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Being Critical of Enlightenment Triumphalism Isn’t Always Wrong

Having considered the evidence, it seems more accurate to say that the Enlightenment project presented itself as a savior from ignorance and poverty but was really a movement to dethrone the old social order rooted in hierarchies and aristocracies.”

There is a comforting narrative among centrists of the Pinkerian sort that in the 18th century, Europe saw the light of Reason burst upon the darkness of the land, passing over the water and illuminating the huddled masses toiling in poverty and penury. The Enlightenment is held up as the intellectual, decentralized savior of mankind as such, enabling first Europe and then the world to face down the forces of religious obscurantism. As the story goes, it also set in motion the wheels of Progress, driving forward a philosophical, political, social, scientific, and cultural awakening that brought the material and moral fruits of modernity to increasing numbers of people. Any dissent from this view is therefore seen as philosophical, social, and ultimately moral backsliding into darkness. For the Enlightenment’s defenders, any critics of this sacred secular movement deserve anathematization and cancellation. The only thing is that the Enlightenment claims too much for itself, was less original in its use of reason than its fans claim, and criticism of it is not always wrong. 

Definition

First, what is the Enlightenment? This is not a simple question, and there are differing streams of thought about what, when, or where the Enlightenment took place. The historian Dorinda Outram claims a global reach for the Enlightenment from the beginning, while Jonathan Israel views the Enlightenment’s end by the 1740s. In his recent book The War on the West, Douglas Murray argues that the Enlightenment “produced a flourishing in politics, sciences, and the arts” and was “the movement, or set of movements, that occurred across Europe around the eighteenth century and saw some of the greatest leaps forward in human history, providing, among other things, the philosophical bases for the principles of toleration, the utility of reason, and the separation of church and state.” Going further back, Peter Gay argued in his magisterial twovolume treatise that, “the Enlightenment was united on a vastly ambitious program, a program of secularism, humanity, cosmopolitanism, and freedom.” Finally, and moving back to today, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states: 

“the Enlightenment is conceived broadly. D’Alembert, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment, characterizes his eighteenth century, in the midst of it, as ‘the century of philosophy par excellence,’ because of the tremendous intellectual and scientific progress of the age, but also because of the expectation of the age that philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes the natural and social sciences) would dramatically improve human life. Guided by D’Alembert’s characterization of his century, the Enlightenment is conceived here as having its primary origin in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but also the set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry in the earlier times. The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world promotes philosophy from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles. Taking as the core of the Enlightenment the aspiration for intellectual progress, and the belief in the power of such progress to improve human society and individual lives, this entry includes descriptions of relevant aspects of the thought of earlier thinkers, such as Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, Bayle, Leibniz, and Spinoza, thinkers whose contributions are indispensable to understanding the eighteenth century as ‘the century of philosophy par excellence.’”

Bad Faith Attacks

As Murray ably covers in his book, there has been an increasing assault on the Enlightenment as conceived above for decades now, intensifying in recent years as the adherents and purveyors of Critical Race Theory have gained increasing prominence in left-wing political discourse. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic argue in their 2001 work Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, “unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” (Emphasis mine) 

Murray considers, for instance, the attacks on Voltaire for his involvement in the French East India Company and a racist comment in his 1769 work Les lettres d’Amabed. David Hume meanwhile divided the races, conceived as naturalistic, biologically distinct entities, into a hierarchy with Africans at the bottom in a footnote in his essay “Of National Characters,” writing that “I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white…Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men.” Murray notes that this is in all of Hume’s collected works and is accepted as racist by his embarrassed scholars and followers. Murray also recounts how John Locke is castigated for owning stock in companies connected to the slave trade. 

In all of these cases, the redeeming elements of what these thinkers thought and said is ignored or derided as simple evidence of their deadness, whiteness, and maleness—all enough to damn them to intellectual and moral purgatory. Concerning Voltaire, “his devastating attacks on the immorality of slavery, not least in Candide,” along with his Treatise on Tolerance from 1763, matter not at all. John Locke’s insights into human liberty and government, despite my fundamental disagreements, are a towering part of the Western inheritance and of world philosophy, but that is erased. David Hume’s skeptical empiricism that built on and laid the groundwork for the extension of British ideas beyond British culture deserves to be damned for eternity. As Murray writes, one can argue that “thinkers such as Hume and Kant set the foundations in their work for the arguments that would make racism untenable. They helped to expose its fundamental flaws. For instance, Hume argued ‘that morality is based on humans’ natural attunement to one another’s feelings and a discomfort at sensing others’ discomfort that can be elevated into more impartial justice.’”

Substantive Flaws: Enlightenment Racialism

This may have some validity, but it is also not the case that to note the racial nature of much of the Enlightenment worldview is simply to repeat the arguments made by race hustlers like Ibram X. Kendi in the United States and Kehinde Andrews in the United Kingdom. Enlightenment ideals may have universal applicability, but this was not entirely the case in the 17th and 18th centuries when they were developed. It was Immanuel Kant, after all, who wrote that “so fundamental is the difference between these two races of man [black and white]…as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour.” Carl Linnaeus, the “father of modern taxonomy,” moreover, thought that Europeans, Asians, Native Americans, and Africans comprised distinct types of humanity. Hegel believed that black Africans were a “race of children that remain immersed in a state of naiveté.” Furthermore, he wrote that Native American peoples lived in “a condition of savagery and unfreedom,” which gave the “right of heroes” to conquer them and bring them forward to European levels of Enlightenment. 

As Patrick Deneen notes in Why Liberalism Failed, Locke aimed to replace the old, hereditary aristocracy of what he dubbed the “querulous and contentious” with one “industrious and rational.” This would be played out against the supposedly blank geographical and cultural canvas of the New World, which, as Deneen writes, “Locke invokes…arguing that a society ruled by the ‘industrious and rational’ will increase the productivity and value of property and thereby increase the wealth of all: ‘To which let me add, that he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind: for the provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common…[Thus] a king of a large and fruitful territory [in the Americas] feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England.’” 

J.S. Mill continues this theme in liberal thought. Murray argues that “the case levelled against Mill in recent years has been based on accusations that he was in favour of empire. Such critics fail to take into account Mill’s career-long efforts to discredit the racial theories of his day or his belief that education would alter all those things that were claimed to be inherited characteristics. The anti-Mill-ians also fail to address his attitude to the question of the American Civil War as it was going on.” 

This may all very well be true, but as Uday Singh Mehta writes in his 1999 book Liberalism and Empire, Mill was not just vaguely in favor of empire. Mill was, in fact, integral to the grounding of liberalism as a philosophical force for imperialism, redefining the philosophical views of time and space to explain why non-European peoples were behind Europe in culture, why they did not and could not have the ability to form proper political society, and how Progress should be oriented toward bringing these peoples into the world of political society and progressive time. It was, for this reason, that Mill, in his Considerations on Representative Government treatise, calls for coercion over “uncivilized” peoples to increase the economic productivity of their lives, even if this meant that they must be “for a while compelled to it,” including through instituting “personal slavery.”

All of this runs through the core of Enlightenment thought and cannot be discounted, as Murray does, by arguing that these were men of their time who thought as men of their time did, and that we should not pay too close of attention to this because then we destroy the ability to find any worth whatsoever in their thought, while simultaneously handing the weapon of acceptance to the points made by far-left ideologues. As I argued in my review of Murray’s book, the problem is that these views are indicative of a more widely shared worldview that grew to prominence in the 18th century among enlightened philosophes, immersed in a secularized, materialized, and naturalist worldview that did indeed reduce human groups to biological characteristics, in a way that had not been common before, even despite the groupishness and intolerance one would expect from pre-Enlightenment times. 

For example, one might decry the devastation wrought upon South America by Spanish Conquistadors, through war, rape, and plague. However, as Tom Holland shows in his wonderful 2020 account of Christendom, Dominion, this was also where the development of Catholic Canon Law during the Medieval age grew into maturity through the expansion of nascent human rights. Spanish clergy and even the Pope were appalled at the brutality against what they saw as noble but spiritually-misguided peoples, and they called for better treatment for the subjugated in secular and religious terms. This was rooted in a sense that these were human beings made by God in his image and, therefore, entitled to the appropriate treatment. The ideal was far from the reality, but the universalism on display here was of a more humane and deeply-held kind than that of the secular, materialist view held by the noble Enlightenment philosophes. 

This racial materialism is echoed today by the far-right, Ricardo Duchesne among them, who hold the mirror-image view of the Enlightenment as that by the anti-Western left, the difference being the emphasis on whether this is good or bad. What the Left looks at and condemns, the far-right looks at and celebrates. The problem for those like Murray, who seek to rescue the Enlightenment to buttress the failing and flailing secular project in today’s world, is that both sides have an awful lot of material to work with. 

Substantive Flaws: Intellectual Unoriginality

This flawed defence of a flawed project extends to making too great a claim for its intellectual originality. The use of reason to gain access to objective truth is held up as one of the crowning glories of Enlightenment thinking. Murray writes that “there is one other possibility to explain the oddity of the Enlightenment thinkers ending up so prominently in the firing line of our era. And that is this: The European Enlightenments were the greatest leap forward for the concept of objective truth, while “what has been worked away at in recent years has been a project in which verifiable truth is cast out.” This is a bold claim to make, and it is one that is echoed in the works of the likes of Steven Pinker, for whom Enlightenment means objectivity over subjectivity, secular rationalism over religious irrationalism. 

But this is a presentation of things that borders on the propagandistic. The idea that reason and objective truth were unknown, forgotten, or denigrated before some “childless men who must have forgotten their own childhood” suddenly thought them into being, is frankly absurd. The ancient Greeks first formulated laws of logical thinking, along with the law of non-contradiction. Moreover, Aristotle then developed the techniques and principles of philosophical proof. Aristotle is also regarded as having invented the syllogism (“if,” “then,” and “or”) crucial to dialectical philosophy. 

The knowledge and philosophy of the classical world, pursued for its own sake but producing the greatest utility to man from its apparent uselessness, was rediscovered in a broader sense by the Renaissance humanists of Florence, who revolutionized European knowledge and ideas through their reading of the ancients. This was hundreds of years before the Enlightenment shone its harsh glare on the world. Nor was this simply a story of Renaissance humanist triumph over Christian obscurantism, when Christian authorities were held as dogmatically rejecting the very idea that nature itself operated along rational lines according to observable laws.

In fact, one can make a strong case that much of the intellectual skill and rigor, along with the cosmological conception needed to take full advantage of the recovered knowledge and wisdom, had been cultivated and maintained by the forces of institutional Catholicism itself, going back well into the first millennium. For example, Father Stanley L. Jaki made the point that it was because of Christianity that Western natural and mechanical science could get off the ground and go further than classical Greek and Roman science ever could, basing this argument in the ideas that God was rational, made the world for man to observe through their rationality, and that the linearity of Christian time undergirded this rational approach to the world. The cyclical nature of Greek and Roman time, on the other hand, led to a fatalism and stagnation in intellectual inquiry. 

Going back further, Duchesne cites Marcia Colish who argues in her 1997 book Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400–1400 that the Latin Apologists of Christianity’s early years “were convinced that classical thought could and should be used to clarify and defend the Christian message.” For Augustine “the universe is subject to an orderly, rational law of nature in which nothing happens arbitrarily…Classical science and philosophy” were the foundation of Augustine’s view and, consequently, the view of Christianity in the centuries thereafter. As Colish writes, “medieval Europe is the only traditional society to modernise itself from within, intellectually no less than economically and technologically,” with one example being Saint Anselm and his use of “paronyms, modal propositions, hypothetical syllogisms, and negative formulations.” Anselm used this logical and philosophical acuity in his attempt to demonstrate God’s existence through logic. 

Edward Grant, also cited by Duchesne, in his 2001 book God and Reason in the Middle Ages, writes that the “self-conscious use of reason and the emphasis on rationality go back to the classical Greeks” and that “natural philosophy was welcomed within Western Christendom.” Echoing Jaki’s arguments outlined above, Grant goes on to write that the majority of “philosophers, scientists and natural philosophers in the ancient and medieval periods believed unequivocally in the existence of a unique, and objective world that, with the exception of miracles, was regarded as intelligible, lawful, and essentially knowable.” Grant further writes that from the 1st century A.D. on “Christianity adopted the idea of using philosophy and science…for comprehending revealed theology.” It is because of this fundamentally religious foundation to modern knowledge and philosophy that Michael Allen Gillespie could write of The Theological Origins of Modernity, the irony being that these theological origins did more to undermine Duchesne’s immoral worldview than Enlightenment thinkers ever did.

Conclusion

Having considered the evidence, it seems more accurate to say that the Enlightenment project presented itself as a savior from ignorance and poverty but was really a movement to dethrone the old social order rooted in hierarchies and aristocracies. And this took place alongside the denigration of the Christian faith and religious authorities in favor of secular governance, guided, of course, by the philosophers and writers doing the literary and intellectual defenestration and dethroning. The claims for the Enlightenment’s originality and greatness are inflated, claims that belie a movement oriented toward placing its proponents as the new aristocracy of the “rational and the industrious” over the “querulous and the contentious,” setting the template for our meritocracy today with all its Promethean arrogance and scientistic brutality. 

Reason untethered from experience leads to anarchy and madness, while Enlightenment unfiltered by faith is blinding. It is time to dim the lights so we can see clearly again, to see that criticizing the Enlightenment at root does not make one an anti-Western Marxist but, rather, true to the tradition of the religious thought that created the West and from which we are now pulling away.

Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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