[Partly edited 11/1/13]

19th Century Thinkers

The 19th century was certainly an "Age of Progress" in science and technology, and, for Europeans, it seemed to be an age of progress in other areas as well.  The 19th century was an optimistic age in Europe, and that optimism is reflected in all sorts of ways.  Most 19th century thinkers, artists, and writers were believers in progress. They thought mankind was going somewhere good and that there was some sort of process that guaranteed mankind was headed in the right direction. But it is not at all clear that what some of these people thought of as "progress" is really such a good thing after all.

I.  Comte (19th century French philosopher)

Typical of 19th century faith in progress, the French philosopher August Comte (1798-1857).  Comte believed we were making progress in what the philosophers call ontology, the way we understand the world around us.

According to Comte, human beings initially explained the world in terms of spirits everywhere--a spirit, in every rock, every tree, every river, etc. This was the "animist" phase of human development--not a particularly good way to understand the world. 

Eventually, humans advanced to the polytheistic phase, of phase of human history in which we explained the world, not in terms of spirits everywhere, but as the work of a number of great gods, e.g., Apollo, Poseidon, Zeus, etc.  Is there an earthquake?  That's Poseidon.  A thunderbolt?  That's Zeus.

This was a better way of understanding the world, but still not the best we could do.  Eventually human beings explained the world as the work of just one great creator god--the monotheistic understanding of the world.  This was a much better approach than polytheism, but we still didn't have it quite right.  We were about to enter the next great phase in our understanding of the world: the positive phase.

During the positive phase of history, we would abandon belief in gods and spirits all together and explain the world entirely in terms of material forces.

Now you might think that, since he doesn't believe in gods of any kind, Comte would have no use for religion.  But that is not so. Comte thought religion served a very important social function, and there would still have to be a religion during the positive phase of human history.

But what would we worship?  The highest thing left around: ourselves!  During the positive phase of history, we would worship mankind, saying prayers in honor of mankind, and following a religious calendar that honored the great men of science, the men who helped us understand the world.

As priests for the new religion, we would have the philosophy professors.  And as the high priest of the new religion?  Comte himself. 

Comte began to spread his ideas in a series of lectures in Paris--but he had scarcely begun to get started when he had a mental breakdown.  He had to be institutionalized off and on for the remainder of his miserable life--and I mean miserable.  Comte fathered a child by a woman who was married to someone else.  He then himself married a prostitute.  When he couldn't support the family, she went back to turning tricks to support them both.

Nevertheless, Comte ended up having a major impact on subsequent history.  He invented a new academic discipline: sociology.  Comte intended sociology to be a secular substitute for religion. How should we relate to our husbands and wives?  How should we relate to others in our community?  For most of human history, people relied on religious authorities for answer and advice.  Now, says Comte, let's go go the sociologists who will give us "scientific" answers.

Not all sociologists view sociology as a secular substitute for religion, but that is certainly a major emphasis in the work of many sociologists.  They are a kind of secular priesthood.

Comte also has a great influence indirectly through the work of John Dewey.  Dewey was a Columbia University professor, the founder of "modern American progressive education."  Dewey drew on many sources, but one of them was Comte.  Dewey liked Comte's materialist approach and incorporated it into his own philosophy of education.  And this was a major turning point.

Through most of European history, the investigation of spiritual and religion questions was generally regarded as about the most important of education. Plato's academy focused more than anything else on the human soul--and that's in pre-Christian days.  As the great universities grew up in the Middle Ages (places like Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Paris), religious questions were of course *the* most important areas of investigation.  And as the great universities of America were established--Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.--the primary purpose of these institutions was to train Christian ministers.

And the American idea of free *public* education came from people who believed that all children needed to learn to read so they could read their Bibles and save their souls.  *Public* education was initially established for religious as well as secular reasons.

But with the adoption of Dewey's philosophy, that changed.  Religious questions have no place in Dewey's schemed, and it is, by and large, the Dewey position that dominates American education today.  Just about every school of education in America--included that at NSU--bases its philosophy on Dewey and his entirely materialistic philosophy.

[Links are dead.  I'll try to see if can fix them eventually.]

     Auguste Comte Links
     A Comte prayer in honor of mankind (see bottom of page)
     A summary of Comte's contributions
     Annotated Comte links (See especially this Comte chronology.)
     A fairly good summary of Dewey' life and influence (sympathetic to Dewey)
     An amusing criticism of Dewey from the left.
II.  Hegel

Another 19th century believer in progress was the German philosopher Hegel.  Hegel believed mankind was making progress in the realm of ideas through a process he called the dialectic (thesis vs. antithesis leading to synthesis).  Hegel's idea was that, about any subject in any society, there was a dominant idea, what he called the thesis.  A great genius would eventually come along to challenge that idea, posing a counter idea (an antithesis).  There would be a debate over these ideas until something new emerged, a synthesis.  This synthesis would be a better understanding of that subject. People would adopt this new idea, and it would now be the thesis, the dominant idea of that subject in that society.  A great genius would come along and propose a new counter-idea, a new antithesis. 

Once again, the conflict of these ideas would result in a new synthesis, a better understanding of that subject.  The majority of people would now accept that new idea, and it would be the thesis, the dominant idea on that subject and that society.  A great genius would come along and propose a new counter-idea, a new antithesis. 

Once again, the conflict of these ideas would result in a new synthesis, a better understanding of that subject.  The majority of people would now accept that new idea, and it would be the thesis, the dominant idea on that subject and that society.  A great genius would come along and propose a new counter-idea, a new antithesis. 

Once again, the conflict of these ideas would result in a new synthesis, a better understanding of that subject.  The majority of people would now accept that new idea, and it would be the thesis, the dominant idea on that subject and that society.  A great genius would come along and propose a new counter-idea, a new antithesis. 

Once again, the conflict of these ideas would result in a new synthesis, a better understanding of that subject.  The majority of people would now accept that new idea, and it would be the thesis, the dominant idea on that subject and that society...and this would go on and on forever!  We would continually improve in our understanding of all things.

Now these ideas, said Hegel, were the driving force of all of history.  As our ideas improved, our society would improve as well.

A pretty attractive idea--and seemingly harmless.  But Hegel's ideas lead to some of the most destructive political movements in history, as we will (eventually) see.

Hegel's ideas are particularly explosive when combined with those of another 19th century believer in progress, Charles Darwin.

III. Darwin

Most of my students think Darwin came up with the idea of evolution.  Not so.  Evolution is a very old idea, going back to the Greek and Roman philosophers.  The Roman poet Lucretius wrote a very famous poem, "On the Nature of Things" that expresses clearly the basic evolutionary idea.  Educated Europeans, then, were familiar with the idea of evolution long before the time of Darwin. But few of them took it seriously.  Why not?  Because evolution ran counter to all the *scientific* evidence people had gathered for centuries. People have been breeding animals since the dawn of history. They've been breeding themselves even longer.  And all the evidence ever gathered suggests that members of one species always give birth to members of that same species: horses to horses, sheep to sheep, guppies to guppies, kangaroos to kangaroos.  So certain did this idea seem that the greatest biologist of the 18th century, Carolus Linnaeus, maintained that what he called the "fixity of species" was a definite scientific law.

What Darwin came up with is a new explanation of how evolution might work.  Darwin came up with the idea of natural selection.  In any given generation of a species, a large number of offspring will be produced.  Most of them will not survive to reproduce themselves.  Which will?  On balance, it will those that are in some way fitter for survival: they see a little better, hear a little better, they are a little faster, or a little stronger.  They will tend to pass on their advantages to the next generation, and so each generation of a species will be incrementally more fit for survival than the preceding generation.  Given enough time, given thousands of years, this little tiny incremental changes may eventually add up to something significant, so that something like a pig may be the distant ancestor of something like a sheep--or, rather, the sheep and pig may have come from a common ancestor if you go far enough back.

This idea made evolution, for the first time, a plausible idea: an idea that an intelligent person might not just laugh off as nonsense.

What was the result?  If you ask you average biology teacher, the result was quite good: many high school and college biology classes use Darwin's ideas as the core organizing principle.

But Darwin's ideas stirred lots of opposition--so much so that, in the 1920's, some American states passed laws against the teaching of Darwin's ideas.  In 1925, a Tennessee school teacher, Charles Scopes, deliberately broke Tennessee's law against teaching Darwin. He was put on trial, and the "monkey trial" became a focus of national and international attention.  William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for president came to Dayton to testify for the prosecution.  Clarence Darrow came down to help the defense.

A fictionalized version of the trial, Inherit the Wind, is a much produced play. Inherit the Wind is a fine play, but part of its message is somewhat questionable.  The Darrow character insist that the teaching of Darwin's ideas is harmless--and this is just not so.  Darwin's ideas, at least indirectly, proved to be very, very destructive.

Part of the problem is that Darwin's ideas undermined religious faith.  For centuries, almost all educated people took it for granted that there must ultimately be a great creator god.  The argument from design, especially, seemed impossible to refute.  Darwin himself said that, at one time, visiting the Brazilian rain forest and seeing it's grandeur had "reinforced his firm belief in the existence of God and the immortality of the soul."  But after he came up with the idea of natural selection, Darwin said, "Now not the grandest scenes could cause any such conviction to arise in my imagination.  It may be truly said I am like unto a man who has become color blind." 

The idea of natural selection does not need to lead in that direction.  The co-discoverer of the principle, Alfred Wallace, said that, the more he investigated the phenomenon, the more he was convinced that there must be an intelligent power behind it.

Curiously, the 19th century did not want Wallace's verso of natural selection.  Many *wanted* a version of the idea that would undercut the argument from design.  Ernst Haeckel, the main most responsible for spreading Darwin's ideas on the European continent, wrote a book called "The Riddle of the Universe" in which he emphasized three important principles in understanding the world around us: atheism, materialism, and mechanism. Haeckel  deliberately used Darwin to spread his atheistic ideas.  The man most responsible for spreading the ideas of Darwin in Britain and America was T.H. Huxley, often called "Darwin's Bulldog."  Huxley popularized the term "agnosticism" to describe his own religious belief.  Huxley deliberately used Darwin's ideas to support his agnosticism.

Did Darwin turn people into atheists and agnostics?  Well, perhaps not--but he certainly did undermine people's faith in a critical area.  Darwin's ideas also were soon used to justify racism, imperialism, cut-throat capitalism, a laissez-faire social policy, and even genocide.

IV. Nietzsche

I noted that the combination of Darwinian and Hegelian ideas could be particular destructive.  One such combination: the work of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  Nietzsche believed that progress would come through the emergence of  a new kind of human being, the "superman" who would be superior to the rest of us in that he would abandon traditional moral standards and substitute the "will to power."  Nietzsche believed that our moral sense was at one time an evolutionary advantage.  People who believed in good and evil automatically believed that they were on the side of good.  Therefore, they fought with more determination--and, when they one, made sure to subdue completely their "evil" enemies.  But, said Nietzsche, once one realizes that morality is only a product of evolution, we can no longer truly believe in morality.  And we don't need it anyway: our moral sense can be replaced by an even stronger motivator, the "will to power," the desire to dominate others.

Things like love, peace, pity for the weak--these should all go.  The weak of the earth should take up as little space, strength, and sunlight as possible.

Crazy ideas?  Yes!  And Nietzsche was, quite literally, a madman.  He had to be institutionalized for the last 12 years of his relatively short life.  And yet these obviously crazy ideas have had a great following in the 20th century--with terrible effects.  It was ideas like these that paved the way not much later for Adolf Hitler.

V.  Marx and Engels

Two other German thinkers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels,  combined Hegelian and Darwinian ideas in a different way.  Marx and Engels adopted from Hegel the idea of the dialectic.  But, influence by Darwin, the interpreted life in terms, not of intellectual struggle, but of physical struggle.  They "turned Hegel on his head" saying that conflict of material forces drove history and that changing ideas were produced by these conflicts, not the other way around.

The resulting philosophy of history Marx and Engels called "dialectical materialism."  All history was the story of class struggle.  A dominant class (the thesis class) was challenged by a new class (an antithesis class) until a new dominant class was produced (the synthesis).  Then a new antithesis class would arise.

In the "Feudal" phase of history, the nobles were dominant.  They were challenged by the bourgeoisie.  The bourgeoisie then became the  dominant class in a new phase of history, the Capitalist phase.  The bourgeoisie in turn was now challenged by a new class, the Proletariat, the working class.  The Proletariat would soon emerge on top in a new phase of history, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.  And this would be then end of history.  Why?  Because the Dictatorship of the Proletariat would be a classless society.  With no classes, there would be no class conflict, and, without class conflict, there would be no more historical change. 

Marx and Engels believed that this was an inevitable process, but, nevertheless, they wanted to do everything possible to speed things along.  Why?  Because the bourgeoisie had so corrupted every aspect of human life.

Many of Marx and Engels criticisms of capitalist society are on target.  However, there solution is a dangerous one. At the end of the Communist Manifesto, the say that their aims can be achieved *only* by the overthrow of *all* existing social conditions.  Their recipe for the future included:

1.  Social change.  No classes--and, also, no traditional families.  Marriage is a bourgeois institution, so it's got to go.

2.  Political change.  No democracy.  Again, that's a bourgeois system.  In place of democracy, one should have the "dictatorship of the proletariat" which, in practice, means the rule of one strong man in the name of the proletariat.  Theoretically, after the dictatorship of the proletariat is firmly established, there will be a "withering away of the state" and freedom. But that's quite a ways down the road!

3.  Economic change.  Most private property disappears.  Businesses are controlled by the government, not capitalists.  Farms are reorganized so they operate like factories, as great collectives.  Once again, they are controlled by the government.  Banking, transportation, and communication are all controlled by the government.

4.  Religious change.  Religion is the "opiate of the masses."  Traditional Christianity must go. And, in its place, a new "religion," adoration of the Marxist state.

Here's the theme song, the Communist Internationale (1930's version) and here in an updated version.

A cheery tune--ironic for a political movement that has destroyed more lives than any other in the history of mankind.