Any adequate understanding of the world we live in today requires serious consideration and thorough understanding of ideas and attitudes that arose over the course of the late nineteenth century, which is often called the Victorian era in honor of the decades-long reign of Britains Queen Victoria. These changes were stimulated by an increasingly literate and better-educated public. The increase in education, coupled with wider and cheaper means of printing and distribution, brought men and women all over Europe in touch with the scientific and intellectual community as never before. This contact, however, introduced the general public to many clashing viewpoints that tended to increase the social and political tensions leading up to the Great War (World War I). As in the earlier Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was the study of nature that initially stimulated new points of view. The mechanistic principles of nature established during the Enlightenment underwent considerable transformation. Theories of evolution, related racial theories, modern atomic principles, and Freudian psychology, combined with an increasing faith in the ability of science to solve humankinds problems, shattered many long-accepted ideas. The churches of Europe were assaulted from several sides and placed on the defensive as never before. Christianity now found itself in opposition to much of what was happening. The most powerful religious organization, the Roman Catholic Church, under Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII, had exceptional difficulties in adapting to the new scientific and intellectual positions. Despite all this, religion managed to remain an important part of most peoples social, political, and cultural lives. In literature, a new "realism" criticized almost all romantic notions and examined the less savory areas of human endeavor in the industrial age. Poverty, prostitution, and the bourgeois family all became subjects for critical examination. Even the new criticism itself was not spared, as "irrationalist" thinkers such as Nietzsche proclaimed that the philosophical assumptions of all Western civilization were wrong and in serious need of reevaluation. The birth of contemporary European thought is clearly seen with the advent of Freuds teachings. As Marx had previously caused a re-examination of the capitalist system and Darwin fostered a reassessment of major biological assumptions, Freud caused people to take a serious look at the role of the subconscious mind. These three seminal thinkers ushered in the modern world as we know it. It is also clear today that the feminist movement which emerged after World War II had its roots in the late nineteenth century. All these intellectual movements remain basic to any competent understanding of the Western heritage today.
After reading this chapter you should understand:
- The dominance of scientific thought in this era.
- The conflict between church and state, particularly over education.
- The impact of modernism, psychoanalysis, and the new physics on intellectual life.
- The rise of nationalistically inspired racism and the resurgence of anti-Semitism.
- The laying of the foundations for twentieth-century feminism.