Know Thyself: Western Identity from Classical Greece to the Renaissance

Ingrid Rossellini. Doubleday, $28.95 (496p) ISBN 978-0-385-54188-6
A scholar of Italian literature and European history tackles an ambitious project: tracing changing ideas about collective versus individual identity from 2000 BCE to the 16th century. According to Rossellini, her work is intended for lay readers, but, unfortunately, the theoretical framework—the shift from communitarian to individualistic thinking, and the implications for civil society—is so loosely constructed that it feels more like a thread lost in an enormous tapestry. Major figures share slivers of Rossellini’s expansive time line in close proximity: two Holy Roman Emperors, Charlemagne and Otto I, and one pope, John XII, share a single paragraph. The book has glimmers of wonder, as when the author conveys the essence (and putrefying flesh) of a fascinating character, a solitary ascetic: “the most extravagant anchorite of all was Simeon Stylites, who lived perched on a 60-foot-high column for 30 uninterrupted years” anchored by a rope that cut into his body. Rossellini’s epic is dazzling, disorienting, and ultimately disappointing—too often a catalogue of names, dates, and places that falls short of her stated aim of promoting a more civic-minded sensibility in a self-centric moment. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/19/2018
Release date: 04/17/2018
Genre: Nonfiction
Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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