John Ralston Saul, VOLTAIRE'S BASTARDS: THE DICTATORSHIP OF REASON IN THE WEST, Sinclair-Stevenson, London, 1992, 640 pages, Price: 20.00 (British Pounds).
Judging by the subtitle of John Ralston Saul's book, Voltaire's Bastards, one can tell right away that it is the sort of book that can only be written by a disillusioned European, this I mean without casting any aspersion.
The book is a long, eloquent, painstakingly written, diatribe against the creed of Instrumental Reason and the dictatorship of secular intellectualism in Europe and the United States, since the time of Voltaire. The author shows how the West has become so fundamentally corrupt, because of its reliance upon that one ideal which it once glorified before all others: Rationality. Thanks to the growth and spread of this new dogma, the creeds, values and ethical systems of Europe's past have been cast aside, and this new religion has come to demand the total loyalty and unquestioning obedience of all its followers. This senile mentality, which has produced the cowed masses who tremble before statistics and the priest-caste of the modern technocrat, is what Saul bemoans and decries most of all.
As a true admirer of the European ideal, Saul cannot help but lament the loss of Europe's rich civilizational past owing to the rise of this vulgar creed. As he puts it, 'however admirable parts of our society today may be, at heart it is a civilization of courtesanage'.(p.77) What he means is that the modern, Western society, despite its pretensions to liberalism, democracy and the spirit of the Enlightenment is in fact guided an managed by the same kind of self-centred, narrow-minded and, ultimately, short-sighted self-serving individuals akin to the courtesans of the past. In fact, to Saul, 'the modern technocrat and the royal courtier are virtually indistinguishable (p.78), for both are slaves to their own dogma--the creed of rationalisation and maximisation of gain, advantage and profit.
Saul's book is basically a long history of a grand mistake. It chronicles how the energies of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment went rampant, creating a new Cult of Reason which sought to subdue all its converts and to cast aside all other belief and value systems. The author looks at how the Age of Reason produced some of its first priests and warmongers: from the courtiers of the French Court and the rational king Frederick the great, who set about to conquer and defeat his enemies in a rational, organised and systematic manner, to modern-day demagogues like Kissinger, Nixon and Reagan. He records how the same belief in the positive claims of rationality and reason were used by technocrats, socialscientists, orientalists, race scientists and social-Darvinists and imperialists right up to the Vietnam War and the Middle East conflicts.
At the heart of this colossal error was the belief in the supremacy of reason before all else: the belief that human society could be improved through rational planning and cost-benefit analyses which made considerations of ethics and aesthetics redundant. It has led to the scientific engineering of human society, in all its forms, from the individual to the nation, from the home to the city, and from international bodies to international conflicts. Todav its after-effects are to be seen in the sqalor of the inner cities, the chaos of moder traffic, the tumult of the international market and the fiasco of the international peace process.
Saul reserves a lot of energy to attack the priests of the new order in particular. The technocrats and rational planners in the West are by far the most guilty as far as he is concerned. Their blind faith in their creed of reason has resulted in the creation of much of modern society, where life is characterised by its anomie and alienation, where human worth is determined by skills and qualifications more than anything else. These technocrats, he argues, have set their own standards of knowledge and power by assuming that their skills are the only tools worthy of the task of correcting the ills of society: 'They believe themselves to be the inheritors of the Age of Reason, and therefore do not tmderstand why their talents fail to produce their intended results. Their abstract view of the machinery of human society prevents them from understandillg the natural flow of events and from remembering when they themselves have erred and why.' Worse still, 'their talents have become the modern definition of intelligence'. (pp.106-107)
The world that the creed of Reason has built is thus a cold and sterile one. Run efficiently by its technocrats and securocrats, policed by modern apparatus such as the state, the army and the immigration system, it is one where every person has his place, but with no option other than what he is taught and trained to be. The compartmentalised citizen's only relief comes from shopping or other forms of self gratification and temporany release. Saul asks: 'What, then, is real individualism in the contemporary secular state? If it is self-gratification, then this is a golden era. If it has to do with personal public commitment, then we are witnessing the death of the individual and living in an age of unparalleled conformism. Specialisation and professionalism have provided the innovations in social structure during the Age of Reason. But they have not created the bonds necessany for public cooperation. Instead they have helped to build the defensive cells in which the individual is locked' (p.466).
The net result of all this is that today - centuries after the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment first descended upon Europe and America - people in the West and the rest of the West dominated world are living in an environment more conformist, authoritarian and policed than ever before. It is an insecure modern world, bereft of higher moral laws and norms, where the only barriers between individuals and their enemies are those built by that impersonal monolith known as the state security and welfare system.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from Saul's book, it is the simple truth that human beings are not machines and that human society cannot be run like machinery. The need to counter the regime of reason is thus complemented by other equally important tasks: the need to rediscover the meaning of what it is to be human and to redeem the vahle of ethics and aesthetics in the first place.
However, regardless of polemics against the tyranny of Instrumental Reason, no matter how eloquent and persuasive, it will continue to claim both converts and sceptics. And these are times when polemics are all the rage. The regime of the secular intellectuals has been under repeated attacks since the end of the Second World War, when the dream of a new world was being proven to be patenntly false and illusory. (Zygmunt Baumann's Modernity and the Holocaust is another example.) But those who subscribe to the school of reason are many, and their influence has yet to diminish.
This is the weak point which remains outside the scope of Saul's analysis. Like others he will be forced to confront it sooner or later. While the critics of the regime of reason may rant all they want, outside the corridors of power, the ones within the ivory tower have chosen to turn a deaf ear to their threats or pleas.
The yearly budget allocations for arms research and research into the fields of communication, military and strategically-important technology have continued to increase year by year in the liberal-democracies of Europe and the US, despite the protestations of their disempowered masses. While Saul and others berate and chide their governments for neglecting urban population with mounting inner-city problems, the governments of countries such as the US, Britain, France and Germany carry on sponsoring research into yet more methods of control and domination.
Tragically, the growing Asian economies in the South and Far East seem to have no inclination to learn from the experience of Europe and the US; they are more inclined to play the game of `follow the leader' and tread the same path of mutual destruction. Where has Saul's critique taken him instead? Do rhetoric and ethics have the same power to blunt the arms of the rational war-machine? Could they ever dissuade the mandarins of reason, the technocrats of the new secular religion? Or are we left with nothing but sentiment to bemoan the condition around us?
It is pertinent here to recall the words of the poet, thinker Muhammad Iqbal: 'Words, without power, is mere philosophy.'
Courtesy: Impact International, London.
Muslimedia: April 16-30, 1997