Archive for the ‘Columbus’ Category

I wish I had had time for all the posts I had planned for Columbus Week at Powell History, but these past months of teaching–I’m finally off for Christmas break!–have been wonderfully draining. Only now have I found the time to write about a wonderful new find I made.

Recently, I discovered a fascinating painting by Peter Rothermel, the artist who is probably most well known for his depiction of Patrick Henry before the House of Burgesses. It turns out that Rothermel was quite prolific, and he created a number of paintings depicting parts of American history, and especially the American Revolution, which I’ve been thrilled to learn about. Today however, I want to present a painting connected to Columbus that highlights one of the more fascinating relationships that are a part of the story of the great explorer.

As is somewhat common knowledge, it was Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain who upon defeating the last of the Muslims in Spain in 1492 agreed to send Columbus on his voyage. To be precise, however, it should be said that it was Isabella of Castile whose final consent made the epoch-making journey of 1492 possible, and it was Castile that paid the lion’s share. Thus, the relationship between Columbus and Isabella has been of considerable interest, and in paintings that depict Columbus arguing for his westward voyage or, later, pleading his case before the monarchs, it is generally towards Isabella that Columbus is oriented, not Ferdinand.

Columbus before the Queen, by Peter Rothermel

Columbus before the Queen, by Peter Rothermel

Rothermel, for his part, has chosen the point in the story where Columbus is still making his case. His argument has captured the attention of a scribe, who pauses as if to ponder the notion rather than merely record the proceedings. Ferdinand, seated, motions to quiet his adviser. A young lady sits in rapt attention. Finally, Isabella–the most prominent figure in the main group–raises her hands to her bosom, transfixed.

Although Isabella is standing on a raised platform, symbolizing her authority, she and Columbus are at the same height.  Because of the dark, cavernous, featureless space between them, a strong psychological line exists between them.  In viewing the image, the natural axis upon which one’s gaze moves back and forth from is from one face to the other.

To help us understand what moment this is and what is passing between them, Rothermel provides a set of contextual clues–especially in the bottom right corner.

It is perhaps when viewing this part of the painting that one becomes aware of deliberate distortions in the historicity of the image that Rothermel has employed to relay his theme.  In Columbus’s time, the main thing to grasp is not that the idea of a flat earth held sway (although it did); the more important thing to understand is that there simply wasn’t a point to worrying about it and nobody did. Only a select group of intellectuals in all of Europe were sufficiently literate and aware of  ancient and scientific geography to develop the specialized theoretical knowledge necessary to even debate the question in anything approaching a rational way.

In this setting, globes were certainly not commonplace.  In fact, there probably wasn’t a single globe to be found in Europe! (Apparently, Martin Behaim, may have constructed the first modern globe in 1492, while Columbus was on his fateful voyage.)

The charts and books make more sense from a strict historical perspective.  One is labeled “Marco Polo,” because Columbus was known to have been inspired by the Italian merchant’s travels to the Far East.  But it is their symbolic presence that matters more.  In much the same way, the portrayal of Columbus in aristocratic garb from a later period is intended to convey nobility, a dimension of the man’s character that Rothermel wished to make plain despite the fact that Columbus would never have been clothed in this way during his life.

The painting was for a certain audience: the audience of Nineteenth century Americans who still believed in the essential heroism of Columbus and who also felt that Columbus’s relationship to Isabella was pivotal in leading to the discovery of America.  For those untroubled by modern revisionism, the image can still conjure this exciting theme.

(To further explore this image, and to enjoy the other great works of Peter Rothermel, I highly recommend Rothermel, by Mark Thistlethwaite.  I’d grab one quickly.  It would make a great Christmas gift, and there are only a handful of copies out there!)

Read Full Post »

…Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
And peered through darkness.
Ah, that night Of all dark nights!
And then a speck —
A light! a light! a light! a light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: “On! sail on.”
Columbus, by Joachin Miller
Christopher Columbus, by Carl von Piloty

Christopher Columbus, by Carl von Piloty

The themes of the life of Christopher Columbus are timeless.  Among them are independence, vision, courage, dedication, perseverance.  All are captured in the excellent painting by German master historical painter Carl von Piloty in his painting simply entitled “Christopher Columbus.”

A calm sea.  A starlit night.  The men are asleep.  But one man cannot rest.  He is driven by an idea–an idea which carried him and his advocates to the courts of the major seafaring powers of Europe for years to no avail–an idea that was rejected by the scholarly thinkers of his day as impractical and either way unacceptable–an idea so forcefully held, however, that it allowed him to imprint its aspect on the mind of the Queen of Castile, Isabella, bringing her ultimately to sponsor the voyage which has brought him to this point.

The great mariner, conviction unshaken, is awake on the night that might very well seal his fate.  Mutiny is on the men’s minds; the fear of the unknown into which he has thrust them further than any man before, is more than these hardy sailors can take.  It must be soon, or all may be lost.  His best information and judgment suggest that land must be near.  By the light of a lamp he has been examining the maps, charts, and books that have guided him to this point.  It must be there.

The strain on the man is visible.  The bags under his eyes attest to his sleepless task. But his vigor is unabated.  Even now he is composed, in the moment, when quite suddenly–so surprisingly that his violent motion has caused him to lose his hat and flung his hanging cross across his body–everything that he had hoped becomes reality!  His index finger is fixed to the spot where his mind believed land to be, and his eyes on the horizon take in the faint glimmer that means he was right!

A light! A light! A light! A light!

How many people in all of man’s past on earth have ever experienced something as powerful as this moment must have been for Columbus?

Read Full Post »

The following is a passage from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead.  Although it does not contain any plot spoilers, I still think it advisable to warn readers that it is a very significant passage from a book every person in America should read for themselves.  I quote this passage because it fits the case of Christopher Columbus perfectly.  It reflects the essence of the man, the injustices dealt him both in his lifetime and by posterity–and also his true place in history.

“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light. He was considered and evildoer who had dealt with a demon mankind dreaded. But thereafter men had fire to keep them warm, to cook their food, to light their caves. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had lifted darkness off the earth. Centuries later, the first man invented the wheel. He was probably torn on the rack he had taught his brothers to build. He was considered a transgressor, who ventured into forbidden territory. But thereafter, men could travel past any horizon. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had opened the roads of the world.

“That man, the unsubmissive and first, stands in the opening chapter of every legend mankind has recorded about its beginning. Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures—because he had stolen the fire of the gods. Adam was condemned to suffer—because he had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Whatever the legend, somewhere in the shadows of its memory mankind knew that its glory began with one and that that one paid for his courage.

“Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received—hatred. The great creators—the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors—stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.”

Read Full Post »

Welcome to the second annual celebration of Columbus Week at Powell History!

Columbus: a man of independence and courage

Columbus Week? Yes. When Ayn Rand was asked “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?” she answered, “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”

Similarly, Columbus represents virtue and historical greatness, the nature of which strikes fear and enmity in various people. As a promoter of individualism and reason in the face of crippling faith and second-handedness, he propelled Europe forward despite itself.  He helped make Western civilization better, and because of his discovery, allowed it to become the dominant culture of the world.  In the process, a previously barbarous continent was populated by Western peoples, and the most important civilization in World history–the United States of America–was eventually created. For enemies of Western culture, this process is anathema. These Enemies of Christopher Columbus perversely uphold the Stone Age mysticism of American Indians as superior to rationality and individual rights, and denounce Columbus for having brought about the downfall of the primitive way of life of America’s natives. That such a perspective has gained currency today is tragic. Thus, nothing short of a week in honor of Columbus will do…for the reason that makes them afraid of it.

To kick things off, let me recommend an op-ed about Columbus day in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review by Dimitri Vassilaros, featuring the ideas of Thomas Bowden. It’s a good introduction to some of the topics discussed in Mr. Bowden’s important book.

So why do the people of the world, who have gained so much thanks to Columbus, think ill of him?  Gain some insight into Columbus’s reversal of fortune in modern history through my series of essays from last year, Kant vs. Columbus.

More on Columbus, from last year’s series:

What made Columbus a “world changer”?  Sculptor Giulio Monteverde answer with his masterpiece, Young Columbus.

What exactly does a proper assessment of Columbus look like?  Try Joel Barlow’s Columbiad.

This year:

This year I’m going to focus on the power of art and poetry to capture the nature and impact of Christopher Columbus on the world.  Tomorrow, some tips on how to celebrate Columbus Day!

Read Full Post »

The Discovery of America is not merely the name of an event; it is a historical abstraction.

Like all historical abstractions it has unique characteristics that make it a particular type of cognitive tool, akin to concepts, but distinct.

Historical abstractions–like the Renaissance, the American Revolution, the Civil War–are mental integrations of historical information into a mental whole.  They represent the adoption of a relational perspective with regards to the concrete data about the past, which emphasizes the similarities between a certain group of entities and events in concert with the differences from the rest of the past that set them apart. Once that relational perspective is hardened into a historical abstraction, the facts it subsumes cease to be disparate atoms; they become units within a sum. 

When integrated into “the Renaissance,” Michelangelo’s David, for instance, ceases to be a single artistic datum in an unintelligible flux; it becomes a representative of a wider European cultural reawakening following the suppression of classical ideals.  When George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware becomes a part of “the American Revolution” it no longer exists merely as a miscellaneous military factoid; it becomes a pivotal action connected to a chain of revolutionary events giving rise to the birth of a new nation. Seen in the context of “the Civil War”, the Gettysburg address becomes more than a speech for the dedication of a cemetary; it becomes one of a number of steps forward in the violent, climactic overthrow of slavery in America.

To possess the perspective afforded by a historical abstraction is empowering.  The fundamental advantage it represents is unit-reduction.  When faced with the plethora of historical facts–even about a single place in a single year–the mind boggles.  Man’s past is an overwhelming mass of information.  Like concepts, historical abstractions allow one to condense that vast sea into manageable components.  They allow multiple lines of development from c.1300 to c.1648 to be captured by one term: “The Renaissance.”  They permit one to hold the work of all the Founding Fathers in the mental span of the expression “the American Revolution.”  They facilitate the wielding of every inch of soil won by Sherman and Grant, and every sleepless night spent by Lincoln and Seward (and Davis), and every ounce of blood shed by brothers on both sides, as a single thought: “the Civil War.”

When history exists in this form, it becomes intelligible as a whole. “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” results in “The Dark Ages,” which give way to “the Renaissance.”  “The American Revolution” creates the scene for “the Founding Era,” but also “The Growth and Decline of the Union,” and ulimately the tragedy of “the Civil War.” 

How can such a power fail to be appreciated and investigated?  The answer is two-fold.  First, it is not entirely true to say that historians have remained ignorant of the power of historical abstractions. Sadly, it is the subjectivists in history who have best understood this power and wielded it most effectively. Kant’s offspring have taken up the philosophical tools he provided to dismantle the historical identification of key developments in Western civilization, including Columbus’s unmatched efforts.

With regards to that particular issue, for example, they have labored to elevate the irrelevant wanderings of the Vikings to a status equal to or greater than Columbus’s discovery, and they are striving to raise awareness of the even more nonessential narrative of America’s pre-Columbian neolithic primitives in people’s minds.  This shift in emphasis to a new groundwork of facts is designed to permit the fostering of a new perspective on the history of America, where every element of progress is underplayed and the focus is then placed on America’s brutal conquest by Europeans.  The ultimate purpose of this revision is a general historical indictment of Western civilization that includes the characterization of Europe’s discovery and colonization of America as the greatest example of “genocide” in history.

This is a preposterous charge, but how can it be stopped?

“Scientific” historians, for their part, have been caught in the wake of complacent skepticism that followed Kant,  and they have refused to treat of historical abstractions like the “Discovery of America” in any serious way.  They have instead buried their heads in the archives in the hope that the truth and value of history can somehow be dredged from the facts themselves.

A proper assessment and celebration of Columbus’s work, however, cannot be validated by more research or the uncovering of a still more detailed picture of the past. It can only be defended by grasping on an abstract level that “the Discovery of America” is the objective term necessitated by the full context of the Story of World up to that point and–of equal importance–by the context of developments beyond it.

To examine merely one thread that indicates the validity of the term, one can consider the history of geography. In no geographical construct did any person anywhere in the world prior to 1492 conceive of the existence of the continent of America as a component of the world’s geography understood in relation to all the others.  The Indians who lived on it were eons removed from the scientific understanding of geography that would be required; the Vikings–though expert sailors–applied no more sophisticated a geographical concept to their findings than “land” (vs. water); and the greatest thinkers of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe each had only a decent grasp of their own immediate continental surroundings. The most accomplished map-maker of the pre-Columbian period, Fra Mauro, would collect all known data to produce a map of the world in 1459, not essentially different than the Medieval world-view of the Muslims (then the most advanced geographers), which proves the point.

Then a watershed moment occurred.  Columbus sailed West in search of Asia, and reached the Caribbean in 1492.

Subsequently, thanks to his own later voyages, and the follow-up work of Cabot, Vespucci, Cabral, Verrazano, de Leon, Balboa, de Soto, and especially Magellan, the full extent of the new finding was appreciated.  Europe’s scientific geographers then processed the expanding context of information to present it on a world-wide plan. The later work, however, all springs from one source, one wellspring, which deserves more than simply a concrete identification.  To enumerate the fact that Columbus discovered the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola on his first trip; the Lesser Antilles and Jamaica on his second; Venezuela on his third; and Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama on his fourth; is to fail to rise beyond the merely factual data to an abstract appreciation of their unique place in the overall development.

By means of his philosophic system, however, Kant established a terms of reference that prevented that type of appreciation from every flowering.  Though historians had long been accustomed to using abstract historical terms such as “the Discovery of America” when he came along, because of him they failed to identify just what cognitive purpose these terms serve and to use them with confidence.   Since, as previously pointed out in this series, Kant also empowered Columbus’s assailants, this means he both armed Columbus’s enemies and disarmed his defenders.   Indeed, I can think of no one who has played so pernicious a role when it comes to any important historical question, and I’m inclined to view Kant as Columbus’s most fundamental enemy.

Read Full Post »

Kant’s philosophical assault on man’s faculty of reason paved the way for the historical assault on Columbus by preventing a key avenue of development from ever occuring in Western historiography.  By aborting the general study of abstractions as cognitive tools, Kant prevented historians from adopting the epistemological stance necessary to define and defend the most crucial instrument in the systematization of history: historical abstractions.

During the eighteenth century, history had been dominated by rationalism. The French Enlightenment thinkers had created the “philosophy of history,” which proposed to find in all historical developments a kernel of progress, driven by reason.  Following the pattern of Christian thinkers who reduced everything to God’s will, or “providence,”they proposed to express all of history’s irregular gyrations in terms of a single determining principle.  It was historical thinkers such as these, who advocated using historical abstractions to summarize the past.  They used the expression “the Dark Ages”to capture an era where reason was suppressed, the “Renaissance” to propose a general reawakening of reason, and “the Enlightenment” to denote a period in history where the power of reason was widely manifested.  To use these terms, however, required emphasizing certain facts at the expense of others, tracing certain causal progressions rather than others, and ultimately, viewing the whole story of man’s past as the variegated expression of one basic cause.

Empirical historians could not accept this apparent oversimplification.  While progress might be occurring in one area, such as science, they reasoned, decline might be evident in another part of a culture, such as politics.  Similarly, progress in one country, such as in late seventeenth century England, where parliamentary limitations on the monarchy reached new heights, might be paralleled by decline in another country, such as France, where absolutism evolved to new oppressive levels. Or, along a different vein, an element of progress–say a great invention like the steam engine–might propel men forward in one sense, but also contain a negative dimension, such as the rise of new hardships for laborers, social tensions, and political struggles.  In the name of an allegiance to the facts in all their Heraclitean complexity, the empiricists of history rejected casting the past in abstract terms.

History was faced with the same basic dilemna as philosophy: to find the principle in the plethora.

But before historians could even begin to take the question seriously, Kant revoked their license to do so.  He announced that even the “facts” were subjective–“phenomenal”–and that all efforts to build upon this foundation could never penetrate to “things in themselves.” 

One major trend in subsequent historiography was to embrace subjectivity as a  fundamental truth, and simply construct competing perspectives.  The most influential exponent of this approach was Marx, who despite claiming a “scientific” status for his reasoning, basically cast history as a political weapon in the evolving class struggle.  His followers would adapt this approach and use history as a means of promoting their own political agendas, such as feminism (“herstory”) or multiculturalism (e.g. “black studies”).

The other important trend was an epistemological retreat, sounded by the leading German historian of the nineteenth century, Leopold von Ranke. If abstractions were avoided, he and his followers hoped, then the problem of relating them to the concrete data of history could also be avoided.  In this ostrich-like approach, the historian was to busy himself in historical archives, where he would find unprocessed, or “primary” sources.  And from these, assiduously avoiding any mode of interpretation, he might craft an unbiased narrative. The past as it really was–“wie es eigentlich gewesen,” in Ranke’s words–could be channeled without distortion, if one simply avoided trying to use if for some purpose other than simply knowing it for its own sake.

That neither Ranke nor any of his followers could actually practice what they preached merely provided the first point of attack by Kant’s progeny, who were wont to point out that even if one were to allow the existence of “facts” in history, the act of organizing them into a narrative itself constituted an act of logical processing which created an “artificial” structure no less corruptive than sorting facts into periods, such as “the Renaissance,” or deploying them to support a thesis such as progress.  Of course, on a deeper level, there were no “facts:” even “primary” sources involve human selectivity, and thus cannot be considered to represent “things as they were.” In the ultimate indictment, presented by Michel Foucault, both “primary” and “secondary” sources would be charged with being nothing more than the propaganda of whatever side happened to win each particular struggle in history.

In the context of such an epistemological debacle, it is hardly surprising that empirical historians progressively shyed away from the use of historical abstractions like “the Dark Ages” and “the Renaissance,” leaving the subjectivists room to attack them and concoct their own replacements, such as “the Carolingian Renaissance.” Nor is it surprising that abstractions of more limited scope, but ones enmeshed in a larger context of values, such as”the Discovery of America,” should also be besieged.

(Continued in Part 4.)

Read Full Post »

In the nineteenth century, historians were desparately in need of a champion to clarify the nature of reason, and to guide them in the challenge of making sense of man’s complex past. Newton’s genius had shown the power of man’s mind to penetrate nature’s inner workings, but no one had been able to articulate on a more abstract level the nature of the Newtonian triumph in science, and explain how it could be reproduced in other areas.

If historians were to pattern their work on the succesful model of the physical scientists, they would need to find a means of transposing the methods of physics into the domain of history. The way to do this, however, was unclear. The historian, for example, could not create the controled conditions of a laboratory to test his ideas, nor could the actions of human beings be reduced to mathematical principles. And yet, the challenge of deriving general knowledge from historical data is in some ways the same as that of finding general laws from observed physical phenoma. It is the challenge of transforming a plethora of concrete information, by some process of abstraction, into an intelligible system. The importance of this project was evident to the more philosophical historians. If natural science could find laws and a natural order in the physical world, could a social science not achieve the same for civilization (and thus derive the proper foundation of social systems)?

Unfortunately, in their quest to give history a Newtonian clarity, historians found no worthy ally among philosophers. In the wake of the clash between the rationalists and empiricists, philosophy was at an impasse. The former group believed human knowledge was imprinted by some ineffable, non-experiential means. And sadly–despite the example of disciplined Newtonian thinking and the best efforts of John Locke–the latter group had been unable to articulate a proper alternative. Empiricism had degenerated into the skepticism of Hume.

Finally, instead of a champion, the Western mind met with an insidious assailant, Immanuel Kant, in whose assessment philosophy’s aims were pronounced unattainable and the achievements of science inconsequential. Man, said Kant, is flawed by nature–he is formed of “crooked timber.” Human consciousness, he explained, is by its nature divorced from reality. It perceives reality by certain means, and because this apparatus processes the incoming information, it prevents us from gleaning reality as it really is. Any thinking we do based on such a foundation, including, for instance, the derivation of “natural laws,” is thus completely subjective, and any claim we make to actually understanding the essential nature of things is merely presumption–unless based on faith (for which Kant infamously made “room”).

What then of history? More next time.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »