A shipwrecked man is sustained solely by the hope of rescue: he scans the horizon constantly for signs of life. In his eyes, anything and everything he sees enables him to feel that help is at hand. So it is with our shipwrecked civilisation. Having banished the West's Judaeo-Christian heritage to the private sphere, we are now investing the advent of Barack Obama with a quasi-messianic significance that no American president can possibly fulfill. To live up to these expectations, Mr Obama would not only have to restore America's prosperity and prestige, but to transform his country into a kind of paradise and bring peace to every corner of the earth.
He will of course do no such thing. Though founded on a revolution, the United States has always been clear-sighted about the limitations of its ability to change the circumstances. America's mission to bring freedom, democracy and the rule of law to a benighted world has often encompassed the overthrow of tyrants, but never the creation of utopias.
The late Conor Cruise O'Brien - in whose memory we publish Roy Foster's magisterial tribute - neatly distinguished between the French, Russian, Nazi and Chinese revolutions, which were utopian, and the American revolution, which was modelled on England's "glorious" one. In The Great Melody, his study of Edmund Burke, O'Brien wrote: "The words Incipit Novus Ordo Seclorum on the Great Seal, as adopted by the Continental Congress [in 1782], might be taken as indicating some form of Utopian design, but this would be misleading. The choice by the Founding Fathers of these words from Virgil's Fourth Eclogue - which European Christendom had held to be sacred prophecy - was essentially a claim to divine approval; a new chapter was opening in God's dispensation for the world. The idea that human hands should radically transform the structure of American society, as that structure stood in 1782, was entirely absent." O'Brien's interpretation of the Great Seal (which is used on dollar bills, passports and elsewhere) may stand for a more general truth about the United States: however clear the constitutional division of church and state, the greatest of the Founding Fathers is God. Whatever else may change in Obama's America, that confidence in providential guidance (which the new president shares with his predecessors) will not.