[The following passage is from Christopher Dawson’s The Crisis of Western Education, 1961.]
There has never been a society that was more civilized in the humanist sense than the French society of the Enlightenment, nor one more completely convinced of the powers of reason and science to solve all the problems of life and to create a completely rational culture, based on a firm foundation of science and philosophy. Yet when this society, as represented by Condorcet and his friends, had the opportunity to put their ideas into practice in the first years of the French Revolution, they failed disastrously and were themselves destroyed, almost to a man, by the eruption of the irrational forces that they had released. One of the writers of the emigration has described in a remarkable passage how he came to realize the fallacies of the rationalist ideology in a sudden flash of intuition one night as he was making the terrible march across the frozen Zuyder Zee with the defeated English army in 1796, and how all the illusions of the Enlightenment dropped away from him under the cold light of the winter stars.
And the same disillusionment was experienced, in a less dramatic way, by many of the greatest minds of the age—by William Blake, and Joseph de Maistre and Francisco Goya. The latter is an especially interesting case, for he was himself a disciple of the enlightenment in his conscious mind. Yet in his later works, he shows in an almost apocalyptic way that historic events are not the work of rational calculation or even of human will. Under the surface of history there are superhuman or subhuman forces at work which drive men and nations before them like leaves before a gale.
But none of this was seen by nineteenth-century Liberalism—except perhaps by the small group of French theorists, represented by Alexis de Tocqueville. As a rule they continued to follow in the steps of the Enlightenment, as though the debacle of the Revolution had never occurred. They closed their eyes to realities or concealed the ugly reality with the veils of idealism and romanticism.
It is easy to find excuses for them. The triumph of applied science seemed to justify their faith in reason, and the doctrine of progress was borne out by the expansion of Western trade and industry which were conquering the world. They could not realize how narrow was the ground on which they stood, and how rapidly it was being eroded by the powers of change that they had set in motion.
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