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

  1. 5 out of 5

    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 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 "Where did he get that about Richelieu?" "Paoli's Revolution directly led to the French Revolution? Really? Really?" When I got to his blithe summation of Metternich's intentions (and those of the other chief players at the Congress in 1814) I was shaking my head; the author was almost writing fiction, certainly opinion, and absolutely none of it footnoted. Did he use any primary sources? Even his pronouncements about literature were suspect, for example when he airily says that Flaubert intended the reader to identify with Madame B. Um, no. He got it right about how this was a new twist in the stream of literature, but (according to Nabokov, who has read extensively in Flaubert's letters, etc) Flaubert was absolutely appalled when a woman wrote to him saying how closely she'd identified with E.B.--Flaubert was writing a modern novel in which the characters were butterflies pinned to a board for the reader to examine. Identifying was not in the equation. Saul also throws off a prediction that The Big Sleep and one of Chandler's other novels will be read in a hundred years while Barth will be forgotten. While I don't particularly care for Barth either, and the point about writing for an elite is well taken, are our descendents really going to have such a paucity of literature that they will reaching back for white guy shoot-'em-ups, however tautly written? I'd say that Saul's more sure of his ground in modern times, and his points should be taken into consideration by anyone trying to figure out how we got in the hellish mess we're in now. But his historical and literary referents? Trainloads of salt!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Leftbanker

    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 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 be required reading for all who consider themselves to be citizens. Saul is often difficult to read, and not because of his style or even because of the complicated subjects. He is difficult to read because he directly challenges so many things that you thought you knew or things you may have taken for granted. It is very hard when someone points out to you that a lot of what makes up your intellectual foundation needs to be rebuilt. I have never been a conservative, but I studied economics at a big state university in the Midwest where only a very conservative variety of that subject is offered. I can't remember any of my Indiana University professors who had anything good to say about the government providing services for citizens. The private sector and free markets were talked about with almost religious deference. In the 16 years since the publication of Voltaire's Bastards we have seen the triumph of European socialism over American free market economics. While we in America have been listening to conservatives preach about the evils of all taxation, Europeans have been building a far more equitable society that provides better for all citizens. I owe it to this book that I have been able to completely deconstruct the childish neo-con arguments about the role government should play in the making of societies. I can't understand why John Ralston Saul isn't a household name in America. He is the most prescient thinker I have ever read. We continue to give voice to some of the most myopic pundits who haven't had a single forward-thinking idea yet we ignore someone who has had it all right from before the beginning. When this book came out it was almost completely ignored in the USA. I remember that it was only reviewed in a single American publication (Playboy magazine). We need more clear thinkers like Saul and fewer gasbags.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    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 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 singular 'passion' to pursue in life, read this book. If you've actually fallen for the latter idea, you have fallen for an intricate set of lies and/or are being willfully ignorant and probably will not ever read this book but I would literally pay you for the trouble if it helps you anything. If you're cynical of MBAs, read this book. If you hate MBAs, read this book. If you have an MBA, stop being disingenuous and read this book. If you want to understand why future societies will look back on this era of fealty to financial institutions and management culture as being no different than fealty to the church, and more or less a continuity thereof, read this book. If you're angry, read this book. If you're doing alright, it's not going to last, or you're going to succumb to stress -- read this book. If you have confused the idea of capitalism and management, read this book. If you want to know what Napoleon and the secretary of defence of the US during the Vietnam War have in common (Robert McNamara, by the way, who is a fascinating man responsible for shaping much of how modern society works and you should be well familiar with if not (for the wrong reasons) idolizing him), read this book. If you want to know why books, music, and art have all drifted away from pop culture to inaccessible postmodern jibberish only accessible through critical analysis, read this book. If you are ready to assume any level of responsibility for what is wrong with society instead of continuing to make excuses that you are limited by your role in it, read this book. If you're skeptical of democracy, read this book. If you support democracy if only because you recognize it may very well be a gigantic lie no one believes in but its value as a hypocrisy is as a bulwark against authoritarian capitalism - because really, who is so stupid to not be able to tell that capitalism and democracy have nothing in common? Again, don't be disingenuous. - read this book. If you're a liberal annoyed with the new left to the point you default to conservatism, read this book. If you're a conservative disturbed by the polarization of your politics, read this book. If you find there is no difference between the left and right, read this book. If you want to know why the elite hold you in contempt, read this book. If you want to know why with the way things are they have every right to, read this book. If you want to know why the elite are typically incompent, read this book. If you want to know why you are incompetent, read this book. Read it. Read this goddamn book.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Szplug

    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 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 vigorously in agreement and tossing the book aside in exasperation. Voltaire's Bastards brings these Two-Sides-of-Saul together in spades; however, it's a book that I have few regrets for sticking with and following all the way through. Prescient in many ways, providing riveting essays on the world of arms-trading and the evolution of the novel in the twentieth-century, taking aim at his favorite target, the bureaucratic and technocratic elite that has claimed access to power for itself in the name of an exclusionary specialism—all the while lining up a disparate collection of personages for textual execution based at times upon naught but circumstantial evidence or Saulian speculation whilst unable to convincingly fit his chief bugaboos under the titular despotism of Reason. Both well-written and overwritten, pithy and bombastic, now over a quarter-century old and dated but still edifying and relevant: intellectual stews like Voltaire's Bastards are always at least worth sampling.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Tommy

    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 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 have-nots. Economics, corporations and western governments are analyzed in the context of the rise of the technocrat, military industrial complex, consumer culture, debt load, and decline of common sense logic and morality. This book does a great job pointing out flaws in logic, the development of these flaws, obfuscation of blunders, and the mechanisms put in place to reinforce them, which have led us to where our society finds itself today. This is all more evident when put into the context of the fifteen years since this book was written in 1993.

  6. 4 out of 5

    John

    (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 (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 an art project I have finally started concrete work on. As I began preliminary sketches, I realized I should probably reread the novel whose title had been rolling around in my mind so long. Two years before Verne’s lost novel was published, John Ralston Saul published the sweeping yet remarkably readable study of modern Western society and it’s history, Voltaire’s Bastards. Somehow, it took me two decades to get to it. And, somehow, I found myself reading Voltaire’s Bastards with Paris in the Twentieth Century as its tag-team partner. So, 19th century French science fiction writer and 20th century Canadian philosopher. Two hundred page dystopian novel and six hundred page carefully researched (I’ll ignore the little Frankenstein error) philosophical study of western social history since the Renaissance. What’s the connection? Just this: Verne and Saul describe virtually identically structured societies, although the details are, inevitably, different. As I remember, the marketing of Verne’s novel in North America concentrated on the Gosh! Wow! factor of his predictions. This emphasis is evident in the blurb’s on the back of the paperback. People Magazine is quoted about the “overcrowded metropolis”, the homeless, and automobiles. And elevators and fax machines. Of course, when we really think about it, none of these predictions were that unpredictable. Indeed, Paris in Verne’s time was far from sparsely populated or free from the homeless. In fact, Verne’s technological predictions are minor details of the novel. Ray Bradbury, as quoted on the paperback, is perfectly correct that Paris in the Twentieth Century is “an absolute necessity” for those interested in the history of Speculative Fiction. But Verne’s novel, hidden until just twenty years ago, has not been at all an influence — it was unknown. Its science fiction interest is purely antiquarian and its technological prophecy is modest. Of another kind of interest — again antiquarian — is Verne’s predictions about the shape of Western society in the second half of the Twentieth century. It is here that Verne is startlingly on the money, and on the money to a degree made clear by a reading of Voltaire’s Bastards. Voltaire’s Bastards is a challenging book, not because of its size — it is stunningly artful and, as I mentioned, readable — and not because its arguments are complicated — Saul is conversational, straight-forward, and eminently sensible. I took thirty-seven pages of notes while reading Voltaire’s Bastards — not as a chore, but because Saul’s points are so darn well taken and so worth remembering. What is challenging about Voltaire’s Bastards is that it challenges almost everything you think you know about Western Society and its historical underpinnings. If you read Voltaire’s Bastards well, you will be changed, the scales may just fall off your eyes, you may just have taken Morpheus’ Red Pill. But it probably won’t make you feel too happy. . . . Read the rest of my discussion of Voltaire's Bastards and Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century at: http://behindthehedge.wordpress.com/2...

  7. 5 out of 5

    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." 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."

  8. 4 out of 5

    Craigtator

    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 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 against Kissinger. Oh how I miss the days when he was the target of such vitriol!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    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 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 pretenses of popular democracy, capitalism & the free market vs. social interest, bureaucracy and politics, law and state violence. And that's only in the first half. The second half deals with the cult of celebrity, and how the star system (beginning with Marie Antionette, who apparently told them all "let them eat brioche" [NOT "cake"!])got going and has replaced real social value with fame for fame's sake. He also analyses changes in literature via the novelist, and the writers "who write about writing" as two accordingly divergent developments. This book was highly entertaining and though it comes to something of a whimper of an ending, nonetheless, is a very valid and well-constructed piece of social analysis and criticism.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Encyclopedic, vast, overwritten in parts but contentious in the right sort of ways.... We depend on the judgement of "experts" who are adherent to the systems of their intellect and the process of their own convictions to mark up our world. True today, true tomorrow. He misses the boat quite a few times here but when he's on, he's ON. I read this after graduting from school (SUNY-Purchase!) and it gave me plenty of restless nights, believe me. It's almost like he prophesized the rise of the neocons, Encyclopedic, vast, overwritten in parts but contentious in the right sort of ways.... We depend on the judgement of "experts" who are adherent to the systems of their intellect and the process of their own convictions to mark up our world. True today, true tomorrow. He misses the boat quite a few times here but when he's on, he's ON. I read this after graduting from school (SUNY-Purchase!) and it gave me plenty of restless nights, believe me. It's almost like he prophesized the rise of the neocons, who were just about to break through as this book came out.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Alexi

    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 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 problems we face. A must-read.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Roger

    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. 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Valarie

    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. 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.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Colin Peterson

    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 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 to read a new section, this book seemed to be laser focused on a news story from that day. This book is 25 years old but remains completely relevant to today. Saul does an incredible job communicating simply and clearly his findings and thoughts and relaying a history from before Christ to the 1990s. This book had also opened my eyes to sources of feeling directionless or aimless; products of a flawed society built on unfeeling rational machinery. In one of the later chapters, Saul writes that the power of the novel is that it presents a world for the reader to explore and engage with and that the reader, in reading, believes they are the creator of that world, that they wrote that novel. In Voltaire's Bastards, the world we explore is ours, and we realize the capabilities of our active role within it.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Doug

    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 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 empty-headed technocracy on political decision making. Brilliant work, worth every page.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rhondda

    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 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 problems today.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Adam Hewitt

    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.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Dylan Tredger

    Saul quotes: "all styles are good except the boring,” but ignores this advice.  Overlong book becomes tired, cranky as it goes on, on, on... longer Saul quotes: "all styles are good except the boring,” but ignores this advice.  Overlong book becomes tired, cranky as it goes on, on, on... longer

  19. 5 out of 5

    Minh

    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. 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.

  20. 5 out of 5

    chimneyswift

    The quote on the back of the book, from the Washington Post, describes it as "a hand grenade diguised as a book." 'Nuff said. The quote on the back of the book, from the Washington Post, describes it as "a hand grenade diguised as a book." 'Nuff said.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Camille Siddartha

    Tells the truth in his way...if it is the truth...who knows.... not bad, and boring... that is just me...

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kim Zinkowski

    Great book! I like the way that this man thinks!

  23. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    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 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 predicting the "end of globalism", which didn't really sound right to me. International trade certainly wasn't slowing down and economies are still getting more and more interconnected, although if it sounded like he was saying that trend SHOULD end rather than just predicting that it was then I'd have been a little more interested in it. Based on what I know about him now, the "end of globalism" probably has more to do with the rise of nationalism than with trade policies, which means that his other book probably isn't as irrelevant today as I had originally guessed. Most reviews of his books that I looked at, including recent reviews of this one, said not to worry about how long ago it was written. According to them this is still an important book that everyone should read. Because of that I decided I might as well give it a go. I wasn't as thrilled with this book as those other reviewers were. I didn't hate it at least. He was definitely ahead of his time when he wrote this. In a lot of ways, he's still ahead of the mainstream. There's pretty good discussions about the dangers of specialization, technological progress and endless growth, as well as the need for debt forgiveness and the fact that there are problems with both sides of the political spectrum. These are things that are still being ignored today. Unfortunately, this isn't the best writing style for reaching the average Joe, which is who he seemed to be trying to write for. A lot of what he says will just sound pedantic and snobbish to most people. He talks about the need to clarify the arguments, to translate the jargon so we can all develop a more general understanding of the big picture. Rather than translate all the different languages of the specialized fields though he sort of just gives us one more new language to learn. It took me a while to figure out what he even meant by "reason." Obviously, reason/rationality isn't bad by definition. For the most part, "reason" in this book means using a rational method to accomplish irrational goals. Maybe he thinks that emotion is needed to decide what our goals should be in the first place or something? I'm still not really sure I totally get what he's saying, to be honest. It's just an annoying, overly confusing way of describing things, in my opinion. These arguments have come a long way in the last 25 years, being explained much more clearly and in way less than 600 pages. I usually prefer to think about it as "the scientific method vs. the scientific crusade." Basically, we've developed a good approach to solving problems but that doesn't mean that we have to figure out every secret of the universe. A lot of our accomplishments aren't leading to easier lives or enlightenment of the masses. They're often just giving more power to the small minority who already have way too much of it. So to reject the scientific crusade isn't the same as totally rejecting everything about "science." People love to overcompensate when they hate something. Since Christianity is annoying, a lot of atheists renounce every moral it teaches rather than just the corruption, stupid superstitions and misogynist ideas. Since Nazis suck people refuse to criticize anything a Jew does, even when they treat Palestinians the same way the Nazis treated them. When kids are disgusted by their parents' generation they wear really uncomfortable clothes and listen to music that their parents hate, even when they hate it too. Since Soviet communism didn't work out too well people reject universal healthcare and every other "socialist" form of welfare.... it's really amazing. This book's message, as far as I can tell, is a call for a more nuanced approach, what Saul simply calls common sense. That is still an important message today but I wouldn't recommend that anyone waste their time with this book just for that. It's not the outdated statistics and lack of current events that really bother me about it. He tries way too hard to come up with clever theories for things that don't need them. A lot of this stuff just crosses the line into bullshit territory. If this was half the length then maybe I could say it's worth a read but 600 pages is really pushing it.

  24. 5 out of 5

    1.1

    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 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 modern literature is explained, and the bastards who done it are gently reprimanded. 'The Highjacking of Capitism' is also very much worth reading, and rightly identifies that capitalism’s greatest and most vocal supporters were (and continue to be) actually managers and employees. The idea that free markets create free people is undermined by every person living in poverty whose entire participation in the economy is to survive, earn a (minimum) wage, and then to spend it. It’s an analysis that’s still pretty damn true, and now that the highjacking is complete, still relevant. If you’re going to take this out at the library, and you’re strapped for time, just read those two chapters and as much of the introduction as you can. They’re worth it. While reading this I was often and strongly reminded of Adam Curtis’s documentaries. From Hypernormisation to All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, I could not kick the crisp English accent that my mind was using to read. This book would have been contemporary with Pandora’s Box, an Adam Curtis documentary about the exact same topic. Finally, I was also reminded a little of Nobrow, a book created by a member of the elite which actually managed to chill my soul. Voltaire’s Bastards did not cheer me up, but like a large bowl of porridge on a cold day, it filled my stomach and warmed me. This book identifies and traces the serious problems of our era. Essentially Saul's argument is that the dry, inflexible and scholastic logic evolved into reason, which led to real advances for society until it was turned into ideology that reproduced itself and became just as restrictive and controlling as what it had replaced. I guess the idea is that all good and promising movements grow more like tumors once the elite learn to control them. The thesis of this work is not its greatest strength (the wide overview of Western history it informs is), but it’s quite interesting and worth exploring. Perfect for anyone who wants ideas about how society has evolved to this truly worrying age. Ideal for the person who thinks Marcuse is too much of a Marxist, and for whom C. Wright Mills is too old and irrelevant. Since this book is largely based on history and philosophy it doesn’t say too many things that are particularly new. The author’s interpretations are sometimes novel, sometimes unsurprising, and sometimes unclear or presumptuous, but generally used to great effect. In the nearly 30 years since this book’s publication, things have certainly not evolved for the better. The world, regardless of which overheated ideology you use to interpret it, is absolutely bonkers, has been absolutely bonkers for centuries, and will continue to be absolutely bonkers for the foreseeable future. We need some kind of diagnosis, and that is why Voltaire’s Bastards is important. Rather than cure pessimism by lying or reassuring the reader, John Ralston Saul identifies problems and offers the dim hope that we can proceed by solving them or at least highlighting them. We can reclaim language and use it to explain exactly how, under layers of obscuritanism and condescension, the promise of a more equitable and better future was stolen from modern democracies. The dictatorship can be broken up, detached from its instruments of control, and replaced. Replaced by what, exactly, remains a little unclear, because the book concludes by saying that we should question: “Unify the individual through questions.” But the rational society only allows answers and confidence, not questions and uncertainty… there is no humanism to it, and therefore it won’t swallow the cure. So now what? Don’t ask me. Nearer to the end of the book I was struck by a heretical thought. Isn’t John Ralston Saul, married to yesteryear’s Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, and educated at King’s College, with all sorts of privileges, kind of an elite himself? No doubt this helps his perspective and lends credence to his arguments. Anyways, with anti-elitism now grown into a dishonest farce (beneficial, ironically, to actual elites), my observation probably doesn't even matter. Irrelevant. I'll leave it in—and leave it up to you.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Adrian

    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 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 shorthand for a narrow-minded, amoral application of logic by technocrats whose only value-system is some abstracted concept of efficiency and whose only desire is self-preservation through the guarding of their expertise. I agree with the reviewers who have said that Saul’s conversational style makes for surprisingly easy reading. He combines very clear and straightforward statements with pronouncements that seem outrageous at first, until you get from the context what he is really meaning. He brings in numerous historical characters such as Cardinal Richelieu, Ignatius Loyola, Robert McNamara and of course Voltaire himself, and he constantly weaves each of these in and out of the text. Unless you know your history better than me, you will sometimes wonder whether some of his boldly stated premises are really supported by his historical references. But, perhaps naively, I felt I was in good hands at least in the certainty that Saul really knows what he wants to say. Amazingly, in spite of all the historical name-dropping and the extraordinary breadth of the topics discussed (all in relation to his central theme), Saul somehow avoids coming across as an intellectual show-off. Of course, it is relatively easy to criticize and harder to come up with a good solution. Saul rightly castigates those responsible for setting in motion the enormous armaments industry. He also rightly condemns the pretense that we live in an age of peace. But the pen is not always mightier than the sword, and Saul gives no indication of how he would have stood up to Hitler or how he would have subsequently negotiated with Stalin. Saul is highly critical of how western society has developed since the days of the Enlightenment, but seems to offer little in the way of an alternative model. The most he seems to suggest, in the very last pages of his tome, is that individuals step out of their “life in a box” and participate in posing the more far-reaching questions that call for some “humanistic” response rather than leaving the technocrats to provide quick fix answers. I am all in favour of developing a society that encourages individuals to develop the courage to more truly exercise their freedom to lead more meaningful lives. But surely history teaches us that groups of individuals aspire to and sometimes achieve their best humanistic potential when motivated by remarkable, genuinely good (never perfect) leaders who somehow avoid being corrupted by power. I found Saul’s analysis of leadership to be the weakest aspect of the book. He talks rather confusingly of Heroes, false Heroes, and genuine modern Heroes who should not be called Heroes (because he has defined the word Hero to be bad). He proposes Jefferson as his model for good leadership. Surely, Jefferson and the other founding fathers of the American system of democracy were blessed by living at a highly unusual time when a new country was to some extent being created from scratch. (What pre-existing complications existed, such as slavery, were, needless to say, not worked out particularly well by the likes of Jefferson.) In any case, the problem remains – how do we create exceptional leaders, a political system and a well-educated population that chooses them over the less inspired variety?

  26. 5 out of 5

    C. Quabela

    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 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 pedagogically it is lacking. There also seems to be an enthymeme carries within that supposes that we need to return to a time that is simply untenable. Had the author proposed further developments we could pursue rather than falling back into notions of virility (the author seems to have a phobia of castration and emasculation) and self-assurance in the manner of Buddhist modesty and transcendence. There is also a good deal of hedging to the effect that at points he denigrates the very notions he is implicitly promoting, but t is rather unconvincing considering the sustained attacks throughout the book on the more explicit trappings. Maybe I am too hung up on the notions of individuality and freedom, but the moral qualms he places on those two aspects of liberal ideology seem contrary to his critiques of Western monotheism. Nevertheless, he offers striking insights into the contemporary condition of the individual denuded of the conservative hypocrisy which is more a protective veneer to allow for the frenzied satisfaction of venal desires. This review turned out far more critical than I anticipated, but I was sorely dissatisfied with the conclusions drawn considering what I thought was a brilliant critique of modern bureaucratic democracy. Despite his perspicacity around issues of military budgets and corporate infrastructure, he seems committed to maintaining the edifice. That is to say, it appears to be a reformist look that fears we went too far and if we could just go back to a “simpler” time all would be well. It is the clarion call of the moderate who disagrees with everything so that there will be a “happy middle.” It’s temperance at its worst because it offers no solutions but rather conveniently places its chips on both sides of the party line - lobbying for truth. The apotheosis of doubt is always suspect in my book, particularly when it is used as a resolution instead of a beginning. Like reason, doubt is also a tool, not an end in itself, otherwise we’d never be sure enough to put one foot in front of the other without fear of falling through the earth - the plight of the Pyrrhonian Skeptic.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Chris Hall

    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 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 proven right ... Also: From the very start to the very end of the book there's an implicit bias against reason. Saul chooses to focus on the role of reason in events such as war and economic exploitation while ignoring positive aspects such as increased life expectancy or the eradication of some diseases. Even within his chosen focus he takes a far too narrow approach. One (of many) examples is when he describes the Nazi holocaust as 'a perfectly rational act'. If he means that there was *a* reasoning behind it then he is correct but he *never* considers the fact that there would also have been a reasoning (in one form or another) behind *every other* option available to the Nazis. For this reason, the focus of the book should have been a consideration of the *evaluation of reason* rather than taking a simplistic binary reason / unreason approach. Reason does not just apply to the structures in place - it applies to *every* structure that *can* be put in place, whether it leads to good or bad outcomes. This is a problem that recurs throughout the book. Another gripe: I really don't see why at one point Saul tries to paint Voltaire as the father of western reason - surely that role falls to Socrates ... as far as I'm concerned, cynicism was Voltaire's main contribution. (Saul seems to just cut the Greeks out of the picture at every opportunity - for example in discussing the Social Contract he doesn't even mention Plato's Crito, which should surely be the starting point for the topic ...) There are other things I didn't like (for example I think there should have been more said about the impact of reason on religion - surely an obvious area to cover in depth ... maybe it's impact hasn't been negative enough for Saul ...), but all things considered, this isn't particularly good.

  28. 4 out of 5

    NoBeatenPath

    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 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 well argued way that you find yourself nodding along in agreement rather than shaking your head in bewilderment. The heart of the argument that underpins this book is that Western society has developed (or maybe devolved) into a lifeless machine, unwilling to reward creativity and that we are now in the grip of rampant bureaucratisation and mediocrity. Saul argues his case well, with his words reading more like an informed if passionate defence, rather than a rant. While the reader may not agree with everything Saul has to say, or even much of it, this is a book of a rare breed—one that presents its arguments well, with clarity and wry humour, while simultaneously informing and challenging the reader. If you read one book this year in attempt to understand why society is the way it is, make it this book.

  29. 5 out of 5

    James Wheat

    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 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 missed the point, and I couldn't argue there - somewhere in between Barthes' comments on professional wrestling and the classism of wearing jeans I got lost about who I was supposed to be angry at and why. The book feels incredibly dated. There are clear parallels between the world of 1992 and our society now (everything he talks about with Reagan is on repeat, but dumber, with Trump) but the world has changed so much since the advent of the internet that many of his complaints come across as naive. In terms of this kind of narrative history, Tom Holland is doing it so much better these days. And Adam Curtis has taken Saul's general approach and done it in a far more compelling medium.

  30. 5 out of 5

    David Grass

    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 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 political rant, although I think it does explain some of the underlying dynamics that allowed for our acceptance of Trump. In essence this has been a long fall and we are collectively to blame. There are many insightful passages. It gave me fresh perspective on today's problems. I learned much. Solutions though, while expressed in grandiose generalities, such as applications of common sense and mass reeducation of civic responsibilities are, unfortunately, lacking.

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