A series of biographical vignettes captures a shared skepticism about the rewards of modernity.
In their resistance to an idolatry of modern principles, some of the most penetrating thinkers of the 20th century expressed profound doubts about both progress and philosophical abstraction. Debut author Marquez limns the life of five luminaries linked by their unfashionable misgivings: Carl Schmitt, Michael Oakeshott, Norberto Bobbio, Isaiah Berlin, and Octavio Paz. Schmitt emerges as a German “anti-liberal republican” disturbed by Hitler’s excesses, but even more so by anarchic chaos. Inspired by Hobbes, Schmitt attempted to lead a legal revolution that restored the essence of the political—the distinction between friend and enemy—blurred by liberalism. Oakeshott was the English philosopher perturbed by concept-laden philosophy, or the hubristic fantasies of rationalism and ideology. Italian philosopher Bobbio embraced an intestinal pessimism about politics and progress, more a visceral comportment than an intellectual principle. Russian-British philosopher Berlin explored the meaning of political freedom and the myriad conflicts within a liberalism that often defied systematic coherence. In the most memorable chapter, Mexican poet Paz rejected authoritarianism, including Communism, but also thought searchingly about the limits of liberalism to provide answers to the most urgent questions regarding the meaning of existence, or to even inspire the raising of such questions. The common thread among the cast of characters is political moderation and epistemological wariness, the cautious suspicion of all euphoric programs to achieve a world without contradictions. The author dexterously fuses historical portraiture with philosophical analysis, with the resulting biographies concrete but intellectually rigorous. Marquez’s prose is buoyant and nimble—and winningly avoids academic forms—but does sometime overreach. Within a discussion of Oakeshott’s critique of reason and the impotency of emotion to ameliorate its weakness, the author offers: “Emotions will not save us from these technological tongs.” But this is a minor quibble—the study as a whole is fresh and lively, filled with precisely the kind of careful wisdom its subjects devoted their lives to endorsing.
A judicious, agile look at the limits of reason and modern liberalism.