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George Washington’s False Teeth

One can see their point: rational demystification of the eighteenth-century sort might be understood to produce its dialectical opposite, a modern mythology of science and technology, which opened onto a moral wilderness. But can one take it seriously as an account of the Enlightenment? Horkheimer and Adorno do not discuss the work of a single French philosophe. Instead of considering the Enlightenment concretely, as a phenomenon located in time and space, they let it disappear from sight while speculating on the entire sweep of Western civilization.

The blind spot in their speculations has serious consequences, because the Enlightenment provided the main defense against the barbarism that they deplored. Montesquieu’s attempt to shore up liberty against the inroads of despotism, Voltaire’s campaigns against the perversions of justice, Rousseau’s plea for the rights of the dispossessed, Diderot’s questioning of all authority, including that of reason itself—such were the weapons left by the intellectuals of the eighteenth century for their successors two hundred years later. Horkheimer and Adorno refused to make use of them.

Instead, they drew on another philosophical tradition, the one that leads from Hegel to Heidegger. Not that they subscribed to Heidegger’s Hitlerism. But by viewing Hitler from the perspective of German dialectics, they were incapable of making sense of the supreme evil that overcame Germany. That evil stands condemned by the standards of human rights developed in the Enlightenment and proclaimed in the founding charters of democracy, notably the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. There may be inadequate evidence for the self-evident truths of the American Declaration. They are articles of faith, not facts. But one must put one’s faith somewhere—better, I believe, in the normative tradition of the Enlightenment than in the dialectics designed to refute it.

4.The Enlightenment had an excessive faith in reason. By relying on rationalism, it failed to erect defenses against the irrational. Its naive cult of progress left humanity helpless before the horrors of the twentieth century.

Faith in reason is indeed a faith, and it may not be adequate to sustain men and women confronted with the violence and irrationality of the twentieth century. But rationalism does not distinguish the Enlightenment from other schools of thought, such as Thomism or Cartesianism. The pertinent distinction, as Ernst Cassirer explained, sets apart the esprit systématique of the eighteenth century from the esprit de système of the seventeenth. The latter carried reason to extremes by using it to construct all-embracing theories. The philosophes challenged theories. They dared to criticize everything, but with very few exceptions—Holbach, Quesnay—they did not erect systems.

What is the alternative to the critical use of reason? Embracing the irrational? Freud relied on reason in order to explore the irrational. He followed the lead of Diderot, whose Neveu de Rameau provides a clinical case study of a man without morality, who wanted to kill his father so that he could sleep with his mother. Nietzsche celebrated the Dionysian ingredient in culture, but he admired Voltaire and did not provide a rationale for his postmodernist followers to abandon the Voltairean struggle against tyranny and social injustice.

The most typical of the postmodernist attacks on the Enlightenment, John Gray’s Enlightenment’s Wake, invokes Nietzsche in urging us to abandon faith in normative principles and to accept the necessity of taking up stands in a landscape shorn of meaningful markers. Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Gray does not pause to consider what the French philosophes actually wrote. Instead, he offers a vague and unsubstantiated description of something he calls “the enlightenment project” and proceeds to condemn it for its failure to meet the standards set by postmodernist philosophy. Aside from its anachronism, the argument seems to assume that political culture derives from political theory, as if a wrong turn or a twist in the logic of a philosopher can determine the way ordinary mortals see themselves in the world. Gray sets them straight. Armed with arguments from Nietzsche, Horkheimer, and Adorno, he slashes away at what he takes to be the Enlightenment world-view, leaves it in tatters, and challenges his readers to accept their “historical fate”—that is, the world according to Gray, a world without enlightenment, “the postmodern condition of fractured perspectives and groundless practices.”*

Lesser philosophers, like Condorcet—distracted, no doubt, from an understanding of historical fate by his efforts to free slaves, enfranchise women, and stop Robespierre—advanced less heroic philosophies, notably the theory of Progress. When viewed from this side of Hitlerism and Stalinism, Condorcet’s formula—reason driving out falsehood—looks naive. But it may not be absurd to envision progress with a lower-case “p”—of which, more later. Meanwhile, what should we make of the combination of reason and Terror, which drove Condorcet to suicide?

5.The Enlightenment belongs to the origins of totalitarianism. It provided the theoretical basis for the Terror of the French Revolution, which in turn pointed the way to the terrors of Hitler and Stalin. The common element in all three was the attempt to force the social order to conform to an ideological blueprint.

In making his case for the Terror, Robespierre quoted Montesquieu and Rousseau. Like many other Jacobins, he tried to redesign France in accordance with political theory. But he also smashed the bust of Helvétius in the Jacobin Club and railed against the Encyclopedists, reserving his praise for the one philosophe, Rousseau, who made a break with the Enlightenment and opened the way to Romanticism. Rousseau’s notion of forcing men to be free by making them conform to the dictates of an organic General Will undercut the notions of liberty developed by the other philosophes. But Rousseau never envisaged anything like the Terror, and the Terror had nothing in common with the ideologies of fascism and communism. The crimes committed by twentieth-century states violated basic principles of the Enlightenment: respect for the individual, for liberty, for all the rights of man.

But rhetoric about the rights of man exposes the Enlightenment to a further critique: it says nothing about the rights of women. And what about animals, the environment, and other causes that command the attention of the post-cold war world? Those questions lead to a final accusation.

6.The Enlightenment is outdated and inadequate as an outlook for coping with contemporary problems. The philosophes championed an instrumentalist view of reason, which led to ecological disaster, and a masculine view of civic life, which relegated women to the private sphere.

True, the Enlightenment was time-bound as well as culture-bound. It took place in a world where some causes of the twentieth century remained unthinkable. And it therefore failed to think great thoughts that later changed the boundaries of culture. To defend the Enlightenment is not to reject the poetry of T.S. Eliot, the painting of Picasso, the physics of Einstein, or even the grammatology of Derrida. Nor is it to reject the rights of women. Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft actually owed a great deal to the example as well as to the ideas of the philosophes, even though some speculations of Diderot and Rousseau seem retrogressive when compared with the earlier notions of Poulain de la Barre. The point is not to make an inventory of ideas, crossing some off the list and adding others. It is to adopt an intellectual stance that will serve when lines are drawn and one’s back is to the wall. When challenged to condemn torture in Argentina, war in Vietnam, or racism in the United States, where can we make our stand if not on principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen?

Having come to the end of the indictment, I realize that I have fallen into the role of an advocate and abandoned that of a historian. Historians often succumb to such slippage when they belong to the culture they study. Why not throw professionalism to the wind and slide all the way into sermonizing?


If I may end with some personal observations, I would say that one of the most attractive aspects of the Enlightenment for me is its refusal to respect boundaries, either of disciplines or of nations. Despite their Parisian origins and their proclivity for French, the philosophes lived in a Republic of Letters that was truly cosmopolitan. It had neither borders nor police. It was open to ideas from everywhere. Yet no one in it, or anywhere else, conceived of the idea of nationalism. That barbarism began with the wars of 1792 and the fatal notion of “My country, right or wrong!”

I recently strayed out of the eighteenth century in order to do some research on the British Raj in the archives of the India Office in London. Before long, my ears were ringing with a refrain that appeared in all the documents: Bande Mataram! Bande Mataram! “Bande Mataram” (Long live the Mother!—that is, India) was the rallying cry of the Indian revolutionaries who wanted to throw off the feringhees (foreigners) at the beginning of this century. It was their Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. It moved them to tears, occasionally even to suicidal bomb attacks. And its fascination, to a feringhee, is its unthinkability. What is Bande Mataram to me?

And Liberty, Equality, Fraternity? Two centuries of bad weather have nearly worn the words off the faces of most town halls in France. I doubt that they resonate inside the souls of many French today. You hear them, if at all, in parody: “Neither Liberty, nor Equality, nor Fraternity, but a little more mustard, s’il vous plaît.” The last time I noticed a patriotic lump in a French throat was at a screening of Casablanca, when Paul Henreid led the crowd in singing the “Marseillaise.”

Yet only yesterday men were killing one another for a few square kilometers of Bosnia. To die for Greater Serbia? Another unthinkable thought. And for a United Ireland? The Sinn Fein still refuses to stop throwing bombs. The ETA bomb throwers still kill in the name of the Basque Fatherland. Kurds assassinate in Turkey, Palestinians in Israel, Tamils in Sri Lanka, all for rearrangements of the map. The same thing is going on in Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Chechnya…

No need to recite the entire list. We all know it well enough. What we do not and cannot take in is the passion that drives men to kill for such causes. For us—the tiny minority of well-fed, well-educated Westerners—Robert Graves said it all at the end of World War I: “Goodbye to all that.” Our fathers fought in World War II to extinguish nationalism, not to unleash it. Yet every day it explodes before our eyes on our television screens. How can we make sense of the drive to die for fantasies like Mother India?

Here is Ajit Singh, a passionate nationalist, harranguing a crowd at Rawalpindi in 1907, according to a police agent who secretly took down his words: “Die for your country. We are 30 crores [300,000,000]. They are a lakh and a half [150,000]. A puff of wind would blow them away. Cannon are of no account. One finger can easily be broken. When five fingers join to make a fist, no one can break it. This was given with great emphasis, and flowers were thrown.”

One gets the point. But can one “get” the gale of flowers, the stamping of bare feet, the songs bursting from chests, the small boys rushing to take oaths in blood, the old men with tears in their eyes, the lumps in all the throats?

The words remain, the music has gone—at least for those of us who respond to Robert Graves and would add: “Goodbye and good riddance! May nationalism die a thousand deaths and never rise again.” Yet there it is, alive and howling all around us, practically within hearing distance of London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Rome. Is there any way we can pick up the beat, if not in sympathy at least with enough empathy to understand the force that drives it?

One way lies through a reconsideration of our own traditions. We may be appalled at the patriotic gore spread throughout our past, but even the most sophisticated of us, at one time or other, has felt that peculiar lump in the throat.

I underwent an attack of lumpiness myself, I must confess, during a guided tour of Independence Hall in Philadelphia a few years ago. There sat Washington, the guide explained, in that very chair, in this very room. It was a handsome Georgian chair with an emblematic sun carved on its back, and Washington was presiding over the Constitutional Convention of 1787. At a particularly difficult moment in the debates, when the fate of the young republic seemed to hang in the balance, Benjamin Franklin, sitting here, asked George Mason, sitting there, “Is the sun rising or setting?” They got through that deadlock and a dozen others. And when at last they had completed their work, Franklin pronounced: “It is rising.”

What great men they were,” I said to myself, the lump growing in my throat. “Washington, Franklin, Madison—and Jefferson, at that moment advising Lafayette during the first phase of the French Revolution. How much greater than our politi-cians today. They were men of the Enlightenment.”

I cannot comprehend the rising sun of Japan, and I doubt that Washington’s sun meant much to the Japanese tourists at my side in Independence Hall. Seen from abroad, the cult of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers must look like an alien folklore. To be sure, Washington himself no longer stirs much emotion in American breasts. Unlike Lincoln and Roosevelt, he looks too stiff, propped up in those Gilbert Stuart portraits, jaw firm, lips pursed, brow ponderous, more an icon than a human being. Icons are for worshipping, but the iconic Washington worshiped in the United States is the one that looks out at us from the dollar bill.

Now, the cult of the dollar may not be all bad. Its emotional range is limited but not lethal. Unlike nationalism, it inspires self-interest rather than self-sacrifice, investment rather than bomb-throwing. And for all its crassness, it is ecumenical: one man’s dollar is as good as another’s. That principle also derives from the Enlightenment, the branch that runs through Mandeville and Adam Smith. Enlightened self-interest may not be as lofty as Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; but it made a new life possible in the New World for millions of immigrants, and it may ultimately renovate Russia, where the dollar has become the effective currency.

This line of thought has a respectable ancestry. It passed through French physiocracy, Scottish moral philosophy, and English utilitarianism. But it takes us Americans far away from the passions that inspired our ancestors in the early nineteenth century, when they carved, painted, sewed, and sung images of Washington into everything they produced. If we cannot share that emotion, we may nonetheless learn something by catching a glimpse of the man behind the icon.

Once on a visit to Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon, I ran across what must be one of the strangest relics ever displayed in a national shrine, stranger than all the bric-a-brac in the Lenin Museum of Moscow and the Wellington Museum of London: Washington’s false teeth. There they sat, under glass, and made of wood! The Father of Our Country in wooden choppers! So that was why he looked so grim in the portraits. The man was in constant pain. He couldn’t get any juice from his meat without sending shock waves through his gums.

People often ask me, as a specialist in the field, would I like to have lived in the eighteenth century? First, I say, I would insist on being born well above the peasantry. Second, no toothache, please. While reading thousands of letters from people in all walks of eighteenth-century life, I have often encountered toothaches. The pain cuts through the archaic language, and the writer looms up in your imagination, waiting in dread for an itinerant tooth-puller to arrive in town and, by a brief bout of torture, to put an end to the long weeks of agony.

Today we have less toothache and more mustard, much of it first-rate, from Dijon. Can we call this Progress? That is another eighteenth-century idea that looks dubious when seen across two centuries of suffering. But some familiarity with what humanity has suffered in the past may help us appreciate the modest, incremen-tal gains of pleasure over pain, or progress with a lower-case “p.” It may also help us sympathize with those who took a stand for human rights in the face of inhumanity. I am thinking of Voltaire, not the young libertine but the angry old man, who threw all of his last energy into the fight against fanaticism. If he seems too foreign for postmodern America, why not summon up the central figure in our own political culture? When the crunch comes, we may be able to face up to the injustices around us by gritting our teeth and remembering how hard it was for Washington to grit his.

  1. *

    John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age (Routledge, 1995), p. 146.

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