Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rise of the Reasonable State

Part 15 of Prisoners of the Real

Fear – the centerpost of Hobbes' vision of rational order – also underlay the two forms of exploration on which Europeans had embarked in the 14TH century: the terrestrial and technological pioneering that commenced with Columbus and Copernicus. And although Hobbes’ severe definition of brutish humanity in a natural state of war eventually came into conflict with the notion of "natural" goodness, the need to bridle irrationality was generally accepted.

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained it, "a point was reached in the history of mankind when the obstacles to continuing in a state of nature were stronger than the forces which each individual could employ to the end of continuing in it." In other words, the fear that accompanied rationalists into the Enlightenment was grounded in suspicions concerning the environment's control over humanity.

Even Rousseau, whose philosophy of natural religion envisioned a return to simplicity and spontaneity, saw nature as a force to be resisted:

"(T)here is no way in which they (humans) can maintain themselves save by coming together and pooling their strength in a way which will enable them to withstand any resistance exerted upon them from without. They must develop some form of central direction and learn to act in concert."

The intellectual and moral revolution of the 18th century was built on Cartesian assumptions: the need for systematic control of potential destructive natural forces, the pervasive doctrine of fear, and faith in the rational method of science. In the Enlightenment reason was applied to all problems – political, religious, social and economic. "Enlightened" thinkers assumed that a rational soul would lift humanity out of superstition and darkness, and assist in the construction of a perfect world. Within a century, Descartes' theory of mechanics became a generally accepted belief: that the social universe was as well-ordered as the physical. The persistent villain, which "philosophes" and despots alike sought to vanquish, was irrational interference with natural laws.

Among the most influential voices was Denis Diderot, editor of the literary monument of the century, the Encylopedie. Beginning his career as a theist, Diderot nevertheless favored sexual freedom throughout his life. He promoted a philosophy resting on concrete experience, faith in intelligence rather than instinct, and continuous investigation of mechanical processes. In his utilitarian ethic, scientific description supplanted teleology.

Completed in 1772, the French Encyclopedie exerted an incalculable influence through its stress on scientific determinism and it attacks on legal, juridical, and clerical abuses. Most of the entries in its 28 volumes focused on science, technology and mathematics, unified by a materialistic viewpoint. Diderot compiled information and made drawings for 11 volumes dedicated to the industrial arts. When a five volume supplement was added in 1780, however, the printer was forced to make deletions under state pressure. The snowballing conflict between the church and the emerging scientific shamans had produced an early example of state censorship.

In one entry Diderot defiantly outlined the position of the philosopher, contrasting this view with Christianity. "Reason is in the estimation of the philosopher," he suggested, "what grace is the Christian. Grace determines the Christian's actions; reason the philosopher's." Although they may have to travel in darkness, the implied kingdom of the Christian, Diderot explained that philosophers use observation to control their feelings, holding high their torch:

"Truth is not for the philosopher a mistress who vitiates his imagination, and whom he believes to find everywhere. He contents himself with being able to discover it wherever he may chance to find it. He does not confound it with its semblence; but takes for true that which is true, for false that which is false, for doubtful that which is doubtful, and for probable that which is only probable. He does more –and this is the great perfection of philosophy; that when he has no real grounds for passing judgment, he knows how to remain undetermined….The philosopher is then an honest man, actuated in everything by reason."

Diderot's Encyclopedie, including contributions from Voltaire, Rousseau, Quesnay, Montesquieu and Turgot, helped to further both rationalism and skepticism, and served as a major factor in the intellectual preparation for the French Revolution. In addition, it defined the conflict between reason and revealed religion. Some philosophers, including Rousseau, embraced a "natural religion" which acknowledged a Supreme Being while denying most of Christianity. The hallmark of the Age of Reason, however, was religious radicalism, with atheism as a common creed.

One French materialist, Baron Paul H. Dietrich d'Holbach, argued that no mind existed independently of matter. Consciousness, he said, was a form of fermentation, agitation of the particles of the brain. Religion, on the other hand, was an elaborate fabrication of pernicious priests who invented the notion of God to control the population. The idea of an "inner" person was discarded by d'Holbach as mere illusion, and replaced by a clockwork being:

"An organized being may be compared to a clock, which, once broken, is no longer suitable to the use for which it was designed. To say that the soul shall feel, shall think, shall enjoy, shall suffer after the death of the body, is to pretend that a clock, shivered into a thousand pieces, will continue to strike the hour and have the faculty of marking the progress of time."

To arch-rationalists like d'Holbach, the very notion of a human soul was completely absurd, while to deists such as Rousseau the belief remained reasonable because it could be proven by listening to the voice within. In certain respects Rousseau provided an alternative to the rationalism of Diderot and d'Holbach. Defying the dominant utilitarian outlook, he remained a romantic, looking toward primitive environments and simpler ways to make a living. Just as Diderot was celebrating rational science and industrial organization, he was urging a return to a deliberately archaic existence.

In Emile, Rousseau discussed naturalness in education, suggesting that humanity begin again at the simplest level. However, even Rousseau the naturalist was a willing servant of reason:

"Our greatest ideas about the Godhead reach us through reason alone. Observe nature. Listen to the voice within. Has not God told us everything through our eyes, our conscience, our judgment?"

Thus, his "natural religion" wasn't a new exaltation of intuition, but rather a theology based on all that humanity could understand through nature. His philosophical alliance with Diderot, despite contributing to a brief coexistence of rational-utilitarian and primitive-romantic beliefs, placed harsh limits on his religious doctrine. More importantly, his acceptance of a fear-based vision of humanity led him to design a model of contractual government that contained both democratic and authoritarian implications.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau accepted the need for concentration of power, asserting the "general will" over the will of the individual. At the same time he argued that the contract gave citizens as much as it took away, and used the strength of the community to conserve what they already possessed. Summing up his social pact, he wrote:

"(E)ach of us contributes to the group his person and the powers which he wields as a person, and we receive into the body politic each individual as forming an indivisible part of the whole."

In less extreme times, Rousseau's social contract and natural approach to education might have tempered the penchant for mechanical invention and system building. But as civilization steamrolled into the 19th century the romantic mind was replaced, and scientific discovery imposed itself on the natural world. Relying on the evidence of astronomy and biology, even idealists like Hegel argued that the universe was rational. The climate was ripe for the next leap –from the idea that humanity is the goal of nature to the belief that the state is its fullest expression.

Next: Dialectical Progress

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

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