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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

Discontent and Tension

At the present rate of progression . . . it will not need another century or half century to turn thoughts upside down. Law in that case would disappear . . . and give place toforce. Morality would become police. Explosives would reach cosmic violence.


In French history the years at the turn of the twentieth century are called La Belle Epoque, that delightful time when bourgeois life seemed at its richest and fullest. The comforts of earthly existence were everywhere apparent: top hats, electricity, interior plumbing, telephones, spacious boulevards in growing cities. More significantly, the franc was as good as gold because it was minted in that metal and therefore readily acceptable and well invested around the world. Perhaps the most opulent development of the time was the elevation of the ancient Roman custom of the banquet to a grand bourgeois art. Tables groaned under magnificent gastronomic creations, and middle- class stomachs frequently displayed the roundness of overcontentment. It was during this era that Maxim's became an internationally renowned dining spot, and that the cordon bleu, originally a royal award of chivalry, was widely recognized as the sign of excellent cooking.

What has been said of France could equally be said of England, Austria, Germany, or Italy. The middle classes were well satisfied, the world in which they circulated seemed settled and secure. "An excessive value on the placidity of existence," was the way the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once described this situation.

Yet that placidity was seen by many critics as only a surface condition. Beneath the routine of daily life they found indications of weak supports: false beliefs, wrong goals, unwarranted smugness. Doubt and disdain about the very nature of modern civilization were attitudes assumed by some intellectuals and social activists. The growing materialism of the age, the seemingly excessive concern with physical comfort, and the social hypocrisy of the middle classes--these were subjects that figured in so much contemporary art: the plays of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, the novels of Samuel Butler and André Gide, the cartoons in the English publication Punch and the German publication "Simplissimus".

Moreover, some of the sentiments of social critics ran through darker and deeper currents. There was an undercurrent of discontent and fear. Like the hero in Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"--a novel appearing in 1886--European society seemed to be creating an unpleasant and uncontrollable nature, the direct outcome of its own conceit. How long modern civilization could maintain the peaceful balance achieved by the forward motion generated by science and industry was a question asked long before the outbreak of World War I.

Beneath and Beyond Calculation and Reason
In 1878 Thomas Masaryk, future founding president of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, completed his study, Suicide and the Meaning of Civilization. The study was one of the first on a subject that was of growing public interest. Masaryk estimated that some fifty thousand people took their own lives annually in Europe. This dreadful social phenomenon led him to want "to show how suicide as a general or 'mass' phenomenon had developed out of and is part of modern culture." Although Masaryk has been proven wrong in his assumption that suicide is an outgrowth of modernity, his general concern with the underlying disorder of his age was not misplaced. To many of his contemporaries the world was something less--or more--than a rational place.

Since the Enlightenment, the principle of reason had provided the norm for human behavior. Democratic politics and scientific investigation were based upon it. And so was the market system, which assumed that everyone calculated to his own benefit. The prevailing intellectual attitude of the century was, in effect, a combination of Hegel's premise that "all which is real is rational, and all which is rational is real," and the empirical approach to scientific observation, an approach that basically considered the rational mind to be informed by the sense of sight. What is seen can be scientifically assessed--this was a nineteenth-century postulate. In such a view of things man was considered not to be an actor or doer, but primarily a dispassionate observer on the sidelines of the world, a thinking creature who only notes what happens around him.

Dissent from this interpretation was strong toward the end of the century, although the Romantics of the early century had raised objections chiefly of a literary sort. Contrary to the scientific belief in external reality, the Romantics only saw outer appearances and inner truth. For them the imagination transcended the sense of sight; it alone provided meaning, hence understanding. Put otherwise, it was insight that determined outlook. Later, the English playwright Oscar Wilde expressed this thought when he asserted that life imitates art, that the artist teaches us to see, to appreciate, and-- above all--to value. In this way human beings impose their feelings and inspirations upon reality. The world is shaped by the imagination.

Such thought harbored spiritual qualities that the scientific positivism of the later century ignored or denied. For Masaryk this was the key to an understanding of contemporary suicide. He argued: "In our schools, large and small, only the intellect is cultivated." A struggle between learning and religion thus ensues, with the result that "no perfect character can be created, only an intellectual and moral chaos."

The incomplete or disjointed psyche of modern man, which Masaryk singled out as the root cause of suicidal tendencies, was one that appeared in many contemporary assessments. The French author Emile Durkheim, author of another and far more important study on suicide published in 1897, found the modern cultural condition to be one of anomie, of rootlessness or unrelatedness. Without well-articulated and arranged values, the individual could not relate to the world, could not find a satisfactory place in it, and thus was lost. The anomic condition was one of cultural despair. On a more popular level, critics argued that the whole person was only found when the individual engaged in acts of commitment, in personal self-assertion.

A new mysticism, a blend of action and devotion, appeared in religion, in nationalism, and in imperialism. If there was a key word that figured in the vocabulary of many writers, it was "will." "Will" was clearly a metaphysical term, beyond any simple means of scientific measurement. It was even enshrouded in further ambiguity in the phrase "will-to-power," coined by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Taken out of its author's context, the term was soon popularized to mean forceful assertion, domination, even rule of the weak by the strong and thus disrespect, or contempt for the common man. Nietzsche perhaps intended none of this, but his writing lent itself well to brief excerpts, and he was thereby more often quoted than read, and made something of a prophet in the early twentieth century.

It is worth noting that Nietzsche, along with a considerable number of other contemporary writers, used the word "energy" as a synonym for "will." Both industrial power and human power were related; the nineteenth century concluded on a theme of force, as well as on a theme of peaceful progress. For the American Henry Adams, the "dynamo" had replaced the "Virgin" as the symbol of the times. It was energy, not contemplation; force, not beauty, that he saw prevailing.

These attitudes, if suddenly pronounced, had been forming for several decades. They certainly found an early focal point in Charles Darwin's work. His publication of "On the Origin of Species" was a moment of excitement in 1859. The book had the quality of being "timely": it appeared when educated people were toying with the ideas of change and evolution, of what one author has described as "the historical articulation of nature." The interest in change-through-time was a keen nineteenth-century one and helps explain the popularity then enjoyed by history. But Darwin added a scientific authority which had hitherto been lacking to the subject.

"On the Origin of Species" was a scientific explanation of animal evolution. Darwin offered as the operating principle of change the idea of "natural selection," a process through which certain forms of life adapted better--more efficiently--to their environment and thus survived. Darwin's thought revolutionized biology, aroused religious controversy, and inspired a reinterpretation of social science.

Within two decades of the book's publication, Social Darwinism--the application, extension, and distortion of Darwin's biological analysis to social behavior--had spread throughout Europe. Society was now conceived as being an extended organism, with its own life-cycle, its own competitive principles, its own collective desire to survive. "Struggle for survival" and "survival of the fittest," terms earlier employed by Darwin to explain his biological theories, now became thrilling slogans for an age of commercial and political competition. Thus Social Darwinism provided a pseudo-scientific justification for imperial expansion, for military aggression, and for the forceful assertion of the nation as well as of the individual. One of the most popular social commentators in late nineteenth-century France, Gustave Le Bon, stated: "The right of the strongest! This is the only law which is always imposed, and it is also the one which has allowed humanity to progress the most." The statement appeared in Le Bon's "The First Civilizations", published in 1889, a century after the French revolutionaries had issued The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

This pessimistic and deterministic mood washed over the democratic principles which had been the hope of thinkers in the early century. A new conservatism, unrestrained by an older aristocratic base, added a new ideological component to European thought. The forerunner of what would be known in our times as "The Radical Right," this conservatism combined, often in a clumsy but appealing way, several points of view.

First, there was virulent or chauvinistic nationalism, trumpeted about in phrases asserting the "blood-bond" of the community, its unique historical position, and the glories of war as a manifestation of the nation's strength and power. Nationalism, hitherto generous in its acceptance of the idea that all peoples had the right to define themselves and to live together harmoniously, now became exclusive and bellicose. An oppositional relationship, one expressing the virtues of one people or nation and the weaknesses of another, quickened the spirit of international rivalry and fear. The German historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896), one of the most influential academic figures of his day, excited his students with statements like this: "Again and again, it has been proven that it is war which turns a people into a nation." And Houston Stewart Chamberlain, English son-in-law of the German composer Richard Wagner and an important theorist of the German racial cult, wrote in 1910: "We are left with the simple and clear view that our whole civilization and culture of today is the work of one definite race of men, the Teutonic." Nationalism distorted history into the forceful triumph of one group of people who were culturally, and frequently racially, made to appear as strikingly different from their neighbors.

Second, there was a contempt for parliamentary practices. As democracy triumphed in political fact--with the extension of the franchise--its distractors found it weak and indecisive, not assertive. A French author, Emile Faguet, wrote a book entitled "The Cult of Incompetence" (1910), the subject of which was democracy, and the theme of which was the mediocrity of democratic rule. Moreover, political process was given a new interpretation with the idea of the "elite." The concept was formulated by the Italian philosopher Vilfredo Pareto in his work "Socialist Systems" (1902). It was not classes in opposition, he argued--and thereby dismissed Marx and his theory--but elites, groupings of superior men itching for power, who contended with one another to gain control of society by using the masses as tools to support their struggle. The autonomous individual of liberal philosophy was now replaced by the manipulated masses of the new conservative philosophy. It is interesting to note that Benito Mussolini would later state that he learned much from Pareto.

The mind that accepted this new conservatism rejected the social results of both the French and the Industrial Revolutions. Authoritarian, it mocked parliamentary procedures and described them as ineffective. Elitist, it treated the urban, industrial masses with contempt, as objects to be directed or dominated. And, somewhat romantically, it turned to view the countryside, where it claimed the real people resided. These, supposedly, were the folk sturdily attached to the soil and leading a life of simple devotion and vigorous action, while their city brethren calculated and rationalized for their own selfish advantage. Anti-semitism, which grew virulently in the late nineteenth century, was greatly reinforced by the notion of the Jew as the true city dweller, an individual without a soul or compassion--a schemer.

If such opinion as this was only mildly disturbing--if noticed at all--to most members of the middle classes or the growing proletariat who lived in those sunlit years of "La Belle Epoque", it was soon to be of major importance. The darkly hued thoughts expressed at the turn of the twentieth century, those briefly reviewed above, marked a transition between two differing concepts of the human condition. In the seventeenth century Descartes had proclaimed, "I think therefore I am." In the twentieth century the Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg claimed, "We think with our blood."

Moreover, the changing mood was itself formed by a number of social groupings, some in protest against bourgeois comfort and democratic purposes, others against oppressive authority. Youth, an influential social category throughout the nineteenth century, now contained a pronounced element that was illiberal, given to desperate action, revolutionary or militant or both. In Russia, student riots grew more violent and anarchistic, directed toward the paralysis, if not the overthrow, of the autocratic regime. Political assassination appeared as an accepted tactic, with Tsar Alexander II, one of the most prominent victims of the thrown bomb in 1881. Often conspiratorial in nature, actionist in purpose, and fatalistic in mood--a sense of foreboding, of inevitable death, characterized the thought of many youthful anarchists- -these individuals were dedicated terrorists, modern political figures who expected acts of violence to change the social order of things.

Peace was no longer accepted as a good in-and-of-itself by some Western European youth of middle-class origin. In Italy of the early twentieth century, the "Futurist" movement, both artistic and political in form, grouped a number of young intellectuals yearning for action. The writer Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944), chief figure in the movement, offered what amounted to a manifesto: "We want to glorify war, the world's only hygiene." In France a collection of ardent imperialists looked upon the sands of Africa as the environment in which to rejuvenate their old nation. There, in the words of Hubert Lyautey, future marshal of France, "our race is being retempered and recast as if in a crucible." From England, Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, offered this remark: "Better than football, better than any other game, is man-hunting."

Thus, to the growing complexities of European international politics was added the volatile element of a new cultural discontent. It was to have a conditioning effect, making some youth anxious for war and inspired to serve happily when it came, making some statesmen impatient with the practice of diplomatic compromise and somewhat reckless in their plans, and making many citizens all too willing to sacrifice their newly gained liberties when some mystical national destiny was held before them.

When the diplomats failed at their task and the militarists were allowed to display their grand plans for battle, a generation of young people willingly went to war, and a generation of middle-aged people cheered them on.

NEXT:  The Delicate Balance of Diplomacy

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