Voltaire's Bastards:
The Dictatorship of Reason in the West

by John R. Saul,
450 pages,
ISBN: 0029277256

Post Your Opinion
Not So Common Sense
by Gerald Owen

JOHN RALSTON SAUL likes Voltaire, dislikes his alleged bastards. He holds that Voltaire and other Enlighteners tried to use reason in the service of humanism, but that they were mistaken, and reason took over. The bastards are the technocrats of today, in business, government - in all elites. By "reason," he means applied logic, or method set free from common sense, moral instinct, memory - even from reasonableness.

This at least is the ostensible topic, but Voltaire's Bastards is really John Ralston Saul on almost everything human, mostly in the last four centuries: a creditably humanistic undertaking.

Saul is well versed in military history and the contemporary arms trade. One of his best examples of technocracy is the triumph of staff officers over field officers. On such matters he is at his fullest and most convincing.

But there's a risk of earning Saul's condemnation if one praises him where he has special knowledge. He is a great denouncer of specialization. He complains about specialists' dismissal of the common-sense opinions of other people (such as Saul), and about the reluctance of many of us to form opinions when we think that we don't have enough information.

His numerous topics include: official secrets, trade secrets, speculators, comic books, overuse of law, the rise of managers as against owners, scientific secrecy at the expense of the environment, use of cheap and unprotected labour abroad, the mistaken esteem for the "service sector" of the economy, the Jesuits, celebrities, Cardinal Richelieu, television, art history (denunciation of the profession, with Saul's own outline of the history of art), the novel, the unjust depreciation of "category fiction" (he's written a few thrillers himself), MBA schools, the history of Corsica (well told), public opinion, the drowning of public parliamentary debate in administrative detail (a particularly worthwhile point), the beginnings of public garbage collection in Paris, all of religion (by no means confined to the last four centuries), Jefferson (a favourite of his), Napoleon (not), debt crises (from Solon the Athenian to the present), French vignerons, Robert McNamara (a villain and fool on several fronts).

His international range is admirable. Most people's generalizations about the modern age draw primarily on one country for examples, whereas Saul has a lot of information about Britain, Canada, France, and the United States, and quite a bit about several other countries.

Saul is hard to please. For all his objections to what he calls "structure," he characteristically presents as common sense his disapproval of floating exchange rates and his approval of the previous Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates: a structure if there ever was one, and the work of technocrats.

His own language is touched by technocracy: for example, "driven" (meaning caused), "ongoing," "parameters," "nonresponsible" (meaning unaccountable), "positive" (meaning good), and that vague verb "involve."

Some of his rhetoric is feeble: there's a lot of "simply" and "quite simply" and phrases like "ever larger." His sometimes strained images and metaphors suggest a certain cruelty or at least a taste for the grotesque, though he is always trying to make serious points: courtesans, courtiers, eunuchs, and technocrats are essentially the same, he says, and so are inflation and flatulence.

Often this book induces despair, as if any participation in power would be a surrender to "structure." Interestingly, it is dedicated to Maurice Strong, "who taught me that a sensible relationship between ideas and action is possible." We could have benefited from an elaboration of this. The only fairly recent politician who gets much praise from Saul is de Gaulle. But he also shows how de Gaulle was a leader in the government-instigated arms trade, in the French nuclear structure, and in confirming the position of the ENA, the school for high civil servants that is as much a nest of technocrats as the equally hated Harvard Business School. He might have discussed the interesting mixture of success and failure in the life of this brilliant military thinker, who had imagination, historical memory, and other qualities Saul admires.

Voltaire's Bastards makes me think of a Biblical sentence: "Therefore it became a proverb, Is Saul also among the prophets?" No one is quite sure what this meant. Did it invite the answer "No" or "Yes"? King Saul had happened upon a "company of prophets" and began to rave prophetically with the rest of them. He had previously been known as a regular guy.

King Saul is not remembered as a prophet, but still, "the spirit" had touched him in some measure. The right answer to the proverb's question seems to be the same the notorious technocrat Giscard d'Estaing gave to the Gaullist regime: "Oui, mais...."

What then of this long rant in praise of "common sense"? Is John Ralston Saul also among the prophets? As an anti-technocrat, he is not the equal of Jacques Ellul, Martin Heidegger, or George Grant, but this is a rich and versatile book.


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