What a feeling of triumph, and what a joyous expectation, in this one word: progress! It comprehends both the pride without which it is impossible to live, and those perspectives on the future which, instead of contradicting the present, complete and embellish it. Our methods are progressing. Our science is progressing. Our power to act is growing. Even the quality of our minds is improving. "All the sciences and all the arts, the progress of which was almost completely stopped for two centuries, have recovered in this one new strength and begun, so to speak, a new career."--"Here we are, in a century which grows more and more enlightened every day, so that all the preceding centuries are nothing but shadows in comparison." All uneasiness, all agitations are ditched; man, loath to come back to contemplate from a distance the Golden Age past, and uncertain of eternity, projects his hopes toward a closer future, which he will perhaps get to enjoy himself, and which in any case will be attained by his sons...Peter Gay, in the massive bibliographical supplement to Enlightenment: An Interpretation, points to Hazard's book as an example of "legendary erudition" "disfigured by vivid writing." He is, undoubtedly, correct. Hazard's writing is so purple, so stuffed full of parallel clauses and exclamation marks, that I couldn't stomach reading his second volume (La Pensée européenne au 18ème siècle de Montesquieu à Lessing) in the original. But the bad writing doesn't just make the book difficult to read. It also distorts the book's content, turning it into a kind of half-hearted historical epic.
Already science becomes an idol, a myth. Science begins to be confounded with happiness, material progress with moral progress. It is thought that science will replace philosophy and religion, and that it will suffice for all the needs of the human spirit. And in reaction, others are already protesting: they reproach science for wishing to trespass, after by need having determined, its own limits. They speak of its excessive pride, and they proclaim--so necessary it is to combat, so quickly, this nascent myth--the failure of science.
- Paul Hazard, La Crise de la conscience européenne, 1680-1715 (1935)
La Crise is not an epic. The premise--that the 1680-1715 period was decisive in shaping the intellectual boundary between the seventeenth century and the eighteenth--is not especially suited to the epic style, and the effect is not really triumphant or tragic. Of course, as I've stated it, the thesis is difficult to disagree with, and in fact there is little in the book that is historiographically surprising. (Aside, naturally, from the aforementioned erudition.) The sense one gets is that ideas, in this short historical moment, still don't have the power to change the world.
On the one hand, for Hazard, all the Bayles and Tolands and Leibnizes of the age were just playing around at the entrance to Enlightenment. On the other, they already managed to outline all of the Enlightenment's possibilities: counter-Enlightenment, Romanticism, atheism, Rousseauism, and so on. Even the tag "crisis" is, I think, misleading. At this stage their actions still didn't have consequences. The experimental spirit of the eighteenth century was in full flower, but life still remained the same. What Hazard's vivid writing actually does is elide the real significance of this period, which lies precisely in its innocence. If Was ist Aufklärung? marks the adulthood of humanity, 1680-1715 marks its adolescence.
So I wish Hazard paid more attention to this minor-key melody, the quiet and almost willing disappearance of the early modern. But to fault the book for its writing is also to miss the real reason for the urgency of the style. Hazard is addressing himself to a world on the brink of war and perhaps of revolution--a moral appeal which becomes even more urgent in the second volume, finished just before his death in 1944. He is seeking, to be sure, for the "historical roots of present discontents"--but he also wants us, the victims of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, to face head-on what were once its alternative possibilities.
Moral urgency, alas, only goes so far. What makes Hazard so difficult to read is really the same problem that plagues Adorno and Stephen Toulmin. Their attempt to cast the Enlightenment as "the cursed mother of our cursed age" (as Peter Gay puts it) can no longer address us, who can only see our world as cursed if we look at it through an intellectual lens. (The Holocaust, after all, is now as far away from us as the Thirty Years' War was from Addison and Steele.) All we can do is quietly await the moment when we will once again look at 1715 (or 1789) and not see in it an occasion for moral appeals.