There's No Escaping the Enlightenment

American conservatism has always included thinkers who rejected the Enlightenment. Traditionalists, paleoconservatives, and some followers of Leo Strauss blamed the Enlightenment in its entirety for the moral ills and intellectual confusions of the modern world. Other conservatives in America were more selective, embracing John Locke and ideas from the moderate Scottish Enlightenment that helped shape the American founding.

Today some conservatives are trying to reshape American conservatism entirely in their own image, a process that involves trying to create a new “post-liberal” right divorced from any of the ideas associated with the Enlightenment. But there is a problem. These Enlightenment critics are not as hostile to the legacies of the Enlightenment as they might think. In reality, they are buying into illiberal ideas from the radical side of the Enlightenment that have been used to critique the Anglo-American tradition of conservatism. In their zeal to reject figures like Locke and Adam Smith, they are embracing some of the same critiques of America that socialists, nationalists, and others have made for the last two hundred years.

This is threatening the clarity and integrity of the American conservative movement. It is opening the door to authoritarian ideas that fusionist conservatives going back to William F. Buckley had always guarded against.

The Moderate and Radical Enlightenment

To understand how thinkers can end up absorbing ideas from intellectual traditions they claim to oppose, we must understand the nature of intellectual history. Intellectual history never moves in a straight line.  Ideas evolve over time and are often interpreted differently than what was originally intended by philosophers. Intellectuals in later times will blend ideas to suit their interests and to explain problems that exist at the time. In this way ideas can be uprooted from their original context, and as a result, be synthesized into something new.  What intellectuals at any given time in history conclude may not make theoretical sense to contemporary philosophers, but they will make sense to the intellectuals at the time.  

There are two broad streams of Enlightenment thought in the history of Western thought: the radical and the moderate. The radical Enlightenment was born mostly in France with key inputs from British philosophers such as Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. The moderate Enlightenment was mostly an Anglo-Scottish affair influenced by John Locke and Adam Smith.

The most prominent intellectual figures of the radical Enlightenment were Baruch Spinoza, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pierre Bayle, David Hume, Nicolas de Condorcet, Thomas Hobbes, and Immanuel Kant. Their ideas spawned the left side of the Western liberal tradition that gave rise to the French Revolution, socialism, communism, positivism, existentialism, radical libertarianism, and most recently to deconstructionism and post-modern progressivism.

Philosophically, the radical Enlightenment was based on a strict rejection of religion and traditional Christian views of natural law. The skepticism of Descartes evolved not only into a total forsaking of revealed religion, but into the radical empiricism and materialism expressed in the thinking of Hobbes, Hume, Bacon, and the scientific materialism of Karl Marx and other socialists. Their belief in the power of empirical reasoning evolved into highly refined philosophies of rationalism. These gave rise to Kantianism and the phenomenology of Georg Friedrich Hegel and his followers in the idealist traditions. It also laid the philosophical groundwork for positivism’s rise in the 19th century.

The moderate Enlightenment has a different history and set of ideas. It had a heavily Anglo-Scottish character and included not only famous English figures such as Locke and Isaac Newton, but philosophers and scientists from the Scottish Enlightenment such as Smith, Francis Hutcheson, Lord Kames, and William Cullen. It also includes continental figures like Montesquieu as well as legal theories of the British common law tradition, especially that expressed in William Blackstone’s Commentaries.

Certainly, there were radicals in England and Scotland. Thomas Paine can be described as a radical in America. But whereas Paine was influential as a pamphleteer during the revolution, it can’t be said that he did much to shape the formation of the new republican government in America. That was more indebted to the ideas of figures like Locke, Montesquieu, Blackstone, and Smith.

A political backdrop to the British Enlightenment was the Whig tradition that emphasized the supremacy of Parliament and advocated toleration toward Protestant dissenters. Herein we can locate the Irish-born “Old Whig,” Edmund Burke, an advocate of toleration of Catholics, critic of the East India Company, defender of the Americans, but also a deep skeptic of the French Revolution and the pure rationalism he believed inspired it.

The moderate Enlightenment was most influential in the American Revolution and the founding of the republic. The American founders worked the Lockean interpretation of natural rights and natural law into their system of government, but they planted it in a fertile soil of a civil society that deeply respected religion and classical republican virtues. They adapted Locke’s ideas of natural rights to natural law theory, especially as expressed by Protestant natural law theorists like Hugo Grotius and Emer de Vattel and Anglican divines such as Richard Hooker.  

The American founders were practical men, not professional philosophers. They did not embrace all of Locke’s philosophy, but only what was useful to their cause.  Their synthesis of Lockean ideas with religious-based natural law theories makes the American founding historically unique.  It is not a philosophical reification of Lockean philosophy per se, but an intellectual synthesis of Lockean ideas with religious-based natural law theories. Only once this is understood can the words of the Declaration of Independence be properly understood. The “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” implanted the rules of moral conduct in the human mind, and the people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”     

Freedom and the Individual

Even a surface knowledge of the history of these two trends in the Enlightenment shows profound differences. The most long-lasting difference was how the followers of these two streams of thought defined liberty. It was not the constitutionally limited “negative” liberty of Locke and Jefferson that inspired Rousseau and his radical heirs, but the old utopian promise of the human being totally free from the miseries of this world. It was “positive” as political scientists today would define government-provided freedoms. It was also quasi-spiritual in nature, and yet it was grounded in a thoroughly secular view of the human person.

In the radical tradition, the totalistic individual ended up losing his or her individuality entirely to the requirements of fealty to the community.

Rousseau saw individual freedom as the secular equivalent of the saved soul, and since achieving that goal was such a tall order, he intended that his civil authority, manifesting the General Will, must have powers similar to those possessed by a king and the pope. From this perspective, justice was not, as Locke envisioned, about prohibiting interference with other people’s liberties, but more in line with the medieval view that justice was something given to a private individual from the whole. Rousseau very much believed in individual rights but thought that they must be relinquished to the community via the social contract. Thus was Rousseau “socializing” individual rights in a modern sense of the word. The rights of individuals were subordinated to the General Will which was supposedly representative of the common interests and virtues of the community.  

Another difference concerned attitudes about human reason. The pure rationalism of Rousseau, Kant, and their followers represented a complete break with the ancient and scholastic conception of right reason as the mind’s capacity to know moral, philosophical, and religious truth. Attitudes toward natural law in the moderate Enlightenment tradition were less rationalistic and more reasonable in the sense that they acknowledged reason’s capacities but also underscored the limits of the human mind, which in turn necessitated putting significant checks on the powers of civil government. In addition, Locke and others in the moderate tradition either embraced or at least tolerated older ideas about natural law and its ultimate roots in a Creator, whereas radicals completely ruled them out.

Radicals and moderates also tended to view progress differently. The heirs of the radicals looked upon progress as a straightforward march toward human perfection based on ever-unfolding freedom and equality. Moderates, on the other hand, saw progress in more modest terms, using science, learning, and education to improve the moral and physical well-being of mankind.

There is an important distinction to be made as well between how the radicals and moderates regarded the human individual. The radicals tended to view the individual as a totalistic manifestation of society (i.e., socially determined), whereas the moderates viewed society as made up of individuals with the right to make choices. In the radical tradition, the totalistic individual ended up losing his or her individuality entirely to the requirements of fealty to the community. The moderates, on the other hand, located natural rights in the individual which were to be protected by government from attempted transgressions by other individuals or the state.

Radical Enlightenment, Left and Right

I have been using relative terms “moderate” and “radical” to describe the different trends of the Enlightenment, but it is also possible to understand the moderate Enlightenment as liberal in the classic sense of the word (respecting individual rights, civil liberties, economic freedom, limited government), and the radical Enlightenment as illiberal (belief in social or collective rights, strict egalitarianism, socialized distributive justice, and government control of the economy and society).

The left tradition of illiberalism is straightforward. It is composed of the various intellectual movements descending from the radical side of the Enlightenment, including Kantian idealism, Hegelianism, Marxism, socialism, and positivism and its various philosophical offspring. In political terms, the aim of modern leftist illiberalism was a socialized form of freedom as opposed to the liberty of individuals, and egalitarianism (what is today commonly called equity) as opposed to equality of opportunity and equality before the law. By contrast, the moderate understandings of liberty and rights evolved into classical liberalism, which was roundly condemned as “bourgeois” liberalism by Marxists and socialists.

But there is a second version of illiberalism that is more complex. It is the modern rightist illiberal strain of thinking that found expression in the counter-reaction to the Enlightenment in the 19th and 20th centuries. It started with the early-19th-century romantic rebellion of figures like Goethe and Chateaubriand against the French Revolution. Taking up this theme, European conservatism in the 19th century associated the ills of the modern world with liberalism and rationalism. The critique of the Enlightenment characterized the conservative politics of Joseph de Maistre who wanted to restore monarchy and Christian supremacy in Europe. In philosophical terms, the most important legacy of the anti-Enlightenment rebellion was the philosophies of the will found in Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. The European right of the 19th century was deeply pessimistic and anti-modern, and these philosophers gave the old revolt a new lease on life. Their ideas, for example, emerged as important intellectual forces in the reactionary folkish nationalism of the late 19th century, particularly in Germany.  It is no accident that works by Nietzsche, the preeminent philosophical critic of modernity at the end of the 19th century, ended up in the knapsacks of German imperial soldiers in World War I. Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Will to Power was interpreted politically (albeit on his own philosophical terms incorrectly) as representing the mystical power of the German people.    

Both communism and fascism developed totalitarian ideologies that empowered the state to completely oppress individual freedom: the classic definition of illiberalism.

Whereas the anti-rationalism and anti-liberalism of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche tended politically to lean right, there was an offshoot of the anti-Enlightenment rebellion that erupted in the 20th century that tilted to the left. The work of neo-Marxists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School, for example, rejected rationalism as much as any right-wing romantic did. They argued that the rise of fascism showed that reason had become “regressive” and thus repressive. They thus called for a social-psychological kind of Marxism that opened the door for irrationalism as a key feature of modern progressivism. Employing the subjectivism of psychology and phenomenology, the Frankfurt School invented such illogical inversions as “intolerance is a higher form of tolerance” that today are a staple of critical theory and post-modern identity politics.

All forms of modern radicalism, whether left or right, are the result of this strange intellectual alliance. For example, on the left, it was the fusion of ideas from Marx, Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud that created the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the New Left, and the Frankfurt School. Nietzsche and Freud were not part of the left but arose from the pessimism and irrationalism that rejected Enlightenment liberalism altogether. What brought these contradictory intellectual trends together was a common rejection of “stale” rationalism and “bourgeois” liberalism represented by the moderate Enlightenment’s Anglo-American liberalism.

Modern fascism and radical nationalism also show the blending of these illiberal trends from the radical right and radical left. The left-radical Enlightenment’s emphasis on egalitarianism clearly was found in the socialist side of Nazism and fascism. Both detested bourgeois liberalism and capitalism as much as any communist did. Moreover, neo-paganism was a feature of Nazism that rejected traditional religion as much as the Marxists. Both communism and fascism developed totalitarian ideologies that empowered the state to completely oppress individual freedom: the classic definition of illiberalism.

As we contemplate this fusion of left and right illiberalism in Western thought, we should not let our prejudices about the “left and right” confuse us. The action-reaction movement of ideas over time tends to move forward in a spiraling motion that synthesizes rather than totally rejects what came before. In Hegelian terms, the synthesis contains elements of both the thesis and the antithesis. For example, Rousseau re-interpreted medieval conceptions of distributive justice, but this in no way makes him “medieval.” Rousseau not only completely changed this old idea, but he also invented it anew in a modern context.

It must therefore be plainly stated: There is no philosophy or political movement today that is not touched by the Enlightenment in some way. Even attempts to reject it completely end up accepting some of its assumptions, ideas, and attitudes. It is one thing to learn from the past, but another to believe it can be totally rejected or resurrected.

The Illiberal, Radical Right

This failure to distinguish sets of ideas coming from the Enlightenment period is the deepest flaw in the post-liberal movements flourishing on the American right. As a result, it is not only targeting the wrong villains—Locke instead of Rousseau—it is blind to the influence of the radical Enlightenment on its own mode of thinking. Integralists, nationalists, Founding-skeptical traditionalists, and other illiberal radicals of the post-liberal right are—despite their stated philosophical opposition to progressivism—adopting some of the same techniques and tactics of their supposed enemies.

Religious integralists often sound like Marxist revolutionaries in their contempt for “bourgeois” liberalism, disdain for capitalism, advocacy of egalitarianism, and their willingness to use a centralized state to realize their goals. Nationalists and other populists condemn fusionist conservatism (which they mistakenly equate with liberalism) in terms similar to those used by progressives. Some conservatives who claim to be Christians adopt an amoral (and sometimes immoral) strategy of fighting and winning at all costs that is anything but Christian. They may think they are evoking Christ or Aquinas, but their rhetoric and public ethics resemble that of Nietzsche.

In the attempt to find a pure illiberalism untainted by any affiliation with classical liberalism at all, new right illiberalism is not only resurrecting old authoritarian ideas, mostly from Europe and Latin America, that American conservatives had intentionally rejected. They are also employing discredited post-modern critical methods of interpretation to deconstruct American conservatism. Some post-liberals have even come to the point of rejecting the American Founding. While it is true that all founders did not think exactly alike, they all accepted the premises that government should be limited and that natural rights should be protected—i.e., premises that today are either rejected or questioned by some on the new right.

These critics are taking a page straight out of the radical Enlightenment. They are channeling its longstanding commitment to perpetual revolution and change by rejecting a crucial part of the American tradition, not to mention its disdain for individual liberty and natural rights. In their zeal to overturn American traditions, they are inventing something totally new and foreign to the American experience. Whether they realize it or not, the postliberal right is becoming a mirror image of the very radicalism they claim to reject. 

Voices on the new right not only misinterpret Locke and Smith (and by inference Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Washington). They also implicitly turn their backs on Burke. Some are even trying to transform him into a modern nationalist. But Burke could not be more different from the nationalist populists of the New Right. He was a Whig who was not only committed to liberty but who was deeply skeptical of the French Revolution: the political movement that, in many respects, invented modern nationalism. True, Burke respected organic traditions, but he would have had no use for the quasi-mystical and mythical claims of ethnic-based nationalism. Moreover, by any respectful interpretation, Burke would be appalled by the neo-Rousseauism of the new right revolutionaries and their condescending and dismissive view of postwar modern American conservatism.

Telling the Truth

The Enlightenment is clearly a mixed bag. But it is not monolithic. The ideas from its moderate traditions make up essential elements of American identity and the American system of civil and constitutional government. Today’s American progressivism is descended from ideas developed by the radical Enlightenment and its intellectual heirs that critique this legacy of the moderate Enlightenment. Oddly, and even contrary to expectations, the strongly illiberal movements of the post-liberal American right are doing something similar. They are far more in sync with the ideas of Enlightenment radicals than moderates like Locke or figures associated with the Scottish Enlightenment.

Overall, I would give the Enlightenment “one and a half cheers.” Its Anglo-Scottish and Whig traditions not only helped make America a great country; they still hold the key to overcoming the current cultural crisis of confidence the country is now experiencing. You do not defeat the tyranny of “woke” governments by further empowering the state. You do so by weakening the ability of government to mobilize people, institutions, and the economy. You do not overcome the moral rot of individual expressionism by suppressing liberty but by returning virtue and morality to civil society. You do not check oppressive governments by expanding the administrative state, but by disempowering it. And you do not combat the irrationalism of the left by trying to outdo it with an irrationalism of the right.

Conservatives must stand against the illiberal utopianism that is getting stronger on the right. Some in that quarter have declared war on liberty and limited, constitutional government. Others are not convinced of the rightness of this cause, but they remain silent out of fear, confusion, or venality. It is a dangerous thing indeed when sections of the once strong patriotic party of America—the conservative movement—adopt a posture that, in some cases, verges on hostility to America itself. If this trend is not reversed, America could end up in the same place as all other illiberal or authoritarian societies—unfree, ruled by men not laws, and addled by demagogues whose idea of freedom is the destruction of other Americans that they call enemies.