Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Wicked Company

The first longer book read on my iPad
this is how the great actor David Garrick called a group of intellectuals around Denis Diderot and Baron Paul Thierry von Holbach he had first met in Paris in 1763. The reason for Garrick's remark was that these people who regularly met at von Holbach's salon rue des Moulins in Paris were avowed atheists discussing the retarding effect of religion on Enlightenment. As Diderot put it: The priest, whose system is a tissue of absurdities, secretly wants to uphold ignorance; reason is the enemy of faith, and faith is the base of the power, the fortune, and the social standing of the priest. Other known people enjoying the good food around von Holbach's table at various times were Edward Gibbon, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, David Hume, Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin.

"Light" Enlightenment
Other protagonists of Enlightenment like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire had likewise fought the Catholic Church but at the same time developed a new deism. For both a godless world is hopeless as Voltaire wrote to Rousseau in 1756: No, I have suffered too much in this life not to expect another. All the subtleties of metaphysics will not make me doubt the immortality of the soul for a moment; I feel it, I believe it, I want it, I hope for it, I shall defend it to my last breath. Already Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologiae about the anguish of the damned: Hell was just ceasing of hope which meant for those living that hopelessness is Hell. Voltaire brought in his famous watchmaker when he stated: I have always regarded atheism as the greatest confusion of reason, because it is as ridiculous to say that the arrangement of the world does not prove a supreme artisan, as it would be impertinent to say that a watch does not prove a watchmaker.

Radical Enlightenment
There was however this so-called radical Enlightenment advocated by Diderot and von Holbach Philipp Blom's book made me aware of: The radical philosophers had demolished the great church that centuries of Christian tradition had erected in the human soul - indeed, they had destroyed the very conception of a soul, leaving nothing but pure matter conscious of itself. There was no revelation, no divine law, no life after death, and, most important of all, no guilt induced by the age-old curse of original sin. Life was to be lived now. Diderot was the most radical proponent of Enlightenment when he stated: Christianity has committed the greatest possible abuse of the mind; to me this religion is the most absurd and the most atrocious of dogmas; the most unintelligible, the most metaphysical, the most convoluted, and therefore the most subjected to divisions, sects, schisms, heresies; . . . the most vulgar, the most depressing, the most gothic and the most sad of ceremonies; the most puerile and the most unsociable in its morals . . . the most intolerant of all. . . . I would say that because man, who is naturally superstitious needs a fetish, the simplest and most innocent fetish is the best of all.

It was Diderot who had made von Holbach an atheist as Blom describes: One day the baron had come to see his friend at the workshop of an engraver, where Diderot was checking the drafts for illustrations that were to be part of the Encyclopédie [for which Diderot in famous for], plates dealing with botanical subjects. "But surely," the baron insisted, pointing to the intricate depiction of flowers, leaves, blossoms, and fruit stems, "all this beauty, all this ingenuity is proof of a higher intelligence?” Diderot had simply looked at him, unmoved, whereupon the baron literally broke down, weeping.

Eventually Diderot and von Holbach extended their rejection of Christianity to all religions. They and the radical intellectuals around them venerated materialism, reason, and natural passions instead. They were against privileges for the aristocracy, absolute monarchs, and they criticized slavery.

The "Religious" Revolution
What looked as the ideal basis for the upcoming French Revolution was rejected by its protagonists like Robespierre who rather followed the deism of Rousseau in creating a new state religion serving the Revolution: Oh, divine Rousseau, you taught me to know myself. . . . I wish to follow your venerated path. . . . Happy will I be if, in the dangerous course that an unprecedented revolution now lays out before us, I remain constantly faithful to the inspirations that I have drawn from your writings! As radical atheism was too difficult to accept by the French people brought up in the Catholic faith a Supreme Being replaced the Christian God. Pierre Bayle already stated at the end of the 17th century: Ordinary people will believe anything, because they are lazy and unwilling to analyze their beliefs.

Eventually Rousseau's utopia of an ideal state ended in the Committee of Public Safety and bloody tyranny until the revolution had killed it's children. Napoleon - when he had taken over and to be on the safe side - returned to the bosom of the Catholic Church, a fact the German writer Johann Gottfried Seume when he saw the dictator in Paris on July 14, 1802, on his way home from his Spaziergang nach Syrakus (Hike to Syracuse) sarcastically commented: He [Napoleon] could have become the savior of the major part of humanity but he contented himself being the first re-born son of the Roman Church.

Kings to Be Strangled with the Guts of the Priests
One of the earlier French philosophers Julien Offray de La Mettrie had set the tone for the people in von Holbach's salon in his book L'homme machine (Machine man): After all, human existence is governed not by reason but by natural laws. We can never know why we are here, but we must simply live and die, no different from and hardly more lasting than mushrooms appearing after a rainfall or spring flowers by the roadside. We must simply learn to live with our urge for ultimate meaning and accept that it cannot be satisfied. This was strong stuff even for Diderot although he agreed that nature is not concerned about good and evil. She has two ends: the conservation of the individual, the propagation of the species. And with the latter in mind Diderot aims below the belt in his novel Jacques le fatalist: Physical love is “natural, necessary and right,” but for most people it seems easier to pronounce terrible words such as “kill” and “betray” than “that word.” What hypocrisy, he scoffs. After all, “futuo" is no less common than the word "bread." It is known to every age and idiom.

For the contents of his book Man Machine La Mettrie was ousted even from liberal Holland eventually finding refuge in Potsdam at Frederick the Great's court. Diderot and Holbach were warned and published their books and papers using pen names thus avoiding persecution by the royal court and the church. So far this symbiosis of throne and altar somehow had kept human moral going but the priest Jean Meslier attacked the charade in his testament that only became known in 1761: On the one side the priests . . . command you on pain of eternal damnation to obey the magistrates, the princes and the sovereigns, because God has put them in their place to rule over others; and the princes, on the other hand, enforce respect for the priests, give them good appointments and good revenues, and maintain them in the vain function of their false ministry. Meslier’s maxim was that the world would only be happy once the last king has been strangled with the guts of the last priest. However, when king and priest are absent would not chaos result?

The Moral Question
Friedrich Melchior Grimm had no illusions: Let us not be infants, let us not be frightened of words. The fact is that there is no other right in the world except the right of the strongest, and that, since it must be said, this is the only legitimacy. Adam Smith being less pessimistic asked: How can people, who are driven by self-interest, act morally, even altruistically? His answer was "compassion": The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it and Hume added: Values are not God-given; they are not even universal - they are simply an abstract way of articulating what appears humane and useful at a particular point in time.

Against this pessimistic attitude the philosophers around Rousseau placed their "natural" religion: If only people could learn to listen to their inner voice, to trust the voice of nature speaking through them, then they would automatically be in unison with God’s intentions, with his reason. What Rousseau calls the inner voice people should listen to the Church would possibly call the Holy Spirit. With respect to inter-human relation the proponents of moderate Enlightenment placed their hopes on a "social contract that could raise people above this state of murderous anarchy and allow individuals to flourish, protected by the security of laws ... In fact, Rousseau’s ideal is the next best thing to a return to childlike simplicity: a community of contented, rural freeholders, living in harmony with nature and without competition, without property, oppression, or duplicity - a perfect kibbutz, in fact, long before the first socialist Zionist set foot in Palestine."

Diderot's Modern Ideas
In his rather pessimistic view of life Diderot came to the conclusion somehow anticipating Darwin's ideas: What counts in nature is the propagation of the species. For him morality boils down to a simple: Do good, know the truth, that is what distinguishes one man from the next. The rest is nothing. The duration of life is so short, its real needs so narrow, and once one is gone, it matters so little whether one was someone or no one. In the end, one needs nothing but a dirty rag and four planks of pine.

Diderot not only anticipated Darwin but the notion of DNA strands too when he stated: Birth defects have shown that each characteristic of an organism is programmed by a “filament” and if such a filament is missing from the sheaf of information, the resulting organism will be deformed. He also postulates an “infinity of successive developments” by which each organism is perfecting itself assuring the “survival of the species.

Atheism Harder Than Belief
Had not Noble Prize winner Jacques Monod called man's quest for God being a genetic defect? And did not geneticist Dean Hamer postulate a God gene predisposing man towards spiritual or mystic experiences? If belief is something natural then it is much harder to be a radical atheist than to believe in something. How would one interpret Diderot's attending mass when he returned from Holbach's salon to the village of his parents?


P.S.: I did not know that the third president of the US Thomas Jefferson had a full collection of philosophical books he possibly had acquired while he was in Paris from 1785 to 1789 serving his young country. Blom writes: The salon members’ writings became an integral part of how the founding fathers thought about the nascent United States. Jefferson’s handwritten catalogue of books lists not only works by British empiricists such as Hume but also titles by Voltaire and a whole list of crucial books of the radical Enlightenment: the famous De l’esprit by Helvétius (the cause of the 1757 crisis of the Encyclopédie), Holbach’s Système de la nature his Théologie portative (here interestingly attributed to Diderot), a set of Oeuvres philosophiques by Diderot, several anonymous or pseudonymous works such as Holbach’s Christianity Unveiled (“by Boulanger,” in Italian) as well as Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes and Beccaria’s Of Crimes and Punishments, and a wide selection of precursors, such as Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza, and Pierre Bayle. Holbach’s Paris library had the same books on its shelves—as philosophers he and Jefferson were speaking the same language. A notion straight from Holbach’s table and the sum of the philosophical ideas defended there is the "pursuit of happiness".

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