From the desk of Fjordman on Wed, 2009-12-09 01:23
There are few books published these days that are worth a second look, but The Suicide of Reason by Lee Harris is one of the exceptions. Many observers currently sense – correctly in my view – that something is fundamentally wrong with the Western world, but they differ substantially in their analysis of the cause(s) of this. The First and Second World Wars were horrible, and most thinking people agree that something went wrong with the Western Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, which unlike the Chinese Cultural Revolution became institutionalized. But does that mean that everything was fine in the 1950s?
The Communist Manifesto was written already in 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and Marx published Das Kapital in 1867. There are those who believe that Marxism could only have been born in a Christian environment, and there are also those who claim that the real father of Communism was Plato in ancient Greece, not Karl Marx. So where exactly did the West go wrong, and just how far back do we have to go before things were “right”? 1950? 1850? Before the Enlightenment and industrialization? Before Christianity? Before Plato?
Even Christian conservative writer Lawrence Auster admits that modern liberalism “would not have come into existence without Christianity, and liberalism can fairly be described as a secularized offshoot of Christianity,” but he thinks that this does not necessarily mean that all forms of Christianity in every context have been or need to be suicidal, which may be true.
The jury is still out on whether Christian universalism is suicidal for Europeans in a world of global communications where most Christians are non-Europeans, yet I am convinced that we must take a look at a dark side of the Enlightenment which can be dubbed the Cult of Reason.
In some Western countries – the United States in particular – the term “Judeo-Christian” is frequently evoked. This makes sense in some contexts but not in all. The European artistic legacy from the medieval era on could be more accurately described as “Helleno-Christian” since figurative art never held a prominent place in traditional Jewish culture. While it is possible that elements of Jewish chant were incorporated into early Christian religious music, the tradition of polyphony which led up to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven was a unique Christian European development of the Middle Ages with no direct counterpart in Judaism.
Although Christianity was deeply affected by its Greco-Roman and Germanic environment, there is no doubt that it adopted a number of important philosophical ideas and ethical concepts that were uniquely Judaic and had no real precedent in pagan European religions, for instance the idea of history as a linear process of progress toward a specific end goal. Author Henry Bamford Parkes writes in Gods and Men - The Origins of Western Culture:
“The most significant feature of the Jewish heritage, however, was its view of history. Other ancient peoples had believed in a golden age, but had always located it in the past at the beginning of time. Israel alone looked forward to a golden age in the future and interpreted history as a meaningful and progressive movement toward this Messianic consummation. Originating in tribalistic loyalty, and reflecting the determination of a weak people to retain its identity in spite of conquest and enslavement, the Messianic hope was given universal scope by the prophets and became the end toward which all earthly events were moving. In various manifestations, religious and secular, spiritual and materialistic, it became one of those dynamic social myths which give meaning and direction to human life and which have more influence on human action than any rational philosophy. Unless its importance is understood, the development not merely of the Jewish people but also of the whole Western world becomes unintelligible.”
Lynn White, a prominent American professor of medieval history, states that “The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture,” and its effects are clearly apparent even in our supposedly post-Christian culture: “Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian theology.” The fact that Marxists share this concept of a nonrepetitive and linear progression where history moves inexorable towards a specific end demonstrates to Lynn White that Marxism “is a Judeo-Christian heresy.”
In Defending the West, author Ibn Warraq argues that the “golden threads” of Western culture can have negative side effects: “It could be argued that the three defining characteristics of the West – rationalism, universalism (with its underlying or implied liberalism), and self-criticism – can lead to their opposites, or to other undesirable consequences.”
The Dutch-Somali ex-Muslim and Islam-critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali in a review of The Suicide of Reason in The New York Times states that Lee Harris is correct that many Western leaders are terribly confused about the Islamic world. “The problem, however, is not too much reason but too little. Harris also fails to address the enemies of reason within the West: religion and the Romantic movement. It is out of rejection of religion that the Enlightenment emerged; Romanticism was a revolt against reason. Both the Romantic movement and organized religion have contributed a great deal to the arts and to the spirituality of the Western mind, but they share a hostility to modernity. Moral and cultural relativism (and their popular manifestation, multiculturalism) are the hallmarks of the Romantics.”
While I have tremendous respect for Ali’s personal courage, her simplistic understanding of this period resembles Enlightenment fundamentalism, and her dismissal of religion as inherently anti-rational is a caricature. Rémi Brague, a French professor of religious philosophy, notes that the connection between rationalism and irrationalism is quite complex:
“Two examples: the high point of magic is not situated in the Middle Ages, but just before and just after. The first high point was late Neoplatonism: Proclus (d. 485) placed magic (or ‘theurgy’) higher than all human knowledge; the second came in Renaissance Florence of the fifteenth century. Nor should we forget the contents of Newton’s famous trunk. That great thinker was just as interested in an exegesis of the Book of Revelation as he was in celestial mechanics. Magic and science are twin sisters, but one prospered while the other declined. The real danger lies in the paradox of your formula: ‘believe in reason.’ For the ideology of the Enlightenment, which is still widespread among the intellectual proletariat, it is one thing or the other: either one believes, or one is rational. Reason is expected to destroy belief and replace it with knowledge. That reason itself is the object of a belief is a bit hard to swallow. Still, Nietzsche had already identified in the belief in the truth a final echo of a belief that was first Platonic, then Christian (‘Platonism for the people’). Many of those who think themselves rationalists [are] just as irrational as their targets.”
Scholars such as Edward Grant and David C. Lindberg have convincingly demonstrated that European scholars placed unusual emphasis on reason by global standards even during the medieval era. This Helleno-Christian stress on logic was a critical factor in the rise of modern science and the concept of a world governed by natural laws that could be discovered and described by humans. The nineteenth-century German philosopher and atheist Arthur Schopenhauer wondered where the European notion of a law-governed universe came from.
According to Lee Harris, “No scientist can possibly argue that science has proven the universe to be rule-governed throughout all of space and all of time. As Kant argued in his Critique of Judgment, scientists must begin by assuming that nature is rational through and through: It is a necessary hypothesis for doing science at all. But where did this hypothesis, so vital to science, come from? The answer, according to Schopenhauer, was that modern scientific reason derived its model of the universe from the Christian concept of God as a rational Creator who has intelligently designed every last detail of the universe ex nihilo. It was this Christian idea of God that permitted Europeans to believe that the universe was a rational cosmos. Because Europeans had been brought up to imagine the universe as the creation of a rational intelligence, they naturally came to expect to find evidence of this intelligence wherever they looked--and, strangely enough, they did.”
Harris emphasizes the Socratic basis of Western thought. In his essay Socrates or Muhammad? he states that after Kant, from the point of view of modern reason, all religious faiths are equally irrational. Yet if the individual is free to choose between violence and reason, it will become impossible to create a community in which all the members restrict themselves to using reason to obtain their objectives. The rational man’s choice must be that “If you are given a choice between religions, always prefer the religion that is most conducive to creating a community of reasonable men, even if you don't believe in it yourself.”
Johann Herder, one of Immanuel Kant’s most illustrious students, pondered what kind of culture had been necessary to produce the European Enlightenment. His conclusion was that Europe alone had achieved “cultures of reason.” In the vast majority of human societies, men were governed by a blind adherence to tradition or by brute force. Modern scientific reason was the product of European cultures of reason, the outcome of an encounter between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry “with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage.”
In ancient China, the leading Confucian thinker Mencius believed that man’s nature is innately good, something which many post-Enlightenment Western thinkers would agree on. An echo of Thomas Hobbes’ darker view of “war of all against all” can be detected in the dark novel Lord of the Flies by the English author William Golding (1911-1993), published in 1954 after the atrocities of the Second World War made it difficult to uphold the most positive views of man’s nature. In the novel, a group of British schoolboys are plane-wrecked on a deserted island. Their attempts at rational self-rule soon deteriorate into pure savagery.
The Russian ex-pat author Alexander Boot, who fled from the Communist rule of the Soviet Union, sees Western history as a prolonged internal struggle between two different beings which he calls Modman and Westman. Modman saw himself as close to divine; Westman had a humble respect for tradition that made him immune to the “self-deification” of Modman: “…the humility of a Bach is alien to a Modman; his pride, the hubris of someone who is his own God, cannot accept the existence of a hierarchy in which he himself is not at the top.”
While the emphasis on human reason has been a key factor of Western thought for many centuries, two new developments took place following the Enlightenment. The belief in man’s innate goodness became more widespread, in contradiction of Christian doctrines, and belief in God declined. Man became his own God with the ability to create his own reality. By far the most influential and arguably the most destructive of the new post-Enlightenment ideologies addicted to the “self-deification of mankind” was Marxism.
The great Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009) was born in the city of Radom, south of Warsaw. After the Germans invaded the country in 1939 at the beginning of the Second World War his father, a political writer, was killed by the Gestapo and his family was exiled to a primitive village in eastern Poland. There the young Leszek found a library in the house of a minor nobleman and started educating himself. After the war he got a doctorate at Warsaw University and became professor of modern philosophy in 1964.
He began as an orthodox Marxist but in 1968 moved to the West. His most influential work was a three-volume history of Marxism – Main Currents of Marxism (1978). He called this philosophy “the greatest fantasy of our century” and argued that Stalinist repression was not a perversion of it but its natural conclusion; the abolition of private property and the subordination of the market to state control provided “a good blueprint for converting human society into a giant concentration camp,” and the “belief in laws of history was a Hegelian and Marxian delusion.” He was severely critical of Western apologists who suggested that (imaginary) economic progress in Communist countries justified the lack of political freedom and dismissed the idea of democratic Socialism as just as “contradictory as a fried snowball.”
Kolakowski saw Western relativism as corrosive, too. The post-Nietzschean faith of postmodernism which said there are no facts, only interpretations, “abolishes the idea of human responsibility and moral judgments.” According to this view, “There are no valid rules for establishing truth; consequently, there is no such thing as truth. There is no need to elaborate on the disastrous cultural effects of such a theory.” In the Enlightenment tradition we can encounter disrespect for historical knowledge, yet “The history of past generations is our history, and we need to know it in order to be aware of our identity; in the same sense in which my own memory builds my personal identity, makes me a human subject.”
As writer Roger Kimball puts it, “In ‘Man Does Not Live by Reason Alone’ (1991), Kolakowski argues that ‘mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification: who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be ex-communicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone.’ He shows how the tendency to believe that all human problems have a technical solution is an unfortunate inheritance from the Enlightenment—‘even,’ he notes, ‘from the best aspects of the Enlightenment: from its struggle against intolerance, self-complacency, superstitions, and uncritical worship of tradition.’ There is much about human life that is not susceptible to human remedy or intervention. Our allegiance to the ideal of unlimited progress is, paradoxically, a dangerous moral limitation that is closely bound up with what Kolakowski calls the loss of the sacred.”
In 1793, during the bloody period of the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror, Reason with a capital “R” was literally elevated to the status of a goddess in Paris and other cities in a new religion or Cult of Reason. All revolutionaries since then have sought to destroy the old world and establish a new order on the basis of reason alone. According to author Lee Harris, “All modern revolutionary movements since the French revolution have displayed the same unrealistic overconfidence in the power of pure reason. All revolutionary movements aim to liberate the people from their inherited traditions and create a new man.”
They also invariably bring about the same result, a return to the law of the jungle, as reliance on reason alone invariably fails. Harris believes that “The West, uniquely, had even used reason to try to prove the existence of God, as Anselm attempted in the eleventh century. Other peoples simply took the existence of the gods for granted. But in the West, it was not enough to be told there was a God; we must be able to convince ourselves, by reason alone, that such an entity existed. What other culture has been annoyed by such doubt?”
This does in no way imply that other cultures could not produce great logical thinkers, but the Western tradition of critical reason is indeed unique. Confucius used reason to defend the traditional values of Chinese civilization, but it would never have occurred to him that reason alone could provide the basis of an entire society, as the revolutionaries did during the French Revolution. The Western tradition of reason and logic is thus an ambiguous legacy:
“The West is unique in preserving, however fitfully, the tradition of critical reason – the reason exhibited by Socrates, for example, in his critique of the Greek pantheon of oversexed and rather adolescent gods and goddesses. Yet the West is also unique in making a virtual fetish of reason, in deifying it, believing that reason and reason alone could be the final judge of all human thought and conduct.”
The emphasis on logic and reason is one of the golden threads running through Western history, from Greek geometry and the logical works of Aristotle to the modern world. It is one of the main reasons why the ancient Greeks created a uniquely sophisticated natural philosophy and why modern science was born in Europe. Yet traditionally, reason was looked upon by the ancient Greeks as the distinguishing characteristic of only a small minority of the human race. Aristotle famously argued that slavery was a natural condition for those who could not control their impulses. The Enlightenment elevated belief in reason as a supposedly universal human trait to new and perhaps unrealistic heights even by Western standards.
Just as the limits imposed on the use of human reason by a Creator God were seemingly removed, a new set of limitations were introduced by Charles Darwin. If you believe Darwin's theory of evolution then we are, in fact, modified apes and at least partly animals, if not fully so. As reader Eileen comments at the Gates of Vienna blog, “We are not, though, partly animals. If we are going to discuss humans from a naturalistic viewpoint, then humans must be wholly animals. There is no other option.” Moreover, “not only are we modified apes, we ARE apes! Again, quite extraordinary apes, but apes nonetheless.”
Ape Genius is a documentary by National Geographic which demonstrates certain intellectual skills exhibited by apes. According to blogger Conservative Swede, “apes do not mindlessly ape, but humans can easily be made into doing that. Whatever an ape does, it has to have an objective purpose, given reality and his biological interest.” Human beings can learn from teachers and have more respect for authority figures. This “opens up all sorts of possibilities, including the building of a symbolic world for the collective mind, that is a virtual Platonic cave, where the shadow figures displayed by the masters are observed rather than reality.”
Genetic evidence indicates that the DNA of human beings is between 94% and 99% identical to that of chimpanzees, our closest biological relatives closely followed by gorillas. In Spain, the governing Socialists want to grant human rights to great apes. The dilemma is that it will then become rather difficult to claim that human beings are 100% rational if we are at the same time 98% or so identical to chimpanzees, who have been observed to conduct war against members of the same species. If you believe Lee Harris, the general revulsion many people feel by observing apes and monkeys explains some of the resistance to Darwinism:
“For the basis of this revulsion is none other than ‘the civilizing process’ that has been instilled into us from infancy. The civilizing process has taught us never to throw our feces at other people, not even in jest. It has taught us not to snatch food from other people, not even when they are much weaker than we. It has taught us not to play with our genitals in front of other people, not even when we are very bored. It has taught us not to mount the posterior of other people, not even when they have cute butts. Those who are horrified by our resemblance to the lower primates are not wrong, because it is by means of this very horror of the primate-within that men have been able to transcend our original primate state of nature. It is by refusing to accept our embarrassing kinship with primates that men have been able to create societies that prohibit precisely the kind of monkey business that civilized men and women invariably find so revolting and disgusting. Thou shalt not act like a monkey—this is the essence of all the higher religions, and the summation of all ethical systems.”
In light of evolutionary biology, John Locke’s “blank slate” theory from the Enlightenment cannot be fully correct. Human beings are not blank slates, biologically speaking. That doesn’t mean that we don't have a rational and uniquely human side. We do. It’s called “civilization.” The problem is that after the Enlightenment - and remember here that Marxism itself is a post-Enlightenment ideology - it became popular in the West to assume that man is by nature good and rational. This again paved the way for a Cult of Reason which at times amounted to the deification of the human intellect. The Protestants talked about Sola Scriptura, “by Scripture Alone,” but the post-Enlightenment view became “by Reason Alone.” I have no idea what that is in Latin as my Latin is a bit rusty these days.
This view is not compatible with traditional Christianity. All Christian denominations assume that man is sinful and flawed. However, it is not compatible with the theory of evolution, either. This insight is of profound importance and in my view explains the origins of virtually all the failed Western ideologies of the past two hundred years, from Communism to Multiculturalism: Their basic assumptions about human nature were and are fundamentally wrong. Freed from the chains of civilization we will not become “noble savages.” On the contrary; these chains restrain our inner ape, which will be unleashed if they are removed. This is why all Marxist ideologies end in a return to the laws of the jungle: They unleash our inner ape, which will naturally try to get back to and recreate the jungle where it came from.
The English biologist Thomas Henry or T. H. Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” and the man who coined the term agnostic, offered a Darwinian interpretation of Saint Augustine’s doctrine of “original sin.” Unlike the Biblical account of the Fall of Man from the Book of Genesis where Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, for Huxley our original sin is that we are born not as humans but as primates. Lee Harris again in The Suicide of Reason:
“Today, many quite intelligent men believe that the doctrine of original sin is sheer nonsense. But what arguments could any modern skeptic use against Huxley’s version of original sin, which, unlike Augustine’s, does not require us to believe in a fable about talking serpents and forbidden fruit, but simply the matter-of-fact acceptance of the law of natural selection? If, for Huxley, our original sin is to be born as primates, then the only cure for it is to be made to feel ashamed of our primate nature. It is shame, not reason, that elevated us above the animal. Because Huxley accepted ‘the reality at the bottom of the doctrine of original sin,’ he was forced to recognize that any society, if it hoped to cooperate and thereby survive as a society, had to develop internal defense mechanisms that could keep in check the human animal’s ‘innate tendency to self-assertion.’ For Huxley, the only viable societal mechanism that could perform this task was shame – emotionally wrenching and physiologically manifested shame. Children, from a young age, had to be taught to be ashamed of their inborn animal desire ‘to do nothing but that which pleases them to do.’”
As I argue in my online essay Why Did Europeans Create the Modern World?, the West is now dominated by Darwinists who don’t believe in the theory of evolution, or rather, fail to accept the logical consequences of this theory when applied to human beings. I stand by my previous statement that if you believe that human beings are the product of evolutionary pressures then there is no such thing as “racism,” which is a totally anti-scientific term.
Various human groups will during thousand and tens of thousands of years of natural selection have adjusted themselves to different natural environments, with results that don’t merely include superficial differences such as skin color but probably also mental differences. Yet absurdly, saying this makes you vilified and labeled a “Nazi” in Western countries today.
I have struggled to explain why. My conclusion is that we live in a society where the ideal is not merely Reason Alone but Thought Alone; we are supposed to create an entire society and physical reality purely by thought, which should result in perfect, cosmic, universal justice and equality for all. Anything and everything that impedes with our ability to create this reality must be banned as “irrational” or “hate.” If God and religion prevent us from creating what we want then God and religion must be removed; the theory of evolution can take care of that for us. However, we must be careful not to follow this theory to its logical conclusion because then biology instead of God would inhibit our ability to create perfect equality between men and women and between humans of all races. In short, we must ban reality.
This is in essence what Political Correctness is all about: Banning any discussion of reality so we can create a perfect world based on Thought Alone. In a strange sense this could ironically be seen as the final culmination of millennia of Western use of reason until we finally succeeded in creating a society based on Reason Alone. Although I cannot pinpoint exactly how I suspect you could successfully argue that there is a form of Platonism underlying this mental construct. After all, in Plato’s world the perfect, unchanging Ideas were physically separated from observed reality. In a way this is exactly what the modern West has created.
The dream of a perfect world of absolute equality may be a beautiful dream but it is a dream, based on many different false beliefs. It will quickly turn into a very real nightmare if you try to implement it. Among the largest of these false beliefs is the idea that man is naturally good and a perfectly rational being. I am personally not ready to embrace the opposite claim either, that man is by nature evil or sinful. My preferred view is that man is flawed and imperfect, yet that is quite sufficient to show that you can never create a perfect society with universal justice, just like you cannot create a perfect building using imperfect building materials.
The perfect world of Reason Alone is beautiful in all its symmetry and mathematical precision. There is only one problem with it: It is a lie. Unfortunately, the media, the political and intellectual leaders as well as the education system have become passionately dedicated to preserving and upholding this lie as The Only Truth and will ruthlessly harass any dissenters who suggest alternative ideas. This means that there will be no reality check until the entire mental bubble is punctured through a painful crash with actual reality. By the time that happens, the collapse may well take much of the edifice of Western civilization with it.