By GAIL FINEBERG
The two recipients of the 2008 Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity have devoted their lives of scholarship to learning multiple ancient and modern languages, using a wide range of resources and asking new questions to help them understand the multiplicity and rich diversity of cultures and societies that existed hundreds or thousands of years ago in the Middle East, Europe and the Indian subcontinent.
They are Peter Robert Lamont Brown, 73, and Romila Thapar, 77, who are sharing equally the $1 million prize that was awarded at a celebratory event at the Library on Dec. 10.
John W. Kluge, whose 95th birthday was celebrated at the Library in December, endowed the international prize at the Library, which in the past year sent 3,000 letters and e-mails requesting nominations and engaged the world’s top scholars as well as Library staff members in the review-and-selection process.
Brown is an acclaimed historian whose interdisciplinary and multilingual approach has led to new understandings of the Middle East and Europe between 100 and 1000 A.D.
Thapar is a preeminent scholar of the early history of India whose rigorous studies have challenged old ideas and brought to life the richness and diversity of the subcontinent.
Introducing the scholars to the press and the public during a conference call on Dec. 3, the day the prizes were announced, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said: “They were chosen individually, and yet … they have many things in common. First of all, they have used practically every known discipline in the humanities and social sciences to create integrated history over vast periods of time and wide expanses of space. They have used multiple languages, multiple sources, and indeed they have covered parts of the world that are important today, but whose early origins we have never understood quite as fully until they themselves took up the pen and gave a lifetime of writing, reflection and continuous growth, both in the quality and range of what they have written and also in the audiences they have reached.”
Both scholars have had an impact in the way the past is viewed. “Each has helped change our previous notions and expand our knowledge of millennia of history of two great civilizations of increasing importance in the world today,” said Billington.
As the result of Brown’s work, the Librarian said, “We will never again look simply at the first millennium as the period when Rome was declining, the medieval period was beginning and Christianity was beginning in the West, going from Roman classicism to the Dark Ages à la Gibbon and various variants of that theme. It is now seen as unitary, far more interesting, far more diverse, and in many ways a far more important way of looking at the face of western civilization and its interrelationship with the East and the Mediterranean world.”
As for Thapar’s work, Billington said, “The whole history and evolution of India and neighboring Afghanistan and the whole subcontinent is given an extraordinarily microscopic and at the same time broad perspective by the application of modern social-scientific standards and questions without imposing methodology or ideology, which to some extent had been done by early historians of the colonial period and some of the more recent extreme nationalist perspectives that are thrust back into the past.”
Both Brown and Thapar said they were greatly honored by the award, which they saw not only as acknowledgement for their lifetime achievements but also recognition of their generation of scholars that probes the past by using modern tools and asking new questions.
“This has been a remarkable generation in the humanities, precisely because of the feeling that we have the tools to understand the traditions from which we and other regions come,” Brown said. “We are in an age which questions traditions, and I feel myself particularly privileged to have grown up among other scholars in so many other disciplines who have strained every nerve intellectually to take a new look at things which we had taken for granted—a new look at the so-called decline of the Roman Empire, a new look what Christianity was like in its early centuries, a new look at what the Islamic world was like in its early centuries, and always, always finding that a new look is a fresh look.
“The old saying that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ is a guiding star, I think, in the way in which humanities are pursued at the moment,” Brown said. “To be awarded is a great personal blessing to me, but what reassures me is that it is an award to the intellectual strivings all over the world of scholars in the humanities to understand the world from which they have come so they can face the world in which they now find themselves.”
Thapar said, “I must say that I really couldn’t believe it when I was told that this honor was coming my way, this extraordinary honor, and I had a certain sense of humility that the work I had been doing all my life had been so rigorously evaluated and that it had gained acceptance.”
She said she agrees with Brown’s assessment that the award recognizes a whole generation of scholarship. “This is very much the case in Indian scholarship where my generation of scholars has moved away from conventional questions and conventional interpretations and has asked a different set of questions. Sometimes even the asking of the questions has been resented by certain groups of people, but, nevertheless, we persist in asking these questions because we believe that it is possible now to explore knowledge in all kinds of new ways. The range of sources, for example, has become enormous, and the whole interdisciplinary approach of using a variety of sources to explain historical problems even of the remote periods, sources from technology to demography to economics to sociology to religious beliefs and practices, everything, virtually, in an effort to try and reconstruct a society of the past, which, ultimately, will make us understand how our ancestors lived, thought and acted.”
The Librarian asked the Kluge Prize winners, “How do you see what you’ve been doing as helping people understand the two great regions of the world in which there have been recent tragedies, recently in India but almost continually in the Middle East?”
Brown responded that “many of the of the things which we see, certainly in the region of what we are talking about, the Middle East, is a massive simplification of society, a simplification of the history of these societies, a simplification in the way in which they themselves have chosen to present themselves, a brutal simplification often in the way in which these societies are themselves perceived.
“What I think a historian can do is remind people that these were rich and diverse regions. They had not been ground down by brutal binary oppositions,” Brown said. “To understand this, one has to work hard. One must learn not only living languages—Farsi, Persian and Arabic—but also languages of the past from which these civilizations grew—Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, classical Armenian.
“There is a whole laundry list of skills whose purpose is to get back to what one might call a more ecologically diverse Middle East, and we don’t go back simply as a nostalgic trip but we go back in the face of that vast diversity, that diverse ecology—Christian communities living beside Jewish and Muslim communities, an exchange of ideas which draws on Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought, where learned men used Syriac as well as Arabic and Greek,” he said. “To recapture this is a hope of an analogous diversity reestablishing itself after tragic simplifications of what is comparatively recent time, indeed in terms of the millennial history of the Middle East, a mere nanosecond of time.”
What needs to be understood in the study of early India, Thapar said, “is what is meant by the interface of multiple cultures because that is what we are dealing with in the ancient world. There are cultures which are extremely closely intertwined, and I personally have this problem with this notion of separate, isolated civilizations, which I find unacceptable because I think the whole essence of what we call civilization is that it is interactive, that different cultures are interacting with each other.
“It’s not just a question of cultures existing neutrally, separately, coexisting, each living separately in its own ghetto. Nor does the solution lie in cultures living separately in terms of communities and societies because that really only breeds hierarchies, and arrogance and so on. There have to be multiple dialogues between these cultures, and in a sense the sources that we consult are the sources that are telling us about the nature of that dialogue, which is extremely important: What sort of various systems within which they worked, whether they were political, economical, or cultural, and how did they speak to each other, and how did these systems change, not in isolation, but in conjunction with, in reaction to, in juxtaposition to other cultures and other systems that were then prevalent,” she said.
“We have to keep in mind, of course, the fact that in a sense those were smaller societies, the populations were smaller, and the other thing that I think is important is that there wasn’t this sense of singularity and self-centeredness,” she continued. “These were societies that realized that they were a part of, a fragment of, a much larger whole. And I think that one of the things we have to get back to is the feeling that we are in fact a fragment, a part of a larger whole, and it is not just the I of the society that matters; it is the we that matters much more.”
The Scholars and Their Work
Ranked by his peers as among “the greatest historians of the last three centuries,” Brown is a Princeton University professor of history now on sabbatical while working on a book about wealth and poverty in the later Roman Empire. His books have captivated thousands of readers, and his lectures and seminars have inspired students and younger scholars around the world. A Princeton historian described him as “a scholarly Prospero whose magic consists in equal parts of learning and eloquence.”
Brown launched his 40-year career with a biography, “Augustine of Hippo” (1967), in which he sought to understand the experiences and sensibilities that characterized the various phases of Augustine’s life. Among his landmark works are “The World of Late Antiquity” (1971), “The Rise of Western Christendom” (1996), “Cult of the Saints” (1981) and “The Body and Society” (1988).
Emeritus professor in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Thapar has been described as “the preeminent interpreter of ancient Indian history today.” One scholarly reviewer said: “Thapar’s relentless striving for historical truth—independent of the superimposition of vacillating, fashionable theories of current sociopolitical conditions—is a landmark in the global writing of history.”
At the beginning of her career, she challenged the conventional historiography. Her “History of India” (1966), which broke from the prominently held view of an unchanging India characterized by a past and static golden age, became a teaching text in Indian schools. She revised and increased the size and scope of the text in 2002.
She found new information in ancient texts—Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and Jain—and in Old Tamil traditions and folklore, which she integrates with findings from archaeology, numismatics, linguistics and inscriptions.
Holder of the Library’s Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South in 2003, Thapar was in a preliminary stage of investigating historical traditions of early India and was interested in early works that had already been published. “I found the range of material available very impressive. Many early out-of-print books, which I didn’t think would find their way there, did turn up … and it was very useful indeed to have it all together in one place,” she said.
“I found the staff to be extremely helpful,” she said. “It really was an absolute luxury to be sitting in a room and ordering material through a computer and the material would arrive the same afternoon, or at most, the next morning; it really was quite remarkable and a great help, indeed, to research.”
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.