There’s no light in Enlightenment

“Communism thrives in our moral vacuum,” writes my friend Melanie Phillips, one of our most lucid and perceptive columnists.

Before we became enlightened, certain things had been unthinkable

As is her infuriating habit, she’s absolutely right yet again: we do have a moral vacuum and communism does thrive in it, especially among the young who may yet saddle Britain with a communist government.

In fact, I agree with every sentence in her article, except one: “It is part of an assault on the liberal values of the Enlightenment, such as truth and reason.”

Now, the number of times I’ve disagreed with Miss Phillips can be counted on the thumbs of two hands. Hence my experience in this endeavour is so scant that I’ll have to tread very carefully.

What exacerbates matters is that she then cites with disapproval Theodor Adorno’s view that “the pursuit of rational enlightenment led directly to the extermination camps”. It would take even fewer digits to count the number of times I’ve agreed with Marxists, especially those as dangerous as Adorno, but I’m afraid this is one of them.

First, a general statement: no content can exist without form. The most obvious example is a glass of wine. Remove the glass, and, however redolent the wine’s nose, long its legs or rich its bouquet, it’ll become an annoying puddle on the tablecloth.

Extrapolating from there, however mellifluous its sonorities and catchy its melodies, music can’t exist without a rigid structure. Remove that, and you’ll get cacophany.

Thought too depends on structural integrity. History’s greatest thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle onwards, devoted much effort to developing the structural forms into which ideas could then flow. Remove the formal basics of logic and rhetoric, and you’ll get Richard Dawkins.

Society without structure is chaos, liberty without discipline is anarchy, religion without its framework of dogma and doctrine is a shamanistic cult – and so on.

Everything people do, create or think relies on morphology. And the morphology of vast, intricate entities such as society, with its ethos and institutions, takes centuries to develop.

Destroying it, however, can be done, in historical terms, overnight. This isn’t always a bad thing: as Schumpeter showed, some destruction can be creative. That happens when the destroyed forms are instantly replaced with other, better ones.

More often than not, however, that task proves impossible. What takes centuries to build can’t be rebuilt quickly with the best of creative intentions – and not at all when the intentions are mainly destructive.

This brings us to the “truth and reason” of the Enlightenment, signposted by outbursts of diabolical violence. Its objective, both implicit and explicit, was above all to destroy every traditional form wherever it could be found: politics, social organisation, morality, thought, aesthetics.

All of them in the West had at least to some extent grown out of Christianity, and the ‘Enlighteners’ hated that tree root and branch. Hence they pulled it up and tried to plant a more luxuriant tree in its place. That proved impossible.

Both morality and thought depend on the acceptance of the absolute as the measure of all things – it was the absolute that prevented society from becoming an amorphous, deracinated mass devoid of high morality, noble principles and profound intellect.

Dostoyevsky’s message that without God everything is permissible was moral in nature, but it also applies to thought. Western thought, in order to remain both Western and thoughtful, has to be teleological: it’s a pathway to absolute truth.

To embark on that path, a thinker must as a minimum believe that absolute truth exists. That belief shapes his thought, gives it a form within which it can acquire not only real power but also real freedom.

Replacing the absolute with an endless supply of puny relativities has the opposite effect: it shallows out the thought and turns freedom into chaos. That’s why the West relegated pursuits requiring feats of real intellect and imagination to the status of quaint hobbies.

Coming to the fore instead was THE FACT, that is knowledge of the physical world acquired through the five senses. Intellectually, the Enlightenment was a step from the sublime to the sensory.

Faith in God was replaced with faith in science, accompanied by widely encouraged hostility to things beyond science’s reach. Physics triumphed over metaphysics, which is another way of saying that sublime aristocratic thought was ousted by turgid philistine musings – in the same way as the aristocrat was ousted by the bourgeois as the hub of social life.

This delivered a materialist world, whose principal characteristic was the philistine’s self-righteous smugness. The picture of the world lost its formal structure: it became a kaleidoscope of rapidly changing half- and quarter-truths, all dealing with things material.

By losing the absolute, the world also lost mystery: the vanquishing philistine had enough conceit to believe that his own resources were ample to solve every little puzzle of life in due course.

In the same way he felt that, in the absence of absolute morality, his own understanding of right and wrong was absolute – for the time being at least, until he replaced one quasi-absolute with another.

Materialism, which is a child of the Enlightenment, is as morally defunct as it is intellectually feeble. It’s also socially divisive and therefore sooner or later politically tyrannical.

By empowering the common man politically, materialism in due course enriched him economically. It replaced the traditional hierarchical structure based on high birth or high achievement with another, one based on wealth.

However, it turned out that, while the erstwhile inequality of status was tolerable, the new inequality of wealth was much less so. The pre-Enlightenment West promised people solace in the higher things in life and it kept its promise: such things were equally available to all, if not equally appreciated by all.

The post-Enlightenment modernity, on the other hand, promised people something more tangible and immediately desirable: material well-being. That too was equally appreciated by all – but alas not equally available to all.

A man who at the end of his day’s work gets down on his knees and prays to God is freer from envy, resentment and hate than a man who checks his bank balance and finds it smaller than his neighbour’s.

Such a man is likely to feel that somehow the world is in default of its promise, and it’s scant consolation that he’s much better-off compared to his great-grandparents, and infinitely richer than their great-grandparents. As far as he’s concerned, he is the poor man at the door of the rich man’s castle, which – in a world ruled by philistine materialist concerns – is terribly unfair.

In the post-Enlightenment world, social tranquillity is always short-lived. For evil demagogues preaching seductive messages are never short of grassroots resentments to exploit, nor of underdeveloped minds to dupe. 

Having lost both high reason and high morality, people can instantly turn into rabble inspired by slogans that in the past would have been dismissed as the gobbledegook mouthed by a madman.

Transparent charlatans like Marx and Darwin became the intellectual leaders of the amorphous post-Enlightenment mob, and their political counterparts are seldom far behind.

The Enlightenment has turned people deaf to both truth and reason, while giving their hearing bat-like acuity to voices promising some kind of redress for perceived injustices. Those they can hear in every tonal detail.

Their formless minds and shapeless emotions become moulding clay in evil hands. What the people’s grievances are and what kind of recompense is promised doesn’t really matter.

It could be taking from the rich and giving to the poor – that is, to you, Mr Disgruntled Philistine. Or else elevating your race or class, Mr Disgruntled Philistine, above all others. Or even simply taxing the rich so much that they won’t be any richer than you, Mr Disgruntled Philistine.

What rose out of the ashes of Christendom wasn’t the Phoenix of “truth and reason”, but the carrion of falsehoods, pent-up resentments and small thoughts.

That’s why both Soviet and Nazi extermination camps are indeed direct consequences of the Enlightenment. That’s why the first century completely cleansed of Christendom, the 20th, produced more victims of institutional violence than all the preceding centuries combined.

And that’s why the world is indeed in danger of extinction – not from aerosols, but from certain scientific discoveries put into the hands of the evil by the silly, immoral and gullible.

2 thoughts on “There’s no light in Enlightenment”

  1. I once informed a chap that more people died violent deaths in the XX century than all the previous centuries combined. His response, was that the XX century also contained an exponential increase in the human population and thus the sum total of human happiness had thus increased. So all that unmitigated carnage was merely a fly in the ointment, a glitch in the matrix, as it were. Have you ever heard anything so cretinous?

    And of course Hitler liked to harp on about Providence, and Stalin attended a seminary. So you see, all that tyranny was merely the last gasp of the theological ghost haunting the modern mind. It’s all in the memes, you see?

  2. “more people died violent deaths in the XX century than all the previous centuries combined.”

    Hard to say if this is 100 % accurate. Population of the world at the time of Genghis Khan estimated to be about half a billion. 20 % of that population killed by the Mongol.

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