Alison Gopnik writes about Hume, history, and her midlife crisis for The Atlantic; it’s a long and interesting read, but not really LH material except for this passage, describing Ippolito Desideri‘s experience as a Jesuit missionary in Tibet:
When he finally arrived in Lhasa [in 1716], the king and the lamas welcomed him enthusiastically, and their enthusiasm didn’t wane when he announced that he was a lama himself and intended to convert them all to Catholicism. In that case, the king suggested, it would be a good idea for him to study Buddhism. If he really understood Buddhism and he could still convince the Tibetans that Catholicism was better, then of course they would convert.
Desideri accepted the challenge. He spent the next five years in the Buddhist monasteries tucked away in the mountains around Lhasa. The monasteries were among the largest academic institutions in the world at the time. Desideri embarked on their 12-year-long curriculum in theology and philosophy. He composed a series of Christian tracts in Tibetan verse, which he presented to the king. They were beautifully written on the scrolls used by the great Tibetan libraries, with elegant lettering and carved wooden cases. […] He worked on his Christian tracts and mastered the basic texts of Buddhism. He also translated the work of the great Buddhist philosopher Tsongkhapa into Italian.
It’s hard to imagine how Desideri kept any sense at all of who he was. He spent all his time reading, writing, and thinking about another religion, in another language. (Thupten Jinpa, the current Dalai Lama’s translator, told me that Desideri’s Tibetan manuscripts are even more perceptive than the Italian ones, and are written in particularly beautiful Tibetan, too.)
These world travelers with their endless appetite (and facility) for languages amaze me; to go all the way to Tibet to try to convert people is one thing, but to learn the language well enough to write in “particularly beautiful Tibetan” is quite another. (See my earlier posts The Tatarman of Vámbéry and Sándor Kégl for similarly astonishing travelers.)