Friday, August 7, 2015

Pipe Dreams and Premonitions-Part Two

I have two books, two sides of a coin. Both were published in the 1950s by Van Nostrand under its Anvil imprint. First is Liberalism: Its Meaning and History by J. Salwin Schapiro (1958). I'll let Prof. Schapiro speak:
Man's natural goodness was eloquently proclaimed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He developed a theory that man in the state of nature was possessed of goodness which degenerated into corruption as a result of the coming of civilization. The existing social order was therefore the heritage of an evil past created by ignorance, violence, and tyranny. What was essential, according to Rousseau, was to establish a natural social order, one in harmony with man's goodness. Only then will the problems arising from the conflict between man and society be solved. (p. 18)
The whole liberal program seems to have sprung from those ideas, that man in a state of nature is essentially good and pure and that he is corrupted by society, therefore, if the past can be overthrown and society perfected, man can be made happy. It's why liberals emphasize society over the individual, why they believe that the individual is not responsible for and can't be held accountable for his actions, why they're always so busy with their tinkering and meddling, why they despise the past and look forward with such longing to the future. Rousseau's ideas also seem to be the origin of the idea that society and government, i.e., the State, are coterminous. Anyway, every story ever told about the goodness and purity of primitive societies vs. the corruption of civilized societies--Avatar for example, or the below-deck dance scene in Titanic--is, consciously or not, based on Rousseau's ideas.
The new faith in man and the new passion for change were inspired by the idea of progress. By progress was meant that man has moved, is moving, and will move in a beneficial direction. . . . Progress is the leading theme of Marquis de Condorcet's book, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind [1795]. According to Condorcet, progress is an autonomous, linear, inevitable historical movement toward "perfectibility," the golden age of the future. (p. 18)
"[T]he golden age of the future," Utopia, in other words, the progressive dream, the dream also of science fiction writers and fans from the 1920s onward. Note the phrase "golden age," which is here applied to the future, but which has also been applied to the period of science fiction in America from 1938 to the 1950s. Note also the phrase "inevitable historical movement," implying that history is an unalterable force, and like a force--a physical force--measurable and predictable, in other words a science.
According to secularism, man's supreme aim was to attain happiness in this world through mundane ideas and scientific methods. (p. 19)
If happiness is attainable by mundane and scientific methods, then is it, too, material in nature? Liberals would seem to answer yes, and that's why, in their minds, the solution to human unhappiness is material rather than spiritual or familial, or at the very least psychological or emotional.

Finally, quotes from Condorcet (1743-1794) himself:
The aim of the book that I have undertaken to write [Esquisse d'un Tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain], and what it will prove, is that man by using reason and facts will attain perfection. Nature has set no limits to the perfection of the human faculties. The perfectibility of mankind is truly indefinite; and the progress of his perfectibility, henceforth to be free of all hindrances, will last as long as the globe on which nature has placed us. (p. 103)
If man can predict with almost complete certainty those phenomena whose laws he knows; and if, when he does not know these laws, he can, on the basis of his experience in the past, predict future events with assurance[,] why then should it be regarded as chimerical to trace with a fair degree of accuracy the picture of man's future on the basis of his history? (p. 104)
There's the clincher: history is essentially a science. So, too, is the future. Through science we will know and be able to plan the future and to progress inexorably into that future--a future without limits, evermore perfect and perfectible, marked by ever-greater happiness, a Golden Age, a Utopia.

* * *

Here is another quote from Prof. Schapiro:
Liberals in general have believed in the existence of objective truth, discoverable through reason according to the scientific method of research, experiment, and verification. What is known as rationalism endeavors, by using reason, to subject all matters, religious as well as non-religious, to critical inquiry. The rationalist looks primarily to science for enlightenment. (p. 12)
In this age in which liberals believe that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, a person with XY sex chromosomes and male genitalia is a woman, and that race is a real, biological fact rather than simply a useful fallacy, it's hard to imagine that liberalism originated in reason and rationalism. (1) Understanding that liberalism originated in rationalism is one of the keys to understanding the history of science fiction, as well as the divide between science fiction and fantasy. It's also a key to the notion that science fiction may be inevitably political and perhaps unavoidably progressive in its outlook.

One final note before I move on to the conservative side of the equation: Marquis de Condorcet was an aristocrat, also a scientist and mathematician. He sought to apply science to what he believed were the problems of society, especially with the coming of the French Revolution in 1789. He was elected to the French Assemblée in 1791, "hoping," in the words of Wikipedia, "for a rationalist reconstruction of society." (2) Two years later the revolution turned against him, and he died in prison in 1794 either by murder or suicide. (3)

The French Revolution, an exercise in Utopia and a model for all the bloody and utopian revolutions to come, consumed Condorcet as it consumed so many of its revolutionaries. Eventually--inevitably--it came to a disastrous end as all utopian schemes must. Condorcet's vision of progress towards a perfect future turned out to be a pipe dream.

(1) Our Constitution, for example, is a supreme work of reason and based on classical liberal ideas. It's also conservative in the Burkean sense; its dual nature as both liberal and conservative is one of its great beauties and probably one explanation for its great success.
(2) I'm not sure how reconstruction is possible without a little destruction (or as our current president calls it, "fundamental transformation"), and I don't know why we should submit to "rationalist" plans for our lives, but maybe we're not supposed to ask these questions.
(3) If it was suicide, Datura--jimsonweed, perhaps a favored drug in fantasy and weird fiction--played its part. One example of the place of jimsonweed in genre fiction is in the movie Nightwing (1979).

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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