Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Rise and Fall of Reason

This week's New York Review of Books includes an article summarizing three books on religion and America, including one on the beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Like every informed treatment of them, that book shows how far they really were from the vision of "Christian founders" propagated today by the Falwells and Dobsons. With a few older exceptions like Sam Adams, who had lived through the Great Awakening of the 1730s as a young man, they were deists, who felt that a higher power might have set events on earth in motion but sensibly discarded the idea that such a power was still directing events. Such views put them squarely within the mainstream of 18th century western civilization, and many of their descendants, including the vast majority of the educated elite in Western Europe and the United States, still hold the truths of rationality to be self-evident. But that has put us at a disadvantage, clearly, in combating the new upsurge of faith over the last thirty years or so, and it behooves us to ask exactly how rationality triumphed and what might be done to keep it supreme.

The review was rather brief, and my own knowledge of these questions is sadly deficient, but it is clear that rationalism in the eighteenth century was actually a broadly based middle-class movement with a deep influence not only on literature and history, but on art and music. It fueled the neoclassical revival in architecture that left a permanent mark on Washington and Paris. It profoundly influenced classical music, the greatest heritage, perhaps, of the eighteenth century, and found its way into works like Mozart's Magic Flute and the finale of Beethoven's ninth symphony. And it was behind a now-forgotten movement, the network of Masonic lodges that spread through the western world, and which included most of our Founding Fathers. Those lodges evidently were based upon reason and brotherhood. Because they included only men, traditional religion remained somewhat stronger among women. But their political influence survived in some areas even into the twentieth century. According to Hugh Thomas's book on the Spanish Civil War, virtually every Spanish officer who remained loyal to the Republic in 1936 was also a Freemason.

Rationalism in the 18th century had broad appeal, ironically, for the same reason that religion does today--because it seemed new, and contrary to prevailing human orthodoxy. A set of new principles might become the foundation for a new reign of brotherhood, liberty and equality on earth, as proclaimed during the American and French revolutions. Yet because humankind remains so proudly emotional, and because no belief system ever devised really inoculates human beings against excess, it took only a few years of revolution and war in France to discover that rationalism, like religion, could justify the massacre of tens of thousands of people. In the nineteenth century physical science made steady advances, and intellectually rationalism survived challenges from religious revivals and from Sigmund Freud (himself devoted to the rational study of the irrational.) In the twentieth century the greatest challenge to rationalism came from within--from Communism, "scientific socialism" as Marx called it, which claimed to embody the furthest advance yet of human understanding, but led to tragedy on an even greater scale and eventually to a dead end.

Rationalism still reigns in Europe, although the French and Dutch rejection last year of new steps towards a more perfect European union marked a setback. But in the United States it is definitely in second place, eclipsed by a mixture of greed, ambition, and religion. When a leading White House figure (probably Karl Rove) identified the Administration's opponents as the "reality-based community" in late 2004, he was speaking a profound truth. The mutability of reality is an essential principle of those who govern us today. Whether democracy is coming to Iraq, whether deficits matter, whether global warming is taking place or not, whether we are winning or losing the propaganda war in the Middle East--all of those questions have become, in effect, matters of faith. That, I think, is what has left the mainstream media so utterly unable to cope with this Administration. They believe instinctively that enough data will inevitably bring our leadership around to their point of view--but that is the least likely thing to happen.

Rationalism, like religion, ultimately has lost ground because it could not deliver on what it promised. I return once again to the words of Henry Adams one hundred years ago, when he suggested to the American Historical Association that while history might be turning itself into a science, its conclusions were not likely to win wide acceptance--least of all if they held that human history would continue more or less as it had before. It is the enormous, unconscious yearning of humanity to return to some Garden of Eden, I think, that drives us from one extreme (faith) to the other (science), and back again. The road to paradise was salvation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and reason from the eighteenth through the twentieth. (Even movements like Nazism were, in theory, rationalistic.) Western civilization's response to the mid-twentieth century crisis of the Depression and Second World War was profoundly rationalistic, seeking not only to create a system of international law, but also to make sure that society provided for all its members. Yet the fate of those enterprises shows that humankind remains its own worst enemy.

It was the Boom generation in America that grew up in the shadow of that crisis and benefited from the world it created. As they were reaching adulthood in the late 1960s, their parents embarked upon a disastrous war in Southeast Asia. A calm study of history could have shown them that this was nothing unexpected, and that the United States, like so many imperial powers before it, had simply allowed the temptations of power and responsibility to lead it into a hopeless adventure. Yet the Boom generation reacted more fundamentally. The war, combined with racial and sex discrimination, they decided, proved that their parents' world was hopelessly evil. After the war ended their focus (especially in the academy) turned especially to issues of race and sex, or "gender," implicitly spreading the idea that what ailed western civilization was simply the dominance of white males. The whole rationalist enterprise of the last 200 years, they have increasingly argued, was nothing but a sham designed to favor one group over others. The idea of a feminist or nonwhite utopia struggling to be born was especially useful because it had no historical basis whatever and could not be tested. And it was, as Camille Paglia has pointed out, an indulgence made possible by the prior achievements and the egalitarian principles of the rationalist western civilization which its adherents decried. It is true, as history shows again and again, that the powerful commit greater crimes than the powerless, and that oppression frequently breeds nobility, but nothing really suggests that power has been or would be applied more wisely and generously if white males did not hold it.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Bush Administration is an odd mixture of bastardized rationalism and faith. Its economic theory, which James Galbraith recently described as "predatory capitalism," claims to derive from that rationalist icon, the market--even though the danger of market excess has been demonstrated throughout history time and again. Yet the Administration also believes, simultaneously, in revealed truth, and that may well be playing in important role in its Middle Eastern adventures, as Kevin Phillips has argued.

Seventy years ago, in the midst of the Depression, Charles A. Beard began his most provocative work, The Open Door at Home, by arguing that the depression had proven that no universal laws guaranteed the beneficial development of the human race. That, he continued, meant that ethics and aesthetics had a proper role to play in the design of human society. It was really, however, the human cost of the Depression itself that forced western man to intervene to try to control the economy and moderate extremes of wealth, and it seems unlikely that anything less than another catastrophe will lead us to begin that work anew. That is the other great and tragic paradox of human life: that adversity and greatness are inevitably and inextricably linked. So it is that generations like my own, born at a relatively hopeful moment, inevitably spend most of their adult lives in disappointment, while those who grow up in moments of crisis actually have the satisfaction of laying the foundations of greater opportunity, in every sense, for their children and, perhaps, their grandchildren. The enterprise of civilization is a labor of Sisyphus, and the rock falls back just as it seems on the verge of unprecedented heights. Seventy years ago, in the midst of the last great crisis, Albert Camus asked us to imagine Sisyphus as a happy man. That remains an enormous challenge, but may be the only alternative to despair.


Anonymous said...

"A calm study of history..."

Uh, excuse me, but in what previous history did a nuclear-armed colossus girdle the globe with threats of atomic annihilation, ruled by semi-insane Senators, the population infantilized by their consumption of broadcasting aimed at the eight-year-old mind, and dedicated to the proposition that no men are created equal to the white men born with money?

And for that matter, how did the idea that women and people of color might be equal become an "indulgence"? Just on the face of it, one might alternatively imagine that these 'radical' ideas were part of the same historical process that ground down and spit out the idea that kings were related to God, and that God spoke through them.

Put down the Camille Paglia and back slowly away from the word processor....

ye olde serial catowner

Anonymous said...

Anyway....I lean more towards Page Smith's view, that the Constitution was written at the last possible moment before Rationalism succumbed to Romanticism.

Why does our history appear to be rationalistic? Because it was shaped by two great forces- almost unlimited access to material goods, and the lack of constraints, allowing society to expand instead of dealing with problems.

Yes, elements of society were rationalized, but often not in a rational manner. Railroads standardized gauges and time, but the regulation of the railroads proceeded in a piecemeal and chaotic manner, lurching backwards as often as it lurched forward.

The Progressive movement championed pure food and drug laws, which in any case would have been necessary to the functioning of an increasingly mechanized food industry and the need to create consuming markets for an emerging flood of processed foods.

In short, the needs of the machine often drove the actions of people who were not rationalistic. The solution to the problems of rogue romanticism was always imagined to be some variation of an expanding economy.

Unsurprisingly, in the 50s the chickens flew the coop, with millions of Americans choosing to settle in suburban enclaves barren of any romantic associations. Has any cohort in history, so distictively native in origin, been so freed from the artifacts of a decaying romanticist society?

I will not argue that there has been any great revival of Rationalism, or even that there will be, for Rationalism may have been based, like Newton's physics, in a limited view of the universe.

I will argue that the end of Rationalism in the 1790s simply did not become apparent because our society continued to expand, just as countless generations watched steam rising from boiling pots without realizing the power of steam when it is confined.

And yield back the balance of my time-

ye olde serial catowner