A Review of Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West

(John Ralston Saul. 618 pp. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1992)

Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Brock Review, Vol.2, no. 2 (1993), p.225-7.

KEY TERMS: John Ralston Saul -- reason -- Voltaire's legacy -- intuitive "truth" -- David Hume -- rationalization -- bureaucratization

The author gets high marks for a provocative title. One's first reaction, however, is to wonder just what planet he could possibly be writing from. The dictatorship of reason? In any part of this world -- in this century? Surely he must be kidding! But it seems he is serious in his claim. So we must take him seriously, and respond to his argument, using, for want of a less dictatorial instrument, whatever reason we can muster.

Saul promises to establish the grounds for his thesis in the first chapter. He begins by admitting that Voltaire and his fellow rationalists wrought a change in Western culture which produced reforms beyond their wildest dreams. But he goes on to claim that, in the process, they let loose upon humanity what proved to be an insidious and unrestrainable form of power -- the power of human reason.

It is impossible to assess this proposition without knowing precisely what Saul means by "reason". Yet one searches in vain -- not only in the introductory chapter, but throughout the entire book -- for an unambiguous explanation of the term defining his central thesis. There are clues, however. He deplores "the exercise of power, without the moderating influence of any ethical structure." But don't we all? And what has that to do with the use of reason? Or with Voltaire's legacy? Is he implying that the Enlightenment thinkers used reason to undermine supernaturally based ethical sanctions, without offering anything in their place? A case might be made for this, if one excludes David Hume's contributions on the nature and necessity of a humanly inspired morality, but nowhere is that argument offered by Saul. Instead, he ends his introduction with the unsupported claim that reason has emerged as the enemy of humanism. And with the bald statement (no doubt meant to be reassuring) that we are now witnessing the dotage of the Age of Reason.

The entire book abounds with similar castigations of reason, none of which demonstrates precisely what the author means by the concept. The metaphor of Voltaire and his bastards implies that Saul is limiting his attack to later distortions of the abstract rationality of the Enlightenment deist, as expressed in the notion of natural law. On the other hand, the occasional mention of Descartes may be a sign that the perceived enemy is the latter's dualistic doctrine and the mathematical rationalism which supported it. Or could it be that Saul thinks the harm has been done by Kant's idea of innate logical forms, transcending experience, and the non-rational mysticism and romantic idealism that this encouraged? If so, he should have spelled it out.

Increasingly, however, the tenor of the developing argument leads one to suspect that the culprit is something else entirely. Saul seems to be yearning for a return to the world view of Kant, or to that of Husserl a century later. He seems to be assuming the ultimate validity of some sort of intuitive truth. (For example, he refers approvingly to the clarity of Blake's mystical vision.) Eventually it becomes clear that the attack is, in fact, directed at science and the logic of scientific inquiry. In that case, however, he should be fingering Hume as the progenitor, rather than Voltaire. Indeed, there is some indication that Saul is blaming the problems of modern culture on Hume's concept of a two-directional cognitive process enabling humans not only to deduce logical implications from a priori premises or axioms, but also to infer and generalize from the direct experience (or sensation) of particular events. And, in spite of Humes's belief in the impossibility of certainty where empirical knowledge is concerned -- and of the subsequent universal acceptance of this credo by modern science -- Saul seems to be arguing that the danger posed by science lies in its claim to be the sole arbiter of absolute truth. "The heart of our absolutism," he writes, "is the 'fact' which we must all accept as the guarantor of irrefutable veracity."

Saul seems unaware of the philosophy of modern science, such as the work of Karl Popper on the conditional nature of scientific knowledge and its evolutionary role in human culture. And he obviously knows nothing of Pragmatism with its emphasis on an inevitable connection between reason and value, or of Jean Piaget's work on the necessary role of reason in advanced moral development. He ignores, as well, the ordinary common-sense understanding that human beings, today as always, are ruled far more by their desires and delusions than by reason.

We are told early in the book (not as a hypothesis, but as a dogmatic conclusion) that the dictatorship of absolute reason has replaced that of absolute monarchy. We are presented with a host of perfidious examples, from Machiavelli and the eighteenth-century Jesuits to Robert MacNamara, T. Boone Pickens of Gulf Oil, and the arms merchants of the present day. But whereas, for Saul, these are examples of the application of reason, it seems more reasonable to conclude that they represent mindless rule-following and amoral expediency in action. One might very well agree with Saul on his choice of villains and villainous behavior, but to blame all this on reason is unreasonable, to say the least!

Saul identifies two unfortunate tendencies as the epitomes of reason in Western culture. They are a worship of "the hero" and of "the secret". Indeed, he declares, "The negative, retentive, constipating refusal to reveal, to act, to cooperate, is the key to rational man." The culmination of both these "rational" tendencies, according to Saul, is the managerial class: those corporate controllers who have emerged as the "flower of rational methodology" and the "children of reason." Here Saul (perhaps unknowingly) is echoing Max Weber, the early twentieth-century German sociologist. Weber warned about the dangers of mindless, amoral bureaucracy, which he -- unfortunately and inappropriately -- referred to as "rationalistic".

Saul concludes with a section on the "faithful witness". He is referring to the writing of novels: an enterprise with which he has had first-hand experience. This is the only part of the book that seems to have the ring of authenticity. And it is only here that the author's fatally flawed message begins to emerge from the shadows of the straw men thrown up in the preceding 500 pages.

It becomes apparent that what Saul is actually decrying is not reason at all, but "rationalization" in the sense of an increasingly fragmented social organization. He is particularly dismayed by a dysfunctional degree of specialization where social roles and language are concerned. He believes the resulting "professionalization" has led to a breakdown in communication and a dangerous disintegration of the social fabric. If Saul had read sociology he would know that a French sociologist called Emile Durkheim described this long ago. Durkheim referred to it as a mechanical "segmentation" of isolated groups within a society, as opposed to the "organic solidarity" which he hoped would follow from an increasing social complexity based on a functional division of labor.

Saul criticizes contemporary novelists for having created a specialized profession, complete with deliberately obscurantist jargon. He claims that they have betrayed their cultural function and their responsibility to hold a mirror to society. Reasonable readers could possibly agree with this (regardless of their opinion of the faithfulness of Saul's own mirror). It is easy to agree, as well, with his conclusion that Western civilization should learn to value questions rather than certain answers. After all, that is what it means to live by reason (as a vital tool of empirical inquiry) rather than by dogma. And commitment to reason and observation in the never-ending search for answers to those questions is what science is all about!