In his series, The Hinges of History, Thomas Cahill sets out to identify and ponder the moments, movements and groups throughout history that in some crucial way changed the course and development of Western Civilization. The first work in the series, How the Irish Saved Civilization examines the rise of the monastic scholastic tradition in “Ireland” just after the “fall” of the Roman Empire proper.
Cahill sets out from the beginning to illuminate those positive and hopeful moments in human history rather than the usual timeline of “catastrophe, followed by war, outrage followed by outrage — as if human history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence.” While I do not deny an abundance of the former in human history, in an era of shock journalism and panic media, it is refreshing to see information presented from a positive and optimistic, but realistic point of view.
Cahill begins by setting the stage of ancient Ireland in terms of its people, tradition and society landscape. These provide a valuable understanding for just why this unique scholastic tradition the emerged after exposure to early Latin, Roman and Greek influences and literature. More importantly Cahill shows the serious of events that resulted in the return of those influences to darkened Europe and exactly how the recognition of that enormous favor by the Irish was lost in the murk of history.
Rabid antagonists of all things Christian or Roman will doubtlessly find offense with sections of the work, but I contend that Cahill very carefully balances the influences of Christianity on Ireland with the unrecognized impact of Ireland on Western civilization. Those unable to focus on this understated direction of cultural impact are perhaps almost as regrettable as the potential loss its absence would have meant to the modern world.
Encouraged, I’ve decided to continue with the series and have embarked on The Gift of the Jews to see where Cahill takes The Hinges of History next. I recommend How the Irish Saved Civilization as an accessible and frank insight to anyone with a desire to understand the how’s and why’s behind this pivotal aspect of western history. The author’s ability to present the material in a digestible format while not “dumbing it down” and making his passion for history glowingly apparent endeared me to the book.