The Limits of the Rational: Voltaire vs. Casanova


“This is the happiest moment of my life. At last I see my master; it is twenty years, Monsieur, since I became your pupil.” Such is the opening line Casanova delivers to Voltaire inside the man’s retreat in Bern, Switzerland. It was Voltaire’s retreat when the politics back in France got too hot for him, and where Casanova had ended up after a series of escapades and adventures that had helped make his name. Like a lot of Casanova’s verbal maneuverings, it’s slick with flattery and charm, delivered by a man who in his day was regarded as a premier wit by those who knew him, and plenty of women did. At least, if you’re prepared to take his word for it.

Even so, the line betrays some of how Casanova must have felt. The two men would spend the next few days engaged in banter, argument, and literary ripostes.  Voltaire was already at the peak of his fame, Casanova a hopeful man of letters who, as he tells Voltaire later in their first conversation, had “indulged himself in studying humanity by traveling.” Their series of discussions, while proof to whoever might need it that conversation is an art in its own right, ended on a sour note that would lead Casanova to later write a harsh critique of Voltaire’s work, a critique which he later regretted. Their argument, though only a small and forgotten episode in their involved lives and the even richer tapestry of human history, speaks uncannily to our current time and has profound implications for the cultural underpinnings of the world we find ourselves in.

Ours is a “post-truth” world as some of the pundits have taken to calling it. Hearing them you’d think that there was, not so long ago, a “just-truth” world. This is of course a lie, and a pretty stupid one. Ethereal notions of human nature aside, “just-truth” is not something we do very well as a species. That journalism has always been as much about serving power as it’s been about “speaking truth” to it should then surprise no one. Just ask William Randolph Hearst.

So aside from soggy appeals to the lost Cronkites of yesteryear, what are they talking about? To give them as much credit as possible, let’s say that they’re talking about when the news at least aspired to discover “the truth.” Ask any journalist what kind of stories they get blue balls for, the kind of muckraker shit that mints names, and you’ll hear about the Pentagon Papers, Iran-Contra, and no WMD’s in Iraq. Stories of when journalists blew the doors open on true conspiracies, and unleashed the public’s Eye of Sauron onto those who considered themselves above the law.

How much of this is true depends on your point of view. On the one hand, you can imagine these journalists like the kind of people Alec Baldwin would be impersonating as his Glen Gary, Glen Ross character, sipping their diluted J&Bs at a lonely bar, reminiscing about the good old days. On the other, the contributions are undeniable. There was a time when journalism did have true believers within its ranks, true believers who felt compelled out of a sense of professional duty to hold the powerful accountable. They were, like much of the “elites” in our society, the heirs of Voltaire’s intellectual legacy.

Voltaire was a man who fought for the people against tyranny through the use of his pen. He was excommunicated by the Church, which in past eras would have been a death sentence in and of itself, and was forced from his country numerous times as the political atmosphere became untenable for those not enthralled with monarchy. Driven by a love of literature, and a subsequent adoration of the human spirit, Voltaire was, as Casanova often refers to him, “the great man” of letters in his time. He was also a warrior for Reason, and his work against religion and against the monarchy helped inspire the French Revolution, even being cited to this day in service to similar causes. Epigrams like “common sense is not so common,” or “prejudice is what fools use for reason,” could be emblazoned on plaques on any journalist’s desk today, and probably should be. They could also be on the desks of those running the European Union, or the international conglomerates and banks, or on Hillary Clinton’s. This is because Voltaire’s mission of bending the arc of human progress towards Reason has, in the West, been largely a success, at least in some key capacities.There’s even a book that explores the negative aspects of this.

For what can we say of these institutions and those who profit from them? Certainly we can say that they’re effective at keeping their members in wealth and power, at establishing and maintaining hierarchies, and that their powers towards achieving these ends comes due to their implementation of rationalism in a kind of cold, process-oriented sense. They coin soulless terms like “data driven,” “media content,” and “market research.” They have managed, up to now, to convince the public that their actions have been following a rational outlook that would benefit all, but over the years their powers of persuasion have dwindled due to years of overt Machiavellian tactics and incompetence. There’s no doubt that they’re not what Voltaire had in mind when he argued for breaking the chains of his fellow man through the power of Reason, though their PR people would probably claim otherwise. They are, however, the bastard constructs of his philosophy, and they have given rationalism a bad name.

The populist backlash is the result. Donald Trump didn’t win because he had Reason on his side. He won because he was a persuader. A schmoozer. A modern medicine man who spoke like a pro and hijacked the desperate imaginations of people yearning to be taken. What’s scary is the rest of the Western world has the same yearning, and why wouldn’t they? Just listen to the past Economic Minister of Greece talk about his experience with the EU politburo.

To those who would say that these people have been captured by a cult of personality and should be written off entirely, they in many cases need only look in the mirror. In America, Obama didn’t really win because he was the rational choice. He won because of “hope” and “change,” because of the same kind of political showmanship Trump is guilty of. Corrupted by ideology and identity politics, the Media and the wider Left’s claim to being champions of Reason is an obvious farce. The Right, to the extent that it employs Reason at all, isn’t much better. And so anyone with any respect in the rational is left with little choice but to try and find a new way, a path out of the ideological ruts. For those that care about Reason, there’s not a lot of options, and all of them are on the fringe. Education being what it is, most are happy with outdated economic models, ways of thinking, and anything else that promises to inject meaning into their lives, enough to have them keep their job and make a living. Life is tough, and thinking skeptically is hard.

And so the confrontation between Voltaire and Casanova becomes seminal in understanding not just how to move forward in a philosophical sense, but maybe more importantly, how others should be understood and engaged in that journey. As much as those who claim Reason and skepticism as their ultimate principles strive to live by these ideals, most of humanity sadly does not. The worst of them don’t even know that they don’t, and are under the delusion that they do.

The argument begins towards the end of Casanova’s stay with Voltaire, who is, according to Casanova, in a pissy mood. The question of superstition arises. Casanova questions Voltaire’s aim in trying to destroy it, giving his opinion that this mission is doomed to fail, to which Voltaire responds, saying that freedom and superstition can’t coexist. The two argue, the champion of Reason on the side of freeing people from the monarchy and the chains of superstition; the champion of persuasion saying that such an aim is impossible. What would superstition be replaced with? What makes Voltaire think people want to govern themselves? And finally, “The people can be happy only if they are cursed, downtrodden, kept in chains.”

This a strong statement by a man who was not superstitious, mostly because he was a big believer in superstition. He was a follower of Reason as much as Voltaire, but rather than freeing people from chains, Casanova enjoyed exploiting them. He lived by the maxim that “we avenge intelligence whenever we deceive a fool,” and his memoirs are rife with examples of his fleecing the superstitious by using their own silly ideas against them. Reading his work is winding one’s way through a labyrinth of lies, half-truths, and brazen claims. He asserts he’s believed in god his whole life, only to not reveal to the reader he was imprisoned and exiled from Venice for being an atheist and a “magician.” Many of his claims elsewhere are similar. Yet he was extremely successful for what he was. These men represent each end of the maxim that one should do something worth writing about or write something worth reading, and if it can be said that the best lives find a way to combine both of these attributes, perhaps that alone can stand as evidence for entertaining what this discussion means for Reasonable people.

For starters, Casanova’s argument serves as a refutation of any claim that letting people keep their superstition is harmless. Skeptics hear this all the time. “What harm does it do if it makes them happy?” “I’m not religious, but you shouldn’t say that about it.” “Why argue against religion? It’s not going anywhere.” These are the arguments first used by a well established con man, who used them because he felt people stupid enough to believe in these things deserved what they got, and who relished delivering it to them. Point this out to the next honest, decent person who uses these arguments, and you’ll know afterwards just how honest and decent they really are.

The more challenging question is taking stock of the world we’re in using this discussion as a framing device. We live in a “post-truth” world, a world Casanova would thrive in. There are other things he’d recognize too. The Muslim world’s antagonism towards the West; the average Westerner’s confused search for meaning; even the extreme rebuke from common people to their rationally guided, “benevolent” masters. These things were already present in his time, and some are now even more pronounced. Casanova would, perhaps, not feel quite so sheepish about his critique of Voltaire’s mission given the circumstances.

So what does this say for those who still hold rational inquiry, skepticism, and reason dear? It says that the tools of Voltaire, the tools of wit and charm, were effective in his hands in at least warming up the void. They did make his name, and so maybe even a passing effort today on the part of what he would’ve called The Fourth Estate should make some progress. Speaking honestly and being skeptical of one’s own viewpoint would be a good place to start. An even better one would entail not being craven in the face of power.

Outside of that fantasy actually occurring, we can say that rational discourse with the irrationally driven is doomed to failure a lot of the time. Though Sam Harris would tell you otherwise, there are hordes of people out there for whom Reason was not the starting point in their thought process when voting for Donald Trump. Even Harris himself has given up on that front. Nor is Reason important for those that stand by Creationism, or ID, or Islamism. The question here that must be asked, as dangerous as it might seem, is can the tactics of a persuader be used in the service of someone not trying to pull a con? Can someone who doesn’t care much about reason be persuaded to through these means? Perhaps appealing to these people through their emotions, their unconscious, through Casanova’s methods, might be the only way of leading them to thinking for themselves. Employing rational argument works wonders with many people much of the time, but it also falls flat for many others, and is it really their fault? Ridiculing them rather than convincing them has been the standard approach, and recently it clearly failed.

Third, and most importantly, it’s time to  seriously face Casanova’s question, “What does superstition get replaced with?” Not answering this in an age of unbounded progress, for which the stars are literally becoming tangible limits, is simply unacceptable and could lead to the downfall of modern Western civilization. This need not entail the abandonment of Reason. Just look to Carl Jung’s work for a scientific approach to integrating the irrational unconscious. At the very least, there are many people that need to be shown to water, and ridiculing their legitimate search for meaning serves nothing but someone’s ego.

To not answer this last question, and to not learn how to appeal to people for whom meaning lies in more than logic, leaves these people at the mercy of con men. Sadly, we’ve found this out the hard way.

Also published on Medium.

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