North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Enlightenment and Restoration

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NRO’s Jonah Goldberg takes look a two new books critical of France and drops not one, but two interesting observations about the Enlightenment, both of which have profound implications for those of us who call ourselves Conservative.

More people should know this first bit. A lot more:

The French have long tried to claim that the American Revolution was merely an offshoot of the French Enlightenment project. Himmelfarb disagrees. She shows that the French took a different road to modernity than the British and Americans, who took similar but slightly different routes themselves. The British valued virtue more than liberty; the Americans had it the other way around. But where the French differed is that they sought to replace the religion of old Europe with a new cult of reason. They even made the Notre Dame Cathedral into a “Temple of Reason.” The philosophes’ Encyclopedie proclaimed, “Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace moves the Christian to act, reason moves the philosopher.” By making a religion out of politics, with the state at its center, the French never embraced liberty the way Anglo-Americans did. It was this legacy that lent intellectual heft to all the great dictators — Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. (A similar impulse also transformed American liberalism for the worse, but for that you’ll just have to read my book, whenever it comes out.)

Conservatives do have to seek the seats of power – parliament, the courts, the media and key points in the culture – but the most important thing for them to hold is the culture as a whole. If we do that, we limit what Liberals can do while they are in power. They would be hobbled by their desire for power, and held back by public opinion. To have people govern themselves by conservative principles would be a victory in both the means and the ends.

To think that by merely winning an election and placing a conservative government on the throne is enough to breed deep and sustaining change for the better is to engage in French / Liberal politics of ‘legislated improvement.’ Using Liberal means to ‘conservative’ ends is a hollow project. Even those who are not themselves religious need to recognize that the churches will be the means through which any conservative restoration will be achieved. The churches are how the masses spontaneously organize themselves. Atomized idividualization does not appeal to people who know they can’t compete one on one with the doctors and the technorati. If you want to get them onside, you need to get them to combine and cohere to the point where their quality of life is competitive with most obviously talented. When their private family lives are rich and fulfilling, a government safety net isn’t all that attractive and the taxes that support it are annoying.

I also love this story because it supports another thing that I really think is true: the modern elevation of reason, and reason alone, in spheres other than hard science, is Left / French thinking, and it leads to all the problems of modernity. Goldberg:

The Enlightenment was that moment when mankind allegedly first threw off the shackles of superstition, tribalism, and tyranny and embraced reason, universal human rights, and democracy. I say “allegedly” because there are still quite a few friends of mine who resist the idea that the Enlightenment was a major step forward intellectually. This is a more interesting debate than you might think.

I think that debate is more interesting and sustainable than most are willing to concede.

I’m not anti Enlightenment and I’m not remotely anti science. I do think the Enlightenment’s best success was in the sciences and that we have largely failed to carry that success into other spheres of human endeavor. That failure has been expensive. Our efforts have lead to a serious neglect of religion, to the point that very large numbers of people are unable to comprehend the foundational documents of our culture: to read them, think about them, comprehend them with anything approaching the kind of depth that would have been taken for granted in anyone who called themselves educated only a hundred years ago.


Written by Curt

December 23, 2004 at 6:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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