- Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism
Tzvetan Todorov begins Imperfect Garden with an arresting premise: that the greatest achievement of the modern age—the moderns' assertion of the freedom of the human will, unlimited by allegiances to God, nature, or reason—was the fruit of a pact with the devil. Though a familiar idea, Todorov uses this premise to provide a richly detailed map of the intellectual currents of the age, illuminating in the process the dangers inherent in the age's acceptance of this pact.
The price to be paid for human free will would become apparent only in the following centuries—a separation from God, leading to secularism and materialism; a separation from other humans, culminating in a loss of sociality and a fall into radical isolation; ultimately, a loss of self, its unity dispersed into an "anomalous collection of impulses." Todorov delineates the age's four responses to this bargain, and the acquisition of human autonomy. They account for the four families whose interrelations characterize modernity: the conservative, which considers the three-fold price of autonomy too high, rejecting it for the authority of tradition; the scientistic—a diverse set of responses derived from modern science, historicism, Marxism, Darwinism, all of which deny the existence of human freedom and emphasize some form of determinism based on the laws of nature, reason, or history; the individualist, for which the "loss" of God, society, and self represents merely an extension of human liberation; and the humanist, which, while valuing human autonomy, does not want to [End Page 425] pay its price. Believing it can maintain communal existence, shared values, and responsible selfhood while acting out of an autonomous will, the humanist family wants to have its cake and eat it too, a desire Todorov clearly shares.
Todorov delineates the views of these four families through close readings of their representative figures. Limiting himself to French authors, he includes Bonald and Tocqueville as conservatives; Condorcet, Diderot, the Encyclopedists as scientistic types; Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, De Sade, and Helvetius as individualists. Among the humanists, who are his focus, he emphasizes Montaigne, Descartes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Constant, and Tocqueville again. While for me the primary value of Imperfect Garden is its contribution to the history of ideas of French humanism from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Todorov himself has a larger, more ideological goal. His interest is not primarily historical, but typological. He wants to crystallize the insights of his authors, distilling an ideal type whose characteristics include the ability of humans to initiate their own actions, which he calls the "autonomy of the 'I'," the ability to make another person the end of one's acts, which he calls the "finality of the 'you'," and the belief that every human has these abilities, that is, the "universality of the 'they'." Together they constitute an anthropology based on sociality, which insures the compatibility of human autonomy with social existence, shared values, and the stability of the self. He associates this "type" with a politics which provides the institutional structure for the exercise of these abilities. This latter point, the compatibility of humanism with democratic political structures, is the subtext running through the book. Humanism is, for Todorov, the modern family most compatible with democracy, just as democracy is the political institution most able to retain the positive aspects of human autonomy (pp. 29–32). This is his defense of humanism, subjected, as it currently is, to challenges which suggest the devil is trying to collect on the debt.
Todorov argues his case by taking up each of the "losses" supposedly suffered when the moderns asserted the autonomy of human will. If the strength and value of his book are Todorov's close readings of his representative authors—readings rich in insights for the educated generalist, however much scholars of individual authors may differ with particular interpretations—ultimately his defense of humanism's ability to "have it all" is far less satisfying.
The first price to be paid for the autonomy of the will is the social world, the fall...