Karl Marx

We, the Children of the Enlightenement…

…are lost in it. Roger Scruton explains:

…Ferdinand Tönnies … formulated a distinction between two kinds of society — Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft — the first based in affection, kinship and historic attachment, the second in division of labour, self-interest and free association by contract and exchange. Traditional societies, he argued, are of the first kind, and construe obligations and loyalties in terms of a non-negotiable destiny. Modern societies are of the second kind, and therefore regard all institutions and practices as provisional, to be revised in the light of our changing requirements. The transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft is part of what happened at the Enlightenment, and one explanation for the vast cultural changes, as people learned to view their obligations in contractual terms, and so envisage a way to escape them.

Max Weber wrote, in the same connection, of a transition from traditional to “legal-rational” forms of authority, the first sanctioned by immemorial usage, the second by impartial law. To these two distinctions can be added yet another, du to Ser Henry Maine, who described the transition from traditional to modern societies as a shift from status to contract — i.e., a shift from inherited social position, to a position conferred by, and earned through, consent.

These sociological ideas are attempts to understand changes whose effect has been so profound that we have not yet come to terms with them. Still less had people come to terms with them in the late eighteenth century, when the French Revolution sent shock waves through the elites of Europe. The social contract seemed to lead of its own accord to a tyranny far darker than any monarchical excess: the contract between each of us became an enslavement of all. Enlightenment and the fear of Enlightenment were henceforth inseparable. Burke’s attack on the [French] Revolution illustrates this new state of mind. His argument is a sustained defence of “prejudice” — by which he meant the inherited store of human wisdom, whose value lasts only so long as we don not question it — against the “reason” of Enlightenment thinking. But people have prejudices only when they see no need to defend them. Only an enlightened person could think as Burke did, and the paradox of his position is now a familiar sub-text of modern culture — the sub-text of conservatism….

It was Marx who developed the most popular explanation of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment saw itself as the triumph of reason over superstition. But the real triumph, Marx argued, lay not in the sphere of ideas but in the sphere of economics. The aristocratic order had been destroyed, and with it the feudal relations which bound the producers to the land and the consumers to the court. In place of the old order came the “bourgeois” economy, based on the wage contract, the division of labour and private capital. The contractual view of society, the emphasis on individual freedom, the belief in impartial law, the attack on superstition in the name of reason — all these cultural phenomena are part of the “ideology” of the new bourgeois order, contributions to the self-image whereby the capitalist class ratifies its usurpation.

The Marxist theory is a form of economic determinism, distinguished by the belief that fundamental changes in economic relations are invariably revolutionary, involving a violent overthrow of the old order, and a collapse of the political “superstructure” which had been built on it. The theory is almost certainly false: nevertheless, there is something about the Marxian picture which elicits, in enlightened people, the will to believe. By explaining culture as a by-product of material forces, Marx endorses the Enlightenment view, that material forces are the only forces there are. The old culture, with its gods and traditions and authorities, is made to seem like a web of illusions — “the opiate of the people”, which quietens their distress….

…Thanks to Marx, debunking theories of culture have become a part of culture. And these theories have the structure pioneered by Marx: they identify power as the reality, and culture as the mask; they also foretell some future “liberation” from the lies that have been spun by our oppressors.

Debunking theories of culture are popular for two reasons: because they are linked to a political agenda, and because they provide us with an overview. If we are to understand the Enlightenment, then we need such an overview. But ought it to be couched in these external terms? After all, the Enlightenment is part of us; people who have not responded to its appeal are only half awake to their condition. It is not enough to explain the Enlightenment; we must also understand it….

[A]s I noted in discussing Burke, Enlightenment goes hand in hand with the fear of it. From the very beginning hope and doubt have been intertwined. What if men needed those old authorities, needed the habit of obedience and the sense of the sacred? What if, without them, they should jettison all loyalties, and give themselves to a life of godless pleasure?… [T]he very aim for a universal culture, without time or place, brought a new kind of loneliness. Communities depend upon the force of which Burke called prejudice; they are essential local, bound to a place, a history, a language and a common culture. The Enlightened individualist, by forgoing such things, lives increasingly as a stranger among strangers, consumed by a helpless longing for an attachment which his own cold thinking has destroyed.

These conflicts within Enlightenment culture are part of its legacy to us. We too are individualists, believers in the sovereign right of human freedom, living as strangers in a society of strangers. And we too are beset by those ancient and ineradicable yearnings for something else — for a homecoming to our true community…. But … there is no going back, … we must live with our enlightened condition and endure the inner tension to which it condemns us. And it is in terms of this tension, I believe, the we should understand both the splendours and the miseries of modern culture. (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, pp. 24-9)

Religion, community, and common culture have been displaced by the regulatory-welfare state, anthropogenic global warming, feminism, “choice,” and myriad other totems, beliefs, “movements,” and “leaders,” both religious and secular.  Are our minds less troubled, do we sleep better, are we happier in our relationships, is our destiny more secure? Something tells me that the answer to each of those questions is “no.”

The tale was told long ago:

[1] Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the beasts of the earth which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman: Why hath God commanded you, that you should not eat of every tree of paradise? [2] And the woman answered him, saying: Of the fruit of the trees that are in paradise we do eat: [3] But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of paradise, God hath commanded us that we should not eat; and that we should not touch it, lest perhaps we die. [4] And the serpent said to the woman: No, you shall not die the death. [5] For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.

[6] And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold: and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave to her husband who did eat. [7] And the eyes of them both were opened: and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves aprons. [8] And when they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in paradise at the afternoon air, Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God, amidst the trees of paradise. [9] And the Lord God called Adam, and said to him: Where art thou? [10] And he said: I heard thy voice in paradise; and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.

[11] And he said to him: And who hath told thee that thou wast naked, but that thou hast eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat? [12] And Adam said: The woman, whom thou gavest me to be my companion, gave me of the tree, and I did eat. [13] And the Lord God said to the woman: Why hast thou done this? And she answered: The serpent deceived me, and I did eat. [14] And the Lord God said to the serpent: Because thou hast done this thing, thou art cursed among all cattle, and beasts of the earth: upon thy breast shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. [15] I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.

[16] To the woman also he said: I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee. [17] And to Adam he said: Because thou hast hearkened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat, cursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life. [18] Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herbs of the earth. [19] In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return. [20] And Adam called the name of his wife Eve: because she was the mother of all the living.

[21] And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife, garments of skins, and clothed them. [22] And he said: Behold Adam is become as one of us, knowing good and evil: now, therefore, lest perhaps he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever. [23] And the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth from which he was taken. [24] And he cast out Adam; and placed before the paradise of pleasure Cherubims, and a flaming sword, turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. (Book of Genesis, Chapter 3)

A particular feature of the Enlightenment was that its rationalism gave rise to leftism. Thomas Sowell writes about the wages of leftist “intellectualism” in Intellectuals and Society:

One of the things intellectuals have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, hav long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important. (p. 303)

In my view, the

left’s essential agenda  is the repudiation of ordered liberty of the kind that arises from evolved social norms, and the replacement of that liberty by sugar-coated oppression. The bread and circuses of imperial Rome have nothing on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, and the many other forms of personal and corporate welfare that are draining America of its wealth and élan. All of that “welfare” has been bought at the price of economic and social liberty (which are indivisible).

Freedom from social bonds and social norms is not liberty. Freedom from religion, which seems to be the objective of American courts, is bound to yield less liberty and more crime, which further erodes liberty.

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