The Rise of Rational Thought

Begun by men of compassion and gentility like Erasmus, Manetti and Mirandola, Humanism was to suffer the fate of all movements as its initial inroads were corrupted and perverted by more radical elements. The intellectual discourse of the Humanists was replaced by empirical science. Men like Descartes, Malebranche, Bacon and Newton carried the flag of emerging scientific rationality and planted it firmly on intellectual high ground for all to see. Descartes “I think, therefore I am.” split the world into phenomena that could be measured and could be formulated with clear and distinct ideas; and those that could not. The former were important, the latter were to be summarily ignored. He once wrote, “We hold that all philosophy is not worth an hour’s troubles.” He held that Truth could be found only at the end of scientific inquiry, which by definition excluded anything spiritual.

Descartes simply defined spirituality as outside truth. He placed man alone at the center of the universe with only his mind to grasp its incredible breadth and complexity. Descartes methods became the foundation for Western science and civilization has yet to recover from the schism. Cast aside by the “scientific method,” spirituality along with the soul, mythology, ethics, natural healing and religion dwells in the basement of society’s values, banished to oblivion. The existence of God was a question to be resolved by rational discourse. Descartes also led the charge to subjugate nature and conquer her. As he wrote in his Discourse on Method, one of the most widely read books of its time, “We might thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature.” As an old Persian saying goes, “What goes out of the eyes gradually leaves the heart also.”

Later, radicals like Charles Darwin, David Hume and John Locke would exalt rationality as the supreme achievement of man. They would remove the spirit from man’s heart and replace it with a pocket watch. Man had become a machine, as had the universe. God was reduced to being a clock maker, if he existed at all. Man, the observer, became completely separated from himself as a being. Heady with the wine of new-found power, these men drank heavily at the bar of Francis Bacon who had taught that, “Rational knowledge is power.” Never has there been an age so skeptical of tradition, so confident in the power of human reason and science and so committed to progress. Theirs was an extremely powerful non-religious faith. Through the centuries the language of life had been poetry, song, myth and ritual, but by the end of the 18th century these had been banished as mere sentiment. Society moved to the cold and desiccated formulas of mathematics, chemistry and physics. There is no room in postulates or formulas for spirituality. David Hume, the skeptical Scotsman, once asked of knowledge:

If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity and number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it contains nothing but sophistry and illusion.

This was the voice of the age. Rationality had been raised to the status previously reserved for God. Unfortunately, where the real is not present, the unreal intrudes as a substitute, and the results are inevitably disastrous. With the ascendancy of reason over personal experience, man took the path of fear and separation and the way for rationalism, materialism and ultimately atheism had been broached, leading ultimately to colonial hegemony and industrialization. Thus, says Carl Jung, and agrees Tillich, the West was lost.

Completing the destruction of the spirit was the explosive energy of The Industrial Revolution. There has never been room for spirituality in the industrial world, it gets in the way of “progress.” The industrial behemoth had vast new lands to conquer, factories to build, rivers to dam, buffalo and whales to kill, cities to build, ore to mine and forests to cut. It could not be bothered with matters of spirit. Anyway, the accountants could not fit spirituality into the balance sheet. It was not rational and it cut into profit. Looking back on the period, Gnostic author Stephan A. Hoeller comments:

. . . Rationalism becomes the deity of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The cult of reason begun by Voltaire and the encyclopedists makes heads roll under the guillotine in a less than reasonable manner while revolutionary rationalists enthrone a Parisian prostitute on the altar of the republic, proclaiming her the Goddess of Reason. God is dead, long live reason! Reason triumphant thus rides her chariot into the nineteenth century, but her apostles are no longer the genteel, aristocratic philosophies of the eighteenth century. Darwin, Haeckel, and their fellows thrust the sword of reason into the process of life and discover no God and no savior there, only blind force and the survival of the fittest. Rationalism also looks at Jesus and uses its wiles to assert that as a figure of historical fact he can hardly be said to exist . . . “Jesus is a myth,” so cry the positivists, implying thereby that lacking in clearly recognizable historicity he is a mere unreality, an invention without either substance or merit. The chorus of materialists, from science, philosophy, and art to Marxist politics, joins in with fierce glee.

Man was no longer part of nature, he was her master, she was his slave. The real slaves worked on plantations and served tea to their white masters. Although technically free, millions of mindless automatons were virtual slaves in inhumane factories, producing the goods that made their owners wealthy. Conditions were so bad in the factories that writers of the time described them as “veritable abysses of human degradation.” It was only through massive conflict and bloodshed that conditions would eventually change. Centuries before, Sir Francis Bacon had written, “I come . . . leading to you Nature and all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.” His words had come true in ways even he could not have imagined. The motto of the Century of Progress International Exposition held in Chicago in 1933 was “Science finds — Industry applies — MAN CONFORMS” (emphasis mine).

Ever since Aristotle, scientists and philosophers had extolled logic and deductive thinking as the only path to valid decisions and the Truth. Intuition was acceptable for artists and playwrights perhaps, but they never did anything really important, anyway. When faced with a serious decision, one had better not jump to conclusions or base your thinking on intuition. Consider all the facts, reason it through and work out the implications logically. Use a spread sheet and make a rational decision! Anything intuitive was decidedly suspect.

It was but a small philosophical jump from cold rationalism to the largely heartless and soulless corporation and later to the next, totally heartless, totally uncaring expressions of industrialism: Fascism and Communism. The corporation is the perfect expression of the age: an artificial entity, the most powerful entity in society, created by lawyers and bankers, with no heart, and with no meaningful obligations, other than financial, to the society that fosters and supports it. These owners have even absolved themselves of responsibility for wrongdoing committed by the organizations they control. The function of the corporation is to put as little into its as products as it can, and still sell them, pay as little in wages as possible to keep employees, and return as little as feasible to the community to increase profit for the owners. This is not a prescription that meets society’s interests or needs.

Any semblance of real spirituality has been left for Sunday mornings in churches that have totally sold out to the Calvinist idea that God favors the wealthy and successful. And where in all this is Jesus? He is still present, but he has been dethroned. How very different is the 19th century’s pale, sentimentalized image of Christ from the courageous defender of the outcasts of society that walked the streets of Jerusalem!

It would be unfair not to acknowledge the tremendous accomplishments of the Era of Rationality. Our world has been transformed by its many gains and achievements. Our lives are touched in every moment by its achievements in medicine, electronics and transportation. We live in an emerging global society where traditional insulating boundaries and attitudes between cultures are evaporating. It is however, equally foolish not to acknowledge and accept the inherent limitations of a rational approach to human existence. Industrial rationality was an important step in human evolution, but the driving engine of The Age of Reason has stalled. Our focus on the external has taken about as far as it can. In addition, we are rapidly approaching the point when the negative impacts of unbridled technological development will outweigh its contributions. The age if Industrialism appears close to exhausting its potential. It is time for a shift, time to set a new direction and move to the next level of human evolution. The failures of this society will guide the path of future development as people dig through the foundations of industrialization to find their lost spirituality.

The sciences are not philosophically based, they are physical explanations that are amoral by design. Scientific explanations exist on the surface of things. The scientific community still recoils from its encounters with the church and politics. It has purposefully divorced itself from questions of morality. As Will Durant has pointed out, science will kill as readily as it will heal. In the 16th century cannons could be made because man had learned to cast bronze church bells. Historians are fond of pointing out that the Chinese invented gunpowder, but only used it for fireworks. That it took a Western mind (a Franciscan monk) to apply gunpowder to the task of killing is viewed by historians as a failure by the Chinese. This may be true, but it also makes one wonder about the difference in cultural values. Having used guns successfully in war for a century, the Samurai of Japan effectively banned them for almost 200 years (1630 – 1800) because they viewed the gun as killing with dishonor, a Western way. Unfortunately, “progress” eventually won out as the Samurai class became obsolete.

Although there are scientific activists today, the scientific community has created the edifice of their institution divorced from questions of morality. Granting science its desired neutrality, in this age of biological weapons, food additives, terrorist bombings, genetic cloning, nuclear waste, electronic invasion of privacy, and toxic chemicals; technology and science are as likely to reduce the quality of life as to enhance it. We must find a personally based social morality, a larger knowingness, that says, “Yes, you can do these things, but you may not.” No such voice exists today.

copyright©Blue Lotus Press 2016

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