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Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West Paperback – November 30, 1993

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Known for his novels of international intrigue, Saul in his first work of nonfiction delivers a passionate jeremiad on the follies of our age. Reason, he argues, has run amok; instead of the enlightened utopia envisaged by Voltaire, the modern West is a soulless machine run by technocratic elites that promise efficiency but create disasters. The author targets the insane waste of our "permanent war economy," the perils of nuclear power, the co-optation of democracy by vested interests, the news media's focus on false events and manufactured celebrities, the "personality politics" of presidential campaigns. He critiques the Harvard Business School's management teachings, profiles such figures as Thomas Jefferson, Robert McNamara and Charles de Gaulle, flunks our colleges for failure to reward creativity and imagination. He blames novelists from James Joyce onward for "rendering literature inaccessible" and divorcing fiction from social concerns. He roams freely through history, politics, theology, art and film, challenging his audience on every page. This wonderfully provocative inquiry, a work of bold sweep and originality, may nonetheless leave some readers wondering whether misplaced faith in reason underlies all the ills discussed.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Saul locates the source of many of the contemporary world's problems in a perversion of reason. He argues that while Voltaire had hoped to use reason as a tool to overthrow outmoded and harsh customs, his successors instead employed reason as an instrument of social control. The will of the people was unimportant to such acolytes of reason as Napoleon, who argued that uninformed popular opinion must be regimented through the supposed dictates of reason. The result of these misguided efforts at rational planning have been the horrors of modern warfare and the depredations of industrialism. Saul attributes such varied phenomena as the arms race, the "star system," and the rise of bureaucracy to hyperrationalism. Saul, a popular novelist ( The Paradise Eater , LJ 11/1/88), has a vivid style that makes his book enjoyable reading, but a clear sense of what he means by reason never emerges. Is it anything more than a catchphrase for whatever the author dislikes?-- David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., Ohio
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (November 30, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679748199
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679748199
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.2 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #933,323 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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60 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Christopher on March 19, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It takes tremendous courage to open a book with such a subtitle. It is human nature to construct an ideology based on our favorite thoughts, and then live cozily inside as master of the realm. For then we can use that ideology as shield and weapon.
But then John Ralston Saul comes face to face with you, removes his glove, and with a gentleman's flourish, whips the leather across your face. Saul is the master of gauntlet-throwing, and after one read of this hefty tome, you will be begging for more.
"The undoubted sign of a society well under control or in decline is that language has ceased to be a means of communication and has become instead a shield for those who master it."
Does this remind you of your country's political process? Or possibly of those ivory-tower publications that you so treasure? How is it that our species has been able to use words to cloak double and triple meanings within the most seemingly innocuous sentences? Is this what we truly want?
"The structures of argument have been co-opted so completely by those who work the system that when an individual reaches for the words and phrases which he senses will express his case, he finds that they are already in active use in the service of power. This now amounts to a virtual dictatorship of vocabulary."
The Inquisition, Machiavellian belief, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Holocaust can be rationally justified, says Saul. The tools of rationality provide the means to any desired end. Men participated in these events of their own free will, and even added their input to make said processes more `efficient'.
"The Inquisitors were the first to formalize the idea that to every question there is a right answer. The answer is known, but the question must be asked and correctly answered.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Michael Fridman on December 30, 2006
Format: Paperback
Much has been said amongst the other reviews about the seemingly incoherent, diatribal and drawn-out nature of Saul's book. And I agree. It's far from being a masterpiece in the larger sense of the world. What's brilliant about this book is not how right the author is but how wrong (often infuratingly so!) he is. Because I found that I've learnt more from this book, including the wrong parts than I have from many books that were more coherent or right. Unfortunately this does not seem to be Saul's aim.

He begins with section 1 called "Argument". However it read like a bunch of generalisations and sweeping statements without much argument. What he seems to be saying is this: that the concept of reason has been hijacked in the last century of public life in the west. That it has come to mean a bureaucratic, elitist, undemocratic, secretive, closed approach that also refuses to take into account the realities of life. That this style of reason is fanatical in that insisting that it is always right as a dogma. And finally, that it has been the result of untold amounts of suffering because it proclaims itself as a moral system, whereas it's only a system of management. Because of this, it can and is used to inhuman ends because it is itself devoid of any values.

All this I largely agree with. Especially in terms of the last point about reason being amoral you only need to read some Hume. However this exposition of his argument comes only from his second section, where he actually gives some concrete examples. The second section is largely a diatribe that attempts to apply these arguments to concrete historical examples. I think this is the strongest section of the book in that it is actually about something. The third section is some musings on art, individualism etc.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 12, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book sat on my shelf for a couple of years but I'm glad to finally finish it. Even though it was written over ten years ago, Saul's observations and witty insights are still very relevant. Saul helped me better articulate my abstract thoughts and feelings on our so-called civilization, e.g., how our technology has evolved faster than our ability to use it responsibly with a long-term view; how governments rationalize dark deeds in the name of national security; and how people come to feel powerless and indifferent.
I think the book is too long, somewhat repetitive, and contradicts his own argument of keeping cultural criticism inviting and easily understandable to the majority. While I don't agree with everything, there is much truth in these pages and it was worth seeing it through. Those critics who got hung up on the subtitle and tried to defend/define/debate reason missed the point. It's too much truth for many, and to seriously ponder the issues raised in this book risks an identity crisis they are not ready to endure. While it may appear to some that Saul is utterly condemning govt, business and education institutions and management, I think he does a great service by shocking folks out of their inertia to reflect on how they've been groomed, become aware of their blind spots and question their assumptions.

One of the lessons that can be derived from this book is the greatest threat to America's dream of "liberty and justice for all" is not from outside terrorists, but from within - those in positions of power or influence who are not enlightened but are enabled by the apathetic ignorant who blindly trust them to know what's best, or share in their fear-based selfish and myopic motives.
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