During the years leading up to the French Revolution in 1789, French elites indulged their fancy for an unusual pretension to science—mesmerism—rather than addressing the looming national crisis of their time. In Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France(1986), Robert Darnton, emeritus professor of history at Princeton University, shows how mesmerism influenced both elite society and the outcome of that revolution.
Ernst Cassirer explains the rationalism or reason of the French Enlightenment in The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1951):
It dissolves everything merely factual, all simple data of experience, and everything believed on the evidence of revelation, tradition and authority; and it does not rest content until it has analyzed all these things into their simplest component parts and into their last elements of belief and opinion. Following this work of dissolution begins the work of construction. Reason cannot stop with the dispersed parts; it has to build from them a new structure, a true whole….Reason understands this structure because it can reproduce it in its totality and in the ordered sequence of its individual elements. Only in this twofold intellectual movement can the concept of reason be fully characterized...
Partly in reaction to such cold and extreme rationalism, eighteenth-century French elites, unable to discern the difference between science and pseudo-science, turned to irrational schemes and fakeries.
Franz Mesmer arrived in Paris in 1778 and proclaimed his discovery of a superfine fluid that, although he had not seen it, penetrated and surrounded all bodies. He used this primeval “agent of nature” or “animal magnetism” to heal Parisians. Sickness, he maintained, resulted from an “obstacle” to the flow of the fluid through the body, which was analogous to a magnet. By “mesmerizing,” or massaging the body's poles, he overcame the obstacle. He threw his patients into epileptic-like fits or somnambulist trances to cure them of diseases ranging from blindness to ennui. The film Jefferson in Paris portrays the French practice of mesmerism both at Versailles and in a salon gathering.
Mesmer presented his theory as the remnant of a “primitively recognized truth” he had discovered while communing alone with nature for three months, in an inspired state in which be imbibed the pure philosophy of nature. He vowed to “pass on to humanity” all the purity and inestimable benefaction he had received from nature and to restore the “harmony” of man with nature. Mesmerism’s mystical idea of nature evoked Rousseau, who was especially popular with women of the time.
By 1784, when mesmerism seemed destined to become the sole medicine, a prestigious royal commission, including Benjamin Franklin, was appointed to investigate the mesmerists. The commission concluded that Mesmer’s fluid did not exist and that the effects of mesmerism were imagined. But mesmerism continued.
French intellectual life was conducted through pamphlets written by academic-like thinkers and discussed by elites in salons presided over by educated hostesses. Darnton demonstrates that such pamphlets contained at least twice as many works on mesmerism as on political matters and the brewing national crisis. French elites, withdrawn from public involvement and preoccupied with isolated pursuits, failed to anticipate the impending revolution.
Rather than the ideology of reason of the French Enlightenment, America was founded upon different Western ideals: the reason and moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, Lockean liberalism, and Newtonian science. But, as Darnton explains, the Marquis de Lafayette brought not only military leadership, but mesmerism to our shores. Shortly before his departure for America in June 1784, Louis XVI asked Lafayette, “What will Washington think when he learns that you have become Mesmer’s chief journeyman apothecary?”
In fact Washington already knew, for Lafayette had written to him in May 1784:
A German doctor named Mesmer, having made the greatest discovery about animal magnetism, has trained some pupils, among whom your humble servant is considered one of the most enthusiastic—I know as much about it as any sorcerer ever did.…Before leaving I will obtain permission to let you into Mesmer’s secret, which, you can count on it, is a great, philosophical discovery.
Lafayette fulfilled his commission so energetically that Thomas Jefferson, then the American representative to Versailles, tried to prevent a wave of mesmerism at home by sending anti-mesmerist pamphlets and copies of the commission’s report to influential friends.
Biographies of James Madison indicate that during the fall of 1784, Lafayette and Madison traveled together from New York City to Fort Stanwix in central New York (very near my birth place). Madison was aware of mesmerism at the time; in a letter to Jefferson in April 1785, he thanked him for sending two pamphlets on “animal magnetism.” According to Darnton, Jefferson considered mesmerism “an imputation of so grave a nature as would bear an action at law in America”; he noted tersely in his journal of letters on February 5, 1785, “Animal magnetism dead, ridiculed.”
Ironically, America’s college-educated elites have been mesmerized by an ideology brought here by modern-day French academics Derrida, Foucault, and others—postmodernism—which is even more broadly dissociated from the realities of our era. While our Founders properly rejected the misguided French theories of their time, today’s American academy has eagerly embraced them. Beginning with the counterculture of the 1960s, postmodern academic thinking—other than that applied in the technical professions—came to dismiss not only the rationalism of the French Enlightenment, but scientific mechanism as well.
Postmodernists believe that science does not offer truth or describe reality. This enables them arbitrarily to deconstruct any reality that happens not to suit them and insert their own revolutionary paradigm, often invoking, as did Mesmer, a direct connection to nature. Postmodern gender feminism seeks to replace masculine rationality with the female Dionysian personality, imbued with a sense of self more connected to, or in oneness with, nature.
In Enchanting Sustainability, Peter Wood describes an effort by sustainability advocates within academia to include “enchantment” in the scientific paradigm of an objective relationship with the natural world to include “a more personal connection with the living earth.” This way of knowing would add “a sensory, affective engagement that includes dimensions of wonder and delight and embraces an identity that includes connections to other species and the earth’s living systems.” What have been called the sustainatopians would instill in students “an emotional way of knowing the world that is separate from the rational,” to “move beyond reason and science in favor of a combination of intuition and empathy.”
More broadly, postmodernism posits that there are no objective truths or facts, moral universals, or fundamental realities and that all claims to knowledge are socially constructed. In Part II of Is Our Civilization a Bubble? Stephen Balch asks whether our civilization has created its own mega-bubble by the thinking of elites who “consume society’s substance chasing impossibilities.” Our postmodernists construct a bubble of their own personal opinion, ideal reality, or transcendent belief—illusion—not to be penetrated by reason seeking objective answers.
Our colleges and universities should replace the postmodern delusions and dalliances of academic mesmerists with the knowledge and wisdom imparted by Western Civilization, as applied by the American Founders, if their graduates are once again to play a constructive role in solving the problems of the real world.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).