously. And I think it’s arguable that if Charles the first brother Henry had not died before he became king, if Henry had become king, you wouldn’t have gotten an English Civil War, you would have had conflict about politics and religion. But I don’t think it would have come to a civil war. I think Charles really forced it into a war soldier, if we’re asking the ideas in play about plitt, about politics and religion. I think those are more long term. But the war, I think, was more short term that there were there from causes something by trolls first was really a poor monarch. And that gave Yeah, I mean, look, some historians have tried to defend him, the man of principle, right. Very fine. Historian Kevin Sharpe has tried to argue this in a very long book about Charles diverse, whatever else you can say about him, the man had principles, we can admire that. Well, yes, and no. But I mean, I think there is there there, you know, history works at a lot of different levels. One is the level of ideas. But the other is the level of circumstances, and branch ants and personalities. I mean, we know this, you know, we live in a culture that really cares about personalities. And and that’s not a new thing, you know, personality, and the way that a politician interacts with people can make an enormous difference in into what happens. And I guess, I guess what I’m saying is that when you try to explain the English Civil War, like so many complicated historical events, you got to wait in a lot of different kinds of causes. That race really is layered, and it works at a lot of different levels. And to understand the whole thing, you got to try to understand all that. Got it. And that’s what makes it challenging. That makes a lot of sense.
Will Jarvis 48:35
Read, I don’t want to keep you on too long. I know, we’re kind of on an hour. So just let me cry. Alcohol is good.
But I had one more big question. I think it was
on, you know, if you’re an everyday person and 16th 17th century England,
you know, what, what are the what are the beliefs that you know, and an everyday person today would just find so bizarre? We couldn’t you couldn’t even get our mind around it? Yeah, it’s a great question, because to some degree,
Reid Barbour 49:05
I think the difference between us and them can be really exaggerated. For example, historians used to say, well, in the 17th century,
parents didn’t feel emotion about their, about their children dying.
Because it happened all the time.
Which is true, like, if I had been born in the 17th century, I would have died it to. If I had scarlet fever, I would have been a goner. And historians used to argue, you know, they just they just didn’t, they just couldn’t afford to feel emotion when a child died. And that’s simply untrue. The evidence is overwhelming that parents then as now could just be devastated when they lost a child when they lost an infant. That that was, and one of the wonderful things about writing a biography of the doctor I wrote about the physician was realizing that bedside manner was just as important than as it as it is now. That he was hired by a lot of patients. Not just
Because he was good at their version of medicine, that because he comforted them, when they were really, really upset. But there were beliefs in the 17th century, that are really hard to understand, for example,
they burnt people because they thought they were witches.
That, you know, and one of my favorite works of history is by a historian called Stuart Clark. And it’s called thinking with demons. And what Stuart Clark does in this ginormous book, but it’s about witchcraft. And he sets himself this challenge.
People in the past were human beings just like us. And yet 1000s of them thought it was a good idea to hunt down witches
Unknown Speaker 50:47
and burn them,
Reid Barbour 50:49
or kill them.
I’m a historian. It’s my job to understand why human beings could think that.
And I just loved that book, because he does what historically, it’s so easy for us to stand in judgment of the wackiness of the past. Right? How could they? You know, and yet, you know, it’s my hope that 100 years from now, when historians look at us, they will be kind to us, because you can bet they’re gonna look back at 2020.
And they’re gonna go Americans, how, what day? And I say, Yeah, what are they thinking? And I just hate it when modern people just look down their noses at the past, like, how stupid they were, how lacking in social justice they were, how blind they were, let’s guess what, we’re still pretty lacking in social justice, we still have a long way to go. And we have 400 years on them. That’s right. So things like witchcraft
is a good example of the How could they think that was a good idea. And I just really believe that historians have earned their their paycheck, when they say, Okay, let’s really try to understand how they could have read without just demonizing them without just saying how stupid they were, how brutal they were. I mean, certainly there’s that. issues of race are trickier in the 17th century,
England was only starting to get involved in the slave trade. But certainly, that’s an example of a mentality from the past, that’s hard to understand how you could think it was a good idea to own a human being. And this is an interesting again, this idea of was the 17th century a kind of trajectory that led from kind of old, archaic, stupid ideas to progressive modern ideas. racial identity is tricky, because if you look at Milton, again, Milton’s worried that he won’t be able, we talked about England as a backwater earlier. Well, England’s a backwater, because it’s to the north, where people are very, very white, in Scandinavia and England. And so racial theory at the beginning of the 17th century was actually if you won’t really brilliant people, you go south. Well, if you go south, that means you end up not just in Italy, you end up in Africa.
interesting way. And so there was a sense that Egypt in particular, was associated with philosophical genius. And some Renaissance writers argued, well, every genius from antiquity, everyone who was philosophically or spiritually enlightened, guess what? They spent time in Egypt, that included Plato, but it also included Moses. Right? So right, yeah, argue that at the outset of the 17th century, blackness was inferior to whiteness, if what you’re testing is intellect, right? So so it’s weird. And in English, not yet involved in the slave trade, sometime over the course of the next 200 years, that guy flip. It’s got very different things very different. So when you’re trying to say, has history gotten more progressive, have we moved through along a trajectory that leads to social justice? That’s a very hard question to answer. When you take questions of race. Now, gender is a really interesting issue. I don’t really have time to get into that. But certainly their ideas about gender that are really backwards in the period as I study, on the other hand, Americans haven’t had a female president yet. Whereas England did have female monarchs.
You know, Elizabeth, the first was one of the most powerful political figures in the history of England. So So those kinds of questions. Are we more progressive? Yes and no. And that if you’re a really genuine historian, you have to answer that in all of its complexity.
So yeah, there are definitely ideas that we look at and we go Whoa, what what
Will Jarvis 55:00
were they thinking? That’s great. And a lot of this is part of the reason why I really enjoyed like your class and learning from you. You there’s this like idea of like Whig history that things are just rocketing. Yeah, it’s a score. It’s straight straight to the, you know, this big star up here. And I’m like, man, it just feels like it’s it’s much more nuanced than that. There’s a lot of weird things here. Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, you know, you’re referring to that theory of history that was so important, right through the 20th century, that, you know, political historical events are basically almost inevitable. Right? history is moving toward
Reid Barbour 55:34
social justice, democracy. And I don’t know where you all are on this. I mean, I look at countries like I don’t know, Turkey, you know,
you know, you look around the world America. And we have not yet as far as I can tell, had a president who does not identify as Christian. Right? We have we mean, maybe Jefferson, I guess, Jefferson? Maybe. But in our modern age, we have not yet had a president. I mean, could let me put it this way. Could someone run for president and win in America now? If they were Jewish? If they were Muslim? If they were atheist? Could they win? And if the answer to that is no, then the idea that our modern America is somehow secular, or that we’ve moved toward a sort of secular civil society, where religion and politics are kept apart? No.
Will Jarvis 56:33
It’s really good point. Yeah, it’s it’s pretty it’s especially the you know, an atheist president. It’s fairly unthinkable. It’s unthinkable. It’s unthinkable. It’s unthinkable as far as I can tell. Yeah, that’s what I’ll put. Well, read. Thank you so much for coming. coming on. I really enjoyed this. And I really, I just wanted to reiterate, and have you just mentioned, how important study of history is, I think it’s one of the most important if not, you know, it’s it’s incredibly important. I think it’s much more important social science to be completely honest. And there you go. And part of that is, you know, we don’t call physics, you know, physical science, we don’t call chemistry. Yeah, it’s like, you know, I don’t know. Yeah, this is something to think about. But I do think history. It’s, it’s it’s definitely it’s gotten underrated, and it’s something we need to keep in mind, just to understand and get out of this presentism kind of lens, we’ve got. Yeah. blinders. Really, really? Can I break in and ask read one question before we leave? Sure.
Unknown Speaker 57:31
Read, we’ve had the good fortune to talk to some really bright people very good thinkers that know, their subject matter looks like, unbelievably well, and they usually are someone in the modern world. So this question even fits better today, because you know, the world through a longer lens than most of the people we talked to. And so I’m going to ask you pessimistic? Are you optimistic about the future?
Reid Barbour 58:02
I’m pretty optimistic, David.
And part of that is because I’m a teacher. And that means I, you know, I am with young people, and I just think this generation, I think, will, you know, will, and and his generation, you guys are just incredible. You’re so bright, you understand things like the need to study history. And yet, I think you’re also really you care about issues, you care about the climate, you care about social justice, and I’m just really moved by you all, I think that you all are really in a position to make this world a lot better.
And I think a lot of the problems are caused by people who are a lot older than you are. So Frankly, I when I deal with my students, I mean, this is why I keep teaching. My students have never been better than they are right now. And I’ve been teaching 30 for almost 40 years, including when I was a grad student, they never been better than they are right now. And they’re better not because they’re dedicated to the subject I teach. But because in addition to being great scholars, they really care about the world. They care about suffering, they care about making the world better. So David, I would say, I mean, I can be pretty grumpy at times.
But that’s usually has to do with like traffic or something.
I mean, I tell you, there are a few issues that that worry me. I don’t know what we’re going to do about guns. I really don’t know what we’re going to do about guns because it seems to me I can’t think of any kind of policy that will make it better at this point. But I never now I’m really outside my my expertise. But there are there are issues that worry me. I mean, I’m incredibly worried about about gun violence. And I’m not anti No, I’m not like, I don’t believe no one should have a gun. It’s not that at all, but when I have to when I walk across campus, if I ever walk across campus again, you won’t believe this. But I’m always looking for the shooter. I’m always looking for the person with
Gun. Because I mean, I don’t know if you all know this, we actually had a campus shooting in Chapel Hill in the 1990s. Actually a former English major who basically tried to kill a lot of people in Chapel Hill. Whenever I go into a classroom, my first question about that physical spaces, if I have a shooter, what will I do? How will I deal with it? So there are certainly issues about American culture in particular that, that that worry me, and I can’t see because I’m not smart enough. I can’t see the way out. But I think on the whole I really believe in wills generation, I really believe that that you guys are going to do amazing things not to put pressure on you. Well, but uh, yeah, I’m an optimist. David. I really am. That’s good. Thanks. Well, read. Do you have any parting thoughts? Anything? And where can people find your work? Oh, just
the biography of Thomas brown or any of the work I’ve done just in any university library, you can find it? I mean, it’s available through like Amazon, but it’s probably too expensive.
But, uh, yeah, just any university library will have it. But also, I mean, if anyone’s interested in the study of history, just just, you know, they should just email me in the English department at UNC. The one thing I’ve started doing at all my classes is, I know a lot of you are science majors out there social science majors out there. But if you’re interested in studying history, let me know and and i’m getting people who are
so So anyway, I’m really honored to have been on with you to your your lineup before me, has just been amazing. And and it just the whole project seems great. So thank you so much. Well, thank you, Ray. We really appreciate it. It’s good to see you both. Stay true. Yeah. Take care. Bye.
Will Jarvis 1:01:51
Well, that’s our show for today. I’m William Jarvis. And I’m wills dad. Join us next week for more narratives.
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