The third volume of a trilogy begun with The Discoverers (1985) and The Creators (1992), The Seekers traces the course of Western thought from Ancient Israel and Greece to almost the late twentieth century. Significantly, Daniel J. Boorstin thinks little of what passes for thought today—he prefers the ennobling and elevating efforts of the past, which have built the edifice of Western civilization, to those who wish to deconstruct it.
Boorstin is an unabashed traditional liberal—one who believes that ideas should free humans, not limit their imagination or freedom of expression. He is also willing to flout conventional wisdom: He does not find it necessary to seek out a token woman or give pages to (superior) non-Western intellectual traditions. On the other hand, he is far from a worshiper of the past, glossing over faults and crimes. He notes that Plato’s Republic justified slavery, racism, and national isolation; that tyrants of every era and intellectuals of every persuasion have read in Plato’s pages justification for their supposedly benevolent disdain for the common people. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s tirades against civilization and civilized societies’ rules have encouraged nihilism in every form, have given us a sense of collective guilt that almost paralyzes efforts to stop evil (which his followers occasionally call merely another life style), and have turned American education into a vast, self- indulgent pedagogical experiment.
Boorstin does not dwell on the negative. He devotes half a paragraph to John Calvin’s burning of Michael Servetus at the stake for attacking the doctrine of the Trinity before hurrying on to Calvin’s creating the Reformed Church of Geneva (which became a model for American Protestant churches), his advocacy of an educated laity, and his forthright stand for order and morality. The system of church governance created by Calvin was adopted for secular governance and had profound implications for the future American system of representative democracy.
Thomas Jefferson serves as the personality who bound the Old World together with the New, who expressed America’s potential for freedom in politics, society, and science better than others because his writings express not himself but everyone. The seeking spirit of the Sage of Monticello is reflected in every great American and the American people as a whole. This emphasis is not unexpected in Boorstin, a former librarian of Congress who has written eloquently and at length on the third president of the United States.
Nevertheless, Americans perform but minor roles in Boorstin’s intellectual morality play. William James’s creation of pragmatism rescued truth from metaphysics, but for the rest of the book America’s role is to provide a refuge to endangered thinkers rather than to carry their philosophies forward. In America one does not ponder about a tree’s significance—one looks at the fruit. U.S. religious tradition leads Americans to justify this not through a philosophical system but through biblical citation.
It was the English antipragmatist Sir Thomas More who gave the name “Utopia” to an island of freedom in the west, where society was organized on the basis of tolerance, mutual respect, and everyone working for the common good—a Christian commonwealth, which was to serve a God who delights in diversity. However, More preferred to die under the headman’s ax rather than deny the supremacy of the pope. He died with humor, at least, which is more than some of the other intellectuals in Boorstin’s pages managed to demonstrate in life.
The great exception is Voltaire, whose reputation rests on the enduring popularity of his satires. Boorstin, however, concentrates on Voltaire’s serious publications, such as Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733) and The Age of Louis XIV (1751), which attempted to define civilization by looking at the ways that statecraft could foster civilized values. Civilization, the achievement of all humankind, offered potential for those still languishing in barbarous circumstances. Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia offered a way to spread knowledge throughout the world. The philosophes believed that once knowledge made humans free, political and religious reform would follow. Voltaire’s age of the Enlightenment, alas, ended in the darkness of revolution, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Common Will justifying screaming mobs demanding the blood of good- hearted and rational men such as the Marquis de Condorcet.
With political philosophy seemingly at a dead end following the Terror and Napoleon Bonaparte, hope was centered on a new study, the science of society. Condorcet had foreseen the domination of the demigod Progress replacing outworn theologies and class systems before he, literally, lost his head in the revolutionary fervor. His...