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The World Turned Upside Down

Kenan Malik is talking about views of the Enlightenment on his blog, Pandaemonium http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/ 

Broadly speaking, he writes, there are two, strongly contested views of the movement. First there is its view of itself, which is largely underwritten in two great twentieth century studies, Ernst Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment and Peter Gay’s Enlightenment: An Interpretation. Here it is seen as “the means by which the human spirit achieved ‘clarity and depth in its understanding of its own nature and destiny, and of its own fundamental character and mission’”.

There are other scholars who proffer a more nuanced view, some emphasising national differences – the German Enlightenment, the Scottish Enlightenment, the French Enlightenment – others, like Robert Darnton, wishing to stress the social and cultural, as well as philosophical, aspects of the movement. But there is also a group, a disparate group perhaps, which refused to see the Enlightenment as a good thing.

Twelve years after Cassirer ... Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, founders of the Frankfurt School of Marxism, now exiled in America, published their seminal work Dialectic of Enlightenment. Like many radicals of the time, Adorno and Horkheimer asked themselves why it was that Germany, a nation with deep philosophical roots in the Enlightenment, should succumb so quickly and so completely to Nazism. The answer seemed to lie in the nature of Enlightenment rationalism itself. Adorno and Horkheimer did not reject the Enlightenment in its entirety, but they saw it as not only lighting the way to emancipation but also as enabling the darkness of the Holocaust. In recent decades this skepticism has been nurtured within postmodern and postcolonial theory.  Enlightenment rationalism and universalism, long seen as the foundation stones of progressive thought, are now often dismissed as Eurocentric, even racist.

The most prominent contemporary anti-Enlightenment figure is probably John Gray (Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions), but there have been other important thinkers who have challenged (and at times caricatured) the movement’s ideas: Burke, Herder, Maurice Barrès and Isaiah Berlin are just some of the figures treated in Zeev Sternhell’s fat study Les anti-Lumières: Une tradition du XVIIe siècle à la guerre froide.

Malik’s main engagement in his Pandaemonium essay, however, is with the writings of Princeton modern European history professor Jonathan Israel [the essay consists partly of an interview/debate with Israel], and in particular his trilogy Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested and Democratic Enlightenment. “The size of Israel’s labours,” writes Malik, “is eye-catching. Each work in the trilogy runs to almost a thousand pages; in total there must be close to two million words here. Equally eye-catching is the detail. Israel possesses an astonishing command of sources in English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Swedish. There sometimes seems as if there is no pamphlet he has not read, no debate he has not revisited, no intellectual alleyway into which he has not poked his head.”

The central figure of the Radical Enlightenment is, for Israel, Baruch Spinoza, who rejected all organised and revealed religion and was expelled from his Amsterdam Jewish community for his “evil opinions” and “abominable heresies”. However,

‘The Radical Enlightenment’, Israel accepts, ‘cannot in any way be simply equated with “atheism”. Religious people played an important part in the radical Enlightenment, as they did in the French Revolution. But they were always Unitarians or Socinians of some kind. [The Socinians were a sixteenth century dissenting Protestant sect, mainly in Italy and Poland.] They were people like Joseph Priestley or Richard Price or John Jebb or Tom Paine. These are believers but believers who can’t accept the idea of a religious authority which is linked to the state. It’s not just that they’re democrats, they’re also aiming for a complete elimination of religious authority. They were relentless in proclaiming reason as the sole guide, rejecting tradition and Revelation and authority. Religion for them is something the individual believes in but there is no need for any kind of institutional organization which directs people to think about religion. You just discussed, you tried to persuade others that your belief is better than theirs. That was the only basis of religion.’

If this sounds like a very Protestant vision of faith, it may be because the roots of many of these groups lie in the radical end of the Reformation. The Reformation, like the Enlightenment, had its radical and moderate wings. The Reformation of which we know, the Reformation of Luther and Calvin, was in fact an intensely conservative religious reaction against the spirit of reason that Thomas Aquinas had introduced into Christianity in the twelfth century by marrying theology to Aristotelian philosophy. The reformers insisted on the absolute sovereignty of God over His creation and saw the human race as a ‘teeming horde of infamies’, as Calvin put it, whose innate sinfulness degraded any autonomy except for the autonomy to be wicked.

Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church appealed to many monarchs and princes, especially in northern Europe, chafing at the constraints imposed by Papal power. The so-called ‘magisterial Protestantism’, wrenched power away from the Pope, but did not abandon the idea that the rule of the monarchs was authorized by God.  Many, such as Charles I of England, insisted on the ‘divine right of kings’.

There were, however, more radical strands to the Reformation. From the Anabaptists in the Low Countries and in German speaking lands in the mid-sixteenth century to the Levellers and Diggers in England a century later, such movements sought to challenge the power not just of Popes but of monarchs too. They took Luther’s idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ as an expression of the moral equality of all humans, and as a challenge to all religious authority. The Levellers, for instance, were a political movement during the English Civil Wars that held to a notion of ‘natural rights’ and emphasized popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance.

The story of the radical Reformation is important because of the centrality of equality to Israel’s account. The thinkers of the Radical Enlightenment, having broken with traditional concepts of a God-ordained order, were driven, Israel observes, to pursue their ideas of equality and democracy to their logical conclusions. There was for them no ‘meaningful alternative to grounding morality, political and social order on a systematic radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons.’ ‘If you are going to construct a moral order in the modern world what other basis do you have?’, asks Israel.  ‘If it is not the voluntaristic preferences of some divinity to be interpreted for us, then the only way we are going to come to an agreement is if we agree to consider our interests as equal. Why would be agree to cooperate unless we start by saying “OK we want different things but we will treat each other as moral equals”.’

The full essay is available at http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/to-cast-the-enlightenment-in-a-radical-light/
Tzvetan Todorov’s In Defence of the Enlightenment is reviewed in the Dublin Review of Books here http://www.drb.ie/essays/stop-the-lights