Monday, April 26, 2010

Back When Things were Simple

In August, 1919 Lytton Strachey, one of the luminaries of the "Bloomsbury Group," published a little essay on Voltaire in the New Republic, which they have now put online:
Between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution, three men were the intellectual masters of Europe—Bernard of Clairvaux, Erasmus, and Voltaire. In Bernard the piety and the superstition of the Middle Ages attained their supreme embodiment; in Erasmus the learning and humanity of the Renaissance. But Erasmus was a tragic figure. The great revolution in the human mind, of which he had been the presiding genius, ended in failure; he lived to see the tide of barbarism rising once more over the world; and it was left to Voltaire to carry off the final victory.
I have never seen a better expression of the hubris of nineteenth-century liberalism, with its easy faith in progress and contempt for everything old and out-of-date, nor of the "Great Man" narrative of history. How astonishing that only a year after the end of World War I, a noted intellectual could write about the "final victory" of learning and reason over barbarism.

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