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.
In Frank M. Turner’s view, Rousseau, who shed conventional clothing along with conventional manners and morals, was the original of all the estranged, visionary, badly dressed intellectuals who came after him:
He made intellectuals different from simply being influential writers. He made the social role or social function of the intellectual to be that of a critic who found himself alienated from his or her society while at the same time actually living a life deeply embedded in that society. . . . It was Rousseau who made the hatred of one’s own culture the stance of the cultivated person.
Of course, alienation from conventional or sophisticated society wasn’t new—think of Diogenes the Cynic or the desert saints or the Chinese Taoists—and some measure of it can be found in thoughtful people of any era. But if Rousseau was something new, it’s because he was reacting to something new. He broke with his fellow philosophes because he thought that their newly minted ideal of rational progress was deforming and diminishing modern humanity instead of improving it.
Most of the writers Turner surveys here either turned against progress or declared it wasn’t nearly enough and had to be accelerated into a mad dash to utopia. It’s really a study of a new kind of sour grapes: For these writers, the grapes were sour precisely because they were within reach, and they all went off feverishly pursuing something out of reach.
Frank Turner, who died in 2010, was an Ohio-born historian and specialist in eminent Victorians who had a long career at Yale and first presented this material in lecture form for a popular course there. In 15 chapters, corresponding to the original lectures, he negotiates his way through the Ozymandias-caliber ruins of every once-mighty theory and moonstruck utopia of the period with infinite tact, avoiding summary judgments and any theoretical posturing of his own. Each chapter contains acute, often against-the-grain insights into individual thinkers or movements.
In his chapter on nationalism, for instance, he notes that despite its later populist manifestations, it was originally a top-down movement. He traces the respective roles of university professors and students, schoolteachers, newspapers, and the emerging scholarly field of philology in forging (in both senses of the word) distinct national identities out of the blurred European reality of multi-ethnic states, regional loyalties, wary peasants, and the Babel of local dialects. And in “Race and Anti-Semitism,” he deals not only with the usual suspects (Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose dueling Aryan theories form a study in delusional contrasts) but with the way scientific achievements like the theory of evolution, advances in public hygiene, and the germ theory inadvertently contributed to new obsessions with ethnic purity and eugenic measures.
Turner’s sympathies are clear. He likes the less presumptuous intellectuals, writers of a moderate reformist bent or an empirical, scientific temper: Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, and the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. He offers interesting angles on all of them, such as Darwin’s eventually repudiated debt to William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) and the way Mill’s entanglement with the married Harriet Taylor affected his conceptions of liberty, genius, and progress. Like Isaiah Berlin, Turner takes a complex and cautionary view of 19th-century liberalism, and he sees its inherent disadvantages in competition with other philosophies and movements of the time that resembled heavenly visions and fighting faiths.