Perception Is Everything

Neither Bishop Berkeley nor his famous dictum Esse est percipi — “To be is to be perceived” — gets more than a passing reference in Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters. But there is a sense in which those words could have served as the book’s epigraph. For Pagden shows, albeit inadvertently, how little the rhetoric of Enlightenment owed—and owes today—to intellectual substance, and how much to attitude, posturing, and sheer bluff. The Enlightenment matters insofar it is perceived to matter. To a very great extent, what was true in it wasn’t new and what was new wasn’t true.

Everyone knows the potted version of the story: Whereas medieval and Reformation-era Christian dogmatism stifled scientific advance and fostered persecution and wars of religion, Enlightened thinkers promoted reason, tolerance, and cosmopolitanism; and if the French Revolution took the movement to excess, this was an aberration, and all that we value in the modern world we owe to the Enlightenment. Pagden knows both that this standard narrative is simplistic and that the Enlightenment has serious critics. But whatever nuance there is in his history and analysis is in the service of apologetics. Pagden is never in doubt that there are definite white hats and black hats in the story of the Enlightenment, and that the standard narrative is right about who is wearing which.

His confidence is unearned. Despite being better informed and less obnoxious than New Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Pagden’s understanding of religion is ultimately not much more subtle than theirs is. To be sure, he sometimes tries to be fair to Scholastic and other religious thinkers. But he also commits some major howlers, and his evident dislike for certain contemporary religious figures and movements—which he sees as enemies of the Enlightenment’s legacy—leads him to misrepresent their views. Nor does Pagden perceive the extent to which the ideals he credits to the Enlightenment in fact owe to the Scholasticism it rebelled against, and do not sit well with the metaphysical naturalism the Enlightenment’s successors put in place of Scholasticism.

Consider the cosmopolitanism that Pagden regards as among the Enlightenment’s most important contributions. There are, on this view, human rights that are universal, transcending contingent cultural and historical circumstances, and they reflect a common human nature. Yet there is nothing distinctively “Enlightened” about this view. As Pagden himself acknowledges, Scholastic natural law theorists affirmed a common human nature; and some of them, such as Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de las Casas, developed a notion of universal human rights, on the basis of which they argued for humane treatment of the American Indians. So what’s so special about Enlightenment cosmopolitanism?

Trying to find an answer to this question, Pagden claims that Scholastic natural law theory was inadequate insofar as it rested on a dubious doctrine of “innate ideas,” and he devotes a few pages to criticizing the notion. This is embarrassingly incompetent. In fact, as good Aristotelians, Scholastic natural law theorists like Aquinas explicitly rejected the doctrine of innate ideas. (“There is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses” is a famous Scholastic maxim.) And in fact, it was some of the heroes of the Enlightenment thinkers — rationalist philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz — who championed innate ideas.

Pagden is also enamored of the appeal made by David Hume and others to “sympathy” and “sentiment” as the ground of our moral treatment of one another. Of course, the Scholastics would not deny that sympathy is part of our nature. But they also affirmed something Hume famously rejected, viz. the thesis that our natural tendencies have normative force. For the Scholastic natural law theorist, if our nature points us in the direction of a certain end or goal as to a final cause, then it would be irrational for us to act contrary to that end. By contrast, Hume, who rejects final causality and the rest of the Scholastic metaphysical apparatus, would deny that any fact about our nature can tell us what we ought to do. For the Humean, though most of us happen to be moved by sympathy, this in no way entails that someone who fails to be so moved is behaving irrationally. Contrary to what the Scholastic maintains, in Hume’s view “the rules of morality … are not conclusions of reason.” So, how exactly do moral sentiment theorists like Hume provide firmer intellectual foundations for cosmopolitanism than the Scholastics? Pagden not only fails to provide an answer but does not even perceive the philosophical difficulties inherent in the views he admires.

In other ways too it is quite odd — at least once one moves beyond Enlightenment rhetoric to the actual substance of the relevant ideas — that anyone could seriously think the moderns provided a better foundation for a cosmopolitan moral and political order than the Scholastics had. The Scholastics, following Aristotle, affirmed that human beings are naturally social; modern thinkers like Hobbes and Locke denied it. Cardinal Bellarmine argued for limited government; the rabid anti-Scholastic Thomas Hobbes favored absolutism, and the French Revolution gave us the Terror. Scholastics like Vitoria and Las Casas grounded natural rights in human nature itself, something that could be known and understood whether or not one affirmed the existence of God; John Locke, critic of Scholasticism and hero of the Enlightenment, gave his doctrine of rights an explicitly theological basis. For Locke, human beings have a right not to be killed or enslaved only because they are God’s “workmanship,” and thus his “property” and his “servants… sent into the world by his order, and about his business.” It is, strictly speaking, God’s rights as our maker and owner that are violated when we harm each other. Say what you will about such a view, it is hardly an advance for the kind of multicultural, secular political morality Pagden celebrates.

Pagden, unfortunately, is too busy peddling tired clichés to consider such contrasts. For the Scholastics, he assures us, “science consisted in the painstaking reading and rereading of a canon of supposedly authoritative texts.” Yet Aquinas famously held that “the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest.” And historians of science like William A. Wallace and James Weisheipl — and, more recently, Edward Grant, James Hannam, and John Freely — have shown how much continuity there actually was between the methods of the early modern scientists and those of their Scholastic predecessors.

Then there is the obligatory rote citation of Hume as having put paid to the theological edifice of Scholasticism. In fact the most Hume accomplished was to score some easy points against the “design argument” for the crudely anthropomorphic watchmaker god of the deists — itself an invention of the Enlightenment — while leaving the far more sophisticated arguments of Aquinas, Scotus, Suarez, and Co. unscathed. Though Pagden admits that Scholasticism was “an imposing intellectual edifice” that has often been “caricature[d],” he is too much in love with the standard narrative to see how much it owes to those caricatures. He is, essentially, just repeating the history that was written by the winners, one which reflected their polemical needs rather than the actual facts. (Pagden praises Hume as a “truly original thinker,” but as historians of philosophy have long recognized, key elements of Hume’s thought were anticipated by medieval writers like William of Ockham and Nicholas of Autrecourt. And as historian of philosophy Walter Ott has put it, Hume “all but plagiariz[ed]” from the Cartesian philosopher Nicolas Malebranche. Even what was old in the Enlightenment wasn’t always true.)

Pagden is no fairer to his contemporaries. He seriously proposes that “the Christians who crowd the ‘megachurches’ of the United States” are so ignorant that “they have probably never even heard of St. Paul.” (Really? So when not thumping their Bibles, they never open them to the Pauline epistles?) Pagden suggests that Pope Benedict XVI “may look back nostalgically upon a world in which… secularism [was] a slightly freakish anomaly,” and implies that the pope emeritus “wish[es] to see a world ruled by theocracies.” In fact Benedict has affirmed that there is such a thing as “a healthy secularism” and has stated that “where the Church itself becomes the state freedom becomes lost.”

Pagden claims that former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft asserted, in a speech at Bob Jones University, that “we have no king but Jesus” and that the separation of Church and State is “a wall of religious oppression.” This attempt to paint Ashcroft as a shrill theocrat — Pagden alleges that Ashcroft favors “a fusion of Church and State” — is a disgraceful mixture of libel and bad scholarship. While the first phrase quoted from Ashcroft was used in the speech in question, the second comes from a different speech and a different context. (The Bob Jones University speech can easily be found online, but Pagden evidently didn’t bother to read it. Instead he cites an article by Garry Wills as his source for Ashcroft’s remarks.) In the “religious oppression” speech, Ashcroft in fact affirmed the separation of Church and State as something “designed to protect the church,” and criticized those secularists who would make of it an excuse for oppression. In the Bob Jones University remarks, Ashcroft was citing a Revolutionary War-era slogan meant as an expression of resistance to the British Crown. In neither case was there any suggestion whatsoever that the Church should be dictating to the State.

But then, it seems that for Pagden, “Enlightenment” has nothing essentially to do with getting your facts right or being fair to opponents, at least if the opponents are religious. Nor does it really have much to do with reason (though it has a lot to do with chatting up reason). It is fitting that Pagden admires the British moral sentiment thinkers as much as he does, for sentiment is what he — and the Enlightenment itself, at the end of the day — are really about. Enlightenment is about having the right sensibilities, uttering the right shibboleths, and, perhaps above all, hating the right people. To be Enlightened is to be in love with the idea of being Enlightened, never to shut up about how wonderful it is to be Enlightened, never to stop insisting how very awful and unenlightened are those who don’t like the Enlightenment. It is about excluding those people from the ever-widening circle of inclusion, and keeping their ideas off the freethinker’s limitless menu of options. Critics of the Enlightenment have accused it of hypocrisy. Pagden’s attempt to defend it only confirms the accusation.