It’s always difficult for persons of a conservative temperament to know what to think about the Enlightenment. If we consider the Enlightenment simply as a period of time, of course, the very idea of judging it makes little sense; periods of time are not a proper object of moral evaluation. If we think of it as a movement, however, with leaders, supporters, and opponents, practical goals and guiding principles, moral evaluation becomes unavoidable. The Enlightenment movement still shapes the times we live in, and it still arouses fervent support and bitter hostility. Moreover, since the 18th century the world has changed drastically, for better and for worse, and Enlightenment teachings that conservatives like Edmund Burke or Joseph de Maistre once contested nowadays can appear as bulwarks of sanity against barbarism. On the other hand, the Enlightenment tradition—a phrase that would have seemed oxymoronic to the philosophes themselves—encoded some traits in its DNA that, when combined with certain noxious genes of later times, Marxism for example, produced the monstrosities that today threaten the civilizational achievements of the West, including those of the Enlightenment itself.
It’s not clear whether Ritchie Robertson, the author of a splendid and highly readable new history of the Enlightenment, would agree with this last assertion. He sees little to criticize and much to defend in the Enlightenment as a movement of thought. In the battle between the Enlightenment and its declared enemies—revealed religions, ideological tyrannies, and outmoded traditions—he is firmly on the side of the Enlighteners (to use that tendentious but unavoidable word). Robertson is all in favor of enlightened commitments to toleration, free speech, the pursuit of happiness, and “the advance of reason, good sense and empirical inquiry against superstition, blind prejudice and the authority arrogated by political and ecclesiastical bodies.”
Scholarship in Hostile Territory
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 degree of moral courage. The modern academy is increasingly controlled by ferocious critics of the Enlightenment, activists who (speaking of trite) accuse the philosophes of promoting racism, sexism, colonialism, Western cultural imperialism, and employing reason as a tool of oppression. Recently the University of Edinburgh even removed the name of its most famous Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, from a building on the grounds that he was a champion of white supremacy. Oh dear.
But hostility to the lumières has infested the academy for some time. Today’s critics of the Enlightenment are descended from Frankfurt School thinkers like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, as well as from postmodern French theorists of the Sixties such as Foucault, who grounded the modern left’s rejection of Enlightenment values. For postmodernists, as Daniel Gordon writes, “Enlightenment is to postmodernism what the ‘Old Regime’ was to the French Revolution.” It is yet another part of the Western cultural heritage that needs to be burned to the ground before their utopia of perfect freedom and equality can rise from the ashes.
Some recent historians such as Margaret Jacobs and Jonathan Israel have tried to protect the Enlightenment from its enemies by reassuring the academic left about the movement’s radical bona fides. They trace back to the philosophes the origins of modern radical politics, social and sexual freedoms, and opposition to traditional religions. Other historians, like Dorinda Outram or the collective authors of the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (4 vols., 2003), have tried to make the target more difficult to hit. For them the Enlightenment was not a ‘project’ and had no unitary philosophy but was rather a shifting series of debates and concerns. It was crowned with the glowing halo of Diversity, which made pinning down its doctrines like nailing jelly to a wall. If you charged the Enlightenment with promoting X, you were wrong because it had also championed Y. If you didn’t like one Enlightenment there were several others to choose from.
A Unified System
Robertson is having none of this. For him the Enlightenment was “a conscious and deliberate attempt by thinkers better to understand humanity—and the world in which humans live—in order to promote happiness.” The Enlighteners belonged to a reform movement that shared a way of looking at the world, and they possessed, if not a common philosophy, at least a coherent set of ideas about how to make European societies more rational and civilized. This did not make them dogmatic, however. As Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, co-editor with Denis Diderot of the famous Encyclopédie (1751-1772), wrote, they rejected the esprit de système of 17th century philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz, preferring an esprit systèmatique, a spirit of empiricism which “directed attention away from abstract principles to the data of experience.” They rejected apriori reasoning and preferred generalizations based on the collection of evidence, issuing in “conclusions that are provisional and can be modified in the light of further findings.”
The same could be said of Robertson’s own method. His strategy for defending the Enlightenment is exquisitely empirical and historical. He refuses to be drawn into shouting matches about what elements of Enlightenment thought led to which praiseworthy or noxious features of the contemporary world. Hume and Voltaire are not Hitler and Stalin in wigs. Instead, he gives 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 describe what it actually said and did. This he does in exhaustive though sometimes exhausting detail. Yet, despite a tendency to digress, Robertson possesses great gifts as a synthesizer, and the book has a beautifully clear thematic structure, flowing gracefully through all the most important debates about science, toleration, religion, human nature, history, aesthetics, society, and politics. A good deal of attention is devoted to an aspect of the Enlightenment often overlooked: its schemes for the practical betterment of the human condition; the work done by enlightened artists, scientists and administrators to ease suffering and enhance the pleasures of life. Robertson sticks close to the texts and his frequent, well-chosen quotations let the Enlighteners speak for themselves. All the major authors and their most important works are presented, so that readers coming to the period for the first time, or those who want to extend and update what they learned in college about this key moment in Western history, could find no better place to start.
Sentiment, Reason, and Faith
A few distinctive themes emerge. Robertson is unhappy with the cliché that labels the Enlightenment “The Age of Reason.” Rousseau and the Romantics already caricatured the Enlighteners as unfeeling calculators, lacking sympathy for the downtrodden and appreciation for the sublime. The apotheosis of Kant as the Enlightenment thinker par excellence underwrote the view that duty trumped happiness as the era’s highest ethical goal. Robertson, who is a professor of German literature at Oxford, brings to bear a rich understanding of the novels, poetry, and other imaginative literature of the period; this allows him to flesh out a different portrait of the Enlightenment as an Age of Feeling. Sensibility, “an emotional participation in other people’s experiences,” was deepened by the great novels produced by the lumières: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloise, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther among many others. Sympathy and the cultivation of humane sentiments was the period’s replacement for religion as a social glue, and led to some of its most admirable innovations, such as penal reform and the prevention of cruelty to animals. Enlightenment rationality was not calculation but spirited argument, produced in informal social settings that allowed free debate and valued common sense above clever paradox. Theoretical reason always needed to be tempered and directed by appropriate sentiments. Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments underlay his advocacy of free trade among nations, since a healthy economy requires cooperation as much as competition. Enlighteners rejected the selfishness of Machiavellian reason of state (for Kant ‘an immoral doctrine of prudence’) and criticized political theories that gave too little credit to the human capacity for good. The concept of the sublime was explored by Edmund Burke decades before the Romantic theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher made sublime feelings the center of his defense of religion “against its cultured despisers.”
The philosophes of the Enlightenment are often identified as the “cultured despisers” of religion whose aim, following Voltaire, was écraser l’infâme, “to crush the infamous thing.” Robertson spends hundreds of pages showing that Enlightenment atheism was at best a marginal phenomenon, not the secret agenda of a cabal of illuminati. Voltaire himself was a Deist, not an atheist. “Dechristianization was hardly an enlightened policy,” and would have required a degree of tyranny to implement that was incompatible with Enlightenment ideals of toleration. In fact, the vast majority of Enlighteners were Christians, and there were movements in sympathy with the Enlightenment in all of the established churches, including the Roman Catholic church. What Enlighteners wanted was rational Christianity, sometimes but by no means always identical with Deism. Rational Christianity aimed to dispense with dogmas that could not be defended by reason and rejected the claims of the churches, supported by governments, to regulate intellectual life. Enlightened religious authorities, however, had a legitimate role to play in improving the behavior of the people, fighting superstition, and strengthening the bonds of society.
Robertson’s presentation of enlightened Christianity is of a piece with his overall view of the Enlightenment as relatively conservative in its aims and methods. It was a top-down phenomenon which advanced its reforms by bending the ears of enlightened rulers, the more powerful the better. It was anti-democratic in sentiment and in its cultural strategy. It endorsed the view, widespread before the late 18th century, that republics were mostly short-lived failures, and it accepted that republican government would not work well in any polity larger than a city state.
Robertson illustrates his case by comparing the extent to which the American and the French Revolution depended on Enlightenment ideas. The American Revolution was the more conservative of the two: “it aimed to throw off a government felt to be oppressive, but not to remodel society.” “The founding of the United States was celebrated as a triumph of reason and humanity, key values of the Enlightenment”; it was “a gentle, a peaceful, a voluntary and a deliberate transition from one constitution of government to another,” as James Wilson described it. It was admired by many European Enlighteners such as Hume, Turgot and Friedrich Schiller; Schiller even contemplated emigrating to the United States if its revolution proved successful.
The French Revolution, by contrast, took its intellectual bearings from Rousseau, an outlier and at times a harsh critic of the Enlightenment. Robespierre, while praising Rousseau, condemned the “sect” of the Encyclopedists as “ambitious charlatans” who received pensions from despots and had no respect for the rights of the people. “He encouraged the Jacobins to smash a bust of Helvétius, who had persecuted Rousseau.” The French Revolution was not a radicalization of the Enlightenment, but an event with its own inner dynamic that destroyed the delicate balance between tradition and innovation that the lumières had tried to maintain. They had wanted a just hierarchy where preeminence was earned by merit and intellect; the French revolutionaries launched Europe into a downward cycle driven by ever more radical forms of equality.
Progress and Authority
In short, if you are a small-l liberal, a liberal conservative in the popular oxymoron of the 19th century, you will find much to admire in Robertson’s Enlightenment. In a traditional conservative of the Burkean or Oakeshottian type it will inevitably elicit a more mixed response. Though Robertson points out, correctly, that Enlightenment science was experimental and practical and by no means a dogmatic system, the procedures of natural science still ended up becoming “the model for all knowledge.” This in effect left Science (with a capital S) as the only respected cultural authority once the older classical and Christian authorities had been dethroned.
“Science,” however, has certain defects when it comes to exercising authority. Its conclusions are constantly changing (real science is never “settled”), which makes its authority unstable. As those who have tried to “follow the science” during this pandemic year will surely appreciate, the effect of constantly changing scientific opinions is to undermine trust in science itself. Moreover, Science never speaks with one voice, and critics of authority can always find scientists with impressive degrees and credentials speaking on different sides of a question. People will tend to follow the advice they want to follow, or can be frightened into following. And the more important the questions to be answered, the less guidance Science can offer. The result of crowning Science as our king is to establish a dictatorship of those who have the power to control the message of Science. Real science is not meant to issue commands, but to inform human prudence. We still have to exercise our own practical judgement and not concede control over our polity to unelected experts.
Robertson also claims that most Enlighteners wanted to rationalize, not abolish sound traditions and the practice of true religion. This, again, may be true, but the powerful historical narrative of Progress that the Enlightenment popularized meant that, in the cultural world it created, traditions would always be associated with the primitive and religion would always be held suspect as an enemy of the future. To be sure, any reasonable conservative, whether liberal or traditional, must value the real progress in material security the world has made thanks to enlightened science and economics. Creating the “culture of growth” that brought the peoples of the modern world out of millenia of poverty must surely count as the Enlightenment’s greatest achievement. The enlightened creators of the myth of progress—Turgot, Condorcet, and Kant— also praised freedom as a necessary condition of progress. This did much to establish a presumption in favor of political liberty, freedom of religion, and human rights. Rightly understood and rightly ordered, all of these principles can and do contribute enormously to the betterment of mankind.
But the creators of the myth of progress also created a politics and a rhetoric of progress which defined progress as material abundance, as an ever-increasing autonomy of the individual from society, and as a license to transgress the limits of human nature. They impregnated history with a “narrative” in the sense used by modern political journalists: a tendentious reading of the past designed to influence the actions of citizens and politicians. The Enlightenment narrative undermined the ability of our common traditions to perform their proper functions: to anchor us in the past, to provide us with a noble ancestry, and to foster in us reverence for our forebears and for established authorities—many of which, after all, deserve reverence. The myth of progress with its attendant urge always to be “on the right side of history” in the end enabled that great naïveté of progressive elites: that good intentions and scientific models are enough to bring us into a more desirable future. It also sanctioned their authoritarian urges, for it is their narrative of progress that justifies the enlightened in sweeping aside any obstacles—legal, moral or constitutional—that stand in their way. As modern history has proven over and over again, real progress occurs in an environment of ordered liberty; authoritarian societies are stagnant societies.
As the French philosopher Rémi Brague once put it, intellectuals formed by the Enlightenment are like the ancient Christians who embraced the Marcionite heresy: they reject the authority of the Old Testament and see our ancestors who lived before the Enlightenment as deluded servants of an evil demiurge. Only the New Testament of modernity offers them truth and salvation. Modernity, however, is a process, not a state, and it is hard to inculcate loyalty or reverence towards a process. Yet loyalty to and reverence for its past is the principal basis of harmony and cohesion in any society. In this respect the legacy of the Enlightenment must still be questioned. Can any society survive that belittles its past and regards the present state of affairs, the lives and fortunes of its people, as nothing but a corpus vile for ever more radical social experiments? Can we raise our children to be relentless critics of tradition and still expect them to participate constructively in civil society? Do we want the arts, literature and philosophy of the past to nurture the next generation or merely serve as targets of their indignation? Ritchie Robertson would surely protest that such was never the intention of any Enlightener, and he would be right. But the unintended consequences of our acts, when they turn out badly, still constitute an indictment of our practical reason.