Outstanding Essay: 2009

God, Hubris, and Dehumanization in the Enlightenment

by John Pascarella

A curious feature of Modern thought is the fascination with Genesis, particularly with the fall of humanity.  Prominent authors of the Modern era portray the fall as mere disobedience on the part of human beings and the source of the world’s problems. (1)  Within Modern thought is regret for humanity’s fall, and with that regret comes the hope of restoration.  The Moderns turn to reason as their new guide, a guide that can unlock the secrets of nature, both physical and human.  As the world enters the Enlightenment, reason gains more power.  Enlightenment thinkers not only see reason in a position to apprehend the world and human beings, but shape them.  The first glimpses of this thought are found in Jean Jacque Rousseau’s On the Social Contract.  Kant, though not in the business of “soul-craft,” gives birth to a new Reason, one which is God, an image of perfection to which human beings must conform through denial of desires and inclinations.  In Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the success of the Enlightenment project reveals itself.  In the Enlightenment, Reason is the new God, finding itself in the position to make human beings in its own image with the intention of not only denying essential parts of humanity, but humanity itself.

Rousseau writes, “All justice comes from God; he alone is its source.  But if we knew how to receive it from so exalted a source, we would have no need for government or laws.  Undoubtedly there is a universal justice emanating from reason alone; but this justice, to be admitted among us, ought to be reciprocal” (160).  Rousseau reveals two flaws with human beings.  Not only do human beings have trouble receiving justice from God, but they cannot reciprocate it amongst each other.  These difficulties aside, Rousseau acknowledges human beings can access “universal justice” through reason.  All that is needed to revitalize universal justice are “conventions and laws to unite rights and duties and to refer justice back to its object [i.e., God]” (161).

The legislator in Rousseau’s theory “should feel that he is, so to speak, in a position to change human nature, to transform each individual (who by himself is a perfect and solitary whole) into a part of a larger whole from which this individual receives, in a sense, his life and his being” (163).  Looking to transform human beings, the legislator “must deny man his own forces in order to give him forces that are alien to him and that he cannot make use of without the help of others.  The more these natural forces are dead and obliterated, and the greater and more durable are the acquired forces, the more too is the institution solid and perfect” (emphasis added) (163).  To enter civil society, human beings must deny the part of their nature that would lead them to follow their own desires.  Through this death of human nature, individuals find life in the state.

In order to change human nature, Rousseau’s legislator is in a unique position.  The legislator’s position is not sanctioned by the Republic, nor is it a part of its constitution; rather, “It is a particular and superior function having nothing in common with dominion over men” (163).  The great difficulty of this position is found in its essence, “for [it is] an undertaking that transcends human force, and, to execute it, [requires] an authority that is nil” (164).  And since the legislator does not have recourse to force or reasoning, (2) “he must of necessity have recourse to an authority of a different order, which can compel without violence and persuade without convincing” (164).

To achieve this difficult task, the legislator must assume the role of God.  Rousseau says that, in the past, it is the legislator who made the gods speak (164).  If one shapes human beings—changes human nature—he can indeed “compel without violence and persuade without convincing.”  Rousseau writes, “It is this sublime reason, (3) which transcends the grasp of ordinary men, whose decisions the legislator puts in the mouth of the immortals in order to compel by divine authority those whom human prudence could not move.  But not everybody is capable of making the gods speak or of being believed when he proclaims himself the interpreter” (emphasis added) (165).  The reason of the legislator contains an image of what a people can become, and only through lawgiving is his task accomplished.
In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant claims there are two principles from which morality is derived:  the empirical or the rational (4:441).  The empirical principle is “taken from the principle of happiness, [and] [is] built upon physical or moral feeling” (4:442).  The rational principle is “taken from the principle of perfection, [and] [is] built either upon the rational concept of perfection as a possible effect of our will or upon the concept of an independently existing perfection (the will of God) as the determining cause of our will” (4:442). 
The greatest challenge human beings face is their inclination to directly pursue happiness.  Kant says, “All people have already, of themselves, the strongest and deepest inclination to happiness because it is just in this idea that all inclinations unite in one sum” (4:399).  Inclinations are tied to the senses; they are our pleasures, desires.  There are so many competing inclinations that Kant says it is impossible for human beings to determine which combination of inclinations would suitably define “happiness” (4:399).  This leads Kant to reject the empirical principle for morality and choose the rational principle because “it at least withdraws the decision of the question from sensibility and brings it to the court of pure reason” (4:443).

Pure reason is the home in which human beings find the principle of perfection upon which they can base their moral principles.  Morality founded upon pure reason brings individuals freedom because of its “independence from the determining causes of the world of sense” (4:452).  In this freedom from inclination, the individual can obey the categorical imperative which commands to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (4:442).  In other words, in all actions an individual faces, he or she must act in such a way that all other human beings in the same situation would do the same.  Individuals should not respond to these situations by doing what they want to do, but what they should do.
“Lawgiving reason” legislates what should be done and establishes duty (4:403).  When the individual chooses to obey the categorical imperative, “it is an estimation of a worth that far outweighs any worth of what is recommended by inclination, and [the recognition] that the necessity of my action from pure respect for the practical law is what constitutes duty, to which every other motives must give way because it is the condition of a will good in itself, the worth of which surpasses all else” (4:403).  The individual chooses to follow the categorical imperative for its own sake instead of following inclination.  In choosing to follow duty, the individual engages in self-denial.                                                                                                                       

Kant’s model for enacting categorical imperative is God.  Kant writes, “No imperatives hold for the divine will and in general for a holy will:  the “ought” is out of place here, because volition is of itself necessarily in accord with the law.  Therefore imperatives are only formulae expressing the relation of objective laws of volition in general to the subjective imperfection of the will of this or that rational being, for example, of the human will” (4:414).  While the categorical imperative faces opposition from inclinations in the human being, God, in Kant’s account, has no inclinations.  God is pure reason, and He has no need to overcome inclination.

To get to an example of moral perfection, Kant sneaks his way around Christ.  Kant writes, “Even the Holy One of the Gospel must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before he is cognized as such; even he says of himself:  why do you call me (whom you see) good?  None is good (the archetype of good) but God only (whom you do not see)” (4:408). (4)  Rhetorically, Kant asks (and answers), “But whence have we the concept of God as the highest good?  Solely from the idea of moral perfection that reason frames a priori and connects inseparably with the concept of a free will” (4:408-409).  God is the highest good because He is made in the image of pure, lawgiving reason.  It is in this image, the image of Reason, that human beings are left to make themselves with the help of the categorical imperative.

Mary Wollstonecraft builds her belief that men and women are equal in matters of character because of the “perfection of God” (23).  Wollstonecraft does not believe God put human beings in this world to “embitter” their days, but “to lead [them] from love of [them]selves to the sublime emotions which the discovery of his wisdom and goodness excites” (22).  These “feelings were…set in motion to improve [human beings’] nature…and render [them] capable of enjoying a more godlike portion of happiness (emphasis added) (22-23).  Wollstonecraft believes human beings are equal because they all have souls (28).  The only source of inequality is virtue (28,19).  But, if women are unequal to men, then “virtue is a relative idea” (36).  To establish equality and virtue, one must turn to God.  Wollstonecraft writes, “If, I say, for I would not impress by declamation when Reason offers her sober light, if [women] be really capable of acting like rational creatures, let them not be treated like slaves…but cultivate their minds, give them the salutary, sublime curb of principle, and let them attain conscious dignity by feeling themselves only dependent on God” (48). (5)  In order to feel this dependence, Wollstonecraft turns to reason, for “the conduct of an accountable being must be regulated by the operations of its own reason; or on what foundation rests the throne of God?” (49). 

According to Wollstonecraft, “The only solid foundation for morality appears to be the character of the supreme Being; the harmony of which arises from a balance of attributes;—and, to speak with reverence, one attribute seems to imply the necessity of another.  He must be just, because he is wise, he must be good, because he is omnipotent” (60).  The last argument from this quotation is particularly dangerous.  The better (and more humane argument) would be that God is omnipotent because He is good.  Giving the reader further insight into the individual’s relation to such a God (or Reason), Wollstonecraft writes, “For to love God as the fountain of wisdom, goodness, and power, appears to be the only worship useful to a being who wishes to acquire either virtue or knowledge.  A blind unsettled affection may, like human passions, occupy the mind and warm the heart, whilst, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, is forgotten” (61).

In the face of the Wollstonecraft’s God, human beings are left to question how they are supposed to love Him.  Wollstonecraft says, “If love be the supreme good, let women be only educated to inspire it, and let every charm be polished to intoxicate the senses” (87).  Wollstonecraft spends much time saying love is merely a fading passion of the body that will not last.  In relation to God, women are not supposed to view themselves so lowly, and “if they be moral beings, let them have a chance to become intelligent; and let love to man be only a part of that glowing flame of universal love, which, after encircling humanity, mounts in grateful incense to God” (87). 

In the same way Rousseau’s citizen sees oneself in the state or Kant’s individuals see themselves as ends in conformity with the categorical imperative, Wollstonecraft says human beings can only see themselves in God.  Wollstonecraft claims that “the heart of man cannot be read by man!” (168).  The implication of this assertion is not only that human beings cannot know the hearts of others, but that they cannot know their own hearts.  To view the heart, Wollstonecraft writes, “We should rather endeavor to view ourselves as we suppose that Being views us who seeth each thought ripen into action, and whose judgment never swerves from the eternal rule of right…The humble mind that seeketh to find favor is His sight, and calmly examines its conduct when only His presence is felt, will seldom form a very erroneous opinion of its own virtue” (169).

No humble mind can presume to view itself as God views human beings.  To claim such admits of the greatest hubris, yet this is the Enlightenment.  In the works of Rousseau, Kant, and Wollstonecraft, reason is no longer mere reason, but “Supreme law-giving Reason.”  Self-interest, inclination, and passion can be overcome, and mastered, by Reason.  The great irony of all this is the freedom created by such hubris, “For it is the right use of reason alone which makes us independent of everything—excepting the unclouded Reason—‘Whose service is perfect freedom’” (emphasis added) (150). (6)

The peculiar position of Rousseau’s legislator sets the stage for Kant’s morality based upon pure reason.  Rousseau gives Enlightenment authors the first glimpse into the possibility for reason to shape human nature, to be a creator.  It is in creation where freedom lies.  The inclinations that lead individuals to happiness must not simply be tamed, but removed from the soul.  The Kantian pure-practical reason must be God, an entity which embodies the categorical imperative with no intermingling of desires or pleasure.  It is this God, without desire, or inclination—without humanity, without Love (7) —that Wollstonecraft establishes as the basis of all human equality and virtue.  Yet at the end of these works, one finds that the authors are not talking about God at all, but Reason.  God is merely an image, a representation of Reason. 

What began as a Modern fascination with Genesis has run its course in the Enlightenment.  When Kant bypasses Christ and goes to God as an image of the categorical imperative incarnate, one can only ask, “Why?”  Perhaps it is insulting to the Enlightenment sensibility that God would take human form, that He would manifest himself in a body where the purity of Reason must intermingle with inclination.  The more likely answer, however, is that Christ was not a creator.  Christ took men as they are, not how they might be. (8)  In the freedom that Enlightenment thinkers promise, one finds not only a denial, but the removal, of key attributes of humanity (namely eros) in the name of Reason.  For these Enlightenment philosophers, Reason looks at the individual and says, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).  In addition to the great danger of establishing freedom as creation, the greater danger is the eventual death of Reason looming on the horizon, a death that gives birth to the age of nihilism. (9)  Looking back, one can only wonder what might have happened had the Enlightenment thinkers not forgotten the cautionary words of David Hume:  “Be a philosopher, but, amid all your philosophy, be still a man” (493).    

Works cited

(1) In the New Organon, Francis Bacon writes, “For it was not that pure and uncorrupted natural knowledge whereby Adam gave names to the creatures according to their propriety, which gave occasion to the fall.  It was the ambitious and proud desire of moral knowledge to judge of good and evil, to the end that man may revolt from God and give laws to himself, which was the form and manner of the temptation” (15).  Hobbes, in On Man and Citizen, writes, “Hast though eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?  As if he had said, how comest thou to judge that nakedness, wherein it seemed good to me to create thee, to be shameful, except thou have arrogated to thyself the knowledge of good and evil” (245).  Finally, John Milton’s Paradise Lost tells the tale “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste / Brought death into the World, and all our woe” (I.1-3).  These Modern authors mainly speak against humanity’s aspiration to moral knowledge, yet it is important to recognize how much of this regret of a fallen humanity influences their thought.

(2) This may pose a problem for asserting the supremacy of reason in Rousseau’s thought, but one will see that reason must merely express itself differently in order to change a people.

(3) Emphasis has been added to this word because the author believes it is a pun.

(4) This is a reference to Matthew 19:17.  However, Kant has carefully (perhaps dutifully) selected his text in the name of Reason (How unreasonable!).  The Gospel says:  “Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”  “Why do you ask me about what is good?”  Jesus replied.  “There is only One who is good.  If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”  “Which ones?” the man inquired.  Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”  “All these I have kept,” the young man said.  “What do I still lack?”  Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me” (emphasis added) (Matthew 19: 16-21).   The key to this passage is the command by Christ to follow him, God, in human form.  This point will be developed shortly.

(5) To really see the primacy of Reason in Wollstonecraft, this author suggests substituting “Reason” for “God” in all passages where He is mentioned.  It is the great equivocation of the Enlightenment, and possibly its greatest sin.

(6) Tying into the idea put forward in footnote three of this paper, footnote eight for Chapter VI in A Vindication of the Rights of Women says:  “‘Whose service is perfect freedom’:  From the Collect for the Morning Prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  The phrase refers to God, not reason:  ‘O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom’” (emphasis added) (261). 

(7) In The Symposium, Diotima tells Socrates that “love is the desire to have the good forever” (206a).  In such a strong rejection of desires and “natural forces” in the Enlightenment, the love that makes all philosophy possible, a love originating from eros, has no home. 

(8) Playing off the opening line for Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Discourse on the Social Contract:  “I want to inquire whether there can be some legitimate and sure rule of administration in the civil order, taking men as they are and laws as they might be” (emphasis added) (141).

(9) To have built Reason up to such high esteem, the Enlightenment sets up its God for a spectacular fall.  Given this thought, Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is Dead!” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra should not only be read as the death of God the Deity, but the death of Reason as well (44). Additionally, Nietzsche recognizes the potential freedom in creation.  As a brief example, Zarathustra, in his speech “On the Blessed Isles,” says, “Creating—that is the great redemption from suffering, and life’s becoming light” (66).