Sunday, January 10, 2016

The myth of the Enlightenment (again)

To cite Kant in defence of the “Enlightement values” of freedom of speech, democratic representation, universal equality and so forth, as Nick Cohen does here, is simply to invite the response that Kant rejected democracy and displayed the conventional misogyny, racism and class-based snobberies of his times. In other words, it is to incite an empty argument in which we hold Kant anachronistically to account for the prejudices that just about every other educated and privileged male European of his age shared.

Which is why it drives me up the bloody wall that folks like Cohen are still banging on about “Enlightenment values” – by which they generally mean some carefully selected values advanced by certain Enlightenment figures that we (some of us – me and Nick alike) would like to see upheld today, such as freedom to think for ourselves. The sad irony is that Kent seems to think this is a different category of statement than speaking of equally meaningless (because utterly polysemous) “Christian values”.

Cohen’s criticisms of the pope in his article are entirely justified. Trying to support them by appealing to some fictitious Enlightenment does him no favours at all. He calls “people who call themselves liberals” (that would be me, then) “thoughtless prigs” who probably don’t know what the Enlightenment was. Isn’t it odd, then, that folk who talk today about Enlightenment values are usually arguing in favour of a secular, classless, “rationalistic” democracy? Because, to state the bleedin’ obvious, there were no secular classless democracies in eighteenth century Europe.

And the heroes of the Enlightenment had no intention of introducing them. Take that other Enlightenment icon Voltaire. Like Kant, Voltaire had some attractive ideas about religious tolerance and separation of church and state. But he was representative of the philosophes 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”. 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. But he insisted that ideas like this should 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.”

The Enlightenment was not strongly secular in any case. Atheism was very rare, and condemned by almost all philosophers as a danger to social stability. Rousseau calls for religious tolerance – except for atheists, who should be banished from the state because their lack of fear of divine punishment meant that they couldn’t be trusted to obey the laws.

The idea that the Enlightenment was some great Age of Reason is now rejected by most historians. So why do intelligent people like Nick Cohen still invoke this trope today whenever they fear that irrational and dogmatic forces are threatening to undermine science and society? I suspect it has something to do with the allure of the Golden Age: things were all rosy once, but now the barbarians are dragging us back to that other mythical period in history, the “Dark Ages”. Sadly, history is never so simple.

Stand up for principles of tolerance, compassion, equality, reasoned decision-making, and free speech, by all means. But don’t try to conscript bad history to your cause. What people today call “Enlightenment values” are like universal human rights: we might like them and think they are worth defending (I do), but that doesn’t alter the fact that they are a modern invention.

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