Skip to comments.A Rejoinder to David Brooks, or, Some Very Light Loafers to Fill
Posted on 05/29/2010 6:33:53 AM PDT by grey_whiskers
The New York Times
token resident conservative, occupying the Larry Craig distinguished columnist chair, recently wrote a fascinating article (Two Theories of Change) on the differences between the French Revolution and the American revolution, based upon the differences between their respective philosophical bases. As usual, it is concise, contains a wealth of material, and draws from a wide variety of sources.
Also, as usual, it is completely wrong: this piece virtually cries out for a Fisking.
Let's start with the first two paragraphs, to get off on the wrong foot(*).
"When I was in college I took a course in the Enlightenment. In those days, when people spoke of the Enlightenment, they usually meant the French Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire and Condorcet."
OK so far: except that Descartes lived between 1596 and 1650; Rousseau between 1712 and 1778; Voltaire between 1694 and 1778; and 1743 and 1794. So Descartes died 40 years or so before any of the others were even born. And even among these four there were stark disagreements: e.g. Voltaire attacked Rousseau for his injunctions on child-rearing, noting that Rousseau had given up *five* of his illegitimate children to the orphanages ("if my mistress makes a mistake, I don't want her punished with a baby"). Or, one could contrast Rousseau's Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (they corrupt morality and are "bad") to both Descartes' Meditations -- "God would not mislead me through the senses, so study of nature is "good"), and to Voltaire's fascination with Newton: or still more strongly, to Concordet's Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind.
Of course, these minor disagreements are just quibbling: the real reason Brooks approves of these philosophers is that in various ways, they all attacked different elements of institutionalized Christianity. Brooks lets the cat out of the bag in the next paragraph:
"These were philosophers who confronted a world of superstition and feudalism and sought to expose it to the clarifying light of reason. Inspired by the scientific revolution, they had great faith in the power of individual reason to detect error and logically arrive at universal truth. "
And again, despite his apparent erudition, Brooks is completely wrong: both in his chronology and his facts. (Like Obama, Brooks relies on neurolinuistic programming: if one writes with the proper cadence, and the expected grand sweeping phrases, the reader believes they are being informed, and will accept almost anything, no matter how inaccurate it is.)
For the chronology -- first, feudalism is a very broad term. And, as the "Enlightenment" did not happen at a uniform pace across all of Europe, neither did the development of different forms of government. Recall Voltaire's great admiration for a Constitutional Monarchy already in place in England), as compared to the absolute monarchy still in effect in France, or the connection of Voltaire to Friedrich der Große. This omission is all the more inexplicable, as Brooks goes on to discuss Hume, Adam Smith, and Burke over in Scotland and England just a couple of paragraphs later.
And as far as superstition being replaced by reason, let us consult (oh, *snap*) a Christian (and professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature) at Oxford and Cambridge, C.S. Lewis, from his book The Abolition of Man:
"The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic."
So that's just the first two paragraphs, on the French.
Now let's see what he does with the English Enlightenment. Brooks writes:
"But there wasnt just one Enlightenment, headquartered in France. There was another, headquartered in Scotland and Britain and led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. As Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in her 2004 book, The Roads to Modernity, if the members of the French Enlightenment focused on the power of reason, members of the British Enlightenment emphasized its limits."
So far, so good: though he would have done better to refer to The Theory of Moral Sentiments by name, as most people associate Smith solely with The Wealth of Nations. But then Brooks goes on to give a purported summary of these three giants in one short paragraph, as follows:
"They put more emphasis on our sentiments. People are born with natural desires to be admired and to be worthy of admiration. They are born with moral emotions, a sense of fair play and benevolence. They are also born with darker passions, like self-love and tribalism, which mar rationalist enterprises. We are emotional creatures first and foremost, and politics should not forget that. "
The key sentence here is "They are also born with darker passions, like self-love and tribalism, which mar rationalist enterprises."
Gee, that's a great way to sum up Adam Smith, who said in The Wealth of Nations that "by pursuing his own interest, [the individual] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he intends to promote it" and still more forcefully, the famous quote "t is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages".
So tell me again, David, how does self-love mar rationalist enterprises?
And do I really need to mention Ayn "altrusim sucks, self-interest rocks" Rand? (who, in case you forgot, David, is an atheist, and therefore by your lights, implicitly trustworthy.)
Brooks then goes on to give a synopsis of a dissertation written by a scholar at the University of Chicago (amazingly, it was not penned either by The Messiah, nor yet by Cass Sunstein or Elena Kagan, but by Yuval Levin.) The work is entitled The Great Law of Change. In this book, Levin contrasts the world views of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, and shows that the French and American revolutions are embodiments of these writers' respective philisophical beliefs. Paine, according to Yuval, followed the bent of the French philosophers mentioned earlier, and desired to "start from scratch" -- government ab initio, as it were: he even recommended that laws should expire every 30 years or so, so each generation could begin anew. In other words, neither long usage, nor success, of laws and structures give any indication to their validity. (+)
Brooks then explains Burke's influence on the American revolution:
"Burke, a participant in the British Enlightenment, had a different vision of change. He believed that each generation is a small part of a long chain of history. We serve as trustees for the wisdom of the ages and are obliged to pass it down, a little improved, to our descendents. That wisdom fills the gaps in our own reason, as age-old institutions implicitly contain more wisdom than any individual could have...If you try to re-engineer society on the basis of abstract plans, Burke argued, youll end up causing all sorts of fresh difficulties, because the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know. We could never get things right from scratch. "
It's funny, you know, since Brooks by the end of his article says that he agrees with Burke and the Scots, instead of Paine and the French(#). You'd think he'd know better than to have supported Barack "In five days we are going to fundamentally transform America" Obama, mmm, mmm, mmm.
But there is another item which both Yuval and Brooks seem to be missing. They make a great fuss of distinguishing between radical, discontinuous, sudden, change, and gradual, reforming change. Brooks sides with the second, and rejects the approach recommended by the French philosophers, that the "Enlightened" are required (and entitled) to suddenly re-work society for the good of their supposed intellectual inferiors. (There are shades of Plato's The Cave in that attitude, if you care to look: I like to call it the "Bright Man's Burden".)
But, since we have touched on empiricism, and rationality, and the scientific revolution, I find it amazing what Yuval and Brooks have overlooked something. In the midst of all of the philosphical and social upheaval, the spread of science, and everything else, there was an advance in mathematics. Voltaire was an admirer of Newton, who was influential in its development, as was Cordocet (tho' unpublished).
Which is concerned with functions, differentials, and the rate of change of functions.
If you have studied math, then you will know that there is more to a function than whether it is continuously differentiable (e.g. no sudden breaks) -- which is the mathematical description of the conflict between Paine and Burke. If you have a multivariate function ("the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know"), you can take *partial* derivatives: differentiate the function by taking an infinitesimal step with regard to only *one* coordinate.
And this itself allows consideration of the *direction* of change. To continue the metaphor, and pull in a 20th-century reference, Mao (who was an anti-Christian, atheistic, "enlightened" reformed of the type approved by the New York Times, just like Stalin), spoke of the "Great Leap Forward". But if there is a "Great Leap Forward" there can also be a "Great Leap Backwards".
Brooks leaves unresolved the issue of whether a change is good, just because it is slow. In other words, "Where are we going and why are we in this
Which brings up the last point on his article.
How can someone who paraphrases Burke in support of the American Revolution :
"Burke also supported the American Revolution, but saw it in a different light than Paine. He believed the British Parliament had recklessly trampled upon the ancient liberties the colonists had come to enjoy. The Americans were seeking to preserve what they had. "
ever get around to calling contemporary Americans Teabaggers?
I think the New York Times needs to replace David Brooks with a new conservative columnist. But don't worry: despite his apparent sophistication, they will be very light loafers to fill.
(*)In the case of Brooks, I suspect this is likely reminiscent of the party scene in Kozinski's Being There. The book, not the movie.
(+) So much for stare decisis, eh? Ever notice how much of this philosophy informs current liberals' thinking, except when it is inconvenient to *them*? Why is Roe v. Wade not subject to the "living, breathing document" mantra? Where is the penumbra on the 2nd Amendment allowing me to buy a Harrier jump-jet?
(#) Brooks also seems to leave out the significance of "endowed by their Creator" somewhere within the American revolution. Could this have anything to do with the circumstance that the American Revolution never developed into a Terror, followed by a dictatorship? See also Thomas "fictitious separation of Church and State" Jefferson's famous quote, "God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever."
No more posting, I'm off on an epic bicycle ride to Wisconsin with the Cubs.
(My son, on his high-school track team, just ran a 4:56 mile. It's gonna be an absolute *bear* to try to keep up with him.)
If the initial list of French thinkers is complete by Brooks or the author and not abridged for review purposes, the greatest is conspicuous by his absence.
This explains why he’s the NYT favorite “conservative”.
He just added another few adjectives to his title........boorish, inane, inept lightweight.
That is absolutely the heart of the difference between the American and French revolutions.
So the NY Times has NO fact checkers, nor any editors well enough educated to have spotted all these egregious errors?
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