Humanism built Western civilization as we know it today. Its achievements include the liberation of the individual, democracy, universal rights, and widespread prosperity and comfort. Its ambassadors are the heroes of modern culture—Erasmus, Holbein, Shakespeare, Velázquez, Descartes, Kant, Freud. Those who sought to contain humanism’s pride within a frame of higher truth—Luther, Calvin, Poussin, Kierkegaard—could barely interrupt its torrential progress. Those who sought to reform humanism’s tenets from within—Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche—were tested by the success of their own prophecies.
So runs the approved view. It is not shared by John Carroll.
Instead, Carroll articulates a disruptive and compelling alternative narrative of the course of Western civilization since the Renaissance and the Reformation contrived to unleash reason, will, and a superhuman man on the world. The West’s five-hundred-year experiment with humanism has failed, he maintains in this bracing study of humanism’s rise to preeminence and its headlong tumble into contradiction, because humans ultimately need some kind of contact with a higher, or metaphysical, order beyond the confines of their time-bound, mundane selves. And if this wasn’t entirely clear before September 11, 2001, Carroll concludes, it surely is now. His provocative and brilliant arguments will challenge received wisdom on every side.