Friday, January 25, 2008

Science and The Liberal Tradition (continued)

The Puritan revolution in England and the Thirty Years War in Germany, following the bloody conflicts of the 16th century, had concentrated the minds of all religious moderates.

The brilliance of Newton's PRINCIPIA, in unifying earthly and heavenly 'mechanics' within a single set of mathematical equations which could be understood by any mathematically literate person--a qualification that was not nearly so difficult to acquire then as it is today--had brought about a great "paradigm shift." It occured to those who were weary of religious conflict that one of the basic assumptions of Christian theology and traditional theories of natural law might be false: the planets and the stars were not part of God's spiritual realm but material objcts subject to the same principles operative here on earth--and vice-versa. Newton became a hero in the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin became a hero for the same reason: by showing that lightning and static electricity were essentially similar phenomena, Franklin had also shown that heaven and earth are part of the same entirely natural universe. Nature is all. Spinoza was right.

There was no limit, it seemed, to the reach of human reason. Law, economics, finance and government became objects of intense study and analysis. And lo! the new world of North America was right there, a political blank slate where a new political entity could be constructed without having to clear away a thousand years of feudal rubbish. The men who designed our constitution--especially Hamilton--were acutely conscious of their unique opportunity.

Everyone knows this story, and the belief in human reason and human progress it fostered. The reaction to this story began almost immediately. We think we know all about the dark side of reason, but Jonathan Swift got there first--and rubbed our faces in it, as a good satirist should and Swift was the greatest satirist of all time. No one has ever made us squirm so frantically or try so desperately to evade his hook. And what was his object, the purpose of that hook? Swift liked people, taken singly, and had many friends but he despised the human race, especially his fellow Christians whom he considered to be Christians in name only; real Christianity, he thought, had never or rarely been tried, largely because it is inconsistent with the schemes of wealth and power that are our real concern. And the man and book that he hated above all was Hobbes and Hobbes' LEVIATHAN. That was the fish he was angling for, in his first satire, A TALE OF A TUB (published in 1704 but written about ten years earlier)--or at least that's what he said. But what he was really getting at, it seems to me, was Hobbes' modern redefinition of Reason as merely instrumental reasoning devoid of moral restrictions--a way of thinking which, as Swift rightly thought, can lead us to observe horrific cruelties with perfect equanimity so long as they are perpetrated with scientific detachment and objectivity in the name of progress and the advancement of learning.

And now, my purely hypothetical reader, I am about to do something that may very well lose you once and for all: I'm not only going to show you some pretty nifty satirical writing--by Swift of course--but also try to explain how it works. What follows, in my next posting, is a short selection from A TALE OF A TUB, SECTION IX. - A DIGRESSION CONCERNING THE ORIGINAL, THE USE, AND IMPROVEMENT OF MADNESS IN A COMMONWEALTH, a title which I shall shorten to "A Digression On Madness."

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