Magazine article The Spectator

The Night Is Darkening Round Me

Magazine article The Spectator

The Night Is Darkening Round Me

Article excerpt

AT THE END OF AN AGE by John Lukacs Yale, L16, pp. 230, ISBN 0300092962

This is a gloomy book, written 'at the hour of sunset of a life that occurs together with the going out of the lights of an entire great age and with the swift coming of the incalculable darkness of a new one'. The departing era is `the Modern Age', which `began about 500 years ago', with the Renaissance and Reformation. It has been a `European age', whose disintegration can be recognised wherever European influence has extended, but especially in the United States. The age has been bourgeois, democratic, scientific, literate, literal-- minded, and supportive of the family and privacy. John Lukacs distinguishes himself from Spengler and other prophets of Western decline. Not all is dark. We live longer and more comfortably than we used to; we have (it seems) a growing sense of history; even amid the bleakest changes there are always continuities; and there is no virtue in nostalgia, for no age was golden. Nonetheless his book is, he acknowledges, a jeremiad. So was his The Passing of the Modem Age (1970), much of which he now echoes.

Lukacs admires Alexis de Tocqueville, who likewise combined the roles of historian and prophet, and who peered with uncanny foresight into the democratic future. He is vaguer than Tocqueville about what lies ahead. His own thesis cannot be disproved, for the question whether we are entering a new age will be unanswerable for long after all our sunsets. Historical eras take their shape in distant retrospect.

What of the age we are leaving? Terms such as `the Age of Antiquity', `the Middle Ages', `the Renaissance', have an essential but limited usefulness. They emerge as much from posterity's sense of its distance from the past as from characteristics of that past. They capture only those features of an era that fit posterity's perspectives. Still, they are terms of convenience. How convenient is Lukacs's `Modern Age'? He writes with more assurance about its end than about its beginning. The Modern Age, he says, was `the Age of the Cities'. Yet the great cities of Italy and Flanders and the Baltic were more powerful before the Renaissance than during it. Lukacs judges that the Renaissance was proto-democratic because monarchs, wanting to break the aristocracy, made common cause with classes below them. …

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