Friday, June 10, 2016

Rousseau is a Demon: The Radical Critique of Modernity as Heresy

I just recently perused Phillipp Blum's A Wicked Company which seeks to the oft forgotten tale of the radical edge of the Enlightenment. In particular he focuses on Denis Diderot, mostly known as Encylopedist and forgotten as a philosopher of high caliber, and Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach, an infamous atheist and materialist. Blum emphasizes these men's personal biographies and works to reveal that they offered an alternative Enlightenment that sought to create a godless, utilitarian society that lacked any utopian aspiration, but valued the happiness of all men, peasant to prince.

However, Blum contrasts Diderot and d'Holbach to Voltaire and Rousseau, the typical figures of the Enlightenment. While Blum lets Voltaire get away as a kind of craven social climber, and a well accustomed Frenchman of the Ancien Regime (the last mind of Old France ala. Nietzsche), he trashes Rousseau. Blum blames Rousseau for pretty much everything that went wrong in the French Revolution. He was paranoid, vindictive, and a corrupter of all goods that the Enlightenment sought to deliver.

But Blum's most damning critique is that Rousseau preserved theology and religion under the guise of secular philosophy. This taint is the fundamental root of our modern, secular, world. This manifests itself in many ways.

Instead of a Christendom that seeks to prepare people for the world-after, we have political utopias. Thus, Blum argues, Rousseau was perfectly understood by Robespierre for his particular brand of Terror. Lenin and Pol Pot contribute to the rogues gallery that read and treasured Rousseau for their own horror show called political transformation. In similar fashion, these secular princes/popes burned heretics of the new socio-religious order. Lenin purged the bourgeoisie and Pol Pot eviscerated "corrupt" westerners and urbanites. This is theology as politics (c.f. Agamben).

Instead of saints and the rites of the church that lead to purity, we have a new kind of glorification. Instead of fasts we have diets. Instead of saints we have celebrities. Our bodies are no longer temples to the Holy Spirit, but temples to a particular zeitgeist. Magazines like Men's Health provide inspirational ripped bodies and educational work-outs on how to achieve bodily perfection. The Tough Mudder has replaced men standing on pillars. People no longer flock to see the visiting holy man, but swarm to see the hottest artist or the most talented actor.

In Blum's estimation, this is the error of modernity. Whether it's Hegel's attempt to create a new Modern secular-theology to understand everything (a veritable systematics or Peri Archontes) or Kant's bracketing off metaphysics from the withering gaze of skepticism, both preserve a kind of secular Christianity. Blum damns this, through the personage of Rousseau, as the crippling zeitgeist of the Modern world.

I won't evaluate Blum's particular characterization of Rousseau  or whether his heroes really stand up to serious dialectical scrutiny. However, it's amazing that he sees through the veil of what so-called Secular society is. Indeed, it is "secular", because this is a different age. The moderate Revolution, pock-marked with bourgeois colonial exploitation and Terror regimes, is a fundamental shift that occurred through the long 18th century. However, the world is not less full of gods, rather they are gods of a different kind that, perhaps, are less overtly severe, but perhaps even more demanding.

Of course, I am not advocating a return to the Ancien Regime which was equally horrid in different ways. The God of the Early Modern nation-state was more ruthless, confessionally-minded, tyrant that validated the Divine Right of Kings that crushed so many peoples. There is no particular period or social formation that I look upon as some golden age.

Indeed, we might draw upon the thought of Ivan Illich here. In his telling, Illich argued that the history of Western Europe reveals an evolving corruption. The social formation, known as Constantinianism, emerged as a kind of heretical interpretation of Christianity. Indeed, Modernity has only developed the virus.

Some are surprised that many Western Europeans, even a majority, disclaim orthodox Christianity and yet believe in spirits. Some are surprised that the United States is so extraordinary religious. It's not strange if we see the Modern world as a kind of heretical Christianity. Kant and Hegel (and I guess Rousseau), these are the architects of a new Christian civilization, one that is fundamentally anti-Christ.

Blum's work offers a helpful criticism to awaken those that believe in the myth of progress and all other modern mythologies. While I do not agree with Diderot that man is just an intellectual, and morally conscious, ape, his withering eye reveals the secular theology of today. He possessed a certain kind of wisdom and, as the maxim goes, Christians ought to take this Egyptian gold on their way to Zion.

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