Revolution, Liberalism, and Nationalism
In Europe, 1789-1914

The Crisis of European Thought, 1871-1914

    The years between 1871 and 1914 witnessed a great upheaval in the world of ideas.  It was a time when men were thinking audacious thoughts, when composers were producing adventurous pieces of music, and when painters were painting revolutionary canvases.  These new ideas, whether expressed in words, music or art, challenged and brought into question assumptions--confidence in human reason, faith in science and mechanical models of the universe, belief in human goodness, and convictions about individual and social progress; also questioned was the idea of natural rights and the belief that there were objective standards governing human behavior--that western thinkers had taken for granted, at least since the Renaissance.  And they heralded an age that would be less certain and less sure about just about everything.  Hence, many historians describe this passage from intellectual and cultural certainty to uncertainty as a crisis of revolutionary proportions. The roots of this intellectual crisis may be found in two earlier European-wide movements in thought and the arts.  From the Enlightenment, the late-19th century European had inherited a tradition of rationalism, toleration, and cosmopolitanism, not to mention an admiration for science and progress.  From Romanticism, in contrast, he inherited an emphasis on feelings, the imagination, national identity, and the autonomy of the artistic experience.  By 1900, elements from both traditions of thought had blended, and when they interacted with contemporary historical events, they produced a new pattern of ideas with a notable feature.  Suddenly, the intellectual guideposts upon which man had depended for centuries disappeared, with a two-fold result.  On the one hand, there was a tremendous sense of freedom and of infinite possibilities, from which ensued a radical experimentation and a cult of the novel and the new, an impulse often described by the term modernism.  On the other hand, this same release from tradition engendered frightful insecurity and anxiety, and the reaction against this insecurity and anxiety led many people to embrace such radically conservative ideas as Fascism and Nazism.

    Perhaps the most radical of all attacks on traditional ideas and values came from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).  Not only did he call into question such widely-held ideas as reason, democracy, nationalism, science, and progress, he also attacked Christianity by proclaiming the "death of God".  According to Nietzsche, human life is irrational and is characterized by cruelty, injustice, uncertainty and absurdity.  There are no eternal and absolute values in the world, no standards of good and evil; instead, man creates his own moral values.  In the past, he invented religion (i.e. Christianity) and then proclaimed that it embodied absolute values according to which man must live.  In short, man created God; but, if man can create God, he can also eliminate Him when there is no longer a need for Him, and this is the case during the late 19th century.  Indeed, Nietzsche wrote in the Anti-Christ (1888) that the continued existence of Christianity was preventing the emergence of a new man, a superman or übermensch:

Christianity has wage a war to the death against this higher type of man. . . .  Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted, it has made an ideal out the opposition to the . . . instincts of strong life. . . .  Christianity is a revolt of everything that crawls along the ground directed against that which is elevated. . . .

The realization that "God was dead" and that transcendental truths did not exist, Nietzsche argued, liberated man.  Indeed, he called for human liberation based on the spontaneous, irrational, and instinctual side of man.  Liberated man can create his own values and achieve self-mastery, becoming a sort of superman.  "The superman is a new kind of man--a masterful aristocrat of a man--who breaks with accepted morality and sets his own standards.  He does not repress his instincts but asserts them.  He destroys old values and asserts his prerogative as master.  Free of Christian guilt, he proudly affirms his own being; dispensing with Christian 'thou shalt not.' he instinctively says 'I will.'  He dares to be himself.  Because he is not like other people, traditional definitions of good and evil have no meaning for him.  He does not allow his own individuality to be stifled.  He makes his own values, those that flow from his very being." [Perry, Western Civilization, 656]  Further, the superman understands that "the most fundamental desire in man [is] his drive for power."  Or:

The love of power is the demon of man.  Let them have everything--health, food, a place to live, entertainment--they are and remain unhappy and low-spirited; for the demon waits and waits to be satisfied.  Take everything from them and satisfy this and they are almost happy--as happy as men and demons can be.

    Nietzsche was not alone in attacking Christianity during the 19th century.  Its teachings and its assumptions about, for example, the creation of the world, were challenged by the champions of evolution, while other scholars who used the techniques of scientific research to study the Bible and the life of Jesus.  Further, as European society became more urban and secular, traditional religion practices and beliefs seemed more and more irrelevant.  To make matters worse, the established churches often defended a conservative political orientation, and they were frequently opposed by liberals.  Pope Pius IX, for example, issued the Syllabus of Errors (1864), which identified ideas which Catholics were not to accept.  Efforts to reverse these trends and to bring about a religious revival were not effective outside the circles of a few intellectuals.

    Just as Christianity was undergoing a crisis, so was Newtonian scientific thought, which had more or less been taken for granted since the beginning of the 18th century.  Most Europeans believed in a set of principles about the world of nature, and they believed a number of theories to be matters of truth.  They believed that the natural world was rational, mechanical, and dependable; that it operated according to mathematically-formulated scientific laws; that these laws could be discovered by using reason and the scientific method; that there was a one-to-one correspondence between the scientific description of reality and the world of nature, and that knowledge of an intricately designed nature demonstrated the existence of God.  With regard to particular scientific knowledge, they believed that time, space, and matter were objective realities with an existence independent of man; that the atom--indivisible and solid--was the basic unit of matter; and that heated bodies emitted radiation in continuous waves.    Between 1871 and 1914, these comfortable assumptions were challenged, and many scientists had concluded that mechanistic models, concepts of atoms, and ideas of absolute time and space do not describe reality but are instead hypothetical or symbolic models of reality.  As argued by Ernst Mach in The Science of Mechanics (1883) and Henri Poincaré, scientific theories, then, do not necessarily correspond to reality.

    These philosophical challenges to the nature of scientific thought were paralleled by discoveries in the laboratory.  The Michelson-Morley experiment (1887) demonstrated, for example, that the speed of light was a constant independent of the motion of its source.  Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays (1895), Henri Becquerel worked on the radioactive properties of uranium, J. J. Thompson postulated the theory of the atom, and Ernest Rutherford explained the causes of radiation.  Discoveries relating to radioactivity as well as discontent with mechanistic models of the universe led to revolutionary thinking in physics.  In 1900, Max Planck advanced the Quantum Theory, contending that energy is emitted from a source in discrete packets or quanta and not in a continuous stream.  Not long afterwards, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) argued in the Special Theory of Relativity (1905) that time and space were not separate and absolute but combined in a continuum and that the measurement of time and space depended as much on the observer as on the entities measured.  Hence everything was relative to something else.  Scientists came to believe that nature was unpredictable and elusive.  Since these ideas were expressed in pure mathematics, they were difficult for the non-specialist to comprehend.  Finally, in 1927, Werner Heisenberg put forth the Uncertainty Principle, which argued that the behavior of subatomic particles cannot be precisely determined, since the act of measuring them alters their behavior; their behavior, accordingly, cannot be absolutely predicted, it can only be statistically approximated.  Hence we cannot fully understand nature.  And, if our theories about nature are not absolute, what about those dealing with man, human nature, government, history, and morality?

    Such upheavals in scientific theory and in the laboratory had a number of consequences.  First, scientific thought had become so complex that it could not be easily understood.  Therefore, it was no longer an adequate guide for rational living and decision-making.  Secondly, science and technology influenced the daily life of the average individual to an ever-greater extent, yet men who had to make political decisions about science and technology did not understand it; as C. P Snow observed, there were now two cultures.  Finally, the challenge to the absolute nature of science actually dethroned it.  In short, the certainties of the mid-19th century were replaced by uncertainties.

    Equally explosive was the upheaval in the field of biology, and it was largely the work of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), both of whom challenged the special place man had assigned to himself in the world.  Darwin, called by some the "Newton of biology, was not the first to advance the theory of evolution as an explanation of human origins, challenging, if not explicitly at least implicitly the Biblical account of instantaneous creation.  Rather, he provided the scientific evidence that convinced his contemporaries of its basic validity.  He argued that evolution took place by accident and that chance gave certain animals the advantage [=natural selection] they needed to survive in the struggle for existence, given a shortage of food.  Darwin's concept of evolution disturbed many, for it promised a world of struggle and of unending change, a world where there was no good or bad, no divine purpose, only a war to survive.  When in the Descent of Man (1871), Darwin applied his ideas to man, he dethroned man from his special place at the center of creation by treating him like any other animal. 

    Freud likewise challenged the uniqueness of man by questioning his basic rationality.  Dismissing the notion that human choices are made on the basis of rational decision-making, Freud emphasized the unconscious origins of human behavior.  Indeed, he argued that the mind of man was a battleground in which the id [it is primitive and irrational, a subsconscious seat of the instincts, the amoral and irrational instinct for sexual gratification, aggression, and pleasure], contended with the superego [the external moral imperatives and expectations imposed by society and culture]; the ego mediated between the impulses of the id and the strictures of the superego.  Freud, also, of course, invented Psychoanalysis, a method for the treatment of psychological disturbances.  Freud was hardly alone in his stress on the irrational aspects of human life.  Indeed, thinkers from Nietzsche to Henri Bergson stressed instinct and will, as well as the subjective experience; theirs was a world of change, of becoming rather than being.

    Even in politics, there was a retreat from the rational, as politicians found that the semi-literate masses responded to emotional appeals focussing on nationalism, racism, and anti-Semitism.  In many European nations, ideas of aggressive nationalism and imperialism replaced the earlier ideals of liberalism and socialism.  According to the proponents of Social Darwinism, there was a struggle for survival among nations, and only the fit races would endure.  Karl Pearson, a British professor of mathematics, wrote in his National Life from the Standpoint of Science (1900):

History shows me only one way, and one way only in which a higher state of civilization has been produced, namely the struggle of race with race, and the survival of the physically and mentally fitter race. . . .  The path of progress is strewn with the wrecks of nations; traces are everywhere to be seen of the [sacrifice] of inferior races, and of victims who found no the narrow way to perfection.  Yet these dead peoples are, in very truth, the stepping stones on which mankind has risen to the higher intellectual and deeper emotional life of today. [Pearson, National Life, pp. 21 & 64]

Such ideas also encourage the growth of racist theories, particularly those of Arthur de Gobineau, author of an Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853-1854), and Houston Stuart Chamberlain, which contended that certain races were superior to others.  Ideas such as these, irrationalism in politics, nationalism, and racism, formed the intellectual climate in which men such as Adolf Hitler matured, and they would accordingly have a profound impact on the course of 20th century history.

    Upheavals in the world of the arts paralleled those already discussed.  Realism was an important mid-century movement in literature and painting, and its greatest practioners sought to depict the reality of human existence, often emphasizing its darkest aspects, as did writers like Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), Madame Bovary (1857), and Emile Zola (1840-1902), Germinal.  Flaubert went to great pains to reproduce the speech of country people, the appearance of small town France, and the nature of middle-class life; but this makes Madame Bovary also a work of art.  Flaubert's achievement "lay in conveying the impression of life artistically." [Gay and Webb, Modern Europe Since 1815, p. 883]  Zola's Germinal was an 1885 novel about the harsh life of French coal miners, while his Nana (1880) depicted the life of a working-class prostitute.   According to Zola:  "Man is not alone, he lives in society, in a social environment and, hence, for us writers, this social environment endlessly modifies the phenomena.  Our real task, our essential study, is right there, in the reciprocal effects of society on the individual and the individual on society."  [The Experimental Novel] Much the same was done in the visual arts by painters like Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), The Stone Breakers, and Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), The Gleaners

    In the visual arts, an important trend in the late 19th century was represented by Impressionism; its painters, the most famous of which is Claude Monet, claimed they did not paint reality but an impression of reality (i.e. the light reflected from the object; hence they painted light not the object); they also painted out of doors, although Monet heavily reworked his canvases in the studio.  The Post-impressionists, the artists who came after Impressionism can be divided into two groups, those who like Paul Cézanne (1839-1900) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) represented reality using abstract patterns and shapes.  Cézanne once advised another painter:  "Deal with nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, all seen in perspective."  Other Post-impressionists were like Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), who transferred his inner emotions and psychological conflicts onto the painted surface of the canvas.  Commenting on The Night Café (1888; Yale University Art Gallery), he admitted that the colors were not realistic, but suggestive of the "emotion of an ardent temperament. . . .  I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin himself, go mad, or commit a crime." [Quoted in Vyverberg, Living Tradition, p. 292]  Not long before the First World War broke out, Wassily Kandinsky 1866-1944) made the leap into pure abstraction.  In music, composers like Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schönberg challenged traditions that went at least back to the Renaissance, and they invented modern music.  Schönberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1913), for soprano and orchestra, used Sprechgesang--the text of the song was half-sung, half-recited.  Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which provoked a riot when first performed in 1913, was a ballet on the theme of human sacrifice in pagan Russia; the music combines violent dissonances and barbaric rhythms.  One who was present at the premiere wrote:

A certain part of the audience, thrilled by what it considered a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and swept away with wrath, began very soon after the rise of the curtain to whistle, to make catcalls, and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed.  Others of us, who liked the music and felt that the principles of free speech were at stake, bellowed defiance.  It was war over art for the rest of the evening, and the orchestra played on unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred.  The figures on the stage danced in time to music they had to imagine they heard and beautifully out of rhythm with the uproar in the auditorium.  I was sitting in a box in which I had rented one seat.  Three ladies sat in front of me and a young man occupied the place behind me.  He stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly.  The intense excitement under which he was labouring, thanks to the potent force of the music, betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists.  My emotion was so great that I did not feel the flows for some time.  They were perfectly synchronized with the music.  When I did I turned around.  His apology was sincere.  We had both been carried beyond ourselves." [Quoted in Gay and Webb, Modern Europe Since 1815, pp. 904-905]

    Finally, in architecture, there developed a functional school, patterned after the work of Louis Henry Sullivan (1856-1924), who argued that "form follows function".  He erected skyscrapers in Chicago that revealed the nature and form of their steel frames.  The exterior, which no longer supported the building, became a screen of plate glass.  In Germany, Walter Gropius erected a model factory for a 1914 exhibit organized by the Werkbund; it wasa completely functional structure of glass and steel. 

    Common to all these movements are two main points.  First, they conformed to the trends of their day, and they helped smash cultural traditions that can be traced back to the Renaissance.  Secondly, by destroying obedience to tradition and the observance of rules, they unleashed a period characterized by radical experimentation, by a search for the new and for the novel, and by the notion that art is a radically subjective experience.  This century-old notion of the arts is still with us, but is about played out.


This Page is maintained by Robert W. Brown

Last update: 14.IV.2005

Return to Robert W. Brown's Home Page

Return to the History Home Page.