Ideas certainly played an important role in the intellectual and political ferment that was the French Revolution, but it may be going too far to attempt to separate those ideas into distinct, contending political philosophies to which the main revolutionary figures can be attached.
A new book seems to favour the consigning of savage episodes in Spain’s twentieth century to oblivion, but there is always a good case to be made for remembering properly, not least that it poses a challenge to remembering badly, or falsifying, to keep conflict and bitterness alive.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca offered useful advice on self-mastery, how to deal with the passage of time and the vanity of acquisitiveness. If he did not always live up to the highest ideals himself, it can at least be said in his defence that he lived in difficult times.
George Kennan formulated the key strategy of containment of Russia which guided the West through the Cold War but he became increasingly out of step with the interventionist instincts of successive US presidents. While he was greatly honoured, his desire for a more modest, inward-looking America did not find an echo among policy-makers.
The concentration camps were extermination camps: when prisoners were not immediately murdered, they were subjected to a regime few could long survive. Yet this is not so unprecedented in human history. Eighteenth century slaves were not only routinely subjected to the most sadistic punishments but also worked to death.
There has never, in the classical sociological sense, been a more proletarian nation than Britain, and yet there has never been a time in British history when the working class really seemed to seriously challenge the established order and threaten to take power for itself.
Voltaire offended the Calvinists of Geneva, ‘the Protestant Rome’, by criticising its austere lifestyle and setting up a theatre on its outskirts. A new book argues that the city eventually gave birth to a ‘reasonable Calvinism’ but we should be careful to remember the limits of any such apparent thaw in biblical fundamentalism.