Monday, July 16, 2018

The Dark Side of Enlightenment

By now, you have probably heard about the Enlightenment. If you believe Steven Pinker you would imagine that it was a great leap forward, replacing religious dogma with the unholy trinity of Reason, Science and Humanity.

By Pinker’s lights, the Enlightenment was a positive force, an ascendance of the Good, one that has brought progress and glory to the human species. Since Pinker likes to play with loaded dice, he argues that anything bad that followed the Enlightenment was produced by a counter-enlightenment, launched by those old souls who could not give up their Bibles and their faith.

As it happened, and has been often noted on this blog, there was not one but several Enlightenments. The German Enlightenment, propelled by Kant, gave us Marxism and even Nazism. From Hegel we arrived at Marx. From Nietzsche we got Hitler. To Pinker, it was all the counter-enlightenment.

And of course, there was the British Enlightenment, marked by notable figures like David Hume and Adam Smith. It was not an idealistic vision but an exercise in applied empirical thinking. It gave us capitalism and free trade. It has nothing to do with Kant or Rousseau. Pinker ignored it.

And then there was the French Enlightenment, launched by Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot. It gave us the French Revolution, that wondrous effort to live in an age of Reason. Among its great achievements were the Reign of Terror and the invention of modern genocide. Yes, indeed, as we are reminded today, the French Revolution, inspired by Enlightenment philosophes, gave us genocide against people who practiced religion.

You did not think that the Enlightenment war on religion was limited to newspaper columns and pamphlets. When translated into reality, it produced unmitigated horrors. Before your eyes glaze over and you fail to understand the dark side of Enlightenment, you should consider the following.

The first modern genocide was perpetrated by the reigning Parisian philosopher kings against the people of a region called the Vendee.

John Zmirak has the story (via Maggie’s Farm):

But the first such modern genocide in the West took place in France, beginning in 1793. It was undertaken by modern, progressive apostles of Enlightenment and aimed at pious peasants in the Vendée region of France. By its end up to 300,000 civilians had been killed by the armies of the Republic.

By the year 1793 radical intellectuals had taken over the government of France. When farmers in the provinces refused to follow the Enlightened edicts that were being sent from Paris, the government decided to impose its will by force:

It was ordinary farmers of the Vendée and Brittany regions who rose up in 1793 against the middle-class radicals in Paris who controlled the country. The ideologues of the Revolution had already

  • Executed the king and queen, and left their young son to die of disease in prison.

  • Seized the Cathedral of Notre Dame, stripped it of Christian symbols, and enshrined a prostitute as the “Goddess of Reason” on the altar;

  • Declared a revolutionary “war of liberation” against most of the other countries in Europe;

  • Suspended all Protestant services, in deference to the state’s cult of Reason;

  • Seized all church property from Catholics, expelling thousands of monks, priests and nuns to fend for themselves, then sold the property to their cronies to raise money for their wars;

  • Ordered all clergy to swear allegiance to the government instead of the church; and

  • Launched the first universal conscription in history, drafting ordinary people — most of them devout peasants bewildered by the slogans that held sway in Paris—to fight for the Revolution.

You will note, and I do not really need to mention it, that Enlightened philosopher kings were not models of tolerance. They did not advance the values we call liberal democracy. They did not defend the right to free expression and to freedom of religion. To think otherwise is to blind oneself to the obvious.

And I would also note, that the philosopher kings of the French Revolution erected a cult to the goddess of Reason. It was a return to pagan idolatry. It could not have been otherwise.

As for the facts on the ground, here they are:

As Sophie Masson — herself a descendant of rebels who fought in the Vendée resistance — has written:

The atrocities multiplied, the exterminations systematic and initiated from the very top, and carried out with glee at the bottom. At least 300,000 people were massacred during that time, and those of the intruders who refused to do the job were either shot or discredited utterly. But still the people resisted. Still there were those who hid in the forests and ambushed, who fought as bravely as lions but were butchered like pigs when they were caught. No quarter was given; all the leaders were shot, beheaded or hanged. Many were not even allowed to rest in peace; the body of the last leader was cut up and distributed to scientists; his head was pickled in a jar, the brain examined to see where the seed of rebellion lay in the mind of a savage.…

 “Not one is to be left alive.” “Women are reproductive furrows who must be ploughed under.” “Only wolves must be left to roam that land.” “Fire, blood, death are needed to preserve liberty.” “Their instruments of fanaticism and superstition must be smashed.” These were some of the words the Convention used in speaking of the Vendée. Their tame scientists dreamed up all kinds of new ideas – the poisoning of flour and alcohol and water supplies, the setting up of a tannery in Angers which would specialise in the treatment of human skins; the investigation of methods of burning large numbers of people in large ovens so their fat could be rendered down efficiently. One of the Republican generals, Carrier, was scornful of such research: these “modern” methods would take too long. Better to use more time-honoured methods of massacre: the mass drownings of naked men, women and children, often tied together in what he called “republican marriages,” off specially constructed boats towed out to the middle of the Loire and then sunk; the mass bayoneting of men, women and children; the smashing of babies’ heads against walls; the slaughter of prisoners using cannons; the most grisly and disgusting tortures; the burning and pillaging of villages, towns and churches.

Revolutionary leaders destroyed the old order and tried to fill it with their thought. Not just thought that people were thinking, but thought that determined policy... especially policy that saw religion as an enemy in need of extermination.

The educational vacuum created by the destruction of this order was quickly (and ironically) filled by Enlightenment philosophes. The first generation to rise without the Jesuits would come of age in 1789. The abuses that would mark the Revolution — including mass executions of priests and nuns — were endorsed by intellectuals schooled on the slanderous pamphlets of Diderot, full of pornographic falsehoods about the “secret lives” of monks and nuns.

The next time you hear someone tout the glories of Enlightenment, remember the Vendee.


Unknown said...

Color Revolutions, 18th C. style.
Or Pol Pot.Or Mao.

David Foster said...

What is the argument that there is a line of descent from Kant to Marx? To Nietzsche?

whitney said...

Remember the Vendee. And remember how quickly your neighbor can turn into a bloodthirsty maniac. 450000 men women children and babies were slaughtered gleefully in the Vendee

Stuart Schneiderman said...

From Kant to Hegel... Kant's idealism birthed phenomenology-- for Kant we did not know things as they were, but things as they appeared, as phenomena. From Hegel to Marx is easy. Nietzsche believed in thuggery and bullying, in imposing one's will to power on other people. People who were superhuman had the right to destroy people who were subhuman. Who decides? Why, the philosopher kings who understand the big ideas-- after all power is an idea. It isn't that far from the Nietzschean superman to the Fuhrer principle... as embraced by another great phenomenologist... Martin Heidegger.

Dan Patterson said...

The elitist pose of today's politics is a direct descendant of the era of FDR, itself a great grandson of the killer of Federalism at Appomattox. Bitter Clingers, though it sounds like an unpalatable variety of peach, are resisting the impulse of the powerful to insert themselves ever more powerfully into their lives.
And as whitney said, a bloodthirsty is hidden not very far beneath the surface of all of us.

Dan Patterson said...

Thank you for that summary of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche. Those philosophers' principles and the resultant actions from their apostles are from an old-brain stimulation: Jealousy. The same motivator for the bully, thug, and terrorist.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Pinker claims in "Better Angels" that the reduction in individual violence that took place in Northern Europe was primarily due to the Enlightenment, and its subsequent expansion in those cultures over the next centuries. Unfortunately, his own data shows that the reduction began in the 13th C. Details, details.

HBD chick, who no longer writes, suggests that the reductions in homicides came from one group of people, the northern Europeans, actually following the Catholic Church's rules against cousin marriage. This expanded the notion of what people considered "My Tribe, to whom I owe some obligation." (There are a couple of other reasons, but let that one settle for a bit.) It has had both postive and negative outcomes. Northern Europeans, wherever they move in the world, do have a much lower rate of homicide and violent crime. However, their increased ability to cooperate in large groups has made them particularly good at persecutions and mass warfare.

Anonymous said...

Europe from Calais to the Volga devastated. 50+ % horses & livestock (muscle power & meat) gone.

Most of the best young Frenchman of that generation (1 M+) dead or crippled. Some demographers posit French population never recovered.

The Allies (except UK) lost proportionately less, but grievously.

And for what? Napoleon's "Destiny". Why do the French still admire him? -- Rich Lara