The Unreason of Reason

The Unreason of Reason October 17, 2018

There were, of course, varieties of Enlightenment, some more favorable to tradition than others, but what Jonathan Israel has called the “Radical Enlightenment” won, and they were the most hostile to traditional social and political forms.

The Radical Enlightenment was committed to absolute freedom – from the past, from limits, from anything that stood in the way of critical reason. As Adam Ferguson, a moderate rationalist, saw it, the radical enlighteners were like “an ambitious architect who aspires to tear down the entire existing edifice of institutions and then rebuild it from scratch on purely rational principles.”

The Radical Enlightenment was determined to receive nothing except what has passed through the purging fires of criticism. The gifts of the past are not received because we honor the giver, or because we believe these gifts are ultimately from a Divine Giver, but only because we have found the gifts measure up to our standards. Between the gift and the reception there is a moment of evaluation – is this a gift we want to receive?

Radical Enlightenment is, we might say, founded on a massive act of ingratitude.

But that ingratitude is incoherent. “Denken isst danken,” Heidegger says somewhere: “To think is to thank.” We cannot even begin to think without making use of categories that we did not invent. We cannot discover, teach or be taught, without making use of a language that pre-dates our existence by some thousands of years.

The freedom to think, discover, reform and renew, all of it depends on gratitude, a reception prior to any critical scrutiny, a reception upon which critical scrutiny itself depends. When reason becomes an absolute, it dissolves into unreason; when criticism is given priority to reception, it destroys the foundation on which it rests.

As Hegel realized, the Radical Enlightenment aspiration to absolute liberty turned on itself. Irrational tyranny turned wolfish and ate up its original hopes.

Not only were the Radicals bound to fail to deliver on their promise of liberation, but absolute liberty had, Hegel thought, an internal drive toward its opposite. Theoretically, the ideology of absolute freedom fails because its conception of liberty is purely negative. Absolute freedom is freedom from constraints of any and every kind, the refusal to accept any authority that has not been chosen. By that definition, my family, my ancestry, my nationality, my early education, even my own body count as unchosen constraints that need to be overcome if I am going to be truly free.

The psychological toll is massive. I am who I am because I am related to others, but according to the notion of absolute liberty, those others are chains that limit my freedom. When I unleash my corrosive rationality against those constraints, I am breaking the ties that define my specific identity. Absolute freedom is a bid to be as God, but in the end it leaves me even less than myself.

Absolute freedom is far from a purely abstract theory, and as a practical political agenda it is also destined to collapse into tyranny. Guided by the principle of absolute freedom, French Revolutionaries turned on the structures of the ancien regime, and when those structures had been reduced to rubble they had to free themselves from themselves by turning the same destructive power on the revolution itself.

Celebrating his survival of an assassination attempt during the preparations for the Feast of the Supreme Being, Robespierre gave an impassioned speech in which he swore “by the daggers already reddened with the blood of martyrs” that he would “exterminate every single one of the criminals who want to rob us of happiness and liberty.” A few days later, he wrote a set of laws designed to protect the Republic’s freedoms against her enemies. Over the next month, over 1300 people were guillotined for offenses against the state like sawing down a tree of liberty, producing sour wine, or shouting “A fig for the nation.”

Hegel discerned the inner continuity between the witty salon talk of Voltaire and Diderot, and the bloody regime of Robespierre. Enlightened liberty was not betrayed by the Terror; Terror was its fulfillment.

Terry Eagleton summarizes Hegel’s argument this way: “Since limits make us what we are, the idea of absolute freedom is bound to be terroristic. There is certainly the case for Hegel, who finds such absolute freedom epitomized in the French Revolution and names it ‘the freedom of the void.’ Such liberty has a taste of death about it – but a death which is struck empty of meaning, ‘the sheer terror of the negative that contains nothing positive, nothing that fills it with a content.’ This purely negative brand of liberty, so he considers, is a ‘fury of destruction,’ which can break with the ancien regime but proves incapable of building another in its place. This is a logical incapacity, not an empirical one, since whatever such freedom might fashion would inevitably constitute a constraint on it. It can feel alive, Hegel observes, only in the act of destruction . . . Aspiration is thus strangely close to a kind of nihilism.”

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