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Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Unexpected Consequences of The Enlightenment

Eric Hoffer notes that when existing beliefs and institutions are discredited, and people are in the grip of the idea of change, then the society is ripe for the rise of a new fanatical faith. The Renaissance, he notes, was followed by the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, and the French Enlightenment gave birth to Marx’s communist revolution. Here’s an excerpt from True Believer (Chapter 15, “Men of Words”):

"A wide diffusion of doubt and irreverence thus leads often to unexpected results. The irreverence of the Renaissance was a prelude to the new fanaticism of Reformation and Counter Reformation. The Frenchmen of the enlightenment who debunked the church and the crown and preached reason and tolerance released a burst of revolutionary and nationalist fanaticism which has not abated yet. Marx and his followers discredited religion, nationalism and the passionate pursuit of business, and brought into being the new fanaticism of socialism, communism, Stalinist nationalism and the passion for world dominion."

He goes on to make the following observation:

"When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism. We merely prevent its leaking out at a certain point, with the likely result that it will leak out at some other point. Thus by denigrating prevailing beliefs and loyalties, the militant man of words unwittingly creates in the disillusioned masses a hunger for faith. For the majority of people cannot endure the barrenness and futility of their lives unless they have some ardent dedication, or some passionate pursuit in which they can lose themselves. Thus, in spite of himself, the scoffing man of words becomes the precursor of a new faith."

Hoffer is right. All movements, cultural, political, or philosophical have unexpected consequences. It is noteworthy that Marx was not a Marxist, but his ideas helped create Marxism.

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