Study Guide

Carl Becker

Carl Becker Essay - Critical Essays

Becker, Carl

Introduction

Carl Becker 1873-1945

(Full name Carl Lotus Becker) American historian and philosopher.

Becker is known primarily for his ideas concerning the writing of history. He is included prominently among the New or Progressive historians, whose cause he helped further by arguing against the idea of a discernible, objective history. "The past," Becker wrote, "is a kind of screen upon which each generation projects its vision of the future." He maintained that each cultural period possesses a set of examined and unexamined generalizations that are an indication of the greatest aspirations and hopes as well as the weaknesses and fears of the age; this he dubbed the "climate of opinion." Since he considered this climate inescapable, he encouraged historians to recognize their cultural and temporal biases and limitations.

Biographical Information

Becker was born on a farm near Waterloo, Iowa. He was recognized as an exceptional student in high school and in 1892 entered Cornell College, a Methodist school at Mt. Vernon, Iowa. After one year he transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where he studied under Frederick Jackson Turner, historian of the American frontier, and where he earned a bachelor's degree and in 1907 a doctorate. During this time he spent one year at Columbia University on a graduate fellowship. Between 1899 and 1901 Becker taught at several colleges and universities, including the University of Kansas and the University of Minnesota. In 1917 he was invited to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he taught until his retirement in 1941. Becker died in 1945.

Major Works

The first of Becker's works to enjoy wide acclaim was The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922). Becker's next great success and his best known book was The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932), in which he put forth the thesis that the philosophes of the Englightenment, with their mix of secular rationalism and religious faith, more closely resembled thinkers of the Middle Ages than they did those of modern times. In 1935 he published Everyman His Own Historian, his presidential address to the American Historical Association. This work, which amounts to a manifesto in favor of the relativist historical view, is considered seminal to this school of modern historians. Relativist historians reject the idea of an objective, wholly knowable past. Becker was also the author of a well-regarded and very successful high school textbook, Modern History: The Rise of a Democratic, Scientific, and Industrialized Civilization (1931).

Critical Reception

Becker is generally praised for his abilities as a prose stylist, while often arousing controversy over his approach to writing about history. Some critics contend that his interpretations often came at the expense of ignoring all the contributing factors to historical events. As Max Lerner has noted: "He leaves out of account the whole play of economic and political forces out of which ideas grow. He is so concerned with giving us the climate of opinion that he forgets about the soil of opinion." According to Richard Nelson, Becker's irony and keen sense of style led some fellow historians to dismisss him as "a clever stylist without serious content." Although he has been accused of inconsistency and of failing to reach a real definition of history, he has also been praised for continuing to grapple with the difficulties of his position of historical relativism throughout his life. As James L. Penick, Jr. has written, Becker avoided "the sop of self-deception; even when most resigned, he never ceased to speculate."

Principal Works

The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (history) 1909

The Beginnings of the American People (history) 1915

The Eve of the Revolution: A Chronicle of the Breach with England (history) 1918

The United States: An Experiment in Democracy (history) 1920; also published as Our Great Experiment in Democracy: A History of the United States The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (history) 1922

Modern History: The Rise of a Democratic, Scientific, and Industrialized Civilization (textbook) 1931

The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (history) 1932

Everyman His Own Historian (history) 1935

Progress and Power (history) 1936

The Story of Civilization (history) 1938

Modern Democracy (history) 1941

New Liberties for Old (history) 1941

Cornell University: Founders and the Founding (history) 1943

How New Will the Better World Be? (history) 1944

Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life (history) 1945

Criticism

Max Lerner (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "Carl Becker: Historian of the Heavenly City," in Ideas Are Weapons, The Viking Press, 1939, pp. 235-43.

[In the following essay, Lerner praises The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers but states that Becker's central argument in this work is weakened by his decision to ignore the economic and social conditions of the period.]

[The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers] is a book so simple, so light, so clear, that one feels didactic in pointing out that it is really a scholarly study in the history of ideas, and a bit ponderous in assessing it (as it must none the less be assessed) a classic. It is cast unmistakably in an enduring mold. Into it a lavish scholarship has been poured, but with a hand so deft as to conceal everything except the significant. Those who seek the tortuous in thought and the magisterial in style will do well to avoid this book. They will be cruelly duped by its effortless clarity and will conclude that what is so smooth in the reading cannot have been weighty in the writing. For Mr. Becker has attained here that final simplicity by which the idea and the word are but phases of each other and move to a seemingly inevitable rhythm. In this book he reveals more fully even than in his previous writing a maturity and a wisdom that flow lightly from his experience but for which the rest of us must sweat. He has achieved that most difficult of all victories for the scholar—a knowledge of what to omit as well as what to include. Here is no mere emptying of notebooks but the distillation of a mind.

And since it is a distinctive mind, we may be grateful that through it the author has written his world, his generation, himself into this account of the ideas of the eighteenth-century Philosophers. Reading the book one is impressed with the truth of Maitland's remark that the best history is written backward. The author starts with the preoccupations of his contemporary world; in the light of them he has turned the ideas of the Philosophers about in his mind until they have revealed exactly those facets that hold the greatest interest for our own generation. This brilliant, heroic and slightly ridiculous band of Philosophers—Rousseau, Diderot, Hume, Herder, Gibbon, Voltaire, and the others—who have undoubtedly changed the shape of our thinking and therefore of our history, has been written about copiously and in a variety of ways. Be certain that wherever you have seen some glowing and plentifully capitalized account of the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, or the great Humanists, or the growth of Freedom of Thought, or the Increase of Tolerance, or the history of Progress or of Liberty, you have come unavoidably upon their names. And they have been invested therefore with that somewhat unctuous association that comes from always being found on the side of the angels, especially when those angels are nineteenth century and Whig. There was indeed a period in which a slight tang of scandal still attached to them, the scandal of being atheist and revolutionary and mostly French; but that was before the full effects of the libertarian influence of Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill had been completely felt. And there has been a period more recently in which we have stipulated a dissent from their theories of natural law before we could quite accept the rest of their doctrine. But in the main our valuations of the Philosophers—have incorporated and expressed nineteenth-century intellectual experience, and have been curiously unreceptive to the tremendous change that has come upon our thought since the World War.

Mr. Becker is far from being an intellectual Whig, although I have read somewhere else his expression of his political faith as a liberal. This is, I take it, one aspect of the importance of his book on such a subject, aside from the sheer delight of it. The detached, remote, slightly acidulous manner in which he inspects the Philosophers and their entire baggage of ideas—their execration of priests and kings, their attempts to become harmonious with Nature, their theories of progress, their eager glances at Posterity—flows not only from the author's shrewd insight into the springs of human conduct; it is the product of our entire present generation, one which has not only learned to question existing institutions but, whether out of philosophy or out of despair, has become skeptical of the very questioning itself. The author's approach to the eighteenth century is not therefore that of the attack direct. He achieves a more telling effect by raillery than he could have achieved by heavy artillery. Instead of blowing the age to smithereens he stands it gaily on its head. His central thesis, expressed also in his title, is a paradox: the Philosophers, who thought that they were using reason to destroy faith, were really constructing a faith of their own, and found finally that they had reared for themselves a new and gleaming City of God.

It is all a little like the two sides of a man's face that are supposed to reveal contrasting aspects of his character: look at one side and it is reason you see, look at the other and it is faith. This dual visage in the system of the Philosophers the author presents with a skill that is at once our admiration and our despair, so subtly has he worked out the logical—or perhaps we should say the psychological—development of their thought.

They are shown as a group of men intent on setting things right; to do this they find it necessary first to remove the obstacles that have stood in the path of human development; they find those obstacles to be chiefly superstition, ignorance, and authority. Accordingly they deliver a frontal attack on Church and State, on priests and kings; they expose to the merciless scrutiny of their intellect institutions which God and man had taken centuries to build up; they find their most effective weapon in the cold power of reason. But in the process the very coldness of their reasoning becomes an enthusiasm with them, their hatred of priests and kings a demonology, their love of humanity and their projects for its reform a religion. They find in the concept of Nature a satisfying mechanistic explanation of life, which makes unnecessary the old theological explanations; they embrace it eagerly, try to come into harmony with it—only to find that they have replaced an old God with a new one. When they try to follow their naturalistic theories to a logical conclusion, they come squarely up against atheism and immorality; trapped, they have recourse to distinctions, and proceed to separate what is essential and noble in Nature from what is base and degraded. They set out on a magnificent research of history, in quest of the something that is essential to human nature, so that on the basis of it they may reconstruct human society. They find in the past certain intervals of lucidity, especially the quatre dges heureux, but in the main they find only a wasteland dominated by "the triumph of barbarism and religion," for "in a very real sense they never pass the frontiers of the eighteenth century"; they have only projected their own reformist scale of values into the past, and their "new history" has been "philosophy teaching by example." Having thus ransacked the past for Hell, they turn to the future for Heaven. They find that to fight the Christian religion they must construct a picture of human life as dramatic as the Christian story, for "it is true of ideas as of men that they cannot fight unless they occupy the same ground." Accordingly they evolve the concept of social progress, to which they dedicate themselves; and in the process they discover "the uses of posterity," for the martyrdom suffered in the struggle for refashioning society is rewarded by immortal life in the memory of succeeding generations.

This picture of the eighteenth-century mind as the author draws it before our eyes in vivid strokes is, some will fear, perhaps too brilliant to be fair and too part to be sound. The direct question of its authenticity as an analysis would require a far more immediate acquaintance with eighteenth-century writings and the personalities of the Philosophers than most of us would be able to muster. But more important perhaps than the authenticity of the analysis are its implications. And it is these implications that cut completely across the boundaries of academic specialties, and make this as fitting a volume for the Storrs series of lectures at the Yale Law School as any of the...

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George H. Sabine (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: An Introduction to Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life by Carl Lotus Becker. Alfred A. Knopf, 1945, pp. vii-xlii.

[In his introduction to Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life, Sabine notes that Becker consistently questioned democracy, aiming for an "idealism without illusions and a realism without cynicism. '

Carl Becker united in a remarkable way the quality of incisive and critical intelligence with humanity of feeling and action. He had experienced in his own thought all the negative influences of modern scientific and philosophical criticism. He had subjected the intellectual framework of the democracy which he...

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Louis Gottschalk (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Carl Becker, Skeptic or Humanist?," in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, June, 1946, pp. 160-62.

[In the following essay, Gottschalk argues that Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life, Becker's final work, shows his lifelong cynicism to be tempered with optimism.]

In several ways [Carl Becker's final work, Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life] resembles his How New Will the Better World Be? (1944). Indeed, as the author's preface indicates, parts of it are borrowed from the earlier work. The essential difference between them is in the focus of attention. Whereas How New Will the...

(The entire section is 1548 words.)

Charlotte Watkins Smith (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Carl Becker: The Historian as a Literary Craftsman," in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. IX, July, 1952, pp. 291-316.

[In the following essay, Smith shows Becker to have been a writer whose concerns were as much literary as they were historical and philosophical.]

If it be said that politics has nothing to do with literature, or that the form of a document can be appreciated without reference to its content, I do not agree. On the contrary, it is a favorite notion of mine that in literary discourse form and content are but two aspects of the same thing. [Becker, The Declation of Independence]

If...

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Ralph H. Bowen (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "The Heavenly City: A Too-ingenious Paradox," in Carl Becker's Heavenly City Revisited, edited by Raymond 0. Rockwood, Cornell, 1958, pp. 141-55.

[In the following essay, Bowen criticizes The Heavenly City for its assumption that contemporary philosophical fashions establish the final validity of beliefs of an earlier age.]

Carl Becker's book about the eighteenth-century Philosophers is nearly as difficult to write about as it is easy to read. The odds are, in the first place, that any commentary will be less lively and less persuasive than the original. To praise it seems superfluous, considering the large number who are already convinced that it...

(The entire section is 3997 words.)

Leo Gershoy (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "The Heavenly City of Carl Becker," in Carl Becker's Heavenly City Revisited, edited by Raymond 0. Rockwood, Cornell, 1958, pp. 189-207.

[In the following essay, Gershoy provides an overview of The Heavenly City in the context of Becker's earlier and later work, emphasizing Becker's strong belief in democracy.]

Of all of Carl Becker's writings, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, if the number of printings is any criterion, is the most admired. Composed rapidly, between the late fall of 1930 and the spring of 1931, it was easily written because the subject matter of those lectures had been...

(The entire section is 5216 words.)

Peter Gay (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Carl Becker's Heavenly City," in The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment, Alfred A. Knopf, 1964, pp. 188-210.

[In the following essay, Gay concludes that Becker is ultimately unsuccessful in arguing his central points in The Heavenly City.]

Carl Becker's The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers was published more than a quarter of a century ago. Its urbane examination of the philosophes has had great and lasting influence; few recent books on European intellectual history have been as widely read and as generously received. It is that rare thing, a work of scholarship that is also a work of literature—a...

(The entire section is 5335 words.)

James L. Penick, Jr. (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Carl Becker and the Jewel of Consistency," in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1966, pp. 235-46.

[In the following essay, Penick examines ideological inconsistencies and conflicts in Becker's works.]

Ours is a culture which once placed a high premium on the ideal of spiritual unity. Authority was centralized in institutions which measured social value against an objective standard. The offices of magistrate and priest alike were prescribed within a divinely ordered universe. Time has been unkind to this ideal. While unity dissolved into pluralism, certainty came under the hammer of relativity on the anvil of probability. Today magistrate and...

(The entire section is 4701 words.)

Milton M. Klein (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Everyman His Own Historian: Carl Becker as Historiographer," in The History Teacher, Vol. 19, No. 1, November, 1985, pp. 101-9.

[In the following essay, Klein discusses Becker's skepticism with respect to the possibility of arriving at an objective view of historical events.]

Fifty-three years ago, Carl Becker delivered his presidential address, titled "Everyman His Own Historian," at the Minneapolis meeting of the American Historical Association. It received a standing ovation and created shock waves in the historical profession that have not yet subsided. Becker was pleased with the approval he received from his colleagues. W. Stull Holt, then at Johns...

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William H. McNeill (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Carl Becker," in Mythistory and Other Essays, The University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 147-73.

[In the following essay, McNeill presents a personal view of Becker as a teacher and historian.]

Forty-four years have passed since I came here to study history under Carl Becker; and returning to lecture, not to listen, is a little spooky. Memories, filtered and framed by subsequent experience, crowd round; and their vivacity is enhanced by the fact that I chose as my subject three historians who helped to shape my mind and whom I met here at Cornell in three different ways: Becker in the flesh, Toynbee through the first three volumes of A Study in History;...

(The entire section is 7018 words.)

Richard Nelson (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Carl Becker Revisited: Irony and Progress in History," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, April-June, 1987, pp. 307-23.

[In the following essay, Nelson sees Becker's irony as a response to the impossibility of entirely accepting or rejecting the idea of social progress.]

Carl Becker's lifelong commitment to ambiguity has not served to make him an influential figure among contemporary historians. It has, however, made him one of the more controversial figures within the Guild. Some historians commend him for this quality. They find his writing to be intentionally paradoxical, full of contraries and oppositions, overturned cliches and...

(The entire section is 6288 words.)