Subscribe to Christianity Today
Thomas Albert Howard
The 19th Floor
It might be a stretch, but perhaps only a slight one, to suggest that the century just past, so celebrated and reviled at the turn of the millennium, will ultimately be judged inconsequential by historians when compared to the "long century" that, as historians reckon, began with the strident cries of "liberty, equality, and fraternity" in 1789 and ended with the bloodbath of 1914-18.
Consider, for example, the revolutions of 1989, the crumbling of the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe. That the events of that year signified the retreat of the long shadow cast by Karl Marx was almost universally acknowledged. But to grasp their full significance, Francis Fukuyama—who became one of the most influential interpreters of that year of revolutions—turned for inspiration to none other than Marx's own mentor, G. W. F. Hegel, proclaiming 1989 as a sign of the necessary global triumph of liberalism and "the end of history."
And this is but one instance out of many. In fact, much of the 20th century could be construed as the conflicted outworking of 19th-century thought. Nationalism, born in the experience of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests, proved a dominant factor in the origins of the Great War and, subsequently, in the rise of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The theories of Marx, refracted through Lenin, fueled the 1917 Russian Revolution, as well as other socialist experiments throughout the world. Western liberalism itself, though born in the Enlightenment, achieved coherence and direction only in the democratic developments of the early and mid-19th century and in the writings of liberals like Alexis de Tocqueville and J. S. Mill.
Indeed, wherever we look, the innovations and questions of 19th-century thinkers persist. Scientists today are still indebted to Charles Darwin as we embark upon the wonderful, horrible genetic future. Psychologists and psychiatrists remain preoccupied with exorcising the ghost of Freud, while some critics have hailed the notion of ...