Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Greater and Lesser Lights


Very conveniently the climate of the Celanese monsoons has arrived with us in central New Jersey, making re-entry following our Sri Lankan adventure as free as possible from any sense of dislocation.  I needed that help, because there were other surprises for which I was unprepared.  Our baggage got lost.  It has now arrived, but trying to trace it involved a grueling tour of one of the less appealing circles of Automated Telephone Hell.  A happier surprise came in one of the packages in the large box of our accumulated mail: an early finished copy of my new book: The Dark Side of the Enlightenment.

            I was not prepared for this.  I had perhaps taken too literally the official publication date in late July, and so relegated the matter to one of those inactive bins of my brain that seem to increase in number daily.  I do, however, remember writing it.  The finished book looks terrific, if I say so myself.  Typography can dignify almost anything.  Sentences that invite embarrassment when written out in long hand may in print take on an impressive, even vatic air.  I naturally started reading the book, and must have spent at least seven minutes before encountering the first glaring error.

            The book, intended for the general educated reader rather than the specialist, is historical, biographical, and thematic in nature.  It deals with some extraordinary people—among them Valentine Greatrakes, an Anglo-Irish faith healer of the Restoration period, “Count” Cagliostro, magician to the rich and famous, and Julie de Krüdener, whom I characterize as an amalgam of Mother Teresa and Danielle Steele.  It is full of interesting lore about Rosicrucians, Freemasons, alchemists, and kabbalists galore.  But it does incidentally raise a concrete philosophical question—and a good one, I think.  How is it that the period of the Enlightenment (sometimes also called the Age of Reason) witnessed so many and varied episodes of the supernatural and the miraculous, of the esoteric, and of extravagant religious enthusiasm?  After all, our contemporary rationalists, and especially our growing band of celebrity atheists, seem firm in their conviction that just as human reason has the capacity to explain all the “mysteries” of the universe, human reason demands the cashiering of all delusional appeals to the supernatural of the sort that from the beginning of recorded history have offered men and women supposed pathways to transcendence.

            The answer I adopt is not my own but that of Immanuel Kant, probably the greatest of Enlightenment philosophers.  “Human reason,” he writes in The Critique of Pure Reason (1784) “has this peculiar fate, that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.”

            I should have thought that no human heart could be deaf to what Kant is saying here.  He is talking about all the riddling questions I have been asking myself since I was able to ask questions: the God question, the soul question, the questions of the origin of the earth and the origin of life, man among the animals, the truth of rhe illusion of the freedom of the will, the conundrums that are the mystery of life.  The thinkers of the Enlightenment did a fair job of discrediting the sclerotic ecclesiastical institutions of Old Europe and of marginalizing their obscurantist theologies.  One famous description of the “enlightened” project was “the disenchantment of the world,” which is another way of saying the rationalization of the world.

            The first person to use the word freethinker in print seems to have been Bishop Berkeley.  He used it of the Irish rationalist philosopher John Toland, author of a most influential book entitled Christianity Not Mysterious (1696).  But until very recently belief in a Creator-God was considered one of reason’s minimal demands.  While it is too early to speak of a “scientific consensus”, the notion that the origins of the universe can be satisfactorily explained in terms of random and purposeless material accident, and those of all organic life in terms of Darwinian selection, are gaining an increasingly dogmatic tenor.

            Now and again I visit the religion “page” of the Huffington Post.  It is full interesting thingsIts editor, Paul Rauschenbusch, an admired friend, was for a time one of the deans of the chapel at Princeton.  One of the archived posts (“Science and Religion Quotes: What World’s Greatest Scientists Say about God”) is particularly arresting.  Only a few contemporary scientists express a confident atheism.  The anthology begins with Darwin himself.  It is of interest to see that Darwin raises the much maligned notion of “intelligent design,” though he frankly admits he doesn’t know how to evaluate its probative value.  He then says: “The safest conclusion seems to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect; but man can do his duty.”  Religious cant is one thing, ethical Kant quite another.  Ah, the “peculiar fate” of human reason!
 Valentine Greatrakes (also great name!)

Cagliostro (after Houdin)

Julie de Krüdener, by Angelica Kauffmann