Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Exhausted Age (Part I)

There has been an awful lot of talk about how Obama's election marks the turning point to a new era. I am sympathetic to the basic idea. Not every age is the same. The verities of the twentieth century, the things that defined public life and culture, are not eternal verities. History does not go in a straight line.

I have been reading the multi-volume history of the Church by the great French Catholic historian Henri Daniel-Rops. I was struck by a comment he made, in the volume on the seventeenth century, about the turning of centuries. He notes that ages typically turn over, not at the year '00, but usually some twenty years later. The Victorian Age, for example, did not really come to a close until World War I; TR stood at the cusp, but lived in a world more like the 19th century than the 20th.

The 19th century itself didn't start until around Waterloo, in 1815. Again, Napoleon and Jefferson were certainly turning a new page, but they were only the beginning. The struggles that defined the nineteenth century -- industrialism, the American civil war, the migrations of people, the hegemony of the middle class, etc. -- did not start till later. (Paul Johnson's exquisite The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 makes this case brilliantly.)

Until Louis XIV died in 1715, France, and all of Europe, was still deep in the grand siecle. The Enlightenment, and the 18th century, didn't really start till later. William and Mary's "glorious revolution" of 1688 was a harbinger of things to come -- but also profoundly enmeshed in the struggles of the English 17th century, symbolized by the bloody transition from the absolute monarchy of James I (who lived till 1625), through the revolution of Cromwell's Parliament, to the balance begun with William and Mary (whom Parliament brought in to boot the legitimate king, Mary's older brother James II). The Hanoverian Georges, who really mark the English century, didn't come to the throne till 1714.

But can we really think of the 17th century without Richelieu (beginning in 1624), the Thirty Years War (began 1618), and the English new world (Massachusetts founded 1630)? Henri IV didn't die till 1610. And in the realm of culture, Vincent de Paul began the Mission in 1625, Bacon published the Novum Organum in 1620, and the Galileo controversy began in 1616.

And though Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509), the victor of the Wars of the Roses, certainly marked a new stage in the history of England, it's hard to deny that the 16th century begins with Henry VIII, Luther at Wittenberg (1517), and the intellectual accendancy of Erasmus (In Praise of Folly: 1511). Michaelangelo and Titian came onto the scene around 1508, Raphael about 1513. And Holy Roman Emperor Charles V wasn't crowned till 1519.

There's a prima facie absurdity about thinking in terms of centuries. How much does the year '00 really matter? And of course, it matters nothing in itself -- but much in the way it affects our thinking. Rome has been celebrating epoch-marking jubilees since way back in the Middle Ages, driving home to leaders and commoners alike that the ages are turning. And though it's true that the Middle Ages had no "historical consciousness" in the sense of thinking through the historical context of past authors, they were quite fond of referring to themselves as moderni, in contradistinction to the ancients. Seeing ourselves as part of a new age is nothing new.

And surely the turning over of a new century contributes much to this thinking. Henry Adams is famous for contemplating the new age dawning in the year 1900, but surely he was not alone. It's easy to imagine Napoleon thinking he marked a new age -- the despotic version of "change you can believe in" -- that updated things for the new century; probably the French revolutionaries had the same epochal mind. Did Jefferson know that he was the first president of the 1800s? Yes.

Nor is this anything new. I don't think it's hard to imagine Henry VIII and his father thinking that the 16th century was going to be something new. The turning of the centuries, so profoundly celebrated by the Catholic Church, encourages men of every age to rethink what it means to be modern. The generation coming of age today knows very well that their parents grew up in a different century. I don't think there's anything new about that awareness. Barrack Obama, Peggy Noonan, and all the rest of them talk so incessantly about this being a new century -- and they stand in a long tradition.

This contemporary awareness of the turning of ages is, no doubt, self-fulfilling. In any case, it's a good way of explaining what seems to be a fact of history: the 1300's were not at all like the 13th century, was not like the 12th, was not like the 11th. And all the more so in the ages closer to us. There is truth in the conflation of the French word siecle, and the Latin saeculum: words meaning both "century" (100 years) and "age." Each century is a new age.

But the birth of a new age takes time. Looking back, it's hard to miss the number 15: 1917 (height of World War I, fall of the Romanovs), 1815 (Waterloo), 1715 (death of Louis XIV -- George I came to England the year before), 1618 (the Thirty Years War), 1517 (the 95 theses). Sure, 15 itself is a coincidence, but perhaps fifteen years represents about the length of time it takes for a new generation to come of age. In 2009, the millenial generation is just coming to self-consciousness; Peggy Noonan's columns are probably more like birth pangs -- the old generation telling us that something new is coming -- than the real thing. The seventeenth century couldn't start till Henri IV (1610) and James I (1625) were dead, the eighteenth till the death of Louis XIV (1715) and good Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts (1714) .

And that dying, that passing of the old guard, has nothing to do with modern media or technology. If anything, we'd expect the Media Age, with its excessive conformity, its intrusion of the elites into our every thought, to make the birth of a new age take longer.

Which is all to say, talk about a new age dawning is historically warranted. The 21st century will not be like the 20th. But reports of the old age's demise may still be premature.

What's most lacking in many of these reports -- and in the rhetoric of the President -- is any serious consideration of what marked the 20th century. ("Partisanship" is about as shallow as you can get.) In the next post, I'll give one take on the spirit of that age. I can't predict what the next age will be like, but maybe knowing what is passing will help us to guess.