Science and Sentiment

Not much needs to be said here about the impersonalistic import of classical physics and the conception of science to which it gave rise and which in important respects dominated the West for centuries. In the course of the Enlightenment, classical materialism and atomism, the minor traditions of Greek philosophy which had been rejected by the speculative philosophers of the differentiational shift and which could not enter into the grand synthesis that was Christian theology, were again taken up and deployed in theoretical support of the emerging scientific administration of modernity. With the differentiational tension abolished, the West’s dynamism and creativity was increasingly refocused on the material sphere.

The story of how the West came seriously to adopt as a worldview the mechanistic model of matter in motion, how it built a predominantly materialistic civilization focused on the control and exploitation of nature, and how it proceeded to spread it to the rest of the world, is at least in the perspective of comparative cultural history not only a history of beneficial material and even, indirectly, some cultural and political advancement, but also one of a cultural, moral, and spiritual abnormity. From the model’s beginnings in the early modern period, when Hobbes and others immediately began to apply it to human beings, it has also produced problematic and sometimes tragic results of a scale and a number which alone foreclose any interpretation of Western modernity as simple progress of the values of the person.

Renaissance individualism, even among the learned humanists, had been marred from the beginning by the relativism, egocentrism, vanity, Prometheanism, and sheer vulgarity of the new secularism. When modern individualism was philosophically formulated by Hobbes, it was the grossest doctrine of a living lump of matter, without any distinctly human nature in common with others, causally impelled by the drive for self-preservation and the satisfaction of desires. This is the doctrine which still dominates liberal political philosophy, political economy, and utilitarianism, and which, behind the added facade of Locke’s philosophically largely unsupported moral rhetoric, is the basis of the modern theory of natural rights. The problem of setting only abstractive reason and nature against convention became much more evident in the eighteenth century than among the Greeks. [Again, while they point to the potential dangers in Strauss’s return to the classics, the historicist conservatives also criticize the failure of his American followers properly to distinguish between the classics and the radicals of the Enlightenment. But, as could be gleaned from the previous section, both parties fail to recognize the difference made by Voegelinian experiential transcendence, especially as supplemented by the personalistic dimension.]

Both the concept of reason and the concept of nature were susceptible of continuous reinterpretation. Modern rationalism was in the process of cutting off the upper layers of classical reason which accounted for the differentiational intuition of transcendence, and of reinterpreting nature in accordance with the new science. And in the course of the transition from transcendence to immanence, from theism via deism and pantheism to romanticism, Rousseau only added further new dimensions of the definition of the concept of nature to those of the rationalists. The individual conceived in the terms of any of the versions of modern “nature” was far from the person.

Meanwhile, the secularization of the Renaissance, the Reformation, hosts of new ideologues, and the new technological resources together made possible the consolidation of the position of the territorial monarchs, who set about neutralizing the independent aristocracy, centralizing power, and re-divinizing both the state and themselves, to some extent after the pattern of the early pantheism of the cosmological civilizations, the pull of which was still strongly felt. Because of the still historically influential concrete social and cultural results of differentiation in the intervening classical and Christian civilization, they could never completely succeed, but in addition to the intellectual developments of the new pantheism, the new political form of absolutism ensured that the process of modernization often continued to proceed in a manner intrinsically inimical to the values of the person.

Although Rousseau remains the paradigmatic thinker of romanticism, adding the sentimental variation of modernity to its uncompromising rationalization, [After almost ninety years, Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism is still the unsurpassed analysis of this phase of Western intellectual history, the objections even of critics like A. O. Lovejoy and I. Berlin tending to fall by the wayside. The latest edition (1991) contains a lengthy introduction by Ryn.] others before him had contributed powerfully to the development of this unavoidable complement. In the worldview of monistic mysticism and metaphysics, nature devolved from the absolute and perfect impersonal oneness, and it increasingly came to be thought that for this reason it could not contain evil in any sense except that of privation. On this view, no expansive desires and rational and emotional exploits could really be evil. The providential plan according to which man moved towards the secular kingdom of perfection was apprehended not only by the sinless certainty of unaided reason, but by the sinless certainty of the innocent heart.

Like the universe of immanentistic Hermeticism, man is good, and the Man Machine of Enlightenment materialism could not satisfy romantic man’s emotional side. Committed to his secularism, romantic man could not return to the differentiated reality of true personal identity. Despite his rejection of the rationalist materialism, atomism, and utilitarianism as well as the formalist conventions of the culture of the Enlightenment, he had to move forward, inevitably carrying with him most of the deeper legacy of the modern impersonalistic development. Instead of reversing its trend, he added to it supplementary dimensions.

In Rousseau we stand not only before the paradigmatic addition of the general romantic complement, but also before the equally paradigmatic prefiguration of its more specific dialectic of narcissistic individualism and egotism, on the one hand, and its longing for absorption in a larger whole, on the other. And the larger whole is both the womb of the good nature which is one with the cloudy haziness that is now the divine, as confessed by the Savoyard vicar in Émile, and the whole of the nation, of la volonté générale: rejecting the disruptiveness of Christianity, Rousseau praises the cohesive power of pagan civil religion as perceived through his distinctly new sensibility.

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