One of our finest historians passed away on August 6th. Tony Judt, the author of numerous historical works, with a primary focus on French intellectuals, passed away after a long battle with ALS. He was 62.
I recently read his excellent Ill Fares the Land, which would have been a strong and timely work regardless of how it was written. Given the fact that he dictated it while suffering from the ravages of Lou Gehrig’s disease made it all the more poignant and moving. Here is the opening section, first published in the New York Review of Books:
Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.
The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.
We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.
I have also read his The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century. A very strong work, putting the lives of key intellectuals into their historical context seamlessly. It’s accessible, well-written, cogent. His death has reminded me again of the value of his work, the sharpness of his mind, and the independence of his thought. He will be greatly missed. The New York Review of Books has an excellent collection of his essays, and it’s a great introductory space for his contributions to intellectual history: