Recent Developments in European Thought eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 337 pages of information about Recent Developments in European Thought.


[Footnote 71:  The Times, April 17, 1919.]




To understand in any degree the modern outlook on life it seems necessary to go back to the time of the French Revolution.  For at that stirring epoch there flamed up in the minds of enthusiasts an ideal of man’s life larger than had ever yet been known, and one that has dominated us all ever since.  If we give, as I think we should give, a wide sense to the word ‘Liberty’ and make it mean all that stands for self-development, then one may say that this ideal was fairly well summed-up in the famous Revolutionary watchword, ’Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’.  It is impossible at any rate to read the idealists of that time and its sequel—­say from 1793 to 1848—­whether in France, Germany, England, or Italy, whether inside or outside the Revolutionary ranks, without feeling their buoyant hope that a fresh era was opening in which man, casting aside old shackles and prejudices, could advance at once towards knowledge, joy, splendour, both for himself and all his fellows.  Shelley, perhaps, is most typical of what I mean.  Hogg laughed at him for his belief in the ‘perfectibility’ of the race, but Hogg knew the belief was vital to the poet.  To Shelley it was a damnable doctrine that the many should ever be sacrificed to the few:  yet neither was the ultimate vision that inspired him the vision of the few being sacrificed for the many.  He was anything but an ascetic seeking martyrdom.  The martyrdom of his Prometheus is a prelude to the Unbinding when happiness shall flood the world:—­

    ’The joy, the triumph, the delight, the madness! 
     The boundless, overflowing, bursting gladness,
       The vaporous exultation not to be confined!’

And not only happiness and love, but knowledge also:  the Earth calls to the Sky:  ‘Heaven, hast thou secrets?  Man unveils me; I have none.’  Soberer spirits shared this poet’s ecstasy.  Wordsworth sang

    ’Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
     But to be young was very heaven.’

And that heaven was exactly this foretaste of the Spirit of Man entering undisturbed into his full inheritance at last:  Science welcomed as a dear and honoured guest, Poetry known as ’the breath and finer spirit that is in the countenance of all knowledge’.

It is scarcely necessary even to mention the high hopes of the French themselves, the confident anticipation of an Age of Reason when all men should be brothers and the earth bring forth all her treasures, but it is well worth noting the attitude of Goethe, an attitude the more significant because, in a sense, Goethe always stood outside the French Revolution.  But he, like the best of its votaries—­and this is

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Recent Developments in European Thought from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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