PositiveThe Wall Street JournalA group biography, the book offers scenes and episodes illustrative of a period of extraordinary intellectual ferment. Alongside ideas, it narrates war, romance, university politics, professional rivalries and domestic tragedies ... The book is novelistic and eccentric. Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch, it assumes more background knowledge than anglophone readers will generally possess and is too brief and sporadic to offer a comprehensive intellectual history. Nevertheless, it succeeds at conveying the personalities, the atmosphere, and the exhilaration of Jena’s philosophical and aesthetic revolution ... The success of Jena 1800 relies on its kaleidoscopic narrative style. The doctrines of the Idealists and the effusions of the Romantics are not neatly summarized as if in retrospect. Instead they spill out in real time, amid the personal triumphs and tragedies of their authors ... Mr. Neumann has provided an evocative account of a rich episode in Europe’s cultural history. How relevant readers will find his subjects is another question ... These critiques are highly exaggerated, and certainly Mr. Neumann has no time for them. His book is much warmer toward the Jena free spirits, whom he presents as progressive visionaries. One suspects, however, that they would have found our late liberal world naively empirical in philosophy and unattractively solipsistic in culture. Jena 1800 is, in this respect, the devoted account of a lost cause.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThis tension, between the objectives of the historian and the advocate, runs throughout Mr. Robertson’s book, lending it both interest and partiality ... To be sure, Mr. Robertson is no harrumphing apologist. A professor of German literature at Oxford University, he is splendidly erudite. Generally admiring of the intellectuals he styles (somewhat unhappily) the \'Enlighteners,\' he nevertheless surveys their failures with a clear eye. A distressing chapter of his book does indeed document the racial views of Hume and Kant, which, though only sporadically expressed, were mean, ignorant and obdurate. Another long section presents the pervasive misogyny of the period ... Among the strengths of this book is its use of literature and its author’s vast knowledge of German letters in particular ... Mr. Robertson also seems to share the antipathy that many of his heroes displayed for more orthodox, revealed religion. He quotes at unjustifiable length Voltaire’s rather gauche scriptural criticism, in which he typically offered simplistic, literal readings of the Bible and mocked the results. Mr. Robertson is also perhaps too impressed by Hume’s overestimated attack on miracles ... These themes of ethical sentiment and rational religion dominate but don’t reliably focus Mr. Robertson’s book. The study is simply massive, nearly a 1,000 pages. Though well written, it will be difficult for readers to endure from beginning to end ... For stretches, the book reads like a general history of 18th-century Europe ... Though overly voluble at times, Mr. Robertson is a splendid writer, astoundingly versed in European letters and gifted at vividly sketching the views of the Enlighteners. He has produced a book that will work best when sampled, with each chapter read as a free-standing essay ... In this sense, Mr. Robertson has written a fitting tribute to his topic ... Mr. Robertson, armed with a prodigious knowledge of the Enlightenment’s literary output, has captured the tone and spirit of this milieu. Whether, in the face of critics either religiously orthodox or politically woke, he has produced a case for the intellectual relevance of the Enlightenment is a more open question. Individual readers will, one might mischievously suggest, feel differently about that.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalReaders more interested in Spinoza’s philosophy, and particularly his ethical thinking, might instead turn to Mr. Nadler’s latest book, Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die. Spinoza inspires a rare devotion in many who study him. Descartes, Hobbes and Locke are all granted historical importance, but Spinoza is often read as a kind of timeless sage. There exists an entire genre recommending him to modern readers as a philosophical and ethical guide. Think Least of Death is just such a book. As an accessible introduction to the complex thought of Spinoza, it is a success.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)[Fernández-Armesto\'s] new book...is an effort to bring the methods of Big History to bear on the history of ideas ... ... Out of Our Minds is an oddly indeterminate book. Its author often sounds like a half- redundant humanist struggling to ingratiate himself with the new bosses. He deploys plenty of brain science, socio-biology, and the like, but the humanist breaks through, and regularly deflates the overbearing self- assurance of these disciplines. Fernández- Armesto acknowledges the outstanding intellectual particularities of the human species, hesitates to reduce these to mere evolutionary adaptations, and thus risks condemnation for the heresy of \'anthropocentrism\'. But it is this nonconformity that saves his book ... He presents the intellectual achievements of premodern humanity with open-minded regard, and his book thus has a (small c) conservative tone. A great deal of Big History is marked by anti-humanistic (and anti-religious) propensities, by a cheerless desire to drain any existential awe from the cognitive experience of being a human. Fernández- Armesto is admirably incapable of playing that dreary game.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal[Malcolm\'s] latest study offers a definitive account of Christendom’s tortured and often paradoxical interactions with its Islamic neighbor and rival ... Useful Enemies is not a history of the Ottomans, still less of early modern Islam. Mr. Malcolm offers instead a \'study of Western political thinking\' about both. He is interested in how Western thinkers portrayed, resisted and emulated the Ottoman Empire from the late Middle Ages through the early Enlightenment ... Mr. Malcolm’s approach can lead to frustrations. Much of what he records amounts to a welter of stereotypes, and only rarely does he pause to correct the misinformation purveyed by the ill-informed Western commentators who are his primary sources. Readers must grope somewhat blindly around the subject at the center of all the attention—the Ottomans themselves—and tease out knowledge of them from untrustworthy reports... That Useful Enemies succeeds even so testifies to the extent of Europe’s fascination with Ottoman power.
PanThe Wall Street Journal\"Some of [Blom\'s] presentation is unexceptionable, but many parts of it go too far and try to explain too much ... Mr. Blom gives a serviceable account of [several] torments [in Europe around the time of the Little Ice Age]. But his book misfires when it traces the emerging economic and intellectual hegemony of Europe to the creative chaos of the Little Ice Age ... Presuming, rather than demonstrating, that environmental crisis encouraged intellectual innovation, Mr. Blom wanders into a series of baffling digressions. Extended discussions of the idiosyncratic English astronomer John Dee, or the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, have little bearing on the subject of the book. He plows ahead regardless, justifying his tangents by noting his subjects’ occasional comments on the weather. Nature’s Mutiny is full of such cul-de-sacs ... Though frustratingly digressive, [Blom\'s] style is generally pleasing, marred only by an occasional penchant for mixed metaphors.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Wootton’s book originated as a series of lectures delivered at Oxford, and it retains a somewhat didactic feel. Much of it is donnish intellectual history, full of interesting but digressive discussions ... The consumer revolution was a defining feature of the 18th century, particularly in the British-speaking world ... Mr. Wootton assumes rather than explains these transformations. His main concern is with the theorists who described (and justified) the psychology required to live in such a world ... Mr. Wootton writes to provoke. His style is engaging, and he has a practiced eye for finding the historically telling detail (often etymological) ... Mr. Wootton explicates complex social and political theories with admirable lucidity ... It is perhaps doubtful that modern ethics are quite this easily reduced to a system of self-gratification. And to the extent that they are, Mr. Wootton is not always sensitive to the limitations of this development.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIt is a work of synthesis, offering neither archival discoveries nor particularly original interpretations. But it is certainly no mere vanity project. Mr. Massing has read widely and intelligently, and he writes superbly. Fatal Discord is surely the only book on either Erasmus or Luther that general readers will ever require. It reads like a lively lecture series in that most beleaguered of university subjects, Western Civilization ... His accounts of the low moments of the Reformation era—the heresy trials, the German Peasant’s War, the atrocities of the imperial Sack of Rome in 1527—are grimly riveting ... Fatal Discord conveys the profound violence and loss that accompanied the birth of modern Europe. To witness the Reformation crisis through the eyes of Erasmus and Luther proves at once instructive and oddly foreboding.