Politics and Opinion in the Nineteenth Century: An Historical Introduction

Excerpt

The rich variety of nineteenth-century political thought reflects the evolution of a swiftly changing society. The ideas of Plato and Aristotle were determined by the city state, the scholastic arguments of St. Thomas by Catholic Christendom, and the outlook of Locke by a mercantile commonwealth. Nineteenth- century political philosophers were also conditioned by their surroundings. Their bias was historical and environmental. Today, abstract political ideas are increasingly discarded. Political philosophy, no longer a branch of metaphysics or an aspect of revelation, seems part of the age it mirrors and whose course it partially determines. This outlook is largely due to the historical trend of nineteenth-century opinion. The development was salutary. Certain political problems are perennial, but the idiom employed and the pace and scale of events are necessarily different. Before surveying representative Western political thought in the nineteenth century and relating it to the problems of our own time, one must recall the social, economic and geographical background.

From the neolithic age to the gradual beginnings of industrial society, Europe had developed along a chequered but successful course. From sparse peasant cultivation, originally looking to Mediterranean centres of culture and subject to the incursions of Steppe warrior invaders, the European peoples had achieved, by the later eighteenth century, a slow but cumulative mastery of environment, an elaborate minority culture, and a world-wide expansion. They had already penetrated the Americas and Siberia, conquered India and the East Indies, planted outposts in Africa and the Far East, opened up the Pacific and Australasia.

This astonishing expansion was achieved through a growing population and unprecedented technological skill. With the rise of great industry, both these tendencies were to be intensified. Population dramatically increased, and the technological superiority of Europeans was confirmed. The nineteenth century was to be the greatest age of European expansion. If by the mid-twentieth Europe was in retreat, great new Continents had been populated, and predominant world power had passed to North America, the . . .

Additional information

Contributors:
Publisher: Place of publication:
  • New York
Publication year:
  • 1954

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