Category: history

The Spring and Autumn Annals and the Gongyang Commentary

The Spring and Autumn Annals is one of Confucianism’s Five Classics, and like the Book of Documents is a work of history, in this case chronicling the history of the state of Lu, Confucius’ home state, from 722-481 B.C. However, whereas the Documents is, as the title indicates, a collection of speeches, decrees, and the like, the Annals is a chronology. It should take just one excerpt to give one an idea of the book, so from the very beginning, the first year of Duke Yin’s reign (722 B.C.):

It was the year one, in the spring, during the King’s first month.
During the third month, the Duke met up with Yifu of the state of Zhu Lou and made a pact with him at Mie.
In the summer, during the fifth month, the Earl of Zheng subdued Duan at Yan.
In the autumn, during the seventh month, the Heavenly King dispatched Zai Xuan to come bearing funerary offerings for Duke Hui’s wife, Zhongzi.
During the ninth month, a pact was made with men from the state of Song at Su.
In the winter, during the twelfth month, the Earl of Zhai arrived.
Prince Yishi died.

Read More The Spring and Autumn Annals and the Gongyang Commentary

New at Thermidor: Sallust and the Value of Classical History

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, “Sallust and the Value of Classical History.” I have to say I’m rather fond of Classical historians; Herodotus is among my favourites of the Greeks, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives has a lot of interesting stuff, and Livy, though a bit drier, is also rewarding reading. Sallust, I think, is the most approachable of these since all three of his works together are shorter than even Herodotus’s Histories, and not even close Plutarch and Livy.

In any case, the next post on this blog will be on Plato’s Phaedo, which will go up next Tuesday. After that, we’ll see the return of the Hundred Friends series.…

Read More New at Thermidor: Sallust and the Value of Classical History

New at Thermidor: The Everlasting Empire

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, a review of The Everlasting Empire:  The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy, by Yuri Pines. It is, in part, a follow-up to a previous Thermidor post on the Book of Documents. Specifically, near the end of that post I suggested that it would be beneficial to examine how the Confucians acquired their status as the Chinese empire’s official orthodoxy, and this is the start of an attempt to do so.…

Read More New at Thermidor: The Everlasting Empire

New at Thermidor: The Book of Documents

I have another new post up at Thermidor Magazine, covering the Confucian classic, the Book of Documents, which includes a discussion of the Confucian approach to history, as well as a few comments on the Confucian-derived Neoreactionary slogan, “Become worthy. Accept power. Rule.”

Those wanting to read more about Confucianism may be interested in a few other articles I’ve written previously, covering the Book of Odes, Mencius, Leonard Lyall’s translation of the Analects of Confucius, and Xinzhong Yao’s Introduction to Confucianism.…

Read More New at Thermidor: The Book of Documents

Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises by Xenophon

It may be hard to tell since I didn’t really review it, but I loved Anabasis enough that I was eager to read more from Xenophon right after finishing it. He’s one of the fortunate Classical authors to have had many of his works survive to the present day, so there’s plenty to choose from. His Socratic dialogues seemed like an obvious next step, but I’ve decided to put that on hold until I finish Plato’s. In the meantime, I noticed that Robin Waterfield, who did the excellent translations for AnabasisThe Histories, and The First Philosophers, has translated a collection of his shorter works, published by Penguin Books as Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises.

The first work, which gives its title to the collection, is a dialogue between Hiero, the ruler of Sicilian Syracuse  from 478-467 B.C., and an advisor, Simonides, on happiness and whether a tyrant is happier than common people. On the surface, it would seem that tyrants must be, since obviously all of their appetites can easily be fulfilled. If you’ve read much didactic literature, though, you can guess that it’s not so simple, and Hiero points out several areas where tyrants are, in fact, less happy than their citizens. For example, Hiero may be able to feast daily on delicacies that commoners only get at festivals and special occasions, but, he says, “If there’s no novelty for a person in having a sumptuous and varied diet, he doesn’t fancy anything he is offered; it is the person for whom something is a rare treat who eats his fill with delight when it is served up to him.” This is why tyrants like himself often request strongly flavoured food, even though, in his own words, “for an appetite to crave that kind of food it would have to be effete and debilitated, don’t you think? I mean, you know as well as I that people who enjoy their food have no need of such contrivances.” So, a tyrant may have access to all the material comforts he desires, but soon finds no joy in them and must go on a search for ever increasing novelty.…

Read More Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises by Xenophon

The Histories

Next to Aristotle’s TopicsThe Histories may be the most vaguely titled book ever written. I suppose you can get away with that when you’re the Father of History, as Herodotus is called, and as the author of the first narrative history it’s not like there was much room for confusion at the time. Besides, while Herodotus makes the Greco-Persian Wars his ostensible subject, he’s so far-ranging that the broad title describes the work well enough.

Herodotus could also have accurately titled it “Things that Interest Me.” Though some historians will address tangential topics in the course of their books, Herodotus revels in sharing only tangentially related anecdotes, ethnography, geography, information about landmarks, and so on. For example, while discussing Croesus’s rule in Ionia, he makes sure to add that he had donated a number of things to the Delphic Oracle, and adds that much of this is still there (at least as of when he was there last), and worth seeing; it’s as though he saw himself as a combination of John Keegan and Rick Steves. Some readers may find these digressions annoying, but personally, I find them charming, and some of my favourite stories from The Histories are things that a modern historian would likely have left out. Besides, in Herodotus’s defence, much of this information does provide background information that helps the reader understand the motivations and situation of the many nations and individuals involved, directly or indirectly, in the Greco-Persian Wars.…

Read More The Histories

Memoirs of a Service Afloat During the War Between the States

Last year, I asked my twitter followers for good books on the War Between the States, and I was promptly informed that I would (not just “might”) enjoy Memoirs of a Service Afloat During the War Between the States, written by Raphael Semmes, captain of the CSS Sumter and, later, the Alabama. Once I got my hands on a copy, I could tell right away it would be a good one because opposite the title page the publisher, Alacrity Press, had a note saying, “This book is a product of its time. Some of the terms and views expressed by the author may reflect common values and usage of his day that are contrary to modern values. They should be viewed in that context.” A trigger warning like that is something I take as a strong endorsement.

Another good sign came in the preface. Semmes explains that, though there’s a common view that historians should be as dispassionate as possible, this approach would only give “a dead history, in other words, a history devoid of the true spirit of history.” He adds, “Such a terrible war as that through which we have passed could not be comprehended by a stolid, phlegmatic writer, whose pulse did not beat quicker while he wrote.” I appreciate this attitude, partly because it makes for more interesting reading when an author is passionate, and also because I’m suspicious of historians who try too hard to be unbiased and removed from the subject. I want to know an author’s own opinions, partly because they’re valuable, since he’s presumably an expert on the topic, and because it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be truly unbiased, so it’s best simply to be honest with one’s own thoughts so that a reader needn’t be so on-guard against subconscious slant.

Semmes and First Lieutenant John Kell aboard CSS Alabama, 1863
Read More Memoirs of a Service Afloat During the War Between the States

A Defense of Virginia and the South

Portrait_of_Robert_Lewis_DabneyA while back, over at Throne and Altar, Bonald pointed out that leaving the Enlightenment framework is only the beginning of thought. Once one rejects Liberalism root, tree, and branch, and embraces the Right, the rubric for judging historical figures and events is totally different, and it’s no longer clear without further investigation who the “good guys” in a given conflict were. Progressives occasionally mock the “gotta hear both sides” attitude, but once one is on the Right it becomes necessary, even in situations where the “correct” side always seemed obvious before.

So, one comes to the War Between the States, which is a major part of Progressivism’s triumphant narrative of itself, and finds that the whole thing needs re-evaluation. That the South was in the right has, frankly, always seemed obvious to me, but there are a few different ways to arrive at this conclusion, each one varying degrees outside the Overton Window. Some examples:

  • The South was right because I’m a Southerner and always support my own people. This attitude of “my country right or wrong” is the most reactionary of all in some sense; it’s certainly the least ideological, and rests purely on natural human loyalties. It’s not very satisfying intellectually, though, and we (moderns, at least) can’t help but want to know if we’re really in the right.
  • The South was right because of States’ rights. This attempts to set aside the slavery issue and focuses on arguing that because the States were sovereign they could secede for any reason. This legalistic argument is common and, I think, basically right as far as it goes in appealing to the logos, but isn’t rhetorically effective because it doesn’t address the pathos at all and only touches on ethos in the abstract issue of law, not in the more visceral slavery issue.
  • The South was right because the Union was wrong. In other words, take the fight to the Union and argue that Abraham Lincoln and company were criminals. Thomas DiLorenzo takes this approach in The Real Lincoln, and he’s a relatively neutral source since he’s a Libertarian and neither the Union nor the Confederacy were meaningfully Libertarian governments. This argument is also correct and somewhat effective; it’s far more effective rhetorically to attack than defend, but a positive defense of the Confederacy is still lacking in this approach.

Now, all three of these typically come with a disclaimer that, though the Confederate States had the authority to secede from the Union, abolishing slavery was a good outcome of the war. However, this approach is ultimately rather weak; for most people, slavery seems so evil on a visceral level that it’s near-impossible to set aside. Besides, I’ve been on the Right long enough that I can smell a concession to modern sensibilities, and this has just that distinctive odour. These positions peek outside the Overton Window, maybe even open it up and smell the rose bushes outside, but are careful not to venture too far.

Some politically incorrect positions prompt stronger reactions than others. To reject republicanism and embrace monarchism is to leap out the Overton Window with a running start, but to most observers it just comes across as eccentric. Some positions, though, are more like turning back toward the Overton Window hurling a Molotov Cocktail right at the feet of those inside. Today, we have just such a rhetorical arsonist in Robert Lewis Dabney, with his 1867 book A Defense of Virginia and the South, and the fuel for this cocktail is not even necessarily agreeing with, but simply giving a fair hearing at all to this thesis:

There is nothing inherently wrong with slavery.

Now, Dabney presents a wide range of arguments across nine chapters, so I’m going to take the simplest approach and go through the book chapter-by-chapter. As I generally do, I’ll quote heavily and let Dabney do most of the arguing for himself, and content myself with providing some context and commentary; in other words, this won’t be a full analysis and criticism, but more of an introductory sketch of Dabney’s position.…

Read More A Defense of Virginia and the South

Klemens von Metternich’s Memoirs

This is another book that I wasn’t aware of until I stumbled on it in a used bookstore. I was surprised that memoirs by Klemens von Metternich wouldn’t be more talked-about since he’s such a respected figure among the Right, and I went into the book with high expectations, thinking it would be something like a more focused version of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy.

Now, the book is titled The Autobiography: 1773-1815, but it’s not really an autobiography, since Metternich says very little about his personal life, especially once he begins his diplomatic career. It’s not a history, either, as he says explicitly a few times. I called it a memoir above because it’s mostly a collection of anecdotes, conversations, and commentary on events Metternich was involved in. It’s a bit odd stylistically, but perhaps that’s to be expected; Metternich didn’t publish this himself, and doesn’t seem to have intended for all of it to be published. Rather, it’s a collection of three works edited together by his son, Prince Richard Metternich. Two of them blend together seamlessly, but the third, On the History of the Alliances, does stick out noticeably, and is a more traditional historical narrative of the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1813-15, though still focusing on the events Metternich personally took part in and avoiding well-known explanations of the battles and broader history.

So, those looking for a self-revealing memoir will be disappointed, since Metternich isn’t self-revealing at all, as will those looking for in-depth diplomatic history or theory. However, the book is still worth reading because one does get a fascinating sketch of some of the most influential people of the era by a man who seemed to know everyone of importance. For example, early in his career Metternich met and got along very well with Emperor Alexander of Russia, who requested that he be sent to St. Petersburg as Austria’s ambassador. When Metternich was sent to France instead, the Emperor took some offense. Metternich says, “The Emperor Alexander did not allow of any graduations in the behaviour of another, because he knew none in his own political conduct, as he was always going backwards and forwards from one extreme to another, in the most opposite directions; he therefore suspected me of being altogether on the side of France and of nourishing great prejudices against Russia.”…

Read More Klemens von Metternich’s Memoirs

The First World War in Colour


Dan Carlin, in an episode of his Hardcore History podcast, called history from Herodotus onward the “colour era” of history, compared to the “black and white” era before Herodotus. The difference comes down to one of style – ancient histories were often little more than chronologies, with some propagandizing, but had relatively little characterisation or storytelling. From Herodotus onward, though, historians began treating their subjects in a more narrative style, which makes their subjects feel more “alive” to the audience.

Some historians are very good at this. Last year, for example, I gave Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets credit for his novelistic writing style, even if it was a bit overdone at times. In my reading, most popular historians do at least make an attempt to avoid getting bogged down in plain facts, figures, and abstractions, to give readers an idea of what the events they describe were like for the people who actually experienced them.

Nonetheless, history often is difficult to imagine for those of us who had no part in the events, especially for the distant past. I think I’m safe in speculating that there’s more interest in relatively recent events like the Second World War than earlier eras because, besides being more obviously relevant, there’s a lot more supplementary material. I can see many photographs and even film of the Second World War, and even listen to speeches by, say, Franklin Roosevelt or Sir Winston Churchill. This is even more true for still more recent history.

So, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the First World War, and at this point descriptions of trench warfare have a visceral feel to me; I can imagine myself in the position of the soldiers on the Western Front. I get the same gut reaction, though, to Vietnam’s jungle warfare, even though I’ve spent far less time studying that conflict, because I’ve seen it in colour photographs; this still doesn’t get across the experience, obviously, but it’s much more of a “hook,” so to speak, into the subject. Yes, many photographs exist of the Great War, but colour photography has at least as much more punch to it than black-and-white photos as black-and-white photos have more than painting.

That’s changed somewhat, though, because I just recently learned that colour photographs of the First World War do exist, about 4,500 of them. That’s not a lot, relatively speaking, but I only know about them at all because I stumbled on a collection of them in a used bookstore, The First World War in Colour, by Peter Walther.

Here’s one example, taken during the Battle of the Marne:


When I first saw this, the first thing I noticed was actually the uniforms – every history of the war mentions how the French soldiers’ red pants made them easy for the Germans to spot, and now that I see them, well – no kidding.

Of course, this also just looks like a regular scene of men out camping. These men aren’t just figures in a table of troop numbers, they look like anyone I could meet today. The colour quality isn’t great, but it’s not a great deal worse than some of the commercial cameras used for a lot of my family’s photographs from well within living memory.

Speaking of uniforms that make the soldier easy to spot for the enemy:


That’s a Zouave unit; needless to say, like the main French force, they changed their uniform design fairly quickly.

Now, because of the unwieldy equipment needed and the time-consuming process of just taking these photos, there was no way to capture an ongoing battle. So, there are many images of ruins and landscapes, and all the photos of people were staged. Subjects may have been limited, but I do like the almost pedestrian quality of some of these. For example, this image of some German POWs with hand-made instruments:


One limitation I do find disappointing, though, is that the majority of these images are French. There are some photos of British forces and a few of the Germans, but almost nothing from the Eastern Front or elsewhere. This seems to have been because most of the colour photographers  were French, but it would’ve been nice to have seen more of the many other armies involved in the war. I also could have gone without the photos of amputated limbs.

In any case, I’m very glad to have the book, and if you have any interest in the First World War or the history of war photography, it’s definitely worth checking out.…

Read More The First World War in Colour