The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they, this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that man might hope again in wretched darkness.
–Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz
Relevant to our current situation in the US and in other Western countries, perhaps?
5 thoughts on “Worth Contemplating”
Perhaps the nature of that impatience comes from an impossible certainty and inflated view of fallen and broken man. Or perhaps it just lacks humor and sympathy for man’s fallibility as well as heroism.
Gertrude Himmelfarb’s focus was the British but by distinguishing between their Enlightenment and the French and then the Americans, she makes clarifying
arguments. Like the British, we value much that is bourgeois, improvements that improve home and hearth, the community and the nation. She described an America that was striving and modest, that valued virtue. I think her view is perceptive. Here are some observations from The Road to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (2004).
The driving force of the British Enlightenment was not reason, but the ‘social virtues’ or ‘social affections.’ In America, the driving force was political, the motive for the Revolution and the basis for the republic. For the British moral philosophers and for the American Founders, reason was an instrument for the attainment of the larger social end, not the end itself. And, for both, religion was an ally, not an enemy. (19) In these first chapters she notes that many see the French Revolution as being a “true” one and not the American. She clearly
finds Americans not just less destructive of human life but also of human projects – of traditions and institutions that needed tweaking, perhaps, but not destruction. In the end, both the British and the Americans valued both life and its triumphs, valued productivity and the “social virtues.”
She observes that neither of the Anglosphere Enlightenments could be described as Peter Gay did the French one as The Rise of Modern Paganism. The modern American who sees a division between science and religion as in the nature of both understood neither America’s founders nor the Puritans a hundred years before. This is probably not irrelevant, since the Christianity so central to both the thinkers in England and America began with the assumption of the broken or sinful nature of man, coupled with a strong optimism about redemption. They didn’t assume a blank slate and that left them with a more grounded view of what a government could do, one balanced by a strong appreciation of each human’s individual worth and potential. (Surely this would make the idea of the guillotine in Paris repugnant.)
As she concludes the book, she notes the importance of the American attempt at “a more perfect union”. She contrasts that with the vision of “the perfect union”; which (I think she means) implies an impossible perfection, stasis, and even an appalling arrogance. She argues “The British moral philosophers would have endorsed that modest sentiment. The French philosophes, aspiring to be philosophical legislators, might not have done so.” (226)
Of course, this contrast remains with us, as the Black Lives Matter and Antifa groups demean our history, institutions. Their similarity to stages of the French Revolution is often remarked upon; they do not see themselves in an American tradition. More’s the pity.
From the same book: “children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever building Edens – and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn’t the same”
I certainly don’t believe that *all* of those who are currently attempting to reduce our society to chaos are people whose lives are a garden of paradise…many of them, quite the opposite. But some of them are such people, and their influence is surely disproportionate.
There isn’t much “earned success” in painting slogans.
I’m not sure it is just because they have had a comfortable life as much as they have been trained to look at the world in a nonproductive manner. If your culture has not held up heroes and not rewarded creative productivity, if it hasn’t assumed it is your responsibility to actually make and not just critique, then you don’t look for solutions. Mike Rowe celebrates the happiness of finding solutions, of cleaning up messes. If you have never thought deeply about options and solutions, tradeoffs and the nature of materials – whether human nature or physical. The constitution may not look like the achievement it is nor a bridge like the achievement it is if you have never actually tried to create something out of those materials. (I can’t imagine any way to make a generation unhappier than to teach the theories of deconstruction.)
The driving force of the British Enlightenment was not reason, but the ‘social virtues’ or ‘social affections.’
I think it is important to recall that the “British Enlightenment” was really a Scottish Enlightenment. Science and Medicine were both driven by the Scottish universities. Cambridge was late to adopt Science as a legitimate object of study. Oxford was even later. Both considered Latin and Greek far more important and next came Hebrew. The great scientist, Henry Cavendish, was almost unknown at Cambridge until the Laboratory named for him, was established in 1874.
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