A turning point in history
When The Fourth Turning came out in 1996, I wrote in a review for the Boston Globe that I was both frightened excited to think that I might live through great events comparable to the Civil War and the Depression, New Deal, and Second World War. It now seems clear that, for better or for worse, the very real crisis which we are experiencing will not resemble either of those. But I now do realize that I have been living through a great historical change during the last 45 years or so, one which might conceivably turn out to be more significant, though initially less violent, than either of those. That change is nothing less than the beginning of the end, perhaps, of the rationalist era in western--perhaps, indeed, in world--civilization. There have been two such eras in western history, one in the Mediterranean world of ancient Greece and Rome, the second beginning in the Renaissance and extending into the twentieth century (frighteningly, an era of about the same length.) Only the latter parts of the second fall within my real area of expertise.
The gradual substitution of reason for faith actually can be dated in the Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas attempted to reconcile them, but it gathered speed in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely because of breakthroughs in science. The key steps forward, from my point of view this morning, involved the application of reason to human behavior, human conduct, and what came to be called the general welfare during the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Essentially, in Western Europe and its offshoots (such as North America) the idea took hold that the human brain could design, build, and live in institutions that would promote justice, greater wealth, and human happiness. It could also improve health and even protect against fatal disease, beginning, at the end of the 18th century, with smallpox. The Anglo-Saxon nations very fortunately grafted these ideas onto a long, existing political tradition that included elections and deliberative bodies. That allowed the US Constitution, for instance, to combine the ideas of individual rights, debates over legislation, and elections, the latter providing a regular, peaceful outlet for the public's displeasure, which of course would always be partly emotional as well as intellectual.
Rationalism seemed to be triumphant in the late 18th century, when orthodox religious belief had become extremely weak in the north Atlantic world, but the experience of the French Revolution showed that it was no guarantee against human excess, terror, and murder on a large scale--that indeed reason could be invoked as an excuse for such crimes. This in turn led to a religious revival in much of western Europe in the first half of the 19th century, but Darwin, geological research, and medical advances dealt religious belief another blow. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw outgrowths of rationalism. In politics they included the idea of planned economies, the reformed US governments of the progressive era, Marx's purportedly "scientific socialism," and other more or less utopian ideas. And these ideas were, in one way or another, the intellectual background to the great crises that transformed Eastern Europe in the era of the First World War, and Western Europe and the United States from 1933 to 1945. These crises also revealed, particularly under National Socialism, that reason and purported science could justify almost any horror, but the victors in the Second World War were at least as dedicated to science and reason as the vanquished, and probably more so.
Nor was this all. Viewed from today's perspective an even more striking feature of the period 1870-1970 or so was the elimination of any serious rivals to rationalism in most of the world as well. Other civilizations still existed, but nations like Japan, China, and even the Ottoman Empire quickly realized that they had to adapt key aspects of western modernity to survive. The European imperial powers had extended their sovereignty over nearly all of Africa and a good portion of Asia by the early 20th century, spreading their ideas, which educated colonized peoples adopted for their own purposes. And thus, by 1950, the western educated elite--especially in the United States--was convinced that it had discovered the major secrets of social and economic life, and the United States was experiencing a remarkable degree of intellectual consensus that probably peaked around 1960.
I have reviewed key aspects of the last 50 years here many times, and I will not do so again this morning. Instead I shall simply compare today to that era of intellectual consensus, in order to see how much damage has been done to the rationalist ideal, and where the attacks upon it have come from.
Emotion is often the enemy of reason, and emotion in the middle of the 19th century was largely suppressed and very poorly understood. The whole world in the 1950s, we can see now, was suffering from various degrees of PTSD. Meanwhile, psychology was largely in the hands of Freudians, who had adopted a very mechanistic model--the drive theory--of human behavior and unhappiness. These ideas did not survive the coming of age of the postwar generation.
Rationalism has been attacked in recent decades by all major American political movements, and from at least three different angles. Probably the single most powerful attack comes from greed. The 90% marginal tax rates the richest Americans paid from the time of the Second World War until 1964 came from several causes: the government needed the money to finance the enormous effort of the Second World war, great wealth seemed unjust in an age of great poverty, and, in addition, economists genuinely believed that economic inequality stood in the way of economic progress. In the 1930s prevailing opinion held that underconsumption caused by a lack of purchasing power among the bottom half of the population had done much to cause the depression. In addition, it had clearly become necessary to restrain certain financial practices that had made certain people very rich, but at the expense of systemic economic risk. To judge from the history of the last 80 years, those economists knew what they were talking about. Economic growth was steadier, incomes were more equal, and financial markets were far more stable from 1933 until the 1980s, when tax rates really began to come down, than they have been since. Data, however, has not been allowed to stand in the way of greed. A thirty-year propaganda campaign turned Milton Friedman, an extremist in the mid-1960s, into the guru of a new orthodoxy. America discovered the glories of an unregulated free market. And even the financial catastrophe of 2008 and our movement into a new long-term depression has done almost nothing to shake the prevailing orthodoxy, which seems to be shared by all the leading figures in the Obama Administration.
We associate the greed attack from the right, but an equally significant attack has come from teh left, especially in universities. Infuriated by the older generation's certainty that even the Vietnam War must be right, the Boom generation violently attacked the idea of "reasoned discourse" in the late 1960s and began to elaborate its own theory of reality. By the 1990s the idea of verifiable truth in human affairs had nearly disappeared from the academy. Contests about knowledge, the historian Joan Wallach Scott wrote, were now understood to be not about the opinions of individuals, but the influence of groups. Men and women, whites and blacks, and straights and gays all had their own realities, and the biggest problem facing the world was the supremacy of the ideas of white males, that had to be contested and subverted in all possible ways. One of the most serious impacts of all this, we can now see, was the loss of academic interest in politics as they are actually practiced. The hiring of more women, minorities and gays in university departments became a social cause, one that drew far more attention than the economic rights of poorer Americans. It is no accident that feminism and gay rights will apparently be the only significant leftist achievements of our area. Rationally I believe, of course, that women, minorities and gays deserve equal rights, but I will never accept the idea that the political achievements of the last three centuries only, or even mainly, benefited white males.
Last but not least, rationalism is once again under attack from religion. The Muslim world had had a huge religious revival with enormous consequences, and most observers agree that the recent revolutions in the Mediterranean are going to speed it up. Turkey, the bastion of rationalism and secularism in the Muslim world, has fundamentally changed without violent revolution. And religion has achieved an almost unheard of place within American politics. No one can become a Republican candidate for President who does not profess to be deeply religious and cede an important political role to religious belief. Findings about evolution and climate change are constantly subject to political attack.
Nowhere is the decline of rationalism more apparent than in our attitude towards the press. The mainstream media of the High and the early Awakening--the three networks, the news magazines, and the New York Times and the Washington Post--reflected the rationalist consensus. It has now lost most of its circulation and even more of its influence. A whole new media purveys an alternate reality, and commands the allegiance of millions.
Where will all this go? I do not think the world will repudiate modern science--it cannot afford to. Meanwhile, the rationalist ideal is alive and well in Western Europe, which is struggling with equally serious economic problems of its own without losing its intellectual grip. But I think it will take a long time for the idea that government, using reason, can promote the general welfare to become truly influential in American politics. It has in a sense been done in, for the time being, by one of its own tenets: the idea of inevitable, continuous progress. Human beings as it turns out are too complex for that. Rationalism remains an ideal, one worthy of our dedication, but always, it seems, only one of the magnets that attract and repel the human species, guaranteeing that the drama of human existence will continue, both comically and tragically, for as long as the species still lives on earth.