Monday, September 5, 2016

From Absolutism to Revolution: 1648 - 1848. By Herbert H. Rowen.

In Europe, between 1648 and 1848, crucial progress was made via a difficult path of learning and action. From Absolutism to Revolution eponymously defines that progress. But there is a lot that the book contains which the title cannot. This is not simply a political story about our fitful western transition from monarchy to democracy. It is also a retelling of how our thinking changed.

Rowen does not begin his account with a political treatise; he begins with Sir Isaac Newton. Therein is an important distinction between this and other histories on the topic of socio-political development towards greater freedom. What Newton represents is the Scientific Revolution of the Sixteenth Century. This seemingly non-political revolution challenged established notions and static thinking. The “absolute truths” of Judeo-Christian Europe were beginning to be challenged by a non-belief-based, empirical, experimental way of looking at the world. Once the answers to how the world worked were no longer satisfied by the phrase “God made it this way and any questioning is blasphemy,” then any number of ideas could be called into question. All kinds of traditional plans for humanity, based on argument from authority alone, were open to reinterpretation. Even the Divine Right of Kings, with their alleged authority from God, was up for debate. Well…at least according to some people these notions were up for debate. It is not as if the floodgates of free thought were now open and flowing unhindered. The entrenched interests of Church, King and Aristocrat, who benefitted greatly from maintaining argument from authority over argument from experience and experiment, initially resisted even the suggestion that a debate was allowable. Therein lay a tension that unfolds throughout the book in terms of both concept and action.

Since this book is as much about changing ideas as it is about changing society, Rowen offers a structure that addresses this premise. The book is divided into four sections: 1) “The Age of Louis XIV,”(1648-1715), when absolutism was at its height and the foundational challenging ideas were being formulated and  expressed. 2) The “Age of Enlightenment” (1715-1789), when a public sphere in opposition to the royal sphere had been firmly established and was gaining traction. 3) “The Age of Revolution” (1789-1815), covering the French Revolution, through Napoleon’s era of conquest to his final defeat and examining the response in the rest of Europe. 4) “The Age of Restoration” (1815-1848), examining the reactionary period of monarchical power, along with the democratic or forward-thinking ideas which survived in that period and developed into guiding principles that resulted in the revolutions of 1848.

Most of the writing is not Rowen’s. He allows the proponents of conservativism and progress to speak for themselves. At the beginning of each section, the author presents a short synopsis of activities, and debated ideas, in the time period discussed. He then presents short chapters, each introducing a key individual, whose ideas and influence were central to the period and issues of the chapter. A one or two paragraph biography is followed by a selection of that writer’s best work. In this way, the reader is able to acquaint herself with both the important individuals and the opposing ideas of a given time period. There are 78 prominent figures, each with an associated writing, or collaborative document (like French Revolution’s “The Declaration of Rights).

Significantly, none of the writers are of non-white descent and only one (Catherine the Great) is a woman. While it is true that women and minorities did not fill the halls of power in a predominantly white Europe, there were considerable contributions made by those groups which are overlooked. It is surprising that Rowen fails to include African European voices in his section on ending slavery. Notable women, like Mary Wollestonecraft and Mme de Stael, who contributed importantly to the ideas of their times, are similarly ignored. From Absolutism to Revolution was written in 1963, in the United States. Even though there was an active movement for African American equality, and discussion of “the woman question” among universities, these notions apparently did not filter into Professor Rowen’s mind in a way that affected his work.

It is impressive that the historian permits important personages to speak for themselves, rather than coloring the picture with his own narrative. Rowen thusly offers his audience an opportunity to read, at length, pivotal primary sources by crucial, historic people. In this way, the words and people come alive in their contexts, revealing the impact of resolute individuals and the transformational importance of ideas.


Rowen, Herbert H. (ed.). From Absolutism to Revolution: 1648 – 1848. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.