In the Shadow of the Enlightenment

I’ve finally gotten around to reading John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. This is part of a trilogy of books published by Ralston Saul (including The Doubter’s Companion and The Unconscious Civilization) that address the rise and fall of the Age of Reason, or The Modern Era more generally. (To date, I’ve only read The Unconscious Civilization). He followed up this trilogy with his acclaimed On Equilibrium, which is his answer to the decadence of the Age of Reason. I also have this book, but I haven’t read it yet.

Since I am not very far into Voltaire’s Bastards, it may be premature of me to offer up some comments on it, but I really wanted to bring it to your attention early, and especially if you follow the work of Jean Gebser on the history of consciousness. I’m quite certain that Ralston Saul was not familiar with Jean Gebser or his Ever-Present Origin. Nonetheless Voltaire’s Bastards (and the trilogy more generally) might be considered a crucial contribution to the history of consciousness in the same manner. Voltaire’s Bastards might be considered an extended treatment of what Gebser calls “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” having entered into “deficient mode”, i.e., disintegration and decadence.

In short, if you want to understand why things are the way they are in Late Modernity or Post-Modernity, Ralston Saul is your guide, although the fuller meaning of it may only become clearer in relation to Jean Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin and in placing Ralston Saul’s intellectual history of the Modern Era and the modern structure of consciousness within the broader historical dynamic of consciousness “mutations” described by Gebser.

Many of the themes raised in The Chrysalis appear in Voltaire’s Bastards and in Ralston Saul’s handling of Western intellectual history (or, history of the intellect). Much of it might even be considered a deft description of the process of enantiodromia, or ironic reversal at the extremity and limit. Ralston Saul doesn’t use the term “enantiodromia” (at least, I haven’t encountered it yet), but this Jungian-Heraclitean dynamic is aptly traced in his history of reason.

You may recall, from earlier posts, how I described this process of reversal that has gone largely unnoticed by the modern mentality, and how its belief in “progress” and the logic of progressive time has largely blinded it to the reality of this reversal of polarity. We are immersed in illusions and delusions and self-deceptions about this. Noting this situation is the starting point for Ralston Saul’s critique of modern rationality, which has become technocratic, rationalistic, instrumentalising, confusing the rationalistic with the reasonable, or amongst those things that Gebser describes as a mode of perception now become dangerously “deficient”.

This is what is so exciting for me about Ralston Saul’s approach. In the former Dark Age Blog and the present Chrysalis I attempted to describe how certain ages and eras are book-ended by polar figures as beginnings and endings: Promethean Man (forethought) morphs into his brother Epimethean Man (afterthought); Parsifal, the fool who becomes a knight, reverts once again in the form of Don Quixote, the knight who becomes a fool once more. Parsifal and Don Quixote (as Prometheus and Epimetheus) and how they bookend an age you have performed the whole process of enantiodromia — a reversal of polarities. In the figures of Cardinal Richelieu (1585 – 1642) and Robert McNamara (1916 – 2009), Ralston Saul identifies the same “bookends” of the Age of Reason and the process of enantiodromia, in terms of the efficient and deficient expression of the mental-rational consciousness. Richelieu and McNamara are representatives of a certain human type — the mental-rational consciousness — but in polarity. In Ralston Saul’s judgement, McNamara, while perhaps personally a “decent guy”, nonetheless represents a mode of the mental-rational consciousness that is intellectually “degenerate” (his word), or what Gebser calls “deficient” — the technocrat.

In that sense, we are living in “the shadow” of the Enlightenment — a reversal of polarity. It is perhaps, therefore, not entirely correct to say that we are now living in “post-modern” or “post-Enlightenment” times. In an earlier post, I pointed out that shadow or sinister side of the mental-rational in the form of Descartes’ fantasy of the “evil genius” or demon which came to assert itself. This all-knowing demon — wasn’t that exactly what the intellect aspired to become itself? Isn’t this “evil genius” the very image of Goethe’s Faustian Man? Descartes’ “evil demon” we then traced through Laplace’s “demon”, through Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, and through to the contemporary mass surveillance techno-corporate state and the ubiquitous exercise of technologies of social and political manipulation and control — ie, “perception management”.

There’s no question about it. Descartes’ “evil demon” who can make us see what isn’t there — who is the Lord of Illusions — is the same as William Blake’s mad Zoa Urizen,  who is also the maker of the “Ulro”, the Land of Shadows. This is our present world. The chief feature of Descartes’ demon is that he is a perception manager. This polarity of the mental-rational consciousness structure, the coincidence of light and shadow, is why Gebser identified the hideous Gorgon as being the alter ego of Athena, goddess of reason; and why Heraclitus identified the god Dionysus as being the same as Hades, the dread god of the dead and of the underworld, who is the darkness.

Nietzsche must have known, must have intuited at some level, that Dionysus was intimately connected with Hades even if he never made that connection explicit. It is implied in his “two centuries of nihilism” and in his own presentiment that his name would be associated in the future with something terrible.

It is, therefore, not too difficult to identify the point where the shadow of the Enlightenment began to assert itself — the First World War was the form of this reversal, the overthrow of the reasonable by rationalisation, and by the technical problem of organising and managing “the masses” for both war and peace — communism, fascism, consumer capitalism are the post-war realities of mass politics, of “the System” and “The Great Society”. Ralston Saul hasn’t (as yet in my reading) identified this as the pivot point, but it’s pretty evident that the idea of reason as a moral power and ethical imperative died with the First World War, and the technocrat was born of it.  Under the impress of the World War, the healthy scepticism of the Age of Reason reverted, instead, to cynicism and has become confused with it. For cynicism, too, is the shadow of scepticism. In that, Nietzsche was right — cynicism is a form of nihilism.

As I progress in my reading of Ralston Saul, I’ll try and keep you abreast of some of his more significant insights into the state of consciousness in Late Modernity, for his is a very apt description of what is only presently coming to be called “the new normal” in human affairs.



14 responses to “In the Shadow of the Enlightenment”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    A little update on my reading of Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards….

    The gist of it (so far) is this: while technology progresses, in political, social, and spiritual terms, the human mind is now stuck in a blind cycle approaching standstill, if not decadence and degeneracy. This is due, Ralston Saul insists, to the decay of historical memory so that we don’t really notice that we’ve passed this way before with the same disastrous results. It seems to us that we are “making progress”, but Ralston Saul wants to argue that this is an illusion and a delusion. Our increase in technological power is outstripping our ability to handle that power responsibly, because in political and social and spiritual terms, we are stuck in a dead end. This is also Jean Gebser’s thesis — that the increase in technological feasibility is not commensurate with any development in our sense of responsibility (mastery). Exactly the opposite, in fact.

    I have noticed this myself. particularly in the “news” reports. Things which have been known for decades are suddenly presented as if they were novel discoveries, sustaining the illusion of linear time progress.

    Ralston Saul’s critique of Late Modernity mentality is therefore consistent with Blake’s insight into “single vision”

    “If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character, the Philosophic and Experimental would soon be at the Ratio of all things; and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.” — Blake

    That’s the present situation as seen by Ralston Saul and by Jean Gebser, too, and is a necessary consequence of Blake’s view that “man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern”. Moreover, it’s the gist of Einstein’s definition of lunacy — repeating the same thing over and over again expecting different results each time. Ralston Saul wants to insist that this is our true situation in Late Modernity, and is the result of the destruction of historical memory (nihilism). This is equivalent to Gebser’s observation that “progression is also distantiation”.

    For Ralston Saul, Voltaire is the model of the Enlightenment, and his “bastards” are those who claim descent from the Age of Reason while perverting the spirit of reason itself. These he calls “technocrats” who he sees as belonging to “the dark side” of the Age of Reason (but who now constitute a political elite) while falsely claiming to be its heirs and guardians. Ralston Saul insists they are, rather, usurpers who have co-opted historical memory and the symbols of the Age of Reason for their own purposes. Much of Ralston Saul’s book is, in fact, profiles of certain contemporary technocrats.

    His book could have been much shorter and more pointed if he had understood what a “mentality” actually is — the residue of reason after the spirit of it has departed. That’s what he wants to say, I think, but falls somewhat short in that respect.

    Hence the subtitle of his book is inappropriate, really — the tyranny of reason is not the issue. The tyranny of mentality is the issue — a narrowing of intellect to a mere point of view (perspectivising) which subverts the whole. This is what Gebser means by the mental-rational consciousness now functioning in “deficient mode” — the merely technocratic, rationalistic, formulaic, instrumentalist, systematising in the manner of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “Scientific Management” (ie, Taylorism). That was Blake’s fear of “single vision” and Nietzsche’s contempt for “system” as “loss of integrity” — the displacement of the human interest from the “vital centre” and its replacement by a “system” — the machine. That was the essence of Taylor’s “method”

    “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first”

    Had Ralston Saul approached his subject as a critique of “mentality” in the same way Rosenstock-Huessy diagnosed the “suburban mentality” in The Christian Future; or the modern mind outrun, his book would have been better, pointier, and probably much shorter. Ralston Saul wants to defend humanism against the prevailing reductive and destructive tide of technocratic rationality, which he considers the rule of unreason. That’s a good cause, but his approach could have been better.

    The “dictatorship of reason” is, consequently, a misnomer. It should be the dictatorship of unreason. But what human beings of the modern type call “reason” is what Ralston Saul rejects as misappropriation, and as perversion of its original model and ideal, as practiced by Voltaire and by Thomas Jefferson, who are his models of Enlightenment.

    That’s the gist of it, so far.

  2. alex jay says :

    “… the healthy scepticism of the Age of Reason reverted, instead, to cynicism and has become confused with it.”

    Dare thou/I say more than the circular sophistry of one of the most popular – yet delusional – un-scientific “scientist” of this “deficient” downward-spiral mental-rational era: the ubiquitously promoted load of rubbish that Richard Dawkins (God give me mercy!) seems to attract. When will the press stop feeding oxygen to his like and the Tony Blairs, neo-cons and all the “Last Men”?

    Triviality and bullshit rules!

    This, from your most often cited newspaper, is the most flattering and apologetic account of a man who needs a serious dose of humour.

    I only mention this irrelevancy as just one of a plethora of examples that demonstrates the collective cognitive dissonance of the status quo – i.e. the “Establishment” – as perpetuated by the Fichtean – Prussian – Hegelian Statist neo-feudalist road that we are walking … no wonder the neo-nazis are filling the void … deje vous?

  3. abdulmonem says :

    When the address to read made to humanity, it was made to be done under the tutorship of the divine who endowed humanity with eyes to see, with ears to hear and with heart to feel and reason. Look what we did, we denied the divine and postulate that we are the sons of apes and that we were not at a high step of the ladder to begin with but we were at the bottom of the ladder and made our movement up with no help but by our own sole efforts. Repeating the same mistake over and over again. It seems that humanity never learn, but with each historical cycles it gains in awareness and understanding. It seems also that the divine knowledge and wisdom are programmed on gradual disclosure. The cooperation between the jinn (techonologia) and the human is old and it always ended in catastrophe. The experience of worship is addresses to both the jinn and the human.In time of disclosure and the vanishing of the boundary between matter and energy, the scene becomes clear and thousand and thousand of the humans become able to diagnose the malady, indicating that we are living in an upheaval period that need action as all of whom you quote are saying. When Jane said she talked with Seth we accepted as ok, but when we say the prophets talked with god or were inspired by god it is blasphemy Is not this the four riders ?, humanity is riding to its doom. When are we going to be honest with our selves and with the unseen who created this multi-colored, doubtful and undoubtful self.

  4. abdulmonem says :

    I forgot to mention that I remember how this Richard Dawkins. in one of his sermons, boasted he is a militant atheist. what I like to see, this man caught in one of life straits and see his boastful reaction then.

  5. abdulmonem says :

    It seems that the divine call to read is the software of all civilizations, then they digress and falter. It seems also that human faltering is inbuilt program, that is why we notice through out history there are not five or ten extinctions but hundred if not thousand, but the examples cited it are the most outlandish. It seems also that few citations are enough for those who want to respond to the call and to those who are spiritually blind, all the examples will not suffice. what I noticed that the faltering mind is inclined to analyse and talk too much, no wonder silence is the repose of the sages.

  6. alex jay says :

    “Oral memory is superior to written memory”! (J.R. Saul in the lecture linked below)). Thanks to the Canadian Supreme Court – and the accuracy of the First Nations’, is it “firetalker”?,- Canada must surely stand alone among the former colonies in accepting this precendent. Interesting to find out some nuanced interpretations on Canadian history, especially to someone like myself that has always ignorantly considered your fair land as the bastard child of Anglo-Franco parentage with a Yankee induced inferiority complex (except ice hocey of course : )). If you haven’t heard this lecture by John Ralston Saul, I hope you’ll enjoy. (I’ve learned more about Canada in this brief lecture than the silly conventional books I’ve read before.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes, it is a good and clear-headed talk that Saul gave here, and quite accurate in my experience. “Interculturalism” (as against multiculturalism) was the theme of a couple of posts in the old Dark Age Blog, and much of that (as you may recall) was a philosophical approach that arose from my work with the Aboriginal Healing Project, and my own experience of being raised “in the bush” — on the same northern routes traveled by those uneducated Scots and Frenchmen who worked for the Hudson Bay Company or the Northwest Company (respectively).

      Canada does have a novel intellectual tradition, represented in the likes of Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Charles Taylor, and Ralston Saul himself, of course, which still is not “mainstream”. What Ralston Saul is speaking to when he insists on “interculturalism” and complexity of the Canadian mosaic is, also, integralism.

      So, there you also see Rosenstock-Huessy’s logic at work — “synchronising antagonistic distemporaries” in terms of the problem of reconciling different traditions (different historical narratives) — the aboriginal, the French, the English, the Irish, the Scottish, the Indian, but also newer immigrants (Saul mentions also the Islamic) into a “mosaic”. All of this makes learning — the mood of learning — an important tool of national cohesion.

      • alex jay says :

        I wish jolly old England would learn from Canada the striking difference between “interculturalism” and “multiculturalism”! : (

        Out of the mouths of babes …

  7. abdulmonem says :

    Honour the words.

    • alex jay says :

      “In the beginning was the word …”

      Or, in line with Nicola Tesla’s interpretation of the universe as energy, vibration and frequency, perhaps music?

      But then … the Sufi know this. : )

      • abdulmonem says :

        Knowing is not honouring, honouring is what Scott called in his last post, the empathetic epistemic, that is to be what you know.

        • alex jay says :

          “Knowing is not honouring, honouring is what Scott called in his last post, the empathetic epistemic, that is to be what you know.”

          I doubt it! Unless your etymological grasp of the word honor/honour is used in a slavish/subservient definition, which, I’m sure, is the opposite of what you are trying to say (though with the history of the way Islam – generally – is headingI worries me sometimes, especially today! as all the established religions do). Interestingly enough, the word first came into the Anglo/Franco version of an obscure Latin word to signify a “chaste woman” in 1390 AD. Thereafter it was used by the power structure to set a precedent of acceptable conduct for the sychophants that paid the devil’s (establishment) dues. Ergo, “honour” is word I would associate withy idolaltry. Suffice to say, that “empathy” and “honour” are contradictions. One is inclusive. th other is devisive. But then again, we fall into the language problem: the “Tower of Babel” syndrome (Wittgenstein is still in my nightmares), and yet … prescient. Language is the beginning of us all, and yet I fear its misuse will be our end? Verbal enantiodromia. Just listen to the “news” spoken in a babble of incoherence from “honourable” people. God help us all …

  8. abdulmonem says :

    It worries me also, the wide gap between the words and the human embodiment of words is the problem, the misuse that reflects the misinterpretation of the meaning of words. It seems the words across the time and people get polluted and no longer reflects the truth of the original. The story of holier than thou, that is the story of the hypocrite is telling, and that is why we have so many prophets to distill the water anew. We are living in time that intentionally dishonour the words, that is disrespecting the words, a time that requires earnest endeavor to distill the murky water of language, that is respecting the words. No wonder there is a verse in the Quran which says And god summarized all his words to humanity into two words that of truth and justice.

  9. LittleBigMan says :

    ” ……the human mind is now stuck in a blind cycle approaching standstill, if not decadence and degeneracy. This is due, Ralston Saul insists, to the decay of historical memory so that we don’t really notice that we’ve passed this way before with the same disastrous results.”

    This path to decadence and repeat of old tyrannies of the mind is true among intellectuals. Although, I’m not sure if it’s always unintentional. At least some of them do it to deserve those annual invitations to a White House event, or a first class flight to the World Economic Forum in Davos and with the hope of making permanent connections with the elite.

    Another main source to our decadent times today – which is more prevalent among ordinary citizens – has its wellspring in peoples’ pocketbook. Many of the people of this category form the crowd around me. They simply have their heads stuck in their pockets. The pocket book is the Bible here in the Silicon Valley and the scripture out of one’s pocket is reason enough to make decisions. These people walk, breathe, and communicate, but have died a long time ago. Your description of what “mentality” is, which is “the residue of reason after the spirit of it has departed” is a perfect manifestation of what and who they have become.

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