IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE A BOOK as simultaneously erudite and irreverent as Paul Hazard’s The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680–1715 being written today. (Perhaps such books were never written in English.) French historian Hazard (1878-1944) narrates at fever pitch, in such a careening, ironic tone that the cultural confusions of 300 years ago seem like yesterday’s melodrama. Much of the book is written in a kind of nonfictional free indirect discourse, navigating through the minds of educated Europeans of various stripes as they come to doubt every tradition around them. Here, for instance, Hazard paraphrases the argument of “On the Charlatanry of the Learned” (1715), an essay by the obscure German scholar J. B. Mencken:
Speaking generally, and taking them as a whole, all historians were charlatans, all of them prefaced their works with the undertaking that they were going to give the truth to the world; and that truth … never came!
Yes, thought the wiseacres, there’s something in that. In spite of all the “Histories of France” that we have had, not one of them could be trusted. Nor, in the strict sense of the word, is there a history, a real authentic “History of England,” nor, indeed, of any country at all. Time was when men swallowed blindly anything they were told. But now, they ask questions.
The above should make evident that radical relativism is not a recent invention. Nor is multiculturalism: “Every nation has its own peculiar type of wisdom,” writes Comte de Boulainvilliers in his Life of Mohammed (1731). “Mahomet symbolizes the wisdom of the Arabs. Christ symbolizes the wisdom of the Jews.” Boulainvilliers deemed Islam a more rational religion superior to Christianity. (On the other hand, Boulainvilliers was a haughty aristocrat nostalgic for the feudal system, so we have to be careful in claiming him for postmodern pluralism.)
Despite his stylistic irreverence, Hazard is a careful historian. The Crisis of the European Mind was originally published in 1935; it first appeared in English translation (by J. Lewis May) in 1952 as The European Mind: The Critical Years, and has now, laudably, been reissued by New York Review Books. Hazard states at the outset that “it is not material advantages, but moral and intellectual forces that govern and direct the life of man.” But the path of intellectual history is a twisty mess, and what an idea seems to be to us today can be very different from what its initial audience took it to be. Hazard attempts to capture the confusions and contradictions of European thought as it occurred, rather than from a distance. If it’s sometimes hard to distinguish Hazard’s voice from the voices of those he is channeling, that is probably the point. And if reading the book sometimes feels more like drowning in the clashing currents of history than analyzing them, that was surely also his intent.
Consequently, The Crisis of the European Mind is difficult to summarize, precisely because it is written to elude summary and complicate generalizations, but here are the broad strokes:
First, consider the dates in the subtitle. The years 1680 to 1715 do not easily fit into a well-known cultural period in Europe. We are firmly out of the Renaissance. The Enlightenment is picking up steam, but will not truly bloom until the middle of the 18th century with the publication of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, the political writings of Voltaire and Montesquieu, and the natural philosophy of David Hume. The ongoing Scientific Revolution is reaching a turning point with the twin geniuses of Newton and Leibniz, but the full impact of their work has yet to hit. Names like “the Middle Ages,” “the Renaissance” and “the Enlightenment” are, of course, conventions, and each of these names have been much disputed since the moment they were coined. But since we are incapable of processing raw history without abstracting it into generalizations, the best approach is a middle path, using generalizations speculatively while keeping in mind what they overlook. That is the utility of a book like Hazard’s.
In this transitional period, religion and politics are still hopelessly tangled. The Protestant Reformation has succeeded beyond Luther’s wildest imaginings, yielding fervent Protestants, angry Catholics, and ensuing persecutions and religious wars, culminating in the gruesome Thirty Years War (1618–1648). Religious tolerance is nonetheless slowly growing, led by Holland. The political locus of Europe has moved northward. Spain and Italy are in eclipse, while France is ruled aggressively by the last real absolute monarch, Louis XIV (1638–1715, in power from 1661 onward). A weakened monarchy in Britain leads to the English Civil War (1642–1651) and a brief period of Parliamentary rule before the reestablishment of monarchy in 1660, termed the Restoration. Liberal republican politics have not yet burgeoned, though the philosophy of John Locke (1632–1704) clearly prefigures them.
When it comes to the arts, Hazard argues, the interim period of 1680–1715 is dominated by aesthetic complacency. While England had retreated into light and bawdy Restoration comedy and the foppishness seen in the diaries of Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), France was seeing the end of its greatest period of drama, which had produced Molière, Corneille, and Racine. All three were geniuses who had made their mark in the period from 1650–1680. They complement the great non-dramatic English poets of the time — Milton, Dryden, Marvell, and Rochester — but loom even larger over their culture. So large, in fact, that Hazard sees them as convincing the nation that perfection has been reached. Hence, the well of French poetry is drying up:
Because the writers of the French classical school attained a degree of lofty perfection which so dazzled their obscurer descendants as to make them think there was nothing to be done save copy them; because second-rate writers, taking the line of least resistance, preferred to do over again what their predecessors had succeeded in doing before them; because the mathematical spirit involved the suppression of all non-rigid forms, of all living hues; because the tyrant Reason would not tolerate flowers that were content to be just flowers and nothing more, the power of song withered away and the springs of Helicon ran dry.
Though Hazard makes a similar case for English literature, the matter is less clear-cut there. Nonetheless, Hazard does effectively portray a dominant strain of conservative classicism among the high aesthetic culture throughout Europe: an age of aristocrats resting on their laurels.
Yet all hell is stirring beneath. If there is a single point Hazard wishes to press, it is that the rejections of religion and government that would emerge in the 18th century are already at work. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the French Revolution and its consequences loomed so large as a decisive turning point that the two centuries before it appeared quite homogeneous in comparison. The French Revolution was seen either as an unprecedented shock, or else as the inevitable consequence of every bit of freethinking since the 15th century. Neither attitude was helpful: Hegel’s silly notion of the French Revolution as “absolute freedom” (that’s a bad thing, in case you were wondering) encompasses both at once.
Rather than organize all of European history around the focal point of the Revolution, Hazard posits that a multiplicity of ideas and possibilities were slowly seeping through the collective consciousness of Europe. More and more, people see others unlike them and wonder how to account for the differences. Thought becomes more abstract and reaches for the universal. It attacks parochial ideas, then questions itself. “Admittedly, there is no lack of the raw material of knowledge,” Hazard writes:
What is lacking is any idea of how to handle it methodically. Men search here and enquire there, but without ever getting any definite response. We hunger for knowledge, and depart unsatisfied. And so we arrive at this melancholy conclusion, that the only really wise man is the man who knows that he knows nothing.
The Renaissance had seeded the ground. Rene Descartes (1596–1650) sought a universal, ahistorical foundation for rational thought, but also equipped his successors with the tools to question that very foundation. Copernicus and Galileo had robbed the Church of its authority over the heavens, while Martin Luther had robbed it of its authority over the earth. The scientific inquiry preached by Francis Bacon encouraged people to question, explore, and experiment.
These developments had yielded tumult and contention, but not yet a fundamental skepticism, which for Hazard only begins to emerge in the late 17th century. Protestantism was one thing, but the Bible itself was far bigger game than the Catholic Church. Here is Hazard’s vivid portrait of the Biblical scholarship of the age, led by figures like Richard Simon, and the hidden dangers it posed:
In some dim recess, at the far end of their libraries, poring over their books, cogitating, comparing, and collating, specialists, investigators, experts, auditing the account-books of History, pursue their thankless and seemingly innocuous task. If they like it, and they say they love it, then by all means let them get on with it. Pinpointing a date here, and another one there, totting up the tale of years, how they squabble among themselves! When ordinary folk heard the din of their wrangles, they just laughed. A lot of dryasdusts at their futile games again, they said. But when these learned gentlemen finish their task, or rather their installment of it (for they began it long ago, as far back as the Renaissance, and finish it they never will), they will have sown more seeds of unrest in quiet minds, and done more to undermine faith in history, than all your open scoffers and anti-religious fanatics ever succeeded in doing.
Simon looks downright conservative next to angry firebrands like John Toland, who damned Christianity and embraced deism. And then there is Spinoza, whose brilliant arguments for pantheism, naturalism, and determinism would make him the godfather of much of the philosophy to come.
Hazard takes us on a cosmopolitan and labyrinthine tour through European skepticism. Tradition is no longer a good reason for doing or believing something. The freethinkers become bolder and more sarcastic. “Madmen we are,” the wry essayist and religious critic Bernard de Fontenelle writes in 1686:
but not quite on the pattern of those who are shut up in a madhouse. It does not concern any of them to discover what sort of madness afflicts his neighbor, or the previous occupants of his cell; but it matters very much to us. The human mind is less prone to go astray when it gets to know to what extent, and in how many directions, it is itself liable to err, and we can never devote too much time to the study of our aberrations.
Even as the rationalists become wittier, defenders of religion like Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (vividly painted as frustrated and angry by Hazard) become more prolix and obscure, desperate to preserve religion by enveloping readers in mystery.
Yet the freethinkers do not wish to leave nothing standing, lest they fall into dreaded “pyrrhonism”: the view that nothing can be known for certain. They search for some sort of ideological starting point while questioning the universalism of Descartes and Bacon, trying to reconcile the particulars of experience with scientific process. Ethics, particularly a secular ethics, was a prime concern, in tandem with politics. John Locke, though far less visionary than Spinoza or Leibniz, was able to achieve a popular foothold in which his ideas of the social contract, liberty, and tolerance could take hold. Here is the voice of one of the brightest lights of the period, the unjustly neglected polymath Pierre Bayle:
But if limits are to be assigned to speculative truths, I think there ought to be none in respect of the ordinary practical principles which have to do with morals. What I mean is that we ought always and without exception to refer moral laws to that natural conception of equity which, no less than the metaphysical light, illumines every man that comes into the world.
It is a myth that rational universalism originated in the Enlightenment; in truth, it was a product of the late Renaissance, and was already being questioned (and how!) in the intervallic period Hazard depicts.
I have only touched on a few of the many fascinating stories Hazard tells. In some places Crisis resembles a commonplace book, evoking a wide variety of views without attempting to reconcile them. And rightly so, for, at the time, there was no reconciliation: the conflicts would play out in hugely complex fashion over the next century and beyond. In his final chapter, Hazard argues that the roots of the 19th century Romantic movement were already present in the early 1700s. Even as reason triumphs, many attack and demean it. It has killed poetry and God, and people want them back.
Any synoptic work on the model of Hazard’s will contain omissions and biases, but two are significant enough to note. As with so many histories of the early 20th century, there is little attention paid to women’s lives and writings — the few women’s histories of the time like Alice Clark’s A Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919) went mostly ignored. And while good on religion, Hazard neglects science (and pseudosciences like alchemy) too much, failing to see the import of Newton’s bringing the heavens and the earth under a single law. The seminal chemist Robert Boyle is only mentioned in passing, while the earthshaking microscopic explorations of Robert Hooke and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek go completely ignored. This should be taken as an artifact of the 19th century split between natural science and the humanities, which has only grown since. (The reading list below contains works that better address these subjects, for those who are interested.)
Once the habit of skepticism is learned, it’s not easily sloughed off, and today’s skeptics may ask: why should we care about an outdated Eurocentric book from 80 years ago? This is a legitimate question. Here’s my answer: because, for better and for worse, this is the tradition that birthed today’s American and European culture, one that we still struggle to view with detachment. The blinkered view most of us possess of our intellectual past today is little better than the received ideas of a century ago; Bayle and Fontenelle were far more incisive critics of Western thought than Michel Foucault (and I like Foucault!). Hazard has far more to offer than a narrow and misinformed work like Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, and he is a far better writer to boot. Hazard gives us a picture of a critical point of the past, in its many contradictions, seen from a very different vantage than we possess today. It may not be complete, but it is learned, kaleidoscopic, and very entertaining.
Part II of Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish, The Western Intellectual Tradition (1960) is the single best complement to Hazard’s work that I know, and quite accessible. Here are a handful of other accessible works dealing with the period:
T.C.W. Blanning, The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture (2002)
E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (1924)
Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932)
Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters (1994)
Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment (2001)
John Lough, An Introduction to Seventeenth Century France (1954)
Richard Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (1960, rev. 2003)
Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science (1989)
Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (1983)
David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer. He has contributed to The Nation, n+1, the Times Literary Supplement, Triple Canopy, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He lives in New York and blogs at waggish.org