On 11th January 2018, Ada did a Reddit “Ask Me Anything”. I’m going to be extracting the most interesting of her answers and posting them here. Most of them I’ll be grouping thematically, but this one stands alone.
Injygo: What’s the most effective way for someone today to encourage space exploration and colonization of other planets?
Ada: Probably by passing on aspiration. Our world is saturated with messages telling people to give up, to settle, to take whatever path will make ends meet, to expect to face a grim job market when we reach adulthood, to expect the hours from 9 to 5 to be sacrificed to drudgery, to expect closed doors. When kids are in kindergarten they’re encouraged to say they want to be an astronaut, or a race car driver, or a president when they grow up, but by the time young people reach High School the negative messages have usually won out, that the world is unfair and against them, that dreams are unrealistic, that aspiration is naive, that optimism should be mocked, that cynicism, criticism, and the realism of a pessimistic norm are the smart path. I think the best thing we can do to brighten the future is to stop telling people that it can’t be brightened, that they can’t brighten it. We can all lay down stepping stones in the long road to the stars, but we can lay down exponentially more by telling other people that they can do it too, that they don’t have to waste themselves for the present, that there are a hundred thousand paths open to all of us that let us lay the vital stepping stones.
I spoke recently with a couple of reps from Oxford and Cambridge universities who work for the programs designed to offer scholarships to underprivelaged students, to help kids raised in poverty have a shot at being anything the want to be. They told me their biggest problem is lack of applicants, that young people in that situation don’t apply. Their worlds are full of messages that telling them that all the doors are already closed, that there’s no path forward, no way out. As one rep put it “The level of aspiration is appalling.” So if we can combat those messages, the messages that kill aspiration, I think that can unlock so many paths forward.
But, and this is important, I don’t mean just giving empty encouragement. Recently on the phone with my Dad I mentioned that a former undergraduate friend of mine called Angel is now a veterinarian. He cried out in astonishment, “I can’t believe it!” “What?” “When you were undergrads you wanted to be a novelist and she wanted to be a vet and you both just did it!” And it’s true, we did, out of so many people who want to be a XXX when they grow up, we really did it. Because we kept that aspiration. And because those around us took that aspiration seriously, and when we told teachers and friends and parents, I want to be an XXX when I grow up, they didn’t say we couldn’t, but they also didn’t just blithely say “Great, go for it!” They helped us plan. They helped us see the steps. You want to be a writer? Okay, you need to do writing exercises, and give hours of training this. You want to be a vet? Okay, you need to take these classes, and look into these schools, and take these steps. You want to be a Renaissance historian? Okay, you need Greek so you need to transfer to a school that has it even though you really like the school you’re at. That’s what kept the door open for me. I think that’s the key, that we need to turn encouragement into a path with concrete steps, whether it’s a path we make for ourselves by looking into what we want, what we need to do to get there, and making a plan, or whether its a path we help make for others. Because all doors are open when we’re little, but as we grow up they close. That’s hard to understand. They close more and faster for some people than others, depending on poverty, race, gender etc., but for everybody some doors stay open and some close. I don’t think we’re very good at teaching young people to understand that. When I was seventeen advisers told me that, if I wanted to be the kind of historian I wanted to be, I had to make a hard choice, leave my college, give up my friend group, to get the Latin and Greek and training I needed to get into a grad school. And because I knew that was a step on the path, I did it. And it hurt, but I’m so glad. And every year I see several dozen applications from students who want to become historians who can’t because they don’t have the languages and background they need to do it well, they didn’t take the right steps at the right time. That door is closed to them. That’s something no one tells you when you’re ten and you want to be an XXX when you grow up. Sometimes people say “Go for it!” and sometimes people say “You’ll never be an XXX, you should be a computer science major so you have a secure job.” But very rarely do people say “That door is open, but it will close if you aren’t careful, so let’s sit down together and work out the steps to get you there.” So I think we need to do that more.
This is mostly advice for how to treat others more than advice for one’s self, because the self is difficult, but no matter what path you’ve ended up on generally you have a few hours you can give to the stars, whether it’s through work or through hobby time, or just through encouraging people. And sometimes, as I say in my song “Somebody Will” we’re already laying those stones, in ways we can’t quite see.
So I think the best thing we can do to lay down stepping stones in the long road to the stars is to tell ourselves and others that we don’t have to waste ourselves toiling for the present, that we are laying the stepping stones. Sometimes we can make that be our work, our vocations, our 9-5, our 40+ hours. Sometimes we can’t do that so it’s an avocation, something we do on the side. Sometimes practicalities of life mean it can’t be more than an attitude, an idea. But it’s all one project, real and succeeding. And Utopia is real already, so long as we keep aspiring to disarm death and touch the stars.
The Will to Battle, volume three of the Terra Ignota series, is released today in the US and UK simultaneously. The audiobook also comes out today. I’m putting up this quick post to let Ex Urbe readers know that it’s out, and rush to get hold of it, and as a place to put links to both reviews and to interviews and guest posts with Ada that might be of interest.
Last night I was overjoyed and overwhelmed to receive the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the Hugo Awards ceremony at Worldcon 75 here in Helsinki, Finland. I was so overwhelmed by this warmest of possible welcomes to the field that I mounted the stage crying too hard to actually read my speech. I also mounted the stage with difficulty, leaning heavily on my cane. Here is a transcription of the speech I ended up giving, which I want to follow with a few comments. You can see a video of the speech here.
Thank you very much. I have a speech here but I actually can’t see it. I can think of no higher honor than having a welcome like this to this community. This… we all work so hard on other worlds, on creating them, on reading them, and discussing them, and while we do so we’re also working equally hard on this world and making it the best world we possibly can. I have a list with me of people to thank, but I can’t read it. These tears are three quarters joy, but one quarter pain. This speech wasn’t supposed to be about invisible disability, but I’m afraid it really has to be now. I have been living with invisible disability for many years and… and there are very cruel people in the world for which reason I have been for more than ten years not public about this, and I’m terrified to be at this point, but at this point I have to. I also know that there are many many more kind and warm and wonderful people in this world who are part of the team and being excellent people, so, if anyone out there is living with disability or loves someone who has, please never let that make you give up doing what you want or working towards making life more good or making the world a more fabulous place.
I have never discussed my invisible disability in public before, so I want to add a little more detail here for those who must have questions. In my case, the pain comes and goes, often affecting me mildly or not at all, so many of you have seen me singing on stage, or in the classroom, or speaking at a conference with no sign of any pain, but sometimes, as last night, the pain sets in ferociously, too much to hide.
As is often the case with this kind of invisible and intermittent disability, the cause of mine is complicated: for me it’s a combination of Crohn’s Disease (an autoimmune disorder primarily affecting the digestive system), plus P.C.O.S., and some other factors for which I continue to undergo testing. These conditions cause a variety of problems, including inflammation, swelling, and periodic spasms in my lower abdomen. Over the years, this has damaged the muscles of my pelvis. The damaged area can go into spasm at any moment, causing severe pain and difficulty walking, as happened last night. Sometimes the pain is gentle enough that I don’t even notice it. Sometimes it’s medium, so I can walk with a cane and work with effort but get tired easily. Sometimes it is too severe to let me walk or work at all. And once in a while it’s so severe that, without special breathing exercises, I can’t not scream. All medications powerful enough to deal with the stronger forms of the pain also make me extremely sleepy or out-of-it, too much to work, or teach, or give a speech at a Hugo ceremony. So last night, I faced the choice between revealing this to a large public, or turning down the invitation to go receive the honor that means so much to me. So I chose to go to the podium.
I had not discussed this in public before because being public about disability (especially for women) so often results in attacks from the uglier sides of the internet, a dangerous extra stress while I’m working hard to manage my symptoms. I have been open about my disability with my students and colleagues at the University of Chicago, every one of whom has been nothing but outstandingly supportive. In fact, much of the strength which helped me get through last night came from the earlier experience of discussing my disability with my students this past year when I had to explain that I might miss class for surgery. Their outpouring of warmth and support was truly beautiful, but I was also awed by how eager they were to discuss the larger issue of invisible disability, and to hear about how I’ve worked to balance my projects and career with my medical realities, a type of challenge which affects so many of us, and many of them. Thinking of their kindness helped me keep my courage up last night, when having an attack at such a public moment made it impossible to avoid having this same conversation in a much more public and therefore scary space.
I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2004, in the third year of my Ph.D. studies at Harvard. My first attack came suddenly, with no warning signs, on the morning I was supposed to have administered the final exam for one of my very first classes. Thanks to good medical care, and careful control of what I eat, the condition went into remission and was mostly dormant for several years, but it took a bad turn in autumn 2012, and another very bad turn in October 2015, which is when the pelvic damage reached its present level. From October 2015 through June 2017, almost half my days were “pain days,” i.e. days I am in too much pain to do anything but lie down. If I’m strong enough to, I usually watch Shakespeare DVDs, my way of at least doing some primary source research on Renaissance history even when I’m too weak to read or type.
Despite my disability, I have managed, over the past few years, to accomplish many things: publishing award-winning academic articles and my book on Lucretius in the Renaissance, securing a tenure track job at the University of Chicago, composing and recording CDs of my music, and publishing science fiction novels which have now received the warmest welcome to the field I could imagine: the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the Compton Crook award for best first novel, and finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. But the nasty flare-up that ate so much of 2015-2017 is the real reason that I haven’t posted to this blog much recently, and that the new Sassafrass CD still isn’t done, and that I didn’t do a “blog tour” for the release of my second novel, and that book four Terra Ignota still isn’t done, and that, for the first time, I’ve had to pull out of some academic publications I’d promised to be part of, and turn down invitations that my younger self could never imagine turning down. With more and more opportunities opening before me, one of the hardest parts of living with this disability is learning to say ‘no’ to good and worthwhile things because I need to save those extra days, not for projects, but for pain.
What I have done, what I am doing, I am not doing alone. I have had so many kinds of help from so many people. They were who my speech last night was supposed to be about, because if there is a triumph here, it is the triumph of what can happen when a community of warm, generous people come together. So there was a long list of people I was planning to thank in my speech. I have incredibly supportive parents, Doug and Laura Palmer — thanks to them, I’ve never had to doubt that, when I need help, it will be there. That feeling of safety is invaluable. I also have incredibly supportive housemates Michael Mellas, Lauren Schiller, and Jonathan Sneed, who step up to take care of me when I’m incapacitated, and remind me to take my meds, and often notice before I do when I’m too weak and need to rest, and mean that I never have to push past my limits the way I would if I were alone. I have other friends who’ve helped in so many ways: Carl Engle-Laird, Lila Garrott, Irina Greenman, Jo Walton, and so many more. I have supportive communities: my college science fiction clubs, Double Star at Bryn Mawr and HRSFA at Harvard, my childhood local convention Balticon, and the broader science fiction fan community and filk community. I have the numerous convention staff, liaisons, and friends who have known about my condition for years and been my “spotters” in case I had flare-ups at conventions, and who have kindly honored my request to keep it private. I have colleagues and administrators at my university who instantly rose to the occasion when I brought my condition to their attention, and let me know that if at any time I felt I could no longer handle my teaching duties, they could put things in place to relieve me within 24 hours. I have a team of the best doctors in the world at the University of Chicago Hospitals. (At the risk of making this even more political, I have the larger team who went to bat for America’s health care this year, and preserved the protections without which I could not afford the medications which are finally making my pain days less frequent, and my teaching and writing possible.)
As an author, I’ve had a world class team, too. My agents, Amy Boggs and Cameron McClure, put their all into both disseminating the books and protecting them. My editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, always does everything he can to give me the flexibility I need, and his indispensable assistant, Anita Okoye, makes the process run on time. My publicist, Diana Griffin, gets the word out that the book exists, without which it would never reach the readers who are the most important part of all this. My amazing cover artist Victor Mosquera whose covers keep stunning me every time I look at them again. Other friends at Tor and Tor.com help with advice and insights: Miriam Weinberg, Irene Gallo, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. My UK publishing team at Head of Zeus is also fantastic and I can’t wait to do more projects with them.
Nothing means more to me than the opportunity to pay it forward, to build on the immense generosity of everyone who has helped and given me so much, and to give back, through my teaching, my books, my blogging, every conversation, every day. So above all, I want everyone to know that everything I’ve produced, and everything I will produce during my life, living with this condition, is the fruit of the gifts of kindness, large and small, that I have received from so many, many people. Thank you.
I want to share an essay today, one of the most personal things I’ve ever written, and one of those I’m proudest of. It’s about how I sold my first novel.
I’ve been stunned since I learned Too Like the Lightning is a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo. This really is the highest honor I can imagine, my work being recognized as one of the most valuable contributions to the community of conversation which drives us forward through speculation about other worlds to touching and creating them, both here on Earth and out among the stars. The community where the Great Conversation thrives. While I always intended to contribute to that conversation, I never expected this kind of reception for a very difficult and intentionally uncomfortable book, one which I had imagined as finding an excited but niche audience, never a large one. I haven’t known what to say other than “Thank you!” but a common “Thank you!” feels mismatched, like paying the same 50¢ at a rock shop for a shiny hematite one week and the Philosopher’s Stone the next. And I’ve also been swamped with final exams, colliding deadlines, three European conferences, research travel, illness, editing book 3, preparing a new project on the History of Censorship (more on that later), all the usual time-eating co-conspirators that make it easy to put off anything difficult. And it is difficult to figure out how to write a world-sized thank-you to match this world-sized joy.
But I think one appropriate thank-you is to share this essay. I wrote it for Shannon Page for her brilliant collection The Usual Path to Publication (Book View Café, 2016), which contains 27 different authors’ stories about how we sold our first novels. The volume’s variety succeeds in showing what it set out to, that there is no “usual path,” no consistent method, no one piece of advice that always helps on the path that no two people ever walk the same way. I suspect I’m not the only contributor to the collection who found that the story that came out, when I tried to tell it, was so personal, so saturated with the most intense emotion, that I was more than a little nervous sharing it at first. But I also think telling the story means even more now that it has a Hugo nomination at the end of it, and a Campbell nomination, and the Tiptree Honors List, and the Compton Crook Award. Because I grew up in Maryland, so I’ve seen the Compton Crook Award given out to a Best First Novel in the genre every year at since I was a little girl, every time thinking “Maybe someday it will be me?” So this is how I got to Someday.
The Key to the Kingdom, or, How I Sold Too Like the Lightning.
by Ada Palmer, 2016
Some people say revenge is living well – I’ve found it sometimes works to go away And be more awesome. Let him sit alone, To watch your wildfires leaping as you play.
-Jo Walton, “Advice to Loki” 2013.
The midpoint first, then the primordial darkness, then the ever after.
It was 2011 (remember, this is the creation myth of a book that won’t come out until 2016). I was in Florence, sitting in the top of a 13th century tower between Dante’s house and my favorite gelato place (extra relevant in an un-air-conditioned August!), and talking to Jo Walton about whether or not I should start a blog. It was the beginning of a year in Florence, a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Villa I Tatti, Harvard’s institute for Italian Renaissance studies. Life as a Renaissance historian had granted me long stays in Florence twice before, once on a student Fulbright, and once taking a shift as I Tatti’s resident grad student mascot (#1 duty, be introduced to rich donors and look bright-eyed and promising). During my earlier stays I had written a series of e-mails describing my Italian experiences, and sent them to a list of friends and family. The list grew over time as the recipients recommended them to more distant cousins and acquaintances, until I had nearly a hundred people on my list. In fact, those e-mails were how I knew Jo. One of my then-roommates, Lila Garrott (a poet, author, book reviewer, and now editor at Strange Horizons) had posted a few of what, in neoclassical style, I called my “Ex Urbe” e-mails on LiveJournal, where Jo had enjoyed them. In 2008 Jo had invited Lila and the rest of our eclectic household to visit her for Farthing Party in Montreal. Jo was with me in Italy that August because the question “Do you want to come stay in my apartment in a 13th century tower in Florence?” has one correct answer. “I wonder if it would be less work to just post them on a blog,” I said, overwhelmed by trying to assemble the new list of people who had asked to receive my e-mails. Jo looked at me very seriously. “If you make a blog, I’ll send the link to Patrick Nielsen Hayden.”
In six months, Patrick asked Jo if the author of this ExUrbe blog had written any fiction.
In two years (almost to the day, August 2013) Patrick bought Too Like the Lightning.
My appetite to see my fiction in print had been overwhelming since elementary school, and I vividly remember the thrill of standing on tiptoe to watch my first typed story (a single paragraph, about blue-and-silver alien raccoons) crawl its way out of the astounding new dot matrix printer at Dad’s office. I had begun a novel by fourth grade, three by tenth, and I devoured summer writing courses, of which the courses on essay writing (Johns Hopkins) and prose poetry (Interlochen) proved far more valuable than the fiction ones. I remember once thinking to myself at fifteen, bored during a school convocation, that if I hadn’t published a novel by twenty-five then… the end is vague. Then I should give up? Then I was a failure? Then I should curse the heavens? It was my first serious college writing mentor Hal Holiday who helped me understand how absurd that was. He made me cry in his office, with my first-ever B on a paper. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. “Writing is a long apprenticeship,” he said. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but writing well—not well for your age group, but well in an absolute sense—was hard to achieve. It took real time. Spending every childhood summer and weekend writing, taking every summer writing course, those were good steps, they helped, but they were a beginning. I finished my first novel draft that year, flipped back to page one, and started writing it all over again.
In 2002, at twenty-one and with Mom to stuff the envelopes, I sent my (totally-rewritten) first novel-length manuscript winging its optimistic way to slush piles at agencies and publishers. I sometimes think, if we could harvest the emotional energy in all the fat manila query envelopes aspiring writers entrust to the post office every day, we could move planets. I have a folder of rejection letters from that first volley, and, looking over them now, I can see the good signs in them, the peppering of personalized notes, praise and encouragement among the form letters. I didn’t understand then how many queries editors, agents and interns read, how generous it was for them to sacrifice precious seconds to write these extra lines (thank you!), but it did a lot to keep me going. And in the back of the folder I always kept a printout of Ursula Le Guin sharing a very grim rejection letter she received for The Left Hand of Darkness, with her note “This is included to cheer up anybody who just got a rejection letter. Hang in there!” Thank you. After eight months of agonizing suspense, and the sporadic gut-punch of rejections, that first volley got me an agent. She was not an F&SF specialist, but was game to try, and spent the next years doggedly marketing what neither of us realized was an unsaleably long fantasy novel.
I don’t remember where I received the wisdom that it’s better to go on and write Book 1 of a new series rather than write Book 2 of a series when you haven’t sold Book 1 yet. Wherever I got it from, I obeyed it, and soon my plucky agent was shopping two series, then three. Despite loving to sleep in, I followed the old advice and wrote in the morning, every day, an hour or two, giving my best hours to fiction and the rest of the day to the demands of grad school, and thereby wrote close to a million words of fiction over seven years. Looking over those practice projects now, I can see my writing improve with each, the sentences, the pace, the plot. Every paragraph was a step in that long apprenticeship. The wait stretched on—three years, four—and it hurt—the growing, gnawing appetite. Sometimes I would lie awake at night just from the pain of wanting something so much. But I had an agent, and that gave me confidence, and comfort.
Meanwhile I was working on my Ph.D. The single best thing that ever happened to my writing—looking at the novel I was working on at the time you can see the very chapter break where it happened, like lightning struck and *ZAP!* the prose was finally good—was in 2005, when I had to cut down my 20,000 word dissertation prospectus into a 7,000 word conference paper. Without knowing it, I had stumbled on “Half and Half Again,” as it’s called by people I know in journalism, a training exercise in which you go through the agony of cutting an old work down to half length, then half of that, learning to spot the chaff and bloat in your own work, and how to make it tight and powerful. Lightning. I published other things—my first academic article, blog pieces for Tokyopop about manga & cosplay, a Random Superpower Generator for Maple Leaf Games, but none of them eased the wanting. I also learned more about the world of genre publishing, from going to conventions and chatting with author friends made through Lila, and through my science fiction clubs, HRSFA (the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Society), and Double Star (at Bryn Mawr College). F&SF specialist agent Donald Maass spoke to us at Vericon, a great little con HRSFA runs at Harvard every year, and I learned from his talk about the field, the extreme oversupply of submissions, the challenges of length and salability. I had queried Donald Maass (unsuccessfully) way back in 2002, but in 2006, with my writing much improved, preparing to begin a new series which I felt in my gut was leap above the others (and eventually became the Terra Ignota series), I decided to break off my relationship with my first agent (with much gratitude and good will) and to try fresh to get a new agent at a major F&SF specialist agency.
I finished the first draft of Too Like the Lightning (Book 1 of Terra Ignota) in 2008, my penultimate year of graduate school. Between 2002 and 2008, plump manila envelopes had evolved into instantaneous e-queries, and my generic cover letters had acquired the varnish of name-dropping. I had recommendations from random people in the publishing world (Walter Isaacson, Priscilla Painton) whom I had met through Harvard. And, while my first 2002 volley had showered queries on dozens of doorsteps (many quite inappropriate), I sent Too Like the Lightning to only one press in 2008, my great hope: Tor. The more I learned about the world of genre publishing, the clearer it became that Tor was one of the only (if not the only) press that had the stability and resources to gamble on a big, fat science fiction series (four long books!) by a first time author, books which were dense and highbrow, and totally not similar to anything—trends are a safe investment; oddities are a gamble. Plus, I had an ‘in’. There were people at Tor who were friends of friends, alumni and associates of both Bryn Mawr and Harvard, some of whom knew my Double Star and HRSFA connections. (Yes, I tried nepotism for all it was worth, anyone would—I still lay awake at nights, just wanting.)
After another year of lying awake and wanting (and finishing my Ph.D., and facing the academic job market, which in 2009 had just entered its sudden death spiral), a Tor contact told me (I think at Readercon?) that the book had advanced from the “slush” pile to the “shows promise” pile. This was good news, but an un-agented manuscript, which the editor knows has been sent to no other press, can stew in that pile forever. That November I queried Donald Maass, hoping a kind word from Tor would help me get an agent, and that a good agent might prod along the literary glacier. I even got a Harvard-made mainstream publishing contact to e-mail Donald Maass with his endorsement to accompany my query. (Roll for nepotism! Did it achieve anything? Not really!) On December 31st, I received an e-mail from Donald apologizing for losing my query and getting back to me so late (apologizing for a delay of only 2 months! Such professionalism! Such sanity!) and saying he loved the beginning of the book, and was eager to read the whole thing. I sent it right away. I waited. I shopped other, older projects with a YA agent recommended by a friend (no luck). I published other things—more academic articles, critical essays, introductions to manga and anime releases. I stayed up nights. Sometimes it was so bad I couldn’t go into a bookstore without feeling sick to my stomach. In November 2010 (a full year after Donald had asked for the book) Amy Boggs, then a fairly new member of the Donald Maass Agency, wrote to say that Donald—swamped by unspecified and mysterious stuff—had passed the book on to her, and she loved it. We finalized the contract by early December, and Amy started shopping the book around in the beginning of 2011.
That spring I received my I Tatti Fellowship, and that summer I sat in a tower in Florence with Jo Walton, contemplating a blog. Jo had talked to me about Patrick Nielsen Hayden, though I also knew of him from other sources; legends of such titans echo far through our little magic kingdom.
There is a fresco by Perugino in the Sistine Chapel, which shows St. Peter, in a beautiful neoclassical square, receiving the Keys to Heaven from Christ, with a group of apostles and others gathered around to watch. It’s a deeply tender moment, Peter’s awe at the sight of the divinity which is also the friend he loves so much. But I can never see it without imagining the next panel of the comic book, where Christ has gone back to Heaven, and Peter is left in the square holding these enormous gold and silver keys, and everyone is standing around awkwardly, trying not to stare, and someone sidles up saying, “So… can I get you a cup of coffee?” You can’t put them down, that’s the thing, once you have the keys to Heaven, no one on Earth can forget it, not for an instant. And that’s very much what it’s like being an acquiring editor (I’ve described this to Patrick, he agrees), because you have the Keys to the Kingdom, and people around you—at conventions, at talks, online—want it so much. So much they lie awake at night. There are infinite horror stories about editors being harassed and chased at cons, having manuscripts shoved under bathroom stall doors, repeated e-mails which get weirder and more desperate. So, from childhood (picture me scrawny and eleven, following Dad and Uncle Bill to a Doctor Who convention, with my boy-short bright blonde hair, dressed as the Peter Davison Doctor) I had it drilled into me that you should never approach and bother an editor (or published author) about your manuscript. Q&A when they were on panels was OK, but outside that sphere verboten! In fact, I had met Patrick at Farthing Party back in 2008, but, knowing who he was, I was an emotional wreck just being near him, racked between the Scylla of my desire and the Charybdis of the taboo, so I spent much of the weekend actively hiding around corners and behind pillars to avoid looking at him. But Jo knew I had a manuscript, and passed it on to Patrick for me in spring of 2012 when he asked her if the author of ExUrbe had written any fiction.
And I waited. And I lay awake at night. On a trip to New Orleans, an editor friend of Jo’s told a story about a query which had taken twelve years to be accepted, which actually made me throw up. I tried to start another novel series, but I couldn’t. Terra Ignota meant too much to me, so I broke my own law and wrote Book 2. And Book 3. So many heartfelt eggs in that basket. Amy had occasional non-news for me, and I was overseeing the publication of my first nonfiction book, the academic history Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, which will hopefully (knock all the wood you can!) get me tenure here at the magnificent I-dare-you-to-prove-it’s-not-Hogwarts University of Chicago. (Where I teach history of magic. Really.) I had submitted the monograph proposal to Harvard University Press way back in 2009. Given the infamous snail’s pace of academic publishing, I often thought of Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance and Too Like the Lightning as twins fighting to see which would be the first to make it out. But Tor, wonderful, infuriating, experimental, ambitious, field-shaping Tor, is slower.
In March 2013, Jo reported to me that Patrick had said positive things to her about the first page of Too Like the Lightning. One page down, 333 to go.That spring and summer were the madness of producing and recording my two hour close harmony a cappella Viking stage musical Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, and its demands were exhaustion enough to let me mostly sleep. As August came along, Patrick told Jo to tell me (in our surrealist game of telephone) that he and Teresa wanted to have dinner with me at Worldcon in San Antonio, and I should have my answer then. This was more than a year after Patrick had asked for the manuscript, and five years after I had first submitted it to Tor.
I was working a booth at that Worldcon, an outreach display for the Texas A&M University Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, which has one of the world’s great science fiction collections, an impregnable treasure vault full of rare pulps, fanzines, first editions, and the archived papers of authors from Star Trek scriptwriters, to George R.R. Martin, to (now) me. (Are you a writer? Do you have random papers and notes from old projects cluttering your house? Cushing’s awesome librarians totally want to take your clutter, index it, and preserve it for posterity! Win-win!). The first morning of Worldcon, I was walking through the dealer’s room on my way to our booth, when Jo Walton gestured me over to the table where she was doing a signing. I gestured back that I didn’t want to interrupt the people who were waiting patiently in line, but she flailed emphatically, so I came. She told me that Patrick told her to tell me “Yes.” I remember hugging, and crying, and intense crying, and gasping out a vague apology to the guy who was in the front of the line, but he said “It’s OK, it’s clearly important.” Jo smiled at him and said, “She’s just sold her first novel!” A keen, satisfied, brightness entered his face, like when you taste an unexpectedly excellent sour candy, and he said, “So, it does happen.”
Most of the rest of the San Antonio Worldcon is lost in the mists of bliss amnesia. I remember staggering back to the Cushing booth all puffy and red-faced, and struggling to communicate to my colleague Todd Samuelson that I was OK, just overhappy from yes! Yes! YES! I remember I couldn’t find my phone to text my dear friend Carl Engle-Laird (a HRSFA alum, who was then a new editorial assistant Tor.com, and sharing my suspense) so I borrowed a phone from Lauren Schiller (my singing partner and roommate of 10+ years), only I couldn’t see through my tears, so the message came out all garbled and full of typos and r5and0m nuMB4rs. I was on a panel right after that, with Lila Garrott (whose online connections had been so instrumental in all this), and I had no time to break the news before the panel, so I just typed it on my then-recovered cell phone and set it on the table in front of us: “Patrick said yes.” Lila glowed.
After Jo’s signing, we found Patrick in the concessions area, and there ensued perhaps the most absurd conversation I shall ever have. I was still paralyzed by the aftereffects of Scylla and Charybdis, so shy and overwhelmed that I could barely force myself to look directly at the legendary Patrick. But Patrick is himself a naturally shy person, and skittish after so many years carrying the Keys to Heaven, so he couldn’t look at me either. And there we were, both trying to hide behind Jo (who is a head shorter than both of us), unable to make eye contact while trying to talk about how we wanted to work together for the rest of our careers. That was when I started to see the absurd flip side of it: all the while that I had been terrified of approaching this incredibly important editor who had power over everything I ever wanted, in his world I had been the intimidating one, this distant Harvard Ph.D., with all these impressive publications, this learned and authoritative tone on my blog, and I had everything he wanted, great science fiction that it would be a pleasure to publish. In Settlers of Catan terms, I had bricks, he had wood, but we were so mutually overwhelmed neither of us could get the words out: “Shall we make this road?” We had dinner with Jo and Teresa at one of those Brazilian Barbeque places, where they hunt the great beasts of the plains and serve them to you on spits carried by excessively statuesque young men—at least that’s what Jo says, because bliss amnesia has erased everything except a vague memory of asparagus and a beige tablecloth. I remember Patrick said he and Teresa wanted to audition to edit and shape my career. Audition? I would have begged!
Patrick took me to the Tor party that weekend. I know he introduced me to Tom Doherty and fifty other genre VIPs, but I genuinely don’t remember a thing except recognizing Liz Gorinsky from a distance by her hair. Patrick forgot to give me his business card, so I almost left without the ability to contact him. It took three weeks to stop feeling like a dream. No, that’s not true—it still feels like a dream. I signed the four book contract by crackling firelight, huddling over the hearthstone during the power outage caused by a New Year’s blizzard, which absolutely feels like a dream. I have a release date now (that took two years), and cover art (same), and the Advanced Bound Manuscript in front of me (well, a defective ABM missing the last three chapters—oops!), and I have a fantastic recording of Patrick—the Patrick—playing guitar with me while I sing my ode to fandom’s support of space exploration “Somebody Will” (super ultra win condition!). But I still feel prepared to wake up tomorrow, back in my old bedroom, and discover it was all a dream. Maybe there will always be that edge of doubt, the scar of how intensely I worried that the door might never open. Sometimes it doesn’t. But if it did open for me, it wasn’t because I kept pounding on the gate with the same desperate query. And it wasn’t the favor-trading, or the Harvard connections, or my attempts at nepotism, or even (honestly) my agent (though she’s done so many great things for me then and since). It was that I set forth to be more awesome. I kept honing my craft, starting new projects better than the last, producing other works, articles, music, essays, research, the blog. I made my fire burn bright in the dark. People do see.
Ada’s second novel, book two of the Terra Ignota quartet, Seven Surrenders, is published today, so at last people who have been waiting since reading Too Like the Lightning last May can read it.
If anyone hates cliffhangers so much that they have been waiting to read Too Like The Lightning until Seven Surrenders came out, you can safely now read both, because there’s a proper pause at the end of Seven Surrenders before the other two volumes. You’ll still really want the other volumes, but it has satisfying volume completion.
The series will be complete in four books. The third book, The Will to Battle, is currently scheduled for December, and Ada is presently writing the fourth and final book.
In the comments to the Progress post, a reader asked for clarification on what was so awful about Hobbes, and this was Ada’s response, which I am reposting as a post so that it doesn’t stay buried down there:
The Hobbes reference referred, not to my opinion of him or modern opinions on him, but contemporary opinions of him, how hated and feared he was by his peers in the mid-17th century. I’ll treat him more in the next iteration(s) of my skepticism series, but in brief Hobbes was a student of Bacon (he was actually Bacon’s amanuensis for a while) and used Bacon’s new techniques of observation and methodical reasoning with absolute mastery, BUT used them to come to conclusions that were absolutely terrifying to his peers, attacking the dignity of the human race, the foundations of government, the pillars of morality of his day, in ways whose true terror are hard for us to feel when we read Leviathan in retrospect, having accepted many of Hobbes’s ideas and being armored against the others by John Locke. But among his contemporaries, “The Beast of Malmsbury” as he was called, held an unmatched status as the intellectual terror of his day. In fact there are few thinkers ever in history who were so universally feared and hated–it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that for the two decades after the publication of Leviathan, the sole goal of western European philosophy was to find some way to refute Thomas Hobbes WITHOUT (here’s the tricky part) undermining Bacon. Because Bacon was light, hope, progress, the promise of a better future, and Hobbes was THE BEST wielder of Bacon’s techniques. So they couldn’t just DISMISS Hobbes without undermining Bacon, they had to find a way to take Hobbes on in his own terms and Bacon better than Hobbes did. It took 20 years and John Locke to achieve that, but in the meantime Hobbes so terrified his peers that they literally rewrote the laws of England more than once to extend censorship enough to silence Hobbes.
Also the man Just. Wouldn’t. Die. They wanted him dead and gone so they could forget him and move on but he lived to be 91, a constant reminder of the intellectual terror whose shadow had loomed so long over all of Europe. To give a sample of a contemporary articulation of the fear and amazement Hobbes caused in his peers, here is a satirical broadside published to celebrate his death:
My favorite verse from it is:
“Leviathan the Great is dead! But see
The small Behemoths of his progeny
Survive to battle all divinity!”
So I chose Hobbes as an example because he’s really the first “backfire” of Bacon, the first unexpected, unintended consequence of the new method. Hobbes’s book didn’t cause any atrocities, didn’t result in wars or massacres, but it did spread terror through the entire intellectual world, and was the first sniff of the scarier places that thought would go once Bacon’s call to examine EVERYTHING genuinely did examine everything… even things people did NOT want anyone to doubt. So while Hobbes is wonderful, from the perspective of his contemporaries he was the first warning sign that progress cannot be controlled, and that, while it will change parts of society we think are bad, it will change the parts we value too.
Hope that helps clear it up? I’ll discuss Hobbes more in later works.
Is progress inevitable? Is it natural? Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place? Many people are reexamining these kinds of questions as 2016 draws to a close, so I thought this would be a good moment to share the sort-of “zoomed out” discussions the subject that historians like myself are always having.
There is a strange doubleness to experiencing an historic moment while being a historian one’s self. I feel the same shock, fear, overload, emotional exhaustion that so many are, but at the same time another me is analyzing, dredging up historical examples, bigger crises, smaller crises, elections that set the fuse to powder-kegs, elections that changed nothing. I keep thinking about what it felt like during the Wars of the Roses, or the French Wars of Religion, during those little blips of peace, a decade long or so, that we, centuries later, call mere pauses, but which were long enough for a person to be born and grow to political maturity in seeming-peace, which only hindsight would label ‘dormant war.’ But then eventually the last flare ended and then the peace was real. But on the ground it must have felt exactly the same, the real peace and those blips. That’s why I don’t presume to predict — history is a lesson in complexity not predictability — but what I do feel I’ve learned to understand, thanks to my studies, are the mechanisms of historical change, the how of history’s dynamism rather than the what next. So, in the middle of so many discussions of the causes of this year’s events (economics, backlash, media, the not-so-sleeping dragon bigotry), and of how to respond to them (petitions, debate, fundraising, art, despair) I hope people will find it useful to zoom out with me, to talk about the causes of historical events and change in general.
Two threads, which I will later bring together. Thread one: progress. Thread two: historical agency.
Part 1: The Question of Progress As Historians Ask It
“How do you discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?” a colleague asked during a teaching discussion. This is a historian’s succinct if somewhat technical way of asking a question which lies at the back of a lot of the questions people are wrestling with now. Progress — change for the better over historical time. The word has many uses (social progress, technological progress), but the reason it raises red flags for historians is the legacy of Whig history, a school of historical thought whose influence still percolates through many of our models of history. Wikipedia has an excellent opening definition of Whig history:
Whig history… presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms, and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment… Whig history has many similarities with the Marxist-Leninist theory of history, which presupposes that humanity is moving through historical stages to the classless, egalitarian society to which communism aspires… Whig history is a form of liberalism, putting its faith in the power of human reason to reshape society for the better, regardless of past history and tradition. It proposes the inevitable progress of mankind.
In other words, this approach presumes a teleology to history, that human societies have always been developing toward some pre-set end state: apple seeds into apple trees, humans into enlightened humans, human societies into liberal democratic paradises.
Some of the problems with this approach are transparent, others familiar to those of my readers who have been engaging with current discourse about the problems/failures/weaknesses of liberalism. But let me unpack some of the other problems, the ones historians in particular worry about.
Developed in the earlier the 20th century, Whig history presents a particular set of values and political and social outcomes as the (A) inevitable and (B) superior end-points of all historical change — political and social outcomes that arise from the Western European tradition. The Eurocentric distortions this introduces are obvious, devaluing all other cultures. But even for a Europeanist like myself, who’s already studying Europe, this approach has a distorting effect by focusing our attentions onto historical moments or changes or people that were “right” or “correct,” that took a step “forward.” When one attempts to write a history using this kind of reasoning, the heroes of this process (the statesman who founded a more liberal-democratic-ish state, the scientist whose invention we still use today, the poet whose pamphlet forwards the cause) loom overlarge in history, receiving too much attention. On the one hand, yes, we need to understand those past figures who are keystones of our present — I teach Plato, and Descartes, and Machiavelli with good reason — but if we study only the keystones, and not the other less conspicuous bricks, we wind up with a very distorted idea of the whole edifice.
Whig history also makes it dangerously easy to stray into placing moral value on those things which advanced the teleologicaly-predetermined future. Such things seem to be “correct” thus “good” thus “better” while those whose elements which did not contribute to this teleological development were “dead ends” or “mistakes” or “wrong” which quickly becomes “bad.” In such a history whole eras can be dismissed as unworthy of study for failing to forward progress (The Middle Ages did great stuff, guys!) while other eras can be disproportionately celebrated for advancing it (The Renaissance did a lot of dumb stuff too!). And, of course, whole regions can be dismissed for “failing” to progress (Africa, Asia) as can sub-regions (Poland, Spain).
To give an example within the realm of intellectual history, teleological intellectual histories very often create the false impression that the only figures involved in a period’s intellectual world were heroes and villains, i.e. thinkers we venerate today, or their nasty bad backwards-looking enemies. This makes it seem as if the time period in question was already just previewing the big debates we have today. Such histories don’t know what to do with thinkers whose ideas were orthogonal to such debates, and if one characterizes the Renaissance as “Faith!” vs. “Reason!” and Marsilio Ficino comes along and says “Let’s use Platonic Reason to heal the soul!” a Whig history doesn’t know what to do with that, and reads it as a “dead end” or “detour.” Only heroes or villains fit the narrative, so Ficino must either become one or the other, or be left out. Teleological intellectual histories also tend to give the false impression that the figures we think are important now were always considered important, and if you bring up the fact that Aristotle was hardly read at all in antiquity and only revived in the Middle Ages, or that the most widely owned author in the Enlightenment was the now-obscure fideist encyclopedist Pierre Bayle, the narrative has to scramble to adopt.
Teleological history is also prone to “presentism” <= a bad thing, but a very useful term! Presentism is when one’s reading of history is distorted by one’s modern perspective, often through projecting modern values onto past events, and especially past people. An essay about the Magna Carta which projects Enlightenment values onto its Medieval authors would be presentist. So are histories of the Renaissance which want to portray it as a battle between Reason and religion, or say that only Florence and/or Venice had the real Renaissance because they were republics, and only the democratic spirit of republics could foster fruitful, modern, forward-thinking people. Presentism is also rearing its head when, in the opening episodes of the new Medici: Masters of Florence TV series, Cosimo de Medici talks about bankers as the masterminds of society, and describes himself as a job-creator, not the conceptual space banking was in in 1420. Presentism is sometimes conscious, but often unconscious, so mindful historians will pause whenever we see something that feels revolutionary, or progressive, or proto-modern, or too comfortable, to check for other readings, and make triple sure we have real evidence. Sometimes things in the past really were more modern than what surrounded them. I spent many dissertation years assembling vast grids of data which eventually painstakingly proved that Machaivelli’s interest in radical Epicurean materialism was exceptional for his day, and more similar to the interests of peers seventy years in his future than his own generation — that Machiavelli was exceptional and forward-thinking may be the least surprising conclusion a Renaissance historian can come to, but we have to prove such things very, very meticulously, to avoid spawning yet another distorted biography which says that Galileo was fundamentally an oppressed Bill Nye. Hint: Galileo was not Bill Nye; he was Galileo.
These problems, in brief, are why discussions of progress, and of teleology, are red flags now for any historian.
Unfortunately, the bathwater here is very difficult to separate from an important baby. Teleological thinking distorts our understanding of the past, but the Whig approach was developed for a reason. (A) It is important to have ways to discuss historical change over time, to talk about the question of progress as a component of that change. (B) It is important to retain some way to compare societies, or at least to assess when people try to compare societies, so we can talk about how different institutions, laws, or social mores might be better or worse than others on various metrics, and how some historical changes might be positive or negative. While avoiding dangerous narratives of triumphant [insert Western phenomenon here] sweeping through and bringing light to a superstitious and backwards [era/people/place], we also want to be able to talk about things like the eradication of smallpox, and our efforts against malaria and HIV, which are undeniably interconnected steps in a process of change over time — a process which is difficult to call by any name but progress.
So how do historians discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?
And how do I, as a science fiction writer, as a science fiction reader, as someone who tears up every time NASA or ESA posts a new picture of our baby space probes preparing to take the next step in our journey to the stars, how do I discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?
I, at least, begin by being a historian, and talking about the history of progress itself.
Part 2: A Brief History of Progress
In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.
Let me unpack that.
Ideas of social change over time had existed in European thought since antiquity. Early Greek sources talk about a Golden Age of peaceful, pastoral abundance, followed by a Silver Age, when jewels and luxuries made life more opulent but also more complicated. There followed a Bronze Age, when weapons and guards appeared, and also the hierarchy of have and have-nots, and finally an Iron Age of blood and war and Troy. Some ancients added more detail to this narrative, notably Lucretius in his Epicurean epic On the Nature of Things. In his version the transition from simple, rural living to luxury-hungry urbanized hierarchy was explicitly developmental, caused, not by divine planning or celestial influences, but by human invention: as people invented more luxuries they then needed more equipment–technological and social — to produce, defend, control, and war over said luxuries, and so, step-by-step, tranquil simplicity degenerated into sophistication and its discontents.
Lucretius’s developmental model of society has several important components of the concept of progress, but not all of them. It has the state of things vary over the course of human history. It also has humanity as the agent of that change, primarily through technological innovation and social changes which arise in reaction to said innovation. It does not have (A) intentionality behind this change, (B) a positive arc to this change, (C) an infinite or unlimited arc to this change, or–perhaps most critically–(D) the expectation that any more change will occur in the future. Lucretius accounts for how society reached its present, and the mythological eras of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron do the same. None of these ancient thinkers speculate — as we do every day — about how the experiences of future generations might continue to change and be fundamentally different from their own. Quantitatively things might be different — Rome’s empire might grow or shrink, or fall entirely to be replaced by another — but fundamentally cities will be cities, plows will be plows, empires will be empires, and in a thousand years bread will still be bread. Even if Lucan or Lucretius speculate, they do not live in our world where bread is already poptarts, and will be something even more outlandish in the next generation.
Medieval Europe came to the realization — and if you grant their starting premises they’re absolutely right — that if the entire world is a temporary construct designed by an omnipotent, omniscient Creator God for the purpose of leading humans through their many trials toward eternal salvation or damnation, then it’s madness to look to Earth history for any cause-to-effect chains, there is one Cause of all effects. Medieval thought is no more monolithic than modern, but many excellent examples discuss the material world as a sort of pageant play being performed for us by God to communicate his moral lessons, and if one stage of history flows into another — an empire rises, prospers, falls — that is because God had a moral message to relate through its progression. Take Dante’s obsession with the Emperor Tiberius, for example. According to Dante, God planned the Crucifixion and wanted His Son to be lawfully executed by all humanity, so the sin and guilt and salvation would be universal, so He created the Roman Empire in order to have there be one government large enough to rule and represent the whole world (remember Dante’s maps have nothing south of Egypt except the Mountain of Purgatory). The empire didn’t develop, it was crafted for God’s purposes, Act II scene iii the Roman Empire Rises, scene v it fulfills its purpose, scene vi it falls. Applause.
Did the Renaissance have progress? No. Not conceptually, though, as in all eras of history, constant change was happening. But the Renaissance did suddenly get closer to the concept too. The Renaissance invented the Dark Ages. Specifically the Florentine Leonardo Bruni invented the Dark Ages in the 1420s-1430s. Following on Petrarch’s idea that Italy was in a dark and fallen age and could rise from it again by reviving the lost arts that had made Rome glorious, Bruni divided history into three sections, good Antiquity, bad Dark Ages, and good Renaissance, when the good things lost in antiquity returned. Humans and God were both agents in this, God who planned it and humans who actually translated the Greek, and measured the aqueducts, and memorized the speeches, and built the new golden age. Renaissance thinkers, fusing ideas from Greece and Rome with those of the Middle Ages, added to old ideas of development the first suggestion of a positive trajectory, but not an infinite one, and not a fundamental one. The change the Renaissance believed in lay in reacquiring excellent things the past had already had and lost, climbing out of a pit back to ground level. That change would be fundamental, but finite, and when Renaissance people talk about “surpassing the ancients” (which they do) they talk about painting more realistic paintings, sculpting more elaborate sculptures, perhaps building more stunning temples/cathedrals, or inventing new clever devices like Leonardo’s heated underground pipes to let you keep your potted lemon tree roots warm in winter (just like ancient Roman underfloor heating!) But cities would be cities, plows would be maybe slightly better plows, and empires would be empires. Surpassing the ancients lay in skill, art, artistry, not fundamentals.
Then in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.
If we work together — said he — if we observe the world around us, study, share our findings, collaborate, uncover as a human team the secret causes of things hidden in nature, we can base new inventions on our new knowledge which will, in small ways, little by little, make human life just a little easier, just a little better, warm us in winter, shield us in storm, make our crops fail a little less, give us some way to heal the child on his bed. We can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own. There are — he said — three kinds of scholar. There is the ant, who ranges the Earth and gathers crumbs of knowledge and piles them, raising his ant-mound, higher and higher, competing to have the greatest pile to sit and gloat upon–he is the encyclopedist, who gathers but adds nothing. There is the spider, who spins elaborate webs of theory from the stuff of his own mind, spinning beautiful, intricate patterns in which it is so easy to become entwined — he is the theorist, the system-weaver. And then there is the honeybee, who gathers from the fruits of nature and, processing them through the organ of his own being, produces something good and useful for the world. Let us be honeybees, give to the world, learning and learning’s fruits. Let us found a new method — the Scientific Method — and with it dedicate ourselves to the advancement of knowledge of the secret causes of things, and the expansion of the bounds of human empire to the achievement of all things possible.
Bacon is a gifted wordsmith, and he knows how to make you ache to be the noble thing he paints you as.
“How, Chancellor Bacon, do we know that we can change the world with this new scientific method thing, since no one has ever tried it before so you have no evidence that knowledge will yield anything good and useful, or that each generation’s experience might be better than the previous?”
It is not an easy thing to prove science works when you have no examples of science working yet.
Bacon’s answer — the answer which made kingdom and crown stream passionate support and birthed the Academy of Sciences–may surprise the 21st-century reader, accustomed as we are to hearing science and religion framed as enemies. We know science will work–Bacon replied–because of God. There are a hundred thousand things in this world which cause us pain and suffering, but God is Good. He gave the cheetah speed, the lion claws. He would not have sent humanity out into this wilderness without some way to meet our needs. He would not have given us the desire for a better world without the means to make it so. He gave us Reason. So, from His Goodness, we know that Reason must be able to achieve all He has us desire. God gave us science, and it is an act of Christian charity, an infinite charity toward all posterity, to use it.
They believed him.
And that is the first thing which, in my view, fits every modern definition of progress. Francis Bacon died from pneumonia contracted while experimenting with using snow to preserve chickens, attempting to give us refrigeration, by which food could be stored and spread across a hungry world. Bacon envisioned technological progress, medical progress, but also the small social progresses those would create, not just Renaissance glories for the prince and the cathedral, but food for the shepherd, rest for the farmer, little by little, progress. As Bacon’s followers reexamined medicine from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing…
I’m going to tangent for a moment. It really took two hundred years for Bacon’s academy to develop anything useful. There was a lot of dissecting animals, and exploding metal spheres, and refracting light, and describing gravity, and it was very, very exciting, and a lot of it was correct, but–as the eloquent James Hankins put it–it was actually the nineteenth century that finally paid Francis Bacon’s I.O.U., his promise that, if you channel an unfathomable research budget, and feed the smartest youths of your society into science, someday we’ll be able to do things we can’t do now, like refrigerate chickens, or cure rabies, or anesthetize. There were a few useful advances (better navigational instruments, Franklin’s lightning rod) but for two hundred years most of science’s fruits were devices with no function beyond demonstrating scientific principles. Two hundred years is a long time for a vastly-complex society-wide project to keep getting support and enthusiasm, fed by nothing but pure confidence that these discoveries streaming out of the Royal Society papers will eventually someday actually do something. I just think… I just think that keeping it up for two hundred years before it paid off, that’s… that’s really cool.
…okay, I was in the middle of a sentence: As Bacon’s followers reexamined science from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing new correct ones which would eventually enable effective advances, it didn’t take long for his followers to apply his principle (that we should attack everything with Reason’s razor and keep only what stands) to social questions: legal systems, laws, judicial practices, customs, social mores, social classes, religion, government… treason, heresy… hello, Thomas Hobbes. In fact the scientific method that Bacon pitched, the idea of progress, proved effective in causing social change a lot faster than genuinely useful technology. Effectively the call was: “Hey, science will improve our technology! It’s… it’s not doing anything yet, so… let’s try it out on society? Yeah, that’s doing… something… and — Oh! — now the technology’s doing stuff too!” Except that sentence took three hundred years.
We know now, as Bacon’s successors learned, with harsher and harsher vividness in successive generations, that attempts at progress can also cause negative effects, atrocious ones. Like Thomas Hobbes. And the Terror phase of the French Revolution. And the life-expectancy in cities plummeting as industrialization spread soot, and pollutants, and cholera, and mercury-impregnated wallpaper, and lead-whitened bread, Mmmmm lead-whitened bread… And just as technological discoveries had their monstrous offspring, like lead-whitened bread, the horrors of colonization were some of the monstrous offspring of the social applications of Reason. Monstrous offspring we are still wrestling with today.
Part 3: Progresses
We now use the word “progress” in many senses, many more than Bacon and his peers did. There is “technological progress.” There is “social progress.” There is “economic progress.” We sometimes lump these together, and sometimes separate them.
Thus the general question “Has progress failed?” can mean several things. It can mean, “Have our collective efforts toward the improvement of the human condition failed to achieve their desired results?” This is being asked frequently these days in the context of social progress, as efforts toward equality and tolerance are facing backlash.
But “Has progress failed?” can also mean “Has the development of science and technology, our application of Reason to things, failed to make the lived experience of people better/ happier/ less painful? Have the changes been bad or neutral instead of good?” In other words, was Bacon right that human’s using Reason and science can change our world, but wrong that we can make it better?
I want to stress that it is no small intellectual transformation that “progress” can now be used in a negative sense as well as a positive one. The concept as Bacon crystallized it, and as the Enlightenment spread it, was inherently positive, and to use it in a negative sense would be nonsensical, like using “healing” in a negative sense. But look at how we actually use “progress” in speech today. Sometimes it is positive (“Great progress this year!”) and sometimes negative (“Swallowed up by progress…”). This is a revolutionary change from Bacon’s day, enabled by two differences between ourselves and Bacon.
First we have watched the last several centuries. For us, progress is sometimes the first heart transplant and the footprints on the Moon, and sometimes it’s the Belgian Congo with its Heart of Darkness. Sometimes it’s the annihilation of smallpox and sometimes it’s polio becoming worse as a result of sanitation instead of better. Sometimes it’s Geraldine Roman, the Phillipines’ first transgender congresswoman, and sometimes it’s Cristina Calderón, the last living speaker of the Yaghan language. Progress has yielded fruits much more complex than honey, which makes sentences like “The prison of progress” sensical to us.
We have also broadened progress. For Bacon, progress was the honey and the honeybees, hard, systematic, intentional human action creating something sweet and useful for mankind. It was good. It was new. And it was intentional. In its nascent form, Bacon’s progress did not differentiate between progress the phenomenon and progress the concept. If you asked Bacon “Was there progress in the Middle Ages?” he would have answered, “No. We’re starting to have progress right now.” And he’s correct about the concept being new, about intentional or self-aware progress, progress as a conscious effort, being new. But if we turn to Wikipedia it defines “Progress (historical)” as “the idea that the world can become increasingly better in terms of science, technology, modernization, liberty, democracy, quality of life, etc.” Notice how agency and intentionality are absent from this. Because there was technological and social change before 1600, there were even technological and social changes that undeniably made things better, even if they came less frequently than they do in the modern world. So the phenomenon we study through the whole of history, far before the maturation of the concept.
As “progress” broadened to include unsystematic progress as well as the modern project of progress, that was the moment we acquired the questions “Is progress natural?” and “Is progress inevitable?” Because those questions require progress to be something that happens whether people intend it or not. In a sense, Bacon’s notion of progress wasn’t as teleological as Whig history. Bacon believed that human action could begin the process of progress, and that God gave Reason to humanity with this end in mind, but Bacon thought humans had to use a system, act intentionally, gather the pollen to make the honey, he didn’t think they honey just flowed. Not until progress is broadened to include pre-modern progress, and non-systematic, non-intentional modern progress, can the fully teleological idea of an inescapable momentum, an inevitability, join the manifold implications of the word “progress.”
Now I’m going to show you two maps.
This is map of global population, rendered to look like a terrain. It shows the jagged mountain ranges of south and east Asia, the vast, sweeping valleys of forest and wilderness. The most jagged spikes may be a little jarring, the intensity of India and China, but even those are rich brown mountains, while the whole thing has the mood of a semi-untouched world, much more pastoral wilderness than city, and almost everywhere a healthy green. This makes progress, or at least the spread of population, feel like a natural phenomenon, a neutral phenomenon.
This is the Human Ooze Map. This map shows exactly the same data, reoriented to drip down instead of spiking up, and to be a pus-like yellow against an ominous black background. Instantly the human metropolises are not natural spikes within a healthy terrain, but an infection clinging to every oozing coastline, with the densest mega-cities seeming to bleed out amidst the goop, like open pustules.
Both these maps show one aspect of ‘progress’. Whether the teeming cities of our modern day are an apocalyptic infection, or a force as natural as the meandering of shores and tree-lines, depends on how we present the narrative, and the moral assumptions that underlie that presentation. Presentism and the progress narrative in general have very similar distorting effects. When we examine past phenomena, institutions, events, people, ideas, some feel viscerally good or viscerally bad, right or wrong, forward-moving or backward-moving, values they acquire from narratives which we ourselves have created, and which orient how we analyze history, just as these mapmakers have oriented population up, or down, resulting in radically different feelings. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s model of the Noble Savage, happier the rural simplicity of Lucretius’s Golden Age rather than in the stressful ever-changing urban world of progress, is itself an image progress presented like the Human Ooze Map, reversing the moral presentation of the same facts.
Realizing that the ways we present data about progress are themselves morally charged can help us clarify questions that are being asked right now about liberalism, and nationalism, and social change, and opposition to social change. Because when we ask whether the world is experiencing a “failure” or a “revolution” or a “regression” or a “backlash” or a “last gasp” or a “pendulum swing” or a “prelude to triumph” etc., all these characterizations reorient data around different facets of the concept of progress, positive or negative, natural or intentional, just as these two maps reorient population around different morally-charged visualizations.
In sum: post colonialism, post industrialization, post Hobbes, we can no longer talk about progress as a unilateral, uncomplicated, good, not without distorting history, and ignoring the terrible facets of the last several centuries. Bacon thought there would be only honey, he was wrong. But we can’t not discuss progress because, during these same centuries, each generation’s experience has been increasingly different from the last generation, and science and human action are propelling this change. And there has been some honey. We need ways to talk about that.
But not without bearing in mind how we invest progress with different kinds of moral weight (the terrain or the ooze…)
And not without a question Bacon never thought to ask, because he did not realize (as we do) that technological and social change had been going on for many centuries before he made the action conscious. So Bacon never thought to ask: Do we have any power over progress?
Part 4: Do Individuals Have the Power to Change History?
Feelings of helplessness and despair have also been big parts of the shock of 2016. Helplessness and despair are questions, as well as feelings. They ask: Am I powerless? Can I personally do anything to change this? Do individuals have any power to shape history? Are we just swept along by the vast tides of social forces? Are we just cogs in the machine? What changes history?
Within a history department this divide often manifests methodologically.
Economic historians, and social historians, write masterful examinations of how vast social and economic forces, and their changes, whether incremental or rapid, have shaped history. Let’s call that Great Forces history. Whenever you hear people comparing our current wealth gap to the eve of the French Revolution, that is Great Forces history. When a Marxist talks about the inevitable interactions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, or when a Whig historian talks about the inevitable march of progress, those are also kinds of Great Forces history.
Great Forces history is wonderful, invaluable. It lets us draw illuminating comparisons, and helps us predict, not what will happen but what could happen, by looking at what has happened in similar circumstances. I mentioned earlier the French Wars of Religion, with their intermittent blips of peace. My excellent colleague Brian Sandberg of NIU (a brilliant historian of violence) recently pointed out to me that France during the Catholic-Protestant religious wars was about 10% Protestant, somewhat comparable to the African American population of the USA today which is around 13%. A striking comparison, though with stark differences. In particular, France’s Protestant/Calvinist population fell disproportionately in the wealthy, politically-empowered aristocratic class (comprising 30% of the ruling class), in contrast with African Americans today who fall disproportionately in the poorer, politically-disempowered classes. These similarities and differences make it very fruitful to look at the mechanisms of civil violence in 16th and 17th century France (how outbreaks of violence started, how they ended, who against whom) to help us understand the similar-yet-different ways civil violence might operate around us now. That kind of comparison is, in my view, Great Forces history at its most fruitful. (You can read more by Brian Sandberg on this issue in his book, on his blog, and on the Center for the Study of Religious Violence blog; more citations at the end of this article.)
But are we all, then, helpless water droplets, with no power beyond our infinitesimal contribution to the tidal forces of our history? Is there room for human agency?
History departments also have biographers, and intellectual historians, and micro-historians, who churn out brilliant histories of how one town, one woman, one invention, one idea reshaped our world. Readers have seen me do this here on Ex Urbe, describing how Beccaria persuaded Europe to discontinue torture, how Petrarch sparked the Renaissance, how Machiavelli gave us so much. Histories of agents, of people who changed the world. Such histories are absolutely true — just as the Great Forces histories are — but if Great Forces histories tell us we are helpless droplets in a great wave, these histories give us hope that human agency, our power to act meaningfully upon our world, is real. I am quite certain that one of the causes of the explosive response to the Hamilton musical right now is its firm, optimistic message that, yes, individuals can, and in fact did, reshape this world — and so can we.
This kind of history, inspiring as it is, is also dangerous. The antiquated/old-fashioned/bad version of this kind of history is Great Man history, the model epitomized by Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (a gorgeous read) which presents humanity as a kind of inert but rich medium, like agar ready for a bacterial culture. Onto this great and ready stage, Nature (or God or Providence) periodically sends a Great Man, a leader, inventor, revolutionary, firebrand, who makes empires rise, or fall, or leads us out of the black of ignorance. Great Man history is very prone to erasing everyone outside a narrow elite, erasing women, erasing the negative consequences of the actions of Great Men, justifying atrocities as the collateral damage of greatness, and other problems which I hope are familiar to my readers.
But when done well, histories of human agency are valuable. Are true. Are hope.
So if Great Forces history is correct, and useful, and Human Agency history is also correct, and useful… how do we balance that? They are, after all, contradictory.
Part 5: The Papal Election of 2016
Every year in my Italian Renaissance class, here at the University of Chicago, I run a simulation of a Renaissance papal election, circa 1490-1500. Each student is a different participant in the process, and they negotiate, form coalitions, and, eventually, elect a pope. And then they have a war, and destroy some chunk of Europe. Each student receives a packet describing that students’ character’s goals, background, personality, allies and enemies, and a packet of resources, cards representing money, titles, treasures, armies, nieces and nephews one can marry off, contracts one can sign, artists or scholars one can use to boost one’s influence, or trade to others as commodities: “I’ll give you Leonardo if you send three armies to guard my city from the French.”
Some students in the simulation play powerful Cardinals wielding vast economic resources and power networks, with clients and subordinates, complicated political agendas, and a strong shot at the papacy. Others are minor Cardinals, with debts, vulnerabilities, short-term needs to some personal crisis in their home cities, or long-term hopes of rising on the coattails of others and perhaps being elected three or four popes from now. Others, locked in a secret chamber in the basement, are the Crowned Heads of Europe — the King of France, the Queen of Castile, the Holy Roman Emperor — who smuggle secret orders (text messages) to their agents in the conclave, attempting to forge alliances with Italian powers, and gain influence over the papacy so they can use Church power to strengthen their plans to launch invasions or lay claim to distant thrones. And others are not Cardinals at all but functionaries who count the votes, distribute the food, the guard who keeps watch, the choir director who entertains the churchmen locked in the Sistine, who have no votes but can hear, and watch, and whisper.
There are many aspects to this simulation, which I may someday to discuss here at greater length (for now you can read a bit about it on our History Department blog), but for the moment I just want to talk about the outcomes, and what structures the outcomes. I designed this simulation not to have any pre-set outcome. I looked into the period as best I could, and gave each historical figure the resources and goals that I felt accurately reflected that person’s real historical resources and actions. I also intentionally moved some characters in time, including some Cardinals and political issues which do not quite overlap with each other, in order to make this an alternate history, not a mechanical reconstruction, so that students who already knew what happened to Italy in this period would know they couldn’t have the “correct” outcome even if they tried, which frees everyone to pursue goals, not “correct” choices, and to genuinely explore the range of what could happen without being too locked in to what did. I set up the tensions and the actors to simulate what I felt the situation was when the election begin, then left it free to flow.
I have now run the simulation four times. Each time some outcomes are similar, similar enough that they are clearly locked in by the greater political webs and economic forces. The same few powerful Cardinals are always leading candidates for the throne. There is usually also a wildcard candidate, someone who has never before been one of the top contenders, but circumstances bring a coalition together. And, usually, perhaps inevitably, a juggernaut wins, one of the Cardinals who began with a strong power-base, but it’s usually very, very close. And the efforts of the wildcard candidate, and the coalition that formed around that wildcard, always have a powerful effect on the new pope’s policies and first actions, who’s in the inner circle and who’s out, what opposition parties form, and that determines which city-states rise and which city-states burn as Italy erupts in war.
And the war is Always. Totally. Different.
Because as the monarchies race to make alliances and team up against their enemies, they get pulled back-and-forth by the ricocheting consequences of small actions: a marriage, an insult, a bribe traded for a whisper, someone paying off someone else’s debts, someone taking a shine to a bright young thing. Sometimes France invades Spain. Sometimes France and Spain unite to invade the Holy Roman Empire. Sometimes England and Spain unite to keep the French out of Italy. Sometimes France and the Empire unite to keep Spain out of Italy. Once they made a giant pan-European peace treaty, with a set of marriage alliances which looked likely to permanently unify all four great Crowns, but it was shattered by the sudden assassination of a crown prince.
So when I tell people about this election, and they ask me “Does it always have the same outcome?” the answer is yes and no. Because the Great Forces always push the same way. The strong factions are strong. Money is power. Blood is thicker than promises. Virtue is manipulable. In the end, a bad man will be pope. And he will do bad things. The war is coming, and the land — some land somewhere — will burn. But the details are always different. A Cardinal needs to gather fourteen votes to get the throne, but it’s never the same fourteen votes, so it’s never the same fourteen people who get papal favor, whose agendas are strengthened, whose homelands prosper while their enemies fall. And I have never once seen a pope elected in this simulation who did not owe his victory, not only to those who voted, but to one or more of the humble functionaries, who repeated just the right whisper at just the right moment, and genuinely handed the throne to Monster A instead of Monster B. And from that functionary flow the consequences. There are always several kingmakers in the election, who often do more than the candidate himself to get him on the throne, but what they do, who they help, and which kingmaker ends up most favored, most influential, can change a small war in Genoa into a huge war in Burgundy, a union of thrones between France and England into another century of guns and steel, or determine which decrees the new pope signs. That sometimes matters more than whether war is in Burgundy or Genoa, since papal signatures resolve questions such as: Who gets the New World? Will there be another crusade? Will the Inquisition grow more tolerant or less toward new philosophies? Who gets to be King of Naples? These things are different every time, though shaped by the same forces.
Frequently the most explosive action is right after the pope is elected, after the Great Forces have thrust a bad man onto Saint Peter’s throne, and set the great and somber stage for war, often that’s the moment that I see human action do most. That’s when I get the after-midnight message on the day before the war begins: “Secret meeting. 9AM. Economics cafe. Make sure no one sees you. Sforza, Medici, D’Este, Dominicans. Borgia has the throne but he will not be master of Italy.” And together, these brave and haste-born allies, they… faicceed? Fail and succeed? They give it all they have: diplomacy, force, wealth, guile, all woven together. They strike. The bad pope rages, sends forces out to smite these enemies. The kings and great thrones take advantage, launch invasions. The armies clash. One of the rebel cities burns, but the other five survive, and Borgia (that year at least) is not Master of Italy.
We feel it, the students as myself, coming out of the simulation. The Great Forces were real, and were unstoppable. The dam was about to break. No one could stop it. But the human agents — even the tiniest junior clerk who does the paperwork — the human agents shaped what happened, and every action had its consequences, imperfect, entwined, but real. The dam was about to break, but every person there got to dig a channel to try to direct the waters once they flowed, and that is what determined the real shape of the flood, its path, its damage. No one controlled what happened, and no one could predict what happened, but those who worked hard and dug their channels, most of them succeeded in diverting most of the damage, achieving many of their goals, preventing the worst. Not all, but most.
And what I see in the simulation I also see over and over in real historical sources.
This is how both kinds of history are true. There are Great Forces. Economics, class, wealth gaps, prosperity, stagnation, these Great Forces make particular historical moments ripe for change, ripe for war, ripe for wealth, ripe for crisis, ripe for healing, ripe for peace. But individuals also have real agency, and our actions determine the actual consequences of these Great Forces as they reshape our world. We have to understand both, and study both, and act on the world now remembering that both are real.
So, can human beings control progress? Yes and no.
Part 6: Ways to Talk About Progress in the 21st Century
Few things have taught me more about the world than keeping a fish tank.
You get some new fish, put them in your fish tank, everything’s fine. You get some more new fish, the next morning one of them has killed almost all the others. Another time you get a new fish and it’s all gaspy and pumping its gills desperately, because it’s from alkeline waters and your tank is too acidic for it. So you put in a little pH adjusting powder and… all the other fish get sick from the Ammonia that releases and die. Another time you get a new fish and it’s sick! So you put fish antibiotics in the water, aaaand… they kill all the symbiotic bacteria in your filter system and the water gets filled with rotting bacteria, and the fish die. Another time you do absolutely nothing, and the fish die.
What’s happening? The same thing that happened in the first two centuries after Francis Bacon, when the science was learning tons, but achieving little that actually improved daily life. The system is more complex than it seems. A change which achieves its intended purpose also throws out-of-whack vital forces you did not realize were connected to it. The acidity buffer in the fish tank increases the nutrients in the water, which causes an algae bloom, which uses up the oxygen and suffocates the catfish. The marriage alliance between Milan and Ferrara makes Venice friends with Milan, which makes Venice’s rival Genoa side with Spain, which makes Spain reluctant to anger Portugal, which makes them agree to a marriage alliance, and then Spain is out of princesses and can’t marry the Prince of Wales, and the next thing you know there are soldiers from Scotland attacking Bologna. A seventeenth-century surgeon realizes that cataracts are caused by something white and opaque appearing at the front of the eye so removes it, not yet understanding that it’s the lens and you really need it.
So when I hear people ask “Has social progress has failed?” or “Has liberalism failed?” or “Has the Civil Rights Movement failed?” my zoomed-in self, my scared self, the self living in this crisis feels afraid and uncertain, but my zoomed-out self, my historian self answers very easily. No. These movements have done wonders, achieved tons! But they have also done what all movements do in a dynamic historical system: they have had large, complicated consequences. They have added something to the fish tank. Because the same Enlightenment impulse to make a better, more rational world, where everyone would have education and equal political empowerment BOTH caused the brutalities of the Belgian Congo AND gave me the vote. And that’s the sort of thing historians look at, all day.
But if the consequences of our actions are completely unpredictable, would it be better to say that change is real but progress controlled by humans is just an idea which turned out to be wrong? No. I say no. Because I gradually got better at understanding the fish tank. Because the doctors gradually figured out how the eye really does function. Because some of our civil rights have come by blood and war, and others have come through negotiation and agreement. Because we as humans are gradually learning more about how our world is interconnected, and how we can take action within that interconnected system. And by doing so we really have achieve some of what Francis Bacon and his followers waited for through those long centuries: we have made the next generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own. Not smoothly, and not quickly, but actually. Because, in my mock papal election, the dam did break, but those students who worked hard to dig their channels did direct the flood, and most of them managed to achieve some of what they aimed at, though they always caused some other effects too.
Is it still blowing up in our faces?
Is it going to keep blowing up in our faces, over and over?
Is it going to blow up so much, sometimes, that it doesn’t seem like it’s actually any better?
Is that still progress?
Because there was a baby in the bathwater of Whig history. If we work hard at it, we can find metrics for comparing times and places which don’t privilege particular ideologies. Metrics like infant mortality. Metrics like malnutrition. Metrics like the frequency of massacres. We can even find metrics for social progress which don’t irrevocably privilege a particular Western value system. One of my favorite social progress metrics is: “What portion of the population of this society can be murdered by a different portion of the population and have the murderer suffer no meaningful consequences?” The answer, for America in 2017, is not 0%. But it’s also not 90%. That number has gone down, and is now far below the geohistorical norm. That is progress. That, and infant mortality, and the conquest of smallpox. These are genuine improvements to the human condition, of the sort that Bacon and his followers believed would come if they kept working to learn the causes and secret motions of things. And they were right. While Whig history privileges a very narrow set of values, metrics which track things like infant mortality, or murder with impunity, still privilege particular values — life, justice, equality — but aim to be compatible with as many different cultures, and even time periods, as possible. They are metrics which stranded time travelers would find it fairly easy to explain, no matter where they were dumped in Earth’s broad timeline. At least that’s our aim. And such metrics are the best tool we have at present to make the comparisons, and have the discussions about progress, that we need to have to grapple with our changing world.
Because progress is both a concept and a phenomenon.
The concept is the hope that collective human effort can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than the previous generation’s. That concept has itself become a mighty force shaping the human experience, like communism, iron, or the wheel. It is valuable thing to look at the effects that concept has had, to talk about how some have been destructive and others constructive, and to study, from a zoomed-out perspective, the consequences, successes, and failures of different movements or individuals who have acted in the name of progress.
The phenomenon is also real. My own personal assessment of it is just that, a personal assessment, with no authority beyond some years spent studying history. I hope to keep reexamining and improving this assessment all the days of my life. But here at the beginning of 2017 I would say this:
Progress is not inevitable, but it is happening.
It is not transparent, but it is visible.
It is not safe, but it is beneficial.
It is not linear, but it is directional.
It is not controllable, but it is us. In fact, it is nothing but us.
Progress is also natural, in my view, not in the sense that it will inevitably triumph over its doomed opposition, but in the sense that the human animal is part of nature, so the Declaration of the Rights of Man is as natural as a bird’s nest or a beaver dam. There is no teleology, no inevitable correct ending locked in from time immemorial. But I personally think there is a certain outcome to progress, gradual but certain: the decrease of pain in the human condition over time. Because there is so much desire in this world to make a better one. Bacon was right that we ache for it. And the real measurable changes we have made show that he was also right that we can use Reason and collective effort to meet our desires, even if the process is agonizingly slow, imperfect, and dangerous. But we know now how to go about learning the causes and secret motions of things. And how to use that knowledge.
We are also learning to understand the accidental negative consequences of progress, looking out for them, mitigating them, preventing them, creating safety nets. We’re getting better at it. Slowly, but we are.
Zooming back in hurts. It’s easy to say “the French Wars of Religion” and erase the little blips of peace, but it’s hard to feel fear and pain, or watch a friend feel fear and pain. Sometimes I hear people say they think that things today are worse than they’ve ever been, especially the hate, or the race relations in the USA, that they’re worse now than ever. That we’ve made no progress, quite the opposite. Similarly, I think a person who grew up during one of the peaceful pauses in the French Wars of Religion might say, when the violence restarted, that the wars were worse now than they had ever been, and farther than ever from real peace. They aren’t actually worse now. They genuinely were worse before. But they are really, really bad right now, and it does really, really hurt.
The slowness of social progress is painful, I think especially because it’s the aspect of progress that seemed it would come fastest. During that first century, when Bacon’s followers were waiting in maddening impatience for their better medical knowledge to result in any actual increase in their ability to save lives, social progress was already working wonders. The Enlightenment did extend franchise, end torture on an entire continent, achieved much, and had this great, heady, explosive feeling of victory and momentum. It seemed like social progress was already half-way-done before tech even got started. But Charles Babbage kicked off programmable computing in 1833 and now my pocket contains 100x the computing power needed to get Apollo XI to the Moon, so why, if Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen in 1791, do we still not have equal pay?
Because society is a very complicated fish tank. Because we still have a lot to learn about the causes and secret motions of society.
But if there is a dam right now, ready to break and usher in a change, Great Forces are still shaped by human action. Our action.
Studying history has proved to me, over and over, that things used to be worse. That they are better now. Progress is real. That’s a consolation, but a hollow one while we’re still here facing the pain. What fills its hollowness, for me at least, is remembering that secret meeting in the Economics cafe, that hasty plan, diplomacy, quick action — not a second chance after the disaster, but a next chance. And a next. And a next, to take actions that really did achieve things, even if not everything. Human action combining with the flood is not powerlessness. And that’s how I think progress really works.
Hello, all. Deadlines, page proofs, preparing for tenure, and an extra heavy autumn teaching load with classrooms full of enthusiastic-and-therefore-time-consuming students have continued to keep me too busy for another skepticism essay, but here for your enjoyment (and with some help from the excellent Jo Walton who’s wonderful at hunting down saint pictures for me) is a new addition to my Spot the Saint Series, on how to recognize saints in art (click here to start the series from the beginning).
Today: more Dominicans.
As we all recall, the key to recognizing Dominicans in art is that they look like penguins. (Black mantle over white robe – black wings, white belly.) Dominicans are generally scholar monks, dedicated to the idea that the best way to reach Heaven is through knowledge, reason and study. They are associated with Spain, through their founder Saint Dominic, and were particularly prominent at the University of Paris. For many years the primary theological adviser to the pope (called the Master of the Sacred Palace) was always a Dominican, and when the Roman Inquisition started kicking into high gear in response to the printing press and the Reformation, the Dominicans were in charge of it. If you are familiar with the Jesuits, the Dominicans did a lot of the things the Jesuits would start to do in later periods.
In addition to Dominic, Thomas Aquinas and Peter Martyr, there are three other Dominican saints who show up frequently in Renaissance art, or at least in Florentine art. They are St. Antoninus, St Catherine and Siena, and St Vincent Ferrer.
St. Catherine of Siena
Common attributes: Nun in Dominican robes, crown of thorns, lily
Occasional attributes: stigmata, book, model church, rose(s)
Patron saint of: Nurses, the sick, women tempted by lust, people mocked for their faith
Patron of places: Italy, Europe (yeah, she’s a big deal…)
Feast days: April 29-30
Most often depicted: Looking otherworldly & contemplative, marrying Christ, giving alms to the poor
Relics: body in Santa Maria sopra Miernva in Rome, head in Siena
Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) is one of the two patron saints of Italy, along with St Francis. In 1970 she was one of the first two woman ever to be named a Doctor of the Church (along with Saint Teresa of Ávila).
Catherine was born immediately before the Black Death, the twenty-third child in her family. It was a poor family, and she received no education, and did not learn to read until quite late. Growing, up she had every attribute of a classic un-learned female mystic. As a girl she had visions, and conversations with Christ, St Dominic, and the Virgin Mary. She refused to marry, but also refused to retreat into a cloistered life within a monastery, since she wanted to preach and travel, as male Dominicans did. At the age of twenty-one, she went through a mystic marriage with Christ, where he gave her his foreskin as a wedding ring — it was invisible to other people. Much like Francis of Assisi, she fasted almost constantly, and performed other extreme mortification of the flesh including drinking pus from the sick in hospitals. She also developed stigmata like Saint Francis, though some reports say they were invisible. Given how hard Catherine was on her body, it is no surprise that she only lived to be thirty-three.
What made Catherine an ecclesiastical superstar, differentiating her from scores of similar female mystics who were popular in their day but remained only minor local figures, was that in the later part of her (not very long) life she began to transition from a mystic to a theologian. Mysticism was one of few paths to respect and authority that were open to women within Medieval Christianity. A religious vocation for a woman would traditionally have led to a cloistered life (as Saint Francis prescribed for Claire of Assisi) but Catherine rejected this. She chose instead to join the Dominican Tertiaries, an order of lay nuns created for widows who wanted to have a spiritual life while continuing to live with their families to care for children and family fortunes. Catherine was the first non-widow to join the order (over much protest), and thus granted a unique new status as a nun without a convent, and a spiritual woman without a place or superior to anchor her. This let Catherine wander widely to do good works and preach. Her mysticism and reports of visions, and her frequent transports into dramatic ecstasy, earned her great fame, so people crowded to see her wherever she went, even when her words began to sound less like mysticism and more like serious scholarly theology. Her ideas were very different and substantially more penetrable than the learned, Thomist, Aristotelian content of many sermons. She was taught to read by the Tertiaries when she became one, and the Dominicans assigned a scribe to follow her around and write down everything she said. At first this simply produced accounts of her ecstatic visions, but over time she began to dictate more polished and serious works, and letters to people in many corners of politics. She even served as Florence’s ambassador to the Avignon papacy for a time. When she turned thirty, she learned to write, and helped to edit and polish her corpus, which includes nearly four hundred letters, a dialogue, and some prayers. This constituted the first substantial body of theological writing by a woman of the Renaissance (though there had certainly been Medieval female theologians such as Hildegard of Bingen), and the first written theology ever by a woman from such a poor background who would not normally have had access to education.
Before this starts to sound too progressive, Catherine of Siena never stopped being a traditional mystic, having visions, ecstasy etc., and it was absolutely because of her status as a mystic that everyone (the Dominicans, Florence, Rome) started to care about her. Mysticism was a traditional path which Catherine never left, though she did add something new to it, which women generally had not done before, through her preaching and written works. It is really in the posthumous reception of her work that the transition becomes more significant. Over the centuries since Catherine’s life, people in the Catholic Church and in the West in general have come to care more and more about education and especially education for women, and less and less about mysticism. Society’s taste in saints has changed, and as it changed the many dozens of female mystics came to fit it less and less, while Catherine-the-groundbreaking-theologian came to fit it more and more. Hence the expansion of her cult over the past centuries while many other saints’ cults have diminished, and her elevation to the prestigious positions of Patroness of Europe, Patroness of Italy alongside Francis whose life hers modeled so much, and in 1970 Doctor of the Church.
Catherine died in Rome at the age of thirty-three, after a stroke probably caused by what would now be called anorexia. Her body was immediately put on display in the Dominican headquarters church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and began to be venerated there even though she would not be canonized for another 80 years.
This kind of sudden veneration of a non-canonized body was really not allowed, and happened a lot in more peripheral towns where Rome had little control, so the fact that it happened in Rome itself was quite remarkable.
Her head was stolen almost immediately, and smuggled back to Siena, where it was encased in a bronze bust, which was honored in a parade which Catherine’s (very tired) mother attended.
Catherine was canonized in 1461 by Pius II, who was himself from Siena, so he had strong personal reasons to encourage the veneration of this great celebrity who would bring honor and pilgrims to his hometown. He was also a scholar and theologian himself, so his enthusiasm for Catherine was certainly motivated by sincerity as well as hometown pride.
Siena’s excitement about Catherine is overwhelming to this day.
One time I was visiting Siena to see a manuscript, and got to chatting with the taxi driver, who told me I should visit Catherine’s head while I was in town. I told him I had just visited her body in Rome. He became very quiet for a moment, and then said very seriously, “The head is the important part.”
In art Catherine can most easily be spotted as a female Dominican, sometimes balancing a female Franciscan, who will be St Clare. (If there’s a female Benedictine, it’s usually St Scholastica.) She often has a lily, representing her chastity and connecting her to Saint Dominic who also holds one. In later art, 17th century and on, she pretty consistently has a crown of thorns. In some early art she was depicted with stigmata, but the Franciscans protested, and got the Church to rule that only Francis may be depicted with stigmata, so any images of Catherine with stigmata are technically heretical. Sometimes Catherine wears a starry headscarf (especially in paintings by Fra Angelico), which can lead her to be confused with the Virgin Mary. There are paintings of her visions, and of her mystical marriage. She is sometimes depicted holding a rose, reflecting a miracle that happened when her head was being smuggled out of Rome to Siena, and guards inspected the mysterious package as the thieves were leaving the gates of Rome, but when they looked in the bag they just saw a pile of roses instead of the head, so the head made it safely to Siena.
IMPORTANT: DO NOT confuse CATHERINE OF SIENA with CATHERINE OF ALEXANDRIA.
They have a lot in common, and are often depicted together, so the names can make it easy to mix them up. Both are virgin saints, and both had a mystic marriage with Christ, but Catherine of Alexandria is depicted having a mystic marriage with the INFANT Christ, while Catherine of Siena is usually depicted as marrying the ADULT Christ. In addition, Catherine of Alexandria has a wheel, a crown, a martyr’s palm, and Roman clothes, while Catherine of Siena has a nun’s habit, and a lily, and if she has a crown it’s thorns, rather than a queenly crown. Here they are together:
Though before you get too comfortable, they do sometimes reverse which Catherine marries the adult Christ and which marries the baby:
St. Antoninus of Florence
Common attributes: Dominican robe with white T-shaped sash with crosses on it across his shoulders (indicating that he is a bishop)
Occasional attributes: Bishop’s hat, bishop’s robes over Dominican habit
Patron saint of: Florentine Dominicans
Patron of places: The town of Moncalvo near Turin, + Florence
Feast days: May 2nd and 10th
Most often depicted: In Florence
Relics: Florence, San Marco
St Antoninus (1389-1459) is Florence’s own saint, the first Florentine to actually be made a saint since Saint Zenobius (d. 417 AD) which is a long time for Florence to wait, while their neighbors kept accumulating more and more: Saints Francis & Claire of Assisi, Saint Peter Martyr of Verona, Saint Antony of Padua, Saint Dominic buried in Bologna, Saints Bernardino and Catherine of Siena, etc.
Antoninus was the son of a Florentine notary. In 1405 he became a Dominican and joined a monastery in the small hill town of Fiesole, just outside Florence. At that time, there was only one large Dominican monastery in Florence, the one attached to Santa Maria Novella (now by the train station). The Dominican brotherhood at Santa Maria Novella had been founded in 1221 to celebrate a peace settlement between the Guelphs & Ghibellines (which lasted all of 30 seconds before civil war resumed…), but it was a somewhat peripheral location Franciscans at Santa Croce and the Benedictins at the Badia. Thus Antoninus aspired to found a larger Dominican congregation, somewhere within the heart of the city. Even though monastic life is supposed to be cloistered and separate, a central location would bring prestige and influence. His attention focused on a small 12th century monastery in the north end of the city, built originally for Vallombrosan monks but occupied at the time by a small community of Benedictines, who were content to sell the property for the right price.
To muster the funds to buy the property and replace the cramped 12th century complex with a grand Renaissance one, Antoninus turned to his good friend Cosimo de Medici, who, in the first decades of the 1400s, was in the process of advancing from simply having a lot of money to controlling all of Florence with his money. Cosimo was very willing to spend on public works projects in general–both because it won the good will of the people and because he was worried about going to Hell for usury–and he was especially happy to spend on humanist and scholarly projects such as libraries, and setting up a community of scholar-monks to use said libraries. Antoninus extracted a lot of money from Cosimo over the years, not just for rebuilding and decorating San Marco, but for feeding and clothing the poor. Cosimo joked that it didn’t matter how much he gave, he could never close the books, he’d always be in God’s debt.
When Cosimo de’ Medici rebuilt the monastery for the Dominicans in 1433, Antoninus became the first prior of San Marco, and then became Archbishop of Florence in 1446. All archbishops of Florence in this period went through a mystical marriage with the Abbess of S. Pier Maggiore, which included a full wedding ceremony in the Duomo and spending a night in a special bed in the convent. Oddly enough, this incident, which is on record, does not appear in the great fresco cycle of Saint Antoninus’s life and miracles that decorates one of the courtyards in San Marco.
As well as feeding the poor, Antoninus went among them to give them last rites when they had the plague, which was a big deal. So many priests had refused to put their own lives at risk doing this in the Great Plague of 1348 that the pope at the time (Clement VI, one of the Avignon popes) granted an indulgence to everyone who died of it, meaning they’d go straight to heaven, which was probably the largest indulgence ever granted, as that plague killed a third of Europe.
While we tend to think of the Black Death sweeping through in 1348 and then leaving again, it was actually endemic in Europe until the 18th century, and fresh outbreaks were frequent in Italy throughout the Renaissance. There was a bad outbreak in Antoninus’s time, not as deadly since everyone alive in the 1420s was the child of somone who had resisted the 1348 outbreak so many had stronger immune systems (yay natural selection), but most people including priests still preferred not to have contact with the sufferers, so his ministration was exceptional.
Antoninus disapproved of gambling, cheating and usury. He didn’t have a dramatic life or dramatic miracles, but he was famous for living a simple and austere life even after he became famous and influential. He was also a great scholar and advocate of Church reform (which made his works popular during the Reformation and Counterreformation), not to mention incredibly popular with ordinary Florentines. As soon as Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici i.e. Cosimo de Medici’s great grandson) was firmly seated on the Throne of St. Peter, he began the process of pushing for Antoninus’s canonization, but it was not completed until the (very brief) reign of Leo’s successor Adrian VI.
There’s an entire fresco-cycle running around the top of the first courtyard of San Marco devoted to Antoninus’s life of genuinely impressive public works and fairly unimpressive miracles. The most fun miracle is the time they had lost the key to a chest, and then he had a fish for dinner and the key miraculously turned up in the fish. He also performed some exciting exorcisms.
You very seldom see Saint Antoninus represented outside Florence — or even very far from San Marco, so he is usually recognizable by context. Are you in Florence, or looking at Florentine art? If so, that Dominican with a bishop’s white T-shaped sash is pretty certainly Antoninus. In general he is differentiated from other major Dominican saints by the white sash.
St. Vincent Ferrer
Common attributes: Dominican robes, flame.
Occasional attributes: Book, wings or winged cherubs, trumpet.
Patron saint of: plumbers, construction workers
Patron of places: Vannes (in Brittany), Valencia somewhat
Feast days: April 5
Most often depicted: With other Dominicans
Relics: Vannes Cathedral
St Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419) was born in Valencia in Spain. He became a Dominican very young, and spent his life travelling around Europe preaching and converting Cathars and Jews. He was canonized by Pope Calixtus III (Alfons de Borja i.e. Rodrigo Borgia’s uncle), who himself came from Valencia — yes another hometown canonization.
Vincent Ferrer was a contemporary of Catherine of Siena, and the two of them ended up on opposite sides of the Western Schism. For those who need a refresher, in 1305, after a big fight between Pope Boniface VIII and the King of France over who got to appoint French bishops, a rough and frightened papal conclave elected a French pope, Clement V, who stayed in Avignon, and for the next several popes the papacy remained in Avignon, under the control of France. This ended when Pope Gregory XI returned from Avignon to Rome in 1377 and then died in 1378, but upon his death Rome elected one new pope (Urban VI) and Avignon elected another (Clement VII), and when these died yet more rival popes were appointed, until the whole mess was finally solved by the Council of Constance in 1416 (a long time to wait to know who’s pope!) During the controversy, Vincent Ferrer was a strong and loyal supporter of the Avignon popes (note that Avignon is quite close to Valencia), while Catherine of Siena supported the Roman popes, and was sent to argue for them as Florence’s ambassador (unsuccessfully but her work probably helped set the stage for later embassies). Thus the fact that both Vincent and Catherine were eventually canonized shows how spread out and complex the Dominican order was, and how it was often part of many different Church movements at once, even contradictory ones: pro-Spanish/French v. pro-Italian, pro-scholarly v. pro-mystic, and of course how, later on, it could at the same time be a great promoter of intellectual study and innovation and also run the Inquisition.
In art, at least outside Valencia and Vannes, Vinecnt Ferrer is generally just an extra Dominican. His most common attribute is a tongue of flame, either on his head or in his hand, though Antony of Padua sometimes has the same, as do apostles and evangelists, so make sure to look for the penguin robes before reaching for Vincent Ferrer as an identification. If Dominic and Thomas Aquinas and Peter Martyr are accounted for and there’s an extra one, even without attributes, it usually turns out to be Vinecnt Ferrer. So if you’re looking at a painting and there’s another male penguin monk who doesn’t he have a lily and a star, isn’t chubby, doesn’t have the ability to interpret Aristotle blazing from his chest like the son, and doesn’t he have a knife in his head or gore dripping down his shoulders, then he’s probably Vincent Ferrer. There’s a slight possibility he may be St Raymond of Penafort or St Hyacinth of Poland, higher if the picture is from Spain or Poland. Albertus Magnus is another possibility, but he is depicted rarely enough that he generally seems to get labelled.
Spot the Saint Mini-Quiz
And now, for the first time in a long time, your spot-the-saint review quiz. If you review earlier Spot the Saint posts, you should be able to identify all these figures except the man all the way on the right, with a harp and a crown (though those of you with biblical knowledge can hopefully recognize him. Hint: he’s not a saint):
The moderately peculiar title may be intended to illuminate an inchoate suspicion that this tale may be all about how lightning precedes comeuppance (as always) but stops short of the thunder: Too Like the Lightning seems to be how two hundred years of an immensely complex and constantly negotiated peace are about to explode in an immense light show, leaving tatters, but does not tell us anything about the thump and consequence of landing. Its large loquacious cast—each member of which is significantly involved in maintaining a utopia responsible for the weal of ten billion souls—seems by the end of this volume to be running out of words: illustrated men and women about to char. You can almost feel the electricity.
This isn’t so much a review as a long essay. There have also been reviews on NPR, in the Chicago Tribune, and all over, as well as lots of interviews, including Scientific American. There are long lists of guest posts, interviews, and interesting reviews here.
Second water, St Gregory, and temperance: The Gelato Atlas has been updated to include not only Gelateria della Passera, the great new place Ada spotted from fifteen feet away when it wasn’t even open — so exciting to have good gelato in the Oltrarno! — but gelato other people have found in Finland, Rome, the USA and other exotic locations.
Fourth, earth, St Jerome, and patience (thank you for yours!) — after Readercon, Ada will be doing three events in bookstores in the north-eastern US. She’ll be reading from Too Like the Lightning, and I’ll be there too, reading from my new novel Necessity. We’ll also be discussing the books, answering questions, and signing books.
Off to Italy again. This seems like a good time to share a link to a video of an illustrated talk Ada gave at the Lumen Christi institute in Chicago in February. It’s a fascinating overview of the place of San Marco in Florence, with lots of excellent pictures. It’s like an audio version of an Ex Urbe post, with Fra Angelico, the meaning of blue, the Magi, the Medici, Savonarola, confraternities, and the complexities of Renaissance religious and artistic patronage.
And here’s one of the pictures mentioned but not shown in the presentation, a nine panel illustration by Filippo Dolcaiati “The History of Antonio Rinaldeschi.” It depicts the real historical fate of Rinaldeschi, who became drunk while gambling and threw manure at an icon of the Virgin Mary. A fascinating incident for demonstrating the functions of confraternities, and for demonstrating how seriously the people of Florence took the protection offered by saints and icons.