Voltaire’s Bastards

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I read Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West by John Ralston Saul after it first came out in 1992. I had not thought about the book in a long time until recently when I was looking for quote from it to put on The Asylum. I’m not sure where the book is or even if I still have it. My wife and I had to get rid of our entire library save for a couple of boxes each about six years ago, the details of which I will not go into. At the moment I’m hoping I saved it.

But one thing I did was keep my favorite quotes from the book in a text document. So much of what I saved applies to what we are facing today. Saul saw what was coming because it was already happening and the book resonated with me because I was seeing it played out in the corporation I worked for.

This won’t be a book review. What I’m going to do is simply list some of my favorite quotes from the book without comment. Enjoy!

And yet the exercise of power, without the moderating influence of any ethical structure, rapidly became the religion of these new elites.


Structure suits best those whose talents lie in manipulation and who have a taste for power in its purer forms.


The new holy trinity is organization, technology and information.  The new priest is the technocrat—the man who understands the organization, makes use of the technology and controls access to the information…


These new structures make it almost impossible for the law to judge illegal that which is wrong.


These mythological words [fairness, justice, rationalization, and efficiency] come to replace thought.  They are the modern equivalent of an intellectual void.


Their [the inquisitors] methodology was unrelated to ideas or morality.  Fear and secrecy were their favorite weapons.


The past, when it involves a failed system, disappears from the mind.  The past is always ad hoc.  The future is always optimistic, because it is available for unencumbered solutioneering.  And the present lies helpless beneath his feet, just begging to be managed.


The technocrats suffer from character defects which have to do with their inability to maintain any links between reason, common sense and morality.


The technocrats are hedonists of power.  Their obsession with structures and their inability or unwillingness to link these to the public good make this power an abstract force—a force that works, more often than not, at cross-purposes to the real needs of a painfully real world.


The technocrat of today knows something.  But his means of processing uses neither morality nor common sense.


Above all, what is encouraged is the growth of an undisciplined form of self-interest, in which winning is what counts.


The decline of our school systems reflects perfectly our general problems.  The elites preach power, not participation. They preach control, not contribution. They preach gratification of the ego, not the unglamorous duty of service to a larger whole.


Except for a few victims, modern terrorism is mainly a media event. People are not killed to set an example. They are killed in order to provide film footage and newspaper copy which will generalize the specific and thus have political impact.


Thanks to his intellectual tools, he [the man of reason] can always prove, even when surrounded by self-generated disaster, that he is right.


Man is a great deal happier with certainty, even if its comfort is false and dangerous.


It is as if the confusion among those who govern has become so great that they mistake frenetic activity for the carrying out of their functions.


It is hardly surprising . . . that modern politicians avoid whenever possible unstructured encounters with reality.  They attempt to limit their visibility in public and before the press to manufactured events, which are meant to provide facsimiles of reality.


One of the specialist’s most successful discoveries was that he could easily defend his territory by the simple development of a specialized language incomprehensible to non-experts.


The real problem is that public figures are now famous for all the wrong reasons while being allowed too much privacy in the areas that matter.

I highly recommend this book.

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