In 1936, writing from exile in Paris, the German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin looked back at the storms of the recent past with clear-eyed despair. Everything had happened so quickly that it was difficult to register what, in fact, had happened. A new kind of warfare, hideously inhuman technology, an economic catastrophe, and shocking levels of political impunity had knocked the world sideways. “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body,” Benjamin wrote.
Today another generation stares anxiously at the clouds under the same open sky; tiny, fragile and, as the past few months have emphasised, terribly vulnerable. We have perhaps never needed the thinkers of the early part of the 20th century more than at any other time since it ended. Barely 20 years ago it seemed as though we had mastered modernity. Apparently we’d learned to enjoy and profit from the postmodern, free-market world; the quicksands of moral, political or philosophical uncertainty were no longer to be feared. Now, nobody is quite so sure.
It is small wonder that Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians, first published in German two years ago and now translated into English, has been received with such enthusiasm. It is an intellectual lifebuoy thrown from the past to the present. One might call the book an event, were it not that Eilenberger wants us not only to learn from modern philosophy but, as importantly, to be cautious about some of the grander claims of those philosophers who prided themselves on staring into the abyss.