In the ’60s, my grandparents saved on their phone bill each month by paying for a party line. Imagine the disappointment of my six-year-old self when I found out that their telephone contract had nothing to do with cakes and balloons! The situation fascinated me, though, and every once in a while on a visit to their house, I would gently and noiselessly lift the handset off the cradle just to see what I could hear. The sneaking was intended to avoid my parents’ attention as much as that of the strangers sharing of the line. Still, I never listened long; the novelty provided reward enough without having to eavesdrop on business I had no interest in anyway.
In reading, on the other hand, I get to listen in on conversations for as long as I want. A few days ago, I blogged about some conversations between Will Durant, C. S. Lewis, and Miguel de Cervantes I had been enjoying. The next day in the car, another conversation of sorts came to my mind. At the opening ceremonies of the Rio Summer Olympic Games, we found that the Brazilians think that their Alberto Santos-Dumont invented the airplane. The announcers just laughed about it and said something to the order of, “What’s up with that? I thought the Wright Brothers invented the airplane.” Sadly, it didn’t occur to any of these “journalists” to look up the man after learning about him during the dress rehearsal in order to interpret the events for the viewing public. Historian David McCullough, however, has quite a lot to say about Santos-Dumont in his biography of the Wright Brothers, which I’ve been listening to in the car lately, and his detailed exposition, coming to my ears just a few weeks after the Rio Games, sounded very much like a direct conversational response. The simple story is that Santos-Dumont made the first flight certified by the French-based International Federation of Aeronautics. The Brazilians claim that the Wrights must have kept their work “secret” in order to hide lack of success, when in reality, Kitty Hawk just has a much smaller press corps than Paris. McCullough leaves me wondering, though, whether Brazil’s “father of aviation” shouldn’t receive proper credit as an inventor of the airplane just as Leibniz and Newton share the honors for the invention of calculus.
I finished Durant’s volume on the Reformation last week. Once again he proved himself instructive and pictorial by putting large movements into comprehensible frames. He achieves the task at hand, summing up the early sixteenth century in Europe, with, of all things, a conversation: this one an imagined conversation between Catholicism, Protestantism, and Enlightenment. The Catholic Church speaks up first, pointing out that in the period in question, it went from being the most corrupt institution on Earth to what was, in Durant's day, the model of morality (cue Bing Crosby singing “Going My Way”), accomplishing this remarkable feat in just a few decades with reforms that touched every level from the Vatican itself to the village priest. Protestantism in the mean time, says Durant’s Catholic interlocutor, broke up European unity, squashed art, and saw decreases in morality and charity. Protestantism speaks up for itself then with a two-pronged defense: first that its rise led to the very reforms the Catholic Church boasts of and, second, that eventually, its lands became wealthier, more moral, more charitable, and more hard-working than the Catholic countries of Italy, Spain, and France. Durant closes with the Enlightenment’s remarks, left until last perhaps because a history book fittingly puts movements in chronological order but also probably because Durant wanted to give the last word to the view with which his sympathies most lay. The personification of late-sixteenth and seventeenth-century humanism tells both wings of western Christianity that it took advantage of the breaking of dogmas and trust in authority that the Protestant movement brought about but challenged both religious views by declaring Reason the new authority, one within the reach of every thinking person. I can hear twenty-first-century America now, adding its voice to the dialog: “That’s right! Everyone is their own authority. [Twenty-first-century America doesn’t care much for grammar.] So forget tradition, religious authority, and reasoned argument. Just say what you feel, and call the other person a liar.” *sigh*
Later this year I will finish for the second time Boswell's Life of Johnson, the great monument to good conversation. Dr. Johnson and his biographer blended all Durant’s debating factions – tradition, authority, reason, and Christian charity – and spoke about the healthy combination (or recombination) in eloquent language most of our self-authorized society can’t follow. I will weep for more than one reason when I turn the last page.