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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