Reading about the Age of Faith, Age of Enlightenment, Age of Science—all eras in the history of the West—did you ever ask: what is our age? There have been bids to name it, of course: the age of anxiety, the age of technology, the space age, and the information age.
All of them have a claim, but how would you go about choosing one?
I suggest this test: In any given extended period of history—say, at least a century, usually longer—what did mankind view, explicitly and implicitly, as the key to salvation, or human destiny, or humanity? What did people take for granted as “where the action is” in attaining man’s highest potential?
I feel a certain sadness when I make the obvious point that not every age was an Age of Politics.
There was the “Age of Faith,” also called the Middle Ages (550 to 1350), when the dominant influence in Western civilization was the Church of Rome (although during this period outside the west, Islam arose and asserted itself). In these centuries, the salvation of the human soul was all about faith in God and faith was manifested in literature, music, architecture, and the very structure of philosophy. More down to earth, it was an age when the workforce clearing the seemingly limitless forests of Europe for agriculture was the huge monastic movement.
Yes, political battles occurred everywhere, but were usually fought in terms of religion; the great wars were wars of religion. Arguably, the Age of Faith was the most embracing, “totalitarian,” in history until today’s Age of Politics.
The Renaissance (1300 to 1700) is also called the Age of Humanism, the Age of Man, celebrating in some of the world’s greatest literature, painting, sculpture, and architecture the glory and centrality of human beings and human life on earth.
The Age of Science (1550 to 1800). I will not elaborate on each age. I may devote future columns to different “ages” in Western civilization and how Ayn Rand in the 20th Century became a dominant philosophical inspiration for new generations of intellectuals to explore, understand, appreciate, and carry forward the greatness of the Western tradition from every age.
The Age of Enlightenment (1620 to 1800) —in some ways, the most intensely focused and glorious—saw the courageous questioning of religion and even faith as such, reverence for knowledge, and rejection of superstition and prejudice. The unafraid quest for knowledge in all areas of human life was to all educated persons the obvious human destiny, the human task on earth.
Although often identified with the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason (1701 to 1799), extended the Enlightenment ideal of knowledge and insight in religion, art, science, and other fields, but also focused intensely on organized, systematic philosophies to guide all human activities. All decisions facing mankind could be referred to the consistent light of reason and settled by logic. Perhaps the single most influential document urging American colonists to revolt against England was a mere pamphlet, “The Age of Reason,” by Thomas Paine. At the extremes, as in the French Revolution, intellectuals applied their supposed rational consistency in all things to the guillotine and the desecration and looting of churches. If these seemed too much of the world the actions of fanatical madmen, then the world was not yet guided by the pure light of right reason.
Other “ages” have been proposed, but these broad labels have become history’s acknowledged chapter headings. One additional label, “The Age of Romanticism,” describes a real, powerful, and glorious phenomenon throughout the Western world. Is it too narrow to characterize as an “age”? Or, as claimed by some, was it the “anti-Enlightenment, the transition from the Age of Reason to something much worse—Postmodernism?”
I will take that up in another column.
Ours is the “Age of Politics”
The Age of Politics. Did it start with the publication of The Wealth of Nations in 1776? Again it becomes obvious that “ages” don’t succeed one another like centuries. The Wealth of Nations was a product of the Age of Reason and established the political economy of capitalism in the West. It was socialism that challenged the ideas of Adam Smith and, indeed, the moral legitimacy of the Industrial Revolution and the dominance of capitalism. I would designate the year 1848, when the pamphlet The Communist Manifesto was published in Germany by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as the start of the Age of Politics.
Politics, of course, did not come to dominate human thinking in a year or a decade. Its influence unfolded over time so that the peak of capitalism’s practical success was in the 1880’s and 1890’s (the latter a decade of such obvious happiness to warrant the historic label “the Gay Nineties”). But in the theoretical realm, the Age of Politics was gaining rapidly. The Progressive Movement in America challenged laissez-faire. In Europe, in 1918, the Bolsheviks seized power from the newly liberated government of Russia and imposed the murderous communist government. Not more than a decade later, the New Deal brand of socialism gained the presidency in the United States. At the same time, National Socialism was rising in Germany with Hitler’s ascent—while in Italy fascism emerged.
These systems and variants were proposed as blueprints for salvation from devastating malaise; they were sold as human utopias and the buyers were idealist youth. So essential and compelling was the destiny promised to mankind by these systems that their leaders soon accepted that any number of deaths, and sacrifice of lives, could be justified as a transition to mankind’s final, permanent happiness.
The 20th Century became a human nightmare with two world wars in rapid succession; totalitarian dictatorships murdering, starving, and enslaving country after country—Russia, Germany, Japan, China, the rest of East Europe, Cuba, Southeast Asia… The resilient capitalist nations in Europe, North America, and parts of other continents, with strong traditions of freedom and the economic might of capitalism, did not succumb. They joined the Age of Politics, however, by means of decades of fevered attempts, gradually successful, to introduce socialism; in these nations, too, the decisive consideration for the future of mankind, the great struggle of the era, was political.
Not that other developments were absent; science and technology transformed first the West and then much of the world. Education to an extent never known in history became universal and higher education a mass movement. Computing and availability of information increased by huge orders of magnitude. Transportation in our era is so different from earlier eras as to be radically discontinuous with man’s entire earlier history. With this impressive competition, a crucial premise in awarding the crown to an Age of Politics is that those other elements of life, though powerful, transformative, and even triumphant (e.g., technology) were not and are not viewed as the keys to our destiny, the decisive human struggle, salvation. That role is reserved for politics.
For much of the past century, we have asked: Will the world “go communist” and end all our hopes? For many hundreds of millions in many countries, this happened. Will America internally travel the familiar path to socialism—of the fascist variety, as Ayn Rand explained? Or will capitalism re-emerge, strong and fully consistent, and so save America and lead us at last to the “Utopia of Greed”—as Ayn Rand entitled the chapter in Atlas Shrugged introducing “Galt’s Gulch.”
In all ages, men viewed human happiness as at stake in the (designated) “decisive” question of their time—faith, enlightenment, science, reason. Perhaps, though, our age has the best justification for doing so. The Age of Politics saw the birth of totalitarianism in government: government’s absolute dictation of every area of human life. If in earlier times, dictators and authoritarians had left little freedom in government or the practice of religion, other sectors of life remained comparatively open for those who conformed in areas under dictation. In the Age of Politics, not surprisingly, all of man’s life—education, work, marriage, childrearing, art, science, travel, speaking and publishing, military service, any aspect of economic life—came within government’s scope. To the extent that the Age of Politics meant living under freedom versus totalitarianism, then, indeed, politics was decisive.
An Age that Cannot Self-Correct
Among Ayn Rand’s services to philosophy was her lucid identification of the hierarchy of knowledge, with such fundamentals as metaphysics and epistemology underlying and implying theories of ethics, politics, and art. The agony of the Age of Politics is that its disputes, its wars, its experiments with millions of individual human lives never can be resolved on the level of politics. Politics is a branch of philosophy that rests upon and is derived from metaphysics (our view of the nature of man), epistemology (our view of reason and the requirements of knowledge), and ethics (our view of the standard for judging our actions). Fundamental disputes in politics cannot be resolved without reference to philosophy. No demonstrations of the productivity of free markets, the failures of the command economy, or the misery of the socialist regime will resolve the disagreements of the age of politics. Collectivism, socialism on the Soviet or Nazi model, proceeds inescapably from the morality of altruism—the morality that sanctions the sacrifice of some for the supposed good of others. Capitalism proceeds from the morality of individualism, the moral right of everyone to live for his own sake with his own values and happiness as the goal of his life.
The competing economic theories of the Age of Politics cannot resolve themselves. Only philosophy can.
As urgent and compelling as politics seems, today—much angst was pumped out by news media during the election to scare voters away from the Republican candidate—our destiny does not lie in politics. If the human future is being decided, today, it is in the “culture wars” pitting Postmodernism against remnants of Enlightenment philosophy. In politics, Postmodernism is the current incarnation of the New Left, preaching egalitarianism, permanent struggle of the “oppressed” against the “oppressors,” humankind’s subservience to the “natural order,” and the irrelevance of the standards of Western culture in the arts, literature, consumerism, and, of course, sex, marriage, and family.
I put (or risked) high hopes on President Trump. If he keeps his promises on regulations, energy and the environment, the Supreme Court, taxes, law enforcement, vouchers for education, and assertion of American national self-interest abroad—and has no truck with Postmodernism’s cutting edge: political correctness—then, in the realm of politics and government, for a time, American decline might slow.
But if you long to “make America great, again”—a slogan that precisely captures the premise that politics is the key to human success—then give your mind, effort, and hope to a new age in philosophy. Call it, for now, the Age of Objectivism.
Walter Donway is a novelist, poet, and writer about contemporary issues from the perspective of Objectivism. His most recent novel, about the 1970’s New Left violence, is The Way the Wind Blew. His articles for TAS publications, his presentations at summer seminars, and his contributions to this site can be found in the archives. His most recent book, Not Half Free: The Myth that America is Capitalist, with a preface by David Kelley, is a comprehensive look at loss of economic freedom in America; it is available on Amazon.