A World on Fire

Elijah Mvundura May/June 2020

The world is burning, literally and symbolically. And no one knows how to put out the “fires.” As we watch TV images of wildfires from California to Australia, and mass riots from Asia to Latin America, it’s very hard to suppress a feeling of impotence; that we are faced with “fires” raging beyond human control. If human nature, its follies and conceits, is what led to the current crises—global warming, economic inequalities, social pathologies, political instabilities—what hope is there of a radical enough change to avert catastrophic ruin?

In The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Barbara W. Tuchman chronicled follies in government that have led to catastrophic ruin. The Trojan Horse episode, corruption of the Renaissance popes, Britain’s loss of the American colonies, and the American debacle in Vietnam are her major examples. According to her the chief cause of folly is “wooden-headedness,” which she described as “acting according to wish, while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts,” so that one persists in error. She cites King Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”

Tuchman focused on the folly of governments, but I would like to focus on the architects and builders of the modern world—intellectuals; and the source of their building materials—science. Indeed, if I were to describe the modern world in one word, I would say: “science.” And many people would agree with me, I believe. For if our world is radically different from the premodern one, the difference is to be found in science, how it made us moderns “masters and possessors of nature,” in the words of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the founder of modern philosophy and inventor of the coordinateor analytic geometry, which underpins GPS technology, engineering applications, statistical and scientific algorithms.

Descartes invented analytic geometry by unifying algebra and geometry. In this invention—the unification of two sciences hitherto considered distinct—he was sure he had found a universal method of solving all problems in nature and human society. To him, according to Etienne Gilson, “all sciences were one [and] had to be solved by the same method.” Also, “such a universal restoration of human knowledge was bound, out of its own nature, to be the work of a single man.” And Descartes was convinced that “he himself was that man, for he was the only one to know the true method, the only one therefore who owned the key to a rational explanation of reality.”

Descartes called his key or method “universal mathematics,” and applied it to physics, medicine, ethics, politics, philosophy. He even believed it could obtain him immortality. It didn’t. He died in 1650, aged 54 years old. Subsequently Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) proved that his laws of motion were mathematically false and his physics scientifically worthless. This became fully evident with the publication of Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687.

Yet ironically, in a folly of follies, although Descartes’ physics was proved to be false, his philosophy took Europe by storm, touching every discipline. As Ernst Cassirer put it: “After the middle of the seventeenth century the Cartesian spirit permeates all fields of knowledge until it dominates not only philosophy, but also literature, morals, political science, and sociology, asserting itself even in the realm of theology to which it imparted a new form.” And its chief attraction was a mathematical method of reasoning that promised mastery over the world. The sovereign, godlike authority bestowed upon reason by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, with its attendant inordinate self-confidence and naive optimism, had its origin in Cartesian philosophy.

To be sure, the inordinate self-confidence was fed mainly by the steady advance of scientific discovery, which gave European intellectuals a sense of power over nature. “There seemed to be little doubt that in the struggle of man against nature the balance of power was shifting in favor of man.” This spawned efforts to extend scientific methods, practices, and concepts to the study of society, politics, and morals. David Hume’s ambition was to be the Newton of the social sciences. Indeed, search for a “law” of social phenomena similar to Newton’s law of gravity was the preoccupation of the Enlightenment.

But a Newton-like law of social sciences was not discovered. And the claims the Enlightenment made in behalf of reason, that it’s universal and impartial, and could regulate society, morality, and politics, proved to be naive. Indeed, the catastrophic failure of the French Revolution, the pungent passions it unleashed during the Reign of Terror, clearly showed that humans are not controlled by reason.

Yet again, ironically, in a folly of follies, that determined the course of the twentieth century, nineteenth-century intellectuals didn’t learn the object lesson they should have learned from thecatastrophic failure of the French Revolution—epistemic humility, appreciation of the fallibility of human reason and its inability reorganize society. The nineteenth century was a century of grand ideologies and heaven-storming passions. In France, to address the postrevolution political and social chaos, self-styled social scientists advocated “the scientific direction of society and sought to present a unified system or general theory that would incorporate all phenomena, from those of the astronomical world through those of the social world.”

French Positivists invented sociology, the science of society. But it’s especially telling that they intended sociology to function as a religion. And they intended it to function as a religion because they were duly aware of the crucial role religion played in providing bonds of social unity. Henri de Saint-Simon advised scientists to organize themselves like Catholic priests, and offer a “Newtonian” form of baptism, while his protégé Auguste Comte elaborated a “religion of humanity,” complete with daily ritual observances. Durkheim redefined religion itself as something essentially social, incarnated in its members.

In Germany, too, intellectuals turned to science to reorganize society in the postrevolution era. But their view of science— Naturphilosophie, as they called it—was radically different. It was “reenchanted science,” encompassing metaphysical and occult elements displaced by Newtonian physics. German Romantics meant Naturphilosophie to be the basis of“a new mythology,” the religion for the modern world, with artists as the new priests. This vision for a “new mythology,” was shared by Georg Hegel, the don of German idealism, but he wanted it to be grounded in reason, to be“a mythology of reason,” encompassing all knowledge—scientific, artistic, religious and philosophic—and reconciling all contradictions and tensions in a grand synthesis of absolute knowledge.

And the agent of reconciliation was the Geist (“Spirit”), as Hegel laid out in his Phenomenology of Spirit. But Karl Marx, “turning Hegel on his head,” made dialectical materialism the agent of reconciliation, and predicted it would usher an earthly paradise (Communism). Certain that his dialectical materialismwas scientific, Marx declared he had discarded the religious aspects of Hegelian philosophy. “But any careful reader of Marx,” as Cesáreo Bandera keenly observed, “will be surprised by the frequency with which he turns to religious analogies, symbols, or events, in order to throw light on, or unveil, the specific nature, the underlying character, of an economic phenomenon.” Marx’s use of religion while denying its reality, is a classic case of Tuchman’s“wooden-headedness,” of “assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions [materialistic in this case] while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs.”

For Marx knew of Hegel’s aphorism: “Religion can exist without philosophy. But philosophy cannot exist without religion.” And that is because philosophy arose from Greek religion. Marx knew this also. Besides, religion was still very much alive in nineteenth-century Europe. About its vitality Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “Eighteenth-century philosophers had said religious zeal was bound to die as enlightenment and freedom spread. It is tiresome that facts do not fit this theory at all.” Indeed, the secularization theory has never matched the facts, refuted from the very beginning by the deep religiosity of the most modern nation—America.

And in Europe, Tocqueville’s observation that “faith changes its allegiance but does not die” describes exactly what happened. Faith shifted from Christianity to the new secular gods or religions: nationalism, positivism, liberalism, socialism, etc. As Ludwig Feuerbach declared: “politics should be our religion.” And the curious blindness by which this religious dimension of modern ideologies has been overlooked by the secular intelligentsia, is again a classic case of “wooden-headedness,” indeed, of “persistence in error.” This “persistence” explains why they are at loss in face of the current crises, why they cannot extinguish the “fires” incinerating civilization.

We need an “epistemological break,” to disabuse us from the follies and materialistic prejudices of the Enlightenment. Indeed, the return of the repressed—tribalism, scapegoating, conspiracies, unreason and downright magical thinking—which the Enlightenment claimed will be dispelled by reason—clearly proves the impotence of reason, its abject failure to dispel moral or spiritual darkness. As Eric Voegelin sagaciously pointed out: “The light of reason is a dubious guide in the night of the spirit.”Or, in God’s words, in Isaiah 50:11: “Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow” (KJV).

True indeed! Just like sparks, the modern secular gods and religions are philosophically and aesthetically spectacular. They dazzle but can’t succor the soul. Just like the devil, who masquerades as an angel of light but diffuses darkness, they appeared as “Enlightenment,” but pitched the thickest darkness over European history—leading to Auschwitz and the Gulag. Again, Descartes himself, their godfather, ascended onto the “stage of world masked,” as he wrote in his Little Book. He put appearances of Christian devotion, while conspiring against God, as is clear from the revealing passage in his private letter to Christina of Sweden: “Freewill is in itself the noblest thing we can have because it makes us in a certain manner equal to God and exempts us from being his subjects. .. . Freewill can produce our greatest contentments.”

To derive the “greatest contentments” from rebelling against God is demonic. It sheds light on the three dreams Descartes had on November 10, 1619, which he described as a turning point in his life. “The first was a nightmare, in which terrifying phantoms appeared.” He woke up, “feeling a sharp pain in his left side,” and turning to his right side, he “prayed for protection from the evil effects of the dream.” Again, “feeling he may have erred in the eyes of God, he reflected on good and evil for a couple of hours before falling asleep.” The second dream involved what seemed like a thunderclap. He opened his eyes to find his room full of sparks. After blinking several times, he was able to get rid of the sparks, and then fell asleep again.

In the third dream he noticed a dictionary and a book of poems. Opening it, he chanced upon the words: Quod vitae sectabor iter? (what road in life shall I follow?). As he read, a stranger entered and gave him some verses with the words est et non (it is and is not). After telling Descartes about the excellence of the poem, both the stranger and the book disappeared.I have abridged the dream, but I find it very unusual Descartes wasn’t sure whether it was a dream or real. Even more, heinterpreted all the dreams, while still sleeping.

The first two dreams were a reproof of his past life, he said. The pain on the left side signified the devil trying to prevent him from going where he wants. The terror in the second dream was remorse for his sins, the thunderclap was the spirit of truth possessing him. The third dream was enlightenment about his future mission of unifying all knowledge, through a mathematical method of reasoning. To Stephen Gaukroger, a Descartes scholar, “the first and second dreams strongly suggest an internal conflict, and by Descartes’ own account it is a moral one. He clearly had strong feelings of guilt.”

Indeed, extrapolating from my own experience of the inner war between good and evil, I believe the first two dreams were warnings from God; unlike the third dream, echoing the serpent’s primordial suggestion to reach for godlike knowledge,commissioning him to unify all knowledge. And passages of Descartes’ Meditations even repeat in personal terms the serpent’s insinuation that God is a tyrant and deceiver. Such malicious thoughts about God can only induce “internal conflict” and “strong feelings of guilt.” Here Descartes experience recalls Dostoevsky’s insight: “God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

As it is, there is external evidence of God and the devil fighting in Descartes’ heart. Johann Amos Comenius, the leader of the Moravian Brethren, warned Descartes that his “views would lead to scepticism and irreligion,” and argued him to seek certainty in Scripture. In another meeting, while Descartes was writing the Discourse on the Method, John Dury, a Scottish Calvinist, tried to convince Descartes that the way to certainty was through biblical prophecies, and not through mathematics. So Descartes was presented with a clear choice, biblical prophecy or mathematics, as the way to certainty and knowledge, and he chose the devil-inspired mathematical method.

Thisdevil’s method, disguised as mathematical rationalism, is what the Enlightenment used to build the world we live in. That it culminated in the “murder of God” celebrated by Nietzsche, who described his philosophy as arson that must burn Christian morals to the ground for the superman to rise from their ashes, fully reveals its demonic origin. Indeed, Nietzsche’s “secret laughter” was that his “superman—[was] a devil!” To understand how Nietzscheanism or postmodernism set our “world on fire,” this demonic self-revelation must be taken seriously.

Citing Tuchman again, for a decision to qualify as folly, “a feasible alternative course of action must have been available.” And it was available to Descartes and his progeny in the scientific program of Sir Francis Bacon, which they knew and admired. Indeed, both Comenius and Dury, who debated Descartes, were part of a group of Protestant thinkers which included Robert Boyle, John Milton, Isaac Barrow (Newton’s teacher) and other major thinkers, who, building on Bacon’s program, combined apocalyptic-millenarian themes with scientific investigations, to overcome scepticism and combat religious and political radicalism.

Charles Webster called these Protestant thinkers a “spiritual Brotherhood.” Their work culminated in the Newtonian-Lockean synthesis, that had God sovereign over nature, politics, and history. Against Leibniz, Newton insisted on God’s unceasing intervention to maintain regularity in the universe. Locke’s politics, like Newton’s physics, also required oversight by a benevolent God. If God is indispensable to the Newtonian-Lockean synthesis, Voltaire, its famous transmitter to the Enlightenment, excluded God’s direct intervention in the universe, and detached Newtonian-Lockean thought and English constitutional achievements from their Protestant biblical moorings. He also shifted world history from its providential framework and placed it within the horizon of human will and reason.

Voltaire could easily perform these magical tricks because English scientific and political achievements were not a synthesis of one mind—an Aquinas, Descartes, or Hegel—but an outcome ofpiecemeal, ad hoc historical process guided by empirical observations of reality illuminated by Protestant theological anthropology and morality. To be sure, if we take seriously the Protestant claim of a direct, unmediated contact with God, then the achievements were a result of divine providence, as Bacon, and the English virtuosi themselves said.

Again, to be sure, in Democracy in America, Tocqueville also credited God for the advance of democracy over the centuries and its climax through the godly Puritans in America. And Democracy in America, we must remember, was written to instruct Europe on how to build and maintain democracy. Tocqueville in other words, presented 19th century Europe with “an alternative course of action.” It was not taken, for Europe was in thrall of the false gods and religions, and, but for America, they almost destroyed Europe in the two world wars.

It, of course, is beyond reason and inexplicable folly that, after America saved Europe from destruction, American intellectuals fell under the spell of Europe’s false religions (French-Heideggerian-Nietzschean postmodernism) and used them to destroy the culture that had saved Europe from destruction. In fact, to explain it as folly is inadequate. We must include seduction by “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” (Revelation 12:9), and also affix pride, the chief passion that opens humans to demonic seduction.

Pride, amplified by science, motivated Descartes and his intellectual progeny to usurp God’s authority as “master and possessor of nature.” But global warming—the rising oceans and wildfires—in the backdrop of falling economies, fraying societies, and failing governments is actually revealing that we are enslaved and possessed by forces beyond human control. Science can’t save us. It may aim to reshape matter, but it can’t reshape humans.

Article Author: Elijah Mvundura

Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.