Self-knowledge was always a main goal of Western civilization, but the self to be known was understood in generous terms as the basis of community. Saul says that as the gap widens between the worst off and best off, self-knowledge has become self-interest. In Voltaire's Bastards (LJ 9/92), Saul-historian, thriller writer and successful businessman-attacked "rationality" conceived as the pursuit of one's own interest, which comes under fire again, along with passivity, disregard of language, and the quest for an impossible certainty. Lost is the free and open society that comes from a skeptical balance of common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, history, and reason. Saul marches fast, firing telling volleys at his targets, but he also fires on religious "ideologies" that involve a presumed self-knowledge binding humanity to God and eternity. Thus, he leaves the individual to strike a balance much like the one recommended by the self-interested pragmatists he despises. Still, this is a good book for anyone who likes to see ideas at work. Saul knows how to reach ordinary readers.-Leslie Armour, Univ. of Ottawa
Readers must look past some unorthodox conceptualizations and outrageous pronouncements to glimpse the piercing insights in this volume.
Essayist and novelist Saul (The Paradise Eater, 1988, etc.) argues that in the 20th century ideologies ranging from socialism and fascism to psychotherapy and free market economics have promoted truisms that undermine the acquisition of knowledge. For example, despite evidence to the contrary, we believe that democracy requires free markets, markets convert self-interest into the common good, and technology is the key to progress. As a result, managers, interest groups, and technocrats have become our gods, and the individual citizen is smothered in a bureaucratic society. Saul finds the antidote for this situation in people who seek knowledge without the pacifier of ideological certainty, the public good without pretending it is synonymous with self-interest, and reason without emasculating it in abstract rationality. His critique leaves few residents of the 20th century unscathed, possibly provoking scholars to look down their noses and sniff about sloppy work while nonacademics reject the arguments as out of touch with the real world. This is to be expected if Saul's thesis has any validity. It is also a pity, for there is much here that should not be dismissed so easily. Identifying "individualism" as an ideology and contrasting it with individual citizens acting in a democracy highlights common assumptions that need to be examined. Portraying universities as willing partners in the commercialization of society, and disciplines like political science and economics as contributors to ideology rather than knowledge, raises serious issues within the undeniably troubled world of academia. Saul's almost nostalgic references to Socrates hardly provide a clear direction, but the lack of an answer should not be used to denigrate the asking of questions.
It is unlikely Saul will be forced to drink hemlock, but supporters of the status quo may suggest it.