Modernity’s Shadow: The Dark Side of the Age of Reason
Therefore, I will suppose that, not God who is the source of truth but some evil demon, who is all powerful and cunning, has devoted all their energies to deceiving me. I will imagine that the sky, air, earth, colours, shapes, sounds and everything external to me are nothing more than the creatures of dreams by means of which an evil spirit entraps my credulity. I shall imagine myself as if I had no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, no senses at all, but as if my beliefs in all these things were false. I will remain resolutely steady in this meditation and, in that way, if I cannot discover anything true, I will certainly do what is possible for me, namely, I will take great care not to assent to what is false, nor can that deceiver – no matter how powerful or cunning they may be – impose anything on me.” — Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy
The Jungian “shadow” is not just a facet of individual psychology, but of eras, societies, and civilisations as well. Descartes’ “evil genius” is the Shadow of the Enlightenment and of Universal Reason, which William Blake identified by the name “Urizen” as being one of the four Zoas of disintegrate man. Descartes’ supposition aroused considerable controversy in his time, since this “all powerful and cunning” demon had all the attributes of God — omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence — so that Descartes was, in fact, accused of insinuating a notion of God as “deus deceptor” — God the Deceiver.
Those who know the legend of the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree may immediately recognise Descartes’ “evil demon” as the demon Mara, “Lord of Illusions”, “Lord of the Ego” and also called by the Buddha “the Architect”. In this all too brief and edited scene from the movie The Little Buddha, the legend of Siddhartha’s combat with Mara is masterfully rendered, and all the crimes the Buddha charges Mara with are equally those of Descartes’ evil demon, demonstrating that Descartes demon is, in fact, not a mere fantasy or supposition, but the Shadow, the counterpart to which is Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde. In fact, the potent attributes of the “evil demon” are the very attributes to which “pure reason” or Universal Reason aspires, which it desires to become itself.
Laplace’s “demon” obviously owes much to Descartes’ evil demon or deus deceptor.
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
This is, nonetheless, precisely what the intellect (or more precisely, the mental-rational structure of consciousness) aspires to be — all eye, the pure all-seeing eye.
There is a logic of development that leads from Descartes’ demon as the dark side of universal reason, through Laplace’s demon, to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. The word — meaning “all-seeing” — is derived from the Greek myth of Panoptes, the demon with 100 eyes who was known as the “watchman”. Significantly, Bentham’s vision for his panopticon architecture was first for prisons and then for factories. It was from Bentham that George Orwell, recognising the sinister implications of Bentham’s panopticon, furthered the notion of a prison society of mass surveillance; or, from Universal Reason to Universal Surveillance.
Blake had already recognised the real and sinister nature of Descartes’ “evil genius” as the shadow of the Enlightenment, and as being immanent or latent in its very structure. “May God us keep, from Single Vision & Newton’s sleep.” Misunderstood, he was charged with “romanticism” and with being “counter-enlightenment”. His Urizen (perhaps a contraction itself of “Universal Reason”) is the image of the dark side of the Age of Reason, its false God and the spitting image, in fact, not just of Buddhism’s Mara, but of Descartes’ evil genius.
The turning point (Jung might call it the point of enantiodromia or reversal) came with the First World War, when what Gebser calls “the deficient mode of functioning of the mental-rational consciousness structure” — the shadow –probably became dominant. Disillusionment with the premisses of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason led from “pure reason” to cynical reason, when science and reason started to be applied to developing technologies of social and political control (polling, propaganda, monitoring, even concentration camps) and weapons of mass extermination. But Descartes’ “evil demon” or deus deceptor is the issue of contemporary “perception management” and of universal surveillance and “total information awareness“.
The evil demon continues to haunt the imagination of the modernity — the evil genius or mad scientist — indicating that it is no mere supposition, but is of the Shadow — the dark side of “Enlightenment” and Modernity becoming increasingly active and dominant, especially during this period 1914 – 1945 in which Gebser saw the growing disintegration of the mental-rational structure of consciousness. The demonic was always a latent potentiality of the Age of Reason, even in the very name democracy.
Universal Reason become the “all-seeing eye” of universal and mass surveillance is a further aspect of Gebser’s “deficient rationality”, proof sufficient that we really do live in “post-modern” times, however one understands this.
Omar Khayyam (and others) once noted that “only a hair separates the false from the true”. The false is only the shadow of the true. “What is possible to be believed is an image of the truth”, seconded Blake. And in Descartes “evil genius” as deceiver and lord of delusions and illusions is the shadow of the “Enlightenment” itself. That this is the shadow of the mental-rational consciousness is demonstrated clearly by the fact that in the controversy about Descartes’ demon there appeared to be no real boundary or difference between the attributes of the evil genius and those of God.
I just ordered a book online called Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control. I don’t as yet know its contents, but I’m hoping it might shed more light on how the “evil demon” of Descartes philosophy has become the dominant ideal of the intellect and mode of rationality in our time.