Random Thoughts on the Intellectual History of 20th Century Europe
Out of pure necessity or perhaps through some need to entertain a rather obstinate audience, historians have often made the attempt to periodize history and historical time. That is, historians are quick to label an age based upon one or more characteristics which, to them, seem readily apparent. Don't for a moment get the impression that historians do little more than sit in cramped offices with their papers, books, maps, diplomas, artifacts and computers writing books and articles which deliberately distort human memory of centuries to come. No, there is no conspiracy at work here, my friends. In fact, the willingness of historians to place historical epochs and happenings and individuals into neat little boxes is a hangover from the historical record of the past five centuries. I would also suggest that mankind, at least those members of the species who call themselves historians, have yet to emerge from this hangover . . . a condition which was created well outside the 20th century itself.
Sometime in the year 1492, the Italian Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), sat at his desk in the glorious city of Florence and wrote a letter to his friend, Paul of Middelburg. Here is a short extract from the text of Ficino's letter. Listen carefully to Ficino's words:
If then we are to call any age golden, it is beyond doubt that age which brings forth golden talents in different places. That such is true of this our age few will hardly doubt. For this century, like a golden age, has restored to light the liberal arts, which were almost extinct: grammar, poetry, rhetoric, painting, sculpture, architecture, music and all this in Florence. Achieving what had been honored among the ancients, but almost forgotten since, the age has joined wisdom with eloquence, and prudence with the military art. In you also, my dear Paul, this century appears to have perfected astronomy, and in Florence it has recalled the Platonic teaching from darkness into light. In Germany in our times have been invented the instruments for printing books.
As some of you may have guessed, Ficino had both feet firmly planted in the soil of the Italian RENAISSANCE -- "and all this in Florence." The key phrase is, "For this century, like a golden age." Ficino, in other words, recognized that his own age was unlike the age which had preceded it in historical time. What Ficino has done, in essence, is to say, "Here I am in Florence, the nerve center of this great moment of rebirth. Not only am I different, I am also better than all those who came before me, except of course, those noble Greeks and Romans of the Classical Age." So, what Ficino has done is quite simple. He made a value judgment. That is to say, the period before the Renaissance was qualitatively different. And so Ficino and other humanists called it the media aetis -- the Middle Ages. Middle because it fell between the golden age of the Classical world and the golden age of Renaissance Florence. Later historians with the fresh experience of the Renaissance behind them, would dub the media aetis with another label -- the Dark Ages, a label so inconsistent with the historical record that it has only been quite recently that the label "Dark Ages" has been dropped.
Before we move on, there are a few things of which we should take notice. Few Athenians in the 5th century B.C. would have been found to boast that their age was Classical. Pericles or SOCRATES or Plato or Aristotle or Alexander never would have said something like, "Ah, it's good to live in a classical age." You might have found a few Romans who might have said this several centuries later, but they were always aware that if it weren't for the Greeks, their civilization would not have been what it indeed became. And the early Christians? Can you really imagine St. Paul calling his own age "golden"? Then again, do you think you'd find many people in the tenth century saying things like, "Oh woe is me! We are living in a dark age. We must have some light"? I think not. With the perception of history comes necessary value judgments. Then again, almost 150 years before Ficino wrote his letter to his friend, we find another Florentine scholar who had the intellectual burdens of the 14th century upon his shoulders. His name was Francesco Petrarcha (1304-1374), often called the father of the Italian Renaissance. In one of his sonnets, he wrote:
Petrarch is a key figure in that he respected history. His respect for history is part and parcel of what we would call the "Renaissance frame of mind." He knew, for instance, that he was living in an age which was now different from the past. He also knew that the distant past was somehow more glorious, more filled with light, more golden. "Shameful vision this! We must awake or die."
One more example should suffice to drive the point home. The 18th century which, incidentally, began in 1687, or maybe it was 1714, has been frequently referred to as the Age of Reason or the Age of ENLIGHTENMENT. Modern historians did not invent this label. In fact, it was those powdered wigs of the 18th century Europe: men like John Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine and Jefferson, who determined that lumiere, Aufklarung, illuminati or enlightenment was so widespread that they must have been living in the best of all possible worlds. The truth is that it WAS a good time to live, but only if your name was Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Smith, Paine or Jefferson. Here we go again -- another value judgment.
What all these value judgments have done, and there are more besides those I have mentioned, is distort the historical record. These judgments have taught us, since childhood, that anything called a Renaissance or an Enlightenment must be good. Even the Scientific Revolution falls into similar assumptions. Thinking in terms of boxes and labels is easy in reality, thinking in such a manner is a short-cut to thinking. Why? Because boxes and labels are clean and neat. There is only one problem -- not everything can be easily placed in boxes.
There have only been two periods in human history in which thinkers have decided to "box things up." The first occurred in the 12th century. Medieval Christianity tried to define and describe the world as a matrix, as a grid in which everything you knew, thought, felt, made love to, worked for or died for was placed in a little box on the grid. The grid was held together by the logic of Aristotle and Christianity as interpreted by the likes of popes, bearded philosophers and those roguish monks. Well, to make a long story short, due to the pressures of urbanization, the influx of gold and silver into Europe, heresy, foreign travel, the birth of the middle classes and their handmaiden, capitalism, and a hundred other things, the medieval matrix fell apart. The walls of the boxes became windows, then doors and finally, about three hundred years ago, 1687 to be exact, a man by the name of Isaac Newton destroyed the whole thing only to replace it with a more reasonable and rational model he called natural philosophy which today we call science or technology.
The other period of human history which has made successive attempts to place everything in neat little boxes has been the twentieth century. The general practitioner has been replaced by the specialist. The general, widely-educated historian has been replaced by the historian of late-19th century Flemish female wool-combers. We strive for excellence based on our expertise in a specific field of endeavor. We trust those who share their expertise. Child psychologists from Benjamin Spock to Penelope Leach are trusted. So too was ALBERT EINSTEIN. He MUST have been brilliant, so trust him! Just look him -- image him in your head. He MUST know. This is 20th century stuff. Go to the resources of any university library. Go check out the Internet. How many journals related to history exist? How many journals related to English history exist? How many journals related to 18th century English history exist? How many journals related to the history of agriculture in 18th century England exist? See what I mean? We like the boxes, they make life easier to understand. And even if we do not want to understand it, well, at least we know that there is somebody out there who does. Talk about smug self-assurance! Perhaps we and Ficino are not that far apart.
The point is this: it is impossible to choose an expression for an entire historical epoch and then hope that it defines that epoch. Most historians recognize this but they rarely talk about it. It is one of those dirty little secrets that go along with the profession. It is easy when you deal with some self-contained topic like the Civil War or Watergate or the Kennedy assassination. Those are self-contained objects of study. But, when you choose a larger topic like 20th century Europe, then the problems begin to emerge.
When Newton's Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy hit the presses in 1687, the western world underwent a profound shock whose results and ramifications we live with to this day. The 18th century was most impressed with Newton's explanation of the physical world. When Newton finally died in 1727, at the ripe old age of 85, it was left to Alexander Pope to compose his epitaph. Pope, at this time, was working on a new translation of Homer's Iliad, a task for which he was paid, by the public, a sum exceeding �9000. Pope's couplet was simplicity itself:
You may not think this very important, but I have always been taught that Pope's couplet dramatizes the Newtonian achievement. Think about it: Newton invented the calculus, ISAAC NEWTON coordinated his physics and mathematical calculations to coincide with those of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. Newton was an awful man, he had no friends, he was the nerd's nerd. So what the heck did Pope know about calculus? or optics? or Newton the man? The answer is perhaps quite simple: nothing! I don't understand Newtonian physics either. But what I do know is this, if Newton could use Human Reason to explain the natural world, then it seemed clear to Pope, Voltaire and Smith and other powdered wigs that the same methods used to determine Newton's laws of the universe could be used to explain Man and Society. So, it's no accident that the majority of what are now modern social sciences were founded in the 18th century: geography, anthropology, political science, political economy, sociology, psychology and, of course, history. The 18th century must have been an Age of Light.
Newton's legacy is quite clear: Reason is good, Reason will solve problems, Reason will make your life one of improvement and society is tending toward perfection. Reason, that glorious word, so used and abused by the 18th century powdered wig, became the general palliative, the antidote to all that was superstitious (the Church), all that was full of enthusiasm and fanaticism (the Church) and all that smacked of oppression and tyranny (the Church and the State). Enter 1789. Enter the FRENCH REVOLUTION. The French people, at least some of them, guided by Reason and hunger, decided to form a new government, thanks to the example of 1776, and in a way, to Isaac Newton. So, Rousseau was invoked, so too was the liberalism of John Locke, and Thomas Paine became the champion of the working man in England and France. What did the French end up with? Twenty years of war and an emperor who seemed to be both rational and irrational at one and the same time. In 1796 at the age of 26, and while leading the French revolutionary army in Italy, Napoleon would confide to his diary:
Nice ego! His superior being mentality lasted until his final exile in 1815. NAPOLEON tried and succeeded in overhauling almost every single vestige of the ancien regime, of the old order represented by Louis XVI. He succeeded because he used Reason, tainted of course, with his own brand of egomania.
While all this was going on, the British were having their own brand of revolution: peaceful, bloodless and destined to make Britain the "Workshop of the World" by 1859. The Industrial Revolution was the tangible symbol of Newton's achievement in astronomy. Machines and engines, pulleys and wheels, and the idea that power could be harnessed by man-made devices made the toilsome labor of the past nearly obsolete. Well, almost. The Revolution was built on the principles of natural philosophy, now recognized as science. Science made dreams reality. And suddenly, the captains of industry -- in the case of England, the middle classes -- began to make a lot of money and dreamed up new ways to spend it. Spend it rationally, however. And what of the drones who operated the machinery? Make them work eleven hours a day, six on Saturday. Get their kids into the act as well and force them to live in tenements twelve to a room. Who cared? Nothing ought to stand in the way of profits.
By 1848, a revolutionary year throughout Europe, two exiled Germans by the name of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, discovered scientific laws, based again on the Newtonian paradigm along with a dash of Hegelian philosophy, that determined that industrial capitalism would, by historical necessity, cease to exist. An age of socialism in which workers would own and control the means of production would appear and, incidentally, the middle classes would disappear. Following this would come communism, each according to his ability, each according to his need. How did Marx and Engels arrive at these conclusions? Simple. They were heirs of the Enlightenment. They studied history, especially history. But they also studied political economy, law, religion, in a word, society. They were social scientists. Follow the laws and this WILL happen. How, of course, is something they never really specified and socialists, communists and Marxists ever since, have been trying to figure out the answer to this riddle. Of course, politicians on either side of the Atlantic would have you believe that communism is dead. How wrong they are. What's perhaps dead is Soviet communism.
After all that has been said so far we can make the general conclusion that up to about 1880, or let's say, between 1700 and 1880, the European mind could be characterized by the word REASON. Man is rational, the world is rational, Nature is rational, rational man can understand rational Nature by using REASON. But, between 1880 and 1920, a new world view took shape. It was during this period that philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, physicists and biologists made revolutionary insights into human nature and behavior and the physical world of nature. At the same time, artistsand by artists I mean poets, dramatists, novelists, painters, sculptors, dancers, composers, photographers and film makersopened up new possibilities of artistic expression. In general, the developments in philosophy, science, the social sciences, literature and art produced a profound shift in European consciousness. MODERNISM was born. For example:
The period 1880-1920 is noted for its extraordinary imagination and creativity in the arts and in human thought. Yet this period, a period now 100 years past, also helped to create the notion that Europe was experiencing a distorted, fragmented and troubled period in its history. Freud called it "neuroses," Durkheim called it "anomie," James announced it as that "oceanic feeling," and Nietzsche, the German philologist turned prophet simply remarked that "God is dead." Western civilization, built upon the twin pillars of faith and reason, of Christianity and Science, now faced its greatest challenge. The key point is this: late 19th century intellectuals, thinkers and artists challenged the 18th century powdered wig and his over-reliance on Human Reason. Instead of rationality, the late 19th century thinker stressed irrationality and unreason. Whereas the 18th century philosopher saw Reason as the mainspring of human endeavor and behavior, the late 19th century saw instincts, impulses, drives and the will to power as the motive forces of the individual. It's no wonder that most Europeans welcomed the outbreak of the GREAT WAR in 1914. Here was irrationality and Unreason for all to see. Here was a chance to either (1) re-affirm the life-giving force of Human Reason and Progress or (2) embrace the will to power, after all, to create, you must first destroy.
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Copyright � 2000 Steven Kreis