modernism vs antimodernism

Original Article Here

There were obvious deficiencies in the optimistic view of the world presented by the philosophers of the French Enlightenment. In the first place, it failed to explain the existence of evil – prejudice and bad education could account only for the less serious forms of evil. Again, if this was the best of all possible worlds, as Leibniz claimed, why did the terrible earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 take place? Some fault in the harmony of God’s laws? Or a deliberate irruption of God’s wrath into a sinful world? In either case one had to admit, with Voltaire himself, that “the world does, after all, contain evil”, and that either nature was not harmonious and perfect, or that God did intervene in its workings – postulates that were both contrary to the Enlightenment creed.


Another problem was that the Enlightenment failed to satisfy the cravings of the religious man; for man is not only a rational animal, but also a religious animal. And when his religious nature is denied, there is always a reaction. For, as Roger Scruton writes, “Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists, Hume, Smith, and the Scottish Enlightenment, the Kant of Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone – such thinkers and movements had collectively remade the God of Christianity as a creature of the head rather than the heart. God retreated from the world to the far reaches of infinite space, where only vertiginous thoughts could capture him. Daily life is of little concern to such a God, who demands no form of obedience except to the universal precepts of morality… As God retreated from the world, people reached out for a rival source of membership, and national identity seemed to answer to the need…”[1]


Already in the first half of the eighteenth century the religious cravings suppressed by Enlightenment rationalism were seeking outlets in more emotional forms of religion, the very opposite of enlightened calm. Such were Methodism in England and Pietism in Germany, Revivalism and the Great Awakening in America and “Convulsionarism” in France.


In some ways, however, these very emotional, passionate forms of religion worked in the same direction as the cult of reason. They, too, tended to minimise the importance of theology and dogma, and to maximise the importance of man and human activity and human passion. Thus in American Revivalism, writes Gerald Cragg, “conversion was described in terms of how a man felt, the new life was defined in terms of how he acted. This was more than an emphasis on the moral consequences of obedience to God; it was a preoccupation with man, and it became absorbed in what he did and in the degree to which he promoted righteousness. In a curious way man’s activity was obscuring the cardinal fact of God’s rule.”[2]


The French revolution was to bring together the streams of Enlightenment rationalism and irrational religion in a single, torrential rebellion against God…


The rationalists became adept at explaining religion in naturalistic terms. Religion was simply a “need”, no different in principle from other needs, as Freud later tried to demonstrate. Of course, no religious person will find such explanations even remotely convincing. But it must be admitted that, unconvincing though their explanations might be, the Enlightenment philosophers managed to convince enough people to create whole generations of men possessing not even a spark of that religious “enthusiasm” which they so despised.


Were they happier for it? Hardly. Condorcet wrote: “The time will come when the sun will shine only upon a world of free men who recognise no master except their reason, when tyrants and slaves, priests, and their stupid or hypocritical tools will no longer exist except in history or on the stage”. That time has not yet come. Most men do indeed “recognise no master except their reason”. But there are still tyrants and slaves (and priests) – and no discernible decrease in human misery.


Moreover, there was not just unhappiness – the accompaniment of most ages of human history: there was something deeper and darker, a madness underlying the urbane and sophisticated surface of Enlightenment Europe. The greatest thinkers and artists of the age could not fail to be sensitive to this madness, just waiting to break out in the horrors of the French revolution. We sense it, for example, in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where the Don is dragged screaming into the fire of hell by demons.


Still more horrifying, because happening in real life to the most famous and typical representative of the age, was the death of Voltaire: “When Voltaire felt the stroke that he realized must terminate in death, he was overpowered with remorse. He at once sent for the priest, and wanted to be ‘reconciled with the church.’ His infidel flatterers hastened to his chamber to prevent his recantation; but it was only to witness his ignominy and their own. He cursed them to their faces; and, as his distress was increased by their presence, he repeatedly and loudly exclaimed, ‘Begone! It is you that have brought me to my present condition. Leave me, I say; begone! What a wretched glory is this which you have produced to me!’


     “Hoping to allay his anguish by a written recantation, he had it prepared, signed it, and saw it witnessed. But it was all unavailing. For two months he was tortured with such an agony as led him at times to gnash his teeth in impotent rage against God and man. At other times in plaintive accents, he would plead, ‘O, Christ! O, Lord Jesus!’ Then, turning his face, he would cry out, ‘I must die – abandoned of God and of men!’


     “As his end drew near, his condition became so frightful that his infidel associates were afraid to approach his beside. Still they guarded the door, that others might not know how awfully an infidel was compelled to die. Even his nurse repeatedly said, ‘For all the wealth of Europe I would never see another infidel die.’ It was a scene of horror that lies beyond all exaggeration. Such is the well-attested end of the one who had a natural sovereignty of intellect, excellent education, great wealth, and much earthly honor.”[3]


The immediate result of the Enlightenment was the French revolution and all the revolutions that took their inspiration from it, with all their attendant bloodshed and misery, destroying both the bodies and souls of men on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Science and education have indeed spread throughout the world, but poverty has not been abolished, nor war nor disease nor crime. If it were possible to measure “happiness” scientifically, then it is highly doubtful whether the majority of men are any happier now than they were before the bright beams of the Enlightenment began to dawn on the world.


It is especially the savagery of the twentieth century that has convinced us of this. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer write: “In the most general sense of progressive thought the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.”[4] And as Nadezhda Mandelstam writes: “We have seen the triumph of evil after the values of humanism have been vilified and trampled on. The reason these values succumbed was probably that they were based on nothing except boundless confidence in the human intellect.”[5]


And the reason why “boundless confidence in the human intellect” has brought us to this pass is that, as L.A. Tikhomirov writes, the cult of reason “very much wants to establish worldly prosperity, it very much wants to make people happy, but it will achieve nothing, because it approaches the problem from the wrong end.


“It may appear strange that people who think only of earthly prosperity, and who put their whole soul into realising it, attain only disillusionment and exhaustion. People who, on the contrary, are immersed in cares about the invisible life beyond the grave, attain here, on earth, results constituting the highest examples yet known on earth of personal and social development! However, this strangeness is self-explanatory. The point is that man is by his nature precisely the kind of being that Christianity understands him to be by faith; the aims of life that are indicated to him by faith are precisely the kind of aims that he has in reality, and not the kind that reason divorced from faith delineates. Therefore in educating a man in accordance with the Orthodox world-view, we conduct his education correctly, and thence we get results that are good not only in that which is most important [salvation] (which unbelievers do not worry about), but also in that which is secondary (which is the only thing they set their heart on). In losing faith, and therefore ceasing to worry about the most important thing, people lost the possibility of developing man in accordance with his true nature, and so they get distorted results in earthly life, too.”[6]


The problem is that “reason is a subordinate capacity. If it is not directed by the lofty single organ of religion perception – the feeling of faith, it will be directed by the lower strivings, which are infinitely numerous. Hence all the heresies, all the ‘fractions’, all contemporary reasonings, too. This is a path of seeking which we can beforehand predict will lead to endless disintegration, splintering and barrenness in all its manifestations, and so in the end it will only exhaust people and lead them to a false conviction that in essence religious truth does not exist.”[7]


And yet such a conclusion will be reached only if the concept of reason is limited in a completely arbitrary manner. For, as Copleston points out, the idea of reason of the Enlightenment philosophers “was limited and narrow. To exercise reason meant for them pretty well to think as les philosophes thought; whereas to anyone who believes that God has revealed Himself it is rational to accept this revelation and irrational to reject it.”[8]


But the Enlightenment philosophers not only limited and narrowed the concept of reason: they deified it, thereby reducing it to absurdity. This has been well demonstrated by C.S. Lewis in relation to Marxism and Freudianism. But it applies in a general way to all attempts to enthrone reason above everything else:-


“It is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the colour of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and is scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left. The professional philosophers have been bothered about this universal black-out for over two hundred years, and the world has not much listened to them. But the same disaster is now occurring on a level we can all understand.


“We have recently ‘discovered that we exist’ in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days, it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] a great queen because they have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are ‘ideologically tainted’ at the source.


“Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of things ought to be asked. The first is, Are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, Does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?


“If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and the Marxist are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.


“The only line they can really take is to say that some thoughts are tainted and others are not – which has the advantage (if Freudians and Marxians regard it as an advantage) of being what every sane man has always believed. But if that is so, then we must ask how you find out which are tainted and which are not. It is no earthly use saying that those are tainted which agree with the secret wishes of the thinker. Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment. Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking’. You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.


“In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ This is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.


“I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that ‘the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world’. Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see early enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that ‘the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting’. For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.


“I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally the Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.


“Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. And why should reason not be discredited? It would be easy, in answer, to point to the present state of the world, but the real answer is even more immediate. The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend on reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more – for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.


“The alternative is either self-contradicting idiocy or else some tenacious belief in our power of reasoning, held in the teeth of all the evidence that Bulverists can bring for a ‘taint’ in this or that human reasoner. I am ready to admit, if you like, that this tenacious belief has something transcendental or mystical about it. What then? Would you rather be a lunatic than a mystic?


“So we see there is a justification for holding on to our belief in Reason. But can this be done without theism? Does ‘I know’ involve that God exists? Everything I know is an inference from sensation (except the present moment). All our knowledge of the universe beyond our immediate experiences depends on inferences from these experiences. If our inferences do not give a genuine insight into reality, then we can know nothing. A theory cannot be accepted if it does not allow our thinking to be a genuine insight, nor if the fact of our knowledge is not explicable in terms of that theory.


“But our thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called ‘a reason’. Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless. This principle must not be abandoned when we consider the beliefs which are the basis of others. Our knowledge depends on the certainty about axioms and inferences. If these are the result of causes, then there is no possibility of knowledge. Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes…


“It is admitted that the mind is affected by physical events; a wireless set is influenced by atmospherics, but it does not originate its deliverances – we’d take notice of it if we thought it did. Natural events we can relate to another until we can trace them finally to the space-time continuum. But thought has no father but thought. It is conditioned, yes, not caused…


“The same argument applies to our values, which are affected by social factors, but if they are caused by them we cannot know that they are right. One can reject morality as an illusion, but the man who does so often tacitly excepts his own ethical motive: for instance the duty of freeing morality from superstition and of spreading enlightenment.


“Neither Will nor Reason is the product of Nature. Therefore either I am self-existent (a belief which no one can accept) or I am a colony of some Thought or Will that are self-existent. Such reason and goodness as we can attain must be derived from a self-existent Reason and Goodness outside ourselves, in fact, a Supernatural…”[9]


Thus Lewis does not decry Reason, but vindicates it; but only by showing that Reason is independent of Nature. However, in doing this he shatters the foundations of Enlightenment thinking, and therefore also of the modern world-view, which is based on the Enlightenment. This world-view is based on the following axioms, which Lewis has shown to be false: (a) Truth and Goodness are attainable by Reason alone, without the need for Divine Revelation; and (b) Reason, as a function of Man, and not of God, is entirely a product of Nature. Lewis demonstrates that even if (a) were true, which it is not, it could only be true if (b) were false. But the Enlightenment insisted that both were true, and therefore condemned the whole movement of western thought founded upon it to sterility and degeneration and, ultimately, nihilism.


The whole tragedy of western man since the Enlightenment – which, through European colonization and globalization has become the tragedy of the whole world – is that in exalting himself and the single, fallen faculty of his mind to a position of infallibility, he has denied himself his true dignity and rationality, making him a function of irrational nature – in effect, sub-human. But man is great, not because he can reason in the sense of ratiocinate, that is, make deductions and inferences from axioms and empirical evidence, but because he can reason in accordance with the Reason that created and sustains all things, that is, in accordance with the Word and Wisdom of God in Whose image he was made. It is when man tries to make his reason autonomous, independent of its origin and inspiration in the Divine Reason, that he falls to the level of irrationality. For Man, being in honour, did not understand; he is compared to the mindless cattle, and is become like unto them (Psalm 48.12).


June 1/14, 2017.

St. Justin the Philosopher.

[1] Scruton, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, London: Continuum, 2002, p. 43.

[2] Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, London: Penguin, 1970, p. 181.

[3]Rev. S.B. Shaw, Dying Testimonies of Saved and Unsaved, pp. 49-50.

[4] Adorno and Hokheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1972, p. 3; in M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassell, p. 487.

[5] Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope against Hope.

[6] Tikhomirov, “Dukhovenstvo i obshchestvo v sovremennom religioznom dvizhenii” (“The Clergy and Society in the Contemporary Religious Movement”), in Khristianstvo i Politika (Christianity and Politics), Moscow, 1999, pp. 30-31.

[7] Tikhomirov, “Dukhovenstvo i obshchestvo…”, op. cit., p. 32.

[8] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 6, part II, New York: Image Books, 1964, p. 209.

[9] Lewis, “’Bulverism’ or the Foundation of 20th Century Thought”, in God in the Dock, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, pp. 271-275, 276. Lewis developed this important argument in other works of his such as Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain.

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