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Friday, February 10, 2012


The European Enlightenment was a fresh wind that blew the incense from the altar and the Sacristy and curdled the chrism that anointed the kings.  What a relief it must have been finally to put paid to a millennium of superstition masquerading as sanctimony and royal tyranny cloaking itself in the absurdity of divine right.  Oh, I understand why Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, legitimately bitter at the descent of Weimar into the hell of Nazism, penned their bilious tract.  But the delusions and deceptions of false reason do not demean true rational clarity, autonomy, and freedom of the mind, any more than the Cardiff Giant robbed evolution of its undeniable truth.  "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ and to be young was very heaven."
My mind has turned to the Enlightenment as I have watched with dismay, but not surprise, the outcry at the threatened promulgation of a Federal rule that those offering health insurance to their employees, even if they be Catholic universities or hospitals, must include in that coverage birth control.  Never mind that 98% of Catholic women use birth control.  Never mind that a majority of Catholics approve of the proposed regulation.  Put to one side the fact that the Church, which proclaims birth control a mortal sin, has focused its outrage on the absence of a co-pay!  Let us not even think of the fact that those protesting most loudly -- the Catholic bishops -- are desperate to have America forget their two generation long enabling of child abuse by their ordained priests.  As one waggish tweet suggested, "If altar boys could get pregnant, the Catholic Church would be in favor of birth control."
Predictably, leading the drum-beating has been that aging altar boy, Rick Santorum, whose obsession with and simultaneous aversion to sex is well-documented.  What caught my attention was his most recent pronouncement.  Accusing Obama of being anti-religion, he told his audience that this was the work of the French Revolution.  "When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights then what's left is the French Revolution... What's left in France became the guillotine."
It is difficult to engage in an interesting and serious manner with someone who is both a bigot and an idiot.  That Santorum genuinely longs for a theocracy is obvious.  That he knows nothing about the French Revolution is also obvious.  Herewith some facts:  the guillotine was invented as a kinder, gentler, quicker way to execute people.  It was instantaneous and painless, unlike being broken on the wheel, torn apart by four horses, or even being hanged.  But never mind.  What is more, the guillotine, in the period known as the Terror, was used far more often to execute nascent capitalists seeking to benefit from the shortage of bread than to kill the nobility [Charles Dickens to the contrary notwithstanding.]  Those who wish to delve more deeply into this fascinating topic can consult a fine old monograph by Donald Greer entitled The Incidence of the Terror in the French Revolution.
But I digress.  The subject of this brief post is my nostalgia for the Enlightenment.  I am old enough to recall a time when it seemed that religion had finally loosed its vampire grip on the throat of civilization, when we could confidently look forward the churches in America, like those in France, being used more often for free concerts by aspiring baroque ensembles than for the mind-killing, soul-numbing rituals of fundamentalist religiosity.
Alas, it has not been so.  Religious fanaticism, In American but not on the Continent, has risen from the ashes again to threaten reason, decency, honor, and morality.  Are we at the dawn of a modern French Revolution?  A blessing devoutly to be wished for.


GTChristie said...

For perspective on the birth control vs freedom issue, which gives by implication a good reading on Santorum's place in debate, these two articles should prove (ahem) enlightening.

Quick overview of history of contraception debates in US:

A historian's quick take on the religious freedom angle:

In the second link, note the nice clarity of the first comment.

In my opinion, a refined libertarianism moots the usual rhetoric and the historical catfight on such issues. Every human being is totally free and both church and state control of personal choices is fundamentally futile, except where a person's choice is to follow some norm; it is not the norm, but the availability of choice itself that matters.

Jerry Fresia said...

"...the guillotine...was used far more often to execute nascent capitalists seeking to benefit from the shortage of bread than to kill the nobility...." Did this hostility to capitalist values follow from the newly emerging Enlightenment sensibilities or from the traditional sense of mutual responsibility? Might the Enlightenment achievement,then, considering the "disenchantment" of the hungry (if I am correct here), be considered ambiguous? (And,let me add a sincere PHEW! masterfully written. Such a blog!)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Shortages of bread, and spiking bread prices, triggered riots repeatedly in Paris. [Marie Antoinette;s famous remark, "Let them eat cake," was actually, I seem to recall, a suggestion that the starving sans-culottes eat the bread stored in the churches to be used as the host in the Mass.] The Jacobins imposed strict price controls in an attempt to manage the situation, and came down hard on those who sought to profiteer.

Don Schneier said...

Horkheimer-Adorno may have under-appreciated Nietzsche's contention that Enlightenment thinkers failed to adequately reckon with an immutable natural distinction between leader and follower. However, today's reactionaries may be exemplifying a starker dichotomy--as Darwinian theory shows, not every member of a species advances to the next level. So, Progressives who subscribe to Evolutionism might have to adjust their universalistic ambitions to the hard fact that some in this democracy are in the process of being left behind.

James Schmidt said...

I'm scandalously late to this post, but when I first read it, over a year ago, it occurred to me that it might make sense to try my hand at setting up a blog that, among other things, would explore just why it is that the Enlightenment remains, after more than a couple of centuries, such an object of contention and why Dialectic of Enlightenment tends to be misread as an attack on "the Enlightenment" rather than an attempt to save it from what Horkheimer and Adorno feared it had become.

Having profited greatly from what you've been doing here, I've finally taken the leap and started a modest venture of my own: What I've been trying to do in the last two posts is figure out just how Horkheimer and Adorno use the concept of "enlightenment" and what the implications are their peculiar treatment of the "culture industry."

Thanks for the the provocation and the inspiration — I wouldn't have thought of starting such a venture were it not for your work here.