Richard Rorty (1931–2007) was an American philosopher who taught at Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Virginia. Rorty became associated with a form of American philosophy known as pragmatism, which followed the writing of the philosopher John Dewey. He came to believe, following Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, that meaning was a sociolinguistic product and did not exist in and of itself. In Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes, Rorty, an avowed atheist, argues that we should not ignore the inspirational qualities of great works such as the gospels, or the Communist Manifesto, simply because their predictions fell short of reality. Christianity and Communism, he wrote, need not be judged for their predictive qualities but for their appeals to what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the “Better Angels of our Nature.” They stirred men and women to good deeds, which arguably benefitted society in general.
From Richard Rorty, Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes, 1998.
Gregory Bishop of Tours
Over the course of the fifth century, the Franks became one of the most powerful of the Germanic successor kingdoms. While some other Germanic rulers converted to Arianism, a Christian heresy, perhaps to distinguish themselves from their subject Roman populations, the Frankish kings remained pagan until 496, when their king Clovis converted to Catholic Christianity. This event was therefore a crucial turning point in the political and religious history of the medieval West, building an alliance between the Church and the Frankish state that benefited both sides. There are several accounts of Clovis’s conversion, including this one by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks. Gregory (539–594) was a prominent churchman—as bishop of Tours he was the leading prelate in what had been Roman Gaul—and a representative of the old Roman aristocracy of the area. He was personally acquainted with several of the Frankish kings of his own day, and he wrote his history partly to flatter them. Despite this bias, he is generally a reliable, if somewhat naïve, chronicler.
From Gregory Bishop of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. Ernest Brehaut. New York: Columbia University Press (1965): 38–41.
As a result of the failure of his Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in November 1923, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) was sent to a minimum security prison at Landsberg. However, he was paroled, four years before the completion of his sentence, in December 1924. Having met with the respect of his judges during his trial in February 1924 and with the approval of the Bavarian Supreme Court, although against the advice of state prosecutors, he had his sentence—after his conviction for a treasonable attempt to take over the state—commuted. Nevertheless, there were some restrictions, both in Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany, on Hitler’s speaking and freedom of movement. In spite of these restrictions, he emerged from prison with the manuscript of a new political statement of his life and philosophy, a document he entitled Mein Kampf (“My struggle”). As recently discovered documents reveal, Hitler hoped to use the proceeds from the sale of this book for a new car as well as to fund his political movement. The party growing out of this movement would be labeled the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, and he would be installed as its unquestioned Führer (leader) by 1925. The following excerpt from Mein Kampf reveals what he had learned about rhetoric and political action in his nascent career.
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Mannheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 469–471.
Two years after becoming first secretary of the Soviet Politburo in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) launched his two trademark economic and political programs, perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”). Hoping to revitalize communism, he restructured and partially dismantled the command economy that had dominated the Soviet Union since the Bolshevik Revolution. While perestroika did not work out as intended, glasnost, which permitted frank commentary and the exposure of incompetence and cover-ups by the Soviet leadership, had more wide-ranging consequences for the Soviet Union, which finally collapsed in 1991. Gorbachev summarized his attitude toward domestic politics for Western readers in a book published in English in 1987. However, a significant portion of the book also deals with Cold War tensions, as he was negotiating with President Reagan (1981–1989) of the United States, especially over the destruction of nuclear weapons.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 218–221.
Because Byzantium faced Islamic populations on its eastern borders, the main opportunities for conversion of pagan populations initially were in the west, among the Slavic peoples of the Balkan peninsula. The brothers Cyril and Methodius led this effort, inventing an alphabet for the writing of Slavic (the Cyrillic alphabet) so that the Gospels could be translated. The spread of Christianity to the Slavs achieved its greatest success in the 980s when the leading Russian prince, Vladimir, converted. The region is usually referred to as Kievan Rus’, and it was under the control of different members of a single princely family. Vladimir occupied the most prestigious and powerful position as Grand Prince of Kiev. Agriculture was the basis of the economy. The political unity of the area, however, was based on an extensive trading system that linked the Baltic and Black Seas via rivers and short overland portages between them. The trade system was known as the road “between the Variangians [Vikings] and the Greeks [Constantinople].” Thus Byzantium was the most important political, military, and economic power in the region.
The story of Vladimir’s conversion comes from The Russian Primary Chronicle, a compilation of earlier chronicles from the principalities of Kiev and Novgorod that covers the years 850 to 1110 and probably first appeared shortly after 1110, though the earliest manuscript copy dates to several hundred years later. The Primary Chronicle undoubtedly overstates the military power of Vladimir, although he did enjoy some military success against the Byzantines. In essence, though, this source presents an accurate picture of the political, military, diplomatic, and cultural factors at work in the conversion encounter between Kievan Rus’ and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Samuel H. Cross, “The Russian Primary Chronicle,” Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, 12 (1930): 170–177.
The novelist Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828–1889) believed that even the emancipation of serfs was insufficient to reform Russian society, since its authoritarian and patriarchal institutions had rendered it unequal and backward by every measure. An educated elite had emerged in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century, and this group felt alienated both from the larger culture and the traditions of Russian society. Chernyshevsky advocated a top-to-bottom restructuring of Russian society, and he was particularly drawn to the idea of liberating women from their subordination within the Russian family. Arrested on largely fabricated charges in 1862 and awaiting trial in St. Petersburg, Chernyshevsky produced his last significant and most influential work, the novel What Is to Be Done? In early 1864, he was convicted of subversion, and he spent the next eighteen years in prison or in exile in eastern Siberia. What Is to Be Done? offers a fascinating portrait of intelligent young people attempting to reform a society that seemed in desperate need of change.
Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done?, trans. Michael R. Katz (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 278–279, 280–281, 283–284.