The beginning of the 19th century saw yet another reaction to the Enlightenment–Existentialism. Like the Romantics, existentialists believed that truth is above reason. Their focus is on an individual’s perception of self. The existentialist movement provides some interesting advances in rhetoric–what is means to speak well.

Following the existential movement is the age of realism, where we find thinkers like Freud and Marx. The theories put forth in the age of realism provide a foundation for Kenneth Burke’s theory of rhetoric–the most important theory of rhetoric in the 20th century.

Historical Events

The 19th and 20th centuries saw vast changes in many different areas. Slavery was abolished, the Industrial Revolution occurred, tremendous advances in technology were made, and the world endured two world wars.

19th Century Events

The 19th century was the century marked by the collapse of the Spanish, Napoleonic, Holy Roman, and Mughal empires. This paved the way for the growing influence of the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the United States, the German Empire, the French colonial empire, and Meiji Japan, with the British boasting unchallenged dominance after 1815. After the defeat of the French Empire and its allies in the Napoleonic Wars, the European powers came together at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to reorganize the political map of Europe to preserve peace and balance of power, termed the Concert of Europe.

The British and Russian empires expanded significantly and became the world’s leading powers. The Russian Empire expanded in central and far eastern Asia. The British Empire grew rapidly in the first half of the century, especially with the expansion of vast territories in Canada, Australia, South Africa, and heavily populated India, and in the last two decades of the century in Africa. By the end of the century, the British Empire controlled a fifth of the world’s land and one-quarter of the world’s population. During the post-Napoleonic era, it enforced what became known as the Pax Britannica, which had ushered in unprecedented globalization, industrialization, and economic integration on a massive scale.

At the beginning of this period, there was an informal convention recognizing five Great Powers in Europe: the French Empire, the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire (later Austria-Hungary), and the Kingdom of Prussia (later the German Empire). In the late 19th century, the newly united Italy was added to this group. By the early 20th century, two non-European states, Japan and the United States, would come to be respected as fellow Great Powers.

The entire era lacked major conflict between these powers, with most skirmishes taking place between belligerents within the borders of individual countries. In Europe, wars were much smaller, shorter, and less frequent than ever before. The quiet century was shattered by World War I (1914–18), which was unexpected in its timing, duration, casualties, and long-term impact.

Pax Britannica

Pax Britannica (Latin for “British Peace,” modeled after Pax Romana) was the period of relative peace in Europe (1815–1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemonic power and adopted the role of a global police force.

Between 1815 and 1914, a period referred to as Britain’s “imperial century,” around 10 million square miles of territory and roughly 400 million people were added to the British Empire. Victory over Napoleonic France left the British without any serious international rival, other than perhaps Russia in central Asia. When Russia tried expanding its influence in the Balkans, the British and French defeated it in the Crimean War (1854–56), thereby protecting the by-then feeble Ottoman Empire.

Britain’s Royal Navy controlled most of the key maritime trade routes and enjoyed unchallenged sea power. Alongside the formal control it exerted over its own colonies, Britain’s dominant position in world trade meant that it effectively controlled access to many regions, such as Asia and Latin America. British merchants, shippers, and bankers had such an overwhelming advantage over everyone else that in addition to its colonies it had an informal empire.

The global superiority of British military and commerce was aided by a divided and relatively weak continental Europe and the presence of the Royal Navy on all of the world’s oceans and seas. Even outside its formal empire, Britain controlled trade with countries such as China, Siam, and Argentina. Following the Congress of Vienna, the British Empire’s economic strength continued to develop through naval dominance and diplomatic efforts to maintain a balance of power in continental Europe.

In this era, the Royal Navy provided services around the world that benefited other nations, such as the suppression of piracy and blocking the slave trade. The Slave Trade Act 1807 banned the trade across the British Empire, after which the Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron and the government negotiated international treaties under which they could enforce the ban. Sea power, however, did not project on land. Land wars fought between the major powers include the Crimean War, the Franco-Austrian War, the Austro-Prussian War, and the Franco-Prussian War, as well as numerous conflicts between lesser powers. The Royal Navy prosecuted the First Opium War (1839–1842) and Second Opium War (1856–1860) against Imperial China. The Royal Navy was superior to any other two navies in the world, combined. Between 1815 and the passage of the German naval laws of 1890 and 1898, only France was a potential naval threat.

The Pax Britannica was weakened by the breakdown of the continental order established by the Congress of Vienna. Relations between the Great Powers of Europe were strained to breaking by issues such as the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which led to the Crimean War, and later the emergence of new nation states of Italy and Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. Both wars involved Europe’s largest states and armies. The industrialization of Germany, the Empire of Japan, and the United States contributed to the relative decline of British industrial supremacy in the early 20th century.

The map shows that the British Empire in 1897 included (but was not limited to) the Dominion of Canada; a portion of Greenland; territories in western, eastern, and southern Africa; India; Burma; Papua New Guinea; Australia; New Zealand; and a large number of island nations in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.

The map shows that the British Empire in 1897 included (but was not limited to) the Dominion of Canada; a portion of Greenland; territories in western, eastern, and southern Africa; India; Burma; Papua New Guinea; Australia; New Zealand; and a large number of island nations in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.

Map of the world from 1897. The British Empire (marked in pink) was the superpower of the 19th century.

Belle Époque

The Belle Époque (French for “Beautiful Era”) was a period of Western European history conventionally dated from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I in around 1914. Occurring during the era of the French Third Republic (beginning 1870), it was a period characterized by optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity, and technological, scientific and cultural innovations. In the climate of the period, especially in Paris, the arts flourished. Many masterpieces of literature, music, theater, and visual art gained recognition. The Belle Époque was named, in retrospect, when it began to be considered a “Golden Age” in contrast to the horrors of World War I.

In the United Kingdom, the Belle Époque overlapped with the late Victorian era and the Edwardian era. In Germany, the Belle Époque coincided with the Wilhelminism; in Russia with the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II. In the newly rich United States emerging from the Panic of 1873, the comparable epoch was dubbed the Gilded Age. In Brazil it started with the end of the Paraguayan War, and in Mexico the period was known as the Porfiriato.

The years between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I were characterized by unusual political stability in western and central Europe. Although tensions between the French and German governments persisted as a result of the French loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871, diplomatic conferences, including the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the Berlin Congo Conference in 1884, and the Algeciras Conference in 1906, mediated disputes that threatened the general European peace. For many Europeans in the Belle Époque period, transnational, class-based affiliations were as important as national identities, particularly among aristocrats. An upper-class gentleman could travel through much of Western Europe without a passport and even reside abroad with minimal bureaucratic regulation. World War I, mass transportation, the spread of literacy, and various citizenship concerns changed this.

European politics saw very few regime changes, the major exception being Portugal, which experienced a republican revolution in 1910. However, tensions between working-class socialist parties, bourgeois liberal parties, and landed or aristocratic conservative parties increased in many countries, and some historians claim that profound political instability belied the calm surface of European politics in the era. In fact, militarism and international tensions grew considerably between 1897 and 1914, and the immediate prewar years were marked by a general armaments competition in Europe. Additionally, this era was one of massive overseas colonialism known as the New Imperialism. The most famous portion of this imperial expansion was the Scramble for Africa.

Diplomacy in the 19th Century

The Congress of Vienna established many of the diplomatic norms of the 19th century and created an informal system of diplomatic conflict resolution aimed at maintaining a balance of power among nations, which contributed to the relative peace of the century.

In Europe, early modern diplomacy’s origins are often traced to the states of Northern Italy in the early Renaissance, where the first embassies were established in the 13th century. Milan played a leading role especially under Francesco Sforza, who established permanent embassies to the other city states of Northern Italy. Tuscany and Venice were also flourishing centers of diplomacy from the 14th century onward. It was in the Italian Peninsula that many of the traditions of modern diplomacy began, such as the presentation of an ambassador’s credentials to the head of state. From Italy, the practice spread across Europe.

The elements of modern diplomacy arrived in Eastern Europe and Russia by the early 18th century. The entire edifice would be greatly disrupted by the French Revolution and the subsequent years of warfare. The revolution would see commoners take over the diplomacy of the French state and of those conquered by revolutionary armies. Ranks of precedence were abolished. Napoleon also refused to acknowledge diplomatic immunity, imprisoning several British diplomats accused of scheming against France.

After the fall of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna of 1815 established an international system of diplomatic rank with ambassadors at the top, as they were considered personal representatives of their sovereign. Disputes on precedence among nations (and therefore the appropriate diplomatic ranks used) were first addressed at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, but persisted for over a century until after World War II, when the rank of ambassador became the norm. In between, figures such as the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck were renowned for international diplomacy.

Congress of Vienna and the Concert of Europe

The Congress of Vienna of 1815 established many of the diplomatic norms for the 19th century. The objective of the Congress was to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. The goal was not simply to restore old boundaries but to resize the main powers so they could balance each other and remain at peace. The Concert of Europe, also known as the Congress System or the Vienna System after the Congress of Vienna, was a system of dispute resolution adopted by the major conservative powers of Europe to maintain their power, oppose revolutionary movements, weaken the forces of nationalism, and uphold the balance of power. It is suggested that it operated in Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) to the early 1820s, while some see it as lasting until the outbreak of the Crimean War, 1853-1856.

At first, the leading personalities of the system were British foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh, Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich, and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord played a major role at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815, where he negotiated a favorable settlement for France while undoing Napoleon’s conquests. Talleyrand polarizes scholarly opinion. Some regard him as one of the most versatile, skilled, and influential diplomats in European history, and some believe that he was a traitor, betraying in turn the Ancien Régime, the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the Restoration. Talleyrand worked at the highest levels of successive French governments, most commonly as foreign minister or in some other diplomatic capacity. His career spanned the regimes of Louis XVI, the years of the French Revolution, Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Louis-Philippe. Those he served often distrusted Talleyrand but like Napoleon, found him extremely useful. The name “Talleyrand” has become a byword for crafty, cynical diplomacy.

An image of French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.

Talleyrand: French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord is considered one of the most skilled diplomats of all time.

The Concert of Europe had no written rules or permanent institutions, but at times of crisis any of the member countries could propose a conference. Diplomatic meetings of the Great Powers during this period included: Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), Carlsbad (1819), Troppau (1820), Laibach (1821), Verona (1822), London (1832), and Berlin (1878).

The Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818) resolved the issues of Allied occupation of France and restored that country to equal status with Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. The congress, which broke up at the end of November, is of historical importance mainly as marking the highest point reached during the 19th century in the attempt to govern Europe by an international committee of the powers. The detailed study of its proceedings is highly instructive in revealing the almost insurmountable obstacles to any truly effective international diplomatic system prior to the creation of the League of Nations after the First World War.

The territorial boundaries laid down at the Congress of Vienna were maintained; even more importantly, there was an acceptance of the theme of balance with no major aggression. Otherwise, the Congress system, says historian Roy Bridge, “failed” by 1823. In 1818, the British decided not to become involved in continental issues that did not directly affect them. They rejected the plan of Alexander I to suppress future revolutions. The Concert system fell apart as the common goals of the Great Powers were replaced by growing political and economic rivalries. There was no Congress called to restore the old system during the great revolutionary upheavals of 1848 with their demands for revision of the Congress of Vienna’s frontiers along national lines.

The Congress of Vienna was frequently criticized by 19th-century and more recent historians for ignoring national and liberal impulses and imposing a stifling reaction on the Continent. It was an integral part of what became known as the Conservative Order, in which the liberties and civil rights associated with the American and French Revolutions were de-emphasized so that a fair balance of power, peace and stability might be achieved.

In the 20th century, however, many historians came to admire the statesmen at the Congress, whose work prevented another widespread European war for nearly a hundred years (1815–1914). Historian Mark Jarrett argues that the Congress of Vienna and the Congress System marked “the true beginning of our modern era.” He says the Congress System was deliberate conflict management and the first genuine attempt to create an international order based upon consensus rather than conflict. “Europe was ready,” Jarrett states, “to accept an unprecedented degree of international cooperation in response to the French Revolution.” It served as a model for later organizations such as the League of Nations in 1919 and the United Nations in 1945. Prior to the opening of the Paris peace conference of 1918, the British Foreign Office commissioned a history of the Congress of Vienna to serve as an example to its own delegates of how to achieve an equally successful peace.

The World Fairs

World fairs during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries showcased the technological, industrial, and cultural achievements of nations around the world, sometimes displaying cultural superiority over colonized nations through human exhibits.

A world’s fair is a large international exhibition designed to showcase achievements of nations. These exhibitions vary in character and are held in various parts of the world.

World fairs originated in the French tradition of national exhibitions that culminated with the French Industrial Exposition of 1844 held in Paris. This fair was followed by other national exhibitions in continental Europe and the United Kingdom.

The best-known “first World Expo” was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, United Kingdom, in 1851, under the title “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.” The Great Exhibition, as it is often called, was an idea of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, and is usually considered to be the first international exhibition of manufactured products. It was arguably a response to the highly successful French Industrial Exposition of 1844; indeed, its prime motive was for Britain to display itself as an industrial leader. It influenced the development of several aspects of society, including art-and-design education, international trade and relations, and tourism. This expo was the most obvious precedent for the many international exhibitions considered world fairs.

Since their inception in 1851, the character of world expositions has evolved. Three eras can be distinguished: industrialization, cultural exchange, and nation branding.

The first era could be called the era of “industrialization” and covered roughly the period from 1800 to 1938. In these days, world expositions were especially focused on trade and were famous for the display of technological inventions and advancements. World expositions were the platforms where the state-of-the-art in science and technology from around the world were brought together. The world expositions of 1851 London, 1853 New York, 1862 London, 1876 Philadelphia, 1889 Paris, 1893 Chicago, 1897 Brussels, 1900 Paris, 1901 Buffalo, 1904 St. Louis, 1915 San Francisco, and 1933–34 Chicago were landmarks in this respect. Inventions such as the telephone were first presented during this era.

From Expo ’88 in Brisbane onward, countries such as Finland, Japan, Canada, France, and Spain started to use world expositions as platforms to improve their national images.

An image of a poster advertising the Brussels International Exposition, depicting a tall red-haired woman over a crowd of people of mixed racial and ethnic appearance.

World Fairs: A poster advertising the Brussels International Exposition.

Colonialism on Display

Human zoos, also called ethnological expositions, were 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century public exhibitions of humans, usually in a so-called natural or primitive state. The displays often emphasized the cultural differences between Europeans of Western civilization and non-European peoples or other Europeans with a lifestyle deemed primitive. Some of them placed indigenous Africans in a continuum somewhere between the great apes and the white man. Ethnological expositions have since been criticized as highly degrading and racist.

The notion of human curiosity and exhibition has a history at least as long as colonialism. In the 1870s, exhibitions of exotic populations became popular in various countries. Human zoos could be found in Paris, Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Milan, and New York City. Carl Hagenbeck, a merchant in wild animals and future entrepreneur of many European zoos, decided in 1874 to exhibit Samoan and Sami people as “purely natural” populations. In 1876, he sent a collaborator to the Egyptian Sudan to bring back some wild beasts and Nubians. The Nubian exhibit was very successful in Europe and toured Paris, London, and Berlin.

Both the 1878 and the 1889 Parisian World’s Fair presented a Negro Village (village nègre). Visited by 28 million people, the 1889 World’s Fair displayed 400 indigenous people as the major attraction. The 1900 World’s Fair presented the famous diorama living in Madagascar, while the Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles (1906 and 1922) and in Paris (1907 and 1931) also displayed humans in cages, often nude or semi-nude.

In 1904, Apaches and Igorots (from the Philippines) were displayed at the Saint Louis World Fair in association with the 1904 Summer Olympics. The U.S. had just acquired, following the Spanish–American War, new territories such as Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, allowing them to “display” some of the native inhabitants.

A photo of an African man holding a Chimpanzee, displayed in the Bronx Zoo as part of a "human exhibit."

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo: From a sign outside the primate house at the Bronx Zoo, September 1906: “Ota Benga, a human exhibit, in 1906. Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches (150 cm). Weight, 103 pounds (47 kg). Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.”

Overview of the 19th century from Ryan Reeves:


20th Century Events

Technological advancements during World War I changed the way war was fought, as new inventions such as tanks, chemical weapons, and aircraft modified tactics and strategy. After more than four years of trench warfare in Western Europe, and 20 million dead, the powers that had formed the Triple Entente (France, Britain, and Russia, later replaced by the United States and joined by Italy and Romania) emerged victorious over the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria). In addition to annexing many of the colonial possessions of the vanquished states, the Triple Entente exacted punitive restitution payments from them, plunging Germany in particular into economic depression. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were dismantled at the war’s conclusion. The Russian Revolution resulted in the overthrow of the Tsarist regime of Nicholas II and the onset of the Russian Civil War. The victorious Bolsheviks then established the Soviet Union, the world’s first communist state.

Ukraine, early days of the 1941 Nazi invasion.
The Soviet Union lost around 27 million people between 1941 and 1945, almost half of all World War II deaths.

At the beginning of the period, the British Empire was the world’s most powerful nation, having acted as the world’s policeman for the past century. Fascism, a movement which grew out of post-war angst and which accelerated during the Great Depression of the 1930s, gained momentum in Italy, Germany, and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in World War II, sparked by Nazi Germany’s aggressive expansion at the expense of its neighbors.

Meanwhile, Japan had rapidly transformed itself into a technologically advanced industrial power and, along with Germany and Italy, formed the Axis powers. Japan’s military expansionism in East Asia and the Pacific Ocean brought it into conflict with the United States, culminating in a surprise attack that drew the US into World War II. After some years of dramatic military success, Germany was defeated in 1945, having been invaded by the Soviet Union and Poland from the East and by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France from the West.

After the victory of the Allies in Europe, the war in Asia ended with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan by the US, the first nation to develop nuclear weapons and the only one to use them in warfare. In total, World War II left some 60 million people dead.

After the war, Germany was occupied and divided between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe became Soviet puppet states under communist rule. Western Europe was rebuilt with the aid of the American Marshall Plan, resulting in a major post-war economic boom, and many of the affected nations became close allies of the United States.

With the Axis defeated and Britain and France rebuilding, the United States and the Soviet Union were left standing as the world’s only superpowers. Allies during the war, they soon became hostile to one another as their competing ideologies of communism and democratic capitalism proliferated in Europe, which became divided by the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. They formed competing military alliances (NATO and the Warsaw Pact) which engaged in a decades-long standoff known as the Cold War.

The period was marked by a new arms race as the USSR became the second nation to develop nuclear weapons, which were produced by both sides in sufficient numbers to end most human life on the planet had a large-scale nuclear exchange ever occurred. Mutually assured destruction is credited by many historians as having prevented such an exchange, each side being unable to strike first at the other without ensuring an equally devastating retaliatory strike. Unable to engage one another directly, the conflict played out in a series of proxy wars around the world—particularly in China, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan—as the USSR sought to export communism while the US attempted to contain it.

The technological competition between the two sides led to substantial investment in research and development which produced innovations that reached far beyond the battlefield, such as space exploration and the Internet.


Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics.
In the latter half of the century, most of the European-colonized world in Africa and Asia gained independence in a process of decolonization.
Meanwhile, globalization opened the door for several nations to exert a strong influence over many world affairs. The US’s global military presence spread American culture around the world with the advent of the Hollywood motion picture industryBroadwayrock and rollpop musicfast foodbig-box stores, and the hip-hop lifestyle.
Britain also continued to influence world culture, including the “British Invasion” into American music, leading many rock bands from other countries (such as Swedish ABBA) to sing in English. After the Soviet Union collapsed under internal pressure in 1991, most of the communist governments it had supported around the world were dismantled—with the notable exceptions of ChinaNorth KoreaCubaVietnam, and Laos—followed by awkward transitions into market economies.

Following World War II, the United Nations, successor to the League of Nations, was established as an international forum in which the world’s nations could discuss issues diplomatically. It enacted resolutions on such topics as the conduct of warfare, environmental protection, international sovereignty, and human rights. Peacekeeping forces consisting of troops provided by various countries, with various United Nations and other aid agencies, helped to relieve famine, disease, and poverty, and to suppress some local armed conflicts. Europe slowly united, economically and, in some ways, politically, to form the European Union, which consisted of 15 European countries by the end of the 20th century.

In the last third of the century, concern about humankind’s impact on the Earth’s environment made environmentalism popular. In many countries, especially in Europe, the movement was channeled into politics through Green parties. Increasing awareness of global warming began in the 1980s, commencing decades of social and political debate.

Nature of innovation and change

Due to continuing industrialization and expanding trade, many significant changes of the century were, directly or indirectly, economic and technological in nature. Inventions such as the light bulb, the automobile, and the telephone in the late 19th century, followed by supertankers, airliners, motorways, radio, television, antibiotics, nuclear power, frozen food, computers and microcomputers, the Internet, and mobile telephones affected people’s quality of life across the developed world. Scientific research, engineering professionalization and technological development—much of it motivated by the Cold War arms race—drove changes in everyday life.

Social change

Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King, Jr., an African American civil rights leader.
At the beginning of the century, strong discrimination based on race and sex was significant in general society. Although the Atlantic slave trade had ended in the 19th century, the fight for equality for non-white people in the white-dominated societies of North America, Europe, and South Africa continued.
During the century, the social taboo of sexism fell. By the end of the 20th century, women had the same legal rights as men in many parts of the world, and racism had come to be seen as abhorrent. 

Earth at the end of the 20th century

Communications and information technology, transportation technology, and medical advances had radically altered daily lives. Europe appeared to be at a sustainable peace for the first time in recorded history. The people of the Indian subcontinent, a sixth of the world population at the end of the 20th century, had attained an indigenous independence for the first time in centuries. China, an ancient nation comprising a fifth of the world population, was finally open to the world, creating a new state after the near-complete destruction of the old cultural order. With the end of colonialism and the Cold War, nearly a billion people in Africa were left in new nation states after centuries of foreign domination.

The world was undergoing its second major period of globalization; the first, which started in the 18th century, having been terminated by World War I. Since the US was in a dominant position, a major part of the process was Americanization. The influence of China and India was also rising, as the world’s largest populations were rapidly integrating with the world economy.

Terrorism, dictatorship, and the spread of nuclear weapons were pressing global issues. The world was still blighted by small-scale wars and other violent conflicts, fueled by competition over resources and by ethnic conflicts. Despots such as Kim Jong-il of North Korea continued to lead their nations toward the development of nuclear weapons.

Disease threatened to destabilize many regions of the world. New viruses such as the West Nile virus continued to spread. Malaria and other diseases affected large populations. Millions were infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. The virus was becoming an epidemic in southern Africa.

Based on research done by climate scientists, the majority of the scientific community consider that in the long term environmental problems may threaten the planet’s habitability. One argument is that of global warming occurring due to human-caused emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels. This prompted many nations to negotiate and sign the Kyoto treaty, which set mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

World population increased from about 1.6 billion people in 1901 to 6.1 billion at the century’s end.

Here is a pictorial overview of the major events of the 20th century:



Additional Resources:

Overview of European history to 1914 from Brittanica

Overview of European history since 1914 from Brittanica

Overview of American history from Brittanica (scroll down to move through the 20th century)


“The Spirit is, above all else, and infinitely powerful spirit, absolutely transcendent to the world…Therefore, Spirit, who in the final analysis is God, is not beauty and truth but energy and power….He does not simply inspire poets or warriors as in the Greek world; he is the very foundation of freedom to be or to choose one’s existence.” George Bedell

Existentialism is a philosophy of existence that became popular in the 20th century.

A revolt against the Enlightenment, existentialism focuses on a study of the self instead of a study of objects. Existentialists ask the questions: How do we exist? Why do we exist? How can we live authentically? 

In addition, existentialists believe that people are free to choose their own destinies. Not only that, but human beings are actually defined by the choices we make. According to existentialists, “we are defined by the choices we make, and we develop our sense of self by making choices.” (Smith, 291).

Living authentically means taking responsibility for the choices we make. Being authentic leads to commitment–people must practice what they preach because they own their choices.

The goal for existentialists is to reach transcendence. Markers showing that a person has achieved transcendence include the following:

  • Rejection of herd mentality
  • Creative use of language
  • Examination of self
  • Concerned listening
  • Accepting responsibility for decisions
  • Freedom to choose

How does existentialism affect rhetoric? Existentialists look for existential ethos in a speaker.

  • The speaker has his/her own values and has a clear sense of self.
  • The speaker takes responsibility for the speech and the action it advocates.
  • The speaker encourages audience members to make decisions and take responsibility for them.
  • The speaker has reached conclusions as if deciding for all mankind.
  • The speaker has moved beyond immediate gratification.
  • The speaker has heard the call of conscience of was inspired by transcendent spirit.
  • The speaker is committed—he practices what he preaches.

The Power of Authenticity:

Overview of Existentialism from Crash Course :

Additional Resources:

Key Figures

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Kierkegaard created the “Philosophy of Existence” in his book Either/or. In the book, he called for an authentic Christianity where humans stand “as nothing” before God. For Kierkegaard, the ultimate goal was to achieve transcendence with God, or the One.

He believed that consciousness is a reflection of the One, which allows us to grow ourselves and control our own destinies. People must examine themselves an determine who is making choices for them. How a person makes decisions determines who they are: “In making a choice, it is not so much a question of choosing the right as of the energy, the earnestness, the pathos with which one chooses” (as qtd. in Smith, 294).

Making choices helps us to discover our values. Not knowing our core values, according to Kierkegaard, means that we act out of ignorance. We can find our core values as we perform self-examination. This ultimately results in living an authentic life, which means is making choices consistent with our core values.

According to Kierkegaard, it’s important to question existence because that is the only way to transcend the material self and find the spiritual. Kierkegaard argued that there are three stages to reach that transcendence and God.

Stage 1: Aesthetic: Reacting to the world without knowledge of self. Doing what everyone else is doing (being part of the herd). Hitting rock bottom, what Kierkegaard called melancholia, creates a revelation that leads to change.

Stage 2: Ethical: The ethical stage requires reflection and prioritization of values. Guilt can lead to the discovery of values because guilt arises from violating core values. In this stage, a person changes their values consciously to re-create self. The person must admit to sin, take responsibility for their actions, and determine to improve.

Stage 3: Religious: In this stage, a person finds an intuitive knowledge of God. It arrives from creating a sense of self through making choices.

Kierkegaard made important connections to rhetorical principals. It places intent over effect–what a person intends is more important than the effect of their actions/words. He believed that decisions reveal a person’s ethos because they determine who the person is.

The role of rhetoric is to force choices that lead to self-knowledge. As speakers make choices, they are creating a sense of self. In fact, without self-knowledge, rhetoric is fallacious.

Kierkegaard’s “Edifying Discourse” is the idea that a speaker has to use indirect communication because people will almost always reject a direct attack on their lifestyle. He recommended using irony to undermine assumptions, ambiguity to force choices, sincer question to hep others discover a sense of self, and art.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

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Sartre was an atheist who revived Kierkegaard’s ideas and was the most influential to the existential movement in the 20th century.  He believed that individuality is unique to humans, but he thought that external realities limit our freedom.

His concept of “essence” says that the ideas that society places on people can blind them and others to their true selves. The “essence” is the “fragrance” given to a person by society. It’s the way a person embraces the ideas about themselves carried by society, rather than defining themselves. These essences can blind people to their true selves and to the true selves of others. Stereotyping is wrong because it objectifies people and keeps people from realizing their potential to create their own self-concept.

Clifford Alexander: “White America continues to paint pictures of black Americans that determine our opportunities. You see us as less than you are. You think that we are not as smart, not as energetic, not as well suited to supervise you…These are the ways you perceive us, and your perceptions are negative. They are fed by motion pictures, ad agencies, news people, and television.”

He encouraged people to use language to create a sense of self and used phenomenology.

According to Sartre, even in the face of destruction, people can save themselves through their sense of self. How? Anxiety from choices creates two options. A person can flee a crisis and embrace the herd mentality. In this instance, a person is acting in “Bad Faith” by using rhetoric to deceive themselves. Role playing, diminishing, rationalizing, sublimating, emphasizing, and avoiding facts are all ways a person might use rhetoric to cover up the truth.

Instead of denying the truth, a person can embrace the crisis through self-examination or communion. Sartre focused on the connection between decision making and self. For Sartre, not deciding is actually making a decision not to act.

He claimed responsible decisions take into account all men, not just the self or those in close proximity. This requires a balance between freedom (to make a decision) and responsibility (to consider the needs of others). He said, “Humans just decide as if they are deciding for all humankind.” Sartre believed that all public persuasion should focus on what is good for all mankind and should be free of essence.

Sartre was criticized for claiming that the Soviets has freedom to dissent and for defending Palestinian terrorists at the Olympics in 1972.

Sartre’s Work

Existentialism is Humanism

Albert Camus (1913-1960)

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Camus was born in French colony of Algeria to an illiterate mother, and his father was killed in WWI. He joined the Communist party in 1935, began a workers’ theater and wrote for a socialist newspaper. Camus worked with Sartre until 1948 when he began criticizing communists.

Camus believed that strong relationships and creating an appreciating beauty creates meaning in life.

His theory of ‘absurdism’ led to a sub-school of the existential movement. “For Camus, the absurd resides in our mortality and the way the world around us fails” (Smith). When people ponder life and no answers come from the universe, this is absurd. He believed that the ability of humans to choose to overcome emotions is essential to survival.

His Myth of Sisyphus centers around the idea that rhetoric can help us to create meaning in our lives, regardless of our situation. Language can be used to end evil and to create beauty. He won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Camus’ Work

Myth of Sisyphus

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

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Heidegger was a German philosopher who studied theology at the University of Freiburg. He believed that the first step to transcendence is the experience of existence. He said that “Those who first discover a sense of self-being may fail to realize that it is a reflection of a superior being.” In other words, seeing the moon, one may fail to realize that the moon is only reflecting the greater sun. While Heidegger believed that art can draw humans into Being, only art created by people who have achieved transcendence has the power to do so.

He was fascinated with phenomenology and invented a hermeneutic phenomenology that focused on close reading to discover the authentic meaning of a text.

He developed the idea that language is a “house of Being” that can lead us to truth. Speaking shows concern for the world, and it is important to have an authentic rhetoric because rhetoric can change or create moods that influence our views of the world. Language should be used to discover self, uncover truth, and participate in meaningful discourse. Inauthentic rhetoric is  unclear language, distracting curiosity, and idld chatter/gossip.

According to Heidegger, there are three linguistic modes.

  • Fore-having: possibilities available before speaking (a speaker’s history, culture, etc)
  • Fore-sight: a speaker’s personal point of view or perspective
  • Fore-conception: the way the speaker structures possibilities

Heidegger’s Work

A Variety of Heidegger’s Work Translated into English

“What is Called Thinking” Video

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) & Martin Buber (1878-1965)When people come to you for help, do not turn them off with pious words, saying, 'Have faith and take your troubles to God.' Act instead as though there were no God, as though there were only one person in the world who could help -- only yourself. - Martin Buber

Jaspers, a Catholic philosopher, and Buber, a  Jewish philosopher,  both focused on how authentic interpersonal relationships can lead to a sense of self.

Karl Jaspars
Karl Jaspars image in the Public Domain.


They both believed that conformity was the enemy and, like Heidegger, thought that true art reflected the transcendent spirit.

According to Buber, hearing others requires dialogue. In the exchange of “I-thou,” humans can find their authentic self in others.

“I-Thou” communication includes the following elements:

  • Immediate—in the here and now
  • Confrontational–face one another and oneself
  • Risky—honest and revealing
  • Exclusive—only authentic selves are allowed
  • Creative—skill at argumentation, spontaneous
  • Responsible—sharing is equal and shows care for the other
  • Unfolding—let the story be told
  • Confirming—acknowledge each other


Passages from Buber’s I and Thou

Excerpts from both Buber and Jaspars

The Age of Realism

The dates for Realism as a movement vary, from as early as 1820 to as late as 1920. Realism was a response to both Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Gustave Courbet, the leader of the realism movement, defined Realism as a “human conclusion which awakened the very forces of man against paganism, Greco-Roman art, the Renaissance, Catholicism, and the gods and demigods, in short against the conventional ideal.”

Realism about a given object is the view that this object exists in reality independently of our conceptual scheme. In philosophical terms, these objects are ontologically independent of someone’s conceptual scheme, perceptions, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc. Realism claims that the senses provide us with direct awareness of the external world. In essence, realism says that what we see, hear, smell is actually there. It’s real.

Realism can also be a view about the nature of reality in general, where it claims that the world exists independent of the mind, as opposed to non-realist views (like some forms of skepticism and solipsism, which question our ability to assert the world is independent of our mind).   In contrast, some forms of idealism assert that no world exists apart from mind-dependent ideas and some forms of skepticism say we cannot trust our senses. The naive realist view is that objects have properties, such as texture, smell, taste and color, that are usually perceived absolutely correctly. We perceive them as they really are.

Realists tend to believe that whatever we believe now is only an approximation of reality but that the accuracy and fullness of understanding can be improved. In some contexts, realism is contrasted with idealism.

The oldest use of the term “realism” appears in medieval scholastic interpretations and adaptations of ancient Greek philosophy.

The Realists, who were influenced by the Dutch and Flemish naturalists of the seventeenth century, were dedicated wholeheartedly to an establishment founded on justice for the working class, the ordinary citizens of society. “The rhetoric of realism is not confined to artists in France; it is written across the age and across Europe. Karl Marx’s manifesto depicts the movement of Realism at heart:

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science into its paid wage-laborers…Constant revolutioning of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones…All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”


Please watch this video contrasting realism and idealism from Dr. Stephen Hicks  :

Additional Resources:

Key Figures:

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

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Sigmund Freud, born Sigismund Schlomo Freud, was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who co-founded the psychoanalytic school of psychology. Freud is best known for his theories of the unconscious mind, especially his theory of the mechanism of repression; his redefinition of sexual desire as mobile and directed towards a wide variety of objects; and his therapeutic techniques, especially his understanding of transference in the therapeutic relationship and the presumed value of dreams as sources of insight into unconscious desires.

He is commonly referred to as “the father of psychoanalysis” and his work has been highly influential in two related but distinct areas: he simultaneously developed a theory of the human mind’s organization and internal operations and a theory that human behavior both conditions and results from how the mind is organized. This led him to favor certain clinical techniques for trying to help cure mental illness.

He also theorized that personality is developed by a person’s childhood experiences.  “Individual personalities form at a very young age and identification with others plays a large role” (Smith, 321). His identification theory says that we naturally alienate ourselves from those who we do not identify with.

Freud attempted to map the mind, resulting in his definition of the human psyche as id, superego, and ego.

Id: focus is on satisfaction of needs. The Id is amoral.

Superego: Morals and values. The superego seeks perfection and rewards for good behavior based on the expectations of society and family.

Ego: The Will. The ego must “synthesize the desires of the id with the morality of the superego while wrestling with the external world” (Smith, 320).

The modern lexicon is filled with terms that Freud popularized, including the unconscious, defense mechanisms, Freudian slips, and dream symbolism. He made a long-lasting impact on fields as diverse as literature, film, Marxist and  feminist theories, philosophy, and psychology. However, his theories remain controversial and widely disputed by numerous critics, to the extent that he has been called the “creator of a complex pseudo-science which should be recognized as one of the great follies of Western civilization.”

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Carl Jung
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Carl Gustav Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology. He was one of the first and most widely read writers of the twentieth century on the psychology of the human mind. His influence has proved as enduring and diverse as that of Sigmund Freud, with whom he worked for a time, although their approaches to psychotherapy are radically different.

Jung regarded the unconscious as crucial to our psychological development, and he spent a significant portion of his life researching this aspect of life, as revealed in symbolic form through dreams and other spiritual experiences. He regarded his theories as applicable both to those with mental disorders and to those who are simply interested in promoting their own psychological development. Jung had many personal spiritual experiences that he wrote about in detail, along with his relationship with God, in his autobiography. However, he did not include explicitly religious concepts, or any mention of God, in his psychological theories.

Jung developed a theory of symbols using archetypes that he believed were in the “collective unconscious.”

Jaques Lacan (1901-1981)

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Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan was a French psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, and doctor. Lacan’s ‘return to the meaning of Freud’ profoundly changed the institutional face of the psychoanalytic movement internationally. The Seminars of Jacques Lacan, which started in 1953 and lasted until his death in 1980, were one of the formative environments of the currency of philosophical ideas that dominated French letters in the 1960s and 1970s, and which has come to be known in the Anglophone world as post-structuralism, though it would be a mischaracterization to label Lacan as only a post-structuralist.

He updated and extended Freud’s theories. This entailed a renewed concentration upon the Freudian concepts of the unconscious, the castration complex, the ego conceptualized as a mosaic of identifications, and the centrality of language to any psychoanalytic work. His work has a strong interdisciplinary focus, drawing particularly on linguistics, philosophy, and mathematics, and he has become an important figure in many fields beyond psychoanalysis, particularly within critical theory, and can be regarded as an important figure of twentieth-century French philosophy.

Lacan argued that speakers must learn about their audiences in order to speak effectively.


Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx
Karl Marx in the Public Domain

Karl Heinrich Marx was a revolutionary activist, a prolific writer and Marxism’s key ideologue. Trained as a philosopher, self-educated as a political economist, and an organizer of the International Workingmen’s Association, Marx became interested in social change during his university studies. Upon receiving his doctorate in absentia from the University of Jena in 1841, Marx was hired as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, a German newspaper. There he championed the rights of peasants against the Prussian government in an editorial column. This led to his opponents accusing Marx of being a “communist” and to his being ostracized. Marx left for Paris where he continued to suffer accusation from the Prussian and the French governments.

Marx developed his revolutionary theories over a period of four decades beginning in 1843. He formulated his theories with the intention to liberate wage workers or laborers from the capitalist societies of nineteenth century Europe. He maintained that in order to emancipate humanity from economic domination, a social revolution was needed. The envisioned result would transform the existing economic structures, and create a society in which property, particularly the means of production would no longer be held privately. Marx’s theories were developed in close collaboration with Friedrich Engels. Together they included an explanation of human alienation and dialectical materialism. Marx and Engels’ vision was a purely materialist interpretation of human nature and development within nature that called for revolution. It represented a materialist view of history, based on the dialectic, that supported Marx’s theory of political economy and his call for revolution. The interpretation distinguished itself because of its theory of surplus value, which asserted that the wealth of capitalist societies originates solely from the exploitation of laborers.

Marx’s analysis of history saw human development as occurring due to a series of class struggles between the ruling class, those who possess the means of production. To Marx, feudal lords, land owners and capitalists were pitted against the ruled working class. This claim is summed up in the opening line of The Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” Marx predicted the demise of capitalism through a workers’ revolution that would lead to a utopian “classless society” where, according to Marx, “people work according to their ability and get according to their needs” and “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Marx’s view of history, which came to be called the materialist interpretation of history (and which was developed further as the philosophy of dialectical materialism) is certainly influenced by Hegel’s claim that reality (and history) should be viewed dialectically, through a clash of opposing forces. Hegel believed that the direction of human history is characterized in the movement from the fragmentary toward the complete and the real (which was also a movement towards greater and greater rationality). Sometimes, Hegel explained, this progressive unfolding of the Absolute involves gradual, evolutionary accretion but at other times requires discontinuous, revolutionary leaps—upheavals against the existing status quo. For example, Hegel strongly opposed the ancient institution of legal slavery that was practiced in the United States during his lifetime, and he envisioned a time when Christian nations would radically eliminate it from their civilization. While Marx accepted this broad conception of history, Hegel was an idealist, and Marx sought to rewrite dialectics in materialist terms. He wrote that Hegelianism stood the movement of reality on its head, and that it was necessary to set it upon its feet. (Hegel’s philosophy remained and remains in direct opposition to Marxism on this key point.)

Marx’s acceptance of the notion of materialist dialectics rejected Hegel’s idealism and was greatly influenced by his study of Ludwig Feuerbach. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach argued that God is really a creation of man and that the qualities people attribute to God are really qualities of humanity. For example, the Holy Trinity was a human projection of the family (man, woman, and child) onto God. Accordingly, Marx argued that it is the material world that is real and that our ideas of it are consequences, not causes, of the world. Thus, like Hegel and other philosophers, Marx distinguished between appearances and reality. But he did not believe that the material world hides from us the “real” world of the ideal; on the contrary, he thought that historically and socially specific ideologies prevented people from seeing the material conditions of their lives clearly.




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