Bryan Caplan has some thought-provoking comments about Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times” – in my opinion, one of the greatest works of history by a historian of any era, let alone ours. Johnson, a devout Roman Catholic who has written about, and met, many of the leading figures of post WW2 history, including Churchill, is a writer never afraid to let you know his point of view. He enjoys overturning certain stock images of historical “heroes” and “villains”; he memorably defended the reputation of Calvin Coolidge, a much underestimated POTUS, and tries his best to be nice about Richard Nixon (I think he does not quite succeed), and reminds us of what a great old fellow was Konrad Adenauer. Johnson is also merciless towards Ghandi, whose reputation he trashes.
The great thing about the man – now in his 80s and still going strong as a writer – is capacity for narrative, for making history a story; he is stickler for dates. You really do get the “sweep of events” from Johnson, in much the same way you would from an Edward Gibbon, Hugh Trevor Roper or a TB Macaulay (whom he some ways resembles). (Here are more thoughts on Johnson in the same blog.)
Like Caplan, I am not entirely sure that moral relativism captures the full nature of what went wrong in terms of the 20th Century, although I think Johnson does capture quite a lot of the problem with that concept. For me, the ultimate disaster of that century was the idea of the omniscient State and of the associated idea that governments, run by all-knowing officials, could solve many of the real or supposed problems of the age. The 20th Century was not unique in witnessing the growth of government, but it was an age when government had, like never before, the technology at its disposal to be immensely powerful, probably more so than at any time since the Romans (and even the writ of Rome had its limits). We are still, alas, in the grip of that delusion that government can and should fix problems, although there is perhaps, hopefully, a bit more cynicism about it than say, during the late 1940s when the likes of Attlee were in Downing Street.
Johnson is right, however, to point out that in a world where there is no stated respect for the idea of impartial rules and law, no respect for reason and for the idea of objective truth – or at least that it is noble to pursue truth – that terrible consequences follow; every irrationality, might-is-right worldview, will fill the vacumn. However, unlike Johnson, I do not think that morality requires the anchor of belief in a Supreme Being, and he tends to make the mistake, like a lot of devoutly religious folk, of assuming that atheists, for example, cannot arrive at a moral code, which seems to rather overlook the role of people such as Aristotle, who had a huge impact on views about ethics, and from whom other religions have borrowed (think of the Thomist tradition in Catholic thought, for instance).
The sleep of reason really does bring forth monsters.