From Salon to Guillotine.

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In other words, the eighteenth-century philosophes were the original “deracinated intellectuals.” They rejected as “superstitions” and “prejudices” the core beliefs and practices of the surrounding society, the end result of a long process of refining and testing by men through countless generations of practical endeavor. In effect, they created in France what a contributor to this journal has termed a “culture of critique”—an intellectual milieu marked by hostility to the life of the nation in which its participants were living. (It would be difficult, however, to argue a significant sociobiological basis in the French version.)

This gradual withdrawal from the real world is what historians refer to as the development of the Enlightenment. Cochin calls it an “automatic purging” or “fermentation.” It is not a rational progression like the stages in an argument, however much the philosophes may have spoken of their devotion to “Reason”; it is a mechanical process which consists of “eliminating the real world in the mind instead of reducing the unintelligible in the object”. Each stage produces a more rarified doctrine and human type, just as each elevation on a mountain slope produces its own kind of vegetation. The end result is the world’s original “herd of independent minds,” a phenomenon which would have horrified even men such as Montesquieu and Voltaire who had characterized the first societies.

It is interesting to note that, like our own multiculturalists, many of the philosophes attempted to compensate for their estrangement from the living traditions of French civilization by a fascination with foreign laws and customs. Cochin aptly compares civilization to a living plant which slowly grows “in the bedrock of experience under the rays of faith,” and likens this sort of philosophe to a child mindlessly plucking the blossoms from every plant he comes across in order to decorate his own sandbox.

(The Occidental Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Summer 2008).

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