Voltaire’s Bastards

Since the Renaissance, and particularly the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, reason has been exalted in Western culture. It has been cited both as the driving force and as the justification for the technological advances which have allowed European culture first to dominate and then to transform the rest of the world, a change summed up as “progress.” But, as John Ralston Saul details in Voltaire’s Bastards, the legacy of reason and progress has not been order and confidence but crisis and confusion.

This is so, Saul insists, because the original concept of reason, as expressed by writers and thinkers such as Voltaire, has either been lost or systematically perverted. Where Voltaire urged skepticism and healthy questioning, later devotees of “reason” have used the concept to justify increased specialization and compartmentalization of life. Control has been taken away from the individual and vested in the hands of mysterious experts who, as Saul grimly demonstrates from an amazingly wide range of examples, know little except how to exploit the illusion of knowledge.

They can do this, Saul notes, because reason has created in us an insatiable need for certainty, a hunger for answers, and then assured us that these can be provided only by those experts. Thus we blindly trust politicians who cannot lead; admire authors who cannot write; and revere celebrities famous for nothing but fame. The modern Western world is awash in these, the latest of Voltaire’s bastards.

They all are evidence, Saul claims, of a single, central problem: with the triumph of “reason” we have become so desperate for answers that we have forgotten how important it is to ask questions.