An advice to history enthusiasts: specialize!

I’d like to say that history has always been where I excel the most. But it was only five years ago when I started to really read books on history. Since then, I’ve read maybe almost a hundred books – I’m kind of a slow reader – and have definitely learned a lot, not only about the past, but also about myself (touche!), and about the art of learning history itself.

And in the case of learning history, the most important lesson I’ve realized through the years is to have focus areas – specializations. This might seem too serious or academic of an advice, especially for casual history buffs, but it’s something that applies to a lot of aspects of life, and ought to be emphasized even more in these times.

So many prefer to be generalists, to have broad knowledge of many subjects. The world is obsessed with multitasking and jack-of-all-trades approach to productivity and learning. I learned that the opposite is equally, if not better, worthy of pursuit: to choose a few subjects and focus on depth than breadth. In fact, I’d say that limiting oneself to fewer pursuits results in greater freedom: by zeroing in on a few areas of interest, and removing all the other options available, a person is much freer to engage in deeper levels of learning. It may surprise you how much more knowledge can be learned even within a more limited scope of history.

So, my main advice is this: choose a specialization or two. At first, one should read more general and broad overviews. Or pick any book in the bookstore that piques interest, and start form there. Ask these questions: which parts of this book did I like best? Which parts do I want to learn more about? Consult the bibliography and endnotes: what references were used for those specific chapters or topics? Look them up online, read the synopsis, maybe read some reviews too. Get and read them. From there, you can start narrowing down your focus on more specific topics within your area of interest.

As an example, I am currently focused on two subjects, of varying breadth: First World War, and History of Christianity. Within the study of First World War, there’s so much topics one can spend resources studying: the war’s origins, the individual conflicts, military conduct and logistics, aerial warfare (WW1 is the first major war to see extensive use of aircrafts, though still not as effective as in WW2), dissent and opposition, role of women, diplomatic history, Treaty of Versailles and the war’s aftermath, among others. Even as I’ve focused on a single major war, there’s still way too much that can possibly be learned, and it’s enough to keep me busy for a lifetime.

History of Christianity is very broad, as it spans roughly two millenia of history, but so far I’ve decided to zero in on two periods: the Middle Ages (until Reformation, but excluding it), and 19th-century Catholicism. Of course the Middle Ages itself is still too broad, as it spans about a thousand years, while the 19th century focus is more targeted. In either case, I’ve at least isolated my interest into more coherent periods, instead of jumping around across the vast sweep of history.

So, I suggest one should read a few general history books, as well as books on varying periods and themes, for a few months or a year, depending on how fast or slow one reads. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a slow reader, though I still manage to read at a minimum 15 books a year. I don’t dwell too much on these figures, as they can be too distracting, and in any case, I’m bound to be really slow when books I read average 500 pages of dense nonfiction each!

And a lot of readers may indeed struggle going through dry history books. People will, of course, gravitate towards more entertaining and well-paced nonfiction. This is a normal tendency when reading for leisure, as one will want to find enjoyment in their free time, instead of being bogged down by even more mind stress than their work and personal life already give. This can be an issue in having a specialized learning, as the deeper one goes into a specific study area, the more complicated the books tend to be.

So, should you still specialize, even if the books will get drier and more boring as you dive deeper? I would say yes. In fact, it’s likely to make such dry reading more bearable, at the very least, if one has a limited area to focus on. It’s because as you read more books on a specific subject, you’ll see more of the same information (people, places, events, dates, etc.) being repeated over and over across many books. This seeming redundancy creates a better sense of familiarity, and helps further drill down these information into your mind.

In summary, I argue that people who are quite serious or highly interested in learning more about history should definitely consider having some specializations, specific subjects or periods or areas where they can devote more reading. Having such a specialization can provide better freedom than trying to learn surface-level history across a vast sweep of time period, and is ultimately provides deeper understanding of that specific subject.

Finally, I encourage history enthusiasts like me to provide some output too, as a way of deepening understanding of history. It can be a blog on reviews of books, podcasts, documentaries, whatever it is. It can be a blog on essays or personal research. Whatever it may be, having an outlet on history that one has learned helps in further comprehension and retention of those learnings. It may even spark interest on others who read such works, and may encourage even more people to read and learn history on their own.

The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church

A History

Throughout its history, the Catholic Church has faced many circumstances where the bishops, as successors of the apostles, had to gather and collectively resolve the most pressing issues of their times. The first few ones were convoked by emperors, but most were called by popes, who held the primal distinction of being successors of Saint Peter, whom Catholics consider as the head of the apostles.

Joseph Kelly’s book, The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church, tells the history of the Church through the 21 councils that Catholics recognize as being legitimate gatherings of bishops. Most of these councils, especially the ones prior to the Middle Ages, have been held to resolve mainly doctrinal and theological issues. Such issues are beyond what the ordinary people can understand, yet the councils that resolve them, like the very first one at Nicea in 325, significantly shaped Church doctrine and conduct for the next centuries.

Starting from the Middle Ages, the recurring conflicts between Church and State played important role in councils, such as the First Lateran Council of 1122 that formalized the prohibition on lay investiture. The post-Avignon period, which saw two – and later, three – popes simultaneously holding office, also necessitated the summoning of a council, at Constance in 1414-1418, to heal the schism and elect one unifying pope – Martin V. This fateful council, however, strengthened the resolve among bishops to regularly hold councils to settles issues, thus ushering in a period of heightened tension between the pope and the councils.

As mentioned, the pope enjoys a primacy borne out of the direct succession from Saint Peter. This is a major contention that led to the parting of ways of the Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Churches. And within the Catholic Church itself, Pope Martin V and his successors felt threatened by the possibility of regular councils superseding the pope in his authority. This will be a contentious issue well until the wake of the Reformations.

Perhaps the council that most significantly shaped the Catholic Church – until the 20th century – is the Council of Trent, held intermittently between 1545 and 1563, in response to the Protestant Reformations. The council upheld the privileged status of medieval Scholasticism in the Church theology and philosophy, as well as solidifying the traditions already held by the Church, which are being challenged by the reformers both outside and inside the institution. The Church that emerged out of the Tridentine council would mostly retain its form – in doctrine and in conduct – until the 20th century.

The First Vatican Council of 1869-1870, held over three centuries since Trent, was the rigid and defiant response of a Church that has lost its temporal powers and territories – the Papal States – and felt cornered by the growing tide of “liberalism.” Here, the papal primacy that has been challenged and vaguely defined throughout Church history was pronounced once and for all, in the form of the doctrine of papal infallibility. The act of formalizing the papal privilege of being able to define doctrine without any possibility of error is the defiant answer of a Church pushed even more towards the side of conservatism. The popes of the post-Vatican I world exuded an attitude that rejects – or at least does not fully embrace – modernist and liberal tendencies that have come to define the secular world of their times.

In 1958, Pope John XXIII surprised the world when he announced that he is calling for a new council to help the Church adapt to the modern world, a seemingly different course compared with the inward conservatism of the previous council. The Second Vatican Council; of 1962-1965 was a global spectacle, being the largest such gathering of bishops, and for its duration created a sense that the Catholic Church is ready to modernize its traditions. The council has so significantly shifted the way the Church viewed and conducted itself, that there remains much controversy over whether it truly reversed the doctrines of the past, or simply modified outward appearances but still held on to its centuries-old traditions.

Possibly the most visible change the Vatican II heralded is in the liturgy, held in Latin for almost 1500 years up to that point. The Mass was revamped, with vernacular languages now allowed, the priest was made to face the congregation, among others. Meanwhile, the council upheld the “collegiality” of bishops, where the pope, though retaining its primacy, nonetheless cannot act like a monarch and directly subvert bishops’ local powers unilaterally. Many other “reforms” were enshrined in the Vatican II council, and debates over its legacy continues to this day.

Overall, The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church is a great resource for understanding Church history from the lens of its councils. While most of those councils are now forgotten, a few of them – Nicea, Trent, Vatican I and II – have so significantly influenced the Church that their legacies are still discernible to this day. The book was able to present this sweeping history without delving too much on the nitty-gritty of theological debates, nor took a more “apologetic” view. Hence this is objective enough for the general readers not too keen on the finer religious discussions, and is firmly a work of history rather than of theology or apologetics.

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War

How JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18

The cataclysm that was the Great War destroyed millions of lives, and even for those who survived, they were shattered pyschologically by the horrifying experience in the trenches. Death became very real, choice became nonexistent, and hope became an illusion. For an entire generation of young people, even the end of the War did not bring about normalcy, as they lived the rest of their lives in a sense of existential dread and pessimism.

But not all of them, fortunately. Joseph Loconte’s book, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18, shows a friendship that defied the gloom and moral decline of their times, to create stories that exalt hope and goodness amidst the climate of evil. The two writers, Tolkien and Lewis, formed a bond that eventually helped each build their fantasy worlds that continue to captivate readers decades since.

The book shows the Great War as a conflict that shaped millions of people, as they questioned and abandoned the moral ideals of the pre-war world. Amidst this existential crisis, two war veterans in Oxford decided they didn’t want to be caught up in the moral panic, and instead clung on to their deeply held ideals of hope and goodness. The book then devotes a chapter each to the war experiences and post-war literary careers of JRR Tolkien, a devout Catholic, and CS Lewis, then an atheist. This is juxtaposed with other ordinary soldiers’ lives, showing that the two writers’ views and experiences were not too different from everybody else.

Themes founded on Christian morality are then examined in the works of the two writers. Both Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (an also his science fiction works) are replete with similar dilemma as any soldier of the Great War will have been familiar with. Their personal experiences fighting in the trenches are seen in their works, even in Lewis’ children’s fantasy series, which dealt with suffering amidst conflict while toning down the violence. An interesting mutual interest between Tolkien and Lewis, which was instrumental to them teaming up, is their pre-war admiration of mythologies and medieval sagas, which they carried over to their respective works.

In the end, both Tolkien and Lewis were able to publish their works, with mutual cooperation. The ideals heavily influenced by their wartime careers resonated with the world that just came out of the even worse conflict, the Second World War, and continues to be much celebrated fantasy works to this day. Lewis became a Christian again years after the war, with Tolkien’s help – though Tolkien is Catholic, while Lewis became Anglican. And of course, Lewis himself wrote Christian apologetics works that resonate on people who doubt their faiths, as he once was.

The book spends most time focusing on the Great War and exploring the themes in LOTR and Narnia that touch on moral issues of the wartime and post-war world. Despite this, the book actually does not come off as preachy, definitely not overtly “evangelical” in tone, and so it’s a great fit for people of any religious inclinations. It should be noted, however, that since the book examines closely the mentioned works, important plot points are indeed spoiled in the book, so just be warned about this. It didn’t bother me personally, and I haven’t read any works of Tolkien or Lewis (except for Lewis’ Mere Christianity, but spoilers are irrelevant to it anyway), but other readers might want to steer clear unless they’re okay with spoilers.

And on a personal note, having been reading more “serious” history works for much of the past year, it’s good to rediscover the sheer joy of popular history books, especially as this book seems well-researched one. This doesn’t mean I’ll be reading more pop history anytime soon, but it’s good to slow down on the academic voraciousness, and enjoy some well-written light reading once in a while. It gives new perspectives in familiar topics too, so that’s always a plus. Overall, it’s a really great read, and spoilers aside, is excellent for fans of either (or both) JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, and also for WW1 history buffs like me.

The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction

Despite its many uses – and abuses – in the political and religious realms, the Crusades are still very little understood, and are commonly portrayed through the lens of propaganda. Christopher Tyerman’s contribution to the Oxford book series of short introductory texts on various topics, The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction, illuminates the complexity of what we know as the Crusades, separating the history from the anachronistic interpretations, and shows how they have become both origin and product of political and religious propaganda.

For one, what would count as a Crusade has changed throughout history. The idea of a just war is derived by Christians from the Bible, and has been in development since the Late Antiquity. The Crusades popularized the idea of a just war in defense of Christianity – holy war. The notion of Jerusalem being in captivity by the enemies of Christ, and the need to free the city and place it under Christian rule, is most reflected in the First Crusade; after that, the Crusades have evolved into wars to serve various other purposes, thus ushering in the use of crusading for advancing its leaders’ agenda.

Even the motivations for launching and joining Crusades are never uniform. Ordinary people certainly saw crusading as a pious act, a route to salvation and guarantee of their soul’s ascension to heaven. Some may have joined out of obligation from their feudal masters. Some may have been motivated by worldly profits, though in the end the Crusades never really made its participants any more prosperous than they were prior.

One common misconception about the Crusades is that they were all against Muslims. Certainly, the original Crusade called for by Pope Urban II to recapture Jerusalem was framed as a holy war against the enemies of Christianity. But the later crusades were primarily political in nature. For instance, the Fourth Crusade ended up besieging and sacking Constantinople, still very much a Christian city at the time. The infamous Albigensian Crusades were directed against the Cathars in southern France, and ended up with Christians massacring their fellow brethren in faith.

And of course, there will always be debates on what exactly would classify as a Crusade. Purported holy wars were called against Muslims in the Middle East, against the Moors in Spain, against heretics all over Europe, and even against Jews in the Balkans. Even for the only truly successful venture, the First Crusade, political and economic expediencies have always been present in the leaders’ agenda. So if Crusades are strictly just holy wars, then what counts as one? As the book shows, this and other aspects of the Crusades are still up for debate.

Which brings us to the author’s main contention: the uses of the idea of crusading long after the Middle Ages. They have always served as potent symbols of noble struggles against “the others”. Christians used the memory of the Crusades to conjure an image of just war against Muslims – and Jews too. The Catholic Church in France invoked the Crusades as an inspiration in the battle against the secularism of the French Revolution. Even in modern wars, “crusading” became synonymous with fighting a good cause, as in the image of the Allies fighting against the evils of Nazi Germany, or America’s War on Terror.

The Crusades is a short but very insightful introduction to the history of the Crusades, both as a series of events, and as an idea. The many ways that the idea of the Crusades is being used to push for agenda are products of the many ways that its history was portrayed, and its memory still serves as catalyst for political ventures. The dangers of using (and abusing) history are illuminated in the way the Crusades have been portrayed through the ages, and this book, as an overview of the discipline, serves as a reminder of the need to understand and separate history from the myths that transform them into instruments of propaganda.

The March of Folly

From Troy to Vietnam

In the book The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman examines four major cases where leaders acted against their own interests, to bring about their downfall: the Horse of Troy; the Renaissance Papacy; the American Revolution; and the Vietnam War.

Tuchman defined “folly” as having met these three criteria: it is counter-productive, even as viewed by contemporaries; an alternative course of action is present, but not taken; and finally, it is perpetrated not by a single leader, but by a group. These criteria merely narrow down the number of case studies to be considered, and not in themselves explanations for the failures. The main argument in all of these, instead, is something else: it’s about acting “against self-interest”.

Maybe the present-day concept of “self-interest” is different from how the author used it in this book. But it sure isn’t just about dereliction or corruption – although the Renaissance popes are indeed shining examples of such. Instead, the concept of “self-interest” here is more about hubris. And so taking it into consideration, the four cases can be understood better when seen in this light.

In the short discussion of the Trojan Horse, hubris is when the kingdom of Troy accepted the offering of a gigantic wooden horse as a sign of peace. And despite persistent demands for the horse’ internals to be inspected, the Trojan leaders refused. At night, while the people of Troy are asleep, the Greeks hiding inside the horse came out, opened the city gate, and let their forces in, thus culminating in the defeat and destruction of Troy.

In the story of the Renaissance papacy, hubris is something that stretched back to earlier times, outside of the book’s scope, when the popes settled in Avignon, and thus were closely intertwined with the secular leadership of France. Even upon returning to Rome, the Church leadership brought with it the secularism and lavishness it adopted in Avignon. The six popes of the Renaissance period – Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X, Clement VII – lived in utter prodigality and vulgarity. They appointed relatives and friends to the College of Cardinals – especially nephews, which is how the word “nepotism” came to be. They lived less like the apostles of Jesus, but more like the kings of their times, except more extravagant. Some even had illegitimate children, whom they also appointed as Cardinals.

To keep funding the otherworldly levels of materialistic lifestyle they lived, these popes used their office for all sorts of money making schemes – notably, the sale of indulgences. When this scheme was introduced in Germany, a certain clergy named Martin Luther stood up to the Church, and thus paved the way for the greatest schism in the history of Christianity later on. Once the Reformation movement set in, and both clergy and secular rulers started breaking off from the influence of Rome, the Catholic Church started its rapid decline in power and prestige. All because a group of successive popes prioritized their hubris over their pastoral duties.

In the third case, the British Parliament, keen on raising funds to recuperate from the successive wars of the early 18th century, looked to the faraway New World to raise taxes. Multiple proposals were put forward, each time receving huge backlash from the American colonists. The Americans hated the idea of being taxed by a faraway Parliament across the Atlantic, without so much as a proper representation to the body. The hubris comes in the form of stubbornness, as the Parliament insisted on levying taxes despite the growing possibility of open revolt. Which, in the end, is what happened. And thus, the American Revolution came to be, and the British Empire lost its colony. All because of hubris.

The implacability of the British, that led to their loss of America, is ironically repeated by the Americans themselves, two centuries later. Five presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon – wrestled over the issue of the Southeast Asian nation known as Vietnam. When the French, after the tragic siege of Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Conference, finally exited from Indochina, the Americans came in, and soon found themselves stuck in the same quagmire that the French extricated themselves from at a terrible price.

Taking the author’s definition of folly, the Vietnam War is its greatest example. So much has been said about the glaringly contradictory policy of suppressing communism in Vietnam without escalating the conflict, but the book’s examination of the folly lies in the creation of a sense of “self-hypnosis”. The presidents sought to defend and perpetuate their policies on Vietnam by convincing themselves that the Communist threat over Southeast Asia – the so-called “dominoes theory” – is more than real. By the time of Kennedy, the growing gap between Soviet Union and China already offered a view contrary to that of falling dominoes, yet the self-hypnosis continued.

As Johnson started to gradually escalate the American efforts in Vietnam, they adopted a policy of counting bodies, and manipulating the count, if needed. They bannered the numbers that show lower American casualties than Vietnamese, indication, according to them, of getting closer to victory. This, too, is self-hypnosis: soon, both the American government and the military leadership were too convinced they were winning, that when the 1968 Tet offensive came, they found it almost impossible to realistically assess their situation. Even after the offensive, even amidst the widespread and violent opposition to the war, America went on and kept fighting.

Nixon won by promising to end the war. Which he did, but not immediately. Instead, he still vainly looked for a way to win the war, even as he nonetheless ordered massive withdrawal of ground troops. America pursued a policy of “Vietnamization” – training and equipping the ARVN to fight their war on their own, with little to no American help. Meanwhile, aerial bombing was intensified further, which did little to ease the anti-war sentiments. Ultimately, the bombings and the Vietnamization failed to work, and in 1975, with North Vietnamese forces rapidly overwhelming the South, America exited from Vietnam in shame.

Tuchman concludes that the “rejection of reason is the prime characteristic of folly.” As I see it, such rejection has to be caused by something. And as I see it, hubris is what really made these follies possible. Whatever the case, The March of Folly is a good casebook on how and why policies fail. In the end, the author asserts that a “test of character” is probably what is needed in choosing leaders. Maybe we – citizens and leaders – can all learn from the mistakes of the past. But I guess one takeaway here is that these lessons aren’t just more relevant now – instead, they’ve always been relevant. And as these follies show, it seems every once in a while, we’ll realize we never learned our lessons after all.