Monday, January 5, 2009

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill

How the Irish Saved Civilization had been on my mental to-be-read list for several years (it was recommended to me by a seminary professor), and I finally found a good reason to read it last August for some Irish background to our book club's September selection Angela's Ashes. I highly recommend it as a very readable introduction to the basic philosophies that have shaped the Western World, European history (particularly the fall of Rome), and Irish history and culture, with a good bit of theology and church history thrown in for good measure, too.

I read this before I started Lines from the Page, but I did record my favorite quotes before I returned it to the library. Since several people commented on this title in my Books Read in 2008 post, I thought I would list some quotes to interest you further. The beautiful poem/hymn, "The Deer's Cry," is also from this book and can be found here.

[all quotations from Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. (Nan A Talese/Doubleday: New York: 1995)]

“Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one – a world without books.” (4)

“Eleven centuries prior to the encounter on the Rhine, an insignificant band of Latin-speaking farmers ‘had but recently settled down to fixed agriculture and solved the problem of rapidly growing numbers by embarking upon a career of conquest that ultimately eventuated in the Roman empire,’ remarks the contemporary historian William McNeill. ‘Considered in this light, the Roman state in the West was destroyed by the same forces that had created it.’” (18)

“What is about to be lost in the century of the barbarian invasions is literature – the content of classical civilization. Had the destruction been complete – had every library been disassembled and every book burned – we might have lost Homer and Virgil and all of classical poetry, Herodotus and Tacitus and all of classical history, Demosthenes and Cicero and all of classical oratory, Plato and Aristotle and all of Greek philosophy, and Plotinus and Porphyry and all the subsequent commentary. We would have lost the taste and smell of a whole civilization.” (58)

“The works themselves will miraculously escape destruction. But they will enter the new world of the Middle Ages as things so strange they might as well have been left behind by interstellar aliens. One example will suffice to illustrate the strangeness of books to medieval men. The word grammar – the first step in the course of classical study that molded all educated men from Plato to Augustine – will be mispronounced by one barbarian tribe as “glamour.” In other words, whoever has grammar – whoever can read – possess magic inexplicable.” (59-60)

“In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life…Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination – making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish.” (116)

“The difference between Patrick’s magic and the magic of the druids is that in Patrick’s world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. And though that success is of an ultimate kind – and, therefore, does not preclude suffering – all nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind’s good, teaching, succoring, and saving.” (131)

“It seems that as some point in the development of every culture, human sacrifice becomes unthinkable, and animals are from then on substituted for human victims…At all events, the Irish had not reached this point and were still sacrificing human beings to their gods when Patrick began his mission…Patrick declared that such sacrifices were no longer needed. Christ has died once for all…Yes, the Irish would have said, here is a story that answers our deepest needs – and answers them in a way so good that we could never even have dared dream of it. We can put away our knives and abandon our altars. These are no longer required. The God of the Three Faces has given us his own Son, and we are washed clean in the blood of this lamb. God does not hate us; he loves us. Greater love than this no man has than that he should lay down his life for his friends. That is what God’s Word, made flesh, did for us. From now on, we are all sacrifices – but without the shedding of blood. It is our lives, not our deaths that this God wants. But we are to be sacrifices, for Paul adds to the hymn this advice to all: ‘Let this [same] mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.’ (136, 140-142)

That's probably enough to give you a taste of this richly informative book. Find it. Read it. Enrich your mind!

1 comment:

hopeinbrazil said...

Thanks for a thoughtfully written review. Another friend highly recommended this book so I think it's time to put it on the TBR list.