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Dare to know! The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters

The Enlightenment and why it still matters cover
The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters
by Anthony Pagden
Oxford University Press
456pp
$38.95 AU
Published June, 2013
ISBN 9780199660933

It is amazing, in the early twenty-first century, that there is anything controversial left about the Enlightenment. Like it or not, believe it or not, we are all its inheritors. The Enlightenment conditions every aspect of our material, political, social and psychological life. Science, democracy, individuality, mass society, celebrity, therapy, electric lights, your right to marry (or not) the partner of your choice, cheap international air travel, your iPhone: pick a definitive aspect of today and it will lead back to the Age of Reason.

It is not as if we have a choice in the matter. We may prefer to pretend or even act ‘as if’, like children who have known for years that there is no such thing as Father Christmas but still leave a bottle of beer out for Dad and rip open their presents with glee in the morning, but even the Enlightenment’s most vocal critics – the nostalgic conservatives and the stern religious-types who damn its pernicious influence – are conditioned by it. Anyone who reads the to-and-fro of eighteenth century argument will see what I mean. Today’s conservatives will find themselves agreeing with yesterday’s progressives – unless, perhaps, they belong to the Taliban, or to that percentage of American Republicans who may as well belong to the Taliban for all they have absorbed of the enlightened values of Western modernity.

It is not easy to see the point of debate about the legacy of the Enlightenment either, especially when it ramps up controversy and gets people hot under the collar. Free speech or Stalinism, human rights or racism, the cosy welfare state or the atomising free market state: you can’t cherry pick bits of the modern world and put them in boxes marked ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It’s a package. All of these things are the legacy of the Enlightenment, because the Enlightenment is simply what happened in Europe a few hundred years ago. It changed everything, the way Christianity and Islam and the invention of vaccines changed everything.

And while we are on the subject, can we please stop saying democracy was invented by the Greeks, just because we borrowed and twisted a term or two from them? Call them republicans if you like, but such a miniscule proportion of Greeks were allowed a say in their own affairs that their form of government was not any kind of democracy we would recognise today. Universal suffrage, too, came from the Enlightenment. Even emotional and parochial reactions to the universalism and rationalism of the Enlightenment, such as Romanticism and nationalism, were part of the Enlightenment. It is like the misnomer of ‘post’-modernism today, which is just an ongoing engagement with the contradictions that modernism throws up. If you keep reacting to Daddy, then Daddy is still the boss.

This brings us to the point of the Enlightenment, which is about being a grown up. When Immanuel Kant dashed off his newspaper piece ‘What is Enlightenment?’, published in 1784 alongside a few other answers to an adversarial essay, he described the tidal wave advancing on Europe. The days of enslavement were passing, he said, because people were waking up from the ‘self-imposed immaturity’ of their tutelage to church and state. He urged people to use their own reason and their own judgment. Above all, he urged people to have the courage to do so. ‘Sapere Aude!’ was his famous injunction: Dare to know!

Science had already made irreparable inroads into received wisdom. That the earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa, may be the best known of them. ‘Eppure si mouve’ – ‘and yet it moves’ – Galileo is said to have muttered in 1633, when forced by the Vatican to recant that piece of scientific observation. Isaac Newton, born the year after Galileo died, was the towering figure of natural philosophy, and Kant, the towering philosopher of metaphysics and ethics, was thinking of Newton when he expressed his awe at the ‘starry heavens above me and the moral law within me’. Like other philosophers of the Enlightenment – Frenchmen like Descartes and Rousseau, Scotsmen like Hume and Smith, Dutchmen like Grotius and Spinoza, and Englishmen like Hobbes and Locke – Kant brought scientific method, including empiricism, to bear on moral, political and legal problems.

Some of those philosophers, like Kant, believed in the Christian God; others, like Hume, were non-believers. Terrible scholarly feuds boiled across Europe, as philosophers and scientists accused each other of atheism. Careers were wrecked. Hume was refused a university posting because of his perceived atheism. The Church of Scotland considered charging him, not only with heresy – which was bad enough – but with infidelity. His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) were only published posthumously. Born into a wealthy Dutch family, Spinoza was excommunicated from his synagogue and eked out a meagre living as a lens-grinder while he worked on his dazzling ideas. Some considered him an atheist; Novalis called him ‘that God intoxicated man’. His Ethics (1677) was also published posthumously.

That so many philosophers’ arguments against the existence of God were published only after their deaths is doubly instructive: they may have been keen to avoid earthly prosecution, but the pervasive religious belief that would consign them to the flames of hell clearly meant nothing to them. All these thinkers – theist, non-theist and atheist alike – set the supernatural aside in the new spirit of humanism, in order to base their findings on the evidence of their senses and what they could reason about the material world around them. No angels dancing on pinheads; no miracles of levitation. Even theologians had to take the new spirit of enquiry into account. Several of Kant’s greatest followers were theology students, admirer-critics – including Hegel and Herder – who sought to fill the holes they found in his monumental metaphysics.

The Enlightenment was not only about liberation from religion. The revolutionary American and the French constitutions, written in the late-eighteenth century, are founding documents of the political Enlightenment. It would take years before women in France, and women and non-white people in the US, would be covered by them, but they began an unstoppable drive towards universal suffrage. They were the founding documents of liberal democracy, in which people were not only given a say in their government, but were guaranteed unparalleled freedoms in their private and public lives.

‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’: if ever there was a slogan that captured the Enlightenment spirit, that was it. ‘Liberté, egalité, fraternité’: the emphasis is slightly different, tilted away from individualism toward mutual responsibility, but the ingredients are still there. No American or French citizen would be coerced by prince or prelate. Every adult individual had gained the right, as an independent moral agent, to decide what was good and what was right for himself.

Now we know that the worst of European imperialism and intra-European warfare lay ahead: eight million Congolese dead under the brief and brutal personal rule of King Leopold of Belgium; six million Jewish dead under the even briefer regime of Adolf Hitler. In the time between the first stirrings of the Enlightenment during the Renaissance and the aftermath of the Second World War, when the West swore ‘never again’ and established a lasting federation in Europe and watertight military treaties spanning liberal democracies across the world, the spirit of progress waxed and waned. One minute Germany was Nazi, the next it was a divided Cold War battlefield, and the next it was a unified liberal state with a female Chancellor, laws against hate speech and a generous welfare state. One minute Spain was the last fascist state under General Franco channelling the spirit of the Inquisition, the next there was Pedro Almodovar. And all the way through there were upticks (the French intellectuals who turned out in support of Dreyfus, and the later generation who joined the Resistance) and downticks (the French intellectuals who cheered Dreyfus’s imprisonment and lived quite comfortably, thank you, under Nazi occupation). And there were contradictions. The writer of the American constitution and the phrase ‘land of the free’ was a slave owner. The British, whose Magna Carta was the first codification of civil liberties, remains a class-riven monarchy where the upper echelons of the aristocracy still earn fabulous rental incomes from land ownership, now alongside the billionaire beneficiaries of relatively unchecked post-Thatcher capitalism.

All of this – the contradictions, the about-faces, the progressions and regressions, the many and varied strands of argument and implementation – is the legacy of the Enlightenment. Which makes the title of historian Anthony Pagden’s latest book, The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters, puzzling. How can it not matter?

Pagden’s book is long, exhaustive and exhausting. The bibliography alone covers eighteen and a bit pages. And yet it is highly selective too. The mind-boggling advances of science barely rate a mention, and the terrifying (at the time) ramifications of the metaphysics are underplayed. Nor is the organisation of the book clear. There are moments when one thinks, this is all very interesting but where is it going? It doesn’t help that Pagden paraphrases, for paragraphs at a time, writers he could not possibly agree with, given his framework. This lends the whole enterprise an air of surreality at times. Wait, he agrees with de Maistre? But then he calls him a crank, so he doesn’t. But then he does say that de Maistre has the single most simple and penetrating take on the Enlightenment.

After 320 pages of legions of writers and thinkers – more than a dozen names dropped on an average page – and many passages quoted for and against, this card-carrying daughter of the Enlightenment found herself reading with approval a quote from the arch-conservative Edmund Burke. ‘Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual, with whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new philosophy,’ Burke wrote shortly after the French revolution. Too right.

Most disorienting, though, is Pagden’s organising proposition, which is that cosmopolitanism was the central ideal and most cherished hope of the Enlightenment, and that its rapid coming to fruition in our own time is causing a backlash. It is not surprising that he should be taken with cosmopolitanism because his personal biography in a study in it. He was educated in Chile and England, and has taught at universities across Europe and the US. He is a specialist in imperialism and migration. His thought is eclectic: he has taught across the disciplines of history, politics and philosophy. His new book, unfortunately, reflects the breadth more than the depth. And because it has a polemical purpose rather than a scholarly one – that is, it argues the Enlightenment was primarily about cosmopolitanism and it’s a jolly good thing it was too – its emphases are idiosyncratic.

Pagden’s focus on this thin aspect of Enlightenment thinking is curious. Cosmopolitanism was only a strand, and even those who have made the study of cosmopolitanism their life’s work may disagree with the prominence he gives it. It is now a key element of the international liberal agenda, but through most of the centuries Pagden documents it was little more than a fancy ideal. His scrupulous efforts at even-handedness – he outlines counter-Enlightenment arguments carefully and gives examples of the excruciatingly slow and uneven progress of egalitarian views among Enlightenment figures – shows this up. There are whole chapters, for example, given to discussion of the essential racism of the Enlightenment. His endless examples of Enlightenment beliefs about the benefits of ‘civilisation’, seen as a teleological progress towards the ultimate grail of political and personal freedom, and the inferiority of the miserable lives of non-European savages are no advertisement for the Enlightenment’s definition of cosmopolitanism.

‘Such “globalism” or “cosmopolitanism” is also an Enlightenment conception,’ he writes in his preface, ‘and it is one of my main objectives in this book to describe how it became possible for an admittedly small number of European intellectuals to refer to themselves as ultimately not English or French, Dutch, Saxon, Spanish or Neapolitan, but as “citizens of the world”.’ On the following page, he adds that cosmopolitanism

came to stand for a form of ecumenism open to all those who were prepared to live by certain minimal legal and moral codes. It became a way of combating the narrow tribalism which to so many seemed to be the ultimate cause of so many of the ills of the world.

Tell that to the American slaves, and to the multiplying victims of Europe’s second colonial expansion in the late-nineteenth century during the competitive build up to World War I. Those enlightened ‘men of the world’, comfortable in their own skin, as the French say, were sophisticated, travelled, multilingual, well-read and considered themselves utterly superior not only to ‘savages’ but to their own working class, the bourgeoisie and the fading aristocracy, all of whom had their petty affairs to protect: whether it be finding enough to eat, maintaining their wealth, or upholding their chivalric honour.

Pagden begins his journey with the French Enlightenment figure, the Marquis de Condorcet, whom, he says, was caught out as an aristocrat fleeing the Revolution when he ordered twelve eggs in one omelette at an inn. It would not have occurred to someone of lesser rank to order so many eggs for one meal. This little anecdote is the hook, as we say in journalism, for Pagden to quote from Condorcet’s work, describing his hope that humanity in the future would eliminate inequality between nations, inequality within nations, and finally attain the ‘real perfection of mankind’. ‘All people’s should one day approach the state of civilisation attained by the most enlightened, the most free, and the most free from prejudices, such as are the French and the Anglo-Americans,’ Condorcet wrote. No political correctness hovering on the horizon there. Condorcet did not think much of his next-door neighbours in Europe, let alone Africans or Asians, and he was happy to place European Americans in the ranks of prejudice-free civilisation, despite their decimation of the indigenous people they encountered when they took the continent.

Even Kant, whose essay Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795) is the ur-text of modern cosmopolitanism, was racist in our understanding of the word. He disapproved of colonialism more for what it said about the morals of civilised Europeans than for the horrors it visited upon the poor savages who lived in other parts of the world, sympathetic though he was to them. Cosmopolitanism was a regulative ideal during the Enlightenment, rather than a practical orientation in the world. It signified a worldwide republic of letters, the common interests and ideals of educated men everywhere. It did not signify a willingness to accept foreigners on an equal footing, morally or intellectually, let alone to fight for their freedom from their colonial conquerors or their own despots.

Pagden, conventionally, traces the history of cosmopolitanism back to the Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic in the fifth century BC, who famously said, ‘I am a citizen of the world’ when asked which city he was from. There are scholars who believe Diogenes could well have been dodging responsibilities to his own polis, rather than expressing a groundbreaking commitment to human universalism, but it is also the case that ‘the world’ to a Greek of his day meant little more than those they could see over their borders: the warlike Persians and various other ‘barbarians’ – so called for the ‘var-var’ sound their languages were supposed to make – who couldn’t hold a candle to a Greek.

Pagden admits that even the cosmopolitanism of the Stoics, who developed Diogenes’ basic idea, bears no relation to that of the Enlightenment. The very concept of the Enlightenment, he points out, begs many questions (and Pagden is someone who uses that phrase correctly):

For just what exactly the Enlightenment was has been the subject of irate and furious debates ever since the eighteenth century itself. No other intellectual movement, no other period in history, has attracted so much disagreement, so much intransigence, so much simple anger … No topic of historical debate, none of the great controversies over the turning points in history … has exercised anything like the hold which the Enlightenment does over the ideological divisions of the modern world.

He is right about the multiple strands of Enlightenment thinking, but has strange interpretations of some of them right into the twentieth century. He sees, for example, the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (he strangely flips the usual order in which their names are used, so that at first glance they seem to have no index entry), as out and out opponents of the Enlightenment who blamed it for the Holocaust. He misses the word ‘dialectic’ in their title. As Marxists, they used the Hegelian model of synthesis-antithesis-synthesis as an analytic tool to understand the dynamic and cross-pollinating nature of human affairs. That led them to consider the Holocaust as one possible outcome of the Enlightenment, and their exploration of its origins remains a sophisticated and terrifying argument.

The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer, a Kantian idealist and a Jew who fled the Nazis, made famously quixotic attempts to justify Weimar democracy and the liberating philosophy of the Enlightenment in the face of National Socialism. Cassirer had famous and public philosophical argument on precisely these matters with Martin Heidegger in Davos in 1929. Cassirer left Germany in 1933, the same year Heidegger joined the National Socialist party. Cassirer, one of the explicit twentieth century defenders of the Enlightenment when its values were at their lowest ebb, and a counter-example to Adorno and Horkheimer, is not mentioned by Pagden.

By making cosmopolitanism the core, rather than a corollary, of the Enlightenment, Pagden underplays all those more immediate concerns that had to be won by individuals from their own governments – concepts such as the rule of law, separation of church and state, and freedom of conscience; and specific mechanisms such as habeas corpus, the right to vote and other civil rights, and the protection of minorities within majority rule. And that is not to mention intellectual rights, such as the right to pursue scientific enquiry free from ecclesiastic control.

It also makes the racist attitudes Pagden describes at length either unfathomable or hypocritical, given the cosmopolitan ideas apparently so widely circulating, instead of simply an aspect of normality for white men in that historical moment. Cosmopolitan rights were fully extended, even by philosophers, only to ‘people like us’ at that time – that is, to educated white men to whom state frontiers were permeable, or to all men, putatively, once they had reached European standards of ‘civilisation’.

Discussions of the moral responsibilities of Europeans to other people had been canvassed by jurists during the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Francisco de Vitoria’s 1532 work, De Jure belli Hispanorum in barbaros (‘barbaros’ is the telling word for us now), is a fascinating psychological study in thinking about justice within a dominant world order. It is the attempt of a kind and wise man to square his universalising Christian principles with unconscious personal prejudices and the demands of empire. Reading him alongside his opponents presages the arguments between the Enlightenment and the counter-Enlightenment that would emerge within a century.

Enlightenment liberalism contained within itself the critique that would enlarge its constituency. When Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen (1791), two years after the French National Constituent Assembly adopted Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, she extended the rights of the original document to women – not subsumed under a universal notion of ‘man’, but specifically and using the same arguments. ‘[T]he constitution is void if the majority of individuals who make up the nation have not played a role in drafting it,’ she wrote. Mary Wollstonecraft, more famous in the Anglophone world, would publish Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the following year. Yet it would take more than 100 years before Western governments started enfranchising women, very slowly, over more than half a century, and even longer for some non-Western governments. Women still do not have equal political, social and economic rights in the majority of the world.

It would take until 1967 for indigenous people in Australia to even be counted in the national census. Although some Aboriginal people had the right to vote in the late 1880s – in South Australia, of course, that beacon of Enlightenment values in Australia – indigenous people as a whole were not treated the same way as non-Aboriginal citizens by having the ‘optional’ aspect of their vote removed until 1983.

These battles occurred, and are still occurring, within the borders of nation-states. Their terms of reference are revolutionary declarations of the rights of citizens, and the state is understood to be the institution against which rights can be claimed. Even Kant’s famous essay, explored at length by Pagden, limits the scope of the political unit to the republican state. Kant believed that a world state would not only be undesirable because of the iron grip it would have to hold over such a far-flung constituency, but impractical because liberation movements against it would immediately break out.

Pagden puts too much faith in contemporary supra-national institutions. His faith is unwarranted not only for these theoretical reasons, but because too many people are still struggling for civil rights at home. And he is almost touchingly naive about the power structures within those international institutions, despite the odd cynical comment that seems designed to prove he’s no pushover in this department. The fact that the victors of the World War II are the permanent members of the Security Council says something important about the limits of cosmopolitanism in the archetypally cosmopolitan body, the United Nations, as does the refusal of the US to be bound by declarations it doesn’t like, such as the establishment of the International Criminal Court. The US and the former colonial behemoths, France and Britain, routinely ignore votes in the Security Council.

There are other aspects of the Enlightenment that Pagden neglects in his concentration on cosmopolitanism, including the rise of mass literacy and the cafe culture that encouraged public discourse, and the astonishing success of the scientific research and its translation into technology – not all of which necessarily encouraged cosmopolitanism. And only in his conclusion does he jump from detailed discussion of eighteenth century philosophy and statecraft to a brief discussion of how those ideas are perceived today. He may have done better to write explicitly about the history of cosmopolitanism, because as a general history of the Enlightenment, let alone a discussion of why it still matters, his account is patchy and spread very thin.

Peter Gay’s magisterial two-volume history, The Enlightenment, published in the mid-1990s, is still hard to beat, though that is no reason for younger writers not to update him. Gay’s subtitles are instructive. The first is the The Rise of Modern Paganism, the second The Science of Freedom. Together they suggest the double-whammy of the Enlightenment’s profound reassessment of metaphysics and natural science. The British sociologist Anthony Giddens and the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, neither of them easy reading, give rigorous analyses of the Enlightenment in two of their most famous books, the former’s The Consequences of Modernity (1990) and the latter’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962).

But my favourite resume of the Enlightenment is Stephen Eric Bronner’s excellent Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Towards a Politics of Radical Engagement (2002). He adds the democratic legacy of medieval free towns, the humanitarian values of the Renaissance, and the excitement caused by the ideas and the scientific discoveries of Newton, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes and others to his broad account as a way of discussing the dilemmas thrown up by the Enlightenment’s trajectory in the twenty-first century. It is having a bet each way to wish Pagden had streamlined his argument and also to wish he had widened its scope, but Bronner’s study is a model: it makes an argument for both the continuing existence and the continuing importance of Enlightenment values against modern incarnations of counter-Enlightenment arguments. By relegating many of his sources to footnotes, rather than naming and quoting every player in the text, and by streamlining but not ignoring the Enlightenment’s many strands, Bronner keeps his argument clear and persuasive. Something Pagden, for all the hard work and enthusiasm he has clearly devoted to this project, does not.