Shortly after Mr. Nisbet’s review was written, Solomon F. Bloom was killed in an accident in New York City. Mr. Bloom had been one of COMMENTARY’S oldest and most valued contributors, and his loss will be deeply felt.—Ed.]
The Continuity of Atlantic History
Europe and America.
by Solomon F. Bloom.
Harcourt, Brace & World. 761 pp. $10.75.
“Modern History.” Lord Acton wrote, “tells how the last four hundred years have modified the medieval conditions of life and thought.” For the historian of Europe there is wisdom in this apothegm. What else is the continuing revolution of modern Europe—from the Reformation to the present day—if not the clash of modern event and principle with idea-systems and institutions that took shape in the long history of the Middle Ages. I use the word “long” advisedly. From the point of view of culture and society it is illusory to suppose that medievalism ended in 1453 or 1688 or even in 1789. If we are concerned not with the endless begats of political and military history, but with Europe’s institutions—community, class, kinship, church, and university—and Europe’s ideas—citizenship, rights, liberties, representation, equality—we can scarcely discover even watersheds that have meaning for more than single strands of history, and even then we have to know which area we are talking about. Fingers of medievalism reach into the 20th century even as fingers of modernism reach back to the age of Wycliffe.
It is one of the many merits of Solomon Bloom’s book that it gives substance to Acton’s principle. Not that the book is concerned in any direct or calculated way with medievalism in the modern world. It is instead a comprehensive and remarkably illuminating treatment of general European history from the age of the Enlightenment down to the present. But a good deal of the book’s special character comes, I think, from the skillful placing of 18th- and 19th-century events against the background of a social and cultural traditionalism that is essentially medieval in quality. In a variety of ways, Mr. Bloom’s book lights up this background—a background that liberal historians in the 19th century were only too prone to overlook in their fascination with progress—and thus makes the figures and events of modernism the more vivid. Under his hand, we see the dynamic interaction of tradition and change in the successive revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries; in the rise and epidemic spread of nationalism, that most compelling of all modern man’s allegiances; in the complex and tragic history of socialism—with its eventual exploitation by forces of nationalism, collectivism, and even militarism; and in the often devastating impact of urbanism and machine technology upon the physical and cultural landscape. In all of this, covering several hundred pages of thoughtfully organized and lucid writing, we are confronted by an unbroken and almost rhythmic alternation of convention and revolt, tradition and release, conservatism and radicalism.
For, as Mr. Bloom shows us, what Europe represents is this: on the one hand, a corporate tradition—rich in values of community, membership, status, and hierarchy; strongest in the medieval period but far from dead even today. On the other, the liberal and individualistic ideas of contract, freedom, secularism, and rationalism, perceptible even in the Middle Ages, as the Carlyles’ great study made clear, but not really powerful and determining until the 18th century. This is why both conservatism and liberalism have been, and remain, relevant as Western philosophies, alternating, as Saint Simon noted, in “organic” and “critical” periods, and why to be truly Western means to be liberal-conservative or conservative-liberal, the heresies being those doctrines which try to split this affinity, leaving either a sand-heap atomism, at the one extreme, or a suffocating communalism at the other.
Given this perspective, often explicit, always implicit, it is only proper that Mr. Bloom’s point of departure should be the Enlightenment, with special emphasis on France. Here the essential ideas of modern individualism, humanitarianism, and nationalism, were forged. And it is equally proper that most of the first third of the book should be taken up with the great French Revolution. For it is doubtful whether any event—even the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918—is comparable in the vast influence exerted by ideas and visions, first, on Europe, and then the rest of the world. Not even today has this influence spent itself. In the new African states liberté, égalité, and fraternité are iconized even as they were in the squares of Paris and Marseilles in 1791.
What gave the French Revolution such profound influence on men’s minds, at the time and during subsequent decades, was its exciting vision of moral progress united with political power; of humanitarianism based, not primarily on love, but rationalism; and, above all, of a society in which the absolute freedom of the individual might somehow coexist with the absolute power of the people taken collectively. Such a vision required of revolutionary legislators, as Rousseau and others had warned, a total remolding of laws and institutions, even of human nature itself. This is the vision to be seen behind the myriad laws on economy, law, education, religion, public administration, and thought itself. Even the calendar was changed, for what could better symbolize the extirpation of the old and the birth of the new than the re-ordering of man’s measure of time?
Out of the Revolution and Napoleonic system (modern Caesarism, as Mr. Bloom rightly calls it) came, like Jekyll and Hyde, the two faces of European modernism: libertarian, individualist, on the one hand; power-obsessed and collectivism on the other. Both faces are to be seen clearly throughout the book, though I judge that it is the first for which Mr. Bloom has reserved the greater skill of analysis. Not that he has neglected the face of power. It is to be seen in his treatment of nationalism and collectivism and of the periodic resurgences of Caesarism all the way down to Stalin and Hitler. And he does not do us the disservice of naively categorizing these (as did a whole school of historians and philosophers in the 30’s) as mere eruptions of a dark past. But, having said this, I would nevertheless relish a clearer recognition of the affinity that J. L. Talmon, Albert Salomon, and others have emphasized between the two faces.
One of the more admirable features of Mr. Bloom’s book is the skillful weaving of the threads of American history into the larger fabric of the West. In America, as in Europe, allowing always for necessary changes in light and shadow, there has been basically the same conflict of ideologies and allegiances, even though we have been slower to see them. Why should not this be the case? Do we not have a common patrimony with Europe? After all, there was bound to be some continuity of traditional, even medieval, ideas of property, class, representation, and authority in the minds of the Europeans who settled the New World, as well as of the more obvious and often noted ideas of puritanism, commercialism, and secularism. For a long time, both popularly and in the hands of historians, Americans chose to emphasize and distort the elements that were, or seemed to be, unique. Like representatives of the new states in Africa and Asia today, Americans could not resist telling Europeans, often stridently, how different we were and how ill adapted the heritage of Europe was to our shores. Under the influence of the Turner school it was fancied that American ideas of individualism, equality, freedom were the product of the rugged frontier, rather than, as we today know them to be, the lineal heritage of the Enlightenment (how shocked Jefferson would have been by the Turner school!), adjusted of course to time and place as ideas always are in their descent. Even Jacksonianism (strange amalgam that it was) bore less relation as an intellectual force to any frontier than to European writings that crossed the Atlantic as easily as they did the English Channel.
From any point of view, diplomatic or cultural, America is a part of Europe; its dominant values, themes, and styles are Western to the core. Admittedly, an American conservatism is more difficult to descry, but I believe this is true only if we are looking for something rigorously and popularly ideological. So far as social history is concerned, as Mr. Bloom’s excellent sections on the rise of American industrialism and mass democracy make plain, there was, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, a significant tradition of patriarchalism, landed aristocracy, and upper-class consciousness, a tradition that could fight the inroads of commerce and industry as bitterly as those of nationalist democracy. What such men as John Randolph, James Fenimore Cooper, and John C Calhoun stood for, culturally and politically, was not different at bottom from what the European conservatives thought and wrote. And it is equally apparent that long before the New Deal came into being, conflict between nationalism and localism, centralization and pluralism, agrarianism and commerce, was as luminous a feature of American history as it was of European.
It is in the 20th century that the forces of change first liberated on a mass scale by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution have reached summation, and Mr. Bloom can be forgiven if we find ourselves unable to draw either perspective or comfort from his final chapters. There is indeed a more elevated social conscience in the West, a broader culture, and the values of liberty and equality have never been fought for on so wide a front. But there is also power, power that is unprecedented in scope and intensity and, with it, a cultural alienation that can make the good seem unattainable and evil inevitable. In doctrinal terms, as Mr. Bloom’s final, eloquent pages remind us, the mixture today is not very different from what it was in Europe immediately after the Revolution. Then, as now, ideas of traditionalism and change were at war; skepticism seeped into the cellars of orthodoxy, and the aspirations of new men and new classes ran about like masterless dogs. The mixture is the same. But the potency has been vastly affected by such agents as mass world war, tyranny on a scale and in an intensity hardly dreamed of, and a vicious circle of population and food supply, often created by Western values, that has actually lowered standards of living for vast areas of the earth. Hardly to be wondered at is the staggering of Western man’s faith and the clouding of his image of himself that Mr. Bloom writes of. But neither can we doubt that “after much travail and many experiments with violent alternatives, reason and morality, practiced under conditions of freedom, remain, more than ever, man’s best hope.”