Friday, June 22, 2012

Biography as Philosophy

When Einhard decided to write a biography about his personal friend and employer, Karl the Great, he did so in a reflective and self-conscious manner. The introduction he wrote to the book is more a document about the philosophy of history than about Karl.

A linguistic aside: you probably know Karl the Great as 'Charlemagne' and Einhard's name was originally spelled 'Eginhard' - corruptions resulting from history being rewritten in French, English, Latin, and various Germanic dialects. Karl's native tongue was Frankish, a southeastern Germanic dialect. Although the political leaders of the era all spoke Frankish, most royal records were written in Latin.

Einhard begins his biography - written sometime after Karl's death in the year 814 A.D., and before Einhard's death in 840 A.D.; scholars date the probable writing to somewhere between 817 and 836. Einhard, a theologian and philosopher, begins the introduction to his book with subtle ironic self-contradictions:

I have undertaken to report as briefly as possible about the private and public life, and above all also about the actions, of my master and benefactor, the felicitous and very famous King Karl. In this I took care to leave out nothing that I could discover, and not to scare away by means of lengthiness such readers who have something to criticize about everything modern - i.e, if it is possible at all to satisfy them with a new work, when they really dismiss even the masterpieces of the most learned and ingenious authors.

Einhard hints at paradox by packing together opposites: "private/public" and "briefly/leave out nothing" - the irony of the latter pair is compounded by his concern to avoid wordiness! Although irony and paradox are hallmarks of great authors from ancient times, Einhard understands himself to be modern, making ironic his appeals to classical authors like Cicero.

Indeed, I know exactly that there are learned men who consider current circumstances not so unimportant, that they believe that everything contemporary would earn contempt and should be omitted silently without any attention; they want rather, in their enthusiasm for things past, to describe somehow the famous deeds of others, and hope thereby to avoid that their own name be forgotten by posterity because of authorial inactivity.

In this confusing maze of double negatives and clauses, Einhard makes his plain meaning rather unclear. Perhaps he has done this to mock those who sense of self-importance is derived from their prose styles; perhaps he does this to hint at the ambiguity - another hallmark of great writers, ancient and modern - of the narrative which he is introducing. Yet his the narrative which he is allegedly introducing is barely mentioned in the selfsame introduction, yet another irony.

Nonetheless, all these causes hinder me in no way from beginning with my work, because I am certain that nobody aside from me can depict more exactly the events, which have, so to speak, befallen before my eyes, and to whose veracity I can attest.

Suddenly, Einhard's prose becomes rather clear. When attention is turned away from meta-level considerations of how one does history, or how one does the philosophy of history, and when attention is turned toward the activity of simply making a first-person report, Einhard's language becomes much more direct. Although engaged in a Lockean empirical project - reporting what he has seen - Einhard does so with Cartesian rational certainty. Yet, despite this sudden clarity, we have not yet gotten to the point: Karl's name has been mentioned only once, and then without any concrete content; Karl's name will not appear again for several more lines. Einhard is making it clear to the reader that he is first engaging in the philosophy of history, before to begins to deliver the material substance of history.