Johns Hopkins Magazine
Johns Hopkins Magazine Current Issue Past Issues Search Get In Touch
H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S
At the center of American history
Don't worry, be happy
Overheard in a class on simple reality

At the center of American history

Sixteen years ago, John Higham '41 wrote an essay about Herbert Baxter Adams, the man who founded the formal study of history during his years at Johns Hopkins. Higham wrote of Adams: "His writing and editing aimed to put different things together."

The same could be said of Higham's work. For more than 30 years, 16 as a professor of history at Hopkins (1973-1989), Higham studied and elucidated the many ways in which American culture, for all its diversity and fractiousness, has hung together. His distinguished career has just been honored by 14 of his former Hopkins students, who have collected some of his most important essays in a forthcoming book, Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture (Yale, 2001).

John Higham's essays are collected in a new book initiated by former students.
Photo by Jay Van Rensselaer
The collection was initiated and edited by Carl J. Guarneri (PhD '79), now a history professor at St. Mary's College of California. Guarneri worked with Higham to assemble the roster of essays and tapped a different former student of Higham's to write an introduction to each one. All are noted academicians, serving on history faculties at institutions including Northwestern University, Franklin and Marshall College, Penn State University, University of Virginia, Universite Paris VII, and Boston College.

The essays range in publication date from "The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s," first published in 1965, to "Three Postwar Reconstructions," which first appeared four years ago. One piece, "The Long Road to the New Deal," had not previously appeared in print. What unites the essays, says Guarneri, is an effort to trace the changing contours of American culture: "They are unified by a remarkably consistent focus on the ways a dynamic national culture has caused divergent ethnic, class, and ideological groups to 'hang together' as Americans."

Higham has always sought connections. Without dismissing all the divergences of American culture, he has looked for the enduring ties that have kept the nation from flying apart. American society has always revolved around polarities, he says: idealism and materialism, freedom and organization, the one and the many. A cultural historian, he argues, should not focus all attention on the poles and the margins, but should pay attention to the shifting center that ties everything together. Individual subgroups should not be studied without considering their ties to the greater nation, the ways they change society but also benefit from being part of it.

"Nationalism has various forms," says Higham, who retired from Hopkins in 1989 but continues his writing and research. "There is a civic or liberal nationalism. Historically, I look back at the kind of nation that was developing during the Civil War era, that Abraham Lincoln exemplified. We need to renew that by opening ourselves again to the nation as an absolutely valid instrument for creating a more equal and culturally ambitious homeland.

When Higham began his career in 1948, he says, historians were forging connections to other disciplines, especially the social sciences and the humanities. Those connections made possible new specializations in specific ethnic and racial groups, in gender studies, labor history, and local studies. Then, in the 1960s, turmoil and alienation drove many young scholars into these new specializations, which ended up developing inward-looking agendas. The ideas of the nation as a whole, made up of all these contending and ever-evolving groups, fell completely out of favor.

"Today we are emerging from the negativism of those oppositional years," Higham says. "The breakup of American history and the polarization are over." --Dale Keiger

Don't worry, be happy

Around the first century B.C., a form of ancient Greek skepticism known as Pyrrhonism coalesced. For the next few hundred years (according to the second/ third-century philosopher Sextus Empiricus, the best surviving source), Pyrrhonists extolled a sort of serenity attained through the complete suspension of judgment. They believed that for any question there existed opposing arguments of equal strength, thus creating myriad unresolvable disagreements. In the face of these disagreements, Pyrrhonists withdrew from all attempts to specify the real nature of things. They simply held no opinions at all, thus rising above judgments to achieve ataraxia, "freedom from worry."

The Pyrrhonists were so named because they considered themselves followers of a philosophy first espoused by Pyrrho of Elis in the fourth/third century BC. Contemporary scholars have likewise assumed that Pyrrhonists followed Pyrrho. But Hopkins philosophy professor Richard Bett has closely examined the textual evidence and come to a different conclusion: Pyrrho's actual thinking, ironically, would have excluded him from the group of skeptics that later took his name.

Bett puts forth his argument in Pyrrho, His Antecedents, and His Legacy (Oxford, 2000), which traces the ancestral line, so to speak, of Pyrrho's ideas, and examines the true nature of those ideas as well as their legacy. Says Bett, "The conventional wisdom has been that the views of Pyrrho were the same as those of the Pyrrhonists, just less sophisticated." This idea was based on scant textual evidence, because Pyrrho evidently wrote nothing, at least nothing that has survived. The philosopher's

thoughts must be gleaned from the fragmentary writing of a disciple, Timon; the most important summary of Timon's work is by a later writer, Aristocles.

Bett says that, based on Aristocles, Pyrrho believed--and stated- -that nothing in life was determinate. But as Bett points out, that means Pyrrho was taking a firm metaphysical position. Reality, said Pyrrho, cannot be determined because nothing is ever invariable. Period.

For Pyrrho to hold such a pronounced view, says Bett, "was an opinionated thing to do, and [to the Pyrrhonists] one should not have an opinion." Thus, asserts Bett, the philosopher paradoxically would not have qualified as one of his own followers. Bett's book, according to its author, "is the case for a non-skeptical Pyrrho."

If this view is correct, why did the Pyrrhonists take Pyrrho as inspiration and founding figure? Bett found an answer in Pyrrho's legacy. The philosopher himself quickly faded to obscurity after his death in 272 B.C. His philosophy, or something like it, was revived around the first century B.C. by a philosopher named Aenesidemus, who took Pyrrho as the figurehead for a brand of skepticism. As Bett reads him, Aenesidemus's thinking was actually closer to Pyrrho's own beliefs than the later version of Pyrrhonism described by Sextus Empiricus. But unlike Pyrrho, says Bett, "Aenesidemus would not have been willing to assert that reality was indeterminate, but he was willing to rule out various definite characteristics as being part of reality." That is, saying what something was not was permissible.

But to later Pyrrhonists, especially Sextus Empiricus, who wrote On Pyrrhonism in the second/third century A.D., even this sort of negative statement was suspect. Pyrrhonism had evolved to a point at which Aenesidemus, and especially Pyrrho, would not have been regarded as sufficiently skeptical. Bett notes that Sextus rarely mentions Pyrrho. The Pyrrhonists were no longer paying attention to Pyrrho. --DK

Overheard in a class on simple reality

Time and Setting: Wednesday afternoon, course 220.302, "Workshop in Acting and Directing."

Scene: Actor John Astin '52, best known for his role as Gomez in the television series The Addams Family, sits facing the stage of the Merrick Barn theater, as three Hopkins students on stage, without scripts, finish a short scene from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. A dozen classmates watch from the audience.

Astin: [Leans toward stage and looks at the students] Jen, we got a great sense of the character. [She smiles and blushes.] All three of you accomplished a lot, but now go farther with it. Use simple reality--yourself talking to someone else, to break the "acting" pattern. Continue to speak to one another as yourself and not as a character. You will find rhythms developing, new attitudes developing. And they will create validity. [Turns around to class.] Didn't you feel there was something valid in what they were doing? [Laughs.] I dare anyone to say no now that I've said all this!

Actor John Astin, teaching students from the director's chair.
Photo by Louis Rosenstock
[In the front row, a student, with legs stretched across seats, raises his hand.]

Student: I thought you were connecting but I felt like energy was lost in trying to keep cool.

Astin: Exactly! That's true. That's true. But you don't worry about that at first. As they continue to rehearse, energy will develop and come through, but it won't be a phony one. It won't be one forced upon them. [Pauses. Looks at audience.] All right. Who's next?

Postscript: Astin, a visiting professor at Hopkins who taught three sections of acting and directing this semester, planned to perform his one-man play, Edgar Allan Poe, Once Upon a Midnight, as part of the April dedication of the new Student Arts Center at Homewood. Proceeds from the performance will help fund a fellowship in The Writing Seminars, the department that offered Astin's course. --Emily Carlson (MA '01)

Return to April 2001 Table of Contents

  The Johns Hopkins Magazine | The Johns Hopkins University | 3003 North Charles Street |
Suite 100 | Baltimore, Maryland 21218 | Phone 410.516.7645 | Fax 410.516.5251