How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?
Links: Imagining Other Index page
Week 1 – Introduction.
Summary of Contents: Bookmark link:
1. Definition of “The Enlightenment” and its importance #Definition
2. What kind of movement was it? #Nature of the Enlightenment
3. Criticisms from different points of view (liberal, religious, conservative, feminist, romantic, ecological, postmodernist). #Criticising or rejecting
4. References #References
5. Book reviews: The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters by Anthony Pagden – review by Stuart Kelly,
The Crisis of the European Mind 1680-1715, Paul Hazard #Reviews
Other Bookmarked topics:
Enlightenment is the name given (by itself) to the new way of thinking that arose in the Eighteenth century, in
(2006) [references are at section 4
below] is more specific about the time period: the ‘great upheaval that
took place in the three-quarters of a century prior to 1789’. O’Hara puts the
‘starting date’ as 1688 (the Glorious Revolution in
Within these dates falls the period known in Britain as ‘Georgian’ (or Hanoverian) which commenced in 1714 with George I (and lasted until 1830 with George IV) – there was an exhibition at the British Library in 2013 marking three hundred years since the Georgian era began: Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain. Amanda Vickery’s review (Observer 26.10.13) sketches the different views of the period that have been dominant at different times since:
- ‘Older histories saw this as an epoch of toff rule, which was a good thing for Protestant English liberties.
- Lewis Namier ‘concluded that high-minded rhetoric was a mask for selfish local interests and grubby manoeuvring’ and E.P. Thompson ‘agreed with him, and conjured up a pitiless elite of aristocratic whigs... all [customs, conventions, rituals religion etc] was a performance calculated to overawe the poor and extract deference’
- Social history meant that there was more emphasis on the ‘emotional and psychological disorder’ that seethed ‘beneath the perfectly powdered wig’ (Roy Porter) and there was a ‘roiling landscape of new ideas and opportunities’
- In the 19890s the power of the conservative establishment was stressed: ‘The Georgians were not all freewheeling libertines or enlightened sceptics. After all, the most published genre of the age was the sermon.’
The exhibition, says Vickery, ‘confirms the polite and commercial road to modernity story.’
It was “characterized by the emphasis on experience and reason, mistrust of religion and traditional authority, and a gradual emergence of the ideals of liberal, secular, democratic societies” (Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1996).
As O’Hara (2010) puts it: the Enlightenment was a move towards liberation from authority – to search for intellectual freedom (and not to do this would be lazy, cowardly): as the enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) argues - we have an individual core which should dare to know, argue and find out.
See Week 6 on Kant’s ethics. There are two qualifications that need to be made when we look more closely at Kant:
1. we cannot fully know the physical world, as its nature is different to our own (physical vs. mental) – we are, however, morally free as creators of ourselves (in the words of Lesley Chamberlain, New Statesman 3rd Jan 2011, reviewing a book on Freud by Alfred J Taubler).
2. the freedom to reason for oneself was restricted: we have roles to play in society, and in these roles we should not question or be critical. Kant’s example is that a clergyman must deliver orthodox sermons (since he is answerable to the church to which he belongs, and should not criticise its beliefs if he remains a member), but also as scholar he must use his reason to test and question the orthodoxy…
For me, the Enlightenment is characterised by the adoption of a set of (‘modern’) values:
reason - based on experience and experiment
a belief in progress
confidence in human powers.
We will explore these values next week, but it is worth noting that the word ‘modern’ implies a break with values of a previous age – usually these are seen as religious, conservative, deferential to authority (of the church and in society), and can perhaps be summarised by the word ‘feudal’. People belonged to social orders, and families/communities, and did not see themselves as ‘individuals’ in the way we do in the ‘modern’ era. Again, some (on the conservative right mainly), would argue that we have gone too far in abandoning these pre-modern values...
Todorov adds that these values were held to be ‘universal’ – that is, they apply universally, to everyone – since every individual has the ability to reason, and should have the freedom to pursue their own reasoning. The whole idea (sometimes attacked today… see #footnote) of ‘universal human rights’ starts here!!
these values are still being discussed today – for example the opening ceremony
of the Paralympics was called ‘enlightenment’ (and see Paul Nurse’s comments in
The Observer 02.09.12...). Some would say that recent (right-wing) movements
are trying to reverse the changes brought about by the Enlightenment. Thus Will
Hutton (Observer 08.01.12) – argues that the political right wing has abandoned
enlightenment values of progress, tolerance, reason and democratic values...
e.g. Rick Santorum, voted for by Iowa Republicans, is anti-abortion, anti-same
sex marriage, ferociously nationalistic, and socially conservative ‘all excused
by a twisted understanding of Christianity’... Tolerance is dismissed as an
indulgence and a lack of moral standards (or equated with relativism); progress
is suspected as a way of bringing social engineering, more state power, and
featherbedding of the feckless poor; reason too often identifies ‘problems’
that require collective action, increasing the dread power of the state; and
democracy means respecting opponents whose views you consider obnoxious – so
away with the whole damn thought system!
We are then (whether ‘for’ or ‘against’!), inheritors of the Eighteenth Century European Enlightenment, and (Todorov, 2006 p 2) ‘it is … responsible for our present identity.’ He also says (p 151) that it is ‘the vocation of our species: to pick up the task of enlightenment with each new day, knowing that it is interminable.’ In other words, the search to apply these values to society is an ongoing one.
This is similar to a point made at the time by Kant in his 1784 essay: Was ist Aufklärung? He said the ‘enlightenment’ was: ‘mankind’s final coming of age’ – his ‘release from his self-incurred tutelage’ [Outram 2005 has ‘immaturity’], his emancipation from ignorance, superstition and error. Sapere aude (from Horace): dare to know, was Kant’s statement of the motto of the Enlightenment. However, in answer to the question from a contemporary ‘do we live in an enlightened age?’ Kant said ‘No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.’
Its aim can be stated as: to create new forms of knowledge to meet the needs of a new world (Preliminary Discourse - preface - to the Encylopédie) (Porter 2001 Intro). The Goal: a science of man (chapter heading in Porter).
intellectuals of the Enlightenment (particularly those in
The Encyclopédie was (says O’Hara, 2010 p 18 ff) the ‘quintessence of enlightenment’. Knowledge was regarded as a public good, not a private possession. Diderot and d’Alembert were mainly in charge of this enormous undertaking: it first appeared in 1751, and ran to 20 volumes over the next 20 years (with a further 10 volumes of plates), written by a team of writers. It included articles on arts and crafts, science and technology, industry and agriculture, as well as philosophy etc. It was read by an educated elite – from the ‘upper professional classes’ members of the literary academies and learned societies that were popular at the time. (Porter p 43).
Clearly, the enlightenment thinkers believed in the central importance of ideas – and some define the period as starting with the German philosopher G.W. Leibniz (1646 – 1716) and ending with Kant (* see above) - and the main focus of this course will be to study and discuss these ideas. But of course ideas do not appear in a vacuum, and note must be made of relevant aspects of the social, political and historical context…
Initially we need to note that the Enlightenment represents a part of a significant historical change:
We need to recognise the differences between the pre-Enlightenment world and the ‘modern’ world – though the beginnings of the latter are to be found in the 16th and 17th centuries (Renaissance, reformation, beginnings of science – see pp6luthercalvinandthereformation.htm, pp7machiavelli.htm.)
The pre-Enlightenment period (the ‘middle ages’, medieval world, feudalism) was much more bound by tradition and religion: everyone belonged to (because they were born into) a part of the social order, with clear responsibilities and rights; and this order was seen as ordained by God. Answers to any questions, about the meaning or purpose of life, the nature of the universe, what was right and wrong, were sought in the Bible and the teachings of the Church.
This (medieval) way of thinking – which lasted for one and a half millennia! – was eventually replaced by a world which was based on values and beliefs we would recognise as part of our own world:
2.1 Recent differences over the definition and/or the significance of the enlightenment:
Although there seems to be widespread agreement now that the values identified above are good and right, there has been – and still is – debate over their meaning. Dan Hind in a book called ‘The Assault on Reason’ argues that Enlightenment ideas have been ‘hijacked’ (and over-simplified?) by such as Christopher Hitchens (in ‘God is Dead’). The way Hitchens and others use what they call ‘reason’ to attack religion is not necessarily the same as what such Enlightenment figures as Bacon and Kant meant when they used the word. We need, he argues, to go back to the original thinkers.
Gertrude Himmelfarb (2008) makes a number of useful points in the ‘Prologue’ to her book ‘The Roads to Modernity’:
- first, that there were several different enlightenments: the British, French and American; also that there has been (as she sees it) a tendency for the French to ‘dominate and usurp’ it. (However, see O’Hara)
- she re-asserts the importance of its central values – reason, rights, liberty, equality, science and progress, My own approach
- second, whilst everyone deals with the ‘Enlightenment values’ listed above, she says that there is one that is usually missing, and it is what the British (especially the Scottish) enlightenment thinkers were more concerned with: the ‘social virtues’. I like this argument, since I believe that Adam Smith and the Scottish ‘moral philosophers’ should be better known. I especially identify with Smith’s idea that we all have a ‘natural sympathy’ with each other, which is the basis of our ‘moral sentiment’ (an innate feeling for what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’). As can be seen elsewhere in this website, I like the radical ideas of such as Adam Smith (on ethics – though not on economics!), William Blake, the anarchist Godwin, and Rousseau. These thinkers all believed that we must be free to imagine (and feel) differently in order to change the world and work together in freedom and equality, and I am wary of the conservative rejection of the radical aspects of the Enlightenment.
- thirdly, she puts the enlightenment in the context of modern (and postmodern) thinking: the enlightenment (everyone agrees) marks the beginnings of ‘modernity’ – and because recent (and especially postmodern) thinking has either ‘decried’ or even ‘denied’ the enlightenment (and ‘modernity’) - seeing it, for example, as ‘the embodiment of Western cultural imperialism’ - she sets out to reclaim it. As we shall explore over the next weeks:
- for conservatives, the rejection of tradition in the name of ‘reason and progress’ caused bloody revolutions;
- for socialists, ‘modernity’ is a cover for colonial exploitation;
- for environmentalists the reductionist use of science is destroying the environment.
Todorov’s (2006) book is entitled In Defence [my emphasis] of the Enlightenment – though his arguments are not the same as Himmelfarb’s.
Note also that there were important changes in the arts (see week 10):
In poetry, the writing of Donne, Henry Vaughan (dense, metaphorical) was replaced by such as Pope, Dryden (poetry is ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’), with the emphasis on human matters, and wit.
The music of Byrd, Palestrina (complex polyphony) was replaced by that of Bach, Handel (lighter textures, more joyous). (Note from O’Hara 2010).
2.2 How unified?
Peter Gay (1960) The Enlightenment: An Interpretation saw the different figures as part of one movement, one ‘party of humanity’.
But Porter says there was not ‘an’ Enlightenment? (See also O’Hara chapter 3: Enlightenments?) We have already noted different national attitudes to enlightenment, also differences within the movement, such as Rousseau’s disagreement with the others (especially on ‘reason’ when it was equated with atheism/materialism by such as Voltaire and d’Holbach). Rousseau also asked whether civilisation was really making progress? Wasn’t the ‘natural’ world of ‘uncivilised’ people preferable to the greed and hypocrisy of the bourgeois in the 18th century? Is ‘reason’ superior to ‘feelings’? What about tradition?
Outram (2205) also points out that there were differences among Enlightenment thinkers as to the what was meant by ‘enlightenment’ - for example Moses Mendelssohn (1729 – 86) saw it as an uncompleted process of education which would spread to everyone, and he supported the movement for ‘popular philosophy’ which would ‘spread Enlightenment ideas among lower social classes.’ As will also be mentioned below, better-known figures such as Kant were more elitist in their outlook.
A recent book by Anthony Pagden (‘The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters’) seems to argue that there was nevertheless one Enlightenment, characterised by scepticism, by an ideal of universalism – sometimes referred to as cosmopolitanism both here and in the period (the idea that we are "citizens of the world") – and by scientism: the view that universal human nature can be predictably and reliably analysed by philosophy’ (from Stuart Kelly’s review which can be found at the end of these notes – a useful read, as it mentions many thinkers and writers to be covered here, and some that won’t be!). Kelly argues (and I would agree) that this glosses over important differences between various Enlightenment thinkers. .
Clearly ‘the Enlightenment’ had no programme, no constitution etc and it was rather amorphous and diverse (was it a social movement then? See my notes at Introduction to social movements). (Porter Ch 6 discusses the variety of voices within the enlightenment.)
2.3 An elite or a mass movement?
(2010) suggests (p13) that it was very much a top-down movement: even Condorcet, while recognizing that
atrocious things had been done during colonization, hoped that ‘the European population in [
Other questions have been raised since: was it an elite movement (if we look at the leading figures) – or was there a more popular version (i.e. ‘the common coinage of fashionable polite society’ see Porter). Hence the question: how much the movement changed the ancien régime? Did the establishment become enlightened, or did the enlightenment become established?
It is worth
noting that society in 18th century England and France was
characterised by inequality, with different ‘ranks’ and a lot of poverty. For a
flavour of this in a novel based on life in 18th century
Similar: was it a militant tendency, or a broader ideology or mentalité (a way of thinking, state of mind, an outlook)? (Porter Ch. 6, 7).
O’Hara, on the other hand, also says that this coming together of ‘people with no official status… to talk of public affairs’ was a new phenomenon, marking the creation of what we now call ‘public opinion’ (or public space, or the public sphere, civic society etc – even the big society??); and ‘The importance of public opinion both for democracy and for fostering the revolutionary forces of the age cannot be overstated.’ (p15)
2.4 How critical and radical?
How critical was it really? Note the 18th century context/reality: empire, industrialisation, class and social stratification. See O’Hara ch 6.
As Porter (2001) puts it: the Enlightenment ‘had its dark side… often supporting absolutism and holding the masses in contempt.’
the relationship to power (of the philosophes)
and points out that none were activists or politicians (except Edward Gibbon,
MP, who never made a speech!). Although Voltaire corresponded regularly with
Frederick II (The Great) of
O’Hara, however, says that the Enlightenment changed politics in a number of ways – it was a counterweight to the decisions or debates at court, and it put forward the interests of a wider (bourgeois – not the ‘rabble’ but not yet the general public either) class of people. Ruling classes came under attack for ‘rent-seeking’ (depriving the public of money by funding wars, raising tariffs etc).
2.5 effects and overall assessment:
Some even claim that the appeals to reason led to rulers increasing their power at the expense of the poor etc. Quesnay and Mirabeau (physiocrats) argued for free trade, but result was merchants profited, and the poor suffered. Did the attack on religion lead to the moral nihilism of the French Revolutionary Terror?
(Porter) But few now would say this was unambiguously a decisive stage in human improvement, and it would be ‘folly’ to see it as a perfect programme for human progress.
more information on the modern Muslim woman: ‘Generation M: Young Muslims
Changing the World’, by Shelina Janmohamed, IB Taurus 2016. (Guardian Journal
Note that whilst most of these points have been made since the time, some – especially Rousseau – raised them during the 18th century.
a. A recent (liberal?) opinion: Roy Porter (2001) says it ‘had its dark side… often supporting absolutism and holding the masses in contempt.’ How progressive was it, how elitist?
b. A religious objection: the rejection of religion has produced materialism, and hence greed and selfishness.
c. A conservative objection: the values of tradition and community have been destroyed; the emphasis on individual freedom, revolution, and abstract ‘rights’ has in practice led to dictatorship (fascist or communist).
d. A socialist objection: the real driving force was the accumulation of wealth by the ruling classes, and the Enlightenment ideas only benefited them, at the expense of workers, and people in developing countries.
feminist objection: it only benefited men. The ‘universal values’ it professed
were not universal but ‘patriarchal’. I like also the philosopher Mary
Midgley’s view, in a letter to the Guardian
f. A romantic objection: everything has been subjected to a ‘mechanical’, scientific point of view, which has taken the mystery and beauty out of society. Is ‘reason’ superior to ‘feelings’?
g. An ecological objection: the belief in unlimited progress, together with a blind faith in science, has led to the brink of destroying the natural environment.
h. A postmodernist view: the ‘universal’ values that it espoused were a cover for the exploitation of the non-European world by the ‘developed’ world. These values may be ‘ours’ but we have no right to impose them on others – they are not universal as other cultures are based on other (equally defensible) values. (Compare Rousseau and the ‘noble savage’ idea).
(See also John Gray’s review of Joanna Bourke: What it means to be Human: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/26/what-it-means-human-review)
These ideas will be explored in the next section - Introduction part 2.
Gertrude (2008): The Roads to Modernity, Vintage Books,
Kieron (2010): The Enlightenment, Oneworld Publications,
Outram, Dorinda (2nd edition 2005): The Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press.
Tzvetan (2006): In Defence of the Enlightenment,
This study of a game-changing era is big but not deep
In 1783, Johann Friedrich Zöllner, a theologian, posed a question that we are in some ways no nearer to answering. "What", he asked in a footnote to an essay on civil marriages, "is enlightenment?" Should we be discussing "the" Enlightenment, as if it were a singular phenomenon, or "enlightenments"? If there are plural schools of thought, to what extent are they nationalistically inflected? What unites and what divides the French Enlightenment of Voltaire, d'Alembert, Diderot, Condorcet, Montesquieu and De Tocqueville from the Scottish Enlightenment of Hume, Smith, Kames, Ferguson, Robertson and Hutcheson, from the German Aufklärung, dominated by Kant, but also including Goethe, Stäudlin, Leibniz, Humboldt and Lichtenberg? Was there an English Enlightenment, a tradition of rationalism stretching from Bacon and Hobbes to Locke and Shaftesbury and eventually Paine and Wollstonecraft? And even if we admit to several concurrent lines of thoughts in different countries, how do we account for the vast contradictions within them – is there common ground between, say, Rousseau and La Mettrie?
Anthony Pagden is very much of the camp that believes an "Enlightenment", across several countries and with broad similarities of purpose and method, did indeed occur. His is the Enlightenment of the "long 18th century". It is typified by scepticism, by an ideal of universalism – sometimes referred to as cosmopolitanism both here and in the period (the idea that we are "citizens of the world") – and by scientism: the view that universal human nature can be analysed by philosophy with the same precision and predictability as billiard balls ricocheting around the baize is by Newtonian mechanics. In addition to these broad and contradictory areas of similarity, Pagden also identifies an increasing trend towards what was then called "freethinking" and is now called atheism. From Hobbes reading the Bible with critical analysis (how could Moses be the author of the Pentateuch if it recounts the death of Moses?) to Baron d'Holbach's Critical History of Jesus Christ, which identified the vicious circle of naive theology (how do we know the Bible is true? Because the Bible, at II Timothy 3:16 says all scripture is God-breathed), there was a perceptible burgeoning of distrust in religion, or at least conventional religious authority.
Pagden does highlight that it is naïve to conflate the Enlightenment with rationalism, citing Hume's idea that "reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions", and paying due attention to the contemporaneous cult of sensibility and concept of sociability. But Pagden's selections from writers of the period are markedly partial. Take scientism: it is understandable that Edmund Burke is presented in a slightly villainous light here, but he wrote the following in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs: "No universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral or political subject. Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters. The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications." This requires at least a counterargument, especially since a similar position about the difference between geometry and philosophy can be found in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Other branches of the Enlightenment were clearly not of the universalising tendency: although Pagden is good on how both China and Tahiti were figured in Enlightenment taxonomies (in fact, it is the best part of the book), he barely mentions, for example, Adam Ferguson's less optimistic investigations into international rivalry as a check on universal despotism. Of course, it is possible to depict the Enlightenment as being inherently sceptical, but only at the expense of ignoring the whole of Kant's project: that which "roused him from his dogmatic slumbers" was an attempt to find a solution to Hume's scepticism. Equally, the Enlightenment can be typified as a predominantly secularising phenomenon as long as one omits the theism of Kant, Voltaire, Priestley, Hutcheson and Berkeley as well as the more typically theological writers such as Joseph Butler, Alexander Geddes and Moses Mendelssohn.
Pagden's 18th century is long: just not long enough. To assert, as he does, that "the entire Enlightenment ambition" was "to create a historically grounded human science which would one day lead to the creation of a universal civilisation capable of making all individuals independent, autonomous, freed of dictates from above and below, self-knowing and dependent solely on each other for survival" without referencing Marx is to write the history of ideas without ideas or history. He makes much of the various pamphlets on universal peace – Kant's "Toward Perpetual Peace" but also the work of William Penn, Pierre-André Gargaz, Jeremy Bentham and Charles-Irénée Castel – without acknowledging that what did preserve the peace in post-Napoleonic Europe was the far less philosophical, far grubbier and far more pragmatic Congress system.
The final chapter is on the "enemies" of Enlightenment, and continues the polemic first raised in Pagden's equally broad-brush book Worlds At War: The 2,500 Year Struggle Between East and West. He ends with a bizarre counterfactual on the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment never happening, whereby Sultan Selim III of the Ottoman empire marches into Paris in 1789. The chief enemy of Enlightenment here is the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, and it is curious that so little attention is paid to non-Anglophone critiques of Enlightenment: there are a few glancing references to Lyotard and Foucault, but nothing on Derrida, Ricoeur, Stirner, Deleuze or Virilio. It's worth remembering that MacIntyre's work in After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? is driven in part by exposing the internal contradictions of Enlightenment moral philosophy. If we take the Kantian categorical imperative seriously – that there could be a moral code binding across space, time, agent and circumstance – then we will have to deal, eventually, with the "Anne Frank dilemma". If, as it is according to Kant, lying is always and absolutely a moral wrong, what do you say to the Gestapo?
This is a big but not a deep book. Compared to the affability, the clubbable nature of many of the thinkers it describes, it is strident, partisan and always willing to overlook a fact in favour of a thesis. Pagden asserts that the Enlightenment matters because it has given rise to international law, "global justice" and human rights legislation, while admitting that we see these at the moment but through a glass darkly. Would this be the international law that prosecutes some war criminals but not others; the "global justice" that applies to Kentucky but not Kandahar; the human rights that are suspended whenever enduring freedom needs a little quiet shock and awe? That Pagden does not mention Toussaint Louverture at all means an important vector in thinking about race, Enlightenment and a queasy sense of European presumed superiority is absent.
Nevertheless there was one moment when the book made me laugh out loud. Pagden quotes Adam Smith on the occupation of Edinburgh by the Jacobites – "four or five thousand naked Highlanders". He glosses this, in parentheses, with "the Highlanders were famous for running into battle dressed only in their shirts", which conjures a vision of a platoon of Wee Willie Winkies. If I were being generous, I would consider this a spellchecking error and assume that Pagden means "skirts", having shied away from the word "kilts" – except that a horde of bellicose Highlanders sprinting topless seems rather unlikely, too.
This article was published on the Guardian website at 12.19 BST on Wednesday 24 July 2013. A version appeared on p8 of the Guardian review section of the Guardian on Saturday 27 July 2013. It was last modified at 00.00 BST on Saturday 27 July 2013.
Here is another review of Pagden’s book, (comparing it with the ‘classic’ book by Paul Hazard) by John Gray, from the New Statesman, 22nd June 2013.:
At the end I make some comments of my own...
Sins of omission and myths of the Enlightenment.
Enlightenment: and Why It Still Matters
Oxford University Press, 501pp, £29
Crisis of the European Mind 1680-1715
NYRB Classics, 481pp, £12.99
If debating the Enlightenment has become tedious, one reason is that it has produced so many exercises in what old-fashioned religious believers still describe as apologetics – the defence of a pre-existing system of belief. Some of the many recent defences of the Enlightenment are better argued than others. What all of them have in common is that they aim to silence any doubt as to the truth of the creed. Mixing large doses of soothing moral uplift with hectoring attacks on those who wilfully turn their backs on the light, these secular sermons lack the flashes of humour and scepticism that redeem more traditional types of preaching.
Adamant certainty is the unvarying tone. Yet beneath the insistent didacticism of these apologists there is more than a hint of panic that the world has not yet accepted the rationalist verities that have been so often preached before. If the Enlightenment really does embody humanity’s most essential hopes, why do so many human beings persistently refuse to sign up to it?
The latest contribution to Enlightenment apologetics begins with some reasonable caveats. The intellectual shift generally described as the Enlightenment, Anthony Pagden notes, was no more “a single, coherent movement any more than any other transformative movement in history”. It is a mistake to suppose that the “philosophers, essayists, historians, novelists, playwrights, poets” promoted a single view of things. “No such heterogeneous group could ever be expected to agree upon everything, to speak with the same voice, or even to share a common intellectual stance.”
As Pagden writes, some historians of ideas have gone further, suggesting that we should stop referring to “the Enlightenment” and instead talk only of “Enlightenments”.
This could be a clarifying move. Why lump together thinkers and movements as different as Thomas Paine and David Hume, Jacobinism and liberalism into a single category? If we accepted that there were many Enlightenment traditions we could distinguish between those that were liberal and those that were not. We might even contemplate the possibility that some versions of Enlightenment thinking have been implicitly totalitarian.
For those who view Enlightenment thinking as always liberating this is an intolerable idea and Pagden is having none of it. If the Enlightenment has been implicated in modern crimes – imperialist and racist, Soviet and Nazi – that can only be because its values were misunderstood and misapplied, or else deliberately perverted. (note) Enlightenment thinkers, Pagden writes, “spoke in many different voices, wrote in many different languages, and used many different forms of expression, from poetry to biology. But for all that, and though not one of them ever used the world, they all contributed to a single ‘project’.” The unspoken implication is that this project has been and continues to be quintessentially benign.
It is easy to see that this is a fundamentalist (note) position. Evangelical Christians will look at you with blank disbelief if you suggest that Christian teachings played any part in the Inquisition, the early modern witch craze or later forms of persecution. “How could a religion of love,” they splutter, “possibly be responsible for such hateful crimes?” Similarly, today’s Enlightenment evangelists respond to the fact that some of the worst modern crimes have been committed by militant secular regimes with incredulity: “How could a philosophy of reason and humanity possibly be involved in anything so irrational and inhuman?”
These responses illustrate one of the central tenets of fundamentalism: the pristine creed is innocent of all evil. Any fact that runs counter to this conviction is screened out by what Karl Popper – one of the more interesting 20th-century Enlightenment thinkers, who along with Freud is absent from Pagden’s account – called a strategy of immunisation. Just as any Christian who participated in hate crimes can’t really be a Christian, anyone who took part in bloodthirsty political experiments such as Jacobinism and communism can’t really belong in the Enlightenment.
It is a childishly simple-minded evasion, but Padgen follows an immunising strategy of this kind throughout the book. Like many today he is a fierce critic of moral relativism and attributes its wide influence to the Romantic movement. Reading him, you would never know that one of the sources of modern moral relativism is in the writings on climate and cultural difference of Montesquieu (1689-1755), one of the formative Enlightenment thinkers. With its roots in ancient Greek scepticism and having 20thcentury exponents such as the sociologist Karl Mannheim, modern relativism is at least as much a child of the Enlightenment as it is of the Romantic Counter-Enlightenment.
In the same way, Pagden dismisses the argument of the Frankfurt School neo-Marxian philosophers and refugees from Nazism Marx Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno that Enlightenment thinking played a vital part in the development of “scientific racism” and “scientific socialism”. The Frankfurt critique may well be exaggerated. No chain of inexorable cause and effect links Enlightenment thinking with the defining 20thcentury atrocities. If the First World War had not all but destroyed European civilisation, if the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 had been less devoted to revenge and mutual recrimination or Lenin’s Bolsheviks defeated in the Russian civil war, neither the Holocaust nor the Gulag might have occurred. Even so, Horkheimer and Adorno were right in believing that the potential for such crimes was latent in powerful strands of Enlightenment thinking.
It is a demonstrable fact that the Nazis drew heavily on German biologists such as Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who promoted a distorted version of Darwinism to suggest that racial hierarchies were rooted in immutable biological differences. Certainly, the science Haeckel and others invoked was bogus. But it was widely accepted at the time and actively promoted by many who regarded themselves as developing an Enlightenment “science of humanity”. In England, the psychologist and eugenicist Francis Galton expounded similar theories of innate human inequality. When racial pseudo-science was rejected it was not as a result of any exercise in enlightened self-criticism but because the horrible consequences of such ideas were exposed after the military defeat of Nazism. “Scientific socialism” vanished not because the ideology was shown to be nonsense – which Bertrand Russell demonstrated in his neglected masterpiece The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920) – but only when the Soviet state collapsed, 70 years later.
A curious feature of Pagden’s book is that while it is full of hyperbolic claims about the positive role of the Enlightenment in the world today, his account of the movement stops short around the end of the 18th century. Aside from a polemical introduction and conclusion, the eight chapters of this book of over 500 pages deal almost exclusively with thinkers of the 16th to 18th centuries, who are given credit for the emergence of institutions that emerged centuries later, such as the United Nations and a “united states of Europe”, which Pagden tell us sagely has “come close to being (almost) a reality”. To be sure, he is aware that we are still far from realising Enlightenment ideals. But if the modern age has been something of a mixed bag – as even he must admit – he is convinced it can only be because the lessons of the great Enlightenment thinkers have not been properly applied.
You will learn nothing from him of Kant’s racist references (note) to Africans and Jewish religion, or Voltaire’s endorsement of the “pre-Adamite” theory of human origins according to which earlier, more primitive anthropoid species survive as Jews, “negroes” and other inferior human types.
Pagden’s Enlightenment seems to have come into the world through a rationalist version of the Virgin Birth: owing nothing whatever to western monotheism, it marks a rupture in human history. In reality, some of the most influential strands of Enlightenment thinking were inheritances from religion. Pagden devotes considerable space to the thought of John Locke, whom he rightly regards as a formative Enlightenment thinker, without ever considering Locke’s debts to Christianity.
At almost every important point in his political theory, Locke relied on beliefs and assumptions taken from medieval Christian doctrine. (note) His arguments for religious freedom in his A Letter Concerning Toleration are nearly all theological and biblical. If you wrench Locke’s liberal philosophy out of this religious context, it becomes virtually incomprehensible. Since these facts do not fit with a simplistic view of the Enlightenment as being intrinsically hostile to religion, Pagden does not mention them. Carl Becker’s seminal The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932), which traces the dependency of Enlightenment thinking on Christianity, is ignored for the same reason.
Perhaps this is not at bottom a book about the Enlightenment at all. Padgen praises Montesquieu for maintaining against other Enlightenment thinkers that “what was truly significant about China was not its illusory stability but its immobility”, and for all his talk of universal sympathy, an undertone of contempt for non-western cultures runs through the book. What we owe to the Enlightenment, he writes, is not only “the science of human understanding” but “the ways in which we all, in the west, live our political and social lives”. It is a telling formulation of the book’s message. At a time when Europe has achieved the feat of combining immobility with near-collapse, while unprecedented numbers of Americans languish in debt and poverty, it is also strikingly absurd. In the world’s fast-developing countries, there are very few who any longer think of looking to the west for a model of society. If Pagden is presenting an argument for western supremacy, no one is listening.
It is refreshing to turn to a genuine work of intellectual history that is back in print in a new edition published by New York Review Books. First published in France in 1935 and in Britain in 1953, The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715 by the French intellectual historian Paul Hazard (1878-1944) has been justly celebrated for its beautifully written and arrestingly vivid portraits of Europe’s leading thinkers around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Hazard shows how the Enlightenment did not come out of nowhere, but continued earlier traditions of thought –not least Pyrrhonism (the most radical form of classical Greek scepticism), which was revived in early modern times by thinkers such as the Protestant Pierre Bayle (1647-1706). Where Pagden struggles to represent Bayle as a prototype of an all-too-familiar kind of secular humanist, Hazard focuses on Bayle’s intellectual dynamism and inner conflicts, asking: “Did he reach the point of absolute scepticism? He would have done had he suffered his mind to follow its natural bent.” Unlike Pagden, Hazard understood that actual human beings – including Enlightenment thinkers – have little in common with the abstractions of Enlightenment philosophy. (note)
If you want to understand the Enlightenment in its complexity and contradictions, read Paul Hazard’s stylish classic. If you are looking for an intellectual sedative, a prophylactic against sceptical doubt and moral panic, you will be happier plodding your way through Pagden’s tract. There is clearly a niche in the market for books offering comfort and reassurance to troubled Enlightenment fundamentalists, and Pagden’s book is well placed to fill it.
John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His most recent book, “The Silence of Animals: on progress and other modern myths” is published by Allen Lane (£18.99).
on John Locke and religion p.80
on totalitarianism: Pagden argues that the emphasis on ‘reason’ that some drew out as the main part of enlightenment thinking actually misses the many writers who believed in ‘sympathy’ – why does Gray not mention this argument at all? It seems to me to be the most importatn point in the book!
On ‘actual human beings’ – this is surely the point of the discussion of ‘sympathy’...
On Kant and racism see:
p 137 he writes of the racism shown by Kant’s correspondent Blumenbach...
p 140.... ‘The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that arises above the ridiculous’... and no blacks, even when freed from the deleterious efects of the African climate has ever achieved anything... and p 178 Kant ‘excoriated the Africans and had only amused disdain for the Japanese and Chinese’ but he also said the best kind of ‘savages’ were the north American (Indians/natives) ‘the kind of men to whom Lycurgus gave laws’...
p 325 – where he has said that Herder’s racism was based on a view that whilst there were significant differences between races, this did not matter – and he contrasts Kant ‘and ‘subsequently all the racial theorists of the nineteenth century’ who saw physical differences as ‘the distinguishing features of individual races.’
p 332 points out that Kant thought it impossible to have a mixing of ‘patrie’ and humanity – i.e. a mixing of diverse peoples.
On fundamentalism: the book concludes with the argument that today we are more ‘cosmopolitan’ than we used to be, and this is derived from enlightenment thinkers. How is this ‘fundamentalist’? (see also note on racism...) Pagden does consider other points of view... If the problem is that he won’t concede he might be wrong on the essential nature of enlightenment thinking, viz: humanism, the beginnings of ‘human science’, the importance of sympathy and reciprocity as leading to civilisation and cosmpolitanism... why should he concede? What would be left if he did? (What does John Gray believe???)
Is it significant that Gray makes no mention of the discussion of stoicism vs epicureanism in the early sections of the book?
p 321 discussion of whether it is possible to detach reason from custom and habit is surely relevant also
May 2016: Anthony Lester wrote a powerful piece: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/16/human-rights-abuse-of-power-conservatives-bill-of-rights
“If the UK were to leave the EU after next month’s referendum it would remove crucial rights protection enshrined in EU law, but our fundamental rights would still be protected by the convention – the jewel in the crown of the 47-nation Council of Europe, often confused with the EU.
Fifty years ago, our judges
were executive-minded, interpreting acts of parliament narrowly. Discrimination
was prevalent and not unlawful. There was no positive right to free speech or
respect for privacy. Excessive official secrecy was deep-rooted in
For want of remedies at
home, vulnerable minorities needed the convention and
Our own courts could not
give remedies, until at last, in 1998, the Human Rights Act was
passed. This enables everyone to bring complaints of
March 2008: (28th) The West’s double standards on democracy: Kishore Mahbubani (author of The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, G 280308, following up foreign secretary David Miliband’s speech last month):
Three flaws in western discourse on world affairs:
1. inability to practise what it preaches, and to speak truth to power – no government has criticised Guantanamo, but Miliband praises those who stand up to the military in Burma; US citizens are losing their civil rights – Patriot Act… shows US behave just like others in repressing its people when it feels threatened
2. double standards in promoting democracy: no criticism of
3. when faced with choice between doing good and feeling
good West chooses latter: boycott and sanctions on
All this is very similar to Noam Chomsky’s points in Hegemony or Survival…
May 2006: The Human Rights Act (1998):
Marcel Berlins points out (May 16th, Guardian) that the Act is increasingly being blamed for things that have nothing to do with it. For example, Anthony Rice was a rapist, released on licence, and who nine months later killed a woman. The mistake was that he was let out – nothing to do with the Human Rights Act; he wasn’t properly supervised once released – again nothing to do with the Act; the conditions of his release were criticised for paying too much attention to his rights, but this was not the central problem: he shouldn’t have been released, and should have been properly supervised!
Sometimes the Act does seem to conflict with public safety, e.g. over the non-return of Afghan hijackers to a country where they would be tortured or killed: but it also seems wrong to allow them to stay here after committing “an appalling criminal act.”
Blair was wrong,
Berlins also takes issue with the idea of withdrawing from the Human Rights Act: we could only do this by withdrawing from Europe altogether!