Imperfect Garden is an unusual book to be published in the early twenty-first century. In a period of deconstruction, new historicism, and poststructuralism, the book is a very old- fashioned history-of-ideas analysis that looks back to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment for a guide to the principles people should live by today. The subtitle of the book does not call into question the “legacy of humanism” but celebrates it as the only coherent philosophy that Western society has. Tzvetan Todorov’s primary sources for humanism are all French thinkers of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. This gives the book a clear focus but an obvious limitation.
Todorov defines humanism primarily from the works of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), although he qualifies and sharpens that definition by discussing Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (1767-1830), René Descartes (1596-1650), and a number of other thinkers. Humanism, for Todorov, is the “doctrines according to which man is the point of departure. . . . The specificity of human affairs (in contrast to those that relate to God) is therefore the point of departure for humanist doctrine . . . .” Todorov, referring to the tale of Satan offering Christ all the treasures of the world if he will worship him, compares humanism to Satan’s offer to make humanity autonomous and free; however, for this gift, Satan demands that a price be paid.
The primary method for analyzing humanism is to compare and, especially, contrast it to related families of thought: conservatism, scientism, and individualism. Todorov sees an interplay of these families along with humanism rather than a clear division between them. Often he will acknowledge that some of the thinkers he discusses represent both humanist and one or more of the other families. For example, Rousseau is often seen as both a humanist and an individualist. The conservatives feel that the price for human freedom is too great and wish, therefore, to reject the initial declaration of freedom and return to tradition and the necessity of having a deity. Todorov uses Louis-Gabriel-Ambroise de Bonald (1754-1840) as an example of this position. Bonald desired to turn back the results of the French Revolution because the price for the freedom it created—the rejection of tradition and religion—was too great. The scientists focus on collective sharing rather than individual freedom, since their goal is to discover the essential laws of the universe. Todorov cites biologist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), political philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) as examples of this view. In direct contrast, the individualists believe that each human being is completely self-sufficient. Individuals do not need tradition, religion, or even society; their will is supreme. An example of this new perspective would be the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), according to Todorov.
The “declaration of autonomy” that modern man made in the Renaissance is first seen in Montaigne. He emphasizes people’s choice in their personal lives. The mind, above all, must be free to seek and find and not be restricted. However, Montaigne does recognize and submit to the necessity of law and acknowledges the power of custom. He maintains the perspective of autonomy by claiming that people make this submission knowingly, through reason, rather than unthinkingly.
This autonomy is extended by Descartes and Rousseau. Descartes stresses the freedom of the mind and sees knowledge as coming not from tradition or authority but from reason. He also sees limitations in this choice and autonomy, seeing freedom as “compatible with divine omnipotence.” Rousseau also stresses the “autonomy of reason,” although, like his predecessors, he feels that it is necessary to “remain subject to the prevailing laws.” However, he qualifies that view and extends the humanist autonomy by demanding that the laws and political system must be freely chosen by the people and not merely imposed. Constant de Rebecque is a very different thinker. From his position after the French Revolution he was very aware of the social breakdown that accompanied the Terror. In this case, human autonomy led to evil rather than good. Constant de Rebecque warned of allowing such abuses, advocating an awareness of the potential problems of abuse of power.
“Living Alone” is one of the more interesting chapters in the book. Todorov...
(The entire section is 1823 words.)