Skip to main content

 An Execution, Place de la Revolution Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images

A Tale of Two Realities

The material and moral progress made possible by the Enlightenment is evident across a wide range of metrics, from human rights to life expectancy. But today's political leaders seem inadequate to the task of managing the Enlightenment's more troubling legacies.

MADRID – The opening line of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities retains its universality to this day. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Dickens writes, “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Dickens’s classic novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, decries both the social injustices of the despotic ancien régime and the excesses of the French revolutionaries. When asked his opinion of the French Revolution almost two centuries later, former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai reportedly answered that it was “too early to say.” That quip – though possibly the result of a misunderstanding – perfectly captures Dickens’s own ambivalence about the period of which he wrote.

The Enlightenment ideals that inspired the French to rise up against Louis XVI also drove the American Revolution. And both were set against the backdrop of another sea change: the onset of industrialization. The combination of more liberal political regimes and transformational scientific advances inaugurated the most prosperous period in the history of humankind.

We hope you're enjoying Project Syndicate.

To continue reading, subscribe now.

Subscribe

Get unlimited access to PS premium content, including in-depth commentaries, book reviews, exclusive interviews, On Point, the Big Picture, the PS Archive, and our annual year-ahead magazine.

https://prosyn.org/5YKCUcx;

Handpicked to read next

  1. benami155_ Ilia Yefimovichpicture alliance via Getty Images_netanyahu Ilia Yefimovich/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

    The Last Days of Netanyahu?

    Shlomo Ben-Ami

    In Israel's recent parliamentary election, voters stopped Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's leadership of the country toward xenophobic theocracy. But Israel now faces a period of political deadlock, and it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu really will be politically sidelined.

    2
  2. oneill66_getty images_world Getty Images

    The Return of Fiscal Policy

    Jim O'Neill

    With interest rates at record lows and global growth set to continue decelerating, there has rarely been a better time for governments to invest in infrastructure and other sources of long-term productivity growth. The only question is whether policymakers in Germany and elsewhere will seize the opportunity now staring them in the face.

    1

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated Cookie policy, Privacy policy and Terms & Conditions