A bad premise can make anyone go wrong

There’s a story that makes me think of aspiring philosophers. A young man, lost in the countryside, asks a crusty old local how to reach his destination. “If you want to get there,” says the man, “I wouldn’t start from here.”

Post-Enlightenment modernity isn’t just about antibiotics and I-Phones

Like that youngster, a philosopher travels the road to a destination, truth. Sometimes he runs, sometimes he walks, sometimes he crawls – and his chances of getting where he’s going may be better or worse. But they’ll be non-existent if he doesn’t get on that road at all.

This line of thought is inspired by the obituaries for Prof. Agnes Heller, describing her as a remarkable woman and a significant philosopher. Well, one out of two isn’t bad.

A Holocaust survivor whom neither the Nazis nor the communists in her native Hungary could break, and who lived to 90, remaining active until the last moment, indeed has to be an amazing person.

Such people are rare, but real philosophers are rarer still, and it takes more than a lifelong study to be one. More even than teaching the subject and writing the usual quota of books, although these seem to be sufficient qualifications nowadays.

A real philosopher finds the road to truth and signposts it for others. To do so, he has to start from the right place.

Prof. Heller’s formative influences are listed as Marx, Lukács, Freud and Hegel. The poor woman never had a chance: with mentors like those, she was lost before she left.

Her confusion is evident from the task she set for herself: “I promised myself to solve the dirty secret of the 20th century, the secret of the unheard-of mass murders, of several million corpses ‘produced’ by genocides, by the Holocaust, and all of them in times of modern humanism and enlightenment.”

Just to think she was so close to the perfect starting point and yet missed it by a mile. All she had to do was replace the words “in times” at the end of her sentence with the word ‘because’. Then suddenly she would have seen the road sign TRUTH THIS WAY.

According to one obituary, Prof. Heller started “from the view that modernity is founded on freedom.” It may be or may not be. But in either case, freedom isn’t an absolute – when it comes up, one is within one’s rights to ask a few probing questions, such as ‘freedom for whom, from what, from whom and to do what?’

For example, freedom from political oppression is desirable, but freedom from just laws isn’t. Freedom for thinkers is essential, but freedom for criminals is in itself criminal. Freedom from evil prejudices is creative, freedom from good ones is destructive. Freedom from biases may or may not be clever, but freedom from presuppositions is always dumb – and so forth.

Since Prof. Heller clearly equated Enlightenment humanism with freedom, one wonders how she would have fielded such subversive questions. Not very convincingly, is my guess.

She didn’t realise that the principal desiderata of the ‘Enlightenment’ were destructive.

Ostensibly les philosophes and their students targeted l’Ancien Régime, but in fact they set out to annihilate ancien everything: religion, metaphysical (which is to say real) philosophy, sound political thought, social structures and conventions, morality, law, understanding of man’s nature and his place in this world, the very concept of reality.

In that undertaking they succeeded famously. Where they, along with their heirs, failed miserably is in the attempt to build a solid replacement structure on the ruins. They placed man in the spot hitherto occupied by God, at the centre of the universe. As a result, man’s head first swelled and then imploded.

To replace God, even in secular life, man had to be godlike: perfect and sinless, only made imperfect and sinful by the dastardly ancien everything (see above). Remove those offensive obstacles, and Rousseau’s view of man perfect in his primordial beauty would be vindicated.

Man was no longer fallen and therefore fallible. He was both perfect and, tautologically, perfectible.

But Rousseau’s view was a gross and, more important, demonstrable fallacy. The demonstration came from all those things that vexed Prof. Heller so: “several million corpses ‘produced’ by genocides, by the Holocaust”.

The ‘Enlightenment’ empowered man to be the sole judge of his actions; it dispensed with the arbitrage of a supreme authority infinitely higher than man. Fair enough, some people can indeed be trusted to be both players and referees. But they are in an infinitesimal minority – most can’t navigate their way through life without a guiding hand.

Prof. Heller endured much suffering from fascism and communism, but she failed to notice their genealogy. Yet neither of them had existed before the ‘Enlightenment’, and this isn’t a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

The Enlightenment removed the adhesive bond of “neither Jew, nor Greek” universalism, thereby encouraging divisiveness. And it warped serious thought by divesting it of teleological striving for the absolute. Man’s thought no longer followed a brightly lit road; it began to meander in the dark.

Thereby the ‘Enlightenment’ opened the sluice gates in the stream of unbounded evil, while shutting off all the intellectual byways. Man lost the ability both to sense evil and to think it through.

In due course, humanist modernity bifurcated into two strains: predominately philistine and predominantly nihilist. Since both are materialist and at the same time equally hostile to the world hated by the ‘Enlightenment’, ‘predominantly’ is the key word: the philistines are possessed of some nihilist animus, and vice versa.

The philistines have replaced real love with love of material possessions; the nihilists replaced it with hatred. But the important thing is that both have replaced it.

In that undertaking they join forces, although the nihilists’ contribution is more immediately obvious: red is a more visible colour than grey.

A real philosopher deals with first causes and last things. As a by-product, that enables him to understand derivative causes and quotidian things – such as in this case the carnage perpetrated by post-‘Enlightenment’ modernity.

Where others see an accidental deviation, he sees causation; where others see isolated events, he sees the links in the chain binding them all. Prof. Heller wasn’t such a philosopher – but she was a remarkable woman nonetheless. RIP.

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