Commentary Magazine

Reflections on Modern History, by Hans Kohn

The Brink of Moderation

Reflections on Modern History.
by Hans Kohn.
Van Nostrand. 360 pp. $8.75.

The title of this book is promising. Modern history, that nightmare from which we are trying to awaken, certainly calls for reflection. Knowing in our bones that there is a total crisis of our time, we need help in the articulation of it. If it seems that at present we can do little more than seek to grasp its meaning, this is not so small a thing as some would have it. Nor need it lead to despair, for we know from Aristotle that the understanding of terrible things is not in itself terrible. To judge books by what they contribute to our understanding of this total crisis may impose a severe criterion but it is not a narrow one; it allows us to appreciate both Churchill and Kafka.

It also forces us to find Hans Kohn's book somewhat deficient. Professor Kohn is a distinguished historian, as is shown once again by the wealth of information and insight in this book. His very distinction, however, demands to be judged by the highest standards, which unfortunately this book fails to meet. It is true that this collection of thirty-two papers, from various sources and times—dealing with subjects as varied as Napoleon, the U.N., Russian nationalism, Toynbee, liberal education, Lord Acton, Zionism, history as a discipline, German nationalism—is impossible to summarize and difficult to evaluate by any one standard, let alone a high one. Nevertheless, there is a single viewpoint which illuminates all these essays, and all of them, notwithstanding their diversity, concern aspects of the total crisis of our time.

The trouble is that the author frequently comes close to denying that there is such a crisis, even while having to concede, as an observer of modern events, that something is wrong. So, for instance, he states in 1950 that it is a “trite though true commonplace that the United States, and the whole of mankind, is passing through a crisis.” But the passing years seem to make him more hopeful: in 1953 he still writes of “today's crisis” but wants us to see it in perspective. The perspective turns out to be that it is merely “fashionable”—presumably false—to view our condition as unprecedented or total, and that we are living in an age of “burning vitality” in spite of its dark spots. The proof, such as it is, is supplied by that famous “long look” of historians: men in many ages have felt they were living in an unprecedented crisis. We are not told whether they were right or not. Even if they were wrong, we might, after all, be right. Nietzsche, still the greatest diagnostician of the plight of our time, offered as evidence for the novelty of “our” crisis the fact that we are the first generation that does not possess the truth. Even if he could show us we are wrong, a historian would still have to account for the feeling in our bones. The closest Professor Kohn comes to such an explanation is to suggest that we have a greater consciousness of this world's suffering than previous generations, and above all a “heightened moral sensitivity.” Sentimentality might be a better word, but one of the perils of optimism is a confusion between the two.


The author thinks he himself occupies a hard-headed center position between the pessimistic prophets of doom and the optimistic believers in the solvability of all human problems. Sometimes he is able to sustain this posture and get in some telling blows against both those who feel that nothing can be true without being agonizing and those who will not realize that “all human achievements are precarious.” More often, however, he tends toward the optimists. The typical essay has an upbeat ending, for Professor Kohn finds hope in many things: the internationalism of the U.S., the U.N., German politics since 1945, NATO, the emergence of new nations—and lots more. The reader is assured that as long as we keep our heads and our faith, things will work out tolerably well.

The viewpoint is that of a man deeply committed to modern Western civilization, understood as the consummation of ancient Western civilization, as a comprehensive “intellectual and moral attitude.” The greatest enthusiasm is reserved for the Enlightenment; Professor Kohn is unstinting in praise of liberalism, individualism, cosmopolitanism, toleration, and the idea of One World. His main aversion is excessive 19th- and 20th- century nationalism.

There is much to be said for such a viewpoint. Professor Kohn's grounding in a tradition enables him to transcend the frivolous and the fashionable in a number of areas. To mention but two, he has never had any illusions about Russian Communism, and his views on the dignity and limits of academic freedom are refreshingly well-balanced. Today we are all in the same boat, which is called “the West,” and which, to unblock that metaphor, is the only boat in town for decent men.


The difficulity lies in the fact that the author praises the tradition without doing enough to clarify it for us. Such praise is not the special function of an historian, nor is rhetoric Professor Kohn's forte. This would not matter so much if readers had an instinctive adherence to the West, but it is both the cause and the effect of the total crisis that we feel instead a gnawing doubt. Something seems to be radically wrong—that is, wrong at the roots. Since we are rooted in that very Enlightenment which the author affirms, he is bound to obscure this: he fails to see the Enlightenment's decisive break with antiquity. For him there is a majestic mainstream which includes Athens, Jerusalem, and all good things. Unfortunately this is insufficient. One can be in favor of toleration, but one must realize that it was not a cardinal virtue among either the ancient Jews or the ancient Greeks, and that the Enlightenment's toleration is linked to its indifference to the truth of religion, and ultimately to doubts about its utility. One can advocate cosmopolitanism and an open society, but one has to remember two very ancient distinctions, the one between Greeks and barbarians, and the one between Jews and Gentiles. One can attempt to find continuity in Western civilization, but due significance has to be assigned to the appearance of a Galileo, a Machiavelli, a Descartes. Previously, all might be reconciled by a notion of progress, but it is no longer obvious to us that there is such a thing.

The Enlightenment brought Marx and Nietzsche in its wake. Neither is extensively discussed by the author; either is more brilliant than the 19th-century writers Professor Kohn admires, such as Bage-hot, Bryce, and Acton. If his emphasis shows something about the theoretical weakness of the Enlightenment, 20th-century history shows something of its practical weakness. The attack against the center moved from the plane of theory to the plane of action in the form of Communism and Fascism. The emergence of these movements, though it has left us no choice but to be liberal democrats, has also forced us to see that to be in the center—to be children of the Enlightenment—is part of our weakness as well as of our strength. We are the defenders of Athens and Jerusalem, but our access to them is partly severed; we are the corrupted defenders.


To Professor Kohn our dangers seem to be merely external ones. The advice to maintain our armaments is good advice. There is certainly a more immediate danger from foreign aggression than from internal anxiety. Ultimately, though, weapons must be backed by resolution. The advice to maintain a firm hold on the Great Tradition is unlike the advice to maintain a vigorous foreign policy—at least when Professor Kohn gives it. In the second instance, the advice is attended by specific suggestions; in the first, we feel as though we have just been advised to begin speaking Rumanian. We don't know how.

The sickness in our hearts is not seen clearly enough by the author. In part this is due to his unshakeable allegiance to the principles of moderation. In the realm of practice, moderation is indispensable; it is a moral virtue. But it may be an intellectual vice; moderate thought is inadequate thought. As a historian of ideas, the author shows no taste for the extreme thinkers, but these may be the illuminating ones. The price for these inadequacies is that his reflections on modern history sometimes become reflections of modern history.

All such reservations about the whole, however, become justified only after a due appreciation of the excellence of the parts. Of special worth are those parts in which the author pleads for exacting standards in education (against all the whims of fashion he dwells on the importance of studying Greek and Latin); in which he criticizes the “idolatry of social science and psychology” in our time; in which he defends the United States, with all the force of his great erudition, against its thoughtless critics; in which he warns against panic in the face of nuclear weaponry; in which he shows us that part of the historian's wisdom is the realization that the future is unpredictable—and many more. A short review of a collection of essays is bound to do less than full justice to the excellence of the parts. Nor can we claim to have done justice to the book without mentioning its tone, the sound of the author's voice. In this case, it is the voice of a humane, dedicated, and civilized man. It is the voice of a gentleman and a learned man, a voice not heard often enough in the American market place of ideas.

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