Imperfect Garden

Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism

Tzvetan Todorov
Translated by Carol Cosman
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Imperfect Garden
    Book Description:

    Available in English for the first time,Imperfect Gardenis both an approachable intellectual history and a bracing treatise on how we should understand and experience our lives. In it, one of France's most prominent intellectuals explores the foundations, limits, and possibilities of humanist thinking. Through his critical but sympathetic excavation of humanism, Tzvetan Todorov seeks an answer to modernity's fundamental challenge: how to maintain our hard-won liberty without paying too dearly in social ties, common values, and a coherent and responsible sense of self.

    Todorov reads afresh the works of major humanists--primarily Montaigne, Rousseau, and Constant, but also Descartes, Montesquieu, and Toqueville. Each chapter considers humanism's approach to one major theme of human existence: liberty, social life, love, self, morality, and expression. Discussing humanism in dialogue with other systems, Todorov finds a response to the predicament of modernity that is far more instructive than any offered by conservatism, scientific determinism, existential individualism, or humanism's other contemporary competitors. Humanism suggests that we are members of an intelligent and sociable species who can act according to our will while connecting the well-being of other members with our own. It is through this understanding of free will, Todorov argues, that we can use humanism to rescue universality and reconcile human liberty with solidarity and personal integrity.

    Placing the history of ideas at the service of a quest for moral and political wisdom, Todorov's compelling and no doubt controversial rethinking of humanist ideas testifies to the enduring capacity of those ideas to meditate on--and, if we are fortunate, cultivate--the imperfect garden in which we live.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2490-8
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Prologue The Hidden Pact
    (pp. 1-8)

    Satan proposed the first pact to Jesus. After forcing him to fast forty days in the desert, he gave him a momentary vision of all the kingdoms on earth. Then he told him: All this is in my power. Yet I am prepared to grant it to you. I ask only one small gesture in return: that you recognize me as your master; if you do this, all is yours. But Jesus replied, I do not want this power, for I wish only to serve God, and his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus thus rejected the pact. His...

  4. Chapter 1 The Interplay of Four Families
    (pp. 9-46)

    Arevolution took place in the mind of Europeans—a slow revolution, since it took several centuries—which led to the establishment of the modern world. To grasp it in its most general sense, we can describe it as the passage from a world whose structure and laws were preexisting and immutable givens for every member of society, to a world that could discover its own nature and define its norms itself. The members of the old society gradually learned their assigned place in the universe, and wisdom led them to accept it. The inhabitant of contemporary society does not...

  5. Chapter 2 The Declaration of Autonomy
    (pp. 47-79)

    Just what does the freedom of modern men consist of? To find out, I will examine how a series of French thinkers between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries have answered this question. But first, more detailed information on terminology: I shall use the wordautonomyhere to designate one’s choice to feel, to reason, and to will for oneself. The word is not employed by the French humanists but by Kant, in writings that systematize the contribution of earlier thinkers and at the same time transform it. For Kant, autonomy consists not only of governing oneself but also of...

  6. Chapter 3 Interdependence
    (pp. 80-93)

    Modern men see individual freedom as a good; but don’t we pay for it in the end? The most immediate danger, which was perceived at the time of the Revolution and still threatens us today, concerns our relations with other human beings. Wishing to be free, don’t we risk cutting ourselves off from our community of origin, and worse, risk that community’s dissolution? Is solitude the necessary counterpart of our autonomy—and what would be more terrifying than to be condemned to solitude in the midst of others? Is there a place for love in this modern world, or should...

  7. Chapter 4 Living Alone
    (pp. 94-114)

    Because Rousseau praises nature or the state of nature or natural man does not mean that he ignores human sociability. Because Constant defends the freedom of the individual does not mean he underestimates his dependence on other men. An objection might be raised, at this point, to the effect that the abstract definition of man is one thing, the description of modern man quite another. Man’s nature may not destine him to solitude, but what about his history? Isn’t Rousseau one of the first to have understood this, describing himself as a solitary walker? Doesn’t he reveal by this what...

  8. Chapter 5 The Ways of Love
    (pp. 115-138)

    Let us grant, with the humanist thinkers of the past, that solitude is not inevitable, that communal life could not possibly be weakened, since being itself is made up of relations with others. All this still gives us nothing but a negative assurance: sociability is not endangered by the freedom of the Moderns. But can we hope that this freedom also creates a positive gain? Is there something in the situation of modern man that contains the promise of richer, more gratifying human relations than in the past? We must turn here to love, and ask ourselves: What is the...

  9. Chapter 6 The Individual: PLURALITY AND UNIVERSALITY
    (pp. 139-159)

    The humanists have shown that the devil’s first threat was empty: life with others is not the price we pay for liberty. The autonomy of theIdoes not force each individual to isolate himself and cut himself off from other men. But as we know the devil has other cards up his sleeve: he also claims that this individual who boasted about becoming the subject of his own actions was in reality impressionable, fickle, distracted—a thoroughfare rather than a coherent being.

    The autonomy of the individual can in fact be understood as having a double meaning: in relation...

  10. Chapter 7 The Choice of Values
    (pp. 160-177)

    The devil claimed that the price of freedom consisted, first of all, of the need to become isolated from other men; Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Constant have shown that it was nothing of the kind. He added that the modern individual would also have to renounce his identity and all control over the self; Montaigne has effectively explained how and why modern man could be both multiple and one. We are left with the devil’s third threat, which is as follows: having preferred liberty to submission, modern man has lost all possibility of claiming affiliation with any values other than purely...

  11. Chapter 8 A Morality Made for Humanity
    (pp. 178-206)

    We can now turn to humanist morality itself. For the purposes of closer examination, I would like to invoke two of its greatest representatives in France, Rousseau (in this chapter) and Constant (in the chapter that follows).

    Rousseau thinks that humanist morality must challenge two attitudes simultaneously: the destruction of common values, which we observed among those I have called individualists; and the submission of values to dogma, attributed to divine will, as the conservatives demand. Man is “a sociable being who needs a morality made for humanity” (Lettre à Beaumont, 969). This leads Rousseau to formulate his position in...

  12. Chapter 9 The Need for Enthusiasm
    (pp. 207-225)

    Morality and anthropology are closely related, even when the first is not based on the second: we must know what men are in order to decide what we would like them to become. In European history, one image of man is recognized as more influential than others, so that we find it as much among conservatives as among the proponents of scientism and individualists, even if the conclusions they draw from it are different. This is the image of an essentially solitary and egotistical being, embodying the dictum “man is a wolf to man.” The key word, here, will become...

  13. Epilogue The Humanist Wager
    (pp. 226-238)

    Knowledge of the past satisfies, first of all, a basic human need to understand and organize the world, to give meaning to the chaos of events happening in quick succession. We surely know, even if we do not always think about it, that we are formed from this past; to make it intelligible is also to begin to know ourselves. In the light of the past, the present is transformed: we cease to take the actors’ self-justifying or self-glorifying interpretation of their acts, and read them instead in perspective. Words lend themselves to all uses, therefore we cannot trust the...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 239-246)
  15. Index
    (pp. 247-254)