Saturday, March 15, 2008

The More Things Change

I found this quote from Rousseau (along with Nietzsche, my favorite intellectual to admire and blame for modernity) in Peter Gay's history of the Enlightenment:

"All the subtleties of metaphysics will not make me doubt for a moment the immortality of the soul or a beneficent Providence. I feel it, I believe it, I want it, I hope for it, and I shall defend it to my last breath."

If you could translate this from the proto-Romantic idiom into today's 'spiritual, not religious' idiom, this echoes the sentiments of many of our contemporaries. The immortality of the soul and other propositions are proven not by appeal to reason or fact, but to the strength with which one holds the conviction. "I feel it!" This could have been the name of a pop song (and probably has been) over the past thirty years. But what of fabled Enlightenment Reason?

What piques my interest in this sort of non-argument is two-fold: 1) While Rousseau was often less that up-front about his actual thoughts, in my opinion, he stands out as an Enlightenment figure to me precisely for his willingness to admit that humankind possesses an affective, yea, religious side. Reason only gets us so far, and he is one of the few Aufklarung philosophes to write as if this were true. 2) When I was in high school, I thought this way. I even wrote a song once in which I claimed to have the power to be whatever I wanted after death simply by believing it and wanting it (this based on a warped interpretation of Fr. Tito Sammut, O. Carm's teaching on the Last Judgment, which was orthodox, so far as I recall it). Perhaps inevitably, this kind of metaphysical optimism withered when exposed to the Enlightenment atmosphere of the U of Chicago. Then, someone convinced me, by appeal to reason and human nature, that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. Ah! The immortality of the soul is not a mere postulate, but something that can be asserted by eyewitness testimony! This both appealed to my reason and my religious side, and I was on my way back into the Church.

But this seems to be a rare sort of story today.

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