Thursday, January 7, 2010

Birn: Crisis, Absolutism, Revolution: Europe 1648-1789

Birn, Raymond. Crisis, Absolutism, Revolution: Europe 1648-1789. 2nd ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. 403 pp.

Birn covers the 150 years leading up to the French Revolution across Europe. I was surprised by how much is crammed into the slender-looking volume and learned quite a bit about an era that I had only rough notions of before. The details and understanding of religious matters aren't always quite right (start from the typically modern limited notion of reason and proceed from there), and, at times I found myself wishing for a little more light on reasons for resistance to modern ideas and practices held to be self-evidently good today. Surely forms of thought, ways of life and systems of government that persisted so long and, in some cases, died so hard, had something in their favor other than just intransigence and self-interest? For instance, attributing Montesquieu's dislike of democracy to "aristocratic prejudices" (249) is just a bit too easy. I can't claim much familiarity with Montesquieu's writings, but with the long, long history of philosophical criticism of democracy stretching back to Plato, he probably had some pretty good reasons for that dislike.

That criticism aside, it made for worthwhile reading, not just provoking my reactionary temperament, but stimulating more general thoughts about the sources of political power and the balance that makes for stable government. Here in the United States, we tend to see the shape of political power as something that comes right out of a written constitution, as if creating a good government is as simple as getting the blueprint right, but in practice, it's not that simple. The past several hundred years is replete with examples of written constitutions that weren't worth the paper they were printed on, and not necessarily because they were all poorly designed, but because, for whatever reasons, that balance, where working within the system seemed more promising or less risky than slaughtering the other side or getting the army behind you and doing whatever you want, was never acheived.

1 comment:

Erich Kofmel said...

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