We are watching the Enlightenment collapse before us in real time. I’ll be fairly brief in my explanation of why this is so and how it came about, but it strikes me as something we should understand.
Bear in mind that what remains of the Enlightenment is collapsing for structural reasons. I haven’t formed this discourse around political or academic theories, I’m basing it on facts and direct observations. Obviously I’m simplifying (one can’t write history any other way), but minus the inevitable exceptions and complications, this is what happened and what is happening.
How The Enlightenment Gained A Structure
The Enlightenment began with a collection of outsiders studying science. They had little backing and few credentials. In fact, the motto of the first group (that became The Royal Society) was Nullius in verba: “Take nobody’s word for it.” There was a lot to like in the early Enlightenment, and it led to a long string of crucial discoveries.
About halfway through its run, however, at about 1750 AD, the Enlightenment took a dark turn. Rather than working to discover what was right, it began to fixate on what was wrong. That is, the leading voices of the Enlightenment left off building and moved into tearing things down.
That change ran the late Enlightenment directly into the French Revolution, of course, but we’ll pass over those details. You can find more in issue #90 of our subscription letter if you wish.
Bear in mind that there hadn’t been a large intelligentsia in Europe before this time… at least not since the Roman empire. While the Church did have an intelligentsia, it wasn’t a terribly large one, and the Protestant Reformation had recently broken the Church’s monopoly on supplying rulers with bureaucrats, lawyers and advisors. People of the bourgeois class rose to the opportunity.
And so a new intellectual class began to form and soon enough began seeking power. But since they saw no way to take power from monarchs, they turned to the Church and began plundering its legitimacy. If they could become the new arbiters of right and wrong, reason and truth, they’d have the same kind of power the Church had.
And so the new intelligentsia went about to seize the legitimacy of the Catholic church, bringing it back to themselves. As historian Margaret C. Jacob wrote:
They removed God and in his place inserted the blind forces of matter in motion.
These new intellectuals (especially in Protestant areas where attacking the Church was appreciated) were given positions in the universities that had sprung up several centuries earlier. The universities were, by this time, under the control of their local rulers.
“Science,” then, became the product of the new intellectuals, and so the Enlightenment gained a power-backed structure as well as a legend. More than that, it had a wonderful means of expansion: Attack and de-legitimize the Church. Enthrone science, and yourselves as its priests.
Steadily, they drained legitimacy from the Church, for reasons both honest and embellished.
The Next Step
The intellectual class spawned by the Enlightenment (which by now was mainly over) held posts at universities and courts, but they served at the whims of royals, which they tended to resent. Still, they had an effective set of tools for tearing things down and an ideology that made them noble for doing so.
Into this moment stepped a Frenchman named August Comte, a deeply disturbed man. (He had spent time in an asylum, set fire to a hotel room, attempted suicide, physically abused his wife and so on.) Comte hoped to build an intellectual-driven world from the ashes of the French Revolution. He was also, by all accounts, a very bright man.
Beginning in about 1830, Comte developed a systematic and hierarchical classification of all sciences, including sociology, which he more or less invented. Comte taught that his sociology was the last and greatest of sciences, integrating them all.
But Comte not only proclaimed his new science as the master of the old ones, he also tried to turn the philosophy of science upside down. From Francis Bacon onward, science had placed experiment above theory. (The better scientists still do.) Comte reversed this, as we can see in this passage:
If it is true that every theory must be based upon observed facts, it is equally true that facts can not be observed without the guidance of some theories. Without such guidance, our facts would be desultory and fruitless; we could not retain them: for the most part we could not even perceive them.
This enthronement of theory above observation (or at least equal to it), unfortunately remains in great swaths of the social sciences. Furthermore there was a hidden assumption in Comte’s work, which Leo Tolstoy sussed out:
the whole edifice was built on the sand — on the arbitrary assertion that humanity is an organism. (That is, a collective entity.)
Karl Marx, which should be no surprise, knew Comte’s work very well. And the following passage from Comte makes it very clear that he opposed individual thought and judgment:
Men are not allowed to think freely about chemistry and biology: why should they be allowed to think freely about political philosophy? Man’s only right is to do his duty.
At the same time “democracy” was spreading across Europe, taking power away from monarchs and handing it to “the people,” which really meant “to those who can effectively direct the people.” This, obviously, empowered the intellectuals.
We should further note that this was precisely the time when government schooling began to be imposed upon the populace, beginning in Germany, rigidly overseen by the intellectual class.
And so, by the later 19th century, we see intellectuals with a solid model, a powerful base, and immense possibilities in front of them.
The Socialist Opportunity
Socialism, which took root in the early 20th century, was attractive to the intellectual class for a very simple reason: It promised them top-level positions. Democracy had provided them with status of course, but not nearly so firmly. Socialism enforced a ruling class of intellectuals; democracy merely allowed such a class.
As aggressive socialism rooted in Russia and other places, the intellectual class (in general) wanted it to succeed and wanted it to spread to their homelands. This is something that Orwell pointed out memorably:
The secret wish of this English Russophile intelligentsia was to destroy the old, equalitarian version of Socialism and usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip.
What intellectuals also saw in the USSR was a way to supplant the commercial powers of the world. They had all but supplanted the Catholic Church and were slowly supplanting the Protestant churches. They had overcome the monarchs. Within “democracy” they thrived in protected positions. Commerce, however, riding the industrial revolution, had stepped above them. It had brought immense benefits to the masses, who valued that far above the bleatings of academics.
Socialism, then, became a path back to the pinnacles of power, and intellectuals grabbed the opportunity. Socialism would beat commerce into submission for them. To justify their power-grab the intellectuals developed all sorts of theories about socialism’s superiority and worked overtime to get people to believe them.
The beliefs of the masses became, to the intellectuals, the mirror of Narcissus. Gazing into that mirror, they saw their own glory.
Not all intellectuals followed this pattern, of course, but the better ones were pushed further and further from prominence; mostly they hung on in the more objective sciences.
I won’t recount the horrific results of 20th century socialism; those of us who have been paying attention know them all too well. Instead I’ll jump forward to the end of the story.
The Present Collapse
Intellectuals in the West, especially since 1970 or so, ruled the institutions, and especially the education institutions, whose capacity and esteem they expanded greatly. College degrees soon became compulsory for the children of a respectable family.
This was the beginning of the end for the Enlightenment. It was a classic predatory overreach, the same as coyotes over-feeding on rabbits: soon enough there are too few rabbits and the coyotes starve.
The super-charging of “education” (recently with student loans) has produced a massive surplus of intellectuals… of superfluous intellectuals. These young people are desperate to enlighten the world but have found all the jobs taken. And so, predictably, they are working doubly hard to get attention in other ways, which means pushing their beliefs that much farther.
This has been the driving force behind the reintroduction of racism (this time against whites) and the dismemberment of free speech. The superfluous intellectuals intend to use their tools.
The question now is how far they can or will go. At this point it’s hard to see them standing down. They despise the octogenarians who are clinging to power. Simultaneously they are enamored with socialism for the same reason their predecessors were a century ago.
Added to that, the new generation of intellectuals has been winning battles. Beyond straight-up cultural subversions like drag queens in kindergartens, they have members in Congress and gained tremendous empowerment from the George Floyd fiasco.
More than all this, however, the new intellectuals are bringing commerce to its knees. Giant corporations are bowing to their demands, even terminating the employment of people declared ideologically impure. It wasn’t empowered octogenarians who did this, it was an army of superfluous intellectuals.
What happens next is hard to say, of course, but since this is happening in the midst of financial turmoil, lockdowns of the populace and the evisceration of the working class, restraints upon these people are likely to be few. One certainty is that they will continue ripping things apart. The descendants of 1750 are equipped to tear down; they are not equipped to undertake the hard, slow and often thankless work of building.
So, whether or not the entire system collapses into a heap of rubble, the new intellectuals will move things in that direction, and this fact will not be lost on their victims.
In the end, families will turn inward and young people, disillusioned with barbarities like neo-racism, suppressed speech and cancellation, will return to older values. Those values, however imperfect, were derived from direct human experience and not from self-serving theoreticians.