The Enlightenment

The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment

by Peter Gay
Knopf, 238 pp., $6.95

Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, they have been so easy to discredit! Hitler, Hiroshima, the gas ovens, nationalism, tyrannies, and revolutions of this, our century, mock the claims of Reason. How much saner seem those philosophers who concern themselves with the irrational, with man’s violence and greed, and put their trust in the wisdom, charity, and mysterious purposes of God. And yet this century, which has seen such a flight from any faith in the rational by its political philosophers, has been the one century above all others that has witnessed a vast extension of the control of our environment by the use and application of the mind. We have been belittled by our men of letters for too long. The time is ripe for a new Enlightenment, for a return to that qualified confidence, which Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot all shared; a hope, rather than a belief, in man’s capacity to secure social and political forms more in accordance with the dictates of his intelligence. Perhaps so cautious a statement over-emphasizes both the philosophes’ optimism and their belief in Reason, for as Peter Gay reminds us in this brilliant, absorbing, and original collection of essays, some of them were not so blindly optimistic, so Reason-addicted, so committed to the doctrine of Progress, as historians, philosophers, and textbook writers have recently maintained. Every one of them, even Condorcet, the Apostle of Progress if there was one, was conscious of the bestial side of man’s nature and the intolerable shortcomings of his earthly condition. Peter Gay draws attention to a passage in Condorcet which illustrates, it seems to me, the intellectual attitude not only of the Enlightenment but of that party of humanist intellectuals who have been struggling ever since to ameliorate man’s condition, yet whose voice, this last hundred years, has been rarely heard at the centers of power.

…civilization occupies only a small part of the globe [and the] number of those who are really civilized disappears before the mass of men delivered over to prejudice and ignorance. We see vast countries groaning in slavery; in one place we see nations degraded by the vices of a civilization whose corruption impedes progress; in another, nations still vegetating in the infancy of its first epochs. We see that the labors of these last ages have done much for the human spirit, little for the perfection of the human species; much for the glory of man, something for his liberty, but as yet almost nothing for his happiness. In several places our eyes are struck by a dazzling light; but dark shadows still cover an immense horizon. The mind of the philosopher rests with satisfaction on a small number of objects; but the spectacle of stupidity, slavery, extravagance, barbarity, afflicts him still more often; and the friend of humanity can enjoy unmixed pleasure only by surrendering to the sweet hopes of the future.

True then; true now.

This brings one to the heart of Gay’s criticism of other …

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Letters

Enlightenment February 20, 1964