Published Volume XXXIV, Nos. 1 & 2, 2021
Democracy and Imperialism: Irving Babbitt and Warlike Democracies, by William S. Smith. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2019. 236 pp. $70.00.
Samuel Johnson, one of eighteenth-century England’s great literary geniuses, spotted the problem of imagination that lies at the heart of war and empire. His friend Edmund Burke would later call for the renewal of the “moral imagination” at the outbreak of the French Revolution. And Johnson no less than Burke grasped the implications of utopian dreaming for peace, order, and stability. The exploration of imagination permeates his History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Written quickly in 1759 as Johnson mourned the loss of his mother, the fable tells the story of young Prince Rasselas and his quest to make the right “choice of life.” The book makes a fascinating contrast to the corrosive skepticism of Voltaire’s Candide of the same decade. The prince and his companions consult all the professions and wisemen of the day as they seek happiness and contentment, assuming that there is one best way to live in a dangerous and perplexing world. They encounter a Stoic and a stand-in for Rousseau and a mad astronomer who has come to believe that his exact Baconian knowledge of the heavens means that he controls nature. Humanity’s fate rests in his hands. The burden is too much to bear. Who will make the sun rise when he is gone? Rasselas will one day inherit a kingdom, and thus the problem of statesmanship is…
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