Nicholas Walter: In Defence of Reason

This letter is reprinted, by permission of the author, from the TLS of 1-7 April, 1988. It draws attention to two features of current society, of great importance to all who seek to effect substantial changes, for which s.i. provides a rationale. Fist, that the rationalists possess mainly mental power, the coercive forces of society remaining at the disposal of those sceptical of reason. Second, that the ‘intellectuals’ of the right wing, even when they are professional academics, do not share the commitment to reason which distinguishes the liberals, humanists and rationalists. – GW

The latest instalment of Roger Scruton’s vendetta against the Enlightenment and its heirs, disguised as a review of Conor Cruse O’Brien’s Passion and Cunning (March 18-24), contains a characteristically tendentious reference to the place of Enlightenment ideas in the French and Russian Revolutions. Scruton criticizes ‘those who speak for Reason’, and emphasizes:

the fact that Reason too can become a god, and that the modest guide of Voltaire, when once set upon an altar, demands an obedience far more terrifying than any of the superstitions at which it’scoffs. For a while this god filled the prisons and the graveyards of France. Later it demanded a similar proof of obedience from the Russians, calling itself the Truth of History.

This is an example of the ‘amalgam’ worth of its old masters, Fouquier-Tinville or Vyshinsky. It is true that, at the height of the French Revolution in late 1793, there was a sansculottist campaign of Dechristianization which involved the disestablishment of the Catholic Church and the establishment of a Cult of Reason, culminating in a Festival of Reason in Paris on November 10. But it is also true that this episode was terminated in early 1794 by the revolutionary government, Robespierre himself presiding over a festival of the Supreme Being in Paris on June, 8, and that the climax of the Reign of Terror was marked by a restoration of belief in God and immortality. The prisons and graveyards were filled not for the sake of Reason but in the names of Virtue, the Revolution, the Republic, and the safety of the State. To fix the guilt on the Enlightenment, or by association on rationalism or humanism, is a gross miscarriage of historical justice. It should also be remembered that, however grotesque Dechristianization was, it involved a much milder and shorter persecution than had been perpetrated by Christianity for many centuries; and that, however terrible the Terror was, it claimed far fewer victims than the wars provoked by foreign interventionism or by Napoleion’s imperialism.

As for the Russian Revolution, Reason played no part, even symbolically, in the development of the Communist dictatorship, and its victims suffered not for the Truth of History but again in the name of the Revolution. It is true that the regime tried to suppress Christianity, but it also tried to suppress every other rival ideology – including humanism, many of whose representatives have suffered persecution, imprisonment, exile, or death.

A controversy about serious ideas should not be conducted in terms of false accusations and misleading implications. Professor Scruton ends his attack on Reason by claiming that ‘in the modern world, it is this god which stands behind les gros bataillons. On the contrary, reason has no bigger battalions in the modern world than in any other world. The use of force is by its very nature a negation of reason. All the physical power is in the hands of rival imperialists and nationalists, capitalists and bureaucrats, political and religious fanatics. Liberals and libertarians, humanists and rationalists have only mental power, and it is sad that some intellectuals are prepared to use their gifts to betray this power – and the cause of humanity and reason – even though they are apparently human and argue in apparently rational terms.

from Ideological Commentary 35, September 1988.