The extremely fertile period of European intellectual history that runs from about 1749 (Rousseau becomes famous) to 1889 (Nietzsche goes mad just as he’s becoming famous) spawned nearly every idea that has bewitched and bedeviled us since. It also spawned a new social class entirely devoted to coming up with ideas—the thinking class, the theory class, the class consisting of the imperious, all-explaining persons who became known, sometime around the middle of the 19th century, as intellectuals.Read more
The most famous improvised lines in the history of the movies are the ones Orson Welles came up with while playing Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949): “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”Read more
News addiction? Nothing new. “You cannot imagine to what a disease the itch of news is grown,” wrote an Englishman named John Cooper in 1667. At that time, newspapers had been in existence for just over 60 years. The first appeared in Strasbourg, in German, in 1605: the Strasbourg Relation, a weekly that was the brainchild of a book dealer named Johann Carolus.Read more
One thing that Napoleon— who didn’t believe in God, ideologies, or progress—did believe in was his own destiny. The spectacular victories of his Italian campaign in 1796 made the 27-year-old general famous in France and throughout Europe, and, at that moment, he later said, “I no longer regarded myself as a simple general but as a man called upon to decide the fate of peoples.” (The “peoples” themselves were to have no say in the matter.) He saw himself as another Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Charlemagne.Read more
Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), the spellbinding celebrity healer of late-18th-century Vienna and Paris, is one of those mercurial, charismatic characters who can only be described as, well, mesmerizing. Not everyone gets to be a verb and an adjective. For Henri F. Ellenberger, in his massive history of modern psychology, The Discovery of the Unconscious, Mesmer represented the turn from “exorcism to dynamic psychotherapy.” Freud, who began his career by studying trance states with Charcot in Paris, and for whom hypnotism was the first “royal road to the unconscious,” was one of Mesmer’s heirs. Others include the psychic performers who have bewitched, bothered, and bewildered the modern world.Read more
In Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, there’s a wistful character named Prendergast, who had been a contented rural curate until he was suddenly beset by “Doubts”—not about God’s existence, but: “I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all.” His bishop tries to reassure him, saying that “he didn’t think the point really arose as far as my practical duties as a parish priest were concerned.” But Prendergast resigns his living and ends up teaching at a dismal school in Wales.Read more
World War I, the great wrong turn of modern history, began with a wrong turn. It was made by the driver of the open car carrying the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife on their visit to Sarajevo in June 1914. The driver stopped the car, intending to turn around, right in front of Gavrilo Princep, the young Serbian-trained assassin who had been dejectedly walking home, having failed to get a clear shot along the official route.Read more
After pretending to study law, and abandoning a brief attempt to work for a sugar importer in Bristol, David Hume, the second son of a prominent Edinburgh family, decided to return home and live with his mother, sister, and brother. He was then in his early twenties, and his mother had this to say about him: “A fine good-natured creature but uncommon wake-minded [weak-minded].” He went on to become one of the two most influential thinkers to emerge from the Scottish Enlightenment, with his friend Adam Smith, and something more. David Hume (1711-1776) is probably the greatest philosopher to have written in English.
He disturbed the philosophical peace. It was reading Hume, Kant said, that awakened him fromRead more
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) has long appealed to skeptics and secularists. In the 18th century, “Spinozism” was a synonym for atheism. Shelley channeled him in his own arguments for atheism, George Eliot translated him, Hegel and Marx admired him, and he was one of Nietzsche’s favorite philosophers. Yet in his major philosophical works, he can hardly stop talking about God, whose existence never seems to be in doubt—prompting the German poet Novalis, one of the many Romantic poets enchanted with him, to call him “that God-intoxicated man.”Read more
Reading an essay by Montaigne is like strolling through a labyrinthine flea market. You are likely to find all sorts of things there, except maybe logic, and you are likely to get, like the author, a bit lost. His essays, ruled only by curiosity, wander, wonder, sidestep, and circle, accumulate anecdotes, quotations, and conjectures as they go, but never arrive at a definite conclusion or offer an argument that might drop you off at one.Read more
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