This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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Rationalism as individualism in the intellectual sphere

 “America is thus one of the countries in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and most widely applied. We need not be surprised by that. Americans do not read the works of Descartes because the state of their society diverts them from speculative study and they follow his maxims because it is this very social state which naturally disposes their minds to adopt them.”

~Alexis de Tocqueville [1]

In the ancient world the higher forms of knowledge were supra-individual: the sacred books of the Hindus, for example, have no author, are not expected to have had an author, and this fact is not considered to present any problems for the Hindu mind. In the West, this simply would not do—we must know the author, and it must be demonstrably proven that authorship is correctly attributed. This is the difference between an individualist, rationalist approach to knowledge and one that is supra-individual and supra-rational one. The East has retained the latter, while the West has settled inflexibly into the former.

While it is possible, and in fact it is popular, to place all the blame for our truncated epistemology at the feet of Descartes, it is important to remember that this is only true to a degree, and he could not have instigated the rationalist revolution if individualism had not already prepared the soil. Individualism is the prerequisite and substrate of rationalism. Keeping this in mind, we can discuss rationalism specifically, since it pertains directly to knowledge, which is the concern of this section.

The rationalist method was the overthrow of the ancient view of knowledge as something which, in the form of tradition, was supra-rational and supra-individual. The first outcome of this overthrow was the appearance of a new attitude toward hierarchy. In societies that centered around tradition, it was self-evident that one ought not to expect the higher parts of knowledge to be within the grasp of his individual reason. The truths he could master himself and on his own efforts were in fact quite few, and of the lowest order. To sit down alone with his scriptures and try to discern their meaning in isolation without reference to any commentary and without any kind of authoritative doctrinal framework would have been unthinkable. This ancient mentality was simply the acknowledgement of a universal truth—that higher knowledge is not and cannot be brought within the reach of all people at all times. If you want it, you must engage in a trans-historical project of cooperation with an authentic tradition.

But after Descartes, Luther, and in many ways after Adam Smith, the concept of knowledge as a collective possession quickly evaporated, and once that happens the individual is really left with no other option than to become a rationalist.

Tocqueville observed that America manifested this phenomenon almost automatically, as a consequence of its development and without any exposure to the Cartesian precepts. America, being a post-revolutionary society, was born already detached from tradition, and so the individualist substrate was the native soil for this nation. Individualistic rationalism is, we might say, a genetic trait, or rather a genetic defect. Another way of saying it is that individualistic rationalism is America’s origin-al sin. Much of the present mental condition of our country can be easily understood once we admit this.

[1] Tocqueville, op. cit., pp. 494-495.

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