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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 historians of the Enlightenment and also to his own attitude towards it. He is particularly concerned both to refute the charge of shallowness of mind and to extricate the philosophes from the brilliant absurdities of Carl Becker’s paradox. Becker, who influenced the American study of the Enlightenment more deeply than any other writer, maintained that the philosophes demolished the Heavenly City of St. Augustine only to rebuild a world of faith of their own—and a far more naive one because it was built on Reason, not on man’s sinful nature. Few in the light of Condorcet’s remarks could continue to charge the philosophes with naiveté, blind optimism, or even unawareness of the darker side of man’s nature.

They were, however, anti-Christian and that is why they have been so much despised and so easily rejected. They hated Christianity’s assumptions, loathed its superstitions, and denounced its acts. And if this now seems excessive, exaggerated, almost Quixotic, it is necessary sharply to remind ourselves of the vast change in the Christian attitude during the last two hundred years. Loss of power, loss of authority, loss of state support, together with the crumbling of belief which can be dated from the Enlightenment, has led the Christian churches back, except in Spain, to a toleration which they had cast aside from the moment they had ceased to be a subversive sect of the Roman world. In Voltaire’s day, a young Jewess was put to death merely for her religion, and, of course, in the name of God, by the Portuguese Inquisition; and Calas suffered his hideous fate for the sake of ecclesiastical authority. The days of the auto da fé, when the streets of Spanish towns reeked with the smell of the burning flesh of heretics, were still a living memory. And it needed an intellectual crusade, as varied and as brilliant as the Enlightenment, to dispel the black tyranny of the Christian churches; churches which hated man’s instincts and loathed the free enquiry of his mind. Diderot’s idyll of Tahitian sexual freedom, the education of Rousseau’s Emile, the amorality of Choderlos de Laclos, the exaggerated and perverted existentialism of Sade, are all as much attacks on the Christian’s attitude to man’s passionate life and as earnest in their purpose as the barbs of Voltaire in the Dictionnaire Philosophique. And, as Gay points out in passage after passage of brilliant analysis, this was the main social and intellectual purpose of these remarkable men of letters.

But, of course, they did not destroy merely for the sake of destruction. Naturally, Voltaire took a real pleasure in the savagery of his mockery, and neither Diderot nor Rousseau were short on spleen, but all the philosophers possessed a more serious purpose than derision. Indeed one of the most perceptive insights of this excellent book lies in Gay’s analysis of the positive content of the Enlightenment. Most historians are content to stress the philosophes’ addiction to Reason, to underline their belief that knowledge is power, and to smile patronizingly at their optimism. But what the philosophes wanted to teach lay deeper than this. They wished men to explore themselves and their societies with exact knowledge and in intellectual freedom, so that they might formulate a world nearer to their necessities. They never expected men to find this easy, or that it could be, perhaps, ever accomplished. Such an attitude was a way of thought, almost a way of life, and in the context of its time, it was as revolutionary as Newton’s universe—for it rejected, by definition, faith and hierarchy, political as well as religious, and embraced all mankind, poor and rich, black or white. And its difficulty can be measured by the slow, painfully slow, acceptance of this attitude.

And it is in this context that Gay’s long essay on Rousseau becomes so profound. He makes short work of Talmon, Babbitt, and others who discovered Rousseau to be either the prophet of romanticism or fascism, or both. He rightly sees Rousseau’s life and writing as a vast criticism of his age, and shows how his own riven and distracted nature compelled him to see with clarity the contradictions of human society. Deeply neurotic, he was acutely aware of the social neurosis that the growth of civilization must create for the human animal. His solutions may have been absurd and dangerous, but his diagnosis was as brilliant, as original, as it was true. Like Voltaire, or Diderot, Rousseau belonged essentially to the party of humanity.

Gay, therefore, impels us to reassess the philosophers of the Enlightenment and to realize the complexity of their thought. In order to correct the accepted view, he is, at times, in danger of turning them inside out. Time and time again he stresses the doubts they had of the efficacy of Reason, extolling Hume’s saying that Reason was, and ought to be, the slave of the passions. He hammers home the qualified nature of their optimism—illustrates the despair that was in all of them, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Gibbon, Diderot, D’Alembert, the lot. And at times we began to wonder how they got their reputations. This is necessary work, but, when Gay comes to write his survey of the Enlightenment, I hope that he will stress somewhat more two aspects of their lives and thought which gave them not only their peculiar distinction but also their continuing relevance. Although they were not particularly optimistic men, they were undoubtedly men of confidence and of hope. And that confidence and that hope were based, they thought, on the demonstrable capacities of man. Their age had witnessed small triumphs of science and technology and they reverenced those of a previous century. Like Francis Bacon before them, they knew that knowledge was growing and that in its growth was an irresistible quality of truth that neither superstition nor authority could confine. This made them irritable with the past, discontented with the present, and eager for the future. And it was their confidence, rooted in the nature of man as a thinking animal, that led them to be the objects of such vicious attacks. It was this that all that was despairing in Western society hated.

Yet important and original as these qualities were, their true significance perhaps lies elsewhere. They made the man of letters a moral force in society. They demanded freedom to think, write, and create. And they knew that this task required an uncompromising hostility to censorship, even though at times the exigencies of their world drove them to subterfuge. The intellectuals had escaped from the confines of ideology into a world of free comment. They made a religion of the mind, dedicated to the cause of humanity: they stood for liberty and happiness here on earth. They were, in Gay’s splendid phrase, the party of humanity.

Becker’s Heavenly City is in ruins and Gay’s standard flutters proudly from the ramparts. It will be a rare man who can hope to give him serious combat. He will need Gay’s formidable scholarship, his exceptional intelligence, his profound sense of human values, and a mastery of a prose style that combines clarity with persuasive grace. The Enlightenment has found a champion worthy of itself, a scholar conscious that the values for which it strove are the abiding values of human existence, and conscious, too, that the struggle continues. The forces of oppressive authority, in Church and State, still subdue and confound the human spirit; and the forces of dialogue, which the Enlightenment released, are still locked with them in an unequal struggle. They are, however, still heard: the voices persist.

I was not the one to invent the misery of the human being or the terrifying formulas of divine malediction. I was not the one to shout Nemo Bonus or the damnation of unbaptised children. I was not the one who said that man was incapable of saving himself by his own means and that in the depths of his degradation his only hope was in the grace of God.

No, not Voltaire, nor Diderot, but Albert Camus. The battle is still on.


Enlightenment February 20, 1964

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