A more enlightened paranoia

by Brad Young

Per our discussion of conspiracy theory, here’s a lengthy quote about the Enlightenment and the tendency to see historical events as products of conspiracy. From Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic (my apologies for not copying his footnotes):

“The notion of conspiracy was not new in Western history. From Sallust’s description of Catiline through Machiavelli’s lengthy discussion men were familiar with the use of conspiracy in politics. Yet the tendency to see events as a result of a calculated plot, especially events in times of public tumult, appears particularly strong in the eighteenth century, a product, it seems, not only of the political realities and assumptions of the age, but of its very enlightenment, a consequence of the popularization of politics and secularization of knowledge. Those Americans who continued to see themselves as a specially convenanted people could and did look beyond the earth to Providence for an explanation of the events in the years after 1763: a divinely favored people were being justly punished for their sins. But to those captivated by the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century the wonder-working ways of Providence were not satisfying enough. The explanation of human phenomena lay in the ways of man alone, in human purposes, in political and social science. Whatever happened in history was intended by men to have happened. Enlightened rationalists as well as Calvinist clergy were obsessed with the motives that lay hidden behind deceiving, even self-deceiving, statements, and they continually sought to penetrate beneath the surface of events in order to find their real significance in the inner hearts of men. Yet in replacing Providence with human motivation as a source of historical explanation, men still felt the need to discover the design, “the grand plan,” that lay beneath the otherwise incomprehensible jumble of events. Now it seemed possible to the men of the enlightened age that they would be able, as the scrutinizers of Providence had been unable, “to trace things into their various connections, or to look forward into all their remote and distant consequences,” to disclose at last what had always been in darker days “the hidden and…uncertain connection of events.” It was precisely this task of tracing, predicting, disclosing, and connecting motives and events that American Whig leaders had set for themselves in the debate with Great Britain. And thus their attributing what was happening to the relations between Britain and her colonies to the conspiratorial designs of a few men in high places became another example of their application of science to human affairs, a noble effort to make natural sense of the complexity of phenomena, a humanization of Providence, an impassioned attempt to explain the ways of man to man, the crude beginnings of what has come to be called the Whig interpretation of history (40-1).”