Of Fear and the Age of Reason

I’ve been writing like crazy (in shameless self-promotion, there are examples here and here) and recently it led me to the Enlightenment, in particular, as it unfolded in Great Britain.

While I was on the trail of earth scientists, it didn’t escape me that this happened during the days of the Founding Fathers. The roots of my own country are bound up in that age. Indeed, I was forced to reflect on the relevance today of what the Founders bequeathed us.

Of course, our American heritage is relevant today, but I was struck just now by a passage in Ellery Queen’s Cat of Many Tails that approaches very nicely the problem that makes this also the worst of times. That’s the one that made me reflect in the first place.

To set it up, Ellery is imagining the golden statue of Prometheus, in the fountain at Rockefeller Center in New York City, is speaking to him:

The gilded guy.

The gilded guy. (Source)

I’m so old I don’t recall where I originally came from, except that it’s supposed to have been without women – which I find very unconvincing – but I seem to remember that I found it necessary to bring to men the gift of fire. If I really did that, I’m the founder of civilization, so I feel qualified to make certain extended remarks…The world today reminds me of the very old days, when religions were being born. I mean, modern society resembles primitive society to an amusing degree. There’s the same concentration on democratic government, for example, while certain of your number who claim to be in touch with higher powers push to the top to rule. You make the same virtue out of common names and common bloods, investing both with mystic mumbo jumbo. In sexual affairs, your women are equally overrespected and kept inside a convenient cage of sanctity, while important affairs are arrogated to themselves by your males. You’ve even reverted to food taboos in your worship of diets and vitamins.

But I find the most interesting similarity…in the way you react to your environment. The crowd, not the individual, is the thinking unit. And the thinking power of a crowd…is of an extremely low order. You’re bursting with ignorance, and ignorance breeds panicky fears. You’re afraid of nearly everything, but most of all you’re afraid of personal contact with the problems of your time. So you’re only too happy to huddle together inside the high magic wall of tradition and let your leaders manipulate the mysteries. They stand between you and the terrorists of the unknown.

But once in a while your priests of power fail you and suddenly you’re left to face the unknown in person. Those on whom you relied to bring you salvation and luck, to shield you from the mysteries of life and of death, no longer stand between you and the dreadful darkness. All over your world the magic wall has crumbled, leaving your people paralyzed on the edge of the Pit.

The problem is not the cynicism revealed in these “truths.” It’s that Ellery doesn’t answer them with any sort of hope, let alone the reasoned “reality talk” old Prometheus would have gotten, had one of the 18th-century Enlightened Ones been around – if only as another talkative statue.

Perhaps a tag team.  (Source)

Perhaps a tag team. (Source)

This rejection of reason and everything it had built over the preceding two centuries was the Sixties talking (in 1949!), undermining post-WWII optimism, hope and self-confidence so it could arrogate itself some power, become the magician it claimed to mock, and push to the top to rule.

The Sixties ruled.

And this is why we haven’t, among other things, returned to the Moon. That generation built itself on the backs (and in the minds) of paralytics.

Not pictured – a paralytic:


Fortunately for the world, that’s changing now, though there are still enough Autumn People around, and they are still plentiful and powerful enough to keep the head of Confident Youth down a little while longer.

I’m part of that generation, if the tail end. One thing’s for sure – they won’t eventually be hauling us out of the nursing home to praise us hypocritically as a “great generation.” We’ll be lucky to escape indictment.

We will, though, for our children, in the long run, love us…not as we deserve to be loved, but because they are our children.

Here’s to our many-times-greatgrandfathers and -grandmothers. Here’s to the Enlightenment – the surest antidote to fearful paralysis there is!

The road of Reason is open to any that dare tread it.

The road of Reason is open to any that dare tread it.

Categories: Random thoughts

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