Wednesday, December 17, 2008

From Vienna to Versailles

I've been reading From Vienna to Versailles, a book of essays about the long 19th century (i.e., from the Congress of Versailles at the close of the Napoleonic Wars to the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI), by L.C.B. Seaman.

The first couple of essays were okay, but essays V and VI are superb.

Essay V, entitled "Revolution: Origins," introduced to me the notion that the American and French Revolutions were the first time that it was not perceived as a crime for a people to attempt to replace a government that was oppressive. Somehow I escaped learning that this idea, which was ingrained into me from youth, was a new idea in the late 1700s.

In essay VI, entitled "1815-1848: The Age of Frustration," Seaman introduces, to me anyway (these essays were first published in 1955) the idea that the Liberals who were rallying for civil liberties had an economic imperative...
The classes who had been educated at the universities therefore rallied to the Liberal cause because constitutional liberties offered them daily bread. They could believe, for instance, that the freedom of the press was desirable in itself as an instrument for the perfection of the human mind; but for those who wanted to be journalists the freedom of the press was something more than a lofty idea. It was an economic necessity. There was no future in journalism for the young man of ambition if all that he wrote was liable to censorship, or if the journal he edited or which published his articles was under the permanent threat of extinction by offical suppression.

With regards to Romanticism and Conservatism...

Edmund Burke had provided European Conservatism with a political creed and Walter Scott had opened the still unclosed floodgates of intellectual nostalgia for the Middle Ages. The Right now looked wistfully (and myopically) back to the Middle Ages as a happy time when all power was unquestionably in the hands of the kings, feudal lords and the Church. The appeal to history, made moderately by Burke, had become devotion to myth.

How did I find this book? I'm just about finished with a 36-lecture audio course from the Teaching Company called The Long Century: European History from 1789 to 1917, and this was one of the recommended readings that accompany the class.

I like the essays because they are short (5-10 pages), well-written, and thought provoking. Understanding the politics and social history of this time period is helping me better understand the literature produced therein.


  1. Sounds interesting; I think I might give it a try, for the same reasons as you:

    "Understanding the politics and social history of this time period is helping me better understand the literature produced therein."

    Well, and also because I don't read as much nonfiction as I probably should. Thanks for the review :)

  2. I go through a phase of reading mostly novels, followed by a phase of reading mostly nonfiction. Since I have been reading so much fiction lately, this was a refreshing break.