Eric (Russell) Bentley Sidney Hook - Essay

Sidney Hook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In A Century of Hero-Worship] Mr. Bentley analyzes the theme of historical and aesthetic hero-worship in the works of Carlyle, Nietzsche, Wagner, Shaw, Spengler, Stefan George, and Lawrence. He shows that they left an ambiguous cultural heritage to the world and explains why they could be instructive and inspiring to democrats and why, at the same time, the fascists could exploit them for their own ends. What unites all the heroic vitalists is a repudiation of the ideals of democracy because of the degrading and vulgar democratic practices in existing culture, a refusal to go back to the past in search of an archaic system of values, and a fervent hope for a tomorrow in which new forms of excellence in art and life would be achieved by an élite.

At the end of the book Mr. Bentley offers a positive philosophy of heroic vitalism, seemingly pruned of all reactionary elements, to serve as a leaven for modern democracy and socialism.

Mr. Bentley's treatment of his material is impressive in a number of ways. He does not spare his subjects—indeed, his exposure of their personal failings and his criticism of their irrational doctrines are merciless. None the less, the authenticity of their vision comes through. This is particularly true for Nietzsche, and in lesser measure for Carlyle, one of the most overrated figures of the nineteenth century. Not one of the men discussed appears likable even to a small degree in Mr. Bentley's account. But all are pictured as having captured some significant truth that challenges us to deepen our own ideas about man and history. Second, Mr. Bentley avoids the confusion of substituting sociological explanations of why ideas are accepted for an explanation of why they are generated in the life career of the individual. In a characteristic sentence in his discussion of Wagner he drily observes, "Hitler and Mr. Viereck are wrong if they think ideology or musical taste is the foundation of fascism." The problem of the generation of ideas in philosophy or art is primarily psychological. In approaching it the author reveals a deftness and suggestiveness that make the extreme solutions, the violent posturings, the inconsistencies, and the self-flagellation of the heroic vitalists intelligible to us. Third, Mr. Bentley's judgments, although refreshingly personal, are based upon a wide reading that pays more attention to the substance than to the reputation of scholarship. He would have strengthened his interpretation of Carlyle if he had explored the great influence of Carlyle on the early Engels and Marx—some of Carlyle's language is in the "Manifesto,"—particularly Carlyle's critique of capitalist culture, and their reasons for rejecting his Tory socialism. Finally, Mr. Bentley's style is delightful—clear, vigorous, and unburdened by its rich load of erudition.

And yet Mr. Bentley's book is marred by a moral flaw that goes to its very heart. This is already apparent in his chapter on...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)