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Tuesday, May 17

May 17, 2016

Why We Think: Today we reviewed your homework. Then we talked about the Age of Revolution, Voltaire (briefly), and Rousseau.

The book calls the period between 1750 and 1900 the Age of Revolution because of the two major upheavals that occurred in America and France. The American Revolution was, by and large, a revolt that occurred without widespread bloodshed or recriminations afterward. The French Revolution, by contrast, did not. We talked about how the French and Indian War set the stage for the American Revolution, and about how the French Revolution was inspired by both Voltaire and Rousseau.

Voltaire’s contribution (aside from some very entertaining writing; I recommend Candide) was the same sort of skepticism that we’ve been talking about since Protagoras. Nothing, he observed, aside from a few mathematical formulae, could be proven. History shows that almost all theories are subject to revision. If this is the case, then truth is almost always going to be relative. There is no universal standard to which we can appeal.

Voltaire believed this, in part, because he was vehemently anti-monarchy and anti-Christianity. (It was not Voltaire, as is sometimes believed, who said, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” That was one of Voltaire’s mentors, Denis Diderot. But that doesn’t mean that Voltaire didn’t believe this.) It’s understandable, to some extent, why Voltaire felt as he did: he was persecuted and sometimes imprisoned by the French authorities for his writings. However, there are two reasons that we said, beginning in our last class, that one should be skeptical of skepticism:

  1. Skepticism (we said today) is often a cover for people to advance their own causes, which can be more easily advanced without the burden of authority. It’s what you do every time you try to call into question some rule or reg you don’t like. Sometimes you do it on principle; more often, you do it because you’re trying not to follow the rule. And let’s face it: a lot of the task of improving the human condition was thought to be a lot easier without the rules of kings and priests around to contend with. That desire was the fuel for the French Revolution.
  2. Skepticism (we said last class) carries with it its own paradox: There is no absolute truth — except the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.

However, Voltaire (and Hume, who was also a skeptic) laid the groundwork for the French Revolution, which overthrew the monarchy and replaced it with a rule of terror (really; they actually called it “The Terror”) in which scores of innocent people lost their heads because they were insufficiently “revolutionary.” That included the leaders of the revolution, who were replaced frequently after the previous leaders met the guillotine.

(This, incidentally, is what happens when you try out the kind of true democracy Rousseau advocated. Remember, since even Rousseau acknowledged that his romantic dream of having no government or society was kinda impractical, his big political idea turned out to be “the general will” — which stated that once the majority had decided on something, having the opposite view — if you expressed it, at least — made you an enemy of the state.

That doesn’t happen in America because we are a democratic republic; the “republican” part of it is our Constitution, which protects individual rights from being trampled by the majority.)

While the French Revolution turned out badly, then — and there are few better summaries of its wrongness than “Cabinet Battle #2”:


— it didn’t deter the Romantics from following Rousseau’s example. Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth — their worldview owed much to Rousseau’s belief that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” The emphasis on nature and natural beauty, extreme emotions, and the “wisdom” of children (who, after all, were innocent and uncorrupted) all found its way into the work of the Romantics. I read Wordsworth’s great “The World Is Too Much With Us” to illustrate it, but we must also acknowledge that every time we are confronted with asininity like this:

we have Rousseau to thank. (MJ never had time, apparently, to read Lord of the Flies.)

We next talked about Adam Smith, a Scotsman who was probably the world’s most famous economist. The ideas that underpin our modern conception of economics all come from Smith, who identified man as “an animal who makes bargains.” Simply put: we are the only animals who understand (consciously, anyway) how to exchange one thing for another thing we want. This ability is the basis of all economic theory.

Smith also believed we act mostly in our own self-interest; that might be viewed as selfish, but it also means we can be motivated to make deals. There are two key concepts Smith outlined in his masterwork, The Wealth of Nations, that are staples of economics:

  1. Specialization. Smith noted something that we now take for granted: we can make more stuff if we specialize. For example, if we’re making shoes, we can make more if I make the soles and you stitch them to the shoe, and if somebody else makes the shoe we stitch them to. Etc., etc. This mostly spelled the end of the “one-stop shop” — the craftsman (or woman) who made a whole product from scratch. Smith noted that specialization can be difficult for workers — as anyone who’s worked on an assembly line can tell you — but the benefits are undeniable.
  2. The invisible hand. This concept is often misunderstood, and we didn’t get to cover it today. We’ll do so Thursday.

For Thursday, then:

  • Read the section in your book on Adam Smith.
  • Read the section on Immanuel Kant — sadly, he’ll probably be the final philosopher we cover.
  • Your project is also due Thursday. Don’t forget the analysis!


Siren: Practice for the Senior Reading. We’ll do it again next Tuesday Block 2.

Daily Prompt:

Survey: Combined – Screenwriting: 

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