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 and the development of ideas in Western Europe from the early medieval period to the present day.” Although this may be a decidedly European conception of what is “the West,” and one at which American historians will likely balk, Professor Burrow’s book is so sweeping in conception, so persuasive in execution, and, simply, so well written that any quibbles with his (American) publishers’ seeming Eurocentrism quickly fall away.

Burrow’s superb study of a profoundly significant and formative period is a model of its kind. He makes “no attempt at the comprehensiveness of a textbook or a work of reference,” aiming instead for “a balanced impressionism.” He seems to have read practically everything that was written between 1848 and 1914, and much that was written outside those dates, not only the works of the great thinkers, historians, novelists, and poets, but of very many figures who, though forgotten now, were highly influential in their time; in the composition of his book, he observes, “intellectual dead-ends which made a stir in the world have counted for more with me than portentous moments which were then not recognized as such.” This follows closely his aim, stated at the opening of the preface,

to place the reader in the position of an informed eavesdropper on the intellectual conversations of the past. The book’s obligation, that is, is not so much to what we now think important in the period as to what was then found important, among educated but not narrowly specialized readerships with a taste or even craving for ideas [the same kind of readership, incidentally, at which Burrow’s book itself is aimed].

He issues a frank caveat against too ready an assumption of overall coherence, an expectation of which might be fostered by the use of the word “period,” a term that he recommends we think of, with Einsteinian suspicion, “as thematically overlapping circles in which are generated and invested contemporary intellectual excitement, aspirations, hopes, bitterness and dread.” He is candid too in mentioning the “neglected names which tug at my conscience,” including among others Strindberg, Karl Lamprecht, Lenin, Kropotkin, Benedetto Croce, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.


The book has no grand argument to promote, no supposedly unifying theme, the pursuit of which can often lead even the finest historians to seek to tune events to a pitch far beyond their true range. Burrow maintains a laudable humility in the face of his material. Because his is an intellectual history of the period, there is not the usual panoply of dates, battles, treaties, significant births, and even more significant deaths. His narrative therefore achieves the impressionistic fluidity that is his declared aim, without ever rambling or absent-mindedly digressing. The prologue, “1848–49: The Disillusionment of the Intellectuals,” considers not so much the revolutions that swept Europe through 1848 to late spring of the following year as their universal failure and bitter aftermath, which had such a significant effect on figures as disparate as Flaubert and Marx, George Sand and Feuerbach, Wagner and Mikhail Bakunin.

Both Wagner and Bakunin took part in the short-lived Dresden revolution of May 1849, and it is they whom the prologue takes as exemplary figures in the Europe-wide “revolution of the intellectuals.” Wagner was still an obscure second Kapellmeister at the city’s opera house, while the anarchist Bakunin was there as a refugee, “and not,” Professor Burrow wryly observes, “as was already his custom, looking for a revolution to participate in.” One tries, somewhat bemusedly, to picture these “titanic, towering figures”—metaphorically in Wagner’s case, literally so in the bearish Bakunin’s—standing shoulder to shoulder on the barricades as the King of Saxony’s troops advanced toward them through the rubble-strewn streets. Should the reader’s imagination become overheated, however, Burrow offers a cooling observation: “One of the remarkable features of [Bakunin’s] admittedly brief acquaintance with Wagner is that neither seems to have borrowed money from the other.”

The times were such as to throw together in operatic circumstances the future musical visionary, anti-Semite, and German “great man” whom Nietzsche would later excoriate and the shambling, curiously childlike, wholly ferocious messiah of anarchism:

They were drawn into the Dresden revolution by the common intellectual enthusiasms, hopes and illusions of their generation (Wagner in 1849 was thirty-six, Bakunin thirty-five). It is impossible properly to understand the paths they and others subsequently took without some understanding of those hopes and enthusiasms and their transmutation under the pressure of disappointment and disillusion.

As Professor Burrow amply illustrates, the most powerful aftereffect of the fruitless upheavals of 1848 was the disillusionment that was fostered among intellectuals on the European mainland. The hopeless aping of 1789 by the revolutionists of 1849 was a recurring theme among the embittered thinkers whose hopes of real change had been so ignominiously dashed. Burrow quotes Alexander Herzen’s withering comments on the “revolutionary imitativeness” of the Germans: “I knew two or three Robespierres personally; they always wore clean shirts, washed their hands and cleaned their nails.” Tocqueville “had the feeling that we had staged a play about the French Revolution rather than that we were continuing it,” while the Goncourt brothers in their journal noted that “coups d’état would go off so much better if there were seats, boxes and stalls, so that one could see what was happening and not miss anything.”

In a scene that might have come straight out of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Burrow describes Charles Baudelaire and his friend the painter Gustave Courbet standing jadedly at the corner of the Place de la Concorde during a riot (what a wonderfully named spot for a riot) and reacting, according to a friend, with what Burrow calls “the almost obligatory theatrical metaphor”: “The opening act of the drama he had found most interesting, though he felt dissatisfied with the conclusion, reckoning that the curtain had fallen too soon.” (Still, they need not have been too harsh in comparing themselves with the great names of 1789. In The Ruin of Kasch, Roberto Calasso describes a moment of rich absurdist comedy at the vast secular Feast of the Federation on the Champ de Mars on July 14, 1790—“the shrill idyll that inaugurated the age of mass politics,” Calasso calls it—held to celebrate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Talleyrand, cynic and supreme survivor, dressed in his bishop’s robes and limping behind three hundred priests and acolytes, passes by Lafayette dismounting from his horse and murmurs, Please don’t make me laugh…1)

After the debacle of 1848, how could a disappointed intelligentsia any longer hold to Hegel’s assertion that the real is rational and the rational real, which for a generation had been the battle cry on both the left and the right? Where, as the dynastic and other conservative regimes of Europe reestablished their control, was the inner, synthesizing logic of history? The grandiose drama of historical inevitability had been played over again, not as tragedy this time, Marx noted, but as farce. In the early pages of his book, Professor Burrow calls before us a gallery of often unfamiliar witnesses to the disenchantment of the age. Matthew Arnold we would have expected, even Froude—his novel The Nemesis of Faith was publicly burned in his college hall by the senior tutor. But who would have thought to find in the now unread poetry of Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–1861), ex-Oxonian and disaffected young-man-about-Europe, evidence of the mingled sense of emancipation and deep loss that resulted from the crisis of belief in Christianity fomented by excited readings of works such as Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity and David Strauss’s Life of Jesus? Clough was in Paris after les événements of February 1848, where he witnessed a grand revolutionary fête, “complete with girls in classical costumes with oak wreaths in their hair,” and, like Talleyrand, was tempted to laugh, although more gently: “It was funny,” he wrote, “in the afternoon to see the classical virgins walking about with their papas and mamas.”


One should beware making too much of the failures of 1848—Professor Burrow keeps them in fair perspective—yet it is hard not to see in the repeated blows delivered to the twin pillars of Church and State in the second half of the nineteenth century the frustrated reactions of men and women who had passed through a revolutionary moment only to find themselves back in the old static situation. Burrow says of French intellectuals of the time, though something of the same applied to thinkers right across the continent, that “the Restoration, the closing of the Revolutionary and Napo- leonic era, drew a line across their lives and across the cultural life of Europe.” For the intellectuals, then, the turn toward science was surely inevitable. Burrow cites Turgenev as the chief chronicler of this process, especially in his novel Fathers and Sons (1865), “with its classic portrait of the Nihilist as the new man, the young doctor Bazarov, who scorns idealism and polite etiquette,” and for whom “modernity used to be Hegelian and now…is Nihilist….” The new mentors, Burrow remarks, “are not poets and philosophers but chemists and physiologists.”

He could have added biologists, and archaeologists, and social theorists. It may be hard to think of such thinkers as Darwin, T.H. Huxley, and Herbert Spencer as fiery-eyed revolutionists, but their work threw down a challenge to the old pieties far more formidable and long-lasting than all the barricades of 1848 put together. “It was,” Burrow writes, “the promise of a wholly unified, scientific account of all existence that underlay some of the most aggressively confident ‘materialist’ pronouncements of the 1850s and 1860s, scandalizing to some, exhilarating to others.” England in particular, that most unrevolutionary of countries, produced some of the greatest thinkers of the period. Darwin we all know, but Burrow reminds us of another Englishman whose influence was significant in his own time but who by now is almost forgotten. John Tyndall’s 1868 lecture “Scientific Materialism,” became notorious because of its title. In his “Belfast Address” of 1874, he argues that we must reject the notion of an originary creative act, or else change our conceptions of matter.

Believing, as I do, in the continuity of nature I cannot stop abruptly where our microscopes cease to be of use. Here the vision of the mind authoritatively supplements the vision of the eye. By a necessity engendered and justified by science I cross the boundary of the experimental evidence, and discern in that Matter which we, in our ignorance of our latent powers, and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, here hitherto covered with opprobrium, the promise and potency of all terrestrial life.2

This is a fine example of the materialist argument being carried straight into the heart of the creationist camp. It was Tyndall, too, who “gave vivid expression to the notion of consciousness as the last frontier,” after, of course, the ongoing search for the origin of life itself. In “Musings on the Matterhorn” (1868) he broods on the formation of the mountain, and “that nebulous haze which philosophers have regarded…as the proximate source of all material things.” Burrow writes:

The potential Matterhorn, the materials of which it is composed, had unquestionably been already contained in it. But there was a further question: “did that formless fog contain potentially the sadness with which I regarded the Matterhorn? Did the thought which now ran back to it simply return to its final home?” Were consciousness and emotion continuous with the physical world or extraneous to it?

This and questions like it posed an essential and unavoidable challenge to the Christian conception of the origin and ultimate nature of reality. If spirit had sprung from matter, as Tyndall and the materialists seemed to be suggesting, where then was God’s place? The German Darwinist and anti-Christian Ernst Haeckel, another of Burrow’s forgotten men, whose book Riddle of the World, published on the cusp of the century in 1899, sold 100,000 copies in its first year, propounded the notion of the World-Soul, inside which all matter is living and possessed of mental attributes: “Desire and dislike, lust and antipathy, attraction and repulsion, are common to all atoms.” No wonder the churchmen were alarmed. But the materialists had their problems too. “Haeckel’s Monism,” Burrow writes, “was in one sense a high point of the scientific outlook, but how much of it remained in any recognizable sense scientific was obviously questionable.”

This is the paradox of the mid-nineteenth-century materialist bid to take over the world. The more matter assumed the properties of everything in existence, the less like matter it looked; the more the scientific view of the world seemed to replace religion, the more of its predecessor’s metaphysical and emotional and even ethical responsibilities it seemed to have to assume.

Plus ça change…

The new materialism inevitably encountered reaction and misunderstanding, and suffered misappropriation. Specifically, the evolutionist argument began to be taken as a justification for colonial expansion, especially in Germany, with its ambition to build an empire in East Africa. The anthropologist Friedrich Ratzel “was interested in imperial expansion not in terms of trade but as settlement, the appropriation of new lands to support a surplus agricultural population.” Ratzel was an early proponent of the concept of Lebensraum, which after the First World War was directed not at Africa but toward neighboring lands in Central and Eastern Europe, with the disastrous consequences that we know. Lest we are tempted to indulge in moral superiority, however, we should note that Ratzel found support for his theories in the “sturdy, pioneer individualism” that he had encountered on his travels in the American West.

Looking back, we see how surprisingly short was the step from the humane aims of Darwin and Spencer—although it was the latter who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”—to such developments as the eugenicist identification of “degeneracy” among peoples considered alien. “It can hardly seem to be other than a portent,” Burrow writes, “that the Racial Hygiene Society was founded in Berlin in 1905….” Burrow is at his most acute in the pages he devotes to questions of race and “race purity.” As he points out, “It was only the existence of a cherished idea of race that made the notion of invasion or adulteration of concern,” and one of the motivations of this concern was the enthusiasm for taxonomy. As he tells us, it has been claimed that “in the three decades from 1860 twenty million Europeans…were subjected to anthropological measurement.” It is striking, however, that the findings of this mass measuring were inconclusive, and seemed to indicate only that “ethnic purity…seemed not to be characteristic of European nations,” which did not, however, in any way deter the likes of “the father of racist ideology,” Arthur de Gobineau, whose achievement, according to Burrow, was “to clothe hatred of democracy and pseudo-aristocratic nostalgia with a universal theory of racial degeneration.”

Burrow’s chapters “The Elusive Self” and “Constructing the Self” contain the finest and most perceptive writing in his book. Here he calls on a broad range of witnesses, ranging from Proust to Nietzsche, from Bergson to Freud, to describe the last struggles of the individual to extract himself from the lumpen body of mass feudalist society. The birth, one might even say the invention, of the individual is the great drama of the modern era, a long labor that lasted from the beginning of the Renaissance to 1789, or even to 1848. The emergence of the individual self brought on a range of neuroses for which we in our time are still seeking an antidote, with diminishing hopes of success. An unease at the prospect of the triumph of bourgeois man in all his willfulness, avidity, and self-absorption can be detected in, for instance, Diderot’s remarkably prescient Rameau’s Nephew, and in the drama and tales of Kleist, even in the uneasy (neo)classicism of Schiller and Goethe. Faust can be seen as representative man lusting for and yet in flight from individuation.

And the chief philosopher of individuation is, of course, Nietzsche, as Burrow acknowledges. After an extended consideration of fin de siècle “decadence,” as exemplified in the work of such writers as Baudelaire and Huysmans, Burrow turns to Nietzsche, whose “conception of life as ‘experiment'” he sees ironically echoed in the fastidious shrinking from “the herd” that is the identifying characteristic of des Esseintes, the languishing hero of Huysmans’s influential novel À Rebours. However, even Nietzsche’s “frequent invocation, radically alien to the shuddering aesthete, of ‘action,’ is at best half-misleading.” Nietzsche

is not really concerned with the consequence of action, with what it brings about, which alone makes it a completed action, but with the quality of life, of the acting self, which the action expresses and which is the real object of moral, and one could equally say aesthetic, appraisal.

This is a sharp and important perception. There is a study to be made of the influence on modernism of Nietzsche’s thinking, which is insufficiently acknowledged even by the most philosophically-minded of the modernists—it is hard to recall, for instance, a single mention of Nietzsche’s name anywhere in Eliot’s prose criticism. It is Nietzsche’s insistence on individual responsibility, toward the self and toward the world, that urged on the modernist determination to revive the sense of what one might call secular immanence that had been lost since the time of the pre-Socratics. From first to last, from The Birth of Tragedy to The Antichristian, Nietzsche, Burrow argues, set himself against the, “to him superficial, notion of Greek serenity and cheerfulness.”

The latter emerged, epitomized in Socrates, when the deep, tragic sense of life was being lost. Early Christianity, rather remarkably, is at that point complimented by Nietzsche for despising such cheerfulness, though it entirely missed the sublimity of the earlier Greek conception embodied in Attic tragedy.

After an excursus on spiritualism and the occult, so important for artists such as Mallarmé and Yeats, Burrow concludes with an epilogue devoted to the rise of the avant-garde in the first decade of the twentieth century, the mark of which was “the surrender of the rational, social self to energizing unconscious forces, seen as the course of true freedom and creativity, at any cost….” Cleverly, and illuminatingly, he focuses on Italian Futurism, which, “if shorter on artistic achievement than its rivals,” he adduces as a not exactly typical but extreme case of early modernist avant-garde movements in general, and a portent of the new barbarism that would at one end of its scale produce The Rite of Spring and the violent expressionism of early Picasso, and on the other the gargantuan war machine that was to grind to pulp a generation of young men in the First World War. Futurism, with its “Dionysiac immersion in experience on the one hand [and] escape into the objectivity of artifice on the other,” concentrates for us the question of how far twentieth-century avant-garde movements in art are implicated in the political and military horrors the century produced.

In closing, Burrow dismisses the postmodernism of our own time as looking like “a gloss on Modernism.” Speaking of the Great War and its aftermath in the 1920s and 1930s, he observes that “essentially, with some modifications in its expressive languages, the post-war avant-garde was still recognizably the pre-war one,” and he adds: “In a sense, the latter is still ours.” At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we are still grappling with the nineteenth-century crisis of reason described in Burrow’s excellent book.

This Issue

October 4, 2001