Daniel Sheehan on C. Crane Brinton – Single Most Important Idea

The following is Daniel Sheehan talking about C. Crane Brinton (Harvard – McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History) last lecture on ‘The Single Most Important Idea in Intellectual (Western) History” in December 1967,

A New Religion*

*See C. Crane’s lecture notes below.

2013 Dec 11th

DANIEL SHEEHAN in Walnut Creek – “The People’s Advocate” – The Life and Legal History of America’s Most Fearless Public Interest Lawyer – danielpsheehan.com

Crane Brinton

Last Lecture

From Harvard University Archives

C.B.’s final lecture, resume

The last three or four centuries in our Western society hare seriously weakened the hold# certainly for a very great many, of the traditional Judaeo-Christian cosmology (world­view, eschatology, “meaning of life”, right on down to what seems to be merely a matter of the psychology of the individual, that is, Erikson’s “identity crisis”). All sorts of adjustments in the older and firm cosmology (i.e. book of Genesis) have been made. At one extreme is what X call the religion of the Enlightenment, rationalist and materialist, a pretty complete rejection of the tradition, through various compromises on down to what I suppose is commonest among the educated classes, a kind of carrying water on both shoulders, one Christian, one Enlightened. But one possible adjustment I think is very rare – that is, complete dismissal of any concern with such matters as the “meaning of life.

Both the rationalist and the optimistic strands in pure Enlightenment and in the various compromises strongly influenced by the Enlightenment – the 19th century variants of the doctrine of Progress are central here – both rationalism and optimism have come under severe attack in our 20th century. Even in the U.S.,where hangovers from innocent economic interpretation of everything, a la Charles Beard, are still very prevalent, indeed are the common underpinning for the American world-view, the younger generation is clearly anxious and worried.

For the historian of ideas the important fact – for it is a fact – is that most modern efforts to adjust or supplant the old world-view are based on an appeal to history, an appeal neatly summarised in the title of a book by the Enlightened Ausralian anthropologist, V. Gordan Childs, “Man Makes Himself.” If man has made himself what he now is, the obvious clues – the only clues – to what he might make of himself in the future can be found in the study of the past.  Hence the great preoccumpation of our time with what I call the literature of “Whither Mankind”, or more academically put, the philosophy of history.

fields from the arts, literature, on to philosophy, there will emerge – must emerge – a world-view, “understated of the people.”  But I have no idea what it will be like. As a historian, I do not believe that history alone will supply this new world-view, to be frank, this new religion. History does suggest some negatives. This religion is unlikely to emerge from Academia, or indeed from any intellectual milieu. Professor Murray’s new New Testament is unlikely to be written by men like himself – or Tillich, or the Christian existentialists or Arnold Toynbee, or the devotees of bringing East and West together. Yet I do not wish to conclude on a purely negative note. Human beings and their cultures are tougher than we intellectuals think. Most of you are going to witness that fated year, 1984 I think it will not be much like Orwell’s nightmare, will indeed be not altogether unlike 1967.

PDF Copy of lecture


Born in WinstedConnecticuthis family soon moved to SpringfieldMassachusettswhere he grew upBrinton attended the public schools there before entering Harvard University in 1915His excellent academic performance enabled him to win a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford UniversityReceiving a Doctor of Philosophy (D.Phil.) degree there in 1923Brinton began teaching at Harvard University that same yearbecoming full professor in 1942 and remaining at Harvard until his death.[2] He served as president of the American Historical Associationthe professional association of historiansas well as the Society for French Historical Studies.

For many years he taught a popular course at Harvard known informally to his students as “Breakfast with Brinton.”

Brinton was known for his wittyconvivialand urbane writing and commentary,[3] and was fluent in FrenchDuring WWII he was for a time Chief of Research and Analysis in London in the Office of Strategic Services.[4] He was also Fire Marshal for StPauls Cathedral in Londonwhich withstood the Blitz with minor damagesAfter the warhe was commended by the United States Army for “Conspicuous Contribution to the Liberation of France” and was Chairman of the Society of Fellows at Harvard in the late 1940s.[5] Among other figuresFellows during that period included McGeorge Bundy and Ray Clinewho were quite influential in national security and intelligence.

In 1968Crane Brinton testified at the Fulbright Senate hearings on the Vietnam war as to the nature of the Vietnamese oppositionHe died in September 1968.

Brinton wrote a review of Carroll Quigleys book Tragedy and Hope. Among those his scholarship inspired were Samuel PHuntingtonwho cited Brinton many times in his book Political Order in Changing Societies,[citation needed] and Robert StrubleJr., in his Treatise on Twelve Lights.[6]


His books include:

  • The Jacobins: An Essay in the New History (1930), a detailed account of the political radicals of the French Revolution
  • A Decade of Revolution (1934), a study of the French Revolution
  • The Lives of Talleyrand (1936), a biography of Talleyrand with a uniquely favorable perspective
  • The Anatomy of Revolution (1938revised 1965)
  • Ideas and Men: the Story of Western Thought (19501963), an account of western thought from ancient Greece to the present
  • A History of Western Morals (1959), an account of ethical questions
  • The Shaping of the Modern Mind (1963), an abridged version of his Ideas and Men
  • The Americans and the French (1968), an attempt to explain the often difficult relations between two longtime allies.


  1. ^ Over the HillThe Anatomy of Revolution at FiftyTorbjørn LKnutsen and Jennifer LBaileyJournal of Peace ResearchVol26No4 (Nov., 1989), pp421431
  2. ^ Columbia Encyclopedia entry on Brinton
  3. ^ Reviews of Brintons History of Western Morals
  4. ^ Reference to Brintons work for OSS
  5. ^ Time 3 May 1948 article quoting Brinton as Society president
  6. ^ For examplein his fifth chapterRecourse to the Swordof the online book Treatise on Twelve Lights

External links