Monday, January 23, 2017

Enemies of the Enlightenment

     Conor Cruise O’Brien. On the Eve of the Millennium (1994) CBC Massey lectures 1994. O’Brien meditates on the fate of the Enlightenment, which he sees as under attack. Agencies like the papacy attack it deliberately, for example by attempting to impose morals and ethics on individual conscience. But there are also those who claim to continue the work of the Enlightenment by bringing down institutions that they suppose to be hindering its advance. O’Brien points to the French revolution and its heirs. He’s especially good on how Burke foresaw the process of that revolution, until it would eventually be replaced by an autocratic regime that restored order if not individual freedoms. Burke predicted that, but didn’t live to see it.
      O’Brien admires Burke, I think because he sees in Burke a powerful intelligence coupled with a deep understanding and respect for the irrational. I haven’t read much Burke (I’ve forgotten what I did read), so I can’t comment further on that part of O’Brien’s discussion. But it's clear that O’Brien himself understands the power of the irrational, and the dangers of reason put in the service of realising irrational aims.
     O’Brien’s predictions of what may happen in the first quarter of the 2000s are more or less off the mark in detail, but his clear-eyed view of  the forces that tend to break the democratic contract is spot on. Time has turned his analysis of democratic elections as popularity contests into a mordant comment on recent elections in all advanced countries, none more so that in the election of Trump and Justin Trudeau. The former is revealing himself as an incompetent governor; the latter as a good deal more competent than his enemies want him to be. Both are well on the way of disappointing their supporters.
      Like Machiavelli, whom he admires, O’Brien tells some unvarnished truths about politics and governance. He reminds us that a polity’s sense of itself as a unified community depends on myths, which serve both to obscure the unpalatable aspects of wielding power and to direct that power into more or less agreed on directions.
      This is not an easy read. O’Brien knows more history than the average bear, even one interested in history. He understands that ideas matter, especially ideas that have been reduced to what we think of as common sense. He has experience in politics and government. He’s a poet as well as an essayist. These lectures are dense in meaning and allusion. O’Brien’s attempts to clarify confusion with quotations and concrete examples go some way to helping the reader (me) understand. Nevertheless, worth reading. Twice at least. ***

No comments: