Throughout his life Einstein worried about the striking and, to him, suspicious manner in which observed reality conforms to the laws of mathematics. Why, he wondered, should the natural world be amenable to man-made rules? Could it be that we can grasp only that stratum of reality that is measurable by our limited methods? In a similar fashion, time, that most mysterious and intangible phenomenon, can appear to be man’s own invention. Although time does not fit itself with mathematical docility within the divisions we impose on mere duration, nevertheless it is remarkable how epochs that are bounded by arbitrary demarcations—a battle and a peace, a revolution and a restoration, the death of a monarch and the birth of a tyrant—in retrospect take on unique and specific characteristics. Even such categories as decades can seem to dictate abrupt switches of direction: in our own lifetime we look back and wonder how, for instance, the high Sixties could suddenly collapse into the low Seventies, or, peering further back, how so much beastliness could be packed so neatly into the decade of the 1930s.
The period from 1848 to 1914 marked a long turn in the march of history, certainly in Europe. Although the changes that occurred in that time were perhaps not as wide-ranging as those that came about as a result of the collapse of feudalism—in fact, a process that may be said to have reached a conclusion only in 1848, as J.W. Burrow observes—or the start of the Renaissance, still it is undeniable that in the space of those seventy-odd years the Western, Europe-dominated world went through an intellectual and spiritual upheaval that would leave nothing untouched, and virtually everything changed.
The “revaluation of all values” that Nietzsche had so passionately called for in the 1880s did indeed come about, though scarcely in the way its ecstatic proponent would have wished for; although in his wilder moments he glorified war as a creative force, Nietzsche would have been appalled by the catastrophe the world allowed itself to stumble into in 1914. If it was a “crisis of reason” that led to the killing fields of Flanders, it was Apollo, not Dionysus, who had triumphed, as Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp dimly perceived through the cannon smoke below the Magic Mountain: and the god of light, it turned out, was by far the greatest destroyer.
J.W. Burrow is Professor of European Thought at Oxford and a Fellow of Balliol College; his previous books include studies of Victorian social theory and Victorian historians, and a biography of Edward Gibbon. The Crisis of Reason is the second volume in the projected Yale Intellectual History of the West; the first was Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400–1400, by Marcia L. Colish, and further volumes are promised on the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the “Revolutionary Age” of 1750–1860. According to the publisher, the series “seeks to provide a chronological account of intellectual life …
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article: