SINCE history began, people have always felt they lived in
"modern" times - whether they saw their own era as an improvement on
previous ones or a sorry decline from some ancient Golden Age. From
our own late-20th-century perspective, the past 70 years - the 1920s
and after - strike most of us as indubitably modern, and many of us
would extend the term further back.
Fixing a date for the birth of the modern is an engaging
historical game. If modern means machine age, we might start with
the invention of the steam engine. If modern implies the kind of
thinking that led to the Industrial Revolution, we might locate its
beginnings as early as the Renaissance or as late as the
Enlightenment. If modern means the questioning of traditional
beliefs and institutions, we could look to the Protestant
Reformation - or the French Revolution.
In his earlier book "Modern Times" British journalist and
historian Paul Johnson examined "The World from the Twenties to the
Eighties" with a focus on the ideologies and practices that made
this century a time when totalitarian nightmares came true.
A former socialist turned Tory, Johnson deftly illustrated the
ways in which the totalitarian regimes of the right and the left
learned new techniques of coercion and control from each other.
Subsequently, Johnson turned his brilliant, ambitious, sometimes
overly tendentious pen to "A History of the English People" and "A
History of the Jews." And most recently, he wrote a much shorter
book called "Intellectuals a scathing group portrait of left-wing
thinkers like Rousseau and Marx, all caricatured by Johnson as a
veritable rogues' gallery of hypocrites who talked about human
rights while abusing their friends, wives, and children.
Considering that Johnson traces the political evils of our
century to the ideologies formulated by the romantics and
revolutionaries of the previous century, one is a little surprised
to find him nominating 1815 to 1830 as the focal period for "The
Birth of the Modern."
Johnson himself seems surprised: We might have expected him to
choose the 1780s, as he remarks in his introduction. But instead, he
has skipped over both the American and the French Revolutions and
chosen to concentrate on a period of reaction, retrenchment,
stabilization, material growth, and renewed attempts at reform. The
period opens with the seeming triumph of the forces of reaction but
ends with the return of what Johnson calls the "Demos": the age of
Andrew Jackson in the United States, the Reform Bill in England, and
mass meetings in Ireland.
Although Johnson's strongly held views are still in evidence,
"The Birth of the Modern" is less strident - and finally more
persuasive - than some of his more recent work. True, he still takes
an excessive, unseemly relish in magnifying the character flaws of
19th-century cultural heroes like Beethoven, Byron, Shelley, and
Hegel - not to mention the heroic arch-villain Napoleon. …