Saturday, December 27, 2003

Our New Religion II

Occasional posts on the parallels between our secular liberal pieties and the doctrines of Christianity and Judaism.

Over the holiday I had time to read Lord Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation" - the book of the TV series which was all the rage in the early 70s. I doubt if the BBC would now commission a series under that name which is wholly focused upon Western Europe. A good read, though any catalogue of culture over three millennia will inevitable miss out personal favourites - where Hildegarde of Bingen and her glorious erotic imagery ? Where Perotin ?

His chapters 'The Smile Of Reason' and 'The Worship Of Nature' examine rationalists like Voltaire and the decline in religious faith among the eighteenth-century intellectual elite. It is of course exactly at this time that Rousseau's ideas became influential.

"Rousseau first argued that civilization had corrupted human beings in his essay, Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences in 1750. This corruption was largely a moral corruption - everything that civilized people have regarded as 'progress' - urbanization, technology, science, and so on, has resulted in the moral degradation of humanity. For Rousseau, the natural moral state of human beings is to be compassionate; civilization has made us cruel, selfish, and bloodthirsty".

Here we can see again fallen man, who has eaten of the tree of knowledge and lost his primeval, compassionate Eden.

Not everyone was so keen on the noble savage myth. Clark quotes a letter from de
Sade to Rousseau (I paraphrase) "Nature averse to crime ? On the contrary, she yearns for it and lusts for it". And Voltaire famously wrote to him "Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours."

But Rousseau is the spiritual begetter of our new enviro-religion. He also had a pernicious influence on education which is alive and well today, thanks to his novel Emile. "Both European and American educational ideas were greatly influenced by this work; the American public school system, established in the first part of the nineteenth century, drew heavily from Rousseau's educational ideas." As Melanie Phillips has pointed out, the great educator had five bastard children, all of whom he put in an orphanage as soon as they were weaned. But hey, whoever said that the personal was political ?