This jeremiad on the evils of contemporary rationalism seems to have touched a nerve. It's been a steady bestseller in several countries and has reportedly been read by such people as the Canadian prime minister and the Czech premier. It's also elevated John Ralston Saul to celebrity status in Canada and elsewhere. He made the Utne Reader's list of "100 Visionaries" in 1995 and was asked to give the prestigious Massey Lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that same year.
Saul's central message can be summed up as follows. Voltaire and his contemporaries believed that reason was the best defense against the arbitrary power of monarchs and the superstitions of religious dogma. It was the key not only to challenging the powers of kings and aristocracies but also to creating a more just and humane civilization. While the emphasis on reason has become one of the hallmarks of modern thought, today's rational society bears little resemblance to the visions of the great 17th and 18th century humanist thinkers, according to Saul. Our ruling elites justify themselves in the name of reason, but all too often their power and their methodology is based on specialized knowledge and the manipulation of rational "structures" rather than reason. Today the link between reason and justice has been severed and our decision-makers, bereft of a viable ethical framework, have turned rational calculation into something short-sighed and self-serving. The result, Saul observes, is that we live in a society fixated on rational solutions, management, expertise, and professionalism in almost all areas, from politics and economics to education and cultural affairs.
The cult of expertise is one of the defining characteristics of today's rational elites, as Saul sees it. "Among the illusions which have invested our civilization is an absolute belief that the solutions to our problems must be a more determined application of rationally organized expertise," he writes. "The reality is that our problems are largely the product of that application." The division of knowledge into "feudal fiefdoms of expertise" has meant that general understanding and coordinated action are increasingly difficult and often looked upon with suspicion, as evidenced by our systems of education which reward the specialist and disdain the generalist. It has also resulted in a fracturing of society into smaller and smaller and increasingly insulated professional groups. While the emergence of professionalism has paralleled the rise of individualism over the last two centuries, the result has not been greater individual autonomy and self-determination, as was once hoped, but isolation and alienation. "The professional [found] that he could build his personal empire," Saul writes, "but curiously enough, the more expert he became, the more his empire shrank."
Voltaire and his contemporaries thought that if people became experts in many different fields they would eventually uncover all that was unknown and thus advance knowledge in general. By fostering expertise, they believed they were laying the foundations for a new civilization of Renaissance individuals. But what has happened is the exact opposite, in Saul's view.
He goes on to explore what he takes to be the fundamental incompatibility between democracy and contemporary rational governments. Because rationalism has been reduced to a system of management and administration it is at bottom incapable of guiding human affairs, he insists. "The decision-making process ... is profoundly different from the administrative process. One is organized and reflective. The other is linear and structured. One attempts to waste time usefully in order to understand and to build consensus. The other aims at speed and delivery. One is done of the people. The other is done for the people."
The great schism between the principles of democracy and the practices of modern rational governments has brought about not only widespread public frustration and anger, but also a general contempt among the ruling elites for the citizenry. While they cooperate with the established representational systems of democracy, Saul says, they do not believe in the value of the public's contribution. Nor do they believe in the existence of a public moral code. "This means that in dealing with the public, they find it easier to appeal to the lowest common denominator within each of us. That this often succeeds reinforces their contempt for a public apparently capable of nothing better."
This, in brief, is the central argument of Voltaire's Bastards. Saul has a very sharp mind, a knack for bon mots, and a keen understanding of our democratic malaise in the West. It is therefore something of a disappointment to finally reach the end of this book and discover that he has very little in the way of practical solutions to offer for our current troubles. When I asked him about this in an interview, he replied, "I'm not in the business of suggesting solutions. I don't belong to the Platonic tradition, I belong to the Socratic tradition."
Well, okay. There is a role for people who ask tough questions and make us uncomfortable. On the other hand, the Socratic tradition is one aimed at self-reflection and the pursuit of wisdom. It is a constructive endeavor aimed at realizing our highest capacities as individuals and, by extension, as a community. I don't see those same intentions at work in Voltaire's Bastards. The fact that Saul justifies this kind of social criticism in Socrates' name is troubling to me. It also casts some doubt on Saul's reading of the great works. I would be prepared to dismiss intellectual arrogance and historical inaccuracies as unimportant if I felt the overall purpose of this book were a more constructive one. As it stands, Voltaire's Bastards comes up short. It's an ironic assessment given that the book is, at 640 pages, maddeningly long.
Related interview: Scott London talks with John Ralston Saul about the limits of rationalism (from the Insight & Outlook radio series).
Copyright 1996 by Scott London. All rights reserved.