I’ve mentioned in a number of earlier posts that it is the inescapable destiny of popular, democratic revolutions to be successfully hijacked by tyrannical internal forces. The usual suspects come to mind, of course: the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the German Revolution. I don’t mention the American Revolution since, as I have previously argued, it was not, strictly speaking, a “revolution” at all, rather a case of colonial irredentism.
I’m returning to this theme because of I’ve been reading Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment. The reading chair in my tiny home office is right next to a couple of book cases holding the rather sad remainder of what was once a pleasantly large library. But still, being retired allows me the luxury to read whatever strikes my fancy. Settling down in my reading chair to wallow in a trashy mystery, my eye settled on the Gay book, which I didn’t remember reading, but which looked like an enticing read. Which it has turn out to be, complete with old notes, which I don’t remember making.
Gay is a superbly well-read enthusiast of the Enlightenment, and he attempts to be fair to the many criticisms that have been leveled against it during both the 19th and 20th centuries. Nonetheless, he fails to appreciate that the Enlightenment was, in fact, a single revolution taking place over the space of 200 years that culminated in the murderous paroxysm that began in 1789. This is the more odd since he paints the philosophes as perceiving themselves as (drum roll) revolutionaries. More specifically, they saw themselves as being at war with religion (which they branded “superstition”) and the various cultures from which they themselves had emerged. So, how is it that we have someone like Gay showing himself such a fan of the philosophes when they are the precursors of the Terror?
Now, if the principle with which I began is true (and I have seen no counter-examples), then Gay should have been on the lookout for signs of the totalitarianism which seems the inevitable legacy of revolution. To be honest, I haven’t finished the book yet, so he might still get to that.
But there’s no mystery here. The 17th and 18th century Enlightenment was the incubator of modern totalitarian Socialism (aka “communism”). And what lies at the heart of all these totalitarian take-overs is a forced detachment from cultural/historical antecedents, the erasure of the ancien regime, a forced move from a despised culture to no culture at all.
Edmund Wilson, in his history of Socialism (“To the Finland Station”), traces Socialism back to the French Revolution, where the principle I’m proposing had already made itself felt in the Jacobins. But the theoretical underpinnings of that revolution did not emerge suddenly as from the head of Zeus, nor had they been churning unperceived beneath the European surface. The French Revolution’s theoretical underpinnings had been proposed, debated, evolved, and refined during the two preceding centuries. The Jacobins stood on the shoulders of the philosophes, who were the early generals and strategists of the Enlightenment Revolution.
The scientists and intellectual dilettantes of the French 18th century whom Gay so admires can easily be enjoyed for their wit, their creativity, even their eccentricities. We forgive them much, at least partly because we’ve been taught to do so. We smile at Voltaire’s excesses just as so many smile at Bill Clinton’s. They’re charming, glib bad boys, and just oh so clever. But we wouldn’t be so happy to give them a pass if we reviewed their antics within the shadow of the guillotine. Reading Gay helps make it clear why we don’t notice Robespierre’s face peering out from the background of Gay’s cheerful group photo of the philosophes. It is because the philosophes had not yet taken that fatal revolutionary step right out of history. Yes, they sought to detach themselves from their Christian heritage, but like so many moving into divorce, they had another lover waiting in the wings. The philosophes divorced Christianity, but they were able to do so because they had the writers of classical antiquity ready to take its place. The Jacobins, on the other hand, divorced all of their history and culture, and it is this that finally made the Terror possible. It is this which distinguishes the philosophes from the vicious and murderous ideologues of 1789 and which obscures the direct line of descendancy leading to them.
And yes, it can seem a small price to pay, that of having a bad boy, to have someone very clever at the helm of government. But we must ask ourselves what the consequences will be of increasingly staffing our universities, our courts, and our government institutions with such charming, glib bad boys. Bad boys who hate the culture which nurtured them, on which they feed, and from which they emerge.
The EU is one grandchild of the Enlightenment Revolution. How’s that been working?
The American Democratic Party is another grandchild of the Enlightenment Revolution. How’s that been working?
The Enlightenment Revolution was an irresponsible parent (what else would we expect?), so there are yet other grandchildren mucking about, all illegitimate and all still waiting for parental support which will never come. Revolutions lead to tyrannies, which lead to slavery, poverty, and starvation for their citizens.
But while bashing the Enlightenment may be a necessary antidote to its excesses, one can hardly argue against its one utterly overwhelming benefit: Science. And by “science,” I mean the “natural” sciences, not the jumped-up pseudo disciplines with the borrowed authority of statistics, i.e. the “social sciences.” Lest someone doubt me here, let me indicate that a recent study by a social scientist claimed to demonstrate that around 75% of “published studies” in social psychology and cognitive psychology are not replicable. I wonder if his own study was replicable and whether he sensed some irony here. I tend to think the situation is likely worse for sociology and whatever other invented disciplines are littering the university scene.
Yes, science and math have made astonishing progress and are accelerating at an apparently exponential rate. This is fabulous and must be acknowledged and admired (which I do).
The problem arises only when, as is inevitable, the methods which have proven powerful and successful in one arena are aggressively applied in others where they simply do not work.
There is an enormous amount of money now involved in natural science, and natural science has carried tremendous prestige for a long time.
A situation such as this is like the smell of fresh meat to a scavenger.
The natural sciences have attracted wanna-be disciplines looking to cash in on the natural sciences’ successes. They want to create departments, to increase their staffing and their budgets. Hence they tart up their names by adding “science.” We now have political “science.” Really? Maybe we’ll eventually have philosophical “science,” as well. And we wind up with idiocies like departments of “theory.” Shouldn’t that have been “theoretical science”?
But, worse, the prestige of the natural sciences attracts political and social scavengers who actually burrow into the periphery of real natural science from which position they attempt to affect public policy. Their “scientific” camouflage is the use of computer models and simulations. That’s pretty “scientific,” right? How well has this “scientific” method worked in, say, economics? But we should accept its hysterical results in the Global Warming scam. Right. The social “sciences” per se could be thought of as harmless enough wastes of public money, and if they were satisfied to remain that, I suppose we could tolerate them on campuses. But sadly they have become the instruments of governments and other enormous interests to manipulate public opinion into supporting policies completely incompatible with common sense. We should be very wary of these pseudo-sciences.
This all means that once science became rich and successful, it became a target for parasites. Should come as no surprise. See what happens if you win $50 million.
Now, these are the dishonest attendants on wealth and success, but there is one other that seems to be built right into human nature.
It is that people are naturally inclined to extend a new method that has proven successful beyond its place of discovery and to think of it as the final solution for all human problems. Descartes, for example, invented analytic geometry, an extraordinary achievement. Since he was, among other things, one of the earliest physicists, he immediately thought he could use it to represent motion. Unfortunately, he was wrong in this; the representation of motion had to await the invention of calculus by both Newton and Leibniz (separately). This impulse to extend the method is also behind the attempt to approach non-quantitative empirical problems and questions with “science.” It was certainly present among the 18th century philosophes.
Those whose imaginations are totally in the grip of scientific method often feel compelled to despise the organically grown culture within which they live. This was largely true of the philosophes and it is largely true of many modern intellectuals, e.g. Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.
The really difficult thing to do is to accept the amazing progress and discoveries of natural science while accepting the universe of inherited myths and values within which we live.
A prudent first step in this is to reject all attempts at persuasion on moral matters based on “social science studies.”