Cahill's Self-Serving History of Heretics and Heroes | Dr. Michael B. Kelly | CWR
Outrage-free history has never been easy to write, and Thomas Cahill is not up to the task in his new book on the Renaissance and Reformation
Since publishing the amusing How the Irish Saved Civilization in 1995, best-selling author Thomas Cahill has added five further volumes to his history of the West, the Hinges of History series. The latest volume, Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Changed Our World, contains Cahill’s take on the great European intellectual, cultural, and religious movements of the period now commonly referred to by historians as “early modern”. According to the author, this series aims to “retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West.” Such “gift-givers” left behind “a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong” than the one they had entered.
“We normally,” Cahill states, “think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage—almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence.” The Hinges series, however, is dedicated to “narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance.”
It seems we are in for a newer, gentler, kinder history of the West.
And yet Cahill’s approach, as advertised, is not all that novel. Hear how an earlier writer distanced himself from conventional historians with their predilection for bloodshed and brutality: “Other historians record the victories of war and trophies won from enemies, the skill of generals, and the manly bravery of soldiers, defiled with blood and with innumerable slaughters for the sake of [their] children and country and other possessions. But our narrative of the government of God will record . . . the most peaceful wars waged in behalf of the peace of the soul, and will tell of men doing brave deeds for truth rather than country, and for piety rather than dearest friends.”1 As the Father of Church History, Eusebius of Caesarea, penned those words in the first half of the fourth century it can be seen that Cahill is, at least in aspiration, in good, and rather well-worn, company.
Outrage-free history, however, has never been easy to write.