I am in Evanston for a conference and thought to pay a visit to a favorite old used bookstore that I had enjoyed several years ago, “Bookman’s Alley.” The store is truly a treasure, full of surprises, and complete with a wonderfully surly owner. I took a shot of the old storefront (which is tucked away down the alley) and here’s a shot of part of a lovely collection of the complete works of Thackeray–some thirty odd volumes of his writing, all in disorder.
To my great regret, I discovered upon entering that Bookman’s is closing down after more than three decades. I see from this story last year that plans for Bookman’s closing have been in the works for some time. But it seemed from the melancholy mood of the store (and from the 70% discount) that the end is nigh.
I wanted to honor the store by buying a few things, even though I never relish the thought of carrying back books on a plane (with difficulty I resisted the Thackeray feast). Instead, I found a few smaller things, including an old edition of Carl Becker’s skeptical classic, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers, delivered as the Storrs Lecture in 1931 and still remarkable in several respects (one of which, I think, is the informality and easiness of the writing).
Becker’s short tract is a masterpiece of critical commentary on what we would today call the relationship of “secularism” and “civil religion.” Here’s something from the fourth and final lecture, “The Uses of Posterity,” which will perhaps be of interest to those who are now reading Ronald Dworkin’s recently published, posthumous volume, “Religion Without God”:
Nearly a century ago De Tocqueville noted the fact that the French Revolution was a “political revolution which functioned in the manner and which took on in some sense the aspect of a religious revolution.” Like Islamism or the Protestant revolt, it overflowed the frontiers of countries and nations and was extended by “preaching and propaganda.” It functioned,
in relation to this world, in precisely the same manner that religious revolutions function in respect to the other: it considered the citizen in an abstract fashion, apart from particular societies, in the same way that religions consider man in general, independently of time and place. It sought not merely the particular rights of French citizens, but the general political rights and duties of all men. [Accordingly] since it appeared to be more concerned with the regeneration of the human race than with the reformation of France, it generated a passion which, until then, the most violent political revolutions had never exhibited. It inspired proselytism and gave birth to propaganda. It could therefore assume that appearance of a religious revolution which so astonished contemporaries; or rather it became itself a kind of new religion, an imperfect religion it is true, a religion without God, without a form of worship, and without a future life, but one which nevertheless, like Islamism, inundated the earth with soldiers, apostles, and martyrs.
L’ancien régime et la Révolution, Bk I, ch.3 [emphasis mine]. De Tocqueville’s contemporaries were too much preoccupied with political issues and the validity of traditional religious doctrines to grasp the significance of his pregnant observations. Not until our own time have historians been sufficiently detached from religions to understand that the Revolution, in its later stages especially, took on the character of a crusade. But it is now well understood…not only that the Revolution attempted to substitute the eighteenth-century religion of humanity for the traditional faiths, but also that, contrary to the belief of De Tocqueville, the new religion was not without God, forms of worship, or a future life. On the contrary, the new religion had its dogmas, the sacred principles of the Revolution–Liberté et sainte égalité. It had its form of worship, an adaptation of Catholic ceremonial, which was elaborated in connection with its civic fêtes. It had its saints, the heroes and martyrs of liberty. It was sustained by an emotional impulse, a mystical faith in humanity, in the ultimate regeneration of the human race.