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Its attack on mythology is perhaps more serious than that of subjective reason, which, abstract and formalistic as it conceives itself to be, is inclined to abandon the fight with religion by setting up two different brackets, one for science and philosophy, and one for institutionalized mythology, thus recognizing both of them.

For the philosophy of objective reason there is no such way out. Since it holds to the concept of objective truth, it must take a positive or a negative stand with regard to the content of established religion. Therefore the critique of social beliefs in the name of objective reason is much more portentous— although it is sometimes less direct and aggressive—than that put forward in the name of subjective reason.

In modern times, reason has displayed a tendency to dissolve its own objective content. It is true that in sixteenth-century France the concept of a life dominated by reason as the ultimate agency was again advanced.

Montaigne adapted it to individual life, Bodin to the life of nations, and De 1'Hopital practiced it in politics. Despite certain skeptical declarations on their part, their work furthered the abdication of religion in favor of reason as the supreme intellectual authority.

At that time, however, reason acquired a new connotation, which found its highest expression in French literature and in some degree is still preserved in modern popular usage. It came to signify a conciliatory attitude. Differences over religion, which with the decline of the medieval church had become the favorite ground on which to thrash out opposing political tendencies, were no longer taken seriously, and no creed or ideology was considered worth defending to the death.

This concept of reason was doubtless more 9 ECLIPSE OF REASON humane but at the same time weaker than the religious concept of truth, more pliable to prevailing interests, more adaptable to reality as it is, and therewith from the very beginning in danger of surrendering to the 'irrational. To the humanists there was no incongruity about a people living under one government, within given boundaries, and yet professing different religions.

Such a government had purely secular purposes. It was not intended, as Luther thought, to discipline and castigate the human beast, but to create favorable conditions for commerce and industry, to solidify law and order, to assure its citizens peace inside and protection outside the country. With regard to the individual, reason now played the same part as that held in politics by the sovereign state, which was concerned with the well-being of the people and opposed to fanaticism and civil war.

The divorce of reason from religion marked a further step in the weakening of its objective aspect and a higher degree of formalization, as became manifest later during the period of the Enlightenment. But in the seventeenth century the objective aspect of reason still predominated, because the main effort of rationalist philosophy was to formulate a doctrine of man and nature that could fulfil the intellectual function, at least for the privileged sector of society, that religion had formerly fulfilled.


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From the time of the Renaissance, men have tried to excogitate a doctrine as comprehensive as theology entirely on their own, instead of accepting their ultimate goals and values from a spiritual authority. Philosophy prided itself on being the instrument for deriving, explaining, revealing the content of reason as reflecting the true nature of things and the correct pattern of living. Spinoza, for example, thought that insight into the essence of reality, into the harmonious structure of the eternal universe, necessarily awakens love for this universe.

For him, ethical conduct is entirely determined by such insight into nature, just as our devotion to a person may be determined by insight into his greatness or genius.

Fears and petty passions, alien to the great love of the universe, which is logos itself, will vanish, according to Spinoza, once our understanding of reality is deep enough. This attitude is not necessarily the same for every individual, because the situation of each is unique. There are geographical and historical differences, as well as differences of age, sex, skill, social status, et cetera. However, such insight is universal in so far as its logical connection with the attitude is theoretically self-evident for each imaginable subject endowed with intelligence.

Under the philosophy of reason, insight into the plight of an enslaved people, for instance, might induce a young man to fight for its liberation, but would allow his father to stay at home and till the land. Despite such differences in its consequences, the logical nature of this insight is felt to be intelligible to all people in general. Although these rationalist philosophical systems did not command as wide allegiance as religion had claimed, they were appreciated as efforts to record the meaning and exigencies of reality and to present truths that are binding for everybody.

Their authors thought that the lumen naturale, natural insight or the light of reason, was sufficient also to penetrate so deeply into creation as to provide us with keys for harmonizing human life with nature both in the external world and within man's own being.

They retained God, but not grace; they thought that for all purposes of theoretical knowledge and practical decision, man could do without any lumen supranaturale. Their speculative reproductions of the universe, not the sensualistic epistemologies—Giordano Bruno and not Telesio, Spinoza and not Locke—clashed directly with traditional religion, because the intellectual aspirations of the metaphysicians were much more concerned with the doctrines of God, creation, and the meaning of life than were the theories of the empiricists. In the philosophical and political systems of rationalism, Christian ethics was secularized.

The aims pursued in individual and social activity were derived from the assumption of the existence of certain innate ideas or self-evident intuitions, and thus linked to the concept of objective truth, although this truth was no longer regarded as being guaranteed by any dogma extraneous to the exigencies of thinking itself.

Neither the church nor the rising philosophical systems separated wisdom, ethics, religion, and politics. But the fundamental unity of all human beliefs, rooted in a common Christian ontology, was gradually shattered, and the relativist tendencies that had been explicit in the pioneers of bourgeois ideology such as Montaigne, but had later been temporarily pushed into the background by rationalist metaphysics, asserted themselves victoriously in all cultural activities.

The contention in regard to the nature of the absolute was not the main ground on which metaphysicians were persecuted and tortured. The real issue was whether revelation or reason, whether theology or philosophy, should be the agency for determining and expressing ultimate truth. Just as the church defended the ability, the right, the duty of religion to teach the people how the world was created, what its purpose is, and how they should behave, so philosophy defended the ability, the right, the duty of the mind to discover the nature of things and to derive the right modes of activity from such insight.

Catholicism and European rationalist philosophy were in complete agreement regarding the existence of a reality about which such insight could be gained; indeed, the assumption of this reality was the common ground on which their conflicts took place. The two intellectual forces that were at odds with this particular presupposition were Calvinism, through its doctrine of Deus absconditus, and empiricism, through its notion, first implicit and later explicit, that metaphysics is concerned exclusively with pseudo-problems.

But the Catholic Church opposed philosophy precisely because the new metaphysical systems asserted the possibility of an insight that should itself determine the moral and religious decisions of man.

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Eventually the active controversy between religion and philosophy ended in a stalemate because the two were considered as separate branches of culture. People have gradually become reconciled to the idea that each lives its own life within the walls of its cultural compartment, tolerating the other.

The neutralization of religion, now reduced to the status of one cultural good among others, contradicted its 'total' claim that it incorporates objective truth, and also emasculated it. Although religion remained respected on the surface, its neutralization paved the way for its elimination as the medium of spiritual objectivity and ultimately for the abolition of the concept of such an objectivity, itself patterned after the idea of the absoluteness of religious revelation. In reality the contents of both philosophy and religion have been deeply affected by this seemingly peaceful settlement of their original conflict.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment attacked religion in the name of reason; in the end what they killed was not the church but metaphysics and the objective concept of reason itself, the source of power of their own 12 MEANS AND ENDS efforts. Reason as an organ for perceiving the true nature of reality and determining the guiding principles of our lives has come to be regarded as obsolete.


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Speculation is synonymous with metaphysics, and metaphysics with mythology and superstition. We might say that the history of reason or enlightenment from its beginnings in Greece down to the present has led to a state of affairs in which even the word reason is suspected of connoting some mythological entity. Reason has liquidated itself as an agency of ethical, moral, and religious insight.

Bishop Berkeley, legitimate son of nominalism, Protestant zealot, and positivist enlightener all in one, directed an attack against such general concepts, including the concept of a general concept, two hundred years ago.

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In fact, the campaign has been victorious all along the line. Berkeley, in partial contradiction of his own theory, retained a few general concepts, such as mind, spirit, and cause. But they were efficiently eliminated by Hume, the father of modern positivism. Religion seemingly profited from this development. The formalization of reason has made it safe from any serious attack on the part of metaphysics or philosophical theory, and this security seems to make it an extremely practical social instrument.

At the same time, however, its neutrality means the wasting away of its real spirit, its relatedness to truth, once believed to be the same in science, art, and politics, and for all mankind. The death of speculative reason, at first religion's servant and later its foe, may prove catastrophic for religion itself.

All these consequences were contained in germ in the bourgeois idea of tolerance, which is ambivalent. On the one hand, tolerance means freedom from the rule of dogmatic authority; on the other, it furthers an attitude of neutrality toward all spiritual content, which is thus surrendered to relativism. Each cultural domain preserves its 'sovereignty' with regard to universal truth. The pattern of the social division of labor is automatically transferred to the life of the spirit, and this division of the realm of culture is a corollary to the replacement of universal objective truth by formalized, inherently relativist reason.

The political implications of rationalist metaphysics came to the fore in the eighteenth century, when, through the American and French revolutions, the concept of the nation became a guiding principle. In modern history this concept has tended to displace religion as the ultimate, supraindividual motive in human life. The nation draws its authority from reason rather than from revelation, reason being thus conceived as an aggregate of fundamental insights, innate or developed by speculation, 13 ECLIPSE OF REASON not as an agency concerned merely with the means for putting them into effect.

Self-interest, on which certain theories of natural law and hedonistic philosophies have tried to place primary emphasis, was held to be only one such insight, regarded as rooted in the objective structure of the universe and thus forming a part in the whole system of categories. In the industrial age, the idea of self-interest gradually gained the upper hand and finally suppressed the other motives considered fundamental to the functioning of society; this attitude dominated in the leading schools of thought and, during the liberalistic period, in the public mind.

But the same process brought to the surface the contradictions between the theory of self-interest and the idea of the nation. Philosophy then was confronted with the alternative of accepting the anarchistic consequences of this theory or of falling prey to an irrational nationalism much more tainted with romanticism than were the theories of innate ideas that prevailed in the mercantilist period. The intellectual imperialism of the abstract principle of self-interest— the core of the official ideology of liberalism—indicated the growing schism between this ideology and social conditions within the industrialized nations.

Once the cleavage becomes fixed in the public mind, no effective rational principle of social cohesion remains. The idea of the national community Volksgemeinschaft , first set up as an idol, can eventually be maintained only by terror. This explains the tendency of liberalism to tilt over into fascism and of the intellectual and political representatives of liberalism to make their peace with its opposites. This tendency, so often demonstrated in recent European history, can be derived, apart from its economic causes, from the inner contradiction between the subjectivistic principle of self-interest and the idea of reason that it is alleged to express.

Originally the political constitution was thought of as an expression of concrete principles founded in objective reason; the ideas of justice, equality, happiness, democracy, property, all were held to correspond to reason, to emanate from reason. Subsequently, the content of reason is reduced arbitrarily to the scope of merely a part of this content, to the frame of only one of its principles; the particular pre-empts the place of the universal.

Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason Chapter 2, part 2

This tour de force in the realm of the intellectual lays the ground for the rule of force in the domain of the political. Having given up autonomy, reason has become an instrument. In the formalistic aspect of subjective reason, stressed by positivism, its 14 MEANS AND ENDS unrelatedness to objective content is emphasized; in its instrumental aspect, stressed by pragmatism, its surrender to heteronomous contents is emphasized. Reason has become completely harnessed to the social process.

Its operational value, its role in the domination of men and nature, has been made the sole criterion. Concepts have been reduced to summaries of the characteristics that several specimens have in common. By denoting a similarity, concepts eliminate the bother of enumerating qualities and thus serve better to organize the material of knowledge. They are thought of as mere abbreviations of the items to which they refer. Any use transcending auxiliary, technical summarization of factual data has been eliminated as a last trace of superstition.

Concepts have become 'streamlined,' rationalized, labor-saving devices.

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It is as if thinking itself had been reduced to the level of industrial processes, subjected to a close schedule—in short, made part and parcel of production. He speaks of the 'tendency for the potter to become the slave of his clay. In the world of action, we know that it is disastrous to treat animals or human beings as though they were stocks and stones. Why should we suppose this treatment to be any less mistaken in the world of ideas?

They are considered things, machines.