In this series, we have surveyed the general trends in the history of ethics, beginning with the lex talionis (an eye for an eye), moving on to three versions of the Golden Rule, and noting subtle shifts in these principles throughout the Renaissance. This week, we continue this survey by tracing these shifts further through the Enlightenment.
Edward Gibbon is commonly regarded as the world’s first modern historian. Gibbon begins our Enlightenment survey for the simple reason that, more than any other herein discussed, he looks to the past in order to shed light on human nature and the lessons to be gained by the experiences of man down through the centuries. But while Gibbon’s work clearly has some traditional value as a window into our shared cultural memory, the author’s own opinion often shines through in ways that reflect a shift in historical thought.
Consider, for example, his treatment of the virtuous pagans, particularly Marcus Aurelius. While most Christian thinkers treated the Emperor with either ambivalence or disdain, Gibbon’s account is practically glowing. He sees in him a virtue that was the “well-earned harvest of many a learned conference, of many a patient lecture, and many a midnight lucubration,” one, “which taught him to submit his body to his mind, his passions to his reason; to consider virtue as the only good, vice as the only evil, all things external as things indifferent.” And while at times the Emperor was too candid concerning his views, his life serves as “the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno [the founder of the Stoics]. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfections of others, just and beneficent to all mankind,” and for this, he was respected by his enemies and revered by his people (Gibbon 1.3.2).
Such an account serves two clear purposes. The first is to redeem Aurelius’ character and to place him amidst the great civic leaders of ancient Rome, while the second is to establish him as a working model for the statesmen and citizens of Gibbon’s own day for rational, virtuous living apart from the teachings and traditions of the Christian faith. Thus, in Gibbon we see objective historiography united to early post-Christian commentary, no longer (with Aquinas) baptizing the virtuous pagans or even (with Dante) placing them in Purgatory, but instead exulting in the fact that they remain unwashed.
In Thomas Paine we turn back to a few decades prior to Gibbon, but find one who understood what the waning influence of classical Christian thought meant for the primacy of reason in faith, ethics and politics. Gibbon later reflected the change, but it is in Paine that it is most clearly spelled out. Paine is mostly known today for his pamphlet Common Sense, but in his own generation he was better remembered as the out-spoken author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. Paine was one of the few thoroughgoing Enlightenment Americans of his day, and therefore one of the few to openly avow the rejection of Christianity in favor of a deistic religion based on human rationality and natural virtue (which not even Jefferson dared to do).
Though never denying the possibility of divine revelation, he limited its authority and applicability to the one to whom it was given and instead founded his faith upon the natural world (Age 1.2, 9). The “gift of reason,” therefore, remained in his mind “the choicest gift of God to man,” and the tool by which nature and experience were to be understood and marshaled for the interest of humanity at large (Age 1.8; see too Rights 2.3, 4). Paine’s natural religion of human rationality therefore directly inspired his political views. Thus in the regeneration, “the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world” (Rights 2.5). While Gibbon therefore critiqued the inherited wisdom of many Christian practices and historical judgments, Paine broke with Christianity completely while still intending to do so for the common good.
Though chronologically later than our next thinker (Nietzsche), Freud is perhaps the next logical stepping-stone in our survey. While Paine lamented the irrationality of Christianity, Freud tied this perceived irrationally to the Christian view of love, which combined love with holiness and led to cultural prohibitions on the exercise of human sexuality. In his view, “The demand for a uniform sexual life for all . . . ignores all the disparities, innate and acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings, thereby depriving fairly large numbers of sexual enjoyment and becoming a source of grave injustice” (52). True love, then, is only possible when we recognize that our communal conscience (including our views on love and sex) is not rooted in human nature, but is instead, “the result of the primordial emotional ambivalence” of some archetypal sons, who murdered their father only to manifest “their love . . . in the remorse they felt for the deed” (Freud 88; see 89). The true paradigm of human love, then, is Oedipus—not Jesus, Moses or even Confucius.
Freud’s chief criticism of the Golden Rule is that it is irrational, unnatural, and therefore unacceptable. He asks, both hypothetically and rhetorically: “But if [one] is a stranger to me and cannot attract me by any merit of his own or by any importance he has acquired in my emotional life, it would be hard for me to love him. . . . What is the point of such a portentous precept if its fulfillment cannot commend itself as reasonable” (Freud 58)? Love, then, is unable to serve as the foundation of human society, because “human beings are not gentle creatures in need of love” but instead “count a powerful share of aggression among their instinctual endowments” (Freud 60). So while he finds sex to be vitally important to human nature and happiness, there is simply no place for love. Even where love appears to reign (he points especially to nominal ‘Christian’ applications of the Rule), it does so only because “others are left out as targets for aggression” (Freud 64). So while he admits that, “‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ is the strongest defence against human aggression,” it is irrational and impractical, leading to the very aggression it seeks to suppress (Freud 103).
Nietzsche’s criticism of the Rule is even stronger. In Beyond Good and Evil, he launches a sustained rhetorical attack on the commonly held notions of virtue and nobility. In Nietzsche’s mind, greatness is defined not by the truthfulness of one’s ideas or the strength of his character, but in the awareness of his own ego and his willingness to exploit others in order to assert it (see paragraphs 265, 259). Though most recognize that only a few people will ever be truly ‘great’, Nietzsche gives this fact ethical weight and therefore finds two separate laws for human behavior, which he dubs “master-morality and slave-morality” (260). He therefore sees “gradations of rank” as an essential prerequisite for true philosophy, and the goal of his own work as the development of “a new ruling caste for Europe” (219, 251). True greatness, however, will only be attained when these elites “gain courage to rebaptize our badness as the best in us” (Nietzsche 116). So five decades before Freud, Nietzsche not only sees in every man an aggression that is both antisocial and anti-moral—a tyrant in waiting—he encourages these Titans to take up arms and storm Olympus.
As others before him, Nietzsche also condemns the same culprit for such a dearth of true greatness: the union of classic philosophy with orthodox Christianity. While Nietzsche discusses many thinkers, artists and movements that many would regard as great, he sees in them only despair, “finally shattering and sinking down at the Christian cross,” because none “would have been sufficiently profound and sufficiently original for an anti-Christian philosophy” (Nietzsche 256). Nietzsche therefore laments the Christian union of faith, hope and love, which to him, “resembles in a terrible manner a continuous suicide of reason—a tough, long-lived, worm-like reason, which is not to be slain at once and with a single blow” (46). And not even sex escaped unscathed: “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, certainly, but degenerated to Vice” because, “It is inhuman to bless when one is being cursed” (168, 181; see also ch. 3; 67, 123, 216). To Nietzsche, then, sex and violence are completely human, and should be embraced, not mitigated by something so foolish as love.
Fyodor Dostoevsky is the only of our Enlightenment writers herein surveyed to challenge this assertion and to point out the inevitable consequences of this mode of thought. Even more important is the fact that Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment preceded Beyond Good and Evil by twenty years. The relationship between these two works is more than coincidental. Dostoevsky’s translator points out that “Nietzsche referred to Dostoevsky as ‘the only psychologist from whom I have something to learn: he belongs to the happiest windfalls of my life, happier even than the discovery of Stendhal’” (Dostoevsky, “Biography”). We only wish that Nietzsche had learned much more from Dostoevsky than he did. The psychological struggle within Crime and Punishment’s protagonist (Raskolnikov) is clear enough, but while Nietzsche appears to have seen Raskolnikov as a sort of nihilist hero, Dostoevsky’s epilogue to the work appears to point in another direction entirely. As the young man ponders the fate common to most criminals, he discusses it in terms of practicality, not acceptability. “Almost every criminal is subject to a failure of will and reasoning power by a childish and phenomenal heedlessness, at the very instant when prudence and caution are most essential” (Dostoevsky Part 1, Ch 6).
Thus this disease (a lack of Nietzsche’s “will to power”) consumes the criminal, both motivating the crime and destroying one’s rationality. His solution, then, is perfectly simple: “One has but to keep all one’s will-power and reason to deal with them, and they will all be overcome at the time when one has familiarised oneself with the minutest details of the business” (Dostoevsky 1.6). What Raskolnikov fails to see, however, is that the disease has already set in and his true motives already concealed; a fact that reveals itself only after the murder. “No, life is only given to me once and I shall never have it again; I don’t want to wait for ‘the happiness of all.’ I want to live myself, or else better not live at all. . . . I am putting my little brick into the happiness of all and so my heart is at peace. Ha-ha” (3.6)! And yet it is the selfless, sacrificial, Christian love of Sonia that brings Rodion back to life.
Alexandre Dumas sees much of the same problem as Dostoevsky but without the latter’s clarity and conviction. Dumas struggles with the logical conclusions of pragmatic and utilitarian thinking, but is unable to completely renounce its ability to effect change for the better (at least for the short-term). In The Count of Monte Cristo, we therefore encounter Edmond Dantes, an innocent sailor whose life turns bitter and vengeful when he is falsely accused out of envy for his social and professional prospects. When Dantes becomes the self-made Count, however, he uses all of his newly discovered means (rational and financial) to right the wrongs committed against him and his closest friends (a Nietzschean “free spirit” asserting his “master-morality”). Yet he is not only willing to murder, but also to induce others to do so, inflicting even greater harm than he himself had intended. So while he candidly discusses the subtle art of poisoning with Madame de Villefort (Ch 52), the reader cannot but help agree with her assessment: “‘Do you know, my dear count,’ she said, ‘that you are a very terrible reasoner, and that you look at the world through a somewhat distempered medium?’” As with Raskolnikov the discussion is all a “how to” rather than a “why not,” and as with Nietzsche, not even the conscience is enough to stop what is rationally concluded. “After every action requiring exertion, it is conscience that saves us, for it supplies us with a thousand good excuses, of which we alone are judges; and these reasons, howsoever excellent in producing sleep, would avail us but very little before a tribunal, when we were tried for our lives” (Dumas 52). And yet in the end, even the Count finds opportunity to repent.
During the Enlightenment a profound shift took place in the relationship of reason to morality. While the Western fountainheads of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian thought were either consistent with or based on revealed religion, these views became increasingly unlikely and then impossible to find among Enlightenment thinkers. Our brief survey of these writers has demonstrated this shift and its consequences. It began with the increasing importance of the virtuous pagans in the historical work of Gibbon. Paine took this one step further by denying all beliefs not verifiable through nature and reason. And Nietzsche rejected both religion and morality to establish a rational “master-morality.” Dostoevsky and Dumas, however, both saw potential problems in this scheme; the former pointing us back to orthodox Christianity and the latter struggling with the implications of utilitarian thought while accepting its effectiveness when placed within a certain moral framework. In the end, we come to see reason as an integral part of faith, morality and politics, but unable on its own to motivate humanity to virtue.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Constance Garnett. MobileReference. iBooks.
Dumas, Alexander. The Count of Monte Cristo. Project Gutenberg. iBooks.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. 1930. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Penguin, 2004. Kindle.
Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ed. H.H. Milman. iBooks.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond Good and Evil. 1886. Trans. Helen Zimmern. iBooks.
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. The Writings of Thomas Paine, Complete. iBooks.
---. The Age of Reason. The Writings of Thomas Paine, Complete. iBooks.
---. The Rights of Man. The Writings of Thomas Paine, Complete. iBooks.