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

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  961 ratings  ·  85 reviews
Paperback, 656 pages
Published November 30th 1993 by Vintage (first published 1992)
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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
Sep 08, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is important. You should read it.

If you do not like how limiting school has become, read this book. If you do not like your job because it feels like an 8 hour insult to your potential as a person, read this book. If you have serious qualms with your society and your fellow society member's willful ignorance and disingenuity, read this book. If you're exhausted of having to play dumb to cope with everyday life, read this book. If you're cynical of the idea you're only allowed to have a
Mar 03, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: canada-eh
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
Jul 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
(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
Austin Burbridge
Aug 03, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: power
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
Oct 18, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy, history
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
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Colin Peterson
Aug 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I read this book after hearing about it in passing on a podcast. I found the title amusing. I went to the library to see if they had a copy. I did not expect this massive tome. I started reading this book five months ago and it has nearly dominated my free thoughts, even when I'm not reading it. I imagine I will continue to think of this book until I die. This book has a powerful ability to relate strongly and immediately to the world around you. I feel as though every time I picked up the book ...more
Mar 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I re-read this for a passion piece in-progress, and wanted to paraphrase one line from this work: applying the Enlightenment heuristic of "logic" and "reason" prima facie, without any ulterior considerations, the Holocaust was a perfectly justifiable move for Hitler. Without notions of humanity, morality, et al logic and reason entail that scapegoating a wealthy minority for subjugation was the correct move to consolidate power. This book attempts to break the post-Enlightenment stranglehold of ...more
Sep 21, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 04, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-rated
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
Oct 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is the most life-changing book I have ever read. The author traces reason as an ideology since Voltaire and shows how it is used to create a class of systems managers and technocrats who speak in their own deformed logic that enables kleptocrats to bankrupt our countries ("free market" or "invisible hand") and justification of perpetual war. After reading this book, you will be increasingly wary of academics, technocrats, and economists are able to confidently provide simple answers for the ...more
Adam Hewitt
Feb 10, 2013 rated it did not like it
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.
Oct 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jun 17, 2008 rated it liked it
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. ...more
Dylan Tredger
May 19, 2011 rated it it was ok
Saul quotes: "all styles are good except the boring,” but ignores this advice.  Overlong book becomes tired, cranky as it goes on, on, on...
Feb 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Best book I've read which criticizes western political thought and action. It is the book which has probably shaped my political views the most. Provides what I think is a very fair look at the fundamental logic that operates in most western democracies. ...more
Apr 19, 2007 rated it it was amazing
The quote on the back of the book, from the Washington Post, describes it as "a hand grenade diguised as a book." 'Nuff said. ...more
Camille Siddartha
Apr 13, 2016 rated it did not like it
Tells the truth in his way...if it is the truth...who knows....

not bad, and boring...

that is just me...

Kim Zinkowski
Dec 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great book! I like the way that this man thinks!
Mar 04, 2019 rated it it was ok
I must really be getting desperate to find something worth reading in my library now if I'm going back to 1992. I think I first considered reading this like 5 or 6 years ago when I heard Chris Hedges recommend it, and even then it seemed too outdated for me. I also didn't really know what to expect from it. It sounded kind of like it might be religious propaganda or something. Usually it's fundamentalists who feel threatened by "reason" after all. I also saw that his most recent book (2005) was ...more
Very lengthy. The prose could have used some pruning—still, I did enjoy it, felt consistently engaged, and read on to the end. I even looked through the notes after completion. So it’s very good and very worth reading. I am satisfied.

There are some standout chapters. 'The Faithful Witness' was to me the most interesting and enlightening chapter. It should really be read by anyone who is educated (in the university sense & especially in languages or literature) and wants to write. The malaise of
Nov 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
I have only just discovered this book a quarter of a century after its publication, but its message still seems fresh today. The title “Voltaire's Bastards” is certainly designed to grab attention. But the subtitle “The Dictatorship of Reason in the West” is truly intended to pique curiosity. How on earth can something as positive as the use of rational thought, a cornerstone of the Enlightenment, become as repressive as a dictatorship? Throughout the book, Saul uses the word “reason” as a short ...more
C. Quabela
Dec 05, 2018 rated it liked it
This is an incredibly insightful work and maintains a premise I have long desired to articulate: that reason is merely a tool rather than an end. I have to applaud the author’s scope and level of critique, but at the same time there is a level of hedging and abasement that doesn’t lead to any concrete conclusions. Moreover, the very means which the author is critiquing are employed as justifications for his own reasonings, I.e. efficiency and logic. Methodologically it is suspect and pedagogical ...more
Chris Hall
May 29, 2020 rated it it was ok
I didn't like this ...

One glaring problem with the book is it's size - my 20th anniversary edition runs to 741 pages ... and it's an unnecessary 741 pages ... If Saul had concentrated more on concepts rather than going into excruciating detail of specific cases, the book could have been cut down to a third of it's size, maybe gaining a little potency along the way.

Another big problem is in Saul's efforts to use reason to undermine reason - I suppose that if he's wrong then at least he'll be pro
Dec 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
In his long and well constructed book John Ralston Saul does much more than critique the rise of reason in Western society. It is a fulsome history of Western society itself, running the gamut of every element that may hold some vestige of power in the Western world today—defence, government and business being obvious examples, but also including art, literature and society in general. Apportioning blame across the system, Saul fires off salvos inditing everyone and everything, but in such a wel ...more
James Wheat
Nov 07, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bookshelf
The author starts with a LOT of vaguely-defined premises and continues with a LOT of sweeping generalisations in service of a meandering point that seems to drift in and out of relevance as the narrative flies backwards and forwards at breakneck pace over a panoramic - and one could say highly cherry-picked - view of 500 years of Western history. It's erudite, it's educated, it's often impenetrable... ultimately, it is undistilled intellectual elitism (such droll irony). Fans would say I've miss ...more
David Grass
Jun 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a frustrating book. It suffers from poor editing and an overly idiosyncratic writing style. Saul can be alternately amusing or supercilious, frequently in the same paragraph. What I found fascinating is how well its themes are in general accord with ideas that are now being expressed via the so called "Intellectual Dark Web." Written in 1992, it's largely a polemic of our societal decline, the corruption of our capitalist republic and culture. It takes us to the woodshed. It's not a poli ...more
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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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“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.”
“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.”
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