Faith and Reason: The ruthless duplicity of Rational Man

A book by John Redwood shows 17th-century men playing on others' fears that the world is essentially hostile to humanity; much as they do today, writes the Rev John Kennedy
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John Redwood has always appeared in the public eye as a slightly ridiculous figure. His chief fault seemed to be the excessive trust that he places in the simple power of reason - Rational Man. Like most of us, he looked slightly odd on telly. Worst of all, he wanted to test that more bracing rationality in Wales. So it was no surprise that the disaffected Welsh proposed a Notice of Motion at last week's Methodist Conference "affirming John Redwood's decision to leave Wales", even if the proposal was then charitably withdrawn.

Redwood was further mocked by the chattering classes for having written a book on the period between Cromwell's death and Wesley's conversion - Reason, Ridicule and Religion (1976). Here is a right-wing Tory with ideas, and theological ideas at that! But we mock at our peril; this lively and thoughtful book develops ideas that are fundamental to modern life - and they are ideas that a Christian might argue are fundamentally damaging to that life.

Redwood celebrates a host of rogues, witty libertines and tough-minded thinkers. A priceless example of the first is Sir Roger L'Estrange. In Redwood's words he

rated with the Devil as one of the two great Tory politicians of his age. Critics saw in him the time-serving Tory politician of legend, and remarked on how "Roger even there does earn his pension well/ And brawls for the succession, though in Hell."

Redwood's chief libertarian is Bernard de Mandeville. Mandeville challenged a religious orthodoxy which described the world in complacent and self- serving terms; that God has bestowed on us an essentially benign order in Church and State, and it is only our failure to follow its divine logic that confounds us. Not so, he says. The common good is best served if we pursue most rigorously our selfish ends. That common good can only be defined as the formation of a powerful and successful nation; and such a public good can be achieved only through the exercise of private vice - that relentless pursuit of our own purposes. It is of course utterly hypocritical to call such a social order Christian and the reasoning that produces such a brutal programme is not designed to reveal truth but to conceal it.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, is Redwood's libertine, and a much more sinister type. His poetry is brilliant, funny and vile; his various excesses killed him at the age of 33. He too was a Rational Man. He too saw reason simply as moving us to passion, and then masking the original motive. And he too was adept in argument through ridicule:

Our sphere of Action is life's happiness;

And he who thinks beyond thinks like an ass.

"Rochester concluded," Redwood writes, "that man was born of fear; he was therefore a fool if he tried to masquerade as anything more than a beast of his passions."

It is instructive to see recent Tory policy in the light of Redwood's scholarship. As Mandeville, Rochester and the rest clearly show, Rational Man's first question is to ask "What's in it for me?" He then pretends that the real question is a good deal more respectable. So it has seemed rational to claim that our society should be subjected to the rigours of the marketplace. And, yes, we agree that the market is a necessary good, not a necessary evil. But a convenient pattern of exemption has grown around the beneficiaries of privatisation - the kind of risk-free profitable monopoly that Charles II used to sell to cover his gambling debts. In the meantime, little comfort has been offered to the victims of the competitive struggle, least of all in Wales. The forces that produce and sustain such inequality in the marketplace are not impersonal - they are inhuman.

Three centuries on, we find ourselves still caught up in a fierce conflict between Rational Man and reasonable humanity. The terms of this conflict were laid down when religion was decisive, and when the assertion of human self-sufficiency challenged established orthodoxy quite explicitly. The ardent Christian has always countered this egoism by insisting that human endeavour has to be seen in the context of a loving God, and that we may therefore risk behaving towards one another more lovingly. But such Christian ardour is as rare now as in late Stuart England.

The hellish brawl for the succession has seen Redwood's rebellious angels routed for the moment. But the ruthless duplicity of contemporary Rational Man is still with us. He plays on our Godless fears that the world is essentially hostile to humanity, and that we must struggle against one another for survival. Can we believe in one another strongly enough to allay those fears? It seems increasingly clear that we must believe in more than one another, or we shall end up with faith only in our own monstrous egoism.