Friday, December 11, 2009

Gary North on the American and French Enlightenments

They Were Cousins related by "Reason"

History: European -- The Two Wings of the Enlightenment
Gary North
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The two wings of the Enlightenment can best be summarized in terms of European geography: France and Scotland.

The French version offered a theory of top-down, centralized society. I call it the left-wing Enlightenment. The Scottish version offered a theory of bottom-up, decentralized society. I call it the right-wing Enlightenment.

If you want to identify the systems by their intellectual spokesmen, choose Jean Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith. Politically, they were Robespierre and George Washington.


Both systems proclaimed faith in human reason, but they had different theories regarding how reason should extend into society. The French version regarded elite central planners as reliable designers of a good society, and also reliable implementers -- by force. The Scottish version regarded reason as possessed by individuals, and therefore inherently decentralized, with ideas and plans proving their value in free-market competition without private force and with very little governmental force.

Both versions appealed to supposedly rational men. But when rational men refused to listen, left-wing Enlightenment thinkers went looking for politicians to impose force. Right-wing Enlightenment thinkers waited for self-interested, profit-seeking people to implement their ideas in the marketplace.

The French Revolution was the implementation of left-wing Enlightenment thought. The American Revolution was the implementation of right-wing Enlightenment thought. Both versions led to a violent revolution. This was a major problem with both versions.

We need a detailed study which shows that neither wing of the Enlightenment could persuade the other about the logically and morally mandatory implications of Enlightenment faith even though both appealed to the autonomous reason of man. Edmund Burke (Reflections on the Revolution in France) did not persuade Thomas Paine (The Rights of Man).

Neither wing could resolve the ancient political problem of the one and the many, unity and diversity, holism and individualism. The Enlightenment state, based on autonomous reason, was supposed to extend liberty. Instead, it has suppressed liberty.

The French Revolution produced Napoleon and massive French bureaucracy. It led to a series of bloody revolutions in Europe, including the Russian Revolution. It led to two world wars in the 20th century, high taxes, greater bureaucracy, and the European Union.

The American Revolution led to a conspiratorial coup in Philadelphia in 1787, which centralized the government, followed by the Civil War, the New Deal, and two world wars. After 1913, it led to massive bureaucracy and taxes at levels only marginally less than Europe's taxation: over 40% of production. It also produced an American military empire.

Both systems are financed by a monopolistic central bank, but the right-wing Enlightenment invented the original model: the Bank of England (1694).

Both systems invoked the sovereignty of autonomous man as a species. Neither turned to biblical religion as the definitive standard.

Ever since 1700, Christian social thought has relied on one of the two Enlightenment versions for support. Christianity has been subsumed under the Enlightenment. This carried down to the 1980's, when Roman Catholic radicals proclaimed Marxist revolution: "liberation theology." In response, Christian conservatives proclaimed democratic capitalism. In both cases, Christians have been riding in the back of the Enlightenment's bus. They prefer one driver to the other, but they have paid for the bus and the gasoline. They do not get to select the map or take the steering wheel.



King of Ireland said...


Your friend Sandfeur wrote about Hayek and the whole top down vs. bottom up thing. Much of it used terms that I am not familiar with so they lost me. But I think I get the general idea.

As far as this essay by North he makes some huge leaps. Maybe America ended up a bloated mess because we got away from the principles that made us who we are. I referenced Goldstone's essay on Modernity in my last post about Amos. I think he has the philosophy down. I think Sandfeur does too. But how can they use Locke's philosophy and thrown out the theology that underpins it? It makes little sense to me.

Tom Van Dyke said...

There were four Enlightenments, and two were Scottish. One was Hume's skeptical and brute force of reason [which even destroyed "deism"], but America's was Witherspoon's, the one most friendly to religion.

Christianity has been subsumed under the Enlightenment.

Appallingly ignorant. Gary North is out of his league here. He knows nothing of the Founding's political theology, least of all its roots in Aquinas, who made Christianity safe for reason and reasonableness. This is the error common to both the militant Reformationists and secularists.

They know nothing of natural law, as given by a Lawgiver per Locke, which was not only the Founding's political theology, but its political philosophy as well.

Because in them olden days, them days of the Founding, there was no separation between the two. God and reality were not separate concerns.

Until we get that, we don't get the Founding in the least or in the first.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"God" was not some "omnipotent" Being "out there", but humans that were responsible adults. Even though, this is affirmed only be "modern science", the Founders based their understanding of government upon man's nature. Back then, mand's nature being uderstood in religious terms as "fallen", but in the Enlightenment terms as limited....which needed balancing of power, and equal voice...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Modern science is only scratching the surface of man's nature and what constitutes the "human being" we are still in the dark...somewhat....

Tom Van Dyke said...

the Founders based their understanding of government upon man's nature.

Exactly. That's where "natural law" comes from.

secular square said...

I am not sure this juxtaposing of the American and French Revolutions on philosophical grounds by Amos is helpful. First, I believe an AC blogger (Jon maybe?) already has noted the similarities between the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Second, an interesting though probably now dated work by Robert R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution, presents the American and French experiences are part of one movement that stretched from the North American colonies to Poland. His thesis is that the aristocratic constituent bodies in mixed republics across Europe began a resurgence against both monarchs and the commoners. Revolutionary movements broke out all over Europe against formal social ranks and against the prevailing idea that a part of government should be in the permanent possession of some privileged group. But only in America in France did the attempts at revolution meet with any measurable success. And we all know what eventually happened in France.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

secular square said, "against the prevailing idea that a part of government should be in the permanent possession of some privileged group. But only in America in France did the attempts at revolution meet with any measurable success. And we all know what eventually happened in France."

I personally think this is America's problem today. We have a semi-permanant 'priviledged' governnace. I wish there were term limits to Congressional "slots", Then more could become informed and involbed because the possibility of running for office and serving the country could be a goal of more...but, then there is the "campaign" money that is needed to run, in the first place.

The French Revolution's entrenched power structures were what caused such an impact in France, because they were unwilling to allow others a right to a "voice". Thiers was understood as a "God given" or "God ordained" right to govern or rule. And those that disobeyed were doomed to die, because they were subverting the very ordinance of God...this is the same mentality of Calvinism/conservative fundamentalism today. Authoritarian rule never gives credibility to other men, because of a "blind faith" in their "sanctioned power" over others...

secular square said...

A juxtaposition on the political circumstances may show why the American and French Revolutions, though similar in principles, turned out so differently:

The American Revolution was a colonial war out in the provinces; the French was fought in the homeland. Much more at stake.
The American Revolution faced weak internal opposition. One hundred thousand loyalists fled. A smaller percentage of French opponents fled. They stay to contest the revolution.
The American Revolution drew support from foreign powers like France, Spain, and the Netherlands. The French Revolution faced opposition from foreign powers who threatened war. Revolutionary France struck first, turning their domestic revolution into an international war of revolution.
The American Revolution was fought largely by a nation of religious dissenters who used Christian doctrine to support their cause (as has been the topic of an extensive thread on AC.) A weak Anglican establishment existed in the South and it was under siege from growing numbers of evangelical Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. The Catholic establishment in France supported “the powers that be.” With only a weak tradition of dissents, French Revolutionaries easily turned anti-Christian.
Sometimes what happens “on the ground” is as important as what happens “in people’s heads.”


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Secular Square,
Thank you for your insight. You stated:
"The Catholic establishment in France supported “the powers that be.” With only a weak tradition of dissents, French Revolutionaries easily turned anti-Christian."

This is the main point of the Founder's "separting" Church and State!! Religion via Protestianism is a dissent of Catholicism/Anglicanism. And because the Founders were realists, they wanted to form a government that was founded on real principles that would prevent what transpired in Europe.

It is man's nature to want to be a self determining agent, and the Founder's respected this right. I do, too.

As to "foreign powers", are you suggesting that revolutions do not have success without foreign support? Isn't this what American tries to accomplish with/in military and diplomatic avenues? I just don't think that some foreign powers are open to change. Some are mentally deranged, and these will not be "educated" into Enlightened thinking. But, some suggest that this is the "way forward". Our Founders were realist, not Utopian "idealists"...

King of Ireland said...

Their was and is a huge difference between the ideas behind the two revolutions. One threw out the baby with the bathwater and one did not. It was the aristocrats that met in Vienna in 1815 to take away all liberal gains that were made when the middle class and the working class came together to topple the existing structure of privilege. The middle class was the borguese that own all the small businesses that the working class began to be employed by. It is funny that Marx, a student of history, that had to know that the true oppressors of the feudal era was the aristocracy identified the business class as the oppressor of the working class. This all done in the same year that revolutions were breaking out all over Europe for the first time since the French Revolution and all the rest that followed until 1815. If I was an European aristocrat in 1848 who knew my history I would find an intellectual to attempt to divide the same two classes that had combined to give me heart burn a generation earlier. I think because we had anti aristocratic religious community this kept the bathwater from being thrown out. It was two different types of Christianity. One was liberal politically and one was conservative. Ours was based on BRITISH LIBERAL TRADITION.

secular square said...

I agree with your summary of the post-revolutionary conservative settlement. (I think Henry Kissinger wrote a dissertation or book on it as model on how to contain the revolutionary Soviet regime.)I am not exactly sure how you are applying the "baby and the bathwater" proverb but I can even agree with that to a certain extent (except for keeping dirty bath water at the close of your post). I just do not see that a radical political philosophy caused some political/social infanticide (to extend your analogy.) I believe the circumstances outlined in my previous post shaped the way their political philosophy played out and led to the premature crib death of the French republic. (Isn't bassinet a French word?)


King of Ireland said...


In form I think their were similarities. In purpose maybe as well. One kept God and the other rejected him. I would say that American Revolution was in the Faith and Reason tradition of Aquinas. The French was throwing out the faith. What they all were trying to replace threw out reason. I hope that makes sense.

To be clear I do think that the Aristocrats hired an intellectual and his name was Marx for those who cannot detect my sarcasm. Kissinger was being a good historian and statist if he copied the Congress of Vienna and what ever it was called in 1848. The best of them all was the Berlin one where they divided up African, drew up all borders to split tribes(Nations or Ethne), pitted them against each other, and then robbed them blind while they were fighting. Cecil Rhodes was behind that one. Read some of his quotes, look at where all these world leaders were educated(Oxford), and one will see the more things change the more they stay the same.

This is why we have to study this period in full context of what else was going on in the world at that time. Dr. Kalivas I think is going to offer some insights on that. The Silk Road came up in another post up top.

Andrew said...

Faith and reason come to a head when humility takes charge over pride and men come together chosing enlightenment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts...

what is the bible?