Time and again, when reading of recent or ancient warnings about the dangers of a society in transition, I find words which describe today’s America and today’s president with awful prescience. This evening I’ve been looking over one of my favorite books, Civilisation by Kenneth Clark.
The Enlightenment, we must remind ourselves, was actually a movement with a deeply divided spirit. What we usually remember is that it was the triumph of rationalism, which gave birth to science and the dismissal of religion among society’s intellectuals. Just as important and powerful was the other side of the Enlightenment coin, romanticism. If rationalism tried to confine us within the strict bounds of reason, romanticism celebrated the freedom of the human heart to resist and break all chains.
Western history since 18th century Enlightenment tensions has been the battle ground for to competing and mutually exclusive sides. Sometimes romanticism has won (Beethoven!) but usually rationalism had dominated. Just think, for example in the nearly unimaginable feat of human reasoning: learning to harness the power of the atom to make a nation-destroying bomb.
Speaking as an art historian — but a very broadly educated historian of all Western civilization — Clark in 1969 could already see that we were at the beginning of a major cultural transition:
“We have a long, rough voyage ahead of us, and I cannot say where it will end, because it is not over yet. We are still the offspring of the Romantic movement, and still victims of the Fallacies of Hope.”
Forty one years later, we still cannot say where it will end. But we can recognize we’re at a familiar stage, one which most important cultural transitions have experienced. Speaking of the atrocities of the French Revolution, Clark wrote:
“In 1792 the Committee of Public Safety had officially proclaimed La patrie en danger – ‘the country in peril’; which was followed by the usual corollary: Ils nous ont trahis – ‘there are traitors among us’. We know what that means.”
As we watch the campaign, election, and early presidency of Trump, it is chilling to read those words. They not only describe the early seeds of the atrocities in France but fit well when applied to the early years of Hitler. And they certainly fit with Trump, whose very announcement about running for president began with a strong condemnation of Mexican immigrants.
Clark ends his book by quoting a Yeats poem, written at the end of World War I.
“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Now is a time of great testing for America and Europe: Will the center hold?