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The Great Fight Over the Enlightenment

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Musée Voltaire, Ferney-Voltaire, France/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
‘Voltaire in his night shirt, putting on his trousers while dictating to his secretary, at his house in Ferney, France’; painting by Jean Hubert, eighteenth century

What are we to make of the eighteenth- century Enlightenment? For over two hundred years the legacy of its most prominent thinkers, from Locke and Newton to Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, and Kant, has been the subject of bitter debate. Its supporters hail it as the source of everything that is progressive about the modern world. For them, it stands for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future. By contrast, its enemies accuse it of “shallow” rationalism, naive optimism, unrealistic universalism, and moral darkness.

From the start, there was a conservative and clerical opposition, a Counter-Enlightenment that defended traditional religion against what appeared as a materialistic and skeptical onslaught, one that encouraged immorality, pornography, and contempt for the established order. In the French revolutionary Terror the Enlightenment’s critics saw the confirmation of all that they had predicted. The utopian desire to achieve the perfectibility of man had led inexorably to tyranny and atrocity.

From the late eighteenth century it became common for Romantic philosophers to argue that, in their supposedly exclusive reliance on reason, the thinkers of the Enlightenment had disregarded the bonds of history, myth, and tradition that held societies together. Nineteenth-century nationalists thought it wrong to propose a single set of values for all the world’s peoples. They preferred cultural diversity to moral uniformity. The Oxford English Dictionary reflected Victorian prejudices when, in a notorious entry (still there in its 1989 reissue), it defined “Enlightenment” as a term

sometimes used…to designate the spirit and aims of the French philosophers of the 18th c., or of others whom it is intended to associate with them in the implied charge of shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for tradition and authority, etc.

In the twentieth century, the Enlightenment was accused of a coldly amoral obsession with technological domination and a determination to achieve human perfectibility that allowed no scruple to stand in its way. At the Nuremberg trials in 1946, the lawyer defending Ernst Kaltenbrunner, charged with crimes against humanity, explained that Nazi atrocities were the legacy of eighteenth-century secularism. In the year after Nuremberg, the “Frankfurt School” social theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, portrayed the Marquis de Sade as the embodiment of Enlightenment morality, and twentieth-century barbarism as its logical culmination. To some, the Eichmann trial of 1961 seemed to confirm this notion of the Holocaust as a characteristically “Enlightened” scheme of social engineering, carried through with bureaucratic rationality.

It is not surprising that historians should have protested against these travesties. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer, in his The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (published in the year before Hitler’s accession to power and his own departure from Germany), demonstrated that, whatever the Enlightenment was, it was anything but “shallow.” In the 1960s, another German-Jewish refugee, Peter Gay, wrote a very fine two-volume study, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, designed to rescue the movement from the charge of “superficial rationalism, foolish optimism, and irresponsible Utopianism”; he reaffirmed the permanent value of its “humane and libertarian vision.”

Yet the disparagement of the Enlightenment continued. In the later twentieth century Michel Foucault represented its search for knowledge as just another bid for power and domination. Postmodernists rejected the notion that moral and political values might be universal. Different cultures, they maintained, should be allowed to determine their own priorities. Schemes for social amelioration were dismissed as intolerably Eurocentric, and the civilizing mission was portrayed as a mere cover for colonial oppression. Green lobbyists blamed environmental decay on the Enlightened drive to exploit the natural world for human benefit. Feminists noted that the philosophes were all men and rebuked them for their supposed indifference to problems of gender.

Once again the historians hit back. In three huge and enormously erudite volumes, Jonathan Israel claimed that there was a close fit between twenty-first-century liberal values and those of what he called the Enlightenment’s “radical” wing, deriving, he argued, from the thought of Spinoza. In his view, they remained “by far the most positive factor shaping contemporary reality and those strands of ‘modernity’ anyone wishing to live in accord with reason would want to support.”1 Similarly, John Robertson argued in his The Case for Enlightenment (2005) that, by generating the new science of political economy, Enlightenment thinkers had correctly identified the best way forward for economically backward regions like Scotland and southern Italy.

The most remarkable feature of this seemingly endless debate is that all its participants appeared confident that they knew what “the Enlightenment” was. Yet although many people in the eighteenth century referred to les Lumières, Illuminismo, and Aufklärung, the meanings they gave those terms seldom overlapped. In 1784 Kant famously defined Aufklärung as an emancipatory mental process, the achievement of intellectual maturity through the ability to think for oneself. But he did not suggest that there was an organized plan to propagate a new philosophy and reform the human condition. Earlier in the century a group of mainly French men of letters had self-consciously set out to drive away what they saw as the mental darkness of the past. But only in retrospect did the idea of the Enlightenment as a coherent intellectual movement take root. Not until the late nineteenth century did English speakers begin to describe le siècle des Lumières as “the Enlightenment.”

Nowadays, its friends and its enemies alike refer freely to “the Enlightenment project,” a term popularized in 1981 by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He defined that project as an attempt to provide “an independent rational justification of morality,” and he claimed that it had failed. Yet historians point out that the Enlightenment had not one but many projects. Its starting point was a desire to improve the human condition by the critical application of the intellect, unconstrained by religion or tradition. But this could lead to vastly different conclusions.

Some scholars regard secularism as the essence of the Enlightenment. Others emphasize its humanitarianism, its reforming zeal, or its belief in progress. But the thinkers of the “Enlightenment” were too diverse to be gathered under any one label. And how can any single definition comprehend the huge variations in their tone and style, from the wit and elegance of Voltaire to the ponderous solemnity of Kant? Perhaps all that can be said with certainty is that within the immense variety of eighteenth-century intellectual life there was a cluster of critical, skeptical, and progressive attitudes that historians have found it useful to bracket together as “Enlightened.”

Even then, historians hover between the notion of a single Enlightenment, extending throughout Europe and North America, and a plurality of separate national Enlightenments, each with its distinctive characteristics. Jonathan Israel distinguished between a “radical” Enlightenment, atheistical, democratic, and anticolonial, and a mainstream, “moderate” Enlightenment, prepared to compromise with the church and the existing social order. Others contrast the “high” Enlightenment of intellectuals with the “low” Enlightenment of Grub Street journalism and popular debate.

There is also disagreement about when the Enlightenment began: in the mid-eighteenth century, with the Parisian philosophes; in the late seventeenth century, with Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, and Isaac Newton; or even earlier with Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Thomas Hobbes? And did its uniqueness consist in the ideas of its leading thinkers? Or was it rather to be found in its distinctive social history, evidenced in the widening of the public sphere through reading, writing, journalism, book publishing, and intense discussion, conducted in cafés, coffeehouses, clubs, academies, and Masonic lodges? In such places, the ideas of the philosophes circulated in simplified popular form.

Anthony Pagden is a distinguished historian of early modern thought, but he too is defeated by the problem of definition. He begins his learned, eloquent, and sometimes passionate book by describing the Enlightenment as “that period of European history between, roughly, the last decade of the seventeenth century and the first of the nineteenth.” This is not a helpful start, since however broad a meaning is attached to the term, a great deal of the thinking and writing of the eighteenth century was very far from being “enlightened.”

Just how far is well illustrated by Paul Kléber Monod’s thoroughly researched and highly informative account of the revival in late-eighteenth-century England of occult ideas and practices that are usually thought to have been effectively sidelined by the natural scientists a hundred years earlier. They included alchemy, astrology, hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, Behmenism, Theosophy, Swedenborgianism, occult Freemasonry, magnetic healing, prophetic visions, and the conjuring of spirits.

Monod argues that these activities had an affinity with the Enlightenment, in that their practitioners were implicitly following Kant’s injunction to think for themselves. But the “enlightenment” that was thought to come from personal revelation to ritually purified initiates was very different from the enlightenment brought by the exercise of human reason; and the quest of Freemasons and others for ancient Egyptian wisdom seemed ridiculous to those who were seeking to advance human knowledge by scientific study. Monod is right, though, to say that it was only in an atmosphere of Enlightened tolerance that such unorthodox cults could have been openly practiced.

Pagden quickly abandons his initial equation of the Enlightenment with a period of history. Instead, he characterizes it as an intellectual process, concerned with understanding “the historical evolution of the human mind.” He maintains that, for all their differences, the Enlightened philosophers really were engaged in a single “project,” but his definition of that project is not quite the same as MacIntyre’s. He defines the project as the pursuit of an entirely secular “science of man” that would demonstrate the existence of a universal human identity. To back up this interpretation, he draws lavishly from the best-known writers of the French Enlightenment, especially Montesquieu, Voltaire, D’Alembert, Diderot, Holbach, Rousseau, and Condorcet. He also finds room for the Englishmen Locke and Shaftesbury; the Scots David Hume and Adam Smith; and the Germans Leibniz and Kant. He makes only a few passing references to the Dutch Jew Spinoza, who Jonathan Israel argued was the crucial influence on the “radical” Enlightenment.

Pagden indeed makes little attempt to engage with the reinterpretations of the Enlightenment offered in recent years by his fellow historians. He is not much interested in its diffusion at a popular level; and the name of Robert Darnton, author of much the most invigorating writing on that subject, does not appear in his bibliography. Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery adorns his dust jacket, but there is no discussion of the progress of astronomy or the other physical sciences. Neither does Pagden consider the projects for political, economic, and penal reform emphasized by students of the Italian Enlightenment like Franco Venturi and John Robertson. His is very much an essay in intellectual history narrowly defined, an analysis of ideas with little attempt to locate them in the social practices of the age.

  1. 1

    Jonathan Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670–1752 (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. vii; Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750–1790 (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 951; and Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750 (Oxford University Press, 2001). See also A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2010). 

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