In the wake of a series of catastrophes in the course of recent years – the financial crisis and the Great Recession; the Gulf oil “spill” as well as a series of mining accidents; and, most recently, the horrifying spectacle of imminent nuclear disaster in Japan, following the devastation of a massive earthquake and tsunami – Harold Meyerson has written an important and essential column. Better put, he has written half of an important and essential column. In the column, he argues that the human belief in our mastery over events deserves deep and critical re-evaluation. But his conclusion – that there is a need for greater government control over our lives so that we can avoid the bad results of recent years – is, remarkably, a perfect example of the very impulse that he otherwise seeks to critique. Columnist, heal thyself.
Meyerson opens with a compelling reminder that it was a massive earthquake and tsunami that shook the West’s faith in an all-powerful and benevolent God at the very beginning of the European Enlightenment. The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was so deadly and destructive that it famously led Voltaire to write Candide, a biting satirical demolition of Leibniz’s theodicy that “we live in the best of all possible worlds.” The pre-modern faith in an all-powerful and ultimately benevolent God was widely displaced: instead, it came to be widely believed that humanity was on its own, and needed to gird itself for that reality.
Voltaire’s critique, and subsequent developments in European enlightenment philosophy, politics and economics, ushered in the very world that Meyerson now asks us to reflect upon. The Enlightenment project was to foster the human capacity to govern a recalcitrant and often hostile world. Science, especially, as well as education, technology, and market economics was to usher in a period of permanent human progress. Subsequent French enlightenment authors like Condorcet and Comte predicted an ever-increasing mastery of the natural world and ultimately the improvement of the human moral condition itself, with Comte arguing that the aim should be the establishment of the “Kingdom of Heaven” on earth and the inauguration of a new religion – the religion of Humanity. In the United States, Progressive thinkers like Herbert Croly (who founded The New Republic), John Dewey and social gospel proponent Walter Rauschenbusch translated this thought into an American idiom, transforming American politics in a decisively nationalist and scientistic direction and re-making education and religion toward progressive ends and purposes. Dewey, in particular, argued that science and progressive education would make it possible for us to master the natural world, and compared the relationship of humanity to nature like that of an inquisitor to a victim who withholds its secrets, and that we are justified to use torture to extract the information that we need.
Some three-hundred years after the inauguration of this philosophical project, and perhaps no more than a century after its full launch “on the ground” – its instantiation – it would seem that there is significant gathering evidence that the “exclusive humanist” belief that humanity could exercise mastery over the world, and even ourselves, was ill-fated. Today the Right bemoans the destruction of a moral fabric that once governed the lives of individuals, families, communities; while the Left decries the human destruction of the “environment” – what used to be called “nature” – and calls for a re-evaluation of the utilitarian ethic that underlies our modern economic order. In effect, both the Right and Left alike are critics of a part of the modern Enlightenment project, but each are also sufficiently wed to its underlying aims to seek to retain one of its central mechanisms – whether the economic engine, on the Right, or the State, on the Left.
The Right argues that only the market can “know” the best course for humans, in spite of mounting evidence that the “market” tends to favor short-term solutions that “externalize” costs to future generations and that seeks efficiency and profit even at the cost of humane practices and traditions. A world organized around “The Market” promotes and fosters greed and materialism, and contributes mightily – indeed, requires – a utilitarian relationship to the natural world. The Left cautions against the immorality of the marketplace.
The Left, in turn, asks the State to correct and even at times to replace the Market as the best locus for decisions. Instead – aided by social science and a burgeoning number of studies – the Left views the State as sufficiently knowledgeable and neutral to provide just outcomes in the human effort to exercise mastery over the natural injustices of the world. It is believed (as Meyerson suggests) that the State can know with some certainty the effectiveness of its regulation and oversight of the market (and, at times, wisdom to decide when it at times replaces markets). The State is thus the best locus and agent of the modern Enlightenment project.
Yet, the Right rightly notes that the State never has sufficient information, and cannot claim to be truly neutral in its decisions (particularly in the context of an electoral system). The State will always imperfectly control and regulate what it claims to be able to control – and, as case in point, it is clear in the instances noted by Meyerson – the economic crisis and off-shore oil drilling – government was unable to use and adequately apply even the regulatory mandates and discretion it had at its disposal (not to mention that it was compromised by a host of interests that urged government to remain at bay. The Left errs in thinking that a fool-proof wall can be built between those interests and the government). The Right warns legitimately against bad, ineffective, and arbitrary government.
While Meyerson initially points us toward a reconsideration of the legacy and consequences of the Enlightenment’s hubristic belief that humanity can gain the requisite knowledge and power to exert final mastery over nature – one that will eliminate all or most negative consequences resulting from that effort – he immediately departs from that conclusion by re-framing his proposal in the more narrow partisan terms we have grown accustomed to understanding the debate. The conclusion that actually follows from his analysis is not that the aim of mastery is better achieved by Government than Markets; rather, it ought to be that the aim of mastery was deeply flawed in the first instance.
Meyerson – and all those like him, who populate the elite institutions of the world – would do well to discover “the virtue of ignorance,” and the attendant modesty and humility that this virtue demands in our interactions with each other and the world. The correct conclusion to be drawn from the mounting catastrophes – ones that we mistakenly tend to discount as “unintended consequences” – is that the costs of mastery are simply too high, and the aim was fallacious to begin with. The mounting deleterious consequences show us that mastery was never possible, and that nature does and will assert itself – if need be, by the ravages of our own excesses.
What’s more, his column implicitly asks us to reconsider the Enlightenment’s reaction to the Lisbon earthquake – and perhaps our own to the Japanese earthquake. Time and again, news descriptions of the Japanese reaction to the earthquake have been admiring portrayals of their “stoicism.” While Anderson Cooper at CNN has attempted to frame the disaster’s aftermath in his accustomed and tiresome mode of “blame the government” (after all, his career was launched by that mode following Katrina, so why stop now?), the Japanese population appears largely to understand that the world was not made fundamentally for our pleasure and dominion. The world is a difficult and challenging place to inhabit – and we do best not to rest our hopes on the mechanisms of conquest, but upon our mutually-supportive practices of how best to live well in that challenging world, and our on-going capacity to provide, comfort and remember, in communities organized for that central purpose.
Perhaps this earthquake will be our anti-Lisbon, giving birth to a new philosophy that may yet need several hundred years for its realization (in the absence of such a re-evaluation, our momentary fear of nuclear power, I fear, will quickly be overshadowed by our fear of a world that will require the use of less energy). That philosophy would be a kind of anti-Enlightenment – one that will recommend not the acquisition of scientific knowledge for the end of human conquest of nature, but rather the cultivation of the “virtue of ignorance” toward the end of a more humble and deeper understanding of nature of which we are fundamentally and inescapably a part – and which, we are able to frankly acknowledge and accept, will kill us in the end. Perhaps, even, we will come think differently of the God that Voltaire mocked as incapable of creating a world completely hospitable to humanity, rather coming (again?) to understand ourselves merely as parts of a more comprehensive order that deserves our awe, our humble admiration, a form of piety, and ultimately our assent.