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Superstitious and Credulous Citizens

February 8, 2020 (1,105 words)

The last weekend in January presented me with an interesting juxtaposition of ideas. On that Saturday morning The Wall Street Journal featured a review of a new book on one of my favorite subjects.

Reviewer William Anthony Hay informs us:

“The Enlightenment provides a touchstone for our understanding of modern history and, not least, for our sense of the current moment.

“More than two centuries ago, a shift in outlook sought to throw off superstition and irrational prejudice by elevating the power of reason and the status of skeptical inquiry.

“Over time, the Enlightenment was credited with exponential advances in learning, as well as improved social conditions and modes of governance.”

But despite these glorious benefits, rumblings of discontent still remain among the populace at large. Our reviewer Mr. Hay continues:

“But it has drawn criticism, too, especially of late, for asserting – so it is said – a narrow, simplistic vision of human endeavor, one that ignores core attributes of human nature and exerts its legitimacy at the expense of custom, tradition, and community sensibility.

“The assumptions of The Enlightenment, for some people nowadays, are naive, even dangerous.”

The book under review, The Enlightenment That Failed by Emeritus Professor Jonathan Israel of Princeton, is just the latest celebration/defense of that ground-breaking intellectual movement.

Trying to boil down such a dense, erudite 1,000 page effort to a simplistic take-away may not be fair, and may rightly infuriate the scholarly set. But it’s the attention of the other 99% of the population I wish to engage. So at the risk of antagonizing the anointed, here goes:

Based on William Hay’s review, Mr. Israel’s defense comes across as a straightforward assertion that there has simply not been enough revolution in social mores. His position comes down to this: The Enlightenment has in fact been stymied and stopped short of its ultimate goals by the unwitting.

(By way of a quick synopsis, those goals include the just-touched-upon rejection of aristocracy and monarchy in favor of representative, democratic republicanism. And the rejection of religion, in favor of what it holds to be the accurate determination of truth through mathematical, scientific reason alone.)

We learn what has gotten in the way is the relatively small number of truly enlightened citizens who are present among us at any given moment. Acknowledging this impediment explains why the equal rights being promoted in place of monarchy was never really intended to mean equal participation.

As the William Hay review tells us, quoting Professor Israel, any man or woman is theoretically capable of acting rationally to promote the public good. But “superstitious and credulous citizens represent a substantial portion of any populace.”

And it is these lesser mortals who must always be kept from the reins of power.

So while The Enlightenment may have a marvelously egalitarian spirit behind it, the fine print insists power and the promotion of the public good must be studiously reserved to those select individuals who can properly understand these things.

In its practical application, then, The Enlightenment is meant to be confined to “empowering the enlightened.” Kind of puts a damper on things, doesn’t it?

Despite never having much good to say about ordinary people and their long-held beliefs, The Enlightenment nevertheless has always made and continues to make some valid points. It’s just that using it as the guiding light for all human endeavor leaves us at a bit of an impasse.

For one thing, what to do about the legion of superstitious and credulous citizens, unable to apply the purifying logic of reason to their affairs?

a more expansive vision of human endeavor…

Contrast this narrow and somewhat thorny vision of meritocracy with the more expansive vision that existed before The Enlightenment kicked in and took over. This other, now-discarded vision has always acknowledged certain core attributes of human nature, while respecting custom, tradition, and community sensibility.

I found an expression of this alternative vision the very next day, in a news blurb carried in the Sunday bulletin of the little hole-In-the-wall parish where I attend weekly Mass – far, far away from the halls of academe.

It’s a quote from the exhaustive reference work known as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, revised and updated in 1992, which our current pastor – the previously reported on native of Columbia – has seen fit to print in regular excerpts:

“1833: Virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do good.

“1834: The human virtues are stable dispositions of the intellect and the will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct in accord with reason and faith.

“They can be grouped around the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.”

Allow me to skip over 1835, 1836, 1837, and 1838, which briefly describe each of the four virtues listed above.

”1839: The moral virtues grow through education, deliberate acts, and perseverance in struggle. Divine grace purifiers and elevates them.”

Today we may be supremely confident in the widespread belief that representative government is to be preferred over a monarchy. But are we really so sure our advances in learning and improved social conditions are the direct result of rejecting religion?

In our rush to harshly judge the past we have made an all-too-common error. It’s not so much the pre-modern institutions that were to blame, as the flawed individuals who animated them. As proof of this concept, I ask you: Aren’t we still plagued with essentially the same problems as before, just in a different guise?

Has the “power of skeptical inquiry” and “elevating the power of reason” truly altered our reality, or liberated us and our new, democratic institutions in any meaningful way?

Believing there exists – or ever will exist – a critical mass of enlightened citizens who only act rationally, and will therefore ensure things run more smoothly, not only flies in the face of recent history, but all of recorded human history.

It’s an easy cheat to think overturning an old order will automatically result in a new order that is better for all concerned.

Jonathan Israel and his fellow Enlightenment-embracing scholars need to come to grips with the facts: It is only the habitual pursuit of individual virtue that can make a dent in the problems that continue to plague us as a society.

Even if The Enlightenment got its start by deciding the inherently selfish flaws in human nature could never be adequately reformed, and therefore had to be dealt with from a more practical perspective.

But it turns out all our carefully devised secular work-arounds have proven to have their own peculiar limitations, haven’t they?

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
February 8, 2020

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