One of the great turning points in modern history cam ein 1859 when Darwin's "Origin of Species," Marx's "Critique of Political Economy", and Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" made their first appearance. As THE scientist, THE sociologist, and THE artist of the late 19th century, Darwin, Marx and Wagner dominate the epoch, and their theories epitomize a century of thought which continues, as a single stream of influence, down to the present day.
Emerging out of an era of Romanticism and flowering in an age of "scientific thought," their "mechanical materialism" expresses the prevalent conception of matter as the source and substance of the universe. Feeling, beauty, and moral values are mere illusions in a world of fact, and the human will is powerless against the ineluctable laws if nature and society.
The ideas, the methods, the triumphs of this materialism over the flexible and humane pragmatism of the Romantics have, according to Professor Barzun, been the source of the 20th century's characteristic problems. Nor is the process completed; under the pressure of new facts and new insights, we are now threatened with a swing away from materialism to an equally dangerous idealism, or even worse, to an explosive irrationalism.
It is therefore of the utmost importance that we re-examine the lives and works of Darwin, Marx, and Wagner, as well as their imitators and detractors, their friends and enemies, their forerunners and followers, in an effort to understand the origins and impact of their points of view. Only then can we hope to make a fresh start toward a working ideal for the Western mind.