The Death of the Enlightenment
The greatest intellectuals of history rose to prominence in periods of catastrophic change. In the ancient world, Aristotle, Cicero, Confucius, and the Arab scholar Al-Ma’Mun sought to make sense of the tumult and strife they witnessed around them. They left us manuscripts that would, in the words of the Greek historian Thucydides, last “for all time.” Their minds sought to impose order on the mystical culture and seemingly chaotic world around them in order to bring man’s relations in harmony with reality.
Each of these philosophers’ civilizations would ultimately collapse into tyranny or barbarism after periods of ideological decay; their teachings disregarded and their warnings ignored. In the West, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire would lead to the obliteration of the gains of Hellenic philosophy as well as the ‘genius of order’ of the Romans. The Near East would fall under the sway of Islamic fascists who would subjugate all thought under the omnipresent dominion of Allah. China would continue to move ever so slowly towards achieving the totalitarian vision of its first emperor Qin Shu Huang.
The first signs of the reemergence of civilization in the West can best be attributed to the thought of Thomas Aquinas, who reintroduced rationality into Christianity. The Scholastics would pave the way for the Renaissance, primarily by resurrecting Aristotelian thought. Their works would lay the foundations for The Enlightenment, which would disentangle superstition from politics and liberate men from intellectual slavery to monarchy. Once again, we find that the essential political philosophers of the era, Thomas Hobbes and his refuter John Locke, were men who lived during times of immense change and confusion. John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government would provide the intellectual fuel for the American Revolution.
The American Revolution, which created an unprecedented political and economic order based on reason and deliberation, would contrast mightily with its sister revolution, often misleadingly described as animated by The Enlightenment. The French Revolution was birthed by the unruly passion of democracy, and was the midwife of the “philosophy” of rationalized confiscation known as socialism.
Though both democracy and socialism are draped in the ideological garb of reason, they are divorced of it; the former is animated by transcendental collectivist myths and the latter of class envy devoid of reflection or virtue. One might view them as the doctrines of power accumulation in the state under the stewardship of a cult leader and the repression of all upward mobility threatening the elite establishment, respectively.
The present popularity of democracy and socialism in academia and Western culture is indication of a calculated divorce from The Enlightenment, which liberated men from the control of elites. Unfortunately, the practical success of the American experiment, and now the well-founded distrust of self-described intellectual elites, have led to a disdain for ideas qua ideas among many people.
But the consequence of this development is that we have incrementally abandoned the vision of the founders in our hearts and minds, and are within one swift stroke of severance with that glorious past. We now find ourselves in the midst of a war of ideas, with the soul of Western civilization at stake; yet many still show a pathological lack of seriousness about ideas and how they shape our world.
There are questions that arise of why an intellectual elite would subvert the very civilization it benefits from; and secondly, what makes their detractors so smart? The answer to the first question is a matter of human nature, the second one, a matter of historical awareness.
If we assume that the American way has been successful in terms of wealth creation and political stability, the problem for intellectuals becomes “how do I distinguish myself?” One does not acquire notoriety or power by adhering to the principles of the past, no matter how successful they have proved to be. The ideologies that ‘naturally’ developed in academia over the last century, which attracted “alienated” (or rather, narcissistic) individuals, can be summed up as “contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism” and “rationalized power-seeking.”
Hence, it is in the light of such vapid arrogance we should esteem the intellectual programme to criticize all according to the neomarxian rubric known as “critical theory.” After all, socialism at its core is merely a critique of capitalism. It is not a creative or productive system in any realistic sense. People don’t work for its own sake, and certainly they do not do so for strangers (at least, without the implied or explicit threat of a barrel of a gun). Socialism provides no plausible answer to the “then what?” question of what happens after the destruction of capitalism.
Out of crisis comes opportunity, as our political enemies remind us, and for us that entails laying the ideological foundations of liberty on more solid ground. With the illuminating guidance of our founders Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison we may add the insights of Ayn Rand, whose explicit infusion of Aristotelian thought into the philosophy of freedom would buttress our defenses against the inevitable assaults that arise from democratic mobs and iron-fisted tyrants. It is moderation in principle that leads to excess in government; and devotion to principle that leads to liberty, security, peace, and prosperity.
The intellectual decay of Western civilization has brought us to a crossroads, and we must choose the path take from here. We must choose liberty or an “Age of Darkness.” It is our task as freedom-loving Americans to ignite a political Renaissance, reawakening and re-energizing the ideas of the founders.
As the philosophy of a people goes, there, inevitably, is civilization led. Philosophies of confusion and detachment from reality lead to decay and collapse; those of order and rationality provide the conditions that make social harmony and human happiness possible. Yet the austerity of the rational life is not for the faint of heart; it demands virtue and a steely stoicism. Ultimately, many will retreat into utopianism and mysticism, which obviate our personal responsibility and detach us from the real world. The outcome of the battle between reality and unreality is the fulcrum on which the fate of civilization turns.