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

4.07 of 5 stars 4.07  ·  rating details  ·  519 ratings  ·  53 reviews
When the Age of Reason swept away the priests and courtesans of the feudal world, did a better society take its place? John Ralston Saul has doubts. A former Canadian oil executive-turned-novelist and amateur philosopher, Saul believes the "rational society" that emerged has created unprecedented levels of state violence and social disintegration that are now collapsing in...more
Hardcover, 640 pages
Published September 14th 1992 by Free Press (first published 1992)
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Jan 03, 2009 Leftbanker rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in politics, economics, literature, the arms build up, democracy
Probably the most prophetic thinker on politics, economics, literature, and modern culture in general that we have in the English-speaking world. I read this when it came out in 1992 and it made me rethink a lot of what I had learned as an economics undergrad. It contains an accurate account of the dotcom crash that would come ten years after publication as well as one of the best essays that I have ever read about the modern novel. His chapter on the status of celebrities in our society should...more
I always find myself conflicted about the non-fiction of John Ralston Saul: he's a fearless thinker who provides illuminating and ofttimes counterintuitive insights to historical, political, cultural and societal patterns that seem to have eluded the grasp of others; and yet he is also prone to mistaking opinion for fact, assertion for truth, calumny for critique, and strenuously whiffing at pitches for every one that he hammers into play. In the course of a single page I can find myself nodding...more
I think this book does an excellent job of analyzing modern culture and pointing out many of its flaws, especially how there is such specialization that people lack the ability to put actions and events into any sort of context. Without this we cannot hold anyone accountable or judge people/corporations/govts. We need to have some common sense, historical context and morality back in society/corporations/govt before our society slowly implodes back into a society separated into the haves and hav...more
Sherwood Smith
I was impressed by the introduction to this highly touted book. His central point, that the 'reason' of the Enlightenment age, and to which we modern westerners pay lip service, has run amok, that our world is run by soulless technocrats, is not new, but I was eager to see what ammo he brought to bear.

Alas, what I found was a personal essay masquerading as a historical overview. Page after page of unsupported opinion offered as fact, sometimes as judgments about individuals. I kept asking myself...more
In short: The Enlightenment's love of pure reason has been, over the centuries, twisted and appropriated until the present moment, where it has given rise to a series of "rational" systems that exist outside of the worlds of actual reason or humanitarianism.

How can I possibly describe the enormity of Saul's argument? He touches on seemingly every cultural and political institution of the West, right down to the modern novel. Perhaps the scope itself is why this book isn't more widely read - it's...more
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Austin Burbridge
FAIL. Dreadful, dumb trash —a farrago of received ideas pretending to be thinking — and intellectually dishonest into the bargain. Worse — Where the hell was the editor? A good editor would have looked out for the reader and reduced 656 pages of repetitive, jejune cant to something befitting the smallness of the thought. This is a pamphlet, padded — outrageously — to book-length. This recalls Truman Capote's remark, "That's not writing. That's typing."...more
Craig Hodges
On 'The Age of Reason'
"Never before in history have there been such enormous elites carrying such burdens of knowledge." p8

"[A]mong the illusions which have invested our civilization is an absolute belief that the solution to our problems must be a more determined application of rationally organized expertise. The reality is that our problems are largely the product of that application." p8

"...reason constituted a moral weapon, when in fact it was nothing more than a disinterested administrative...more
I will never forget this book--it was among the books I was reading 9/11/2001 and I recall it being extremely prescient at the time. I will warn that it's a bit on the dry side. It really takes an earth-shattering event to make it make sense.
The quote on the back of the book, from the Washington Post, describes it as "a hand grenade diguised as a book." 'Nuff said.
I am sympathetic to the argument that rationality has trumped humanism but how can you make the argument without resorting to rational argument? A conundrum not solved by this book.

It ends up being a mishmash of straw man argument, questionable fact, and lengthy diatribes in search of an editor.

And, at the end, the proscription is to question? Did I need to read 600 pages to be told that?

It barely gets two stars because of my sympathy for the thesis. Ok, maybe a little extra for the rants again...more
This is a very interesting work. Although two decades old, it does contain ideas which are no less- if not just- as valid as they were when the author proposed them. Amongst these are criticisms of the trend since "the Enlightenment" (whatever that was supposed to mean!)of logicians and technocrats to hide their inefficiencies and prejudices, injustices and genocides, beneath a sophistry of hypocritical and cross-purposing propaganda agendas. There is a lot picked to shreds here including:
The pr...more
Kent Lundgren
To say that I am "Currently Reading" this poorly states the case. I have been reading it in bite-sized bits for five years or more. I find that too big a bite clogs my mind.

The book defies simple description for it covers many areas and elements of modern society, however . . .

Saul's premise is that Reason, a "discovery" of the late 18th and early 19th, century has run riot, ignoring humanity (in the sense of human-ness), to society's detriment. Here's a sample of a thought. "Reason" develops co...more
(If you haven't read and understood this book, don't pretend to be an activist.)

.... In 1989, Jules Verne’s great-grandson discovered the manuscript of an unknown novel by his famous ancestor. Paris in the Twentieth Century was published in French in 1994. Shortly after it was published in 1996, I bought Richard Howard’s English version, read it as a curiosity, and set it aside, largely forgotten save for its title.

That title, however, has stuck in my mind for almost two decades as the kernel of...more
You have to filter through the dense, rambling, pompous at times dirt for the insightful gems. There is a payload here but it's a lot of effort to get to. It's hard to pin down a concise thesis because he goes off into so many tangents and covers so much ground. That ground is the entire scope of western civilization going back to ancient Greece including political hierarchies, military strategy, economics, academia, law, art, literature and so much more. Essentially the point is that over time...more
Richard Hays
This is a very lengthy (600+ pages), dense, extensively researched, comprehensive approach to the topic. It is well-reasoned (pun intended; appropriate to the topic) discourse that attempts to draw out the logical outcomes and results from what has already transpired in the areas of philosophy, politics, art, literature, economics. It gives much to ponder. If you buy into his whole thesis, the resulting explanations are plausible and probably spot-on in most cases. While the book is twenty years...more
Graeme Stuart Waymark
I just keeping picking it up from time to time and read a few pages. I am interested but there is nothing yet to grab me and put my seat into the chair for a long winter's night of reading !

It will always be such for a book like this. I will eventually get through it - because I want to.
Brian Gee
A somewhat tedious read, as it often diverged into lengthy tangents, but it did contain many excellent nuggets of insight and historical analysis, as well as a strong condemnation of our overly bureaucratic society. Unfortunately I felt the overall thesis of the work was not well defined or structured, and his opinions were often simplifications stated without enough support or examples. Perhaps it's unfair of me to expect that an attack on structuralism would be well structured?
I'd recommend hi...more
John Ralston Saul argues that society has been barking up the wrong tree for ages. Forever really. Nice insights into Loyola and the Jesuits, Rob McNamara and other people in history. Gives you a sense that we are doing really well at going nowhere but doesn't offer anything to correct it. Our process orientated, bureaucratic, "reason" underpinned society constantly talks double speak and fails to take many worthwhile actions. Read it before taking an ITIL course and try to keep your mouth shut...more
I really liked this book. It took me a long time to read, but it was well worth it. He discusses how the world of reason has become the world of managers who no longer are connected to reality and have perverted the reason why the enlightenment first began. He disses the world of experts who dismiss the common persons insights and experience because it does not fit into his logical frame of mind. He basically declares that divorce of reason and logic from the real world is a major source of our...more
One of the ones I reread every few years. It's very hard to argue against his bigger conclusions since they are regularly vindicated the world over. It's a great rant and I'm not concerned with the nitpicking and often wayward negative reviews I have seen from time to time.

For an interesting aside on the issues of the Age of Reason see "'Are We "Voltaire's Bastards?"' John Ralston Saul and Post-Modern Representations of the Enlightenment"
Owes a lot to Tuchman's The March of Folly. He claims a thesis that philosophy past Voltaire corrupted language in a way different than previously in history, but never demonstrates how, just cherry-picking his examples to be after Voltaire when there are as many examples before Voltaire. Seems to me he most likely devised this scheme to avoid directly imitating Barbara Tuchman's March of Folly, which is the same thing, only better-organized. Makes a good "companion volume" to the Tuchman, howev...more
Napo B
If you enjoy insights into socio-political behavior through the west`s climb into the sunlight and the irrational choices made by our self appointed leaders than this book will illuminate. I read it cover to back then just picked my way threw it at random, it kept me interested and wanting to come back to check facts and observations. It`s one of those few books that remains prominent on my shelf and when I have nothing to new to read I go back to Ralston`s fabulous insights.
Adam Hewitt
Feb 10, 2013 Adam Hewitt rated it 1 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: nobody I like
I am dumbfounded that anyone could take this book or its author serious. Filled with non sequitur and discordant argumentation throughout, unable to posit a rational argument against reason, it strikes me as only someone devoid of rational thought could enjoy or applaud this rubbish. The book is simply terrible. Unfortunately I cannot rate this lower than one star.
"It is only when we have the courage to face things exactly as they are, without any sort of self-deception or illusion, that the light will develop out of events by which the path to success may be recognized" (I Ching).

This books is that courage about the nature of us and our society. For anyone wanting to understand society, this is the book.
Insightful and "inciteful." This is the most comprehensive and prescient social criticism I've ever read. It's broad topics and accurate reflections are profound. It's hard to believe this book was first published in the 1990s. Obviously we didn't listen.

It's a tough read, if you're actually reading it. The pages and ideas are dense, but well worth the effort.
One of the early modern books to question the possible throat hold that reason has on our culture...arguably reason has an insufficient grip but that is the tension and the argument that this book provokes. Though nearly 20 years old this is a must read starting point for any investigation of the argument that may reign for the next twenty years as well.
It is a bit outdated but still worth reading, specially the chapters about the rise of reason. It changed my perception about current state of things. As a Washington Post reviewer wrote, this is "a hand grenade diguised as a book" and I think it describes perfectly Saul's powerfull arguments and analysis about our western society.
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John Ralston Saul is a Canadian author, essayist, and President of International PEN. As an essayist, Saul is particularly known for his commentaries on the nature of individualism, citizenship and the public good; the failures of manager-, or more precisely technocrat-, led societies; the confusion between leadership and managerialism; military strategy, in particular irregular warfare; the role...more
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“They (the novelists) became the voice of the citizen against the ubiquitous raison d'état, which reappeared endlessly to justify everything from unjust laws and the use of child labour to incompetent generalship and inhuman conditions on warships.
The themes they popularized have gradually turned into the laws which, for all their flaws, have improved the state of man.”
“The actor, like the modern man of reason, must have his place determined and his lines memorized before he goes on stage. (...) The public itself has been soothed to such an extent by scripted debates imbued with theoretically "right" answers that it no longer seems to respond positively to arguments which create doubt. Real doubt creates real fear. (...)
De Gaulle found a sensible compromise, given the times. He reserved his public thinking for the printed page and on those pages he allowed himself to ask fundamental questions. But when he spoke, it was either with reason or with emotion - that is to say, with answers or with mythology. He divided himself between the man of letters, who knows how to live with doubt, and the man of state, who is the epitome of certainty. the brilliance of this approach could be seen in the frustration and sometimes fury of the opposing elites.
The truism today is that mythological figures and men of power should not think in public. They should limit themselves to affirming truths. Stars, after all, are rarely equipped to engage in public debate. They would abhor the idea that the proper way to deal with confusion in society is to increase that confusion by asking uncomfortable questions until the source of the difficulties is exposed.”
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