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Sunday, June 21, 2015

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Thanks, Bill, for that thoughtful response. Your reply hit all the points on which I am myself so deeply troubled and conflicted. I do find myself very much in broad agreement with your post.

I think you are right that it was not doubt, but Reason, that the Enlightenment placed topmost. But it is also true that one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, Descartes, chose radical doubt as his starting point: Sic autem rejicientes illa omnia, de quibus aliquo modo possumus dubitare... ("While we thus reject all of which we can entertain the smallest doubt..."), leading to his seminal insight that "We cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt."

Of course, if we were all Descartes today, I doubt we'd be in this awful fix. It seems to me that the reconditioning of human reason that the Enlightenment laid out was a potent tool, of tremendous power, that like all powerful tools had the possibility of great danger if used without caution and understanding. I fear that in the present day the users of these tools have discarded, or lost, the habits of mind -- respect for the wisdom of tradition and the reality of human nature foremost among them -- that made it possible to use the great gifts of the Enlightenment safely.

This is a more subtle point than I made in my original post. The question might have been: was it inevitable that the tools of the Enlightenment would someday fall into the hands of a people that no longer knew how to use them wisely, with catastrophic results?

It is a rare treat to post here, thanks. "Geezerism" has its benefits..

The Western Enlightenment or any enlightenment has never touched Islam for sure. But I wonder, in view of our current culture and general rot within it, if there is not a complete lack of enlightenment within the modern Left? Modern being since about 1900. No matter what name the Left uses--progressive, liberal, socialist, communist, social democrat, the means to their goals are the same. There is always a large pool of poor waiting to be exploited with promises of "equality". At the same time, there is always a new crop of 20 year olds to use for energy. These two groups are easily manipulated by emotion--the only driving force behind the Left. Reason does not have a chance against the simplicity of emotion.

Maybe this is why the Left never changes or evolves to something deeper than base emotion--no need to. If there is no need to, no "enlightenment" is needed. Rinse and repeat. Here we are.

You're welcome, Whitehall.

Good analysis; I agree completely. The Left is emotion-driven.

Malcolm,

If you think Descartes (1596-1650) is a father of the Enlightenment, why stop with him? Go back to al-Ghazali (b. 1058) whose "Deliverance from Error" clearly anticipates Descartes' hyperbolic doubt. And then there is Augustine (354-430) another seeker of certain knowledge who anticipated the cogito with his *si fallor, sum,* "If I am mistaken, then I am."

Well, that's fair enough, Bill. Of course the roots of the Enlightenment are deep, and doubt was hardly a 17th-century invention.

But as far as the modern history of the West goes, it wasn't until the Enlightenment that the "universal acid" really began to bite, and bite hard. Both Augustine and Ghazali managed to doubt, yet retain their faith -- and such were the conditions of their times that doubt did not consume God and tradition, and just about everything else, as it has in the post-Enlightenment West. Something's different now.

My point was that the Enlightenment -- capital 'E' -- was a fairly circumscribed period of time and that Descartes should not be included within it. But then your point may only have been that Descartes was a precursor in which case my point was that the precursors stretch all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

Hi Bill,

I think of Descartes as belonging to the Enlightenment -- indeed, as I said, as being one of its "founding fathers". But my real question is about how doubt "escaped the laboratory" in the post-Enlightenment era, and began to ravage the cultural landscape. Irreligion, wholesale rejection of tradition, and moral relativism -- the latter just doubt masquerading as a moral absolute -- have had, as I am sure you would agree -- a terribly, and I believe irreversibly, corrosive effect on Western culture.

Malcolm,

If the Enlightenment is the Age of Reason, then Descartes kicks it off.

I agree with your third sentence.

There is the question "how doubt escaped the laboratory," but a more important one is how we can stop and partially reverse the current trend, but without 'fascist' methods, e.g., the imposition of Sharia or some non-Islamic equivalent thereof, or by a leftist totalitarian dictatorship.

Yes, Bill, yours is the far more important question; mine is just a puzzle for historians and philosophers. But I am not at all optimistic that your question has any good answer, and so I fear that we are likely headed for "interesting times".

We need a broad coalition of the sane which would include libertarians, the few liberals who haven't lost their minds, and most conservatives, with each subgroup tempering its own tendency toward extremism.

We may have one last chance in the coming prez election. But if Hillary wins, then the Benedict Option becomes very attractive.

We need a broad coalition of the sane which would include libertarians, the few liberals who haven't lost their minds, and most conservatives, with each subgroup tempering its own tendency toward extremism.

I used to hope for this, and believe it was possible, but now, to my sorrow, I just can't see how it is ever going to happen. With every passing day, and every tick of the demographic clock, we move faster and faster in the opposite direction, and I can see in America today nothing even remotely resembling a coherent political opposition on the Right. As I wrote in my letter to you, I think we have slipped past the 'event horizon', and all future timelines now must pass through the singularity. What form that will take, and what will come after, I can barely imagine -- but I don't think it will be pleasant for anyone.

Perhaps I'm overly sensitive to the subject, having just finished a spate of dystopian novels (the latest being the excellent Maddaddams trilogy by Margaret Atwood) - but I share your scepticism, Malcolm. The 'event horizon' - which I sometimes equate with the Nazi atrocities - having been passed, we will continue on the downward plunge until society finds a new angle of repose - that, in the long run, will be pleasant only for the elite.
Resistance may be futile, but we can stand as witnesses.

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