World War I led to 16 million military and civilian deaths, plus nearly 20 million wounded. And the misery and horror of that war resulted in another casualty: confidence in the Enlightenment enterprise and human progress.
In the late seventeenth century Isaac Newton’s discovery of the laws of universal gravitation dramatically demonstrated the power of the human mind. Understanding of the world and the universe—what we call modern science—became a central Enlightenment goal.
At the same time, the struggle for Parliamentary supremacy in England led John Locke to pen his powerful treatise on individual liberty. Creating governments limited to protecting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness also became a central Enlightenment goal, which culminated in the creation of United States.
Enlightenment values were not limited to Britain or America. They were universal and created a European-wide culture of individualism, freedom, and reason.
But Enlightenment thinkers and activists not only had to fight entrenched oligarchs and rigid religious dogma. Starting with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a school of thought—if thought it could be called—arose that opposed individualism with the good of “society,” or the group, and rejected reason in favor of emotion and instinct.
The French Revolution starting in 1789 saw Enlightenment ideas losing ground to reactionary and collectivist forces. The result was the Terror and the guillotine, dictatorship and a new monarchy, and the carnage of the Napoleonic wars–the first great modern global conflict, which ended in 1815 at Waterloo.
In the century that followed Europe suffered only short regional conflicts, most relating to the unification of Italy and of Germany. The Industrial Revolution was creating prosperity. Governments were granting citizens rights to political participation and were recognizing their civil liberties. By the early twentieth century, continued progress seemed inevitable.
But the pernicious collectivist ideology combined with a major European cultural defect: nationalism. This form of collectivism meant more than just an appreciation for the aesthetic achievements—art, music, literature—of the individuals in one’s ethnic group. It meant putting one’s group or one’s country, right or wrong, ahead of universal values and principles. Kill for King or Kaiser!
There’s an irony in the fact that poor Franz Ferdinand wanted to recreate Austria-Hungary as a federation in which the minority groups—that were always either dominated by Viennese elites or at one another’s throats—would have autonomy similar to that enjoyed by the American states. If only Princip had waited a while.
Unfortunately, the volatile combination of nationalism, an interlocking treaty system, and the Britain-Germany imperial rivalry only required a spark like the Sarajevo assassination to set off a global conflagration.
Collectivism vs. collectivism
After World War I, individualism and “selfishness” got much of the blame for the conflict. And science was no longer associated only with progress. It had created machine guns, tanks, and poison gas, and made possible a fearful slaughter.
Idealists created the League of Nations to prevent such wars in the future. But they tried to cure the problem of nationalism with more nationalism, simply accentuating the problem. Indeed, Hitler used the principle of self-determination of peoples as an excuse to unify all Germans into one Reich by force. His form of collectivism also entailed enslaving and wiping out “inferior” races.
The catastrophe of World War II was followed by a Cold War, which saw the Soviet Union asserting another form of collectivism, pitting one economic “class” against another. Western Europe opposed the brutal Soviet kill-the-rich socialism with a kinder, gentler, loot-the-rich democratic socialism. The Soviet Union with its communist empire collapsed in 1991, and Western European democratic socialism is going through a similar disintegration in slow motion.
Still recovering from the Great War
Today, Enlightenment values are making a comeback. The communications and information revolutions, and the application of new technologies in medicine, transportation, and other fields, again demonstrate the power of the human mind and the benefits it confers.
Furthermore, many of the new entrepreneurs understand that it is they as individual visionaries who are transforming the world. And while their achievements benefit everyone, they strive because they love their work and they love to achieve. They pursue happiness. They hold Enlightenment values—though in many cases their politics still need to catch up.
The world is still digging out from the consequences of that single bullet a century ago, which led to the deaths of millions. Putting our country and the world back on the path to liberty and prosperity will require a recommitment to the Enlightenment values that created all the best in the modern world.
Dr. Edward Hudgins directs advocacy and is a senior scholar for The Atlas Society, the center for Objectivism in Washington, D.C.
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