Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Age of Reasoned Dissent

Recently I have been engaged in reading a most excellent biography of Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, in which the author reveals much of the mayhem surrounding the two scientists: these joint “discoverers” of oxygen,—one of whom isolated the gas, the other of whom named it, to oversimplify somewhat—who in fact lived lives of great combustability. Deeply embroiled in the politicks of the Eighteenth Century, on either side of a narrow channel with differing social circumstances, both became martyrs of a sort for freethinking and for science. Having just referred to this selfsame time period by its common name, “The Age of Reason,” I suddenly feel troubled by this designation. Religious persecution in England? Brutal uprisings in France? Exactly how reasoned is the epoch?

Of course, any American should recollect the experience of the Puritans leaving their homeland for the New World,—at least, the version of the story related in classrooms and elementary-school history books. It seems that narrative contains a kernel of truth, except, of course, that the Puritans took over England a few decades later, botched the job, then returned the power to the monarchy in time for kings to invade New Amsterdam and eventually tax Americans to the point of starting a not-so-popular rebellion. But I’m jumpng ahead. The more central aspect of the narrative is that, throughout the so-called “Age of Reason,” the Church of England steered between the Scylla and Charybdis of Catholicism and Protestantism, subject to the capricious changes in the monarchy ruling over it. Although a certain amount of “tolerance” held sway over the country, the prohibitions against holding opinions counter to the state-sanctioned doctrine kept intellectuals silent (cf. the case of Newton’s antitrinitarianism) or even promoted the kind of violence that drove Priestley to leave England for America. Such unreasoning prejudice (particularly in the name of religion) feels all too recognizable right now.

But oddly enough, the troubles with the French Revolution feel more intellectually familiar to me: the Revolution gone mad, transformed into the Terror, with a subset of the intellectual elite manipualting the masses into an orgy of violence and bloodshed. (A new book on the Terror sounds remarkably interesting, but I can only claim to have fondled the hardcover and flipped through its pages, which hardly justifies a recommendation.) Perhaps because I visited France at an impressionable age and witnessed desecrated churches with statues cracked and broken and missing limbs. Perhaps because my courses in French language and literature imbued me with fragments of history at a time when they could more readily find purchase in my consciousness. In any case, French history from the Eighteenth Century also seems remarkably unworthy of the designation “Age of Reason.” One can reasonably argue that’s the age coming to a close, but what a finale!

Thus, in search of better nomenclature, I note that the aforementioned book by Bronowski and Mazlish refers to the epoch as the “Age of Reasoned Dissent,” which sounds only mildly more appealing. How ’bout the “Age of Reasoned Dissent, Punctuated by Ardent and Ruthless Insanity”? Starts to get a little long.

Given that Sterne worked as a vicar for most of his life, one might wonder what he has to say about such things. In a shockingly post-modern moment in Volume Two, Chapter XVII, of Tristram Shandy, Sterne presents one of his own sermons from 1750 for commentary by his characters. He takes the nature of conscience as his subject, and he questions sarcastically “that PASSION never got into the judgment-seat, and pronounc’d sentence in the stead of reason, which is supposed always to preside and determine upon the case”

Of course, when reading about Priestley’s house being ransacked and burned to the ground (admittedly some two score years after Sterne’s sermonizing), it becomes difficult to avoid taking the analogy even further: PASSION got into the judgement-seat, pronounc’d sentence, executed it ruthlessly, then looked for more opportunities to punish whomever it pleased. Admittedly, such actions don’t hold a candle (or a torch) to the Terror taking place across the Channel, but they were, in fact, spurred on by the chaos in France:—Royalists in England became sufficiently suspicious of dissenters such as Priestley to do their damndest to make life more difficult (if not actually shorter) for them.

How similar does this sound to contemporary America? Our king (or country) right or wrong, tempered poorly by reason, seems a dangerously familiar concept.

Further along in his sermon, Sterne can implore his readers: “Consult calm reason and the unchangeable obligations of justice and truth;—what say they?” I wonder if he could have said the same had he been writing (or preaching) some half-century later.