The Great Fight Over the Enlightenment

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…

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