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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 wrong, because intellect had broken away from instinct, the consciousness had split off from the unconscious, and the perpetual openness of an unappeasable curiosity had taken the place of the cyclical wisdom of faith. If you took the first view, you were in the tradition of Taine, Darwin, H.G. Wells, and the bulk of modern science; if you took the second view, you found yourself in the same camp as Joseph de Maistre, Léon Bloy, and T.S. Eliot.

The vast increase in academic studies of the eighteenth century during the last twenty years or so has illustrated a third approach, that of “impartial scholarship.” For a long time, eighteenth-century France was comparatively neglected in university departments, perhaps because it was thought to be too obviously controversial and did not contain enough purely literary geniuses. But after so many, more recent, upheavals, the quarrels between the philosophes and Throne and Altar no doubt began to look quaintly remote, and learned inquiry felt free to move in on this largely unexploited area, with results that have not been altogether happy. In the last decade or two, a great many bulky and unfocused volumes have been produced, and in some ways now make it difficult to see the wood for the trees. The fact is that “impartial scholarship” is another myth, a subsidiary off-shoot of the scientific method of the nineteenth century (itself a technique mediated through the Enlightenment) when applied to subjects that do not admit of fully scientific treatment. There is supposed to be some merit in accumulating historical or literary data without relating them to a metaphysical position, because all metaphysical positions, whether pro- or anti-transcendental, are unproven, and ultimately acts of faith. Unfortunately, it is still impossible to give significant order to “human” data unless one adopts some definite standpoint; all scholars whose work has any backbone have an explicit or implicit point of view, and “impartiality,” in their case, can only mean that they realize the provisional nature of any standpoint and are willing to revise their metaphysical position, if there ever appears to be good reason to do so. However, in academic circles, “impartiality” has too often had the other meaning of refusing, or being afraid, or unable, to have a genuine point of view (other than the facile and borrowed assumption that the people one is writing about are “important”), and this accounts for the hollowness of a large proportion of academic writing. When such “impartiality” occurs in eighteenth-century studies, it is doubly paradoxical, because it is both a consequence of eighteenth-century freedom of thought, and an insipid consequence, because it misses out the essential point about that freedom. Academic impartiality, what nothingnesses have been committed in thy name!

Outside the university, still another approach to the eighteenth century has developed in the last quarter of a century, and has reacted on academic studies. The Bohemians, the poètes maudits, the alienated or isolated consciousnesses of the late nineteenth century have had a large crop of successors in the twentieth, and the latter have rediscovered the curious atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary France, which produced the Marquis de Sade, Choderlos de Laclos, the Chevalier d’Eon, Beaumarchais, Restif de la Bretonne, etc. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, French society reached certain psychological extremes that did not become common again until the mid-twentieth century. If Les Liaisons dangereuses is now considered the most important novel of the eighteenth century, and a number of academic theses have been devoted to it, this is largely because André Malraux and Richard Aldington were sensitive to its erotic treatment of the power complex. The Marquis de Sade, who would have been thoroughly disapproved of by Voltaire and Rousseau, is now read with respect by many people who, politically and socially, subscribe to Enlightenment reformism rather than to sadistic nihilism. The dark, irrational, erotic, and clandestine side of the eighteenth century is fashionable in literary and theatrical circles, whereas the Enlightenment proper is looked upon as transparent and banal, even by people who normally act upon its assumptions. We have got to a strange situation—at least in England and France—in which avant-garde opinions are progressive, while the avant-garde sensibility has many of the “black” features of an inverted faith, thus echoing the imaginative peculiarities of the late eighteenth century.

TO COME BACK NOW to Professor Gay—he is refreshingly old-fashioned in that he is strongly and openly partisan on the side of sweetness and light. He is for the Enlightenment, although he does not explain why; he just takes it for granted that sensible men cannot accept the Christian Revelation or any supposedly privileged or dramatic relationship with God. There may be a power behind the universe, as some of the philosophes thought, but if so, it does not tell us anything about itself, and we should modestly refrain from jumping to conclusions. Although some eighteenth-century thinkers, such as D’Holbach, were aggressively atheistic, they were the extreme wing and are not to be taken as centrally representative. Professor Gay has one outstanding hero, David Hume, “the complete modern pagan,” who looked at life calmly and courageously on the human level, striking a happy balance between contempt for the inveterate mythopocic tendency of the human mind (this tendency is perhaps the philosophes‘ concept of original sin) and discretion in face of the vast areas of the unknown or the unknowable. He also has one outstanding book to which he devotes a separate chapter: this is Voltaire’s Candide, which he sees as a bracing parable of man’s position in this world, ending with the positive conclusion: il faut cultiver son jardin. Presumably, he cannot take Voltaire as a personal hero, because that extraordinary man was too febrile and uncertain in temper. One suspects, too, that he is rather unsympathetic towards Rousseau, and understandably so, since Jean-Jacques believed in a personal relationship between himself and “his” God, and operated largely in terms of such myths as Natural Man and Utopia. Nor does he appear to attach very much importance to the weirdness at the end of the century, and he does me the honor of commending me for having criticized the extremes of the Sade cult.

This book is the first part of a two-volume study. The Rise of Modern Paganism is meant to tell how the philosophes arrived at their position; “The Pursuit of Modernity,” says Professor Gay, will show in greater detail the use they made of it. In tracing the development of eighteenth-century thought in this first volume, Professor Gay divides his material up into two sections: “The Appeal to Antiquity” and “The Tension with Christianity.” The theme of the first is, briefly, that the men of the Enlightenment, being steeped in the culture of antiquity, found in it germs of the non-religious view-point that Christianity had neglected or deliberately played down. There had been, in fact, a Greek Enlightenment and a Roman Enlightenent, and it was on these parts of classical culture, especially, that the philosophes drew to form their own thought. In the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, they were on both sides, since some of the ancients had themselves been modern. The Stoics, the Epicureans, and more particularly Lucretius were a constant inspiration to the eighteenth century. The second section recounts the running battle with Christian belief, with many back-references to the seventeenth century, the Renaissance and the Middle Ages; this battle could be very complex since the Christians were divided amongst themselves, and free-thinkers could be both in sympathy with some things inside the Church, and yet hostile to the basic philosophy of Christianity and to most aspects of the Church’s role in society.

THERE IS NOTHING NEW or controversial in these propositions, as far as I can tell, and I think the enemies of the Enlightenment would agree with them, except that they would mark with a negative sign those points that Professor Gay presents as positive. I am on Professor Gay’s side, but I do not quite see how his general interpretation goes beyond what was already expressed in such traditional views of the Enlightenment as those of Ducros or Hazard. It is true that he has a far wider range of reference, since he is just as much at home in English, German, and Italian as he is in French, and that he expresses opinions on many minor questions of emphasis. He is staggeringly learned and his final chapter, entitled “Bibliographical Essay,” is a dauntingly strenuous cross-country run through varied intellectual terrain. But if I may be absolutely frank, I think he has allowed himself to be rather overwhelmed by the myth of learning. He is writing both a pamphlet and a learned work, but the pamphleteer and the academic are slightly out of step with each other, as they were in a previous book, The Party of Humanity. Or, to put it another way, the pamphleteer and the academic operate intermittently, and the material put forward by the latter frequently serves neither to strengthen nor weaken the position of the former, because it is not always rethought or re-ordered in terms of proving the rightness or wrongness of basic attitudes.

Sometimes a section has a promising title, e.g., “The Rehabilitation of Myth,” and then does not appear to live up to its program. At other times, a title may even correspond to an anti-Enlightenment point of view, as if Professor Gay had been momentarily swung over by the sources he is using. “The Treason of the Clerics” is the heading of a chapter on the malaise inside the eighteenth-century Church; the phrase is apparently borrowed from Julien Benda, a staunch upholder of the Enlightenment tradition, who, in his book La Trahison des clercs, attacked Barrès and other intellectuals, who were guilty of putting their talents at the service of limited, non-spiritual causes, such as nationalism. Professor Gay uses it in a very different sense to stigmatize those eighteenth-century churchmen who were not sufficiently aggressive in their beliefs to withstand the influence of the Enlightenment, and the style in which he writes this section would be more appropriate to a Christian historian:

The real source of trouble (in the Church), hard to diagnose and almost impossible to eradicate, was a bland piety, a self-satisfied and prosperous reasonableness, the honest conviction that Churches must, after all, move with the times. This—the concessions to modernity, to criticism, science, and philosophy, and to good tone—this was the treason of the clerks.

THESE UNCERTAINTIES may be inadvertent, or they may result from a desire to give the text an extra lift, so as to jolly along the reader who might tend to be bored by the obviousness of the Enlightenment. In doing this, Professor Gay may be subscribing to another myth, that of the superior attractiveness of the non-rational. I suspect there is something of this in the subtitle: The Rise of Modern Paganism. Admittedly, the word “Paganism” is ambiguous, but more often than not, it implies a belief in a multiplicity of gods connected with natural forces; it is comparatively rare in the sense of a totally secularized world-view. The appropriate phrase would have been “the rise of scientific humanism” (following on from The Party of Humanity), but this no doubt sounded uninviting, since humanism is not at the moment a numinous term, whereas paganism still is.

I do not wish to put anyone off reading this book, which bulges with interesting information and comment, nor to imply that I do not have a great admiration for Professor Gay’s intellectual appetite and digestion. What I am trying to suggest is that a thoroughly new defense of the Enlightenment would not simply assume that the philosophes were on the whole “right,” but would show the stages and consequences of the process of abandoning faith to go over to the secular vision of reality. If the mythopoeic faculty is inherent in man, if the unconscious has to be catered for in the ritual of living, if there is more in heaven and earth than meets the rational eye, the philosophes both made mistakes and new discoveries, and the pecularities of the end of the century have somehow to be related to the middle and the beginning. In my view, the philosophes themselves are sometimes mythopoeic in the good sense; as I have explained elsewhere, I see Candide, for instance, not as a reasonable fable about humanistic endeavor, but as a tragi-comic symbol of the existential problem, built up of secularized religious imagery, just as much as Sartre’s La Nausée and Camus’s L’Etranger or La Peste are. The “clarity” of the Enlightenment is, in many respects, a superficial impression, as indeed Professor Gay himself suggested in his first book, Voltaire’s Politics. There is a structure, partly sound, partly inadequate, behind the “chaos of clear ideas” stigmatized by an opponent of the Enlightenment, and it is this that we need to have firmly stated: Of course, Professor Gay may be busy on just such a statement in his second volume.

Letters

Every Man His Myth March 9, 1967

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