Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul, revisited

Belated review of John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. Penguin, 1992. Why review a new book when you can just as easily review an old one? But if I want to review an old book, published in 1992, I’d better say why. Is it because Saul has reached his use-by date? No, not necessarily at all. Is it because he is more wrong than right? Not at all. But I had better say early-on here, what to recommend, if I happen to retrospectively agree with Saul, by 1992, that Reason has stopped serving us. If Reason indeed has reached its use-by date, what would I recommend? And I would have to say: Empathy. The explanation of why is far below. First we have to plough through Saul’s interesting book.

Where does Saul end up? One might say, Saul ends up inside a seriously unlikeable book, John Carroll, The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited. (Carlton North, Victoria, Australia, Scribe, 2014 edition.) But perhaps that would be going too far, and I only mention it so the reader can be sure I’ve thought about the question

Saul as rather a freethinker prefers free-ranging questions to answers which might be time-bound. He prefers doubt to alleged knowledge. Reason used to be helpful, but now it has become part of the arsenal of dictatorship to be used against us. It has reached its use-by date. Voltaire’s Bastards, we, all of us, is a big book (about 585 pages of text), stuffed full of critique of the present, but not always reliable. Early on, I criticised Saul for saying too little about art (painting), literary work (poetry or novels), but I was wrong, he does speak of them to the end of his book. I did think though, that his outlook on war is quite deficient, more so as he comes from a military family. Saul’s book concentrates on the period basically from the Seven Years War (1756-1673) to the present (1992), and I think this period carries a great deal of historical baggage, particularly re wars, that Saul skates over for the convenience of his thesis. The rise of the USA after the American War of Independence, the switches made by the British Empire, Britain’s acquisition of Australasia, the rise of Communism in China and Russia and other countries.

There were simply more wars fought than Saul’s thesis feels comfortable with. I ended thinking his book is too partial, somewhat lopsided in its outlook on history-and-development. Saul is merely a cherry-picker, beautifully written as his book is, finally disappointed with Reason as he is. He gives too much attention to The Hero (that is, to Napoleon in France) and not to a range of meanings of heroes and their functions throughout human history.

Disappointing as Saul can be, he can also be uncommonly good. One might say, his book does ask one important question: why are different nations so slow to agree to good, new ideas? Really, what does humanity, or culture, have against good ideas? But Saul is the first writer I’ve ever read who cares enough about the outbreak of World War One to provide a run-down on the five other would-be assassins of Archduke Ferdinand, besides Gavrilo Princip, and I valued this. Saul is excellent, too, on the use, largely in the USA and Canada, of the film and TV industries. So much so, I began to wonder, what would he write about the Internet since 1996? What would he say today about the rise of belief in anthropogenic climate change?

At which point, I began to think of other books I’d read. About a good deal of history since 1763. About computerisation since 1983 (the year that desktop computers hit desktops). About climate change, such as a book by another Canadian; Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate. (London, Penguin/Allen Lane, 2014), with which I disagree on the grounds that climate change will also change the kind of unthinking Marxism that Klein espouses. About today’s state-run social surveillance systems. About the Internet, about the triviality and downright meanness of which of what passes for “social media”. (I really mean, antisocial media.)

I marked p. 281 with the thought that here, Saul jumps to conclusions about history here. On p. 284 I stopped to think again on what Saul said about Jefferson and banking re the American Revolution. One blurb says, “A major expose of power at the end of the 20th Century … You’ll find a brilliantly irreverent scholar dispensing wisdom, humour and despair as he discusses the failure of “Reason” to create a Reasonable World.” But I ended the book with wondering why, in a 2019 kind of way, why politicians and not just in my own country, are doing so woefully badly, and I don’t think it is because of the corruptions of “reason”; it feels like something far worse is afoot. So I think Saul’s book is very time-bound.

I used to like and recommend Saul’s books, but my fellow Australians seem to have gone off him and in recent years seldom mention him. I think, Australians have grown in confidence these past few decades, and though we have our own sets of problems, maybe we feel we no longer need or want advice from a learned Canadian. But on yet another hand, Saul’s book, Voltaire’s Bastards, contains more of the history of literary developments in France than I have ever read before, and I’m impressed with this literary history … (I mean, I’m aged nearly 71 by now, and feel I know too little about all these French developments.)

I did love the stuff on Voltaire himself. But as I waded through the book, though, I began to think, this is a book for people from the Northern Hemisphere, not the Southern. For Australians too tend to cherry pick what they want from the Northern Hemisphere … I ended with the feeling that ultimately, Saul was discussing merely the human condition 1763-1992, though with some interesting diversions. (Such as select quotes from the Chinese classic, Sun Tzu, The Art of War.) But I cannot understand why Saul did so little to distinguish between Jesus and Christ,. Matters here have been the subject of scholarly debate. I cannot see them as the same person at all. Or is it that in Canada, one is allowed to be a learned critic but not a casual heretic?

The decline of Reason? Why don’t we then try another tack? We don’t we try, say, empathy?

Not that I would recommend Empathy lightly. I mean it. Today, I read what is meant by the distinction between Right and Left in politics as meaning, too little empathy vs maybe too much empathy, maybe misplaced empathy. But, empathy. Around the world of right-wingerdom, what these nations seems to most in common is too little empathy; they are non-inclusive; where in various other countries; The Left, meantime, often seems either to misplace compassion or to propose absurd economic panaceas (as with Naomi Klein, above). But if Saul is right, if Reason has reached its use-by date and gone sour on us, we obviously need new guidelines, a new mix of public virtues. For what we have is not a corruption of the rule of Reason, what we have is simply, too little empathy. And more so as world population grows.

Nor is this word “empathy” exactly synonymous with Compassion. Compassion as with the usual meaning of the word in the English language, compassion as a Buddhist virtue. Consider, please, that India has had Buddhism now for 2100 years or more and India is still a disgrace. So Buddhism, or Compassion, is not necessarily a good advertisement for anything in particular. It seems that the popularity of the discovery in Psychology of Emotional Intelligence has gone off the boil a little; as it now seems to be a subset of intelligence in general.

So if Reason has let us down, and become just another strut for the reign of dictatorship, what is the way out of the dilemma? I’d say, Empathy. But what would we mean by – Empathy? Well, look in the dictionary. One of which says, empathy is: “a mental entering into the feeling or spirit of a person or thing, appreciative perception or understanding.”

I mention this as with the Holy Books, plural, written 2000 years ago or more – all they did was discover that we humans each have an inner self, and we are still talking about this discovery – as though it was not just important, it was “spiritual”. What would happen if we talked about the inner selves of more than those we usually talk about? And actually we don’t know yet, we still have to wonder. We look at the world around us, and we wonder. Instead of doing something useful, we wonder.


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