Friday, June 14, 2013

Nasty, brutish and short

John Gray once said to me, wary that we might find consensus on the topic we were discussing, that “there can be too much agreement”. That is the perpetual fear of the contrarian, I suppose. But I find myself ever more in agreement with him nonetheless. His splendid demolition of the mythical Enlightenment in this week’s New Statesman (not online, it seems) is a case in point, which prompts me to stick up here my notes from a panel discussion (“Nasty, Brutish and Short”) at the How The Light Gets In festival at Hay a couple of weeks ago. They asked for a critique of the Draper-White view; I was happy to oblige.


I’ve been trying to parse the title of this discussion ever since I saw it. The blurb says “The Enlightenment taught us to believe in the optimistic values of humanism, truth and progress” – but of course the title, which sounds a much more pessimistic note, comes from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and yet Hobbes too is very much a part of the early Enlightenment. You might recall that it was Hobbes’ description of life under what he called the State of Nature: the way people live if left to their own devices, without any overarching authority to temper their instincts to exploit one another.

That scenario established the motivation for Hobbes’ attempt to deduce the most reliable way to produce a stable society. And what marks out Hobbes’ book as a key product of the Enlightenment is that he tried to develop his argument not, as previous political philosophies going back to Plato had done, according to preconceptions and prejudices, but according to strict, quasi-mathematical logic. Hobbes’ Commonwealth is a Newtonian one – or rather, to avoid being anachronistic, a Galilean one, because he attempted to generalize his reasoning from Galileo’s law of motion. This was to be a Commonwealth governed by reason. And let me remind you that what this reason led Hobbes to conclude is that the best form of government is a dictatorship.

Now of course, this sort of exercise depends crucially one what you assume about human nature from the outset. If, like Hobbes, you see people as basically selfish and acquisitive, you’re likely to end up concluding that those instincts have to be curbed by drastic measures. If you believe, like John Locke, that humankind’s violent instincts are already curbed by an intrinsic faculty of reason, then it becomes possible to imagine some kind of more liberal, communal form of self-government – although of course Locke then argued that state authority is needed to safeguard the private property that individuals accrue from their efforts.

Perhaps the most perceptive view was that of Rousseau, who argued in effect that there is no need for some inbuilt form of inhibition to prevent people acting anti-socially, because they will see that it is in their best interests to cooperate. That’s why agreeing to abide by a rule of law administered by a government is not, as in Hobbes’ case, an abdication of personal freedom, but something that people will choose freely: it is the citizen’s part of the social contract, while the government is bound by this contract to act with justice and restraint. This is, in effect, precisely the kind of emergence of cooperation that is found in modern game theory.

My point here is that reasoning about governance during the Enlightenment could lead to all kinds of conclusions, depending on your assumptions. That’s just one illustration of the fact that the Enlightenment doesn’t have anything clear to say about what people are like or how communities and nations should be run. In this way and in many others, the Enlightenment has no message for us – it was too diverse, but more importantly, it was much too immersed in the preoccupations of its times, just like any other period of history. This is one reason why I get so frustrated about the way the Enlightenment is used today as a kind of shorthand for a particular vision of humanity and society. What is most annoying of all is that that vision so often has very little connection with the Enlightenment itself, but is a modern construct. Most often, when people today talk about Enlightenment values, they are probably arguing in favour of a secular, tolerant liberal democracy in which scientific reason is afforded a special status in decision-making. I happen to be one of those people who rather likes the idea of a state of that kind, and perhaps it is for this reason that I wish others would stop trying to yoke it to the false idol of some kind of imaginary Enlightenment.

To state the bleedin’ obvious, there were no secular liberal democracies in the modern sense in eighteenth century Europe. And the heroes of the Enlightenment had no intention of introducing them. Take Voltaire, one of the icons of the Enlightenment. Voltaire had some attractive ideas about religious tolerance and separation of church and state. But he was representative of such thinkers in opposing any idea that reason should become a universal basis for thought. It was grand for the ruling classes, but far too dangerous to advocate for the lower orders, who needed to be kept in ignorance for the sake of the social order. Here’s what he said about that: “the rabble… are not worthy of being enlightened and are apt for every yoke”.

What about religion? Let’s first of all dispose of the idea that the Enlightenment was strongly secular. Atheism was very rare, and condemned by almost all philosophers as a danger to social stability. Rousseau calls for religious tolerance, but not for atheists, who should be banished from the state because their lack of fear of divine punishment means that they can’t be trusted to obey the laws. And even people who affirm the religious dogmas of the state but then act as if they don’t believe them should be put to death.

Voltaire has been said to be a deist, which means that he believed in a God whose existence can be deduced by reason rather than revelation, and who made the world according to rational principles. According to deists, God created the world but then left it alone – he wasn’t constantly intervening to produce miracles. It’s sometimes implied that Enlightenment deism was the first step towards secularism. But contrary to common assertions, there wasn’t any widespread deist movement in Europe at that time. And again, even ideas like this had to be confined to the better classes: the message of the church should be kept simple for the lower orders, so that they didn’t get confused. Voltaire said that complex ideas such as deism are suited only “among the well-bred, among those who wish to think.”

Enough Enlightenment-bashing, perhaps. But why, then, do we have this myth of what these people thought? Partly that comes from the source of most of our historical myths, which is Victorian scholarship. The simple idea that the Enlightenment was some great Age of Reason is now rejected by most historians, but the popular conception is still caught up with a polemical view developed in particular by two nineteenth-century Americans, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Draper was a scientist who decided that scientific principles could be applied to history, and his 1862 book The History of Intellectual Development in Europe was a classic example of Whiggish history in which humankind makes a long journey out of ignorance and superstition, through an Age of Faith, into a modern Age of Reason. But where we really enter the battleground is with Draper’s 1874 book History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, in which we get the stereotypical picture of science having to struggle against the blinkered dogmatism of faith – or rather, because Draper’s main target was actually Catholicism, against the views of Rome, because Protestantism was largely exonerated. White, who founded Cornell University, gave much the same story in his 1896 book A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. It’s books like this that gave us the simplistic views on the persecution of Galileo that get endlessly recycled today, as well as myths such as the martyrdom of Giordano Bruno for his belief in the Copernican system. (Bruno was burnt at the stake, but not for that reason.)

The so-called “conflict thesis” of Draper and White has been discredited now, but it still forms a part of the popular view of the Enlightenment as the precursor to secular modernity and to the triumph of science and reason over religious dogma.

But why, if these things are so lacking in historical support, do intelligent people still invoke the Enlightenment trope today whenever they fear that irrational forces are threatening to undermine science? Well, I guess we all know that our critical standards tend to plummet when we encounter idea that confirm our preconceptions. But it’s more than this. It is one thing to argue for how we would prefer things to be, but far more effective to suggest that things were once like that, and that this wonderful state of affairs is now being undermined by ignorant and barbaric hordes. It’s the powerful image of the Golden Age, and the rhetoric of a call to arms to defend all that is precious to us. What seems so regrettable and ironic is that the casualty here is truth, specifically the historical truth, which of course is always messy and complex and hard to put into service to defend particular ideas.

Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about human nature? Well – big news! – we should be both, and that’s what history really shows us. And if we want to find ways of encouraging the best of our natures and minimizing the worst, we need to start with the here and now, and not by appeal to some imagined set of values that we have chosen to impose on history.

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