Wednesday, 15 March 2006

Woolly Hopes

Universal harmony, the perfection of man, and the eradication of evil from the world;—such were the woolly hopes of that first great outbreak of insane optimism, which boldly goes by the name of the Enlightenment. A man may fairly wonder whether it is a mere coincidence that since then—since when these insanely optimistic hopes, and the doctrines that have been devised to fulfil them, have entered the heads of the multitude—there has been seen so great an increase in social discord, so deep a corrosion of man’s character, and so terrifying a growth of evil on a scale thitherto unimaginable. As Jacob Burckhardt tells us,
The great harm was instigated in the [eighteenth] century, chiefly through Rousseau with his doctrine of the goodness of human nature. Plebs and educated alike distilled out of this the doctrine of a golden age, which was to come quite infallibly, if only noble humanity were let alone. The result, as every child knows, was the utter dissolution of the idea of authority in the heads of mortals, whereupon, sure enough, we periodically fall prey to sheer force. . . . The only conceivable solution would be for this insane optimism, in great and small, to disappear from people’s brains. [1]
Although the nouveau régime, instituted at the close of the eighteenth century, and triumphant by the twentieth, has seen a degree of slaughter and slavery, conformity and crassness, for which the ancien régime would have been damned a thousand times, its essential goodness is proclaimed in almost every quarter; for its essence is of the masses, whose power might be harnessed by anyone with an appeal thererto. It was an understanding of this which led Søren Kierkegaard to maintain that “in the future every effort at reformation, if the man concerned is a true reformer, will be directed against the ‘masses’, not against the government” [2], but that “it will be a long time before the man who opposes the masses can win sympathy over to his side, i.e. before anyone will understand the reality of the struggle.” [3]

[1] Jacob Burckhardt, Brief an Friedrich von Preen, 2. Juli 1871, Briefe (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1929), pp. 354-355. [“Das große Unheil ist im vorigen Jahrhundert angezettelt worden, hauptsächlich durch Rousseau mit seiner Lehre von der Güte der menschlichen Natur. Plebs und Gebildete destillierten hieraus die Doktrin eines goldenen Zeitalters, welches ganz unfehlbar kommen müßte, wenn man das edle Menschentum nur gewähren ließe. Die Folge war, wie jedes Kind weiß, die völlige Auflösung des Begriffes Autorität in den Köpfen der Sterblichen, worauf man freilich periodisch der bloßen Gewalt anheimfiel. . . . Die einzige denkbare Heilung ware: daß endlich der verrückte Optimismus bei groß und klein wieder aus den Gehirnen verschwände.”] Vide, Jacob Burckhardt, Letter to von Preen, 2nd July 1871, The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt, tr. Alexander Dru (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), pp. 143-4.
[2] Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, ed. A. Dru, (London: Fontana Books, 1958), p. 121.
[3] Ibid., p. 124.

2 comments:

Akaky said...

You are too cynical, good sir, for the man-made Utopia you mock here does, in fact, exist. Colma, California is a city wherein the residents are at one with themselves and all of Nature. In Colma, the class struggle has been resolved, envy does not rear its ugly head, justice is the same for all, rich and poor, and nary a cross word is ever heard. If the residents of Colma can perform such a miracle, why then is it beyond the power of human reason to satisfy the hunger for a golden age? Do not fall victim to those who tell you such things are not possible in this fallen world; look to Colma! It can be done!

John East said...

I've never looked at the enlightenment in such a negative way. In fact, quite the opposite. I have always seen it as a break with theocracy and totalitarianism, and the dawning of a new age which gave us negatives like Hitler and Marx, and positives like..........

I think I see what you were getting at now.