Tom Cahill's "Heretics and Heroes" book examines how the past shaped the present


Both periods got their start from the rediscovery of the classical world, but they went in completely different directions. That tension is wittily illustrated in the culture clash between the German and Latin worldviews.

Martin Luther left Germany only once in his life, Cahill says. “He went to Rome as a monk and he was horrified by what he saw. There were men kissing in the street and he’d never seen anything like that before.

“The truth of the matter is that even to this day you can go into a public restroom in Germany and have a picnic on the floor. You can’t do that in Catholic Europe.”

There’s an enduring philosophical and spiritual dimension to the clash that fascinates Cahill.

“Recently the German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, ‘I am so happy that I was born in the northern temperate climate and never had to take a siesta.’ That’s nice for Angela, but that means she’s missed out on a lot of pleasure, and not just sleeping.”

There is an assumption of superiority at work too, Cahill says. “The Germans have never gotten over the fact that the Romans called them barbarians. When they first appeared on the scene they could not read or write, they’re hunter-gatherers, they looked with great envy at the farms and vineyards of the Romans. They were on the wrong side of the Alps. I don’t think they ever got over how they were characterized in Latin literature.”

But the more complex societies become, the more Cahill says he looks for something relatively simple.

“I have come to believe there are really only two forces in the world, kindness and cruelty. A civilization can go either way and no one is above the possibility of cruelty, nor is kindness impossible to anyone,” Cahill offers.

“What people will do in a particular situation is very hard to know in advance. In the aftermath of the Reformation, Catholics decide to kill as many Protestants as possible and Protestants decide to kill as many Catholics as possible. It finally stopped everywhere except Ireland.”

In the Enlightenment people dared to ask themselves, 'Are we really going to have to keep on doing this? Isn’t there some other way?'

The solution turns out to be tolerance. I may not like what you have to say but I’m going to let you live. To us it seems so obvious but to them it was revolutionary.

Cahill had an unforgettable lesson in how the forces of history work in his own office when he became acquainted with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was working as an editor at Doubleday at the time.

“We were colleagues. I was the director of Religious Publishing and she was an editor there, a very good one. We had offices next to one another and we ended up conferring a lot. I liked and admired her tremendously,” Cahill recalls.

For a historian it must have been especially fascinating to come within Kennedy’s orbit.

“Many people were afraid of her because she was the most famous woman in the world. Most people couldn’t speak to her normally, which meant that she was very lonely, even with her colleagues. That was not what she wanted.”

In conversation Cahill always found her to be what he called a blasted human being.

“Her husband’s head was shot to pieces and was in her lap. I don’t think you recover from things like that,” Cahill feels.

“She was in her early thirties when that happened. I believe it’s why she died young. She had been battered by history.”

As for his immensely readable new book, Cahill puts it this way: “Most of the heretics are heroes and most of the heroes are heretics.”

Living with that contradiction is a traditional Irish skill.

Heroes and Heretics, Doubleday $29.95.