On the Eve of the Millennium

by Conor C. O'Brien,
ISBN: 0887845592

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Conor Cruises the Millenium and fears for the Elightenment
by Waller Newell

Conor Cruise O'Brien is an attractive type of figure, and an increasingly rare one-a passionate liberal. "Liberal" is my term, not his; Mr. O'Brien prefers to speak of the Enlightenment. So I want to make it clear that by liberalism, I do not mean whatever narrow political agenda that term may currently evoke, but the broader moral, cultural, and philosophical bases of the nation-state stretching back to the seventeenth century-our whole modern democratic civilization with its protection of individual rights, its tolerance for private avocations so long as they do not harm others, its belief that the truth will prevail through the free exchange of opinions, that advances in scientific knowledge go hand in hand with the moral advancement of mankind, and the idea that governments are contracts instituted to serve the good of the people, revocable if they fail to do so. It is this broader liberalism, which embraces both of what are currently referred to as "liberal" and "conservative" strains in our partisan politics, that O'Brien believes is in grave danger as we approach the third millennium: "My central subject matter in these discourses is the future of the Enlightenment."

With rare felicity for a cover blurb, Mr. O'Brien is described on the jacket of On the Eve of the Millennium as an "Irish man of letters." This description captures much of the charm of these lectures. While a man of letters may happen to be an academic, there is no necessary relationship between the two occupations. Whereas an academic surveys the literature so as to produce research and receive promotion, a man of letters reads and talks about books, art, and music, and writes books and essays of his own, at his own pace. Like the best of raconteurs, these essays, although loosely knit together by the question of what awaits us in the next millennium, wander amiably from the middle ages to the Clinton presidency, from Yeats to political correctness, punctuated by telling anecdotes and sharp judgements. Mr. O'Brien possesses an easy, wide-ranging erudition, moving back and forth between snatches from his favourite literature and broad, shamelessly didactic historical analogies. Thus, he invites us to wonder whether we can share the same optimism about the impending twenty-first century that Michelet in the 1860's entertained about the twentieth, concluding,

"It would be hard for a thoughtful person in the late twentieth century, to share that superb nineteenth-century confidence and optimism. We are separated from all that by two world wars, by Gulag and the Holocaust. We know that Messianisms can return. It was the Messianism of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat that gave our century Gulag. It was the Messianism of the Biological Revolution that gave us the Holocaust. Our century has known horrors exceeding in scale all the horrors of the preceding centuries, great though those horrors were."

Because he writes as a man of letters rather than an academic, Mr. O'Brien has no fear of being judgemental, and he thrives on paradox. Little wonder he is the author of an excellent biography of Burke, for like his great countryman, O'Brien is a man whose principled belief in the Enlightenment is rooted in and enriched by his continuing attachment to an ancient people, and enlivened by the tension between these attachments. Hence, while a friend of the Irish republic and a continuous observer of its complicate inner life, O'Brien "frankly abhors" the present Pope and excoriates the IRA ("my own particular national brand of terrorist") for its nihilism and mendacity.

The key to Mr. O'Brien's view of the impending millennium shows up, I think, at the end of the first lecture, "The Enlightenment and its Enemies," where he remarks that the "Enlightenment we need is one that is aware of the dark, especially the dark in ourselves." Mr. O'Brien is an eloquent defender of liberalism precisely because he understands the appeal of its foes, and liberalism's only limited success at reaching the heart and soul as well as the intellect and pocket-book. With its tendency to facile optimism-including a belief that, if people everywhere can only come to communicate more effectively, aggression will fade away-liberalism has always been thin gruel psychologically speaking. This is so despite the fact that it represents the best hope to date for relatively stable and just government, especially in comparison with the totalitarian utopias, both communistic and fascistic, of the twentieth century. Confronted with the spectres of resurgent nationalism in the Balkans of the most vengeful type, of a Papacy that in Mr. O'Brien's (surely somewhat exaggerated) view is making common cause with Islamic fundamentalism in an "Alliance for the Repeal of the Enlightenment," and the scary possibility that, as once stable nation-states unravel, their nuclear weapons will pass into the hands of dictators and terrorists, defenders of liberalism must, Mr. O'Brien warns us, try to understand the appeal of these illiberal, retrogressive forces.

In order to understand why people find the politics of ethnic identity or religious fundamentalism viscerally and poetically more satisfying, even with their threats to individual liberty, O'Brien implies, the Enlightenment must open itself up to those competing loyalties, embracing them to the degree possible without giving into them. Among these rivals to the Enlightenment, religion is of special importance to O'Brien, who sees it as an antidote to the Enlightenment's tendency to a baseless optimism about human nature and an excessively utilitarian rationalism. Thus, he says, we also need "an Enlightenment that is aware that there is far more evidence extant in favour of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin than of Rousseau's doctrine of Original Virtue," a liberalism that is conscious of the impediments that the human soul, with its hopes and depravities, places in the way of too-neat predictions about human behaviour. In order to do this, he argues, it is necessary to separate out from the Enlightenment's own history the strain that has been "bitterly and contemptuously hostile to Christianity" (especially evident in the emergence of the French Revolution) and emphasize instead "the Enlightenment of Locke and Montesquieu," the "English-speaking" strain "which has coexisted, amicably but never uncritically, with religion."

I began by observing that O'Brien's passionate defence of liberalism is rare today in the developed West, people's attachment to the Enlightenment creed of individual rights and procedural democracy seems increasingly listless, an exercise by rote, while their deeper feelings are absorbed by commitments to a plethora of "communities: deriving from a single biological, ethnic, or linguistic identity, or by losing themselves in a variety of entertainment pastimes and technological playgrounds. In eastern and central Europe, where Communism itself was in part a way of preserving authoritarian and ethnically homogeneous nationalism against the further spread of Enlightenment universalism, liberalism has already lost much of the heady appeal it had in the dying days of the Soviet empire-not only because the promised economic miracles have failed to materialize, but because there is still a longing for an organic, historically rooted sense of nationhood, even when this identity is established through rekindling ancient enmities toward other peoples nearby. Mr. O'Brien issues a friendly word of warning to Quebec separatists bent on dismantling one of the world's most successful and stable nation-states in the name of their own brand of ethnic tribalism:

"I would advise thoughtful Québécois, pondering a future referendum option, to visit Bratislava and hear the second thoughts of many Slovaks who formerly supported the decision to break up Czechoslovakia and set up an independent Slovakia. At present, the Czech Republic is doing rather well, while Slovakia, on the whole, is not."

The burgeoning appeal of tribal nationalism or religious fundamentalism is compounded by the West's own disenchantment with its Enlightenment foundations and failure to make a vigorous and compelling defence of liberal individualism of the sort Mr. O'Brien undertakes here-a defence tempered by a due appreciation for religious and other traditional, alternative understandings of the good life that liberalism must circumscribe but also draw upon to enrich its own thin account of the soul. But, increasingly, we avoid the hard intellectual work of making this defence, which would involve re-thinking the liberal tradition from its roots in light of the profound social, economic and demographic transformation unfolding in the contemporary world. Instead, we look more and more to a shallow boosterism on behalf of global technology and the achievement of peace though the five-hundred-channel universe. Reading history and literature of the kind with which Mr. O'Brien studs his observations-Trollope, Simone Weil, Burke, Aeschylus, and Horace among many others-appears to be too much of an effort, and outmoded according to our own media gurus like Moses Znaimer.

About a hundred years ago, the laying of the first transatlantic cable led to a widespread hope among newspaper editorialists that the ability of people to communicate by telegraph would rapidly dispel fear and distrust among nations and lead to world peace. The two world wars, Auschwitz, the Gulag, and Hiroshima have all ensued since that Victorian heyday of the belief in progress. And yet, the same banal optimism, the same wilful ignorance of history and the recurrent ineradicable vices of human nature-far less excusable after the events of the twentieth century than it was for the Victorians-is evident in the celebration of Internet or Windows 95 as routes to "global awareness". While ethnic nationalism has led to a resurgence of genocide in the Balkans on a scale not seen in Europe since the defeat of Hitler, the West's response is in many ways summed up by those insufferably smug IBM commercials, in which nuns walk along cobbled European streets and farmers take in the harvest while discussing their latest acquisitions of software. Just as Newt Gingrich, a kind of New Age libertarian, recently suggested giving laptops to inner city children, these commercials imply that as soon as they get onto the Internet in Sarajevo, lethal conflicts will reduce to quaint costumery.

Mr. O'Brien's lectures remind us that it is all a good deal more complicated, and that, if we do not begin thinking seriously about what is happening beyond the golden perimeter of Western affluence and cybernetic wizardry, those problems are going to reach right inside the perimeter and grab us by the throat. Although not all of his opinions compel agreement (his assessments of recent American politics often seem a little arch), I recommend these lectures to anyone who wants a wise and worldly assessment of the hopes we can still entertain for Enlightenment civilization as we approach the third millennium, and of the threats to it that, contrary to the premature optimism embodied in our recent celebration of "the end of history," not only have not disappeared with the end of the Cold War but may be multiplying and intensifying.


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