Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Directions for Cultural Critique

Listening to Allen Charles Kors second lecture on Voltaire (commerically available), I was highly impressed by his explanation of the education of Volataire. He explained that most people don't understand his philosophical education. The popular belief is that when Volataire was growing up, there was a main current of religious and aristocratic orthadoxy that had a straingelhold on France. This was the end of the reign of Louis XIV. Strong censorship laws were in place. The Bastile was the home of political prisoners. Furthermore, Voltaire was educated by Jesuits--that is to say functionaries of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet nevertheless, Voltaire became a prominant enlightenment leader, speaking out against problems with Royal as well as religious authority.

Thinking about it, this seems paradoxical. How can someone brought up in such a pro-royal and pro-Catholic atmosphere become a leader, actually a seminal thinker, for the opposition? Moreover, how can a whole crop of people in a Catholic Aristocratic dominated environment reach out and push forward the enlightenment? To answer this question, Koors pointed out the value of a Jesuit education at the time. Voltaire was studing a curiculum of logic, reason, and debate. The Jesuits taught their students exactly what was necessary in figuring out how to make good arguments pro and con. Rigour and excellence were demanded. It was not good enough to argue against strawmen. Finally, there was exposure to the classics--which included a lot of anti-religious literature, which was taught for its beauty and skill of writing.

This is all a round about way of thinking about and asking what is important in cultural critique. Do the answers matter all that much. Is a culture that appears bad (religiously intolorant, aristocratic, etc...) really all that bad if it has the seeds of change (perhaps burried, as an undercurrent)? Furthermore, what are the seeds of change? How do we move things in the right direction? Should the goal be to push the correct conclusions, or to push the way to arrive at the conclusions?

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