Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Diderot, The First Blogger?


Although I feel blessed everyday to speak one of the world’s great languages, it is also a handicap. Because English has become the new lingua franca, almost inevitably any foreign book of consequence will be translated into it before any other, making it largely unnecessary to study tongues outside of self-improvement.

It is sadly forgotten by most that French was once the language of diplomacy and intellectual discourse. English won out due to conquest, French to pure elegance, and nowhere is that elegance more prominently displayed than in that monument of the eighteenth-century, the Encyclopédie, and its principal author and editor Denis Diderot.

Diderot was born the son of a cutler, and rose to his position in the pantheon of letters on ability alone. As the son of a laborer myself I take especial pride in this lowly origin, and what it says about the Enlightenment values we take for granted today.

I have only recently been rediscovering his writings. All of his more popular titles are available to the intrepid Francophile, with the exception of his voluminous correspondence, which seems never to have been in English dress at all. More is the pity, for the letters are considered by some to be his greatest achievement. But it was in the magisterial pages of the Encyclopédie that Diderot first displayed his gifts for wit and satire to international acclaim.

Only a polymath of massive learning and the energy of a racehorse could even think to attempt it. It was in the manner the articles were written however that made the whole enterprise an engine of change. In an age when it was impossible to attack the status quo directly without risk of imprisonment or worse, the Encyclopédie provided a back door to social and political critique, a place where one could read between the lines and give a knowing wink to those who grasped what was meant. One need only mention that cheeky entry: “Eucharist: See Cannibalism” to get the point.

As Diderot considered the writing of the entries largely hackwork, the Encyclopédie might in its own way be considered an early form of blogging. Though lacking the anonymity that modern blogging provides, and published at far greater expense, Diderot must have looked at much of his efforts on the project as ephemeral, certainly not his major work, most of which was locked up in his writing desk or those of his friend’s until long after his death. But it is this very quality of inconsequence that allows for the charm of the more salient passages.

To take my analogy further, the Encyclopédie was one of the first major attempts to systematize and make available to the public the whole of human knowledge, a democratization of learning that in many ways the Internet makes available today. This ideal of open access and equal opportunity for self-improvement was at the core of the Enlightenment, and is one of its greatest legacies to our modern world. Not bad for the son of a knife seller, and his friend the bastard.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

In Defense of Indignation


Salman Rushdie in an interview with Bill Moyers made the comment that: “atheists are obsessed with God.” I knew just what he meant. Few people come to such an unpopular concept without spending a lot of time examining theism and its claims. Personally, I find religion fascinating because of the passion it ignites, passion for a perceived truth and the mental gymnastics it forces some through to defend their positions. It is warfare, but of the only kind I approve, the warfare of ideas.  As the philosopher David Hume famously put it, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”, and even those in the calm of the study (and sometimes not even there) can find it difficult to keep their cool in confrontation.

Of course, this is true about all strongly held views, not only about religion. However, religion has always been more divisive than the majority of ideas.

Although at first a toe dipper in doubt, I became firmer in my views with the passage of time and continued inquiry. From some of the exchanges I have had since then, and not always about religion, I have questioned: have I become as dogmatic as the dogmatists? Have I, as Nietzsche so phrased it, become a monster by fighting monsters? Well, perhaps this is true if we leave reason at the door, but in this I believe I am better inoculated than most.

Sticking to the barricade though the enemy out numbers you is not the same as burning to death those whose ideas you do not like. Even many of the most passionate freethinkers, though they might view religion as a very great evil, would never think it right to persecute those who continue to believe. The very term freethinker would mean very little if this were not so. However, that being said, there is a fine line between respect and tolerance. Though I must tolerate many things I do not find acceptable as the price of living in a free and open society, I am not obliged to respect anything.

To return to Hume, as he pointed out our reasoning is always chained to our passions, but without the stick of indignation to rouse us to right action, the carrot would be superfluous. In other words, we are rarely motivated to challenge accepted notions from reason alone; there must be a spark before the powder is set alight.

It is common to hear complaints from theists that nonbelievers are cold and rude. Though I am certain this may be the case at times, it is without doubt more often than not a matter of perception. The path to truth is not always a pleasant walk, and it is not unusual to get scratched by the thicket along the way. For those who honestly seek it, hard and painful questions about preconceived and deeply held values must be examined in the light of day. If the questioner starts to unceremoniously tread upon sacred ground (sacred to the believer) it may well be perceived as a violent trespass, an assault upon what was believed to be the unquestionable.

So the atheist, by merely explaining why he or she sees the world as they do, cannot help but stir strong emotions that very often blind both sides to the higher goal of questioning from the very outset. Atheists are human too, no matter how much their rivals would like to think differently, and when you encounter a believer who is unable or, unwilling, to follow the rules of rational discourse, it is but a short step from heated debate to shouting match.

We walk a fine line, stay silent and keep the peace but allow prejudice and misconception to flourish or, step up and offer ourselves to the pillory at the risk of being accused of rudeness or worse. As a thinking human being who holds the truth in high regard, the latter can be the only option.

Published in Secular Nation Magazine.