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“Why Did We Destroy Europe?” It’s an arresting title, chosen by Michael Polanyi for a 1970 essay that looks back on the conflagrations that consumed Europe between 1914 and 1945. (The essay can be found in Society, Economics & Philosophy, a posthumous volume of selected papers by Polanyi.) The short answer: “a fierce moral skepticism fired by moral indignation.”

The skepticism arises from the critical thrust of modern thought. Already in the seventeenth century, philosophers were judging inherited modes of thought and patterns of life to be irrational. Descartes compared the traditional knowledge of his time to a medieval town, with crooked lanes and houses built here and there without a coherent plan. Reform was impossible. Better to raze the town and start anew, this time in accord with reason.

Hostility to the status quo increased in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Rousseau regarded existing society as a vicious conspiracy against our humanity. Jeremy Bentham formulated the philosophy of utilitarianism, which finds wanting all existing laws, traditions, and mores. Everything must be demolished and rebuilt in accord with a single moral maxim, the greatest good for the greatest number.

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