"All my life," writes Conor Cruise O'Brien, "I have been fascinated and puzzled by nationalism and religion; by the interaction of the two forces, sometimes in unison, sometimes antagonistic." In these wide-ranging and penetrating essays, O'Brien examines how throughout the world today these age-old forces are once again threatening democracy, the rule of law, and freedom of expression -- particularly in the United States, the nation founded on Enlightenment values. He weaves together beautifully written discussions on these and other timely, related topics. Enlivening his grim predictions with dry wit, he nevertheless conveys an apocalyptic sense of the threats facing democracy as we approach the third millennium.
O'Brien (States of Ireland) may have a touch of chiliastic fever, but in this collection of lectures given in 1994 at the University of Toronto's Massey College, it takes on a very humanistic form. O'Brien's ostensible purpose was to consider ``matters arising on the eve of the millennium.'' This translates as the future of Western values and the Enlightenment tradition-of which the United States, he says, is the ``heart and soul.'' Arrayed against the Enlightenment O'Brien sees an alliance of the Papacy and fundamentalist Islam; he sees creeping trivialization and insurgent regionalism and nationalism. But most insidiously, he sees the rotting of the intellectual underpinnings caused in no small part by increasingly hypocritical politicians (and media) who, blinded by the race for popularity, no longer recognize political expediency as such. O'Brien is not a purist advocate for the cold hard light of reason. For the Enlightenment tradition to survive, he says, it must become ``an Enlightenment that respects the religious imagination.'' Perhaps because he is not much given to divination and perhaps because a lecture series doesn't lend itself to grand plans, there isn't much one could call an agenda and not all of the digressions are fruitful. But O'Brien, onetime editor of the London Observer and currently a contributing editor to the Atlantic, is able to draw on a wide range of sources from Horace to Edmund Burke to Chinese Marxist theoretician Lin Piao to give depth and interest to his arguments.