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Unfrozen Caveman Intellectual: Jonah Goldberg’s Strangely Dark Enlightenment


“There is no God in this book.” So begins “Suicide of the West,” Jonah Goldberg’s contribution to the recent flurry of discussion about the legacy of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, there’s not much of the Enlightenment in the book, either.

If Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now” treated the philosophical movement of the 18th century as if it were just a precursor to the contemporary center-left consensus, Goldberg’s defense of the Enlightenment ends up being mostly a rehearsal of boilerplate 20th-century American conservatism, including the fact that God does not actually stay out of the book.

The comparison is a more interesting one than I expected, because much of the book reads like an answer to the question, “What if Steven Pinker were a conservative?” Goldberg relies to a surprising degree on modern anthropology and on evolutionary psychology’s speculative parsing of the mentality of the cave man. This is reminiscent of Pinker’s reductive “scientism,” but Goldberg gives it a somewhat different twist. He concludes that anthropology and evolutionary psychology reveal human nature to be inherently tribal, irrational, violent, cruel, obsessed with status, and oriented around rule by a strongman. Basically, it’s all “Lord of the Flies” — which is, in fact, one of the examples he cites. In that novel, he explains, “The beast is not ‘something you could hunt and kill,’ because the real beast resides inside all of the children themselves. That internal beast is human nature. It cannot be killed; it can only be tamed. And even then, constant vigilance is required.”

This insistence that primitivism is natural and civilization is unnatural leaves Goldberg occasionally sounding like the Unfrozen Caveman Intellectual: “Beneath the layers of outward civilization lurks our more primal self, who finds the world around us complicated and artificial.” Your modern ways frighten and confuse me.

This is the old conservative argument from depravity, but with evolutionary psychology supplying a new version of original sin. It’s the idea that we need to have institutions of liberty and the rule of law because humans are fallen and wicked by nature. But Goldberg runs into the same problem this view has always had. If humans are so terrible, how is it they ever discovered and embraced the rules of civilization?

Goldberg putters around about this for a while but doesn’t really have an answer. This is why he refers to the rise of individual rights, capitalism, and the rest of the legacy of the Enlightenment as “the Miracle.” By his account, it would be miraculous. He even describes human history as a kind of “hockey stick” graph, a version of this one, which shows a geometric takeoff in global wealth starting in 1800 from what looks like a totally flat base for all of human history prior to the Enlightenment.

I saw “what looks like” a totally flat base, because any chart of geometric growth can be misleading in this way. In reviewing Steven Pinker’s book, I applauded his recounting of the enormous progress for human well-being over the last two centuries, which Goldberg also echoes (though he buries most of the charts and graphs in an appendix). This is absolutely necessary because most people have no clue how much better off they are than their ancestors just a few generations ago, and the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution certainly did raise the human condition to a far higher level than in any previous era. But in trying to emphasize human progress since the Enlightenment, we can underestimate human progress before the Enlightenment.

Charting out our recent geometric growth can make human progress look unprecedented and, more to the point, unnatural. But just because humans before 1800 were universally poor and backward by today’s standards does not mean that humans never achieved any progress. To give you an idea of what I mean, consider this chart showing the net worth of super-investor Warren Buffett going back more than 60 years. It’s even labeled “The Warren Buffett wealth hockey stick,” because it looks like Buffett goes from virtually nothing at about age 50 and rockets suddenly up to $60 billion dollars in the three decades or so before the article was written.

But the reason Buffett is famous is not because he suddenly discovered the secret to making money in late middle age. He’s famous because he has been producing high returns steadily all along, and if you look closely at the figures you will see that in the flat-looking part of the graph, he goes from a net worth of $5,000 to more than $100 million. There’s a huge difference between those two figures, but they both look equally small when you chart them against Buffett’s current fortune. This is why it’s more useful to chart this kind of growth on a logarithmic scale, where an increase from 1 to 10 looks the same as an increase from 10 to 100, so that geometric growth on the left-hand side of the scale doesn’t get squashed down into a flat line.

I suspect the history of humanity also needs to be measured on a logarithmic scale. What looks like the flat part of Goldberg’s “hockey stick” contains progress that is equally astonishing in its own way. Modern humans went from living in Africa to populating the entire globe, crossing mountains and oceans and learning how to survive in every climate. We went from simple stone tools, to complex stone tools, to copper, to bronze, to iron. We made the first art, domesticated plants and animals, built cities, developed written language, and wrote down codes of law. Then the Greeks invented science, philosophy, history, and pretty much every field of intellectual inquiry.

The point of this history is to argue that human progress is also indisputably natural. The Enlightenment is not a miraculous break with human history but just the latest, most spectacular stage of mankind’s ongoing quest for self-improvement. Irrational tribalism may be part of our historical legacy, but so is rationality and the search for universal principles.

This is important because the idea that rationality is central to human nature was one of the key ideas of the Enlightenment and a crucial foundation for arguments in favor of liberty and the “right of private judgment” in religion and in everything else. (More on this in a future book review.) To his credit, there is more of the Enlightenment in Goldberg’s book than in Pinker’s, and it is less vague. Near the middle of the book, there is a brief but reasonably good overview of John Locke’s philosophy and its contrast to the proto-Romanticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But Goldberg still seems unable to take Enlightenment philosophy fully seriously, so he downgrades the influence of Enlightenment ideas and turns them into a mere cultural “story.”

“It would be fair to say that John Locke was a storyteller who, more than anyone, created the Miracle,” he writes. “But a more accurate way of saying it would be ‘the story we tell ourselves about Locke’ helped create the Miracle.”

Goldberg tends to describe ideas as just reflections of “psychological tendencies”: “We tend to give too much credit to intellectuals for creating ideas. More often, they give voice to ideas or impulses that already exist as pre-rational commitments or attitudes.” While Enlightenment thinkers celebrated man’s capacity for rational thinking, Goldberg ends up concluding that the system created by the Enlightenment depends on “the extra-rational institutions of family, faith, and community.”

See what I mean? We’re back to boilerplate conservatism. Humans are inherently depraved, reason is fragile, and so we need to depend on faith and family, and “the cure for what ails us is dogma.”

If the first chapter began with, “There is no God in this book,” here is how its final chapter begins.

I have tried to keep God out of this book, but, as a sociological entity, God can’t be removed from it. I start the story of the Miracle in the 1700s, because that is where prosperity started to take off like a rocket. But a rocket doesn’t materialize from thin air on a launchpad. The liftoff is actually the climax of a very long story.

Simply put, we got where we are because of God. … From its earliest days, Christianity recognized that every person was due a certain measure of justice, and every person was obliged to respect others as children of God. The Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the seed from which grew the concept of the individual. … Christianity’s emphasis on human dignity and equality did not destroy monarchy, aristocracy, and serfdom, or slavery for more than sixteen centuries. But the fuse, one could argue, was lit.

I find it interesting that Goldberg’s conservative critics, thrown off by the beginning of his book, have dismissed him for failing to make exactly the kind of religious argument he ends up making, albeit in a backward and roundabout way.

This is an argument that you can make for liberty — though I find it rather unconvincing to appeal to a fuse that has to stay lit for 1600 years before it does anything. Clearly, something more, something new was required to raise the Christian culture of the West to the point of cultural and economic takeoff. To find out what that something was requires a fuller and more open-minded engagement with the ideas of the Enlightenment than we are getting right now. As I said, I’ve got one more book review on the way that will fill in a crucial part of that gap. In the meantime, we’re mostly getting glancing blows at the Enlightenment from thinkers who then rebound into a more familiar intellectual rut — the technocratic center-left for Steven Pinker, the traditional 20th-century right for Jonah Goldberg.

Yet it’s a good thing that we’re having this conversation at all, particularly at a time that requires a re-examination of basic ideas. In that regard, “Suicide of the West” ends on one note that I found more hopeful than anything else in the book.

[T]he reason we can have debates is that we believe that ideas matter. This is our debt to the Enlightenment: that through reason and argument we can identify good ideas and bad. Modern American conservatism arose in the 1940s and 1950s on the back of arguments made necessary by the threat of communism: arguments for Western civilization, the free market, the Constitution, property rights, and all of the underlying concepts that led to the Miracle.

Goldberg spends much of the later chapters describing Donald Trump and Trumpism as a crackup of traditional conservatism and a relapse into pre-Enlightenment tribalism. I largely agree. But just as 20th century conservatism was formed as an intellectual response to communism, so a new ideological basis for the American right will have to emerge from an intellectual response to authoritarian nationalism.

At the very least, “Suicide of the West” is evidence that some intellectuals on the right are beginning to start that process.