I have never heard of this early French philosopher, nor have I heard of his monumental doorstop of a book, quoted in the title.
The prose below is from 1773, and I doubt if anyone can write better today. I think this shows that our brains are about as smart now as they were in the times of the Revolutionary War at least in terms of raw IQ or brain speed. In fact, some studies have shown that Victorians had dramatically faster brains than we do (by reaction time). So the suspicions of us cynics may be true after all – of course we are getting stupider. Just look around you. How can it not be so?
Knowledge is one thing and intelligence is another. Intelligence is probably defined best as a measure of raw brain speed. The faster the brain, the more intelligent the person is.
Knowledge is another matter altogether and is more related to culture. For instance, we are much smarter now than we were in 1773 in terms of knowledge. We know so many more things and we understand the world so much better! We can make so many fancy things and solve so many difficult problems now solely on account of our accumulation of knowledge. So while we may be dumber than Victorians in terms of raw intelligence, we are much smarter than Victorians in terms of knowledge. The latter may well compensate for or even overwhelm the former. A fast brain is not a worth a lot if you barely understand the world around you.
It’s also useful to note that knowledge has nothing to do with intelligence necessarily. For all we know, cavemen may have had very fast brains. Brains in 1770 may have been even faster than in the Victorian Era. No one knows. We have always been an intelligent species. But while men in the Middle Ages and Dark Ages may have had brains that worked about as fast as ours, they were nevertheless not able to figure out the world very well.
Knowledge is more a matter of luck than anything else because ideally it is cumulative. With each generation or at least with each century or millennium, man has increased his knowledge and has managed to figure out the world better. Nevertheless, at the beginning the process is quite slow. Look at how long we lumbered along in comparative ignorance, even with presumably fast brains. This shows us that intelligence needs knowledge to be worth much of anything. Intelligence minus knowledge does not add up to a hill of beans. How impressive is a fast brain if it has the worldview of a caveman?
As I noted, knowledge ideally is cumulative. This is not always so, and there have been shocking histories of actual cultural and knowledge loss. The Tasmanians were separated from the mainland 10,000 years ago and afterwards they seem to have lost the ability to make fire and craft fishing hooks among other things. They may have also forgotten how to sew. So Idiocracy is nothing new. It’s been going on somewhere for at least 10,000 years.
Nevertheless, knowledge throwbacks are an anomaly because knowledge tends to be cumulative. It is also interesting to note that there seems to be some critical mass at work here. As knowledge gains, the acquisition of new knowledge seems to speed up somehow. Critical mass may well have been reached perhaps 100 years ago. Since then the leaps of knowledge have been spectacular. We now learn more in decade now than we did in a millennium.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the basics, we are hardly more competent now than we were in 1773.
Modern writers have not superseded the prose below; in fact, many cannot even achieve this 1773 level of competence. When it comes to certain things like the ability to write down our ideas, all of our knowledge seems to hit a roadblock. All of the massive knowledge we have piled on in the last century has not enabled us to craft better prose than the prose of 250 years ago.
I seriously doubt if your artistic skills have improved either. We now paint better than Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci? Really?
What about music? Are we really better musicians now than Bach or Beethoven? Really?
It’s doubtful that our psi skills have improved much.
Are our social skills really better now than they were in the past? Are you sure?
Are we better able to achieve psychological health than in the past?
Do we know any more about the mysteries of life such as the soul and death than we did then?
Has our philosophical knowledge actually improved? We still cannot surmount Plato and Aristotle.
Anyway, check out this awesome prose:
The source of man’s unhappiness is his ignorance of Nature. The pertinacity with which he clings to blind opinions imbibed in his infancy, which interweave themselves with his existence, the consequent prejudice that warps his mind, that prevents its expansion, that renders him the slave of fiction, appears to doom him to continual error. He resembles a child destitute of experience, full of ideal notions: a dangerous leaven mixes itself with all his knowledge: it is of necessity obscure, it is vacillating and false:–He takes the tone of his ideas on the authority of others, who are themselves in error, or else have an interest in deceiving him.
To remove this Cimmerian darkness, these barriers to the improvement of his condition; to disentangle him from the clouds of error that envelope him; to guide him out of this Cretan labyrinth, requires the clue of Ariadne, with all the love she could bestow on Theseus. It exacts more than common exertion; it needs a most determined, a most undaunted courage–it is never effected but by a persevering resolution to act, to think for himself; to examine with rigor and impartiality the opinions he has adopted.
He will find that the most noxious weeds have sprung up beside beautiful flowers; entwined themselves around their stems, overshadowed them with an exuberance of foliage, choked the ground, enfeebled their growth, diminished their petals; dimmed the brilliancy of their colors; that deceived by their apparent freshness of their verdure, by the rapidity of their exfoliation, he has given them cultivation, watered them, nurtured them, when he ought to have plucked out their very roots.
Man seeks to range out of his sphere: notwithstanding the reiterated checks his ambitious folly experiences, he still attempts the impossible; strives to carry his researches beyond the visible world; and hunts out misery in imaginary regions. He would be a metaphysician before he has become a practical philosopher. He quits the contemplation of realities to meditate on chimeras. He neglects experience to feed on conjecture, to indulge in hypothesis.
He dares not cultivate his reason, because from his earliest days he has been taught to consider it criminal. He pretends to know his date in the indistinct abodes of another life, before he has considered of the means by which he is to render himself happy in the world he inhabits: in short, man disdains the study of Nature, except it be partially: he pursues phantoms that resemble an ignis-fatuus, which at once dazzle, bewilders, and frighten: like the benighted traveler led astray by these deceptive exhalations of a swampy soil, he frequently quits the plain, the simple road of truth, by pursuing of which, he can alone ever reasonably hope to reach the goal of happiness.
The most important of our duties, then, is to seek means by which we may destroy delusions that can never do more than mislead us. The remedies for these evils must be sought for in Nature herself; it is only in the abundance of her resources, that we can rationally expect to find antidotes to the mischiefs brought upon us by an ill directed, by an overpowering enthusiasm. It is time these remedies were sought; it is time to look the evil boldly in the face, to examine its foundations, to scrutinize its superstructure: reason, with its faithful guide experience, must attack in their entrenchments those prejudices, to which the human race has but too long been the victim. For this purpose reason must be restored to its proper rank,–it must be rescued from the evil company with which it is associated. It has been too long degraded –too long neglected–cowardice has rendered it subservient to delirium, the slave to falsehood. It must no longer be held down by the massive claims of ignorant prejudice.
The System of Nature: or The Laws of the Moral and Physical World
– Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach, 1773.
As an aside, while reading this, I kept thinking, “This describes just about everyone I know.” Although Holbach may have been thinking about other types of ignorance and another type of reason, the passage still rang a bell. After all, look who we just elected President. The triumph of ignorance over reason right there. Look at our entire political culture. It’s all based on cultivated ignorance. Where’s the reason? There is none.
The only reason or logic that Americans follow is the logic that leads them to making more money. If it makes me money, it’s true. If it loses or costs me money, it’s false. That’s the reason by which most Americans live their lives. Obviously this leads to a lot of irrational if not insane decisions because the thing that costs you money is often a more rational decision than the decision that makes you money.
Guess what, Americans? I got some news for you.
Money does not equal truth.
Loss of money does not equal falsehood.
That’s a most peculiar moral philosophy we have set up for ourselves in this idiot Yahoo Country.
I know few people who want or try to challenge their core beliefs, which I believe is what Holbach is ultimately getting at above. The original purpose of this site – “If I Am Not Making You Mad, I Am Not Doing My Job” – was not to troll the world but instead to force readers to throw more of their beliefs up for grabs. I was out to challenge just about everything you believe in. Why? Because that’s what you need to do. You need to throw as much of your beliefs as possible up for grabs, as painful as that is. It’s very hard to do, so most just don’t bother.
About the book, this looks pretty cool. It was originally written in French, so that translation looks really cool. I am not sure if I could handle 993 pages of that prose though!