Academic journal article The Cato Journal

The Tragedy of European Civilization: Towards an Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century

Academic journal article The Cato Journal

The Tragedy of European Civilization: Towards an Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

The Tragedy of European Civilization: Towards an Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century

Harry Redner

New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2015, 257 pp.

The image of the sinking Titanic's band playing a requiem to the ship-builders' hubris presaged that of concentration camp inmates playing classical music as their fellow Jews were being herded toward the infamous ovens. In both cases, the tragedy unfolding around them was beyond the musicians' power to stop; so too, both catastrophes might have been prevented--in the first case by better technology and more safeguards, and in the latter by taking seriously the lethal anti-Semitism of a virulently militaristic, anti-rationalist ideology that would soon engulf not only Europe but also the world. But while the vagaries of Nature with its storms and icebergs can never be expected to disappear altogether, the Holocaust marked a historical watershed: it would come to symbolize the tragedy of the civilization we may call European or, indeed, Western.

What makes it a tragedy in the classical sense is that the flaw was--is --internal, self-inflicted. As intellectual historian Harry Redner demonstrates in his seminal book The Tragedy of European Civilization, the unlikely though not always unwitting executioners of the West were philosophers, psychologists, and other wordsmiths who not only predicted but also contributed to the demise of the very ideas that had nurtured them. Like Oedipus who had slayed his own father, these brilliant minds had blinded themselves, using the dagger of language against itself. Rational individualism, which lay at the core of their--our--civilization, had been sabotaged from within: a metaphorical murder-suicide that defies explanation, or at least justification. These Western quasi-jihadists didn't even expect virgins in heaven; they had opted for a living hell.

A Galieian-born Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Australia in 1946, where he became a professor of intellectual history, Redner's topic is the European conversation around the turn of the last century regarding man's nature, his place in society, the role of the state, and the value of freedom. Such books are rare in this country, for American academia has not been especially hospitable to this discipline, preferring empirically oriented political science, sociology, and psychology (with emphasis on neurobiology) to social thought. Yet Continental philosophers' mesmerizingly ambiguous verbiage has infiltrated beyond the ocean and is now ubiquitous on our college campuses as well, its carriers mostly French. Indeed, French Theory, or "Theory for short," writes Redner, currently "exerts a strong influence ... on all the special 'studies' courses that came to proliferate during the 1970s, such as cultural studies, gender studies, legal studies, post-colonial studies, and many more."

What few realize is that the not-so-invisible hand behind these benign-sounding disciplines belongs to the redoubtable, deranged genius of Friedrich Nietzsche, operating through the glove of his no less erratic, certainly inconsistent, yet appallingly seductive disciple, Michel Foucault. Thus, Redner's book is not of mere antiquarian or esoteric interest, for the tragedy of which he speaks continues to affect us all to this day, in ways both manifest and subtle. Understanding its origins may not be sufficient to reverse it, but it could postpone or at least alleviate the severity of the devastation.

The key message of this remarkably lucid, if occasionally esoteric, study is the revelation that Nietzsche--and several other thinkers including Karl Marx, Oswald Spengler, Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, and Ludwig Wittgenstein--did not merely play the violin as the ship of Reason sank into an ocean of hatred and barbarism, they urged it on, whether from self-hatred--subliminal or otherwise--misguided idealism, profound disenchantment with logic, or a mixture of all three. …

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