Writing over two centuries ago, the Marquis De Sade remarked with his characteristic poetic outrageousness and provocative flair, “It has been estimated that more fifty million individuals have lost their lives to wars and religious massacres. Is there even one among them worth the blood of a single bird?” As the Sadean scholar Annie Le Brun noted in her excellent The Reality Overload, Sade’s savage negation strikes us like lightning and is an invitation to view an inverted perspective that allows us to ask: what remains of the rationalist foundations we thoughtlessly ascribe to tolerance, humanism and ecology?
Or not, if you are a devotee of The New Optimists, who subscribe to the theory that we are living in the best of times and that the ultimate triumph of progress is inevitable, as long as we carry on the Enlightenment tradition of placing our faith in Reason and Science. Allied to the ‘End of History’ theory that Western style democracy and free market capitalism represents the death of ideology (we can all stop chasing those chimeras, neo-liberalism is the high water mark of political systems that provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people possible), the New Optimists, especially the High Priest of the movement, Steven Pinker, seek to show with quantitative data and any number of graphs that war, poverty and violence are at an all time low, and therefore we should dismiss any lingering unease about this fur-lined prison we inhabit and be happy. Anyone who doesn’t is an irrational, cynical ingrate who hasn’t learned the value of positive thinking.
Employing a Manichean worldview the New Optimists portray science, reason and humanism as unalloyed virtues that has produced all the good and none of the bad, all of which is entirely the product of anti-Enlightenment irrationality. The criticism that the philosophes of the Enlightenment led to the technocratic genocide of the Holocaust (which is portrayed as a statistical blip), as advanced by the Frankfurt school is contemptuously dismissed out of hand; rather it was the Romanticism that arose as a rejection of reason that was the root cause of Nazism. Even the development of the nuclear bomb with its unprecedented capabilities of annihilation doesn’t overly concern the New Optimists, we could destroy all life on earth, but we haven’t yet, so uncork the champagne!
After surveying the five thousand years of human atrocities that we politely call history maybe the quantity of war and violence might be on a downward trajectory, but that doesn’t negate the suffering of the people in the numerous contemporary war zones one iota. The facile self congratulatory tone of the so-called rational optimists is appalling. Their belief in liberal progress and their denial of the powerful and necessary irrational forces within humanity speaks of a naivety that is neither touching or endearing, rather a dangerous and deluded wishful thinking.
To return to the opening quote by the Divine Marquis, one of the first thinkers who wasn’t blinded by the glare and dazzle of the Enlightenment, who realised the potential for tyranny committed in the name of progress, this furious contrarian understood the enshrinement of human reason would lead to the degradation and devastation of the natural realm. A realm humanity has constantly sought to be divorced from by a persistent denial of our very nature.