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The Dark Night of the Enlightenment

Updated on April 24, 2018

Enlightened reductionists shrink man to a beast, an insect, a machine. Man becomes for these pseudo-scientists a paltry & inconsequential & detestable thing – just a sack of chemicals, just a cipher. If we are so reduced are we still free? If we are so reduced how can we trust our understanding? If we are so reduced what prevents us from becoming a collection of malevolent slobs? Why do we merit dignity or rights? Dictators would be happy to relieve us of both.

These bright and shiny reductionists include putrid pornographers & pale philosophers, monarchists & radicals, the naïve & the cynical.

  • For Thomas Hobbes, life is a war of everyone against everyone that only ends at death. In a state of nature the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” All we can do is throw ourselves at the feet of some tyrant in the hope he will protect us.
  • John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the noted rake of the Restoration Era, was a student of Hobbesian materialism. In his A Satyre Against Mankind, written before 1674, Wilmot wrote:

Were I - who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man -
A spirit free to choose for my own share
What sort of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I'd be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal,
Who is so proud of being rational.

  • For the French philosophe Julien Offray de La Mettrie man was just a machine like a watch powered by springs. According to La Mettrie’s 1748 work Man a Machine we are good or bad only depending “on the way our machine is running.”
  • The Marquis de Sade tortured prostitutes and churned out volume after tedious volume of sickening pornography. In de Sade’s writings men seem incapable of virtue.

  • Jeremy Bentham was a prototype of the ivory tower intellectual. He had little contact with the common man. Bentham’s view of man (and Bentham himself) were flat and colorless and narrow. He wrote “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.” He developed a “felicific calculus” to quantify levels of pleasure and pain. Bentham also called natural rights “simple nonsense” and “rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.” Bentham also attempted to justify torture.

Bentham's dream of control: the Panopticon
Bentham's dream of control: the Panopticon
  • Many inclined toward pseudo-Darwinist dehumanism and determinism during the closing decades of the 1800s. Among their number was Emile Zola. He was also influenced by Hippolyte Taine. Here’s Zola describing his goals in the 1867 novel Therese Raquin: "I have selected persons absolutely swayed by their nerves and blood, deprived of free will, impelled in every action of life, by the fatal lusts of the flesh. Therese and Laurent are human brutes, nothing more. I have sought to follow these brutes, step by step, in the secret labour of their passions, in the impulsion of their instincts, in the cerebral disorder resulting from the excessive strain on their nerves." His 1890 novel La Bête humaine concerns a man whose tainted blood turns him into a murderer.

  • Thomas Hardy’s acceptance of fatalism and determinism are displayed in much of his work, for example The Return of the Native.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morals wrote: Since Copernicus, man seems to have got himself on an inclined plane—now he is slipping faster and faster away from the center into—what? into nothingness? into a ‘penetrating sense of his nothingness?’ … all science, natural as well as unnatural—which is what I call the self-critique of knowledge—has at present the object of dissuading man from his former respect for himself, as if this had been but a piece of bizarre conceit.
  • August Strindberg, in his preface to his 1888 play Miss Julie, wrote of his pleasure knowing that the man-hating half-woman type (like the protagonist in his play) will inevitably “succumb, either because they are out of harmony with reality or because their repressed instincts erupt uncontrollably or because their hopes of attaining equality with men are crushed. The type is tragic, offering the spectacle of a desperate struggle against nature, a tragic legacy of Romanticism which is now being dissipated by Naturalism, the only aim of which is happiness. And happiness means strong and sound species.”
  • In his 1889 essay Agnosticism Thomas Huxley wrote: “I know no study which is so unutterably saddening as that of the evolution of humanity, as it is set forth in the annals of history. Out of the darkness of prehistoric ages man emerges with the marks of his lowly origin strong upon him. He is a brute, only more intelligent than the other brutes, a blind prey to impulses, which as often as not lead him to destruction; a victim to endless illusions, which make his mental existence a terror and a burden, and fill his physical life with barren toil and battle.”
  • Gustav LeBon wrote of atavistic racial urges in his 1895 The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind: “Environment, circumstances, and events represent the social suggestions of the moment. They may have a considerable influence, but this influence is always momentary if it be contrary to the suggestions of the race; that is, to those which are inherited by a nation from the entire series of its ancestors."
  • Stephen Crane wrote in his 1898 The Blue Hotel: "We picture the world as thick with conquering and elate humanity, but here, with the bugles of the tempest pealing, it was hard to imagine a peopled earth. One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb."
  • Oscar Méténier, a disciple of Zola, was the director of the Grand Guignol theatre. Méténier delighted in the gruesome, the morbid, shock for the sake of shocking. Grand Guignol entertainments pile up horrors to save us from ennui or maybe to convince us we are alive.

  • Edvard Munch on the inspiration for his painting The Scream: "I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous infinite scream of nature."

  • In his 1913 memoir John Barleycorn Jack London describes man as “a cosmic joke, a sport of chemistry, a garmented beast that arose out of the ruck of screaming beastliness by virtue and accident of two opposable great toes. He is brother as well to the gorilla and the chimpanzee. He thumps his chest in anger, and roars and quivers with cataleptic ferocity. He knows monstrous, atavistic promptings, and he is composed of all manner of shreds of abysmal and forgotten instincts." London also writes of his "austere nights of midnight oil, all the book I had read, all the wisdom I had gathered, went glimmering before the ape and tiger in me that crawled up from the abysm of my heredity, atavistic, competitive, and brutal, lustful with strength and desire to outswine the swine."
  • Sigmund Freud scorned man as a creature ruled by irrational subconscious urges.

Which takes us to World War I and other catastrophes of the twentieth century. The Enlightenment ends in ennui and anguish and despair – complete with “ignorant armies that clash by night”.

The enlightened philosophe dreamed of noble beings dwelling in a beautiful home. What he ended up with was rats trapped in a filthy cage. Exalted aspiration gave way to dull dread.

The industrious reductionists kept erasing, they eventually wiped away the whole sky. We were left afraid to go outside and only a sagging roof to look up to.

What is really odd is that some reductionists want their puny, even despised homunculus to take God's place - maybe establish laws both moral and physical. They look forward to his reign omnipotent.

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