Tuesday


David Hume, philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment and advocate of book burning.

The Dark Underbelly of the Enlightenment

There is a well known passage from the final paragraph of David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, XII. “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy”

In the dialectic that is human history we would expect that a dominant paradigm — like the Enlightenment today — would alternate between its benevolent expression and its malevolent expression, sometimes showing to a world a bright and cheerful aspect, while at other times betraying a dark and sinister aspect. This is not distinctive to the Enlightenment, it is a function of human nature, with its ever-present shadow side that we attempt to suppress and obscure and ignore. We can find this dialectic in all stages in the development of human civilization, and in all civilizations in all parts of the world. There are inspiring moments of brilliance, and devastating moments of horror, both flowing from the human heart in all its complexity and mendacity.

We prefer to focus on the novel and edifying aspects of the Enlightenment, and to pass over in the silence the destructive and sinister aspects of the Enlightenment, but both aspects are fully present in the Enlightenment no less than in other historical periods and other intellectual movements. The Enlightenment not only promoted a set of humanistic values, it also anathematized a set of traditional values associated with a form of society that preceded the Enlightenment.

There is another passage from Hume (which I earlier quoted in The Illiberal Conception of Freedom) that drives home the Enlightenment imperative not only to advance its own program, but also to extirpate tradition:

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, Section IX, Conclusion, Part I

Hume has here lined up all virtues given pride of place during the Middle Ages (admittedly honored more in the breech than the observance) and roundly condemned them as being counter to human interests and therefore to be cast aside in favor of the values and virtues of the Enlightenment. For Hume, it is not enough merely to promote the rationalism and humanism of the Enlightenment, it is also necessary to extirpate rival moral systems.

When Hume wrote his philosophical works, the memory of the burning of heretics and witches was still fresh in European memory. Indeed, the Enlightenment was largely a reaction against the excesses that followed the Protestant Reformation, and especially the Thirty Years’ War. No doubt Hume saw the representatives of celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, and solitude as responsible, in whole or in part, for the atrocities of the religious wars that had so devastated early modern Europe. The book burning advocated by Hume has a spectacular theatricality that invokes both the auto-de-fé of the Inquisition and the Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence under the brief rule of Savonarola. One good bonfire, it seems, deserves another.

The motives that led Hume to advocate book burning were not qualitatively different from motives that led earlier and later ideologies to advocate book burning and equivalent forms of censorship and the destruction of a former tradition now believed to present an obstacle to the construction of the kind of society that is to be built. During the Protestant Reformation, the furnishings of Catholic churches were looted and destroyed. Perhaps there were cases in which there was a desire to profit from this, but the many damaged sculptures and paintings demonstrate that there was also a desire merely to destroy for the sake of destruction, and to do so with a clear conscience because one was destroying in pursuit of a higher good.

I have previously quoted Montaigne on destructive enthusiasms excused by religious fervor in Transcendental Humors:

“The mind has not willingly other hours enough wherein to do its business, without disassociating itself from the body, in that little space it must have for its necessity. They would put themselves out of themselves, and escape from being men. It is folly; instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts; instead of elevating, they lay themselves lower. These transcendental humours affright me, like high and inaccessible places; and nothing is hard for me to digest in the life of Socrates but his ecstasies and communication with demons; nothing so human in Plato as that for which they say he was called divine; and of our sciences, those seem to be the most terrestrial and low that are highest mounted; and I find nothing so humble and mortal in the life of Alexander as his fancies about his immortalisation.”

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Essays, Book III, “Of Experience”

The Soviets destroyed countless Orthodox churches and monasteries, as the Chinese have destroyed many Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries, as the Taliban destroyed the legacy of Buddhism in Central Asia, and the Saudi government has presided over the destruction of almost all pre-Islamic monuments in Mecca (though it should be pointed out that the Saudis, in their enthusiasm for iconoclasm, also routinely destroy sites associated with early Islam). Clearly, this iconoclastic impulse as part of a desire to found a new social order is not distinctive to the Enlightenment or to western civilization. What is interesting here is not a presumption of uniqueness that can be shown to be false, but rather the similarity of the Enlightenment to other movements that look to humanity starting over again with a clean slate. In other words, it is the non-uniqueness of the Enlightenment that interests me in this respect.

The explicit and purposeful destruction of a legacy in order to begin anew from scratch points to an important aspect of contemporary iconoclasm: the blank slate is not a description, but a prescription. If we are to bring forth a new order, we must utterly destroy the old order, because the new order must be brought forth in all its purity and innocence, uncontaminated by the errors of the past. A blank slate is the necessary condition of building the brave new world the revolutionary dreams of founding. The blank slate given an epistemic exposition by Locke during the Enlightenment is thus seen as a moral precondition for the mind of the future, and not a description of the mind of the present. Locke is here engaged in what Nietzsche described as philosophy as the confession of its originator.

Today iconoclasm is viewed as a necessary prerequisite for every undertaking, and the idea of the blank slate continues to wield tremendous influence. I find it frightening that the future is regarded by many as a blank slate, upon which we project our ideals of a better and more just society. These are admirable motives, but they have been the motives of every revolutionary force that has demanded the indiscriminate demolition of all traditional institutions for the sake of a better tomorrow. Most worrisome of all, the lesson of history is that the focus of righteous wrath is usually fixed upon anything that represents a past ideal, as this ideal represents a rival conception of the good that cannot be tolerated. We must expect, then, that that which we have most valued will be most insistently targeted for destruction.

With renewed interest in space exploration in recent years, we are also seeing renewed interest in humanity establishing itself off the surface of Earth, and this interest has contributed to a growing discussion around space settlements. I intend to address these ideas elsewhere, as they are intrinsically interesting, but in connection with the above discussion of Enlightenment iconoclasm I want to focus on just one motif that recurs repeatedly in the discussion of human expansion beyond Earth. This motif is the idea that space is a blank slate for human beings where a new social order can be constructed that leaves behind the problems that have dogged the human condition on Earth. There are those who believe that human beings simply should not leave Earth (and these must be distinguished from those who believe that we cannot leave Earth, because the problem of human space settlement is intractable), but there are also those who do not specifically object to the expansion of humanity beyond Earth, but believe that we should wait until we clean up our act on our homeworld (a position that I call the waiting gambit), or that when we do move out into the solar system, and eventually to other stars, we must do so according to a new social template. In other words, we must abandon the past in order to create new institutions for this new frontier.

Given what has been noted above in respect to Enlightenment iconoclasm, we can see that his conception of humanity’s expansion beyond our homeworld being contingent upon a planetary-scale iconoclasm directed at the entire tradition of human civilization up to the present time is truly a disastrous conceit, and if we attempt to put this into practice, the result will be misery and suffering proportional to the extent that this conceit is realized.

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Saturday


Grand ceremonial processions were central to the rituals of Byzantine civilization, which overlapped with both the civilization of classical antiquity and with the civilization of medieval Europe.

Grand ceremonial processions were central to the rituals of Byzantine civilization, which overlapped with both the civilization of classical antiquity and with the civilization of medieval Europe.

In several posts– The Phenomenon of Civilization, The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited, and Revisiting Civilization Revisited — I have argued that the increasing integration and viability of the elements of technological civilization demonstrates that civilization is becoming more robust over time, not less. In other words, we are not facing the end of the world by any manner of means. While I continue to believe this to be correct, I will acknowledge without hesitation that a case can still be made for the contrary position, and today I would like to consider some ramifications of the organic model of civilization.

The natural life cycle of civilization according to the organic model.

The natural life cycle of civilization according to the organic model.

In the organic model of civilization, civilizations are like organic entities that experience a natural life cycle from birth through growth to maturity and senescence and finally death. In a strong formulation of the organic model, each civilization would be absolutely unique and incommensurable with other civilizations. It is unlikely that this idealization of organic order is realized in fact. It is easy, however, to conceive any number of less rigorous formulations that admit of degrees of the organic character of civilization. From the organic model several suggestive conclusions can be drawn, such as the impossibility of preserving a civilization beyond its natural life span.

If civilization conforms to the organic model, its life cycle is like the life cycle of organic entities.

If civilization conforms to the organic model, its life cycle is like the life cycle of organic entities.

To a certain extent, the organic model of civilization can be assimilated to the argument that I made in The Phenomenon of Civilization, in so far as we distinguish the fates of individual civilizations from the fate of civilization taken on the whole. The latter view, that we can say meaningful things about civilization on the whole, of which individual, particular civilizations are mere constituent parts, might be termed the mereological model of civilization. (Mereology is the theory of parts and wholes.) There is no reason that civilizations might not exhibit both a mereological and an organic structure or aspects of both such structures (except in the case of the strong formulation of the organic model noted above, which also suggests a strong formulation of the mereological model).

A diagram illustrating the mereological model of civilization. The largest outside ring is the mereological sum of civilization. The smaller circles contained within are individual civilizations that are the constituent parts of the mereological sum of civilization.

A diagram illustrating the mereological model of civilization. The largest outside ring is the mereological sum of civilization. The smaller circles contained within are individual civilizations that are the constituent parts of the mereological sum of civilization.

As I remarked above, a compelling argument can be made for the organic model of civilization with many illustrations drawn from history of a natural cycle of the birth, growth, maturity, decay, and death of civilizations. If this is the case, it would seem likely the our modern Western civilization that displaced the civilization of medieval Europe has at least peaked and may perhaps be well on its way in decline and eventual death. This view is emphatically not novel: it is a favorite and familiar theme of both high-brow and low-brow fiction. But there is a novel suggestion that can be made to add some interest to the organic model, and we can do so by drawing on an extended biological metaphor.

Within the overall phenomenon of civilization we can distinguish parts of civilization and how they overlap and intersect with each other.

Usually we need to grasp an idea first in its simplest form, and among the simplest forms of the biological model is that mentioned above of a cycle of birth, growth, maturity, decay, and death. However, even a passing acquaintance with biology will make one aware that different life forms have different life cycles. A dramatic example of this is the metamorphosis of some insect life cycles. There is nothing quite like thing among “higher” organisms such as mammals. So while we begin a consideration of the organic model of civilization with the simplest idea of organic life, we need to pass on to more varieties of possible life cycles, as well as combinations of features to be found in a fully articulated conception of an organic life cycle, in order to converge upon a more subtle and sophisticated conception of life cycle that might be profitably applied to something as subtle and sophisticated as the concept of civilization.

There will always be questions about the scope of civilizations. Here we assume that the phenomenon of civilization can wholly contain subordinate wholes of civilization, which in turn can wholly contain civilizations, but this descending chain of civilizations cannot be continued indefinitely.

Suppose, as we said above, that our contemporary Western civilization is in terminal decline. As part of a natural life cycle, it could then be expected that natural forces would emerge to facilitate this natural cycle by contributing to the disintegration and fragmentation of civilization. We could put it like this: but for the unprecedented Industrial Revolution, Scientific Revolution, and Technological Revolution, our civilization would have run its course and would, but for an exception to the ordinary course of history, be in its terminal stages of decline. Our world today on this interpretation would be a counter-cyclical civilization. Also under this interpretation, the emergence of nihilistic, iconoclastic fundamentalisms — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu alike — are in accord with the ordinary course of history. Such movements emerge as part of the perennial pattern of history, appearing on the scene to perform the service of clearing the ground of the decayed civilization so that a new civilization can emerge in due course.

A side by side comparison of organic and mereological models of civilization makes something obvious that should have been obvious to me earlier: the organic model is diachronic while the mereological model is synchronic, to use the language of structuralism.

Fundamentalists, then, are the white blood cells of civilization, which usually serve an important function such as the Christians who focused on destroying the legacy of classical antiquity so that a new, Atlantic-facing civilization could emerge in Western Europe — a development that would have been impossible under the shadow of a surviving Roman Empire. But something has changed. In the meantime, we have learned how to perform transplantation in order to preserve the vital functions of our society. If the transplantation is to be effective we must learn how to suppress the immune response of the body politic so that the foreign tissue will not be attacked and the altered body not destroyed by its own white blood cells. This, then, is our extended biological metaphor.

Iconoclasm with Chinese characteristics during the Cultural Revolution: as the early Christians destroyed the images of classical antiquity and the Protestants destroyed the Catholic civilization of images to make way for the modern world, the Red Guard of the Cultural Revolution attempted to destroyed the artifacts of the past to make way for a communist civilization.

The enthusiastic fundamentalists who are the enemies of civilization have emerged at the late stage of our civilization, just as the Christians emerged in the late stages of classical antiquity. As the Christians set about destroying the great monuments of art and architecture that were the pride of classical civilization, so today the fundamentalists set about destroying the great monuments of knowledge that are the pride of our modern civilization. They are performing their historical function, which in other circumstances — the circumstances of established precedent in which no countervailing forces had emerged to reinvigorate a decaying civilization — would result in a catastrophic collapse of civilization increasing in rapidity with the passage of time. Fundamentalists plant the seed of what would ordinarily be a self-fulfilling prophecy: that we are living in the end times. But this time around, the pattern has been interrupted. New forces are at play, and the result must be as unprecedented as the circumstances.

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