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Ideas in Time

John Potts

Chapter 1. Pierre Menard and Fernand Braudel

The Longue Durée Meets Intellectual History

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1In his story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’, Jorge Luis Borges directs his quizzical gaze at the notion of appropriation. Here in his first story (published in 1939), Borges unveils the supreme irony and mastery of paradox that will endear him, decades later, to post-structuralists. In a few brief pages, he – or rather the narrator – outlines for us the audacious project of Pierre Menard. This project is not merely to copy Don Quixote, but to produce pages coinciding word for word with those of Cervantes; it is not to compose another Don Quixote, but the Don Quixote.

2Borges pushes the paradox further: the texts of Cervantes and Menard are identical, we are told, but ‘the second is almost infinitely richer.’ (Borges 1962: 52) To support this perverse claim, a passage concerning ‘truth, whose mother is history’, is presented to us – twice – for comparison. As written in the seventeenth century by Cervantes, this passage is ‘a mere rhetorical eulogy of history.’ When written in the twentieth century by Menard, however, it conveys an ‘astounding’ idea:

Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an investigation of reality, but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what took place; it is what we think took place. (53)

  • 1 Macherey (1978: 250) and Borinsky (1986: 152-156) are cited by Frow (1986: 170). An intellectual hi (...)

3This story is, as John Frow has remarked, ‘a perfectly serious joke that we are still learning to take seriously.’ (Frow 1986: 170) The definition of history drawn from Menard’s version of the text looks forward to the postmodern critique of historiography, in which history is deemed not the recording of the past but its construction. As one would expect, Borges’ prescient story has received attention from cultural critics, literary theorists and intellectual historians, although the lessons taken from this tale have been disparate. Pierre Macherey and others have focused on questions of authorship and reading;1 but the story’s significance for this project lies elsewhere. As Frow observes, the historicity of the text is crucial: any ‘textual identity’ is transformed under new historical conditions into difference (171). For what has changed is not the text but the epistemological context in which it is read. Menard, ‘a contemporary of William James’, lives in an intellectual environment radically different to that of Cervantes; accordingly, his re-writing of the text renders it a radically different work.

  • 2 The reference is Veyne’s ‘Foucault revolutionne l’histoire, ’ originally published in 1978.

4Here then is discontinuity in intellectual history. The meaning of a text or an idea is not universal; it is contingent. In some instances the meanings of words will vary wildly over time and place. Terence Ball cites examples such as ‘patriot’ or ‘ideology’, whose meanings have undergone major alteration, concluding that ‘words do not change, but concepts and meanings do.’ (Ball 1997: 41) Menard is representative in this respect: when he rewrites those seventeenth century words, he invests them with twentieth century meanings. The intellectual object is more properly an objectification which – as Roger Chartier states – ‘construct [s] an original figure each time.’ (Chartier 1982: 43) Chartier quotes approvingly Paul Veyne’s rendition of intellectual history :2

In this world, we do not play chess with eternal figures like the king and the fool: the figures are what the successive configurations on the playing board make of them. (Chartier 1982: 43)

5Chartier insists that the ‘very object’ of intellectual history is to describe these differences, to ‘depict as paramount the discontinuities that cause knowledge and deed to be labelled and categorized in different or contradictory ways according to the epoch.’ (44)

6This emphasis on discontinuity, in which intellectual objects are determined by the discursive practices specific to historical periods, is – in a word – Foucauldian. According to Chartier and Veyne, it was Foucault who ‘revolutionised history’ in this way. Fittingly enough, Foucault’s major work of intellectual history, The Order of Things, was inspired by a Borges story concerning a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’. The outlandish taxonomy listed in that encyclopaedia demonstrated, for Foucault, the limitation of our own system of thought when confronted by another (Foucault 1973: xv). From this assumption of epistemological difference, Foucault extrapolated a conception of intellectual history with a heavy emphasis on discontinuity. Its premises are that knowledge is historically determined; that the systems of knowledge operating in one historical period are largely self-contained; and that such organisations of knowledge are radically different to the formations of knowledge to be found in other times and places.

7I will argue in this book that this conception did not originate with Foucault, and that he allocated significant roles to continuity and gradual change in intellectual history. Nevertheless, historical discontinuity is frequently associated with Foucault; and its influence on intellectual history and cultural history is formidable. Like the narrator of ‘Pierre Menard’, many intellectual and cultural historians are struck by otherness when they look back. Discontinuity is a significant part of our own epistemological configuration; it takes up many of the squares on Veyne’s chessboard. Accordingly, much of this book is an engagement with its power and its influence. Such an engagement is necessary, because I am concerned not simply with discontinuity in intellectual history, but also with continuity in thought and ideas.

8 As mentioned earlier, Terence Ball asserts that even if words stay the same, concepts and meanings change. ‘In an important sense’ he notes, ‘words do not have histories but concepts do.’ (Ball 1997: 41) The question I pose in this book is: what kind of histories are they? Are shifts in meaning marked by ‘ruptures’ and radical breaks, an interpretation favoured by a discontinuous theory of intellectual history? Or is change more gradual than the discontinuist view has allowed? Are there indeed continuities in intellectual history, so that ideas may remain unaltered over long durations?

9This is the basis of my inquiry in this book. In its pursuit I consider theories both of discontinuity and of continuity in intellectual history. The former views history as a succession of epochs separated by epistemological breaks; its theme is radical difference. The latter takes the long view, whereby ideas endure across epochs, unchanged or slowly altering, retaining their original character even in modified states. From this perspective, the past persists in the present. Ancient ideas find contemporary expression. The continuist intellectual position would reply to Veyne: the game may undergo shifting configurations, but it is still a game of chess. It would say to Menard: you are in dialogue with the past, which lives on in your act of rewriting. Language itself is a conservative force, allowing terms, concepts and ideas to survive across generations. Seventeenth century ideas have travelled three centuries, where they find a willing conversant; is not Menard, after all, tilting at twentieth century windmills?

10Stated so baldly, these conflicting positions veer close to caricature. On closer inspection, there is less support for a strict dichotomy within intellectual history along continuist/discontinuist lines. Historical discontiuity must account for transition, even for the persistence of some notions from the past. Otherwise, how does one epoch (or paradigm) give way to the next? And how is it that we can understand, even if only in part, the thought of the past? On the other hand, theories of historical continuity must account for innovation and rapid conceptual change. They must also acknowledge that sometimes the past is radically other, that ideas and beliefs once held dear may appear – to later generations – bizarre, unthinkable. There is a tension between continuity and discontinuity in intellectual history; it is that tension which energises and informs this book.

11The perspective adopted by much recent critical theory has favoured discontinuity. The postmodern suspicion of grand narratives, the Foucauldian concentration on the specific rather than the universal, the sway of the aforementioned historical determination of knowledge: all these factors contribute to a discontinuist point of view. Its impact may be observed in developments within intellectual history, particularly regarding the history of ideas. Until the 1960s, historians of ideas freely charted the life of ideas from their (often ancient) origins to the present, or to the point of their expiry. The idea was constituted as a biological entity, experiencing growth and possibly decline, undergoing slow evolution in meaning. Or its essential meaning was construed as unchanging throughout the idea’s existence; cognate ideas or associations were responsible for changes in meaning over the centuries.

12From the 1960s, however, this version of intellectual history came under such sustained attack that it was largely discredited. Foucault waged a withering assault on the history of ideas, but he was not a lone assassin. Under the influence of discontinuity, the epistemological differences between historical periods have been accentuated; as a result, ideas could not be assumed to traverse historical divides without profound alteration. Or ideas may disappear completely, displaced by alternatives more appropriate to a new configuration of knowledge. Or the connotation of a term may be so radically transformed that it amounts to a new idea. This is the discontinuist challenge to the history of ideas; indeed, that term has fallen into disfavour, with ‘intellectual history’, ‘the history of consciousness’, or – most recently – ‘history in ideas’ – preferred as alternatives.

13This then is the background for my examination of the history of ideas. In the following pages I refer to studies of particular ideas, including the ideas of progress, democracy, the Olympic Games, zero, and the idea of the West. My own research has previously been applied to the idea of charisma, whose history I considered in the light of arguments for continuity and discontinuity in intellectual history. That history can be summarised, severely, in this way:

The term ‘charisma’ emerged in the early Christian church of the first century; charisma was eclipsed as a religious concept within the church by the end of the third century; it lay submerged for many centuries, with intermittent appearances; charisma was re-invented in Max Weber’s sociology in the early twentieth century; the word is widely used in contemporary Western culture, in media, academic scholarship and popular discourse. (Potts 2009: 1)

14It is evident from this brief description that a history of the idea of charisma traces a continuity over a two-thousand year span, while also incorporating significant discontinuites, where the idea disappeared from use; there is also the possibility that a major discontinuity exists between the meaning of the idea in the twenty-first century and the original usage in the first century. While the term ‘charisma’ was first used in Paul’s epistles of the first century, with the religious meaning of ‘spiritual gift’, our understanding of the idea is largely shaped by Weber. Do the profoundly altered circumstances of the present create a new context for this term, and therefore new meaning? Is the charisma we know today a fundamentally different thing to the charisma detailed by Paul? A discontinuist perspective answers in the affirmative: charisma then and now are differentiated more thoroughly – after twenty centuries – than the two versions of Don Quixote, separated only by three. Paul’s charisma was a strictly religious idea; the charismata were spiritual gifts to be shared in a collectivist spirit. Twenty-first century charisma is distinctly individualistic in temper; it is a secular term applied by commentators to any individual deemed worthy of the tag; it is not far removed from ‘celebrity’, that other media plaything.

15And yet, a continuist view responds, are they really so different? The contemporary meaning of charisma retains a mystical, if not religious, hue. Charisma is not synonymous with celebrity: unlike celebrity, it is not simply generated by mass media. Charisma is considered somehow ineffable, inexplicable. Certain individuals are thought to be ‘blessed with’ charisma; it is not an attribute that can be purchased or invented. It is commonly thought of as a ‘gift’ bestowed on special individuals. The contemporary usage of the term ‘charisma’ indicates the persistence – in however modified a form – of mystical thought, even within technologised and rationalised societies.

16My study of the history of charisma articulates the tension between continuity and discontinuity with which this book is engaged. My aim is a reconditioned history of ideas that draws on both these perspectives, rather than favouring one to the exclusion of the other. Such a project entails the possibility of tracing the history of certain ideas from their ancient origins to their present expression; it also entails a number of provisos. No idea is to be understood as universal or unchanging; there can be no smooth continuities undisturbed by changing circumstance; there can be no retrospective mapping of origins to justify the present. Accordingly, a history of ideas must take into account difference as well as likeness. To the extent that an idea’s historical trajectory may involve breaks, periods of dormancy, or major alterations to meaning, such a trajectory may be termed a ‘discontinuous history’, one characterised by various discontinuities and continuities.

17Discontinuist theories of intellectual history, most notably detailed by Foucault and Kuhn, are accorded thorough consideration in this book. The most influential, and most thoroughly articulated, expression of the long-view in history has been made by the French historian Fernand Braudel. The continuist historical perspective is crystallised by Braudel’s term the longue durée; I turn to Braudel’s theory of history now, before considering, throughout this book, how the history of ideas can re-engage with the longue durée.

The Longue Durée

18When, at the very beginning of The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault discusses those historians who have ‘preferred to turn their attention to long periods’ (1972: 3), he is referring to the Annales historians, among whom Braudel was most noted for his attention to very long durations. As noted in chapters Four and Five, Foucault acknowledged his debt to the Annales school on more than one occasion; he emphasised different aspects of that debt depending on his requirement. Foucault aimed to transfer Annales methods to ‘the history of ideas, of knowledge, and of thought in general’ (1989: 59); his attention to the ‘multiplicity of time spans’ within intellectual history drew especially on the work of Braudel. And by pointing to the longest of those time spans, ‘the great silent, motionless bases’ of time (1972: 3), Foucault acknowledged the longue durée beneath the flux of discontinuities.

  • 3 This essay was published in the ‘Débats et Combats’ section of the Annales journal in 1958; it is i (...)

19Braudel formulated his thoughts on historical time spans in an essay ‘History and the Social Sciences: the Longue Durée’, published in 1958.3 For Jacques Le Goff, this ‘fundamental article’, drawing on the notion of the multiplicity of social times earlier proposed by Maurice Halbwachs in 1925, has exerted a considerable influence on later historians (Le Goff 1992: 135). Braudel emphasises not only the ‘multiplicity of time’ but also ‘the exceptional value of the long time span’ (Braudel 1980: 27). He writes (rather disdainfully) of the shortest time span, that of ‘individual’ or ‘hasty’ time, recorded by ‘the chronicle and the journalist’ (28). Braudel finds this shortest span ‘the most delusive of all’. An event may seem ‘explosive’, a ‘matter of moment’ (28), yet for Braudel, ‘Its delusive smoke fills the minds of its contemporaries, but it does not last, and its flame can scarcely ever be discerned.’ (27) Guldi and Armitage, in discussing Braudel’s formulation of the longue durée, emphasise his contempt for historical writing ‘too closely tied to events’ (Guldi and Armitage: 17). Such history was, for Braudel, similar to the writing of contemporary economists, whom he chastised for their ‘short-term imperatives’; history of this type was deemed by Braudel to lack ‘both critical distance and intellectual substance’ (17).

20The second and slower tempo Braudel calls ‘cyclical’ or social time – that of economic cycles, technological systems, conceptual changes, all with ‘their own rhythms of life and growth’ (30). In contrast to the ‘capricious’ nature of the first speed (28), and the cyclical nature of the second, Braudel considers the third and longest time span – the longue durée – to be the most profound.

21Braudel concedes the ‘troublesome character’ of this longue durée: to study it, a historian must ‘become used to a slower tempo, which sometimes almost borders on the motionless.’ (33) Yet he maintains that this ‘semistillness’ resides at the base of history: ‘ [e] verything gravitates around it’ (33). The rhythm of a longue durée is conditioned by a structure of some form. For Braudel, enduring structures become stable elements for an infinite number of generations: they get in the way of history, hinder its flow, and in hindering it shape it. (31)

22Braudel is an eloquent theorist of time and history: time sticks to a historian’s thinking, he tells us, ‘like soil to a gardener’s spade’ (47). Yet much of this particular essay is spent admonishing philosophers and sociologists for lacking awareness of the ‘weight of historical time’ (48). Braudel digs his spade into the soil only fleetingly here; when he does so, the most revealing dig – appropriately enough – is into the fertile patch called geography. The ‘geographical constraint’ is for Braudel the most obvious instance of an underlying structure shaping the rhythm of a longue durée:

For centuries, man has been a prisoner of climate, of vegetation, of the animal population, of a particular agriculture, of a whole slowly established balance from which he cannot escape without the risk of everything’s being upset. (31)

23Braudel situates cultural patterns within structures laid down by geography. A particular coastal configuration attracts maritime life, which becomes a ‘permanence’; it may also attract a permanent human settling, in the form of a city. Braudel points to the way the sites of cities endure, the persistence of routes and trade, and all the amazing fixity of the geographical setting of civilizations. (31)

24The role of landscape and geology across long spans of time is thoroughly explored by Braudel in his historical work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, first published in France in 1949 (the English translation in 1972 was based on a second French edition). The first section of this massive work could rightly be called history fused with geography, such is the importance attributed to the physical environment of the Mediterranean by Braudel. His goal is ‘a history in slow motion from which permanent values can be detected’ (Braudel 1972: 23); the natural environment is the most important shaping force at this level. Here ‘all change is slow’, and there is constant repetition, as human behaviour responds to nature (20). Thus Braudel finds that mountains ‘resist’ the force of civilizations, which are ‘an urban and lowland achievement’ (34). Hilltop communities around the Mediterranean, according to Braudel, remained aloof from Roman and then Christian cultural power; the mountain world has its ‘separate religious geography’, preventing religion or other cultural pattern from taking a deep hold (35).

25While Braudel places great emphasis on long, slow processes rooted in the natural environment, he is careful to place this duration within the framework of the other, shorter time spans. The ‘almost motionless’ relations between humans and nature combine with the short-term fluctuations and cycles of social history. All these movements, he proposes, ‘are superimposed on one another’ (102). It is the ‘geographical’ time, however, which ‘guides us towards history’s slowest processes’ (102); this slowest speed is more responsible than the others for the coherence of a specific geographical region through time. Braudel specifies something of this coherence in the context of the Mediterranean:

I retain the firm conviction that the Turkish Mediterranean lived and breathed with the same rhythms as the Christian, that the whole sea shared a common destiny, a heavy one indeed, with identical problems and general trends if not identical consequences. (14)

26In his historical writing, Braudel wanted to ‘transcend the event’ and ‘the brief moments of awareness’ experienced in the short time span. For him, historical meaning can only be grasped at the level of the longue durée, which is the ‘source, for each society, of its own internal logic and of innumerable contradictions.’ (1980: 209)

Myth, Religion and Language

27Can Braudel’s longue durée, most readily apparent at the level of ‘geographical time’, be related to intellectual history? David Armitage has observed that the Annales historians, including Braudel himself, expressed little sympathy for the concerns of intellectual history. Braudel discussed the function of ideas in history, but only as they endured according to an imperative of ‘permanence and survival’ (Armitage 2012: 495); transformation of these ideas was not assayed. Elsewhere, Annales historians focused on the history of mentalités, understood as collective mental frameworks, but as Roger Chartier has remarked, these mentalités were conceived as diachronic and ‘more or less immobile’ (cited by Armitage 495). Armitage indeed concludes that the ‘longue durée as defined by the Annales historians was therefore infertile territory for intellectual historians.’ (495)

28This territory need not remain barren, however; and Armitage in 2012 proposed a ‘rapprochement between intellectual history and the longue durée’ (497), resulting in a ‘long-range intellectual history’ he described as ‘transtemporal history’ and ‘history in ideas’ (497). Indeed, there were also other incarnations of intellectual history in the twentieth century that contained a fruitful relationship with the longue durée. Guldi and Armitage assert the ‘ethical purpose’ of the longue durée in their History Manifesto: ‘stories with a long-term argument can have the powerful effect of banishing myths and overturning false laws.’ (2014: 37) This ethical dimension is evident in many works of intellectual history covering a longue durée.

29One approach in the writing of long-span histories is to trace the role of environment in human habitation and communication: the shift from nomadism to agriculture; the advent of writing; the development of cities; the invention of artificial memories and their shaping of a ‘cognitive ecology’. Jared Diamond traced such a trajectory in his long-term history Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody For the Last 13,000 Years (1998). More recently, James C. Scott has charted a similar timespan in his book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017). Scott re-examines the shift from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to sedentary communities dependendent on grain cultivation, exploring the reasons for the long delay between sedentism and the formation of states. The transformations wrought in human consciousness by intellectual technologies such as writing was examined in the twentieth century by, among many others, Walter J. Ong (Orality and Literacy, 1982), Eric Havelock (Preface to Plato, 1963), and Jack Goody (The Domestication of the Savage Mind, 1977).

30Another – less arduous – approach is to identify patterns of continuity or gradual change in forms of cultural expression. Braudel draws the analogy between geographical constants and enduring structures in political, artistic or intellectual activity: ‘ [t]here is the same element of permanence or survival in the vast domain of cultural affairs.’ (1980: 31) He offers as examples: the prolonged ‘cultural system’ represented by the Byzantine Empire, which resisted intellectual change by clinging to ‘the same subjects, the same comparisons, the same commonplaces’; the persistence of the idea of the crusade well after the crusades themselves, even into the nineteenth century when it touched Europeans ‘with one last ray’; the permanence of perspectival pictorial space from the beginnings of the Renaissance until the twentieth century; the many intellectual models that survived for centuries, most spectacularly the geocentric cosmology which remained unchallenged until the time of Galileo (31-32). Braudel ‘s examples refer to studies done by historians of these disparate areas: Ernst Robert Curtius on the Byzantine Empire; Alphonse Dupront on the idea of the crusade; Pierre Francastel on geometric pictorial space.

31Braudel looks back further, to the ‘extreme longue durée’ of myths – or at least myths as interpreted by Levi-Strauss. Myths develop ‘only very slowly, almost timelessly’ (45) because they are generated from necessary and stable kinship systems – thus ‘the prohibition of incest is a reality of the longue durée.’ (45) If myths alter through time, it is only at a very gradual rate, because they remain motivated by an ‘underlying impulse’ that shapes all variants of the myth. Braudel contrasts the Oedipus myth, with its many versions springing from the same source, to the sixteenth century idea of ‘Machiavellianism’, which has undergone ‘rifts and reversals’ resulting from the ‘various inclemencies of history’ (46). The Oedipus story, still well known today, has ‘the theatrical, sempiternal solidity of myth’ (46). Unlike ideas, which may be buffeted, undermined, transformed or forgotten in the turbulent passage of history, myths – corresponding to the extreme longue durée – can be ‘sheltered from all accidents, crises and sudden breaks.’ (45)

  • 4 Le Goff’s reference is to Marcel Détienne, ‘Le mythe’ in Le Goff and Nora (1974) Faire de L’histoir (...)

32The Annales School incorporated the insights of structuralist anthropology into its historical analyses. The notion of a core element beneath the surface variations in myths constituted, for several historians, a profound continuity underlying the fluctuations wrought by time and space. Le Goff remarks that the long cultural life of myths turns them into the ‘historian’s meat’ (Le Goff 1992: 134). He quotes Marcel Détienne’s assertion4 that structural analysis, by isolating constant forms in myths beneath differences in content, proposes

a general history inscribed in a longue durée, diving underneath conscious expressions and locating under the apparent fluidity of things the great internal currents that silently traverse it. (Le Goff 1992: 135)

33Of course, the principles of structuralist anthropology have not gone unchallenged since making a major impression in the 1950s and 1960s. The criticisms – from a wide range of perspectives – are too numerous to be considered here; the issue most relevant to the present inquiry concerns the durability of the past within the myths themselves. In this regard, Walter J. Ong finds structuralist analysis inattentive to ‘the specific dynamics of oral expression’ (Ong 1982: 164). Specifically, while oral peoples evince prodigious feats of memory – as evident in mythic cycles and epic poems – this does not necessarily mean that memory of the past remains unchanged, or that all key elements of the past are preserved. Studies by Goody and others have revealed numerous variations in myths resulting from the creative acts of story-telling practised by the oral ‘memory-men’ (Goody 1997: 38, cited by Le Goff 1992: 57). More significantly, Ong and other theorists characterise oral societies as ‘homeostatic’ – that is, living in a present that maintains stability by ‘sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.’ (Ong 1982: 46) Archaic forms must adapt to the needs of the present; myths may undergo major revisions incorporating a ‘structural amnesia’ (48). Theorists of orality therefore caution against the assumption of an unchanging core within mythic narrative patterns. For Ong, even archaic terms within orally transmitted epics are not immune from changes of meaning: he finds that the memory of old meanings ‘has some durability, but not unlimited durability.’ (47)

34These qualifications concerning the abstractions of structuralism modify the interpretation of myth as longue durée. It is hazardous to speculate that myths incorporate and transmit unchanging core elements. It seems wiser to argue that myths are transformed slowly through time, reflecting changed social circumstances. The narrative forms of myth constitute not a changeless continuity but a mutating pattern. Religion is a stronger candidate for continuity in belief and thought, particularly those religions founded on central sacred texts. As Ong observes, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all organised around sacred texts. The codification of religious thought in written form has two major consequences. First, the written form encourages an ‘articulate introspectivity’ (Ong 1982: 105) characteristic of the great world religions; Ong contrasts the ‘religions of the book’ with ancient Greek religion, which developed no sacred text and consequently ‘failed to establish itself in the recesses of the psyche’ (105). Secondly, the text provides a basis for durability of belief. The permanence of the text does not prevent variations in interpretation, or doctrinal schisms such as the Reformation; nevertheless, its pages enclose the fundamentals of belief that may endure, largely unchanged, for many centuries.

35The hold of Christianity on European thought throughout the Middle Ages entailed a ‘quasi-monopoly… in the intellectual domain’ (Le Goff 1992: 68). The Church inherited the idea of a world state from the Roman Empire, representing a transnational institution respected for its spiritual, moral and intellectual authority (Bewkes et al. 1963: 428 – 429). As the ‘arbiter of the intellect’, it provided an intellectual stability – along the lines largely forged by Augustine – in the early Middle Ages; centuries later, the Scholastic thinkers – most notably Thomas Aquinas – maintained this stability by synthesising the newly discovered thought of Aristotle with Christian doctrine.

36Over this long period of ideological dominance in Europe, Christianity developed its own tradition through a program of ritualised acts of recollection. For Le Goff, Christianity is, like Judaism, a ‘religion of remembrance’ (Le Goff 1992: 68). The act of salvation is situated in the historical past, while the Bible and church rituals insist on ‘the necessity of remembrance as a fundamental religious activity.’ (68) This weight of the past in Christian thought was the counter-balance to the teleological impulse introduced by the belief in the Second Coming. Medieval theology is a long way from the Enlightenment faith in progress and the future; for Le Goff, in medieval thought the present ‘is eaten away by the past, for only the past gives the present its sense and its significance’ (13). As an example of the medieval deference to the past, Le Goff quotes the twelfth century Guillaume de Conches: ‘We are only commentators on the ancients, we invent nothing new.’ (Le Goff 1992: 120)

37Christian theology has been a conservative force for many centuries – conserving the intellectual structures of the past, resisting the pressure of new ideas (Copernicus) for as long as possible. In recent centuries it has survived by modifying its doctrine to fit the age of science; in this respect (and as suggested by its earlier absorption of Aristotle), it demonstrates a pattern of continuity through growth. Yet it – like other enduring religions and traditions – has at its core a basic set of elements, making up an unchanging system of belief. This constancy within religious thought is one of the most attractive aspects for believers; it represents a point of stillness transcending the speed and flux of worldly events.

38Religion is also an important component of ‘the longevity of civilizations’, as characterised by Braudel in his essay ‘The History of Civilizations: The Past Explains the Present’, originally published in 1959. Contemporary French society, according to Braudel, partakes of the French civilization, defined by the extremely longue durée (Braudel 1980: 209). Civilization incorporates ‘set habits’ of behaviour and thought; it exhibits ‘deep-seated tastes explicable only in terms of a slow-moving, long-standing history’ (211). Appreciated from this very long perspective, civilisations are continuities that not only absorb various ‘upheavals’ (whether political, social or ideological) but may on occasion even prompt such upheavals (210). For Braudel,

[t]he French Revolution is not a total break in the destiny of the French civilization, nor the Revolution of 1917 in the Russian, which some call, in order to broaden it still further, the Eastern Orthodox civilization. (210)

39This very long view, strikingly disrespectful of the role of discontinuities, emphasises all in culture that endures, rather than all that changes. In this regard, language has a crucial function. Braudel remarks that to master the French language is ‘to know the words right down to their roots, their origins hundreds and thousands of years ago.’ (209) Language is part of ‘the source, for each society, of its own internal logic’ (209). Two individuals sharing the same language also share much more: the concepts and modes of thought made possible by the language’s structure and vocabulary. There is a temporal dimension to the communication of ideas through language: I may read the words – and understand them – written in this language centuries ago. Living languages change, but not quickly enough to set up impassable barriers of intelligibility. Language is a repository of past thought, stored in the words used for centuries.

40One of the most compelling arguments to this effect was made by Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough (1967). Wittgenstein opposes Frazer’s interpretation of magical practices as flawed logic, or ‘wrong ideas about the physics of things.’ (Wittgenstein 1993: 7e) Frazer has imposed a discontinuity between himself in his age of reason and science, and the pre-literate and pre-scientific ‘primitives’ who mistakenly believe in the powers of magic. For Wittgenstein, Frazer’s account is ‘wrong-headed’ in that he judges the beliefs of the past only in accordance with the knowledge of the present. ‘Was Augustine mistaken, then, ’ Wittgenstein asks, ‘when he called on God on every page of the Confessions?’ (1993: 1e) Wittgenstein argues for a continuity of thought across history and across cultures concerning the principle of magic, which is ‘much more general than Frazer shows it to be’ (5e). The principle is easily observed in our own practices: Wittgenstein mentions as an example the act of Schubert’s brother in cutting up Schubert’s scores after his death and distributing the pieces to his favourite pupils. This act is considered ‘pious’ in our culture, but could easily be construed as bizarre according to the term of reference of another culture.

41More importantly, Wittgenstein also argues that the principle of magic is comprehensible to us as a principle, and that we can elaborate on possible variations of it. For example, we could imagine that ‘in a given tribe no-one is allowed to see the king, or again that every man in the tribe is obliged to see him.’ (5e) It is perfectly possible, that is, for us to think in magical terms. Frazer’s condescending interpretation proposes that magical practice is fundamentally alien to modern thought; but – Wittgenstein observes – language betrays him. Frazer posits an interpretation of certain tribal observances as dictated by fear of a ghost; Wittgenstein asks:

But why does Frazer use the word ghost? He evidently understands this superstition well enough, since he has used a familiar superstitious word to describe it. Or, rather, he might have seen from this that there is something in us too that speaks in support of those observances by the savages. (8e)

42Wittgenstein asserts that our ‘kinship’ with tribal peoples is shown by the fact that our words ghost or shade describe ‘the way these people look at things’ (10e). Further, he notes that ‘too little is made of the fact that we include the words soul and spirit in our own civilized vocabulary.’ (10e) For Wittgenstein, the persistence of these terms and concepts is more significant than differences in practices or beliefs. The thought of the past endures in the language so that it remains available to us: ‘ [a] whole mythology is deposited in our language.’ (10e)

43Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the continuities of thought embedded in language was one of the perspectives on the longue durée expressed in the twentieth century. In this book I support the full rapprochement between intellectual history and the longue durée advocated by David Armitage. My specific concern is with that approach within intellecrtual history known as the history of ideas; my focus turns to the history of ideas in the next chapter.


1 Macherey (1978: 250) and Borinsky (1986: 152-156) are cited by Frow (1986: 170). An intellectual history perspective on the tale is provided by Condren (1985: 118) in a discussion of originality in the history of ideas.

2 The reference is Veyne’s ‘Foucault revolutionne l’histoire, ’ originally published in 1978.

3 This essay was published in the ‘Débats et Combats’ section of the Annales journal in 1958; it is included in Braudel (1980).

4 Le Goff’s reference is to Marcel Détienne, ‘Le mythe’ in Le Goff and Nora (1974) Faire de L’histoire.

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