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.


  1. I appreciate the story of intellectual history you’ve told here, and I follow your conclusions nearly to the end. What I’m less clear on is why all of this means that we have to stop using nuclear power. It seems to me that one could make precisely the opposite argument on the same evidence. The earthquake of Lisbon, after all, wasn’t caused by hubris or human technological overreach – a valid conclusion from catastrophe can simply be that disaster will strike sometimes. Have we really seen the kind of *systematic* destruction from nuclear power such that nuclear disaster indicates that we’ve overreached? Or is this just further evidence that “the best laid plans…”? I know that Porchers have other reasons for wanting energy reduction, but I don’t follow the argument here. The oil spill aside, why can’t this particular incident be cast as simply a catastrophic accident? Surely a 9 magnitude earthquake is bound to cause devastation rare enough to be fairly called an anomaly? Or is there something I’m missing here?

  2. Kevin,
    The commentary I’ve heard indicates that most of the current momentary nervousness about nuclear power is born of the desire that we should only build out this next main power source when it can be rendered safe. This impulse is born directly of the modern belief in mastery. Nuclear energy will never be “safe,” any more than life itself is not “safe.”

    I’m not suggesting that the earthquake and tsunami were born of that project, but that – in the current instance – we witness the fact that nature is not under our control (both evidenced by the tsunami, as well as the disaster at the nuclear plant). I heard a commentator on N(P)R yesterday argue that the “catastrophic” was in fact an inescapable norm of nuclear power. While perhaps relatively rare, we could expect catastrophes to be fairly regular, particularly when nuclear power plants become the norm. There’s certainly mounting evidence that we are inclined to be less than fully honest with ourselves about our shortcomings of knowledge, when that “ignorance” suits us.

    The fact remains that we are facing a future of fossil fuel energy constraints, as well as mounting calls to reduce carbon emissions. We will turn to nuclear power, of that I have little doubt. Recent events will slow that effort, but they will be pursued. I believe that this civilization will extract and utilize every concentrated exogenous energy source – no matter its costs – until the last gasp. It will do so precisely because the increase of power is the only way we can experience the sensation that we are masters. It is an illusion to which we are addicted, and we will discount “anomalies” and costs until the bitter end.

  3. “It is generally assumed that the probability of a reactor accident, such as at Chernobyl, to be [sic] one in ten thousand years. That might seem safe enough. But with a thousand reactors, we should expect an accident every ten years on average. We currently have around 450 reactors worldwide, which means an accident every twenty-two years on average. Are we not already on schedule?”

    — Wes Jackson, Consulting the Genius of the Place

  4. This was a great post. It expresses exactly what I have been meditating about since the earthquake, only it is put in much better terms. Thanks for this piece.

    I notice that an issue that permeates this post, as well as the comments thus far, is the basic question of cost-benefit analysis (for lack of a better phrase). Whenever humans seek to “improve” upon the natural order, there is not only the potential for (sometimes great) gain, but also a connected risk for (sometimes greater) loss. If you build bridges over rivers and start driving cars on them, people stand to benefit from such things as greater economic opportunity or liberty of movement. But then, every once in a while one of those bridges is going to come down, and people are going to die. Of course, “advancements” such as these are almost always backed by assurances that things won’t go wrong.

    A part of “the virtue of ignorance” would seem to be an understanding that things will go wrong, and a consideration of whether we’re willing to accept the consequences when they do go wrong. On the topic of nuclear power, for example, humanity has many things to gain by using the technology, but also much to lose. For me, I’d rather live in a society where I can, with some assurance of survival, go without this laptop computer I’m typing on than live in one where I have to worry about nuclear catastrophes occurring all too often.

  5. Only thing I’d add to these excellent thoughts is that it seems to me that human complacency increases in direct proportion to time, so that those charged with monitoring and maintaining a plant become less and less attentive and prepared as years without an accident or threat go by. Same for the communities in which the plants stand and the operators live. Furthermore, in a culture of deteriorating regard for public service, which such operators provide, one must assume that declining morale of those operators has to be taken into account.

    I think of a new enlightenment as living more by the light of the sun rather than nuclear- and fossil fuel-generated electricity born of the old enlightenment. Early to bed, early to rise—ah, for the simple life of the healthy, wealthy and wise! Bring it on!

  6. There’s no going back on technology, only going forward. That’s a moral imperative: going back to some buccolic pre-technological past would mean a hideous death from famine and disease and violence for 95% of humanity. Could even the most merciful God forgive a genocide on that scale? A new age purchased on such slaughter would be accursed from the start.

  7. No one is saying we must return to a mythical pre-technological past. Only that we must reconsider the modern scientism which has led to the worship of technology with could end up killing 99% percent of humanity through its degradation of nature.

  8. JonF—
    Would you describe nuclear disarmament as an effort to “go back to some bucolic pre-technological past?” I would assume not. So what do your terms “forward” and “back” mean with respect to technology? Surely in every human endeavor we not only can but must exercise judgment based on experience and observation. Isn’t observation— empirical evidence—the very foundation of science? So, OBSERVE: “hideous death from famine and disease and violence” is exactly what we invite with BLIND faith in technologies (like nuclear energy) pursued without regard to their impacts on life. With all due respect, your comment employs a debased understanding of science, for when science and technology are invoked without regard for nature’s limits and to IMPEDE nature’s necessity for ADAPTATION, our understandings of them have become debased and corrupt. Science rightly understood helps us work WITH nature, don’t you think?

  9. This causes me to recall a line from Wendell Berry’s greatest poem:

    Praise ignorance,
    for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.

  10. JonF, Tim Holton, I think of scientific knowledge as growing, not progressing. Not saying one is better nor that either of you is claiming it’s one way or the other, just joining the talk and thinking it’s funny how the description can change the associations.

    Anyway, we forget things. There’s Robin Dunbar over at Oxford who says our limit for friends is right around 150. (sorry, no html from me)

    I’m guessing something similar applies to a person’s knowledge. So what I’m thinking is that scientific knowledge keeps growing, but we can only know a little bit, and that amount is more or less fixed. Forgive me, I’m stuck on the extended mind thing, but what is all the talk about Google and crackberries and so on but an acknowledgment our lives are a bit beyond our capacity? Maybe it starts there, Deneen – my two cents.

  11. Mark Mitchell, on his post two days ago, “Wendell Berry & the New Urbanism”, quotes Berry: “the modern mind longs for the future as the medieval mind longed for Heaven.” As this suggests, growth and progress seem to be both articles of a misplaced faith—that they naturally happen and that they are necessarily improvements.

    Underscoring your essay, Professor Deneen, the Berry quote also struck me because it raised for me the question of whether, in the past few years, our minds are no longer the modern minds of which he wrote. Nowadays the future seems to be no heaven; fewer and fewer look to it with hope. Is it yet fair to say that the dominant humanist habit of faith in the future, in increasing mastery, that for over two hundred years has characterized our culture no longer holds? If so, this may indeed be a major historical turning point.

    “Perhaps this earthquake will be our anti-Lisbon”—here’s a glimpse, perhaps, of our “new philosophy” awakening: this past Sunday’s NY Times published 3 pieces by 3 Japanese columnists ( ). One writes of the post-war era, “For 66 years, we lived the ‘postwar’ life…

    “We lost many things in those years, chief among them the bond between people. Companies, families and neighbors ceased to work together, and the word kozoku was coined to describe our country: ko meaning ‘isolated’ or ‘orphaned,’ zoku meaning ‘family’ or ‘tribe.’ We were lonely, adrift…

    “Now, amid the chaos of the battle we are waging, we feel a familiar sense of exhilaration in the air, an intense feeling of solidarity. We can only wonder what the new Japan will look like.”

    Out of this horror, the writer finds wonder. Perhaps in welcoming the return of feelings of solidarity those feelings will regain proper value, insight into what in the modern world killed them off, and bring the clarity and courage—and wonder—to face the natural limits of our powers of mastery.

  12. The notion that the so-called “Left” is embodied by a fundamental support of the idea that the government is a counterforce to the market is one of the more durable fantasies out there. It bookends the charming fairy tale that the Right is a supporter of small government. The American Government , Right and Left is so fundamentally entwined in market manipulations that it has used its powers to concoct that “get out of jail free card” known as Reserve Currency Status. K Street is a bi-partisan affair. Both Left and Right are freebooters in an industrial , hyper-exploitative and devil-may-care market that owns the participants rather than being employed by the participants for the widest possible enrichment and pleasure. We might give it a clinical diagnosis such as “Stockholm Syndrome ” but good old fashioned “greed” and a lust for power will do just fine. The last time I looked, an arch-“left” took their market into Marxism and made every bit of a mockery of people’s lives as even the most hoary “free-market” enthusiasts on the Right.

    Once again, with each missile launched off an American Aircraft Carrier en-route to Libya, we see another bucket of debt-fueled cash sent sputtering away to someone’s death several time zones distant while we here at home nervously skitter about the Skinner Box of declining aspirations. The spectator is trained well. We are a totalitarian witness.

    Obviously, conservation, aka stewardship is a threat to the industrialized handlers of our government, both right and left.
    Keep moving the orchestra to the stern as the ship plows down prow-first.

    Voltaire had his Dr. Pangloss, we here in the land of Exceptionalism have our Dr. Pandross.

  13. I wonder if Prof. Deneen might say a little more about just how he understands the orientation to mastery over nature and how it differs from alternative orientations. One reason why attacks on the domination of nature so often fall flat is that they can seem to be expressions of mere antipathy for technology. It’s not just that critiques of the project of mastering nature can appear to be self-indulgent longings for a simpler past that just isn’t coming back, as JonF griped above. More fundamentally, it’s that techne is pretty fundamental to our nature as rational animals, indeed is one of the most important ways in which we express our rational nature. Not only do even the most technologically primitive human societies survive only because of their use of technology, but it’s hard to see why there is anything inherently bad about our efforts to seek preservation, comfort, and freedom from toil by controlling the effects of the non-rational natural world on us. The very idea of opposing the mastery of nature can come to seem absurd if we suppose that the alternative is to live like hunter-gatherers or even medieval peasants, to make no efforts to enhance the material conditions of our flourishing by exploiting and transforming nature as we find it. I am sympathetic to Prof. Deneen’s critique and to the long and polyphonous tradition of identifying the domination of nature as a source of modernity’s intellectual and moral crises. But I am sympathetic to it only because I do not believe that it poses an alternative between domination of nature and life before the industrial revolution. The trouble is, I’m not quite sure what the alternative is, and I hope to benefit from observing better minds at work on the question.

  14. A little late get back here, but let me note my puzzlement that someone brings up the nuclear disarmament movement in reply to my post. Where in the world does anyone get from what I posted that I am a fan of nuclear weapons? I’d be more likely to convert to Shi’a Islam and move to Iran than I would to start singing the praises of The Bomb!
    Meanwhile, nuclear weapons and nuclear power are two different things. We should no more conflate them than we should conflate an electric chair with the PCs on which we type these replies.
    On the broader issue, technology IS our nature, it’s what we do, as birds fly and cats chase and kill rodents. Wisdom on this topic starts by getting rid of the technology vs nature paradigm and recognizing that human technology (and of course human beings themselves) are as much a part of the Earth’s natural order as anything else we encounter in this world.

  15. Speaking of the “virtue of ignorance,” Chesterton compliments this notion:

    “One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.”

  16. JonF: The previous commentator’s appeal to nuclear weapons was, I take it, an appeal to your dislike of nuclear weapons, not a suggestion that you support them. The point, as I understood it, was that you yourself implicitly acknowledge that when we consider whether we should rid ourselves of a piece of technology, we are not really talking about whether we should “go back” in time, or, if we are talking about “going back,” it isn’t at all obvious that we can’t or shouldn’t. Thus your “there’s no going back” claim is either wrong or irrelevant to the questions at hand.

    That said, I’m a bit suspicious of anyone who can’t see that there is, indeed, a much closer connection to nuclear power and nuclear weapons than to PCs and electric chairs. Consider, for instance, why the UN and everyone else has reasons to be worried about Iran building nuclear power stations even if they currently intend to use them only for to generate power. My computer does not so easily lend itself to the lethal electrocution of people as a nuclear power station lends itself to the creation of nuclear weapons. Moreover, and perhaps more pressingly, my computer does not lend itself to nuclear disaster quite so readily as a nuclear power station. I don’t for a minute think that these observations constitute anything like a knock-down argument against using nuclear power. I just don’t quite believe that you fail to see the disanalogy between nuclear power plants and personal computers.

    Finally, it’s one thing to say “oh, let’s leave off this false nature/technology dichotomy.” Probably everybody here is agreed that we would be mistaken to sever nature and technology too cleanly. Still, to the extent that Prof. Deneen et al. are even half-right that the orientation to mastery and domination of nature has something to do with why our creation and use of technology has landed us in such a potentially disastrous predicament, we need a clearer view of what the alternatives to that orientation really are, what these various orientations really amount to, whether we stand much chance of re-orienting ourselves, how we might go about doing that, and so on. As unhelpful as the dichotomy can be, it’s even less helpful simply to condemn the dichotomy. I worry that the culmination of your train of thought in your last post is that it’s our nature to do whatever we in fact do, and so we may as well do it. You obviously don’t think that’s true (if you do, what on earth are you doing reading something like FPR?), but I’m having a hard time seeing how it isn’t an eventual implication of the line you’ve taken above.

  17. Re: I worry that the culmination of your train of thought in your last post is that it’s our nature to do whatever we in fact do, and so we may as well do it.

    You don’t know me, and that’s because I have only a very few posts on this site– not your fault.
    But you are nonetheless badly mistaken if you think I am advancing the same argument that Alexander Pope once did– “Whatever is, is right”.
    Here’s the best I can say what I think of these questions in a brief few words. It doesn’t matter whether nuclear energy or any other technology is “good” or not. What matters is how good we are. That’s where all the vital questions are at: inside, not out there.

  18. Jon:

    Certainly, whether or not each of us is good is more important than the choice of what kind of energy our civilization decides to employ.

    This does not mean, however, that such temporal (and non-personal) issues are of no importance at all. If we do indeed create a world that places itself on the brink of disaster while wilfully keeping itself in a state of denial – and whether or not this would indeed be the case were we to expand nuclear power production is certainly unclear, I would argue – we would certainly be culpable for its consequences. This cannot be dismissed.

    I must say that I’m a little at a loss as to what Mr. Deneen means in his critiquing of the “market.” If the market becomes the entirety of the driving force behind society, it clearly becomes a great evil. However, the free market as such can be (and is) a great good in its proper place and function.

  19. JonF

    “What matters is how good we are. That’s where all the vital questions are at: inside, not out there.”

    Good indeed, not just in thoughts, words, feelings but in DEED—what indeed we do, what we indeed make, how we indeed treat others, how we indeed treat the earth. Yes, indeed.

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