skip to Main Content

Caught up in 18th Century Thought

Caught Up In 18th Century Thought

A Forerunner: Helvétius

The historian of ideas has to do more than report the doctrine advanced by a thinker or give an account of a few great systems; he has to explore the growth of sentiments that crystallize into ideas; and he has to show the connection between ideas and the matrix of sentiments in which they are rooted. The idea has to be studied, not as a concept, but as a symbol that draws its life from sentiments; the idea grows and dies with the sentiments that engender its formu­lation and, with the great thinkers, its integration into a system of thought approximating the asymptote of rationality. Only insofar as the idea is understood as the approximately rational expression of the life of sentiments can we understand it as a historical entity.

For the interpretation of ideas in this process of historical growth, the minor thinkers sometimes may be more important than the great ones in whose systems the motivation of ideas through senti­ment is covered by the exigencies of immanent logical consistency. [Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771)] was a thinker whose awareness of systematic exigencies was strong enough to make him face the major problems raised by his approach to politics; but his desire to elaborate a system of politics was not so strong that it abolished the essentially aphoristic style of his work.

Aphoristic style means–as was later clarified by Nietzsche, who used it deliberately–that the author preserves in the presentation of his ideas a connection with the experiences and sentiments that produce the ideas. This aphoristic character of the work of Helvétius makes it unusually valuable for the historian of ideas because here he will find ideas, which in themselves are elaborated more clearly and consistently in later systems, at the point where they begin to separate as symbols from the matrix of sentiments and where the motives that animate their creation are still visible.

We now have to summarize briefly the rich aggregate of sentiments and motivations that determines a considerable sector of political thought in the period of Enlightenment and the subse­quent crisis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The structure of sentiments that appears in Helvétius can be characterized generally by the term intramundane religiousness. In the conflict with the Christian tradition the new religiousness expresses itself through the inversion of the direction in which the realissimum of existence is to be sought.

The new attitude had become visible by the time of Hobbes when the orientation toward a summum bonum was replaced by the flight from the summum malum of death in civil war. The inversion of direction becomes now established, under the title of genealogy, as the principal instru­ment for interpreting the internal order of human nature. Whether it be the materialistic, the sensualistic, or the hedonistic variants–the strata of human nature are interpreted genetically as derivatives of a physical or biological substance at the bottom of existence. The internal structure of man is no longer ordered toward a tran­scendental aim but is to be explained by the operations of physical sensibility or of a pleasure-pain mechanism.

This inversion of the directions becomes from now on the symbol of the anti-Christian anthropology in politics–whether it assumes the form of economic materialism, or of biologism, or of psychologism. With the most important inversion, the inversion of Hegel’s idealism by Marx, we shall have to deal in some detail in a later context. The inversion of direction is accompanied by the perversion of the idea of order: the disorder of passions is accepted as the normal order of the human soul.

The problem of perversion as such is of long standing. As far back as in the Policraticus of John of Salisbury, we could observe an incipient psychology of the homo politicus, the man of secular passion, as the normal type of man.

The problem was realized in its full importance in the seventeenth century by Hobbes and Pascal. To the madness of the inflated ego Hobbes found the practical answer of crushing the proud by the Leviathan; Pascal tried to awaken the insight into the life of passion as divertissement and counseled the re­turn to the life in communication with God. Both analysts of the disorder of passion still recognized the disorder as such–though in Hobbes we already see the dangerous attempt to replace the spiritual process of contrition by the external process of submis­sion to governmental power.

Helvétius resumes the analysis of passion, but in his treatment the passions have lost their char­acter as a source of disorder in the soul; they have become the fundamental force on which all order in the conduct of man has to rely. The return into the ground of existence and the experience of creaturely nothingness have lost their function in the order of the soul. The perversion of the idea of order is intimately connected with the problem that we have designated by the term instrumentalization of man. Man is no longer an entity that has its existential center within itself; he has become a mechanism of pleasure, pain, and passions that can be harnessed by another man, the “legislator” for purposes of his own.

Instrumentalization proved to be a peculiarly rich complex of sentiments and ideas. First of all, the ground of existence in the Pascalian sense is denied to man. Here we are at the key point of the anti-Christian attack on the existence of man. Only when the spiritual center of man, through which man is open to the transcendental realissimum, is destroyed, can the disorderly aggregate of passions be used as an instrument by the legislator. The Kantian, rational-Christian, ethical rule–that every man must be considered an end in himself and not an instrument for ulterior purposes–is perverted into its opposite through the thesis that man is no end in himself but merely an instrument to be used by the legislator.

This is the new basic thesis for collectivism in all its variants, down to the contemporary forms of totalitarianism. Once the disorder of the soul is established as the nature of man, and hence order can be installed into this blind field of psychic forces only from an acting center outside man, that aspect of instru­mentalization comes to the fore which we designated by the term artificiality in politics. The growth of the soul through an internal process, which is nourished through communication with tran­scendental reality, is replaced by a formation of conduct through external management.

Here is the origin of the managing and orga­nizing interference with the soul of man which, from the position of a spiritual morality, is equally reprehensible in all its variants: whether it is the propagandizing formation of conduct and opinion through such movements as the Communist or National Socialist; or whether it is an educational process that relies on the psychology of conditioned reflexes and forms patterns of social conformance without raising the question of the morality of the pattern or of the morality of conformance.

This process of general education for the purpose of forming the useful member of society, while neglecting or even deliberately destroying the life of the soul, is accepted as an institution of our modern society so fully that the awareness of the demonism of such interference with the life of the soul on a social mass scale, and of the inevitably following destruction of the spiritual substance of society, is practically dead. Only when the instrument is used for the inculcation of patterns that differ widely from the survivals of Christian tradition, and when the success of such use has demonstrated the previous destruction of the soul without which the success would be impossible, a sudden wave of alarm and indignation springs up.

But even then (we are speak­ing of the contemporary situation) the indignation is not directed against the methods that destroy the life of the soul but against the new patterns of conduct inculcated by political movements. The remedy against the pattern of which we disapprove is the use of the same destructive method for a different purpose, under the ominous symbol of “reeducation.” Artificiality in politics means that the leadership of Western po­litical units has to rely increasingly on the mechanism of passions and interests in the social group as the source of power and policy; it can no longer rely with assurance on engaging as a source of power a spiritual substance that would be living in a socially relevant stratum of the body politic.

An aggregate of passions and interests, however, is an ephemeral force; it needs constant watching, and the leaders of the moment have to beware that a skillful reshuffler of passions and interests will not, in a surprisingly short time, create a differently shaped aggregate for his own purposes. Once the spiritual destruction has achieved a certain degree of success, the structure of political sentiments in a society is in a precarious balance that can be destroyed by any untoward event, as for instance an economic crisis.

The struggle between political leaders for the shaping and for the control of the labile aggregate of passions and interests will become the content of politics. This aspect of the problem of leadership appears in Helvétius under the title of the “legislator.” The legislator, as we have seen, provides in his person the directive center of which the soul of the man of passion and interest has been deprived. The leader becomes the new center of human life when God has been abolished. The spiritual drama of salvation that takes place in the Christian soul has become exter­nalized in the drama of a society under the leadership of a legislator.

At this point we should note a certain difficulty of terminology. The new attitude that appears in Helvétius is usually termed social immanentism. There are reasons to use the term, but we must be aware that what actually takes place is the externalization of processes of the soul and their enactment on the stage of society. The religious life of man is not abolished as so fondly believe the ignoramuses who do not know the first things about the life of the soul (and with regard to this particular point we have to submit to this classification even such a notable figure as the author of The Future of an Illusion): the life of the soul has become perverted and the religious symbols that express the perversion dominate the scene. We have seen Helvétius lightheartedly shouldering the burden of predestination for his fellowmen; and we have seen a man of a different stature, that is, Nietzsche, struggle with the consequences of atheism and with the necessity of man in this situation to extend grace and salvation to himself.

The Symbols of Social Satanism

The religion of social Satanism expresses itself in certain sym­bols. Some of these symbols were developed by Helvétius at least in their outline. Let us mention first the new aspect of the idea of equality. The idea of equality as such has absorbed more than one component of sentiment. In earlier contexts we have discussed the roots of equality in the matriarchal idea of the sons who are all born equally from the same mother, as well as in the patriarchal idea of the spiritual sons of the same father; and we have analyzed further components of Western equality that stem from the aristocratic spiritualism of the high Middle Ages with its generous extension of the idea of the spiritually mature person to all men.

We now have to observe a further component that becomes of increasing political importance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the idea of the equal pleasure-pain mechanisms who all are engaged equally in the pursuit of happiness. This new component is intimately con­nected with a second symbol, the symbol of the elite and leadership who set the standard of happiness that is to be pursued by the mass of equal automata.

The egalitarian and elitarian ideas of political order can be conceived as mutually exclusive if we concentrate our attention on those components of the idea of equality that stem from the Christian and medieval aristocratic tradition. They do not at all exclude but, on the contrary, require each other if and when the equality of passions, interest, and happiness in the sense of Helvétius comes to be the component that is experienced as the decisive one in a socially relevant degree.

Helvétius understood this connection very clearly when he warned of the dangers of accumulation of wealth and of the corresponding impoverishment of the people; for in this situation the happiness of the greatest number who are all equal in their lack of property could be satis­fied by a despot who abolished the Western structure of society. The social mechanism by which Napoleon III rose to power gave Europe the first object lesson in the possibilities of plebiscitarian dictatorship that Helvétius had seen on the social horizon. This rise of Napoleon III released the great critique of parliamentary democ­racy and of universal suffrage in the second half of the nineteenth century and the predictions concerning the end of liberalism and the opening of the age of the masses.

And, finally, we have to recall the symbol of social evolution. Sys­tematically the idea of social evolution had to supply for Helvétius the standard of the happiness of the greatest number. The dangers to the stability of French political society that arose from the dif­ferentiation of class interests should be averted by the standard of a heroic middle-class republic.

This idea was revolutionary in­sofar as it implied the abolition of the aristocratic and financial ruling class; it was conservative insofar as it wanted to stabilize the revolution on the level of the middle-class republic and to prevent its progress toward a plebiscitarian dictatorship. This is the conservative French republican idea that was broken by the successive waves of Napoleonism, of the emotional leadership in the first decades of the Third Republic and of the affaire Dreyfus. The structure of sentiments that animate the idea goes, however, in its importance far beyond the immediate French problems.

The symbol of evolution creates a new ontology as the basis for the meaning of human existence in society. The Christian order of the soul as the standard of meaning is abolished, but it is replaced by an external order of objective evolution of civilization through population pressure and scarcity of goods.

Human existence under the new dispensation finds its meaning through the conformance of private interest to the general interest that has evolved objectively at the time. The meaning of life has been transformed from the internal growth of the soul in orientation toward the transcendental realissimum into the external harmony of the private interest with the historically objective fact of the general interest.

Obviously this construction arouses serious questions; for what will happen if evolution goes on? if a new situation of fact arises? if the greatest number develops interests far different from the standard envis­aged by Helvétius? In this case: do we have to revise our ideas of what constitutes happiness obligatory for everybody? At this point Helvétius, like every radical social Satanist after him, has to take his jump into eschatology.

One answer to these questions would be the relativistic drifting with evolution that has become an important characteristic of the movement of historicism: any situation of fact is as acceptable as the previous one because the standards of value and meaning are surrendered. A personality of the strength of Helvétius’s cannot be satisfied with this escape. We have seen his awareness of the dangers of plebiscitarian despotism and his will to stabilize evolution at an earlier point. This idea of stabilizing evolution at a given point will inevitably occur to a man who takes seriously his function as the social savior of his benighted fellowmen.

Evolution has reached a certain point, but now it has to cease to evolve. The present situation of fact has arisen objectively through evolution and draws its authority from this objectivity; but no future different situation must arise; history has to stop. The eschatology of stopping history, of a last historical phase that will not be superseded by an entirely different one, again has become one of the great symbols of politics after Helvétius.

In our time this Satanistic mirage has become one of the great paralyzing forces in Western politics in the form of the idea that democracy, at the phase it has reached historically, can be stabilized and perpetuated by “stopping” this or that–for instance Hitler or Stalin. The symbol has found its classical formulation in the Marxist idea that social evolution up to the present is “prehistory,” and that after the revolutionary stabilization of a situation of fact “real history,” without further profound changes, will begin.

Positivism, as it was formed through the person and work of Au­guste Comte (1798-1854), has its effectiveness as a European move­ment because it had absorbed a rich tradition of sentiments and ideas. The prophetic personality of Comte was necessary to achieve the fusion and to penetrate it with religious enthusiasm, but the elements that entered into the composition of the system had ac­cumulated in the course of a process that had started more than a century before Comte shaped the Politique positive as the keystone of his foundation. Hence the nature of Positivism and its broad appeal cannot be properly understood without a survey of its pre­history; without this prehistory the momentum of the movement would be inexplicable.

Such a survey, however, has its difficulties because of the volume of tradition that crystallized in the system of Comte; it would have to encompass an appreciable sector of the intellectual history of a century. In order to reduce the problem to manageable proportions we shall adopt the following plan of presentation: For the general structure of sentiments and ideas that have to be presupposed in the understanding of the Positivist move­ment, the reader should refer back to the chapter on Helvetius. The reader is assumed to be familiar with the analyses of Helvetius, and particularly the set of categories developed in the previous chapter’s “Conclusion.”

Against this background we shall now assemble the specific elements that have entered the Comtian edifice of ideas. The first group of such elements with which we have to deal stems from the idea of the Encyclopédie as developed by d’Alembert in his Discours preliminaire.1

The Discours Préliminaire and its Historical Importance

D’Alembert’s Discours was originally published as the editors’ preface to the first volume of the Encyclopédie in 1751. It soon gained its place, independent of this function, as the classic expression of the encyclopedist spirit as well as of the ideas of the Encyclopédie; and in this new, independent function it had influenced genera­tions of young Frenchmen, among them Auguste Comte, because it has been made required reading in the educational institutions of France since the Revolution.2

The purpose of the Discours was to inform readers of the Encyclopédie about the principles underlying the great work. It was supposed to be a systematic collection of human knowledge (connaissances humaines) in the sciences, the liberal arts, and technology. The collection was not to be indis­criminate, but to embody only relevant and valid knowledge. The execution of this program required criteria of relevance and com­pleteness; and the Discours endeavored to furnish the criteria.

This attempt at a theoretical clarification of the issues involved gave the Discours its importance beyond that of a preface. It was, as a matter of fact, the revolutionary manifesto of a new attitude toward man and society; it was inspired by the pathos of the scientist and, more specifically, of the mathematical scientist, who tries to orient men in society and the universe by means of the methods that have shown their value in the mathematical and physical sciences.

This pathos expressed the momentum science had gained in the century of Descartes and Pascal, of Huyghens and Newton, of Boyle and Locke, of Leibniz and d’Alembert himself. In the conscious­ness of this revolutionary expansion of the horizon of knowledge, the enterprise could be conceived as surveying systematically the present state of knowledge, using as ordinates of relevance and completeness the methods of science that were considered valid at the moment.

In this perspective, the Encyclopédie is the modern counterpart of the medieval Summa. The Summa of the type that was fixed by Saint Thomas embraced systematically what appeared as relevant knowledge within the categories of the Christian view of man in the universe; the Encyclopédie, at least in the original conception of d’Alembert and Diderot, attempted the equivalent organization of relevant knowledge within the categories of the new anthropology that had become fixed by the middle of the eighteenth century.

Within the narrower perspective of French intellectual history, we may say that the Discours of d’Alembert is the sequel to the Cartesian Discours de la méthode. The principles developed by Descartes have unfolded in the advancement of science, and the Discours of d’Alembert amplifies these principles by applying them encyclopedically to the whole body of human knowledge.

The principles used by d’Alembert for securing relevance and com­pleteness are, on the whole, an elaboration of ideas with which we have become acquainted in Helvetius. We remember Helvetius’s ideas of the genealogy of passions and of social evolution; they reap­pear in d’Alembert as the genealogy of knowledge and the history of the progress of the human mind.

The genealogy of knowledge is constructed, in substance, in the same manner as the genealogy of Helvetius. The direct experiences of human existence and of the external world are the foundation; all other knowledge is inter­preted as the product of reflection on their basis. The construction in form of the genealogy is supposed to furnish the reliably complete register of the connaissances, from the immediate experiences to the reflective derivatives. For the purpose of the Encyclopédie, the resulting table of connaissances is rearranged, according to subject matter, as an arbre généalogique or encyclopédique.

The titles in the alphabetic order of the Encyclopédie are referred to the arbre généalogique so that the reader of each respective article is clear about the position of the subject matter in the system of science. The history of the progress of the human mind, in its turn, has the same function as Helvetius’s theory of social evolution. The history of intellectual progress carries with it the authority of its facticity. That a certain stage is reached at present, de facto, endows this stage with an authority by which it is superior to previous phases in the intellectual history of mankind.

When the idea of a creative and resorbing, transcendental reality pales, the idea of the authoritative present takes its place. These two ideas, of the genealogy and of the history, determine the organization of the Discours in its two parts. And, by anticipation, we may say that these two cornerstones of the Positivistic edifice will reappear in the system of Comte as his two great conceptions of the hierarchy of sciences and of the law of the three phases in the progress of the mind.

Let us now examine the two ideas in their order, first the idea of ge­nealogy. The actual genealogy and the resulting arbre encyclopédie are of no interest to us. In the course of their development, however, there appear certain problems that are symptomatic of the complex of Positivism and are relevant for the understanding of the later history of political ideas.

The first of these points concerns the derivation of the ideas of justice and of moral good and evil. For d’Alembert the idea of jus­tice is provoked through a situation of oppression. His assumption seems to be that the equal somatic constitution of men induces the idea of equality of man as a “reasonable” idea; and that the violation of a “reasonable” state of equality through the stronger arouses resentment and resistance. From there stems the notion of the unjust, and consequently of moral good and evil, of which so many philosophers have searched the principle, and which the cry of nature, echoing in every man, makes understood by all people, even the most savage.3

D’Alembert makes the attempt to derive the idea of good and evil from the fundamental experience of revolt against oppression; he rejects a religious or metaphysical founda­tion of morals. The value of this derivation for a theory of morals is not very great. But we find in it the expression of a sentiment that has appeared earlier in the French history of political ideas, in La Boétie’s Servitude volontaire, and that gains considerable mass acceptance in the later history of anarchism and Syndicalism: that is, the sentiment of revolt in the sense of an immediate, violent reaction against a social state that is experienced as oppressive.

We have seen that d’Alembert has no direct access to the idea of justice; the primary experience is that of oppression; the idea of an unjust state of things precedes that of a just one. The sentiment of revolt overshadows the idea of order much more strongly than in Voltaire, whose indignation at injustice was oriented toward a clear code of secular, utilitarian morality. At the same time, the derivation is a consistent attempt to gain an idea of justice within a philosophy of existence that relies for its construction on the sym­bol of genealogy.

D’Alembert certainly faces the problem of ethics more seriously than did Locke with his inconclusive drifting in the surviving tradition of Christianity, or Helvetius with his transfer of the moral substance of man to the legislator.

This seriousness of the attempt holds its appeal for later thinkers who, on the one hand, adopt an anthropology based on the symbol of genealogy but who, on the other hand, are neither willing to accept a traditional morality without foundation nor can without qualms subscribe to the idea of collectivist salvation that denies the moral substance of man.

This sentiment of revolt has found its radical expression in Bakunin; for him the experience of revolt is an irreducible factor in human existence, independent of the somatic basis, which provides the dynamic of revolution. This instance is of particular interest because Bakunin favors, side by side with the idea of revolt, the incompatible idea of collectivist salvation through a revolutionary leader. Here we find fully developed in the same person both of the principal solutions that can be given to the problem of ethics within the framework of the Positivistic creed.

A second point that invites attention is d’Alembert’s derivation of that type of knowledge which is not of a strictly utilitarian nature. He differentiates between knowledge that serves the satisfaction of human needs and knowledge that, at least at the time of its discovery, has no visible use. The acquisition of useful knowledge is considered quite intelligible, but why should men devote their energies to the acquisition of useless knowledge? The answer is to be found in a general disquietude, expressing itself in curiosity, which casts around for escape from a not quite satisfactory situa­tion.

The satisfaction of curiosity is in itself a pleasure, and to this pleasure we owe the discovery of useless knowledge. Since some­times useless knowledge later turns out to be useful, we continue to satisfy our curiosity through systematic scientific research under the pretext that ultimately it may serve a useful purpose.4 Again, the derivation itself is of little value for a theory of knowledge. But in the frankness of its statement it reveals, more clearly than the later conventionalized expressions of the same idea, the sentiments that underlie the Positivist creed.

D’Alembert quite obviously has never experienced that there is a problem in human existence that Aristotle formulated as the desire for, and the obligation of, the bios theoretikos; that the life of man does not exhaust its meaning on the level of utilitarian values (in the Aristotelian order: the values real­ized below the level of the polis), but that the life of contemplation, resulting in the understanding of man himself and of his place in the universe, is a fundamental spiritual obligation, independent of its contribution to such useful activities as driving a car or mixing a salad.

The life of contemplation, branching out into the theoretical sciences of man and of the external world, produces the body of knowledge that may be called humanistic in the specific sense of furnishing the data for the understanding of the place of man in his world; as such it may overlap with, but is to be distinguished from, pragmatic and religious knowledge. Insofar as the origin and the obligation of the bios theoretikos, and with it the meaning of humanistic civilization, are unintelligible from the pragmatic level of utilitarian values, we touch in this remark of d’Alembert on the source of the profound antihumanism of the Enlightenment and of the Positivist creed.

This important component of Positivism is frequently underrated, or entirely over­looked, for the same reason as are the other elements that the early totalitarian movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has in common with Communism and National Socialism. The reason is that the survivals of humanism and Christianity wear away slowly. The creators of the new anthropology did not follow their ideas to the limits of their consequences, and quite probably had not even enough vision to realize them. The attempts to stabilize the remnants of tradition at the level of dis­integration they had reached at the moment, covered the radical incompatibility of the new attitude with the values of classical and Christian civilization. As a result, the deceptive picture of a progressive civilization arose in which the advancement of science seemed to compensate amply for the atrophy of other civilizational values.

When the breaking point in this process of undermining the central values of civilization has been reached, and when the crash comes, as it has in our age, the impression is widespread that entirely new ideas are in revolt against the traditions of progressive Western civilization while the wrecking operations of the present only consummate a work of destruction that has been going on for the last four centuries. It is a violent misunderstanding of historical forces to believe that a handful of men can destroy a civilization before it has committed suicide, to use the phrase of Toynbee.

The momentum of contemporary political movements is only to a small degree provided by their leaders; the strength and destructiveness of these movements is inexplicable unless we see them as the crests over the groundswell of a process in which the philosopher of enlightenment, the liberal utilitarian, the humanitarian Positivist, Marx, Lenin, and Hitler represent, all alike, phases in the progress of destruction. The representatives of these several phases are mortal enemies in the struggles of our time; for the historian they are collaborators in the work of civilizational destruction.

Toward a New Pouvoir Spirituel

D’Alembert’s attitude toward Christianity and religious cults is the third point that needs our attention. Since the experience of the bios theoretikos is missing in d’Alembert, we shall not be surprised that with regard to religious experiences he shares the spiritual obscurantism of Voltaire. D’Alembert accepts, like Voltaire, certain “notions purement intellectuelles,” such as vice and virtue, the necessity of laws, the spirituality of the soul, the existence of God, and the obligations of a cult.

For the rest, he refers the reader to revealed religion that instructs man concerning subject matters of which he has no natural knowledge. This instruction, however, does not amount to much; it is confined to “a few truths of faith,” and “a small number of practical precepts.” A spiritual penetration of the problems of faith, d’Alembert has never attempted.5 This somewhat vague attitude of 1751 crystallized, in d’Alem­bert’s later years, into more precise ideas. In a letter to Frederick II (of November 20, 1770), d’Alembert wrote that “Christianisme” was originally a pure deism, and Jesus “a sort of philosopher.”

“Jesus hated persecution and priests, taught goodwill and justice, and reduced the law to the love of fellowman and the adoration of God. This simple religion was changed by Saint Paul, the fathers, and the councils. One would do a great service to mankind if one could make men forget the dogmas; if one would simply preach them a God who rewards and punishes and who frowns on superstition, who detests intolerance and expects no other cult of man than mutual love and support.”6

The king was not quite convinced by d’Alembert’s idea; he thought that the people would want some­thing more than a merely reasonable religion.

D’Alembert answered (letter of February 1, 1771) that he would ask the king, if the Treaty of Westphalia permitted a fourth religion in the empire, to erect “a very plain temple” in Berlin or Potsdam “where God would be honored in a manner worthy of him, where nothing would be preached but humanity and justice.” If the masses would not flock to this temple in a few years, only then would he admit that the king was right.7

Getting Control of the Spiritual Power

These passages from the letters indicate certain trends in Posi­tivism that later unfold prodigiously. In itself the deistic creed of d’Alembert is rather conventional for his time. More unusual is the idea that deism is not a rational progressive transformation of Christianity, but that it represents a return to original Christianity before its corruption by Saint Paul, the fathers, and the councils. This conception implies that deism is a “reform” of Christianity, more radical than the Protestant because it goes back to origins even before Saint Paul.

Nevertheless, this “reform” does not imply a renovatio evangelica; it does not have its sources in an upsurge of mystical religiousness; it implies no more than a rationalist purification of Christian symbols, including the divinity of Christ, so that in the end Jesus appears as a “sort of philosopher” who coun­sels mutual love and support without any intelligible authority or foundation for such counsels.

We can observe here in formation the highly important merger of spiritual obscurantism with the apprehension that a religious substitute for Christianity might be necessary, and that the substitute would even have to include a cult. In the suggestion to Frederick II to build a temple in Berlin or Potsdam for the purposes of a worthy cult to the rationally purified God, we see prefigured the cults of the revolution, and in particular Robespierre’s cult of the Être Supreme; and foreshadowed in the further distance are Saint-Simon’s Nouveau Christianisme and Comte’s cult of the Grand-Être.

Side by side with the pathos of positive scientism, the idea that the new Positivist civilization needs a pouvoir spirituel that will take the place of the medieval-Christian is beginning to take shape. With Comte the idea of the new pouvoir spirituel becomes the center of the Positivist creed; and ever since Comte it has remained the key problem of the new political movements until the pouvoir spirituel is joined with the temporal power of the state in the foundations of Lenin and Hitler.

The fourth, and last, point on which we have to touch is d’Alem­bert’s attitude toward the problem of a moral code. We have seen that his source for the idea of justice, or rather injustice, was the experience of revolt; and we remarked that with d’Alembert this experience is not balanced, as with Voltaire, by a positive code of morals. Moreover, we have seen that an ethics of the Aristotelian type (with a scale of values oriented toward the bios theoretikos), or a spiritual morality of the Christian type (determined by the experience of the common ground in a transcendental reality), is beyond his reach.

On the other hand, d’Alembert took very seri­ously the problem that faced him: of finding sources for a moral code other than the theoretical or spiritual sources. His hope to reach this aim was supported by a revealing misunderstanding of the foundations of Greek and Roman ethics, a misunderstanding that has continued on a socially relevant scale to this day.

The idea of an autonomous ethics, without religious or metaphysical foundation, strikes d’Alembert as a possibility because in his opin­ion such a code of ethics was realized once among the “pagans.”8 Rules of ethics existed before Christianity, and since religion is for him synonymous with Christianity, the Greeks had an ethics without religious foundation.

Explicitly or through tradition, this misunderstanding has survived; and we can recognize the effec­tiveness of this identification of Christianity with religion even today in the widespread resistance to admit the character of modern political movements as new collective religions, as well as in the difficulty to explain to the layman that radical atheism may be anti-Christian, but it is not an antireligious attitude, that, on the contrary, it expresses another type of religiousness.

Inspired by this misunderstanding, d’Alembert was greatly interested in developing an autonomous code of ethics. The idea of a catéchisme de morale occupied him even in his later years, but he never wrote one–for excellent reasons. These reasons he discussed in his correspondence with Frederick II.

In a letter to the king on January 21, 1770, he wrote that the source of morals and happiness was the harmony between enlightened self-interest and the fulfillment of duties. This was also the conception of Helvetius, and we have seen that it led to the problem of the happiness of the greatest number and of the differences of class interests.

D’Alembert is plagued by a similar problem; he confesses to be embarrassed by the question:

“There are those who have noth­ing, who give everything to society and to whom society refuses everything, who hardly can feed a numerous family by their work and perhaps not feed it at all. Can these people have another rule of conduct than the law? and how could one persuade them that it is in their true interest to be virtuous, if, without fear of punishment, they could not be virtuous?”

” . . . If I had found a satisfactory solution to this question, I would have written my catechism of morals a long time ago.”

In subsequent letters, of March and April of the same year, d’Alembert elaborates his point. The fear of the law and the hope for charity may restrain the indigent. But what happens when there is no hope and when the indigent man sees a possibility to take part secretly of the abundance of a rich man for his own subsistence?

“I ask you: what should he do in this case? Can he, or even should he, let himself and his family die from starvation? . . . In the case of absolute necessity, theft is permitted, and even an act of justice.”

Such a doctrine, however, though it is quite reasonable, is not wisely put into a catechism of morals because greed or paresse might misuse it. “That is why it is impossible to make a catechism of morals that would be equally valid for all members of society.” The root of the evil is that “the distribution of wealth is monstrously unequal, that it is atrocious as well as absurd to see some people gorging themselves in abundance and others lacking the necessities of life.”9

There is only one step from d’Alembert’s “theft is an act of justice” to Proudhon’s “property is theft.” We can understand now more clearly the meaning of the “oppression” against which d’Alembert experiences revolt. In part it is religious intolerance and persecution, as with Voltaire; to a decisive part, however, it is the oppression that stems from an excessive inequality of wealth.

The principle of utilitarian ethics, in order to be applicable con­cretely, requires a certain degree of economic homogeneousness in a society. Even if the indigent should be a minority so that, indeed, the greatest number would be happy, the presence of the indigent minority would mean that the code of utilitarian morals is not equally applicable to all members of society.

The distance from Helvetius is not very great, but we should note the difference of ac­cents. For Helvetius, the minority that aroused misgiving was still the ruling class of France; once the iniquity of the minority would be abolished, the happiness of the greatest number would be secured in the form of the middle-class republic of small property owners.

For d’Alembert, the accent has shifted to the indigent whose lot would not be changed, on principle, by the abolition of the ruling minority and the establishment of a middle-class republic. The component of utilitarianism becomes more clearly marked that leads to the demands for a redistribution of wealth and ultimately to the idea of a socialist, planned society in order to make society a homogeneous field for the application of one principle of ethics for everybody.

This component becomes dominant during the Revolution in Babeuf; we see it continued strongly in Saint-Simon and Comte and ultimately victorious in Proudhon and the Anarchist and Syndicalist sequels. The second principal doctrine of d’Alembert concerns the progress of the human mind. We have indicated earlier that, and why, this doctrine forms an indispensable part of the Positivist creed. When the intellectual and spiritual sources of order in human and social life dry up, there is not much left as a source of order except the historically factual situation. We have analyzed the systematic necessity of a theory of economic evolution in Helvetius, and we see the problem now continued in d’Alembert’s Discours.

When, however, a situation of fact is to be used as a source of order, the situation has to be surrounded by a body of doctrine that endows it with a specific legitimacy. Hence, one of the typically recurrent ideas in this contingency is the assumption that the situation of the moment, or a situation that is envisaged as immediately impending, is superior in value to any prior historical situation of fact. The idea of progress through several phases of history, supported by an array of materials that show the increase in value through the successive phases, furnished the basis for this first necessary assumption. The idea of progress, however, creates legitimacy for the present only insofar as it evokes its superiority over the past. Hence, typically in the doctrine, a second idea recurs that is destined to protect the present against invalidation by the future.

With Helvetius, this desire for protection against the future took the form of “the jump into eschatology:” the present is considered the last phase of human history; no situation of the future ought to differ in substance from the situation envisaged as the desirable present. This element of “stopping” or “freezing” history into a perpetual present is usually overlooked in the analysis of the idea of progress because it is in overt contradiction with the idea of progress itself. This contra­diction, however, that a situation cannot be static and progressive at the same time, lies only on the surface.

The idea of progress is, indeed, the idea of a static situation insofar as it envisages the future as “an addition to,” or “an elaboration of,” the present. The idea that possibly the values of modern Western civilization might be superseded in due course by a civilization with a value structure as different from the present Western as is the Hellenic from the Chinese does not enter these speculations on progress. Insofar as the future can bring nothing but a perfection of the values embodied in present civilization; insofar as the open future of men in history is transformed into a present aim projected into the future, the idea of progress is static.

From this static element in the idea of progress stems the reactionary, paralyzed attitude of progressives in the face of new developments (not envisaged in a project that, in substance, is rooted in the eighteenth century), as well as the wrathful impotence of the progressive intellectual to answer with a positive, ordering will the disintegration of Western civilization. Thus the historical situation of fact, in order to become a source of order, has to be safeguarded against the future as well as against the past. The idea of progress is fulfilling both these functions.

The peculiar character of the situation created by these doctrinal means we shall designate by the term that we used already on several occa­sions without explicit definition, that is, by the term authoritative present. Through this analysis and through the introduction of this term we have gained a position from which we can see the problem of progress in its correct perspective. The idea of progress in general does not imply a scientific proposition that can be submitted to verification; it is an element in a doctrinal complex that purports to evoke the idea of an authoritative present. This idea, in turn, is needed for the adequate expression of intramundane religiousness in politics.

A merely empirical present is a brute fact without supe­rior authority in comparison with any past or future present. When the critical standards of civilizational values, which stem from the bios theoretikos and the life of the spirit, are abandoned; when the empirical process itself has to furnish the standards, then a special doctrine is needed to bestow grace on the present and to heighten an otherwise irrelevant situation of fact into a standard by which the past and the future can be measured.

This act of grace, bestowed by the intellectual leaders of Enlightenment on themselves and on their age, is the source of the genuine revolutionary pathos that animates the idea of progress, as well as of its plight when the, by no means negligible, values of utilitarian scientism have run their course. This end seems to have come in our time, when the “revolutions” are becoming “reactions” and spiritual regeneration is the burning problem of the age.

[According to Turgot] the present, thus, is secured against the past. The “very imperfect philosophy” of the ancients has become obsolete; the “centuries of ignorance” can be passed over in silence; the revival of the esprit is culminating, in our days, in the systematic organization of knowledge. But how can this present be secured against the future?

The basic sentiment that inspires this second part of the doctrinal construction is expressed in the passage quoted above: there is no doubt that we are on the path of truth. We are not in the future to which this path will lead; but we are right on the path and we definitely know its direction. In this spirit the idea of the Encyclopédie is conceived and its function understood. The realm of the sciences and arts is rich in discoveries, but the reports on them are sometimes unreliable. The Encyclopédie has to inform the reader reliably of the true discoveries and to warn him of the errors; it has to fix a starting point in order “to facilitate the search for what remains to be found.”13 The present state of knowledge has to be ascertained in order to gain a clear view of the means for its perfection.

When the Encyclopédie has attained this aim, “then the bons esprits will no longer occupy themselves with searching what one knew before them.”14 This sentence is the classic formulation of the progressive dream: the state of human knowledge will be incorporated in a textbook of gigantic proportions, and nobody will have to read anything that was published prior to the encyclopedic textbook. All we have to do in the future is to make new editions that incorporate the “contributions” that have accumulated since the last one. Mankind will have behind it the Encyclopedie and ahead of it the path determined by it.

This determination, fur­thermore, is austere. To a critic of the Encyclopédie d’Alembert answered with a defiant justification of his principles of the one and only truth. If people are astonished, he wrote, to find articles on philosophers but none on church fathers, the answer is that philosophers are creators of opinions while the fathers, who only preserved a tradition, had nothing to teach mankind.

If nothing is to be found on the saints, on the genealogy of princes, or on the conquerors who have devastated the earth, the Encyclopédie compensates by the space it gives to the genealogy of sciences and to the immortal geniuses who have enlightened mankind. “The Encyclopédie owes everything to talent, nothing to titles; it is the history of the mind, not of the vanity of man.”15

This highly elastic categorization of esprit and vanité makes it possible to project the future as a directed development of the present. If anything should actually interfere with this future course, it would not belong to the progress of the esprit but would have to be classified as a disturbance of vanity, or a relapse into barbarism, and so on.

A passage from Diderot will be the best summary for this part of the doctrine:

“We are, says Diderot, the spectators and historians of the progress of the sciences and arts; we transmit them to posterity. May posterity, in opening our Dictionary, say that this was the state of science and art in our time. May it add its own discover­ies to those which we have registered, so that the history of the human mind and of its productions may go on and on to the most remote ages.”

“May the Encyclopédie become the sanctuary where the knowledge of man is sheltered against time and revolutions. What could flatter us more than to have laid the foundations for this development?”16

One detail of the doctrine has to be enlarged upon because it has become a rather persistent part of the later Positivist creed, that is, the overemphasis on technology. This accentuation has to follow inevitably when the bios theoretikos as a standard is abandoned. In this case, the criteria of value have to be found on the utilitarian level. And there can be no doubt that technical inventions are more useful to mankind than the expressions of the contemplative in­tellect.

D’Alembert attacks forcefully the overrating of theoretical science and of scientists. Whatever superiority the liberal arts may have over the mechanical by virtue of the labors of the intellect and of the difficulties to excel in them is amply compensated by the superior utility of the latter.17 The discovery of the compass is no less profitable to mankind than the explanation of the magnetic phenomenon would be to physics.18The underrating of the me­chanical arts has brought neglect even to the inventors. “The names of these benefactors of mankind are almost all unknown while the history of its destroyers, that is, of the conquerors, is known by everybody.”19 Why should the inventors of the mechanism of a watch be held in less esteem than the thinkers who have perfected algebra?20

Diderot is even more aggressive when he writes that the superiority we accord to the liberal arts is a prejudice that tends to fill the cities with proud talkers and useless contemplators and the countryside with ignorant, lazy, and haughty petty tyrants.21 We need not linger on a melody that rings in our ears every day. The breakdown of Hellenic anthropology is as complete as that of the Christian. Throughout this analysis we have indicated the lines that lead from the idea of the Discours to the later elaborations of the Pos­itivist creed. It is not necessary to recapitulate these indications.

In conclusion we shall rather deal with a problem that only in recent years has become visible in its full proportions: the con­structions of d’Alembert have gained in our time a historical impor­tance that far surpasses their importance for the more immediate history of Positivism culminating in the work of Comte. In this more immediate history, the speculation of d’Alembert has been completely superseded by Turgot’s and Comte’s law of the three phases. D’Alembert’s “centuries of ignorance” have disappeared and Comte’s “religious phase” has taken their place.

Comte was profoundly interested in the institutional problems of the Middle Ages, particularly under the aspect of the institutionalization of the pouvoir spirituel. His voluminous inquiry into medieval history has even become a contributing factor in the renewed understanding of the values of medieval-Christian civilization, an understanding that in its main stream stems from sources in opposition to the Positivist creed. Thus, even by the future high priest of Positivism, d’Alembert’s contempt for the Middle Ages had been rejected in the 1820s and had given way to a more cautious appreciation of this period.

Positivism in the Comtian form remained a strong influence on the European scene well into the twentieth century. However, the radicalism of d’Alembert could not [hold up when set against] the humanistic and Christian restoration of the post-Napoleonic period; and d’Alembert’s antimedievalism in particular became un­tenable in face of the thorough historical exploration of the Middle Ages. By the end of the nineteenth century, the darkness of the Middle Ages had become the symptom by which the semieducated could be diagnosed; and if any enlightened person ought to make jokes about scholasticism the joke was rather on him. The European movement for a humanistic and Christian civilizational restoration drew its strength from a great number of sources. One of these sources is of specific relevance for our context, that is, nationalism.

The feats of the forebears are the pride of the living; the medieval history of the European nations could not remain simply buried in oblivion when nationalists would cherish the smallest item that could enhance the prestige of the community; the achievements of the respective nations in the glorious age of Gothic architecture, of the great mystics and scholastics, were, to a certain extent, a matter of national rivalry. This motive of nationalism has to be considered a weighty contributive factor in the penetration of medieval history and in the increased under­standing of the values embodied in medieval civilization.

With regard to these problems, the political events of recent years have changed the accents decisively. The United States and the Soviet Union have become the dominant world powers. As distinguished from the five European principal nations, these two powers have one element in common: their peoples have not participated in the creation of medieval Western civilization; the Middle Ages are not part of their national histories. The historical construction of d’Alembert–weakened in the Positivism of Comte, abandoned in Europe as worthless under the impact of increasing historical knowledge–has gained by these events an importance of hardly predictable proportions.

This construction, in which the steady course of civilization begins with the Encyclopédie holds for the American and Soviet societies a temptation that seems almost irresistible: here is the philosophy of history that perfectly fits the United States, whose national founding acts fall precisely in the age of the encyclopedist spirit, and that fits with equal perfection the Soviet Union, whose revolutionary creed stems from the same period. We are not speaking of possibilities of the future; we are speaking of the contemporary situation. In the Soviet Union, the encyclopedist spirit has gained official status through its resorption in the work of Lenin.22

The ideas of the Discours are practically part of the Russian state religion. In the United States we have no state religion, but we have to observe the mass acceptance of a creed in which the ideas of progress and utilitarian scientism, including the darkness of the Middle Ages and the values of technology, have gained a dogmatic status. What consequence this new power constellation will have for the course of the Western crisis is un­predictable. But we should be aware that the two strongest powers, which determine decisively the fate of the West, are precisely those in whose spiritual and intellectual complexion the remedial forces against the devastations of enlightenment and progressivism are comparatively weak because they have never been a part of their national history.

 

Notes

1. D’Alembert, Discours preliminaire de encyclopédie, ed. F. Picavet (Paris, 1894). New editions: Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, trans. Richard N. Schwab and Walter E. Rex (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Ronald Grimsley, Jean d’Alembert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963).

2. See on this point Picavet in his introduction to Discours préliminaire, xlvii

3. Ibid., 20

4. Ibid., 23f.

5. Ibid., 21 f., 35. Cf. notes 25 and 26 by Picavet.

6. Picavet, introduction to ibid., xv.

7. Ibid. [The experiment in creating new public cults was undertaken in the succeeding decades. See the excellent study by Conrad Donakowski, A Muse for the Masses: Ritual and Music in an Age of Democratic Revolution 1770-1870 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).]

8. Picavet, introduction to Discours préliminaire, xxx.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., 76. The reason for starting the history of progress at this particular point is given briefly by the phrase Pour ne point monter trop haut. The reader should note this phrase because it is characteristic of the style of enlightened theorizing. Unfortunately we do not possess yet a monograph on the typical phrases of progressive intellectuals by which they dispose of those millennia of history that do not fit into the construction of their doctrine.

With d’Alembert, a phrase of this kind can still be considered to be used in objective good faith; he could sincerely believe that he need not bother about some fifteen hundred years of Christian history and several centuries of Hellenism. Similar phrases, when they are used in our time, have the less laudable function of covering an inexcusable illiteracy on the part of their authors.

13. Ibid., 139.

14. Ibid., 140.

15. Picavet, introduction to ibid., xlv.

16. From the Prospectus of the Encyclopédie, written by Diderot and incorporated by d’Alembert into the Discours préliminaire, 143. For a sample of the contents see Diderot, D’Alembert, et al., Encyclopedia: Selections, trans. Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965).

17. Discours préliminaire, 53.

18. Ibid., 54.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., 55.

21. The passage from Diderot is quoted by Picavet in ibid., 214, n. 40.

22. See particularly the introduction to Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Crit- icism, with its reference to the dialogue between D’Alembert and Diderot as the basis of Lenin’s own metaphysical position.

 

This excerpt is from History of Political Ideas (Volume VIII): Crisis and the Apocalypse of Man (Collected Works 26) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

Back To Top