The Dark Side Of The Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, And Spiritual Seekers In The Age Of Reason

In his intro, Fleming explains that the ‘dark side’ of his title is a kind hearted pun, rather than a hint that reader is about to enter the gloomy, sordid, and evil underbelly of eighteenth century France.

Various figures who are almost part of a Counter Enlightenment (and appropriate phrase, considering how often he alludes to the Counter Reformation) drive the stories he tells. It’s not an overarching thesis which drives him, so much as curiosity about certain individuals and ideas who seem so different from our idea of what the Enlightenment was.

Most were new to me or provided new perspectives (I knew about the Port Royal movement as an intellectual school, but not about some of the spiritual healers and relic veneration around it). I was disappointed, I will admit, at how little space the Rosicrucians got. I used to be a reader in conspiracy theories of a certain sort (the sort mocked in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum) and would have liked to have seen it gone into a bit more. But a minor quibble, surely?

A larger quibble is what I hinted at a moment ago: how does this connect to the Enlightenment, beyond happening at roughly the same time? The occult strain within the Freemasons is real, but a chance to firmly connect them to the intellectual ferment of the age is sadly missed (just connecting it slightly to the gentleman’s club or the coffeehouse, the latter of which, predates modern Freemasonry, is not really doing it service).

In general, I confess to a general, though slight, feeling of disappointment. Disappointment because the book also feels a little slight. So many sections manage to feel undercooked (if always interesting). Alchemy is such a fascinating subject with a luxurious iconography and from this book I learned that… 18th century alchemy is a fascinating topic, with interesting iconography. Cagliostro is undoubtedly a fascinating and elusive figure and relevant to the topic… but did such a plurality of the pages theoretically devoted to him actually have to be an explanation of the history of L’affaire du collier (the infamous Affair of the Necklace)? I understand he was charged (and acquitted) in the matter, but is his distant involvement stupendously relevant to the history of spiritualism, occultism, alchemy, etc. in the Enlightenment? Similarly, there are two chapters on Julie de Krüdener, a writer who I confess to have never heard of before, and while her story is interesting and maybe relevant because she appears to be an early literary figure in the transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism, but that’s kind of a stretch (though he attempts to bridge the gap by tendentiously connecting her to a series of semi-mystical writers who she… met? read? as well as to a later obsession with numerology which he also connects to Tolstoy and… wait for it… The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galazy).

So, in conclusion (I sound Phillipa Chong now), I learned a lot, but a lot less than I would have expected about the supposed topic of the book.

img_5248The subtitle of this book was the title of an earlier book by Scruton and he describes this one as an attempt to wade back into the waters of demolishing the new new left (and also the same left as before, too).

His opening salvo acknowledges that Marx is not really, anymore, a lodestar for those on the left, but he still cannot help but engage with him, mostly because, like it or not, his philosophical writings are powerful and important.

But despite his protestations (doth the conservative protest too much?), he follows up his introductory chapter with a broadside (these are all, really, essays) on the Marxian historians Eric Hobsbawn (who I head read and love and to who Scruton gives appropriate credit for being a brilliant historian and man of letters) and E. P. Thompson (who I have heard of, but never read). Go figure.

Well, that’s not fair. Communism had far greater currency in England during the Cold War and had far more mainstream credibility than in America.

He even links Marxian ideas to John Kenneth Galbraith (though praising him as a stylist; the aestheticist in him is never far from the surface), which says more about the range of ideas Marx wrote about than it does about Galbraith (in case you’re interested, the linkage here is the Canadian economist’s  writings about want and desire in contemporary society being created by society’s output, which idea can, yes, be traced to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, but I could do the same so some of Ross Douthat’s more explicitly religious critiques of society, so this isn’t really a left/right thing).

What did surprise me was his praise for Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison. He writes admiringly of its insights (while dismissing what links it to his other works, those he doesn’t like; these weak links, of course, are somehow related to Marx; but I appreciate being given a new, deliciously French vocabulary word: marxisant). His seemingly off-handed mention of how he died of AIDS reeks of the worst sort of nauseating, neanderthal moralizing (the subtext seems to be, ‘you know he was gay right?’ he shows similar attitudes when criticizing Sartre’s Saint Genet for mocking ‘norms of heterosexual respectability’).

As to why he, in particular, cannot let Marx go, even when he acknowledges Marxism is no longer very relevant to current debates, it is at the heart of his conservatism. Insofar as Scruton is a philosopher of import and a conservative, it is on the field of aesthetics that his foundation is laid. He is, arguably, a Burkean, but a Burkean of Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime and Beautiful. Materialism and class analysis are anathema to him. Tradition, culture, and classic ideas of beauty inform Scutonian conservatism (I wanted to write Scroogean there, but that’s more a feature of the near homonymity than any deep connection between Scruton and Scrooge, whose own conservative was less about beauty and culture than class and materialism). Marx is a symbol for a turn from this aesthetic sense (he even blames the tortured syntax and unnecessary vocabularies that have become standard to many forms of academic writing across the ideological spectrum on Marx and Marxism, which would surprise anyone who has tried to read an academic article by an economist broadly from the Chicago, née Austrian, School.

I am disinclined to defend Zizek, though Scruton offers him some praise.

He writes perceptively of art, literature, cinema and music, and when he is considering the events of the day – be it presidential elections in America or Islamist extremism in the Middle East – he always has something interesting and challenging to say.

Well, paint me surprised. Later, he even seems to suggest that is Marxism is just fine (Lacan, apparently, is to blame for Zizek’s flaws) Also, I guess I hadn’t noticed before, but I don’t see an Oxford comma here.

The codicil chapter, which fits awkwardly, though if he had just stopped, that would have felt jarring, tries to give a positive statement on conservatism and is titled What Is Right? A certain political naivete rears its head here and makes clear that he’s not much of a political theater. His origin story is of watching the student demonstrations in Paris in 1968. He says that he didn’t know what he believed, but that they must be wrong. He loves order, in other words. But when he tries to go beyond that, well, he sounds rather liberal, to my ears.

I enjoyed the last (and only other) book that I read by Scruton that I read, but, just as I questioned his credentials as a political thinking, I am also not sure that he is really a philosopher at all (anyone who gives Hume some portion of credit for having ‘kept skepticism at bay’ deserves some mistrust). Actually, I am fairly certain that he is not. Which is not to say that he is not well, indeed, deeply read in the subject. But it is to say that he is more like a Christopher Hitchens figure. A powerfully intelligent polemicist rather than a systematic thinker. He’s also like Hitchens in that it can be marvelously fun to read his mockery (Habermas is subjected to the best lines. His books ‘are printed in luxury editions for the better class of living room. Few people have read these books from cover to cover; few of that who have read them remember what they say.’ Also, ‘with somewhat greater frequency than the lines of Shakespeare that fall from the monkey’s typewriter, interesting ideas surface in the great waste-paper basket of Habermas’ prose’) and that it’s a worthwhile waste of one’s time to watch extended clips of him online (at least thirty minutes, but preferably longer).

But, he’s made me want to take another stab at reading Being and Nothingness (presumably not his intention) and to find and reread a Raymond Williams book that bought years ago at Kramerbooks (I know I’ve seen it recently on the shelves in my study; it has a striking, if not particularly handsome, silver cover), offered an offhanded but fascinating defense of Augustine’s theory of original sin, and maybe convinced me to read more Scruton.

Scruton fulfills or can fulfill, in a way, something like the role that William F. Buckley played for the intellectual left. That is the role of the conservative that one can engage with. The each bring a pleasant, upper class accent and vocabulary, though Scruton, so far as I know, lacks Buckley’s unreconstructed racism and segregationism (though his attack on Edward Said and his defense of Said’s targets smacks of a certain pro-colonialism). Certainly, I hope so. One can imagine him despising Trump’s rigidly unintelligible propaganda, proudly uninformed opinions, and, not least, his outspoken and unironic tackiness (one can easily imagine Buckley being outwardly seduced by Trump, but that is because Buckley’s interest was movement through the exercise in political power, whereas Scruton appears driven by his love of aristocratic English high culture).

Yes, Virginia, There Is An Aristotle, And No, He’s In Not In Danger Of Being Cancelled, But Some People Have Apparently Solved All The World’s Problems, So Have Time For This Sort Of Straw Man Pablum

Is Aristotle in danger of being ‘cancelled,’ as this New York Times approved editorial suggests? No, because that’s a stupid straw man premise.

But were he alive today, we would absolutely criticize him and call out magazines that published books and articles by this hypothetical contemporary Aristotle that either defend slavery or sexism or whose foundations are built on them. Does the author really not get the difference? I suspect she does and is being willfully obtuse, especially since protecting Aristotle from being cancelled goes in the same circular file as protecting ‘Merry Christmas’ from ‘Happy Holidays.’ (And, in case you need a refresher six months before Christmas, you say Merry Christmas to people you know to celebrate Christmas, and Happy Holidays to people who don’t or if you don’t know; try it, and I bet you’ll be surprised to find the saying Happy Holidays has not destroyed your faith in God, belief in the Trinity, or caused your local Wal-Mart to erupt into a pagan bacchanal featuring unspeakable and non-consensual acts with discount patio furniture.

Review: ‘Twilight At Monticello: The Final Years Of Thomas Jefferson’

img_5245My interest in Jefferson has always been in the workings of his mind and I am not sure this book did much to expand my understanding, in that regard.

Also, this is the second book I have read about Thomas Jefferson in the last several weeks that seems to give weight to arguments that doubt his fathering Sally Hemmings’ children. This is does so better, by describing the arguments against it, as if in good faith, but ultimately coming down on the side of, yes, Jefferson and Hemmings had a sexual relationship and he fathered several children with her. Frankly, right now, the issue (no pun intended) is so little in doubt that any effort to seriously recognize the other side is deeply fraught, because it is clear that racially motivated prejudices drive them (Jefferson, a proud and noble white man with unimpeachable intellectual and ethical credentials, could not have had a sexual relationship, which could never be truly consensual, with a black woman, however light skinned).

It is also a depressing book. The chronicle of a family’s decline into insolvency. Page after page of Jefferson’s extravagant spending, combined with loan upon loan (including sad sounding loans, like $100 from a local shopkeeper) and the occasional bad faith financial transaction (while acting with essentially power of attorney for a European friend’s property, he sold it and then loaned the proceeds to himself). Even his offer to sell his library to replenish the Library of Congress, which the British had burnt to ashes during the War of 1812, was driven in no insignificant part in order to get a hold on some cash to pay off some loans and show sufficient solvency so as to be able to ask for more credit. And did I mention that Crawford hints that, in his later years, Jefferson might have had an opium addiction? Yeah, it’s not a fun read, in many respects.

Review: ‘Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics Of Enlightenment And The American Founding‘ By Darren Staloff

My critique would be this: we must take him at his word. He devotes some two score pages to a description of the Enlightenment (primarily the French Enlightenment; in the sections about the individual Founders, the Scottish Enlightenment gets many nods, but not so much here, though the distinctly non-French Kant does get a few mentions). In the 80-100 pages each of the figures gets, he describes their take on (and sometimes rejection of) various strands of Enlightenment.

But he does not much quote from them. Yes, he has extensive citations, but not owning all those primary sources (and also having a job and a family which takes up some of my time), I must accept his interpretations and assessments at face value. And, as I mentioned, I’m not one hundred percent on his vision of the Enlightenment (which sometimes bleeds into early Romanticism).

But on those assertions.

Adams, he claims, saw class conflict, as vital. It was the tension which preserves the Republic. If the aristocratic elite become too dominant, you have baronial oligarchy. If the masses win, some charismatic general, a la Napoleon, takes power. Interesting and also begging for some contemporary commentary (where he have a populist who simultaneously works to put the economic oligarchs in power).

One nearly unforgivable statement is that he writes it is ‘probable but not certain’ that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemming’s children, which is true (though by 2005, when this book was published, it would have already been more to say it is ‘nearly certain and widely accepted’), but what makes it so frustrating for me and what makes me question him, is that he goes on to cite the theory that it could have been his younger brother. That is a canard that had been used by unscrupulous historians and pseudo-historians for years to try and deny the heritage of his descendants by Hemmings. What makes this so much more frustrating is that Staloff is unstinting in pointing out the racism that undergirded too much of Jefferson’s public life, including how his own actions to drive American Indians (oh, and why does he insist in writing ‘Amerindian?’) from their land lay the foundation for Andrew Jackson’s later, genocidal actions.

In general, it was about Adams that I learned the most (though my trust in what he writes was deeply shaken by what he wrote about Hemmings in the final section, about Jefferson). It’s been many, many, many years since I that McCullough biography and the section on Adams spoke a lot more aspects of his presidency that had (to my mind) little to do with whatever point he was trying to make about the Enlightenment, but I didn’t know about his critical support for Haiti’s revolution, opening up relations with the revolutionary government and allowing American ships to bring needed supplies. Again, though, not clear how this relates to Adams supposedly somewhat skeptical view of Enlightenment ideas.

In fact, he doesn’t do a great job on how their actual political lives were or were not guided by their own takes on the Enlightenment. When he writes about the Enlightenment, he mentions the Physiocrats who can be directly linked to Jefferson’s agrarianism, but then he posits Jefferson as being a post-Enlightenment Romantic. And if the Physiocrats are an emblematic facet of Enlightenment, how does Hamilton’s singleminded focus on commerce and finance fit in? He does place the Enlightenment in a uniquely urban context, which fits well with Hamilton (and Adams, though he doesn’t make that point).

This is an interesting book, but frankly, the arguments are little muddled.


You can, at least, say that reading Ravelstein makes you want to read more about and by Alan Bloom, who the title character is a not even really disguised version thereof.

I have read little Bloom. And only one other Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift; it liked me not, and while it inspired me to read some Delmore Schwartz, his poems discouraged me from reading more).

But my suspicion is that the only improvement this novel makes on reading Bloom himself (or a proper biography) is that Ravelstein is a much better name, with its towering, gothic overtones. Bloom is too comically joycean to be a really good name anymore, at least on a man.

I furthermore suspect that I would have better, in general, reading neither Bloom nor Bellow, but simply revisiting Isiah Berlin and Leo Strauss.

The book gets even weaker when it drifts from Ravelstein. The narrator, who is, as you might guess, a Chicago writer with too many marriages in a relationship with a much younger woman (intelligent, but not too intelligent; pretty, but not too beautiful; caring; understanding; indeed, the very perfect fantasy young wife of an old man), is not as interesting as he thinks. He is not uninteresting, but a long stretch where he goes to vacation to Puerto Rico, eats a toxic fish, has to be flown back to the United States, hallucinates in the hospital, and nearly dies, is completely unnecessary. Mortality is a theme that runs all through the novel, but this was, as I said, unnecessary. I didn’t read Ravelstein to spend so much time with someone improbably named ‘Chick’ (I kept thinking of Chick Corea).

I first started reading this book in 2004. I remember reading it a bar in St. Petersburg where my friend sometimes worked. I had left a position at an environmental nonprofit because the head of the Florida was a insufferable fool and a bit of a sadist. She wanted my job and pretending to ask permission. I was trying to read a paperback copy of Ravelstein. I don’t know where that copy went or why I decided I had to make another go at it.

Thomas Jefferson’s Argument For Atheist Morality

Thomas Jefferson was frequently accused of being an atheist (I tend towards those who suppose him to be a particularly secular Deist), but usually avoided commitment and included references to God (or someone similar) in his writings, particular the more or less public (I have been reading so much 18th century English writing that I almost spelled that ‘publick’) ones. An obvious example is the capital C Creator referenced in The Declaration of Independence. Read more

A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women

To me, the heart of her argument’s current value (assuming that we can all agree that women are not inherently inferior to men and don’t need to be told that anymore; though it is still almost certainly true the we do still need to be told) is an educational one (perhaps why she take special offense at the educational writings of Rousseau). Proper education leads to people of any gender becoming fully moral creatures. The failure to properly educate women leads to them lacking, in most cases, full moral agency. At the same time, the rearing of children, who we want to be grow into moral creatures, is left to them, so shouldn’t we educate them properly so that they can raise the next generation of moral agents? Read more

Ways Of Heaven: An Introduction To Chinese Thought

I begin to see why my wife criticizes my photography

Though not stated openly, Sterckx, for the majority of the book, sets Chinese thought as a sort of rivalry between Confucianism and Mohism. You can easily see a bias towards the former, though he is not unkind towards the latter (Legalism, however, receives only a lukewarm defense). Read more

Letter Of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, To Alexander Pope

If this was not so clear in the previous letter I read, Bolingbroke has studied his s—t. He has named dropped in such a way that it’s clear he’s read them well Bacon, Descartes, and Leibniz.

My understanding is that Pope turned to Bolingbroke for philosophical counsel when writing his great Essay on Man. But no one has ever accused that poem of having more than moderate philosophical value (but great poetic value). Neither does Pope’s friend, whose philosophy seems to be, at its heart, Baconian, mixed with a dose of anti-clericalism (though knowing what I know, I expect that Anglican ministers are exempt from his rhetorically flourishing vitriol). He gets in a jab at Leibniz (which he spells Leibnitz):

Leibnitz, one of the vainest and most chimerical men that ever got a name in philosophy, and who is often so unintelligible that no man ought to believe he understood himself…
Good stuff, eh?