I primarily read novels, along with other material about them, but once in a while something like The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648 – 1815 comes along and engages me as few histories do. Two favorites are Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present (link goes to my post on Ravelstein) and Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. They, along with The Pursuit of Glory, share the unusual trait of making their subjects lively in a way that monographs and high school classes—at least the ones I read and took—too often don’t. All three have personality, which can’t be taught by graduate departments or journalism classes and separates good history books from the merely well-researched, constructed, and presented. You see the difference in a million places, like one where Blanning tells me something I didn’t know about a famous person: “More controversially, [Adam Smith] ventured the opinion that the benefit of a diet of potatoes could be witnessed in the impressive physiques of the labourers and prostitutes of London (‘the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions’) […]”. This is hardly essential for our understanding of the subject being discussed (agriculture), but it’s a deft way to give a concrete example of larger agricultural trends’ effect on the everyday. He gives numerous specific examples of grand ideas in action. In another showing of character, Blanning says about the growing professionalism of bureaucracies: “[…] nepotism, corruption, obstruction, incompetence—and all the other vices inseparable from public employment of any age—were certainly to be found.” Concise, witty, and true. Among other nonessential but amusing knowledge, we find that, “In France, even pornography was being published in Latin in 1650, but more than 90 per cent of all titles were in French in 1700, by which time Latin had ceased to be a living language.”
Summarizing a 500-page book that in turn summarizes more than 150 years of history is nearly impossible, but if one can discern a primary theme it is how long Europe took to recover from its descent into darkness after Rome. Ample references demonstrate the journey and changes—for example, the Languedoc Canal was called perhaps “[Europe’s] greatest [engineering work] since Roman days.” At least that took a mere 15 years of construction, as opposed to another large canal that required 38. And I thought, “hmmmm, sounds like the Big Dig,” a boondoggle that has become a joke in New England and the rest of the world. This isn’t the only resonance with today. Politically, the most obvious comparison between then and now is Russia, whose descent back into despotism has been covered by Slate, among many others. See, for example, here, here, and here. The “long” Eighteenth Century featured numerous despots, some better than others, when that mode of rule was virtually universal among city states. Russian politics are still trapped in pre-Twentieth Century modes, and the parallels between Blanning’s description of politics then kept bringing to mind Russia now. To give another example, “At the heart of Bonaparte’s success, therefore, was his ability to combine two apparently irreconcilable ideals: liberty and order. He managed this trick by giving the semblance of liberty but the reality of order.” The same is true of modern Russian, whose people were serfs, and effectively slaves, far longer than the people of any other nation, and in too many ways still are.
Like all historical parallels, however, the one I describe is imperfect. Unified countries in the modern sense of the word coalesced during the period Blanning covers. When he writes about the “people” of a country or empire during this time, he tries to define them by saying, “One possible way forward is not to seek what the people were but what they were not, and what they most obviously were not was part of the political establishment.” This formulation captures the nuances of the problems he is trying to describe. In the U.S., many if not most citizens still aren’t part of the political establishment, but by choice, while in Russia they aren’t and never really have been. Yet not very long ago by historical standards most of the West lived that way, drawing us back to the uncomfortable parallels Blanning brings out, of which Russia is only one. What The Pursuit of Glory most recalls is how big the changes have been in the way most people live, even if wider political and social currents still hold true from one era to the next.
In looking at these currents, Blanning offers two interpretations about the Eighteenth Century, one “‘progressive’ and ‘optimistic'” that examines the growth of science, the reduction of superstition, and increased literacy. It seems to have happened mostly on the individual and social level. The other he labels “‘conservative’ and ‘pessimistic,'” with land owners still controlling most countries, wars becoming tremendously expensive and damaging, and monarchs still controlling much of Europe. It seems to have happened mostly on the political and international level. Yet everything has a qualification, as when he writes that “The numerous international forces at work in early modern Europe […] were often powerful enough to deafen national voices.” Yet he qualifies that opinion when he says that nationalism had a long way to go before being tamed in Europe, and arguably has not entirely been. Choosing a progressive or conservative explanation says as much about the chooser as it does about the choice, and Blanning leans toward progressive. Regardless of interpretation, Blanning does a superb job in helping one understand the Eighteenth Century and how it leads to our time.