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The Unconscious Civilization (1995)
Voltaire's Bastards : The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (1992)
I'm not in the business of
suggesting solutions... I don't belong to the Platonic
John Ralston Saul, one of Canada's leading political philosophers, has drawn an apt analogy in comparing himself to Socrates, but pointedly not to Plato, because he offers a great insight (which is essentially liberal in nature) into the Modern condition, but his personal political predilections (which are essentially Liberal in nature) blind him to the implications. Thus, he is an amusing gadfly, puncturing many myths and prejudices, but he backs off of several cows that are sacred to him, unwilling to apply the rigor of his own argument, and he presents no general program or solution to the problems he perceptively delineates, perhaps because such a program would jibe so closely with the conservative agenda.
Saul's essential insight is that Reason has replaced Religion as the central organizing principle for human affairs, but that Reason, which is essentially just a competing set of beliefs, is extremely dangerous because it has no inherent moral structure. The danger, and this is the most compelling part of Saul's argument, is that rational elites (bureaucrats) have risen up as a modern priesthood; acting as if they are blessed with some special sacred knowledge, they impose rules and regulations on the rest of us to try to make reality fit their technocratic vision. This social engineering inevitably leads to the repression of human freedoms, but at it's worst, can also lead to outright tyranny and state violence (i.e., Communism, Nazism).
So far so good. But from there on, Mr. Saul goes badly astray, seemingly unable to face the fact that his is a conservative critique of the Modern World. He ends up flying off into nonsensical diatribes against free marketeers and advocates of globalization, as if these apostles of freedom were the fundamental threat to liberty. What is the better alternative to the Free Market, if you oppose having elites impose their ideas? He offers none (perhaps because there is none). Meanwhile, forgotten are the bureaucrats, technocrats and the Social Welfare State itself, which should be the real targets of his righteous anger.
His other big bugaboo is what he calls Corporatism--the tendency of voters to act as members of blocks rather than as individuals. But he mistakenly believes that they are voting as members of Large Multinational corporations; in fact, the real problem is that Union members, Blacks, Jews, etc. reflexively vote Democrat in overwhelming percentages. There are no comparable conservative voting blocks, except perhaps for conservative Christians. One wishes that every employee of a multinational did vote for free market solutions, lower taxes, etc. But obviously this is not the case. Once again, Saul has lit out after a straw man.
As he goes along, Saul continually repeats this pattern, bang on the mark on many issues (particularly his criticisms of Freud, specialization, the modern university, economists, pursuit of happiness, etc.), then failing to apply his own logic on other issues (inexplicably he supports public schools, adopts Galbreath's opposition to the Growth Economy [read Orrin's review of The Affluent Society by Galbreath], etc.) It's like reading a book by Harvey "Two Face" Dent as cogent analysis alternates dizzyingly with purblind defense of liberal canards and gratuitous attacks on his natural allies.
The end result is that Saul emerges as a kind of idiot savant; on the big issue--the triumph of Reason over Religion--he has had a significant, though unoriginal, insight, but frequently when it comes time to spin out the implications of his epiphany, he stumbles badly. And there are virtually no policy prescriptions here, other than that we should cultivate doubt (no duh!, one of the 20th century's conservative icons, Karl Popper, explained that the essence of Scientific Thought is the maintenance of doubt) and that people should be given time off from work to participate in civic affairs (during which time they would universally head for golf courses or bars). These conclusions are so heavily indebted to others, on the one hand, and so feeble, on the other, as not to deserve being taken seriously. Saul, like the libertarians whom he obviously resents resembling (see Orrin's review of The Future and It's Enemies by Virginia Postrel), is strong on the critique, but weak on the constructive, as anyone who opposes the omposition of faux expertise must be..
Saul has some interesting things to say and, simply by virtue of the
virulence of his polemic, he is often quite amusing, but, because of the
dichotomy between his insight and its application, these books, which
overlap one another extensively, can basically be graded in descending
order of the length of their argument. Voltaire's Bastards, weighing
in at 600 pages, is so long that the weaknesses in his argument become
obvious and they have time to become tedious. Unconscious Civilization
A Big Mac: The communion wafer of consumption.
Birth Control Pill: responsible for a sense
of loss and even failure among people who came of
Buddhism (Tibetan): The most popular form
of Buddhism in the West because it has the least
Corporatism: Corporatism is the persistent
rival school of representative government. In place of
Deconstructionism: A generalized denial of Civilization can't help but be a voice of evil.
To insist that language is in contradiction with
itself or nothing more than a system of self-serving
Dialects: Formerly variations in language
produced by geographical isolation, dialects are now the
Dictionary: Opinion presented as truth in alphabetical order.
Direct Democracy: An appealing idea
which has been unworkable for more than two thousand
Doubt: The only human activity capable
of controlling the use of power in a positive way. Doubt
Florida: Former American state. Latin
Americans are now locked in a long-term struggle with
Freud, Sigmund: A man so dissatisfied
with his own mother and father that he devoted his life to
Growth: The assumption that prosperity
is dependent on growth is an inseparable part of our
Individualism: The exercise through public
participation of our obligations to the body of the
Happiness: A tired and twisted notion which
has become an increasing embarrassment in a
Humanism: An exaltation of freedom, but one
limited by our need to exercise it as an integral part
Mythology: Having killed God and replaced
him with ourselves, we are dissatisfied with the
Private Lives: The private lives of
public people may be considered private only so long as they
Technocrat: This is someone whose skill
is the exercise of power. It follows quite naturally that
Tennis: A middle-class version of professional wrestling.
Tenure: A system of academic job security
which has the effect of rating intellectual leadership on
University: a place in which a civilization's
knowledge is divided up into exclusive territories.
There is much chaff here, but there's sufficient wheat to be gleaned
that he's definitely worth a read. I especially recommend The Doubter's
-REVIEW: of John Ralston Saul, On Equlibrium (Michael Paton, Drawing Board)
Book-related and General Links:
- John Ralston Saul - The Internet Doubter's Companion
-1996 Governor General's Literary Award citation
-ESSAY: CULTURE AND FOREIGN POLICY by JOHN RALSTON SAUL
-ESSAY: "The truth is out there, unfortunateley" (John Ralston Saul, The Australian 15/01/1999)
-LECTURE EXCERPTS: Democracy vs. Corporatism and the role of education
-LECTURE: John Ralston Saul at C4LD April 7, 1997
-Are MDs more intent on maintaining their élite status than in promoting public good? (Charlotte Gray, Canadian Medical Assoc. Journal)
-Quotes from The Unconscious Civilization
-John Ralston Saul (The National Library of Canada)
-INTERVIEW: The End of Rationalism (Scott London From the Radio Series Insight & Outlook )
-INTERVIEW: Thoughts of a rational heretic: Fed up with governments? Banks? Bosses? Fear not, salvation is at hand (MARK RILEY, Sydney Morning Herald)
-INTERVIEW/REVIEW: Friends, Corporatists, Countrymen.... (Amar Dev Dhindsa)
-REVIEW: (Martin Rumsby, Moving Image Centre)
-REVIEW: VOLTAIRE'S BASTARDS (Scott London)
-BOOK REVIEW: The Unconscious Civilization (John McCrory, The Pause)
-John Ralston Saul on Humanism by Rosslyn Ives (HUMANIST SOCIETY OF VICTORIA)
-Public debate in dumper: Author urges Canadians to channel their rage and demand they be heard
-REVIEW: VOLTAIRE'S BASTARDS The Dictatorship of Reason in the West Let's Not Be Reasonable (Terry Teachout, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century No enemies to the left (Kenneth McDonald, Next City)
-The Absentee Owners (John Veitch Inspired by "The Unconscious Civilisation" a book by John Ralston Saul)
your an idiot and I disagree with your vews greatly
- Jan-30-2004, 14:26