The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization

The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization

The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization

The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization


This book reflects on Western humanity's efforts to escape from history and its terrors--from the existential condition and natural disasters to the endless succession of wars and other man-made catastrophes. Drawing on historical episodes ranging from antiquity to the recent past, and combining them with literary examples and personal reflections, Teofilo Ruiz explores the embrace of religious experiences, the pursuit of worldly success and pleasures, and the quest for beauty and knowledge as three primary responses to the individual and collective nightmares of history. The result is a profound meditation on how men and women in Western society sought (and still seek) to make meaning of the world and its disturbing history.

In chapters that range widely across Western history and culture, The Terror of History takes up religion, the material world, and the world of art and knowledge. "Religion and the World to Come" examines orthodox and heterodox forms of spirituality, apocalyptic movements, mysticism, supernatural beliefs, and many forms of esotericism, including magic, alchemy, astrology, and witchcraft. "The World of Matter and the Senses" considers material riches, festivals and carnivals, sports, sex, and utopian communities. Finally, "The Lure of Beauty and Knowledge" looks at cultural productions of all sorts, from art to scholarship.

Combining astonishing historical breadth with a personal and accessible narrative style, The Terror of History is a moving testimony to the incredibly diverse ways humans have sought to cope with their frightening history.


In early fall 2005 with throngs of tourists still in oppressive display and warmed by a shimmering Tuscan sun, I meandered through the streets of Florence, seeking, in the Oltrarno piazza di Santo Spirito, some relief from the crowds. Thinking already of this book, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to walk through the city in 1348. Though reliving the past is not always advisable or even desirable, to a present-day visitor 1348 Florence would have been both uncannily familiar and unfamiliar. For one, the smells, noise, and activity of a medieval city, especially one as large as Florence which had around 100,000 inhabitants early that year, would have shaken the modern sensibilities of most Westerners. Yet, the significant landmarks that twentieth-first-century tourists seek so devoutly and in such appalling numbers— the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, the piazza de la Signoria, the Ponte Vecchio, or the Franciscan church of Santa Croce— already dominated the city’s landscape in the mid-fourteenth century. Nothing however would have prepared the modern traveler for the horror that beset Florence and other parts of Europe later that year.

Although we may know—thanks to the works of many historians that provide comprehensive accounts of the Black Death and its impact—far better than Florentines did in 1348 all the social, economic, cultural, and demographic consequences of the plague, we have unwittingly reduced the historicizing of these events to mere scholarship. in doing so, we . . .

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