Tuesday


In several posts I have argued that the structure of civilization consists of an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project, and that, moreover, the civilization extant today consists of an industrial economic infrastructure joined to a technical intellectual superstructure by the central project that we know as the Enlightenment project. Contemporary civilization as so defined dates back only to the 18th century, when the Enlightenment project emerged as a reaction to the carnage of the religious wars in Europe. The three pillars of modernity — the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and political revolutions — all burst the bounds of traditional feudal societies, and ever since the world has been trying to master the forces unleashed by these revolutions.

The American revolution was the first and the most successful of the political revolutions that swept aside traditionalism, feudalism, and aristocracy. (Sometimes I think of the American revolution as being, in this sense, like Augustus, who was the first of the Roman emperors, and arguably the best of the lot. After that, it was all downhill.) The unique confluence of circumstances that made the American revolution successful, both militarily and politically, included unlikely revolutionaries who were property owners, the pillars of colonial society, and also well-read, as Enlightenment gentlemen were expected to be.

There was nothing democratic about the mostly aristocratic founding fathers, other than their desire to found a new kind of political order drawing upon the best of ancient Greece (democracy) and the best of ancient Rome (republicanism). The founding of a new political order required a revolutionary war to separate the United States from the British Empire, but it also involved a profound intellectual challenge to conceptualize a new political order, and this challenge had already begun in Europe, where the Enlightenment originated.

The Enlightenment produced a large number of top-notch philosophers whom we still read today, and with profit: their insights have not yet been exhausted. Also, these Enlightenment philosophers were highly diverse. They disagreed sharply with one another, which is the western way. We disagree and we debate in order to analyze an idea, much as an alibi is dissected in a courtroom.

William Blake, who represents the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, wrote a poem criticizing Voltaire and Rousseau in the same breath:

MOCK on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Never mind that Voltaire and Rousseau quarreled and represented polar opposite ends of the Enlightenment. When Voltaire received a copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, he responded in a letter to Rousseau: “I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it.” But perhaps this was Blake’s intention to invoke opposite spirits of the Enlightenment, given his appreciation of antitheses as expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — both Voltaire and Rousseau were to be condemned for their mockery of tradition.

If these quarreling Enlightenment thinkers were alive today, feuding bitterly with each other, the popular press would say that the Enlightenment was obviously burnt out and was now “tearing itself apart.” Soon, the pundits would presumably say, we could go back to the comforts of monarchy and a universal church as though nothing had happened, the whole episode of the Enlightenment having been something like the social equivalent of a bad dream.

Strangely enough, we find a view much like this on both the far left and the far right today. The far left, as represented by the philosophers of the Frankfurt school (the dread prophets of “cultural Marxism”), rejected the Enlightenment (cf. Theory from the ruins: The Frankfurt school argued that reason is dangerous, mass culture deadening, and the Enlightenment a disaster. Were they right? by Stuart Walton), just as neoreactionaries reject the Enlightenment by contrasting the 18th century Enlightenment with the “Dark Enlightenment,” the latter growing organically out of the counter-Enlightenment of J. G. Hamann, Joseph de Maistre, and others.

Like Blake’s dual condemnation of Voltaire and Rousseau, the dual condemnation of the Enlightenment by both left and right is a condemnation of two distinct faces of the Enlightenment. Partly this is a result of the ongoing debate over the proper scope and application of reason, but I think that the deeper issue is the failure of western civilization to overcome the chasm separating its twin ideals of freedom and equality, which are two faces of Enlightenment morality.

Naïvely we want these two ideals to be fully realized together within democratic institutions; when we grow out of our naïveté we usually see these ideals in conflict, and assume that any attempt to mediate between the two must ultimately take the form of a compromise in which we lose some freedom in exchange for equality or we lose some equality in exchange for freedom. But the nineteenth century, which produced the counter-Enlightenment, also produced Hegel, and Hegel would have pointed out that a dialectic, such as the dialectic between freedom and equality, will only be resolved when we transcend the antithesis by a synthesis that is more comprehensive than either ideal in isolation.

When we consider the absolutizing tendency of political rhetoric we would not be at all surprised to see Hegelian formulations like, “The absolute is freedom,” later to be countered by, “The absolute is equality.” Even if such things are not stated so explicitly, it is clear from the behavior of many who set themselves up as the arbiters of American values that they typically take the one or the other as an absolute ideal, and absolutization of one or the other prevents us from seeing the more comprehensive synthesis in which freedom and equality can not only coexist, but in which each can extend the other.

The problem of freedom and equality is the equivalent for social thought of the problem of general relativity and quantum theory for physics. Some are certain that the solution to their integration lies on one side or the other of the divide — there must be quantum gravity because all of physics is now formulated in quantum terms — but the truth is that, at our present stage of intellectual development, the solution eludes us because we have not yet achieved the intuitive breakthrough that will allow us to see the world as one and whole.

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Happy 4th of July!

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