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The Idolatry of Politics

July 1, 1987 -

Professor Leszek Kolakowski is a refugee from who now teaches at the University of Chicago and at All Souls College, Oxford University. In a speech given last year in Washington, D.C. (reprinted in The New Republic, June 16, 1986), Kolakowski argues that the spiritual legacy of the Enlightenment seems to have reached a "suicidal stage" and needs to be revised for at least three reasons.

First, the Enlightenment proclaimed that all human beliefs about good and evil are culturally and historically relative, and therefore absolute values do not exist. While Kolakowski does not want to defend the fanaticism underlying sectarian strife, he nevertheless points out that to reduce absolute values to mere historical phenomena is to leave us entirely defenceless over against evil and totalitarianism.

Second, Kolakowski points to the "uncertain and conceptually fragile status of human personality." He insists that a belief in the uniqueness of the person is indispensable to the notion of personal dignity and of human rights. If we assume that human beings are entirely socially formed and historically conditioned, then we cannot distinguish between one culture and another culture as better or worse. Democracy and freedom are I then no better than enslavement and totalitarianism. It all depends on the prevailing culture.

Third, our historical consciousness continues to erode, by which Kolakowski means the "progressive decline of awareness that our spiritual life includes the sediment of the historical past, as its real and active component, and that we must perceive the past as a never-fading frame of reference for our actions and thinking." Such a frame of reference is especially essential for the education of the young. Without a historically defined sense of "belonging," young people will not be able to withstand the trials the future may hold.

The decline of an historical awareness is cause for worry because it fosters a manipulative and rationalist view of society. Such a view holds that society is "in principle" malleable and that we can arrive at the perfect society without evil, scarcity, suffering and without frustration and failures. Kolakowski warns that this is a deadly illusion (or idolatry) that is sure to divert politics into an exercise of totalitarian control.

His critical analysis of the spiritual legacy of the Enlightenment should be welcomed by all who believe in the biblical revelation regarding creation and the meaning of human life. Kolakowski's observations have a special, significance for those who want to understand the drift of Canadian politics. They will find all kinds of evidence to suggest that the very things Kolakowski warns against are now emerging on the political agenda in Canada. Forewarned is forewarned.