Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West

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Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the WestThe ability to embrace doubt in the middle of a crisis is a sign of strength. Voltaire’s Bastards ends with what might seem a surprising eulogy to doubt—our ability to live with uncertainty as a creative force. You could call this an expression of consciousness. If we can bring ourselves to live consciously then we will be able to embrace both stability and change, which means we may do better at dealing with crises.

That eulogy to doubt included descriptions of what I have seen over the years in both the Arctic and the Sahara. Existing in doubt is a strength of people who live in extreme conditions. They must be conscious or they will die.

We, flowers of the temperate zones, can float half awake through a padded world. We have our dramas and our suffering. But most of that we impose upon ourselves.

The greatest drama we have imposed on ourselves is our willful misinterpretation of consciousness. The Socratic conviction was that virtues were forms of knowledge and therefore no man willingly does wrong. What I said in Voltaire’s Bastards about our modern elites was that, by abandoning humanism in favour of an ideology of reason, they had inverted the equation. Now they justify doing wrong because they do know. This rational sophistication makes them passive, terrified of uncertainty, unable to change when faced by reality, ready to accept the worst.

You might call this profound cynicism: the mindset of the courtier or consultant or advisor. In any case, they believe themselves to be immobilized by what they know. This, they think, is professional behaviour. To be precise, they know so much that they believe it would be amateurish or emotive to do anything much about the environment, global warming, poverty, debt, to mention just a few problems.