Francisco Goya’s magnificent image, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1797-99), is emblematic of the Enlightenment’s faith in rationality–and its fear of what occurs when Reason falters through negligence or ignorance. Goya had good evidence on which to fear those lapses, as documented in his powerful depictions of the Disasters of War. Monstrosity comes in many forms, but in the 18th century it was understood as an aberration of nature, including human nature.
Now we see that the deliberate corruption of reason produces something more monstrous yet. The flying fiends surrounding the slumbering figure in Goya’s print feel romantic by contrast to the pernicious forces of radical destruction currently taking apart what has been the quintessential Enlightenment project—American Democracy. Reason was idealized for its power to produce and value such ideas as “Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” “Common Sense,” or the “Social Contract”– the simple and powerful concept that a government is by, for, and of the people. Such values were held to be “self-evident”—a justification from within the ideology of Reason. But nothing is self-evident, and the values and force of Reason are as historically circumscribed as those of any other belief system. [Read more…]