Cultivating the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism

by Peter Gay
Knopf, 555 pp., $8.95

The eighteenth-century movement of thought, which is referred to seriously or ironically as the Enlightenment, set out to destroy myths, but it long ago became a myth itself. Since it immediately preceded the Revolution of 1789, it was held to be responsible for that far-reaching phenomenon, and the leading French figures of the siècle des lumières have been praised or blamed accordingly ever since by succeeding generations.

When one has had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the writings of the period, it strikes one as odd that its many complexities should so often have been reduced to a simple pattern and that responsibility for certain parts of that pattern should frequently have been attributed to the wrong people. Voltaire, for instance, has been applauded and reviled as an apostle of Nature, when in fact he was a troubled Deist with a contempt for the facile view of Natural Man. Rousseau has been thought of as wilfully destructive, when his consuming passion was a tragic nostalgia for the ideal society. According to the changes in political fashion, the major thinkers of the time have been seen as villains or saints, as effective intellectual and social forces or as futile word-spinners, as realists or chimerical dreamers, as rationalists or irrationalists, as bold innovators or fundamentally timid conservatives. I say this is odd, but I may be mistaken. The eighteenth century happens to be the historical period I have read most about, and so I am aware of the simplifications and conflicting interpretations it gives rise to. But perhaps all history is myth and, as Voltaire said, a series of tricks we play on the past in the light of the present. If the past does not exist in itself, but only in the form of partial documentary remains that have to be revitalized by the imagination, then history is a perpetual recreation in the present, and the distinction between the mythopoeic and the factual, which has often been thought of as the main achievement of the Enlightenment, is not so absolute as one might wish, at least in the “human,” or social, sciences. Learning itself is still impregnated with myth, and when we say that our knowledge of a given historical period has greatly increased, we often mean that the various mythological treatments of it have been fortified and expanded. The most interesting thing about Professor Gay’s new book, it seems to me, is that it takes two myths and combines them, with the addition perhaps of a slight condiment from a third.

TRADITIONALLY, as I have mentioned, there were two main ways of looking at the Enlightenment: you could see it as the third great outburst of human inquiry (after Ancient Greece and the Renaissance), the third major attempt to free the human mind from the trammels of dogma and superstition and to reappraise phenomena according to the strictly knowable operation of cause and effect; or you could see it as the point at which modern thinking finally went …

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Letters

Every Man His Myth March 9, 1967