Modern European Thought

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Perhaps nothing is more essential to self-awareness than history, for in history we might expect to find the manifold potentialities of our human existence, the experiments in living that become the traditions upon which our lives are built, the standards by which to judge ourselves in the present and free ourselves from unconscious slavery to the past. In history we find the connections between ideas and experience, and when we view it as a whole, we are confronted, through all its diversity, with a mysterious underlying unity. Our lives become richer when past and present illumine each other.

Franklin L. Baumer, who has written several other books on the history of ideas in the West, seems to be inspired by his own faith in the necessity of determining the essential development of ideas and interpreting the meaning of the essential movements that the development of ideas contains. Thus for him the history of ideas or the intellectual history of mankind is determined not only through the causal connections that can be determined in the succession of cultural lifestyles and ways of thinking, but also in the interpretation of ideas as to their validity and truth. For him the history of ideas mediates a level of meaning in the area between history and philosophy.

This spirit regarding the function and value of an intellectual history is immediately given in the author’s intent to use this historical survey to determine, as far as possible, something essential about the nature of modern man. Who is he? How did he come into being? What has he discovered? What possibly has he lost? These are the questions that an intellectual history of the transitional stages from the seventeenth to the twentieth century help to understand. The basic answer to these questions is one that has been recognized by many other writers in our time, namely, that modern man is defined in relation to the dramatic movement from a static, absolutist viewpoint to one that is highly dynamic, man-centered, and painfully conscious of change and relativity—or, in the author’s words, a transition from the focal point of being to that of becoming.

The author would object to the use of the word survey to describe Modern European Thought, because the book is much more than a cataloging of ideas traditionally associated with the various movements from the seventeenth century to the present. Rather, he attempts to identify certain basic themes recurring in each period, which include man’s attitude toward God, nature, man, society, and history. This approach does cut through the superficiality of the survey method, but its success hinges, nonetheless, on the author’s choice of important ideas as well as their eventual interpretation, and it is here especially that the reader might challenge the author’s viewpoint.

Baumer, for example, not incorrectly sees a kind of basic tension and conflict leading toward essential change beginning with the gradual change in the world view brought on by the experience of modern science and the corresponding basic changes in attitude, both toward nature and God. There is ample evidence for the author’s view that modern Europe arose hand in hand with modern natural science and the rejection of authority that eventually came with it. Yet one must not ignore other modern writers, such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, who project the emergence of the modern situation all the way back to Greek philosophy and the Judeo-Christian tradition. The interpretation one ultimately will give of the events of the past four centuries depends on whether one traces modern developments back through the entire course of Western culture, or sees them as arising from the historically recent predominance of science in Western affairs.

The essential difference between these two approaches might be described as the difference between two forms of rationalism, the medieval form and the modern scientific form. In both cases man is relatively unaware of himself in the existential sense, not so much because he has moved from the perspective of being to the perspective of becoming, as the author suggests, but rather because he has not moved from the basically rationalistic perspective that has...

(The entire section is 1731 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Christian Century. XCIV, November 30, 1977, p. 1121.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, August 15, 1977, p. 88.

Library Journal. CII, October 15, 1977, p. 2165.