History of Ideas

“History thus provides some of the essential data, the raw material of facts… necessary to an understanding of human behavior today. But more important is the use a knowledge of history, and especially intellectual history, can have for those of us who do the many important tasks of our civilization that do not call for specialized knowledge….” — Crane Brinton, Ideas and Men

This is a postscript to my earlier note on Belloc’s biography of Thomas Cranmer. The following excerpts are a nice example of Belloc’s ability as a “historian of ideas.”

While discussing Cranmer’s cultural background, Belloc mentions Erasmus’ momentous publication of his Greek New Testament, a work that was controversial mainly because of “its arresting challenging notes and its commentaries which questioned a hundred official and accepted things in the practice of religion.” As such, it helped launch the English Reformers, including Cranmer.

In this same year, 1516, much talked-of acts appeared upon the surface of public life; acts which seemed of vastly greater moment than the academic work of one scholar; nor is there a better example in history, I think, of how it is the mind which decides the tendencies of man and of how little are the loud external things compared with the silences of the mind.

Most men were distracted by the deeds and ambitions of Cardinal Wolsey, King Henry, Emperor Maximilian and Pope Leo. Says Belloc, “all these seemed to be the meaning of the time. All to-day have sunk on to a lesser plane….” By contrast, “the book of Erasmus which was selling up and down Europe, struck off from Froben’s press at Basle, was more important by far.”

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