The Shaping of Modern Thought

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The Shaping of Modern Thought

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Crane Brinton, Professor of History at Harvard University, has now been at his alma mater for almost fifty years, although he received his Dr. Phil. from Oxford in 1923. A Fellow of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the American Philosophical Society, and the Ameri can Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is also a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur and President of the American Historical Association. His fifteen books include English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century ( 1933, 1949), The Anatomy of Revolution (I 938, I 952), A History of Western Morals (1959), The Fate of Man (1961), and Ideas and Men (1950, 1963), of which this book is a part. Dr. Brinton claims that his Age of Reason began at Harvard under Harold Laski and Irving Babbitt, whose contrary influences he has been trying to reconcile ever since. "My earlier optimistic rationalism," he says, "has been tempered by an awareness of the place of prejudices, sentiments, the unconscious, and the subconcious in human life." And yet, he adds, "1 think I have kept to the basic belief of my youth in the rightness . . . of human reason."

T he . haping of Modern Thought consists of chapters 7-14 and the Introduction of

! d as and M en, second edition. The original edition was published by New American



The Shaping of the Modern Mind.



Prentice-Hall , Inc.,



Englewood Clifjs 1 N. ].

To my wife

Third printing ..... January, 1965

Copyright © 1950, 1963 by


Englewood Cliffs, N.].

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission in writing from the .publishers. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. : 63-1-1031 PRINTED I

C 80775





Scope and Purpose, 1 The Limits of Intellectual History, 4 The Role of Ideas, 8 Contemporary Importance of Intellectual History, 12 Some Patterns of Intellectual History, 16




Origins of the Modern Mind, 22 The Terms "Renaissance" and "Reformation," 24 The Range of Humanism, 26 The Nature of Humanism, 31 The Political Attitudes of Humanism, 45




Sources of Protestantism, 54 The Nature of Protestantism, 62 The Protestant Spectrum, 67


MAKING THE MODERN WoRLo-III. Rationalism Rationalism-A Broad Definition, 82 Natural Science, 84 Philosophy, 93 Political Ideas, 98 Making the Modern World-A Summary, 104


THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY-A New Cosmology The The The The

Agents of Enlightenment, 108 Faith of the Enlightened, 114 Program of the Enlightenment, 123 Enlightenment and the Christian Tradition, 132 V






!. The Developed Cosmology

1 39

Introduction) 139 Adjustments and Amendments in the New Cosmology) J.-10 The Victorian Compromise) 152



II. Attacks from Right and Left

The Role of lntellectzwls) 169 Attacks from the Right) 1 i-1Attacks from the Left) 190 The Nineteenth Century-A Summary) 201



The Anti-Intellectual Attack

Our Continuing Multanimity) 203 A nti-lntellect ualism-A Definition) 212 Contemporary An ti-Intellectualism) 215



Some Unfinished Business

The West and Other Cultures) 231 The Shaping of Modem Thought-A Summary) 233 Our Present Discontents) 238



Scope and Purpose This is a book about the world-views of men in our Western tradition, the ideas they have held and still hold on the Big Questions-cosmological questions, which ask whether the universe makes sense in terms of human capacity to comprehend and, if so, what kind of sense; theological and metaphysical questions, which ask further questions about purpose and design of the universe, and about man's place in it; and ethical and aesthetic questions, which ask whether what we do and what we want to do make sense, ask what we reaUy mean by good and bad, by beautiful and ugly. The recorded answers to these and similar questions-that is, most of our Western philosophy, art, literature, and in some senses, natural science-fill millions of volumes. Any account of them, therefore, must omit vastly more than it can include. There are many possible schemes for guiding the historian of these ideas and attitudes, for what we may call figuratively the cartography of ideas. The figure is more apt than such analogies often are, for neither the historian nor the cartographer can ever reproduce the reality they are trying to communicate to the reader of books or of maps; they can but give a plan, a series of indications, of this reality. There are contrasting schemes for choosing from enormous numbers of geographic details. You may have a map in which every feature that can be named, every hill, brook, crossroads, is crowded in; or you may have a map in which many details are omitted in the effort to show the reader the lay of the land, the shape of the mountain systems, the relations of drainage, relief, communications, and so on. Both kinds are useful, depending on the needs of the user. In mapping the history of ideas, this book will definitely attempt to follow the second scheme. It will try to show the lay of the cultural and intellectual land; it will omit many famous names, and perhaps even a few landmarks, in an effort to make clear what large l



groups of men and women in the West have felt about the answers to the great questions of human destiny. There is, however, another important, contrasting set of schemes for guiding the intellectual historian. This may be put as the contrast between picking out the ideas and attitudes the historian thinks are right, or true, and setting forth a fair selection of ideas and attitudes for the reader to exercise his own judgment upon. The first, translated into educational terms, is based on the principle "To teach is to affirm"; the second is based on the principle "To teach is to put problems." In the real world, these two are by no means mutually exclusive. The most dogmatic approach-at least in the West-hardly means that the learner repeats by rote exactly what he hears or reads; and the most tentative and open-minded approach hardly means that no one takes anything on authority, that everybody works out his own ideas in his own private world. Both poles are as bleak and as uninhabited as the poles of this earth. Nevertheless, this book will try to keep to the hemisphere of the second pole, to the principle that the individual should do a great deal of his own thinking and choosing-that, to use Alfred North Whitehead's expressive phrase, intellectual history is an "adventure of ideas" for anyone who will embark on it. But all adventure implies uncertainty. These two choices-for the broad lines instead of the details, and for independent thinking instead of absorbing "correct" information and interpretation-are in accord with a growing feeling in the United States that in the past we have absorbed too many facts and have thought about them too little. This feeling is clear in the movement for general education, by whatever name it may be called. Like most such movements, that for general education may well go too far. Folk wisdom recognizes the danger of throwing the baby out with the bath. The "baby" of good sound command of the necessary facts is one that no sensible person wants to throw out. On the whole, however, our culture is admirably organized to permit the rapid and accurate accumulation of and ready access to the facts necessary to useful thinking about a given problem. Libraries, encyclopedias, textbooks that are really reference books, all abound. The "baby" of sound generalizations, or theories, is also one that no sensible person wants to throw out. But there is a difficulty here, that of determining which generalizations are sound and which are not. In fields such as natural science, there exists a core of theories that are known by all competent persons and must be accepted by all who work in the field. This, as we shall shortly see, is simply not so in the fields of theology, philosophy, literature, and art, where it is plain that men of education and taste do differ widely. For in these fields we are not just asking ourselves what is, but rather we all feel, more or less strongly, that something else ought to be.



Now in a democratic so iety it is believed that each member of the society has a pan to play in the complex pro css by which ought-that is, men's wants and the communicable forms they give those wants-slowly, imperfectly, unpredictably perhaps, alters is. (The problems we meet trying to understa nd and control this process, indeed the problem as to whether such human co ntrol of this process is possible-that is, the old question of determinism or freedom of the will-are good examples of the insoluble but persistent and by no means unimportant problems that have vexed the ·western mind for millennia.) In a democratic society, the individual must exercise his judgment on questions like this, for if he does not, they may be answered by authoritarian enemies of democracy in a way he will not like. The word "exercise" was chosen deliberately; it means mental as well as physical effort. But mental effort means making decisions, trying to solve problems not decided in advance, trying to balance and choose among conflicting generalizations. This book should give the serious reader ample opportunity for such exercise. It is not a book designed primarily to impart information, not a book that will help the reader to shine very brightly in quiz programs. It is not a history of any one of the great disciplines, theology, philosophy, scholarship, science, literature, art. A brief book that covered all these fields would be no more than a list of names and a few more or less appropriate labels, like the "ethereal Shelley" and the "sweet-voiced Keats." More especially, this book is not a history of philosophy; it is not written by a professional philosopher and it treats no philosopher fully and in the round. It makes an effort to deal with that part of a philosopher's work that went into the climate of opinion of the intellectual classes. It is, to use D. C. Somervell's distinction, rather a history of opinion than a history of thought. It is no substitute, for those who wish to undergo such discipline, for a thorough study of the history of formal philosophy. One final word of explanation. The serious reader may find our approach to many of these problems the reverse of serious, may find it light, undignified. This is a genuine difficulty. It seems to the writer that many of the grand questions about the beautiful and the good have commonly been approached, especially among English-speaking peoples, with so much reverence that ought has been disastrously confused with is. Americans like to think they are idealists, and many of them are. But foreigners often accuse us of keeping our ideals and our actions in separate compartments. They are unfair, but their position has a base in fact. We tend as a people to revere certain abstract ideas so much that we are likely to fall into the error of thinking that once we have got the ideas on paper, once we have legal and verbal acceptance of a goal as virtuous, then we have attained the goal. Witness many plans for world government, now, right away, by getting a world constitutional conven·



tion to work. " ' itness the Eighteenth Amendment. In this book an attempt is made at a clinician's attitude toward these matters, an attitude th at demands working over a good deal of the petty and the undignified in order to understand what we are really dealing with when we study ideas at work among living human beings. It is an attitude not of irreverence, but of nonreverence while the clinical work is being done. In no sense does it involve a denial of the existence-and desirability-of the beautiful and the good, any more than the attitude of the medical clinician involves a denial of the existence and the desirability of the healthy and the sane.

The Limits of Intellectual History The field of study known as intellectual history or history of ideas is not a clear-cut and simple one. Under some such labels there can be found a wide range of actual subject matter, from the writings of very abstract philosophers to expressions of popular superstition like triskaidekaphobia, which in simpler language is excessive fear of the number thirteen. Intellectual historians have dealt with the ideas of the philosopher and with those of the man in the street. Their main job, however, is to try to find the relations between the ideas of the philosophers, the intellectuals, the thinkers, a-nd the actual way of living of the millions who carry the tasks of civilization. It is a job that should chiefly differentiate intellectual history from such old, established disciplines as the history of philosophy, the history of science, and the history of literature. The intellctual historian is interested in ideas wherever he find them, in wild ideas as well as in sensible ideas, in refined speculation and in common prejudices; but he is interested in these products of men's mental activity as they influence, and are influenced by, men's whole existence. He will not, then, deal solely with abstract ideas that breed more abstract ideas; he will not deal, for instance, with that very abstract political theory known as the social contract as though it were just a bit of legal reasoning. But he will treat even the most abstract ideas as these ideas filter into the heads and hearts of ordinary men and women; he will try to explain what the social contract meant to those eighteenth-century rebels who held that their rulers had violated it. This is a difficult task. The intellectual historian is trying to work out a very complex set of relations between what a few men write or say and what many men actually do. He finds it very easy, at least for the last twenty-five hundred years of our ,vestern society, to discover and analyze what th~ few have ,vritten and said. That record is not perfect, but it is extraordinarily good, even for ancient Greece and Rome, thanks to the labors of generations of scholars. But, until the printing press and



popular education gave the historian in newspapers, periodi cals, pamphlets, an