Plus Ça Change

In case anyone does not know, “plus ça change” is a French expression commonly translated in the plural as “the more things change,” and the conclusion to that phrase, of course, is “the more things remain the same.” It is a cynical expression that holds the tone of a shoulder shrug and the sense of never learning from the past.

The French expression emerged during the Enlightenment period, roughly the mid-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when everything was changing. Questions right and left were up in the air, and across the board, traditional beliefs were collapsing. During the Enlightenment, the Bible shockingly lost its authority, the six-day creation myth was dismissed, the belief in a six-thousand-year-old earth became obsolete, original sin was rejected, and the great flood of Noah’s time was seriously questioned. The Enlightenment was the era when atheism, in our modern sense, was born. People stopped believing in a sky God who controlled human affairs from above.

The Enlightenment was a most radical age that required reimagining our humanity and our sense of time, and it was a period in which conventional knowledge required serious renovation. To us, who today face equally radical changes, the Enlightenment is an example of how or how not to handle change well. Like today, those who could not handle change blamed their troubles on the “educated,” the “woke,” of their time.

Back then, the word for “woke” was “cacouac,” a contrived expression from the Greek “kakos” (bad) that roughly translates as “liars.” It might be hard to believe that during the Enlightenment, those who told the truth about science were called liars. Much like today, these “liars” supposedly propagated fake news, corruptly opted for science over religion, and wickedly questioned the authority of divine revelation. Like cultural critics today, the “liars” were taunted, threatened, and accused of treason. What is remarkable is that the so-called cacouacs were the top scholars of their time who are now regularly taught in our universities: John Locke, the founder of modern democracies, Voltaire, the extremely important social philosopher, and, of course, Denis Diderot, the inventor of the Encyclopedia.

John Locke

What were these “liars” about, and what was so upsetting that they received widespread condemnation? First, there was the fear that if the Bible was questioned, society would collapse into chaos. Though the Bible is actually full of immoral acts, the common feeling was that without the Bible there would be no moral order.

Another matter was God. The “cacouacs” accepted that the laws of nature suggested there was no deity who intervened in history. These “liars” were smart enough to know that they did not know all the answers, but they did know there was no God who lived upstairs. At best, God created natural laws and then let nature unfold on its own. This idea threatened the authority of both monarchs and bishops, who benefited from the belief that God had set them on their thrones.

A third factor involved the insight that the earth was older than six thousand years, a remarkable perception that generated the first ideas of evolution on this planet. Darwin was not yet around, but the “liars” got the basic notion of evolution right. Their science gave them elementary guesses at the age of the earth, which they thought to be about one hundred thousand years old (the middle range of Buffon’s estimate in the 1770s). They were a little off, of course, but this initial speculation supported the idea of gradual evolution over an extended time. This concept meant that humans were not created in the image of God; they were creatures of the earth. Without special divine status, human beings had to learn humility, but, as we know, humility is not a popular sentiment.

The great philosophers were taunted as atheists, condemned as idol worshippers, ridiculed as nature lovers, and rejected as frauds. There were calls to “lock them up” to save society from their deceptions. People like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot were either imprisoned or ran for their lives—or both. Though they spoke the truth as they knew it, they were still dismissed as idiots who did not know what they were talking about. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Sometimes it seems as if we are reliving the Enlightenment and that perhaps there is little hope for humanity to ever change. How many times can we go down the same road of resisting, and then fighting against, our own future? Yet there is good news here.

It is very likely that people who read this blog have heard about Voltaire, John Locke, and maybe Denis Diderot. The most notorious person who mocked these great figures and called them liars was Élie Fréron, but who has ever heard of him? Today, you can easily buy a book of Voltaire’s translated into English and delivered to your door in a few days or less. You will not find a translation of Fréron, and when professors of history talk about the real “liars” of the past, Fréron heads that list.

People who resist knowledge, who cannot stomach discomfort, who turn their backs on insight, and who turn away from the struggle for truth are also the people who are recalled with scorn or forgotten all together. That may not sound like a statement of hope, but, in our present troubled times in which hatred often reigns over truth, there is some comfort in imagining that a hundred years from now people will recall the best and not the worst of us.

Try to be counted among the best.

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