Published Humanitas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2009

One of Goya’s etchings in the series called Los Caprichos of 1796 depicts a sleeping figure, his head resting on a writing table, pen and paper scattered around him. Around the sleeping man hovers a shadowy swarm of bat- and owl-like creatures, and at his feet lies a fierce looking cat, perhaps a witch’s cat. The inscription of the etching reads: “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”—the sleep (or dream) of reason produces monsters. The meaning of this allegorical tableau has been construed in two different and opposing ways. One interprets it to mean that when reason sleeps the dark monsters of irrationality are then free to venture forth unchecked—a rather Freudian reading. The other interpretation holds that the dream of reason itself produces the nightmare vision: that the monsters are the very spawn of reason—what might be called the Burkean reading. Whichever, if either, is right, the second serves as a leitmotif running through the criticism of scientifically planned societies that began in reaction to the French Revolution. From Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre in the eighteenth century through such twentieth-century critics as Lewis Mumford, Karl Popper, and Isaiah Berlin, the utopian concept of a rationally planned or dirigiste society is viewed as one of reason’s most nightmarish monsters.

Burke, the British statesman and political theorist, believed that the “metaphysicians”—by which he meant the Enlightenment philosophes—bore responsibility for the convulsions of the French Revolution. Of these figures, he famously declared: a more dreadful calamity cannot arise out of hell to scourge mankind. Nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thoroughbred metaphysician. It comes nearer to the cold malignity of a wicked spirit than to the frailty and passion of a man. It is like that of the Principle of Evil himself, incorporeal, pure, unmixed, dephlegmated, defecated evil.


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