It is always hard for persons of a traditional character to know what to think about the Enlightenment. If we believe the Enlightenment simply as a period of time, naturally, the first concept of estimating it makes little sense; intervals of time are not a suitable object of moral assessment. If we consider this as a movement, however, with leaders, supporters, and opponents, practical goals and guiding principles, moral evaluation becomes unavoidable. The Enlightenment movement nonetheless shapes the days we are living in, plus it still arouses ardent support and sour hostility. Moreover, since the 18th century the world has changed radically, for better and for worse, more and Enlightenment teachings which conservatives like Edmund Burke or even Joseph de Maistre formerly contested today can seem as bulwarks of marching against barbarism. On the flip side, the Enlightenment convention –a term which would have seemed oxymoronic to the philosophes themselves–encoded some traits in its own DNA that, when coupled with specific poisonous genes of after times, Marxism for example, generated the monstrosities that today threaten the civilizational achievements of the West, including those of the Enlightenment itself.
It is not clear if Ritchie Robertson, the author of a splendid and extremely readable new history of the Enlightenment, would concur with this last assertion. He finds little to criticize and far to shield in the Enlightenment for a movement of thought. From the conflict between the Enlightenment and its declared opponents –revealed religions, ideological tyrannies, and outmoded customs –he’s firmly on the face of the Enlighteners (to utilize that tendentious but unavoidable word). Robertson is in favor of educated commitments to toleration, free speech, ” the pursuit of happiness, and”the advance of reason, great sense and philosophical inquiry against superstition, blind bias and the jurisdiction arrogated by governmental and ecclesiastical bodies.”
A generation ago, sentiments like these would be uncontroversial, even trite, but in today’s political environment aligning oneself with the Age of Reason calls for a level of moral courage. Recently the University of Edinburgh removed the title of its famous Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, from a construction on the grounds he had been a winner of white supremacy. Oh dear.
But hostility to the lumières has infested with the academy for a while. Today’s critics of the Enlightenment are descended from Frankfurt School leaders such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, as well as from the French theorists of the Sixties like Foucault, who grounded the contemporary left the rejection of Enlightenment values. It is yet another component of the Western cultural tradition that needs to be burned to the ground prior to their utopia of great freedom and equality can rise from the ash.
Some recent historians like Margaret Jacobs and Jonathan Israel have tried to protect the Enlightenment from its enemies by reassuring the academic rendered about the movement of the radical bona fides. They follow back to the philosophes the origins of contemporary radical politics, sexual and social freedoms, and resistance to conventional religions. For them the Enlightenment was not a’project’ and hadn’t any unitary doctrine but was quite a shifting series of disagreements and concerns. It had been crowned with all the luminous halo of Diversity, which left pinning down its doctrines like nailing jelly to a wall. If you billed the Enlightenment with Xyou were incorrect because it’d also championed Y. If you did not like one Enlightenment there were many others to choose from.
A Unified System
Robertson is having none of the For him the Enlightenment was”a deliberate and conscious attempt by thinkers better to comprehend humankind –and the world in which humans live–to be able to promote enjoyment.” The Enlighteners belonged to a reform movement which shared a method of studying the planet, and they possessed, if not a common doctrine, at least a coherent set of thoughts about how to make European societies much more rational and civilized. This didn’t make them dogmatic, however. They rejected apriori reasoning and favored generalizations based on the selection of evidence, issuing in”conclusions which are provisional and could be altered in the light of additional findings.”
The same could be said of Robertson’s own method. His plan for defending the Enlightenment is exquisitely empirical and historical. He refuses to be drawn to shouting matches about what components of Enlightenment thought led to which praiseworthy or poisonous features of the contemporary world. Rather, he offers us what is certainly the most comprehensive, up-to-date and balanced introduction to the movement in English. For Robertson, the best antidote to post-modern calumnies against the Enlightenment is to explain what it actually did and said. This he does in exhaustive though occasionally exhausting detail. However, despite having a propensity to digress, Robertson owns great gifts as a synthesizer, and the publication has a superbly clear thematic construction, flowing through all the most important debates about mathematics, toleration, religion, human nature, history, aesthetics, society, and politics. A whole lot of attention is devoted to an aspect of the Enlightenment often overlooked: its own schemes for its practical improvement of the human state; the work done by educated artists, administrators and scientists to help relieve discomfort and enhance the joys of life. Robertson sticks close to the texts and his regular, well-chosen quotations let the Enlighteners talk for themselves. All the major authors and their most important works are presented, so that readers coming to the time for the very first time, or even people who wish to extend and update what they learned in college concerning this key moment in history, could find no better place to begin.
A few distinctive themes appear. Robertson is dissatisfied with the cliché that tags the Enlightenment”The Age of Reason.” Robertson, who is a professor of German literature in Oxford, brings to keep a rich comprehension of the novels, poetry, and other innovative literature of the period; that enables one to flesh out another portrait of the Enlightenment as an Age of Feeling. Sensibility,”an emotional participation in different people’s experiences,” was deepened by the excellent novels created by the lumières: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloise, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther among several others. Sympathy and the cultivation of humanist ideas was the period’s replacement for religion as a social adhesive, and contributed to a number of its most commendable creations, including penal reform and also the prevention of cruelty to animals. Enlightenment rationality was not calculation but spirited debate, produced in casual social settings that allowed free debate and valued common sense above smart paradox. Theoretical reason always needed to be analyzed and directed by proper sentiments. Enlighteners refused the selfishness of Machiavellian motive of nation (for Kant’an ominous doctrine of prudence’) and criticized political notions which gave too little credit to the individual capacity permanently. The notion of the sublime was researched by Edmund Burke decades prior to the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher made sublime feelings the middle of the defense of religion”contrary to its cultured despisers.”
The French Revolution was not a radicalization of the Enlightenment, however an event with its own inner dynamic that destroyed the delicate balance between tradition and innovation the lumières had tried to preserve. Robertson spends hundreds of pages demonstrating that Enlightenment atheism was at best a marginal occurrence, but perhaps not the secret agenda of a cabal of illuminati. Voltaire himself was also a Deist, not an atheist. “Dechristianization was barely an educated policy,” and might have required a level of tyranny to execute that was incompatible with Enlightenment ideals of toleration. In actuality, the great majority of Enlighteners were Christians, and also there were moves in sympathy with the Enlightenment in all the established churches, such as the Roman Catholic church. What Enlighteners desired was fair Christianity, occasionally but by no means necessarily equal with Deism. Reasonable Christianity planned to distribute with dogmas which wouldn’t be able to be defended by reason and resisted the claims of these churches, supported by authorities, to control life. Enlightened spiritual authorities, nevertheless, had a valid part to play in enhancing the behavior of the people, fighting superstition, and strengthening the bonds of society.
Robertson’s demonstration of educated Christianity is composed of a piece with his overall view of the Enlightenment as comparatively conservative in its intentions and methods. It turned out to be a top notch phenomenon which improved its reforms by bending the ears of enlightened rulers, the stronger the better. It had been anti-democratic in opinion and in its own cultural strategy. It endorsed the view, prevalent before the late 18th century, which republics were largely momentary failures, and it accepted the republican government would not operate well in almost any polity bigger than a city state.
The American Revolution was the conservative of both:”it planned to throw off a government believed to be temperate, but maybe not to remodel society.” “The founding of the United States was renowned as a victory of humanity and reason, crucial principles of the Enlightenment”; it had been”a gentle, a calm, a voluntary and a deliberate transition from one constitution of government to the next,” since James Wilson explained.
The French Revolutionby contrast, took its own intellectual bearings from Rousseau, an outlier and occasionally a harsh critic of the Enlightenment. Robespierre, while praising Rousseau, condemned the”sect” of the Encyclopedists as”ambitious charlatans” who received pensions against despots and had no respect for the rights of these people. “He encouraged the Jacobins to smash a separation of Helvétius, who had persecuted Rousseau.” The French Revolution was not a radicalization of the Enlightenment, however an event with its own inner dynamic that destroyed the delicate balance between tradition and innovation the lumières had tried to preserve. They had desired a just hierarchy in which preeminence was made by merit and wisdom; the French revolutionaries introduced Europe to a downward cycle driven by more radical forms of equality.
Progress and Authority
Simply speaking, if you are a small-l liberal, a liberal conservative at the popular oxymoron of the 19th century, you’ll find much to admire at Robertson’s Enlightenment. In a conventional conservative of the Burkean or Oakeshottian type it’ll inevitably evoke a more mixed reaction. Though Robertson points out, correctly, that Enlightenment science was experimental and functional and by no way that a dogmatic system, the processes of natural science ended up becoming”the design for all knowledge.” This effect left Science (with a capital S) since the only respected cultural power once the older classical and Christian governments had been dethroned.
“Science,” nevertheless, has particular flaws as soon as it comes to conducting ability. Its conclusions are continuously changing (real science is never”settled”), making its power unstable. As individuals who have tried to”follow the mathematics” during this pandemic year will surely enjoy, the effect of continuously changing scientific opinions is to undermine confidence in mathematics itself. Moreover, Science never speaks with one voice, and critics of jurisdiction can always locate scientists with impressive degrees and credentials speaking on different sides of a query. Individuals will have a tendency to adhere to the information they would like to followor may be scared into following. And the more important the questions must be answered, the more less guidance Science can provide. The end result of crowning Science since our king would be to set a dictatorship of people having the capacity to command the concept Science. Real science isn’t supposed to issue commands, but to notify human prudence. We have to exercise our own practical judgement and not devoting control over our polity to unelected specialists.
Robertson also asserts that most Enlighteners desired to rationalize, maybe not abolish sound customs and the tradition of true religion. This, again, might be true, but the effective historical story of Progress the Enlightenment popularized supposed that, in the cultural universe it created, customs would always be linked to the primitive and religion might always be held suspect as an enemy of their near future. To be sure, any reasonable conservative, whether liberal or traditional, must value the actual advancement in substance security the world has produced thanks to science and economics. Creating the”civilization of growth” that brought the folks of the contemporary world from millenia of poverty must surely count since the Enlightenment’s biggest achievement. The enlightened creators of the myth of advancement –Turgot, Condorcet, and Kant– also praised freedom as a necessary condition of advancement. That did much to establish a presumption in favor of political freedom, freedom of religion, and individual rights. Rightly understood and ordered, each one these principles do and can contribute enormously to the improvement of humankind.
However, the founders of the dream of progress also created a politics and a rhetoric of advancement which characterized advancement as material abundance, as an ever-increasing autonomy of the person from society, and as a permit to transgress the limitations of human character. They impregnated history with a”story” in the sense used by contemporary political journalists: a tendentious reading of yesteryear designed to affect the actions of politicians and citizens. The Enlightenment narrative undermined the ability of our common traditions to carry out their appropriate functions: to anchor us in the last, to provide us with a noble ancestry, and to foster in us reverence for our forebears and for established governments –many of which, we all deserve reverence. The dream of progress with its own attendant urge is to be”on the ideal side of history” at the end enabled that great naïveté of progressive elites: that good intentions and technological models are sufficient to bring us into a more desired future. Additionally, it justified their authoritarian urges, for it’s their story of advancement that justifies the educated in sweeping aside any other obstacles–moral, legal or constitutional–which stand in their own way. As contemporary history has proven over and above, real progress occurs in an environment of ordered freedom; authoritarian societies are inhabiting societies.
Since the French philosopher Rémi Brague once placed it, intellectuals formed from the Enlightenment are similar to the ancient Christians who adopted the Marcionite heresy: they refuse the power of the Old Testament and watch our ancestors who lived prior to the Enlightenment as deluded servants of an evil demiurge. Only the New Church of modernity provides them truth and salvation. Modernity, however, is a process, not a condition, and it’s difficult to inculcate loyalty or reverence to get a process. However loyalty to reverence for the past is the main basis of stability and cohesion in almost any society. In this respect the heritage of the Enlightenment must nevertheless be questioned. Can any society endure which belittles its previous as it pertains the present state of affairs, both the lives and fortunes of its people, as nothing but a corpus vile for more radical social experiments? Can we raise our kids to become constant critics of heritage and expect them to engage constructively in civil society? Do we want the arts, literature and philosophy of yesteryear to nurture another generation or merely function as targets of their indignation? Ritchie Robertson would surely protest such was never the goal of any Enlightener, and he would be proper. Nevertheless, the unintended effects of our acts, when they turn out badly, nevertheless reflect an indictment of the practical reason.