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College Quarterly
Winter 1993 - Volume 1 Number 2
Voltaire’s Bastards: the Dictatorship of Reason in the West
John Ralston Saul
Toronto: Viking Penguin, 1992
Reviewed by Eleanor Glor

John Ralston Saul says the predominance of reason in the West is not the major accomplishment of the past 300 years but the root of our modern dilemma.

The dilemma is familiar. Depression, dictatorship, ethnic cleansing, ecological collapse, individual alienation and the entire catalogue of contemporary evil appear to co-exist with the evident goods of our society including advanced medicine, modern transportation and communications, mass education and an unprecedented level of material abundance for most people in the industrial world. The dilemma seems to set irrational and pathological forces against rational and progressive ones. But this is not how Saul sees it. For him, evident evils from the guillotine to the Nazis to the environmental crisis are no result of aberrant irrationality but the consequence of rational thinking.

Saul suggests we reconfigure the world thus: all rationalism is the enemy of humanism, of humanity. He begins with Voltaire himself, but quickly gets to explicating the implications of an unlimited faith in reason. As Jesus may not be accountable for the Inquisition so, Saul agrees, Voltaire is not personally responsible for what has been done in reason's name. He admits that, were he alive today, Voltaire would fight bureaucracy just as he once fought courtiers and priests. Saul is quick, though, to add that Voltaire was no Jesus, and that his faith in reason had hellish effects.

As for rationalism's outcomes, Saul displays them in his demonization of the experts who attempt to manage our civilization. “The technocrats,” he intones, “are hedonists of power. Their obsession with structures and their inability or unwillingness to link these to the public good make this power an abstract force-a force that works, more often than not, at cross-purposes to the real needs of a painfully real world.”

The main culprits, says Saul, are permanent civil servants, chosen for merit, whose role is to develop, advocate and implement rational solutions to problems of their own making. Our hope is humanism which must first demythologize reason and spread scepticism about modernity.

Saul fails to comprehend that reason's tyranny is precarious. Much public work, for example, is done by non-governmental organizations. Many NGOs, especially those derived from churches, are guided by explicitly humane values. When governments and private sponsors contractually demand scientific demonstration of their accomplishments through evaluations, NGOs often successfully resist them, sometimes fearing they cannot demonstrate the worth of their works, but more often because of necessary trade-offs between time spent on service and evaluation. In government, too, scientific approaches demand time and the hiring of specialists to produce program-based budgets instead of simple line-by-line budgets. Often enough, rigid compliance with the criteria of rational management is, for bureaucrats, a utopian dream.

Is reason even the main guiding principle of government and business structures today? In Canada, the Minister and Department of Finance have lately been the most powerful agents of government. The department is mainly staffed by economists, who are said to be scientific. Does this mean that either the department or the government behaves rationally? I think not. The key to understanding bureaucracy is, as always, the premises and priorities chosen by the elected government. These have been, as ever, political, ideological and intuitive, with reason and science being claimed as support for whatever is done.

Would our institutions and, indeed, our world be better off without the appeal to reason? Rational methods and scientific techniques do seem, after all, to be unthinking servants of whoever is in power and whatever ideology holds sway. Can Saul's dictatorship of reason be blamed for this too? It cannot, for reason is an approach, a process, a method, not something that establishes the values that guide human action. For them we must still look elsewhere; nor must we allow the rhetoric of rationalism to obscure this fact, either when advanced by those invoking reason to demand we follow a certain path, or by those, like Saul, who refuse to follow any path that he imagines reason demands.

The myth of the hegemony of rationalism and the assumption that reason embodies particular ethical or political principles are among the most dangerous aspects of our view of reason today; John Ralston Saul shares the misunderstanding.

Eleanor Glor works with Health Canada.