BECKER, Carl L.
The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers
Yale University Press, 1959 edition
1. The book contains four lectures by the
author delivered at
2. It is important to realize what philosophical position the author holds in order to understand his critique of the Enlightenment tradition(s) and, significantly, at the end of the book, of the Russian Revolution. On the one hand, he is in total agreement with the most radical of the Enlightenment authors in their attack on Christianity and on any ontology of true transcendence; in fact, the heart of his criticism of the most prominent philosophes was that they were cowardly in not openly accepting the atheism that "reason" had led them to, and their consequent opting for a type of reasoning that paralleled what the author falsely asserts is the methodology of the Christian medievalists whom the philosophes had utterly rejected and saw as the source of all evil: that is, they determined all by an a priori "faith". On the other hand, the author, while acknowledging the "breakthrough" carried out by the philosophes —their making the break with Christianity and all other-worldly conceptions—, goes beyond what he considers their weakly formulated atheisms and somewhat self-defeating epistemologies to what he calls the ultimate position reached by "reason" and what is now consolidated in twentieth century high culture: that is, the radical process view, which is the negation of all rationality in any recognizable sense.
3. The latter position of the author is revealed in the first lecture —"Climates of Opinion"— where under the notion of changing paradigms in different epochs, he explains that the twentieth century has reached the process world view, in his mind, the ultimate ontology: "Such is the world pattern that determines the character and direction of modern thinking. The pattern has been a long time in the weaving. It has taken eight centuries to replace the conception of existence as divinely composed and purposeful drama by the conception of as a blindly running flux of disintegrating energy. But there are signs that the substitution is now fully accomplished; and if we wished to reduce eight centuries of intellectual history to an epigram, we could do no better than to borrow the words of Aristophanes, 'Whirl is king, having deposed Zeus'... Since Whirl is king, we must start with the whirl, the mess of things as presented in experience. We start with the irreducible brute fact, and we must take it as we find it, since it is no longer permitted to coax or cajole it, hoping to fit it into some or other category of thought on the assumption that the pattern of the world is a logical one. Accepting the fact as given, we observe it, experiment with it, verify it, classify it, measure it if possible, and reason about it as little as may be. The questions we ask are "What'?" and 'How?" What are the facts and how are they related [moment by moment]? If sometimes, in a moment of absent-mindedness or idle diversion, we ask the question "Why?" the answer escapes us. Our supreme object is to measure and master the world rather than to understand it" (pp. 15-17). A few pages before the author had said: "For good or ill we must regard the world as a continuous flux, a ceaseless and infinitely complicated process of waste and repair, so that 'all things and principles of things' are to be regarded as no more than 'inconstant modes or fashions,' as the 'concurrence, renewed from moment to moment, of forces parting sooner or later on their way.' The beginning of this continuous process of change is shrouded in impenetrable mist; the end seems more certain [the author is referring to an overextended theory of entropy or of the supposed inevitable running down of everything with time], but even less engaging" (p. 12). The followup to this is a series of quotes from J. H. Jeans, Professor Dampier-Whetham, Bertrand Russell (Cf. pp. 12-14).
4. At the end of the book he faces to a degree the reality of the Communist Revolution of 1917 and what it had already produced by the time of his lectures in 1931. He forcefully affirms the fundamental similarities of the French and Communist revolutions: "(for 'people' read 'proletariat,' for 'aristocrats' read 'bourgeoisie,' for 'kings' read 'capitalist government')" (p. 163). He could have added (he does so less than forthrightly), as the more fundamental point of similarity, militant atheism, the complete rejection of the true God and His law. The author freely acknowledges the difficulty that the enthusiastic followers of the atheists of the French Revolution, including himself, have in being enthusiastic about the atheistic Russian Revolution which, albeit using the same principles and slogans as the French Revolution, threatens to replace them and their positions of power and their "liberties" with the cause of the proletariat. However, heavily prejudiced by his choice of the process view, he is left in a quandary: if he were to begin to analyze with any objectivity the catastrophe of Communism, he would necessarily have to admit the catastrophe of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Besides, conveniently so (but really sadly so) for those who have chosen it, the process view has absolutely closed the door on the notion of objectivity. Therefore the author is left with only one option: to talk about the mysteriousness of a process that is much bigger than any of us and our present conceptions of freedom, and the chance that Communism might be a manifestation of the development of the process of greater freedom for man in a planned society. Finally, though, with the practical hunch that this may not be so —that it may not mean more freedom in any recognizable form— he ends by alluding to the old Stoic view of submitting to "fate" (the completely unintelligible determining force of all) which, when modern accretions have been added, is very much the process view (Cf. p. 168).
5. The commitment to the radical process view is a two-fold choice. First and most fundamentally it is the choice to deny and prohibit the use of the human intellect to reach valid conceptual knowledge of the natures of things and ultimate reality (God). Secondly, in order to fill the void, it is the choice to use or rather abuse "words and concepts" (and thus abuse the human intellect or reason) by limiting them to a defense of an inner-worldly perspective with no finality; it is the choice for a pure innerworldly utilitarianism and pragmatism which is often against what is truly useful and beneficial to man or to anything even considered temporally because always against the fundamental nature of things; it ends in the surrender to fate. It is with this Weltanschaaung that the author judges the Enlightenment. Thus:
a) He speaks of the courage of the small group of enrages —Holbach, Helvetius, Le Mettrie and Meslier as the most significant— who openly professed atheism and their complete acceptance of its consequence: the meaninglessness of life except for what the valiant few give it themselves: "They had the courage of their logic, and made it a point of pride or of bravado not to desert the Goddess of Reason after having been so well served by her. The Goddess had guided them safely out of the long night of superstition [which in the lingo of the Enlightenment always means above all Catholicism and the use or reason which supports it] into the light of day [a light which is the absolute darkness of an unintelligible process and fate], and for that they could not be too grateful [rather, Satan could not be too grateful]. Were they then timorously to desert her because she showed them a world, filled with light, indeed, but unsubdued, uncharted, unlandscaped [the ultimate process view of an unintelligible existence which man is then induced to think that he can give meaning to until fate takes over]? No! They would follow Reason still (even if Reason turned out to be no goddess, but merely their own reasoning) into the wilderness of a world which to all appearances was neither good nor bad in itself, but good or bad only in so far as men might by their own unaided efforts make it, or fail to make it, serve their purposes" (p. 75). In the book —publicly— Becker has no criticism for these atheists because the process view is fundamentally the same radical atheism. In private he might whisper to them and their followers that they should abandon their hopelessly outdated materialistic/mechanistic metaphor and take up the spirit metaphor or the mystical mix of spirit and matter which is much more effective in deceiving people and in promoting atheism and a life and social "order" against the law of God.
b) The main thesis of the book is the seemingly serious but effectively light criticism of the remainder of the philosophes for having lost courage in proclaiming their atheism and, in so doing, for having adopted an epistemological approach which the author asserts wrongly was the methodology of the philosophers of Christianity and, therefore, for exposing themselves to criticism by Christianity. From another point of view, his "criticism" simply amounts to praising these philosophes for having done what they did but then exhorting their followers to be aware of their weakness in expounding their real views, which are truly the same views as those of the enrages and the twentieth century "processers." His basic criticism of the philosophes was that they attempted to sound too "religious" and too "rational" according to common perceptions of these words; they had it within their reach to say what the twentieth century processers are saying and they lacked courage to say it. The author is certainly not against their notion of substituting for "God", "other-worldly heaven and fulfillment", "man in sin." He is against the naivety of their substitutions; he is against their utopian view of "progress, " their praise of "posterity" and the value of "living, eternally in the memory of posterity," metaphors too easily undone by the effective flow of events and thus, in their undoing, provoking a return to Christianity and true reason. Again, he criticizes the majority of Enlightenment thinkers for having lacked the courage to accept, in the spirit of the early Stoics, the cold hard fact of an unintelligible process.
6. I would not quote from this author without indicating his radical atheism and the fact that his criticism of the Enlightenment, although sounding like valid criticism, is completely duplicitous and is, in line with the most radical of the Enlightenists and beyond, a total attack on Christianity and true reason:
a) The author makes abundantly clear that all the principal philosophes were thoroughgoing atheists although the majority chose —for various pragmatic and pedagogical reasons— to hide their atheism. His expose shows what many of the time and some now have said: that "deism" was a mere cover for atheism. His explicitation of the "substitutions" consciously made by the philosophes is illustrative of their voluntaristic atheism: "Thus, the Philosophers called in posterity to exorcise the double illusion of the Christian paradise and the golden age of antiquity [that is, of the true God and His plan]. For the love of God they substituted the love of humanity; for the vicarious atonement the perfectibility of man through his own efforts; and for the hope of immortality in another world the hope of living in the memory of future generations" (p. 130). This should not in any way be dignified by calling it a "religion" but should be called the atheism that it is. The Enlightenment and the political movements it spawned were not essentially efforts to remedy some supposed basic injustices in the name of God and the humanism derived from Him but the bursting forth of the atheistic project to completely eliminate God and His law from the consciousness of man and the life of society. The use of the word "humanity" (and of "posterity") by the philosophes —as the author so clearly shows— has nothing to do with an appreciation of humanity and the human person (and with a heightened sense of responsibility for future generations) but the completely insincere adoption of an attractive slogan to oppose God.
b) The author illustrates with perfect clarity the complete abuse of the words "reason," "common sense," and "faith" as well as the complete distortion of the intellectual history inspired by Catholicism, both by the philosophes and by himself:
i) "... the word "reason," like other words, has many meanings. Since eighteenth-century writers employed reason to discredit Christian dogma, a "rationalist" in common parlance came to mean an "unbeliever," one who denied the truth of Christianity. In this sense Voltaire was a rationalist, St. Thomas a man of faith. But this use of the word is unfortunate, since it obscures the fact that reason may be employed to support faith as well as to destroy it. There were, certainly, many differences between Voltaire and St. Thomas, but the two men had much in common for all that. What they had in common was the profound conviction that their beliefs could be reasonably demonstrated. In a very real sense it may be said of the eighteenth century that it was an age of faith as well as of reason, and of the thirteenth century that it was an age of reason as well as of faith" (p. 8):
(a) Sounding so "reasonable" and "historical," the author finds a way, diabolically sophisticated, to transmit everything but the true notions of reason and faith and thus to introduce a total relativism and the process view.
(b) The author's use of the word "reason" (as well as Voltaire's and the other philosophes) and St. Thomas's are diametrically opposed. St. Thomas illustrates and defends reason's ability to reach the knowledge of the natures of created things and even of God to some extent, at least His reality as Infinite Being, infinitely Wise and Good, infinitely distinct in His being from a!! He created. and precisely the Creator of all things other than Himself; he also illustrates and defends reason's ability to know that man's end or perfection is in this God and is reached by man's temporal obedience to the intelligible law of His creative will. The author, Voltaire et a¿ utterly deny the capacity of reason to reach this knowledge and call "reason" precisely their distorted use of words and verbal logic to obscure this capacity of reason. It must be said that before the author and Voltaire were "unbelievers," they were militant atheists, having chosen to destroy the reality of human reason by which God is known naturally. Before a "rationalist" (that is, specifically, a follower of the philosophes as distinct from the many earlier figures categorized as rationalists) rejects Christianity, he has rejected God. As the author himself illustrates by his process position, his "reason" is the denial of all intelligibility. In a very real sense it can be said that the "Age of Reason" was the bursting forth in the modern period of an ultimate irrationality or denial of reason. It was that because it was the surfacing and aggressive promotion of atheism.
(c) The author's use of the word "faith" is completely false. Throughout the book "faith" is a voluntaristic (a priori) choice of certain notions or principles; anyone who invokes faith, he says or implies, is equally discredited by "reason"; Christian faith is no different from any other "faith," including that which he says the less than fully courageous philosophes fell into, except by the notions or principles themselves (all equally discreditable). There is no recognition whatsoever of the reality of Christian faith as a specific gift beyond nature's capacity, a light beyond the light of natural reason but in line with it and given to it, which God gives to whom He wills so as to enable them to accept His historical Revelation. It is not a presupposition in the sense that faith is necessary in order for reason to attain truth by common experience and intrinsic evidence; nor does il oppose any knowledge attained by reason according to its natural capacity. All this rich reality of the relation between Christian faith and reason —a reality which is experientially confirmed— is absolutely ignored as if no one had ever said anything about it; and, specifically, the author, while mentioning St. Thomas, absolutely ignores one of the greatest contributions of his work, the distinction between Christian faith and reason and their legitimate autonomies. The author's attributing to St. Thomas and Catholics the notion of faith as a voluntaristic (a priori) choice is completely anti-historical.
ii) "Is it, then, possible that the Philosophers were not really interested in establishing the rights suitable to man's nature on the facts of human experience? Is it possible that they were engaged in that nefarious medieval enterprise of reconciling the facts of human experience with truths already, in some fashion, revealed to them? Alas yes, that is, indeed, the fact! The eighteenth-century Philosophers, like the medieval scholastics, held fast to a revealed body of knowledge, and they were unwilling or unable to learn anything from history which could not, by some ingenious trick played on the dead [Voltaire: "History is after all only a pack of tricks we play on the dead"], be reconciled with their faith. Their faith, like the faith by which any age lives, was born of their experience and their needs; and since their experience and their needs were in deadly conflict with the traditional and established and still powerful philosophy of church and state, the articles of their faith were at every point opposed to those of the established philosophy. The essential articles of the religion of the Enlightentment may be stated thus: (1) man is not natively depraved; (2) the end of life is life itself, the good life on earth instead of the beatific life after death; (3) man is capable, guided solely by the light of reason and experience, of perfecting the good life on earth; and (4) the first and essential condition of the good life on earth is the freeing of men's minds from the bonds of ignorance and superstition Enlightenist lingo for the truth proclaimed by not only Christianity but by true reason] and of their bodies from the arbitrary oppression of the constituted social authorities [Enlightenist lingo for societal prohibitions against divorce and sexual immorality]" (pp. 101-103):
(a) The author, while criticizing the philosophes, is more directly repeating his criticism of the voluntaristic nature of all previous cultures and especially of the Catholic and the Catholic-medieval, a complete distortion of the reality, especially of Catholicism. Also, the author's criticism of the voluntarism of much of what was written by the less than fully courageous philosophes —which, in their case, was voluntarism— is a cover for the more radical voluntarism of the enrages, himself and other protagonists of the modern process view.
(b) Again, the author completely distorts the longstanding and evident use by the Church of the words "faith," "revelation" and "religion." In all descriptions of the Enlightenment tradition and quotes from its authors it is important to point out that they use these and other principal words in a completely different way from the Catholic Church and most people. It is in a way ceding to their completely erroneous points to allow them to use any of these words without protest.