In Defence of the Enlightenment, by Tzvetan Todorov, Atlantic Books, 161 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1843548133
In the wintry February of 1633, Galileo Galilei, sixty-nine years old and seriously ill, was summoned to Rome to face trial by the Inquisition. His crime was to have suggested, in his Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems, published in Florence in the previous year, that the sun, rather than the earth, might be the centre of the known universe. On June 22nd the old man knelt before the tribunal to “swear that I have always believed, do believe, and with God’s help will in the future believe all that is held, preached and taught by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”. He now abjured “the false opinion that the sun is the centre of the world and immobile, and that the earth is not the centre of the world and moves” and undertook, “with sincere heart and unpretended faith”, to detest the aforesaid error and indeed any other heresies or errors and to denounce any person who might be suspected of heresy to the Holy Office or the Inquisitor. At this point in his humiliation, according to a later account, Galileo muttered under his breath the words E pur si muove (And yet it [the earth] moves). But there is no real reason to believe this pretty story, which first surfaced more than a hundred years later. We must assume that Galileo continued to believe what minute and careful observation of the motions of the planets had led him to believe ‑ but that he no longer dared utter it.
In December 1696, Thomas Aikenhead, the eighteen-year-old son of an Edinburgh surgeon, was indicted on a charge of blasphemy before the city’s Court of Justiciary. The young man, it was claimed, had been heard on several occasions dismissing Christian teaching as “a rapsodie of faigned and ill-invented nonsense”, doubting the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation and Redemption and even “preferring Mahomet to the Blessed Christ”. Scotland’s Lord Advocate, Sir James Stewart, demanded the death penalty “to the example and terror of others to commit the lyke in tyme coming”. Aikenhead pleaded for mercy on the grounds of his youth, affirmed his belief in the Trinity and the Scriptures and claimed he had just been carelessly repeating scraps of ideas he had picked up from atheistical books. The jury, however, found him guilty and he was condemned to be executed at Galowlee on the Leith road on January 8th, 1697. By the time the sentence was ready to be carried out he had recovered his courage and in a speech from the scaffold told those who had journeyed out from the city to watch him hang that he had come to doubt the objectivity of good and evil and now believed that what were called moral laws were the work not of God but of governments and men.
Eighteenth century France lost hundreds of thousands of its most useful citizens to exile after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. French Calvinists (Huguenots), now no longer enjoying toleration of their private religious beliefs and forms of worship, fled to Britain and Ireland, Prussia and the United Provinces of Holland. Those who remained, many of them peasants in the rugged Cévennes area of the south, were ruthlessly persecuted by the state: Protestant preachers were sentenced to death and those who attended heretical religious services jailed (the women) or condemned to perpetual service as galley slaves (the men). Protestant children were taken from their parents and given to Catholic families. In 1749 the parlement (appellate court) of Bordeaux ordered forty-six persons to separate as they were guilty of concubinage (having been married according to Protestant rites); their offspring were declared illegitimate and disinherited. The case of Jean Calas, executed by breaking on the wheel in Toulouse in 1762 for the murder of his son, with the alleged motive of preventing him converting to Catholicism, led Voltaire to write the influential Traité sur la Tolérance à l’occasion de la mort de Jean Calas with “the purpose of presenting to the public some reflections on toleration, on mercy, on pity, which the Abbé Houtteville, in his high-flown and error-strewn declamation on the facts of the [Calas] case, calls a monstrous dogma and which reason holds to be an essential and necessary attribute of human nature”. Largely as a result of the impact of the Traité, the case was eventually reopened and in 1765 the verdict against Calas was rescinded: he had been, in Voltaire’s phrase, murdered by the sword of justice.
The idea of toleration, the notion that a person should be left to believe what he wants to believe as long as his faith, or his zeal for his faith, does not lead him to “disturb the peace”, is now almost universally accepted in Western societies. But this is far from having always been the case. (It should be noted in passing that Voltaire was not, in the Traité, calling for all religions to enjoy equal civil status.) The French conservative philosopher Louis de Bonald (1754-1840) believed toleration was appropriate only in things which did not matter, while Bishop Bossuet, court preacher to Louis XIV, had announced with splendid confidence: “I have the right to persecute you because I am right and you are wrong.” To which his Calvinist adversaries could surely only reply: Oui, nous aussi.
Yet toleration was becoming, by the middle decades of the eighteenth century, a notion that was catching, even in Presbyterian Edinburgh. When the young David Hume published his A Treatise of Human Nature, a work of profound scepticism, in 1739 and 1740, he remarked that it “fell dead-born from the press without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur among the zealots”. Where in the Treatise Hume had picked apart rational defences of belief in God, in the 1748 work now known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding he launched an assault on revealed or scriptural religion, concluding “that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one”. Naturally enough, such sarcasm at the expense of the Word of God greatly irked stern men of the cloth accustomed to striking fear into sinners and backsliders. Hume, however, who was cultivated, likeable, sociable and hospitable, had his own friends among the Edinburgh clergy in what was known as the Moderate faction. And they, much as they might deprecate his unbelief, had no wish to hand him over to his enemies ‑ who after all were their enemies too. An attempt by the fundamentalist faction to have him summoned before the spiritual courts of the Church of Scotland failed to win sufficient support. At least some Presbyterians also realised that the notion that it was legitimate to persecute “error” was a dangerous one, which had before and might once again be turned on themselves. As Robert Wallace had preached in a sermon at Dumfries as early as 1729:
By means of free inquiry, the Church of Scotland was originally established. In this country, therefore, all attempts to infringe so valuable a privilege, in cases where the peace of society is not concerned, must ever be regarded with concern by all reasonable men. The proper objects of censure and reproof are not freedom of thought, but licentiousness of action; not erroneous speculations, but crimes pernicious to society.
The attack on Hume, though it left him legally unscathed, was not without its effects. As he told his friend Adam Smith: “Scotland … is the Seat of my principal Friendships; but it is too narrow a Place for me, and it mortifies me that I sometimes hurt my Friends.” “For the rest of his life,” writes James Buchan, “… like many Scots before and since, he dreamed of France and sunshine.”
This idealised French sunshine had been only intermittent before the fourth decade of the century, when censorship finally began to loosen (or was circumvented by publication in the near abroad) and a number of challenging works by important thinkers appeared: La Mettrie’s L’Homme machine, which denied the existence of the soul and argued for a life given over to pleasure (La Mettrie, a high-living medical doctor, died in Berlin after a feast of pheasant pâté); Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles, which speculated on the relativity of knowledge and morals; Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Lois, a study of separation of powers in the state which anticipated the new discipline of sociology; Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, the conclusions of whose successive volumes (as, for example, on the age of the universe) were routinely condemned by the theologians of Paris Sorbonne university: their author responded by issuing formal retractions of the offending theories and continuing as before.
By mid-century there were sufficient numbers of new thinkers in all disciplines and a sufficiently large educated readership for their works as to make possible the ambitious idea of an encyclopedia of enlightened thought. This was to be the seventeen-volume (with an additional eleven volumes of plates) Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des arts, des sciences et des métiers, which Denis Diderot, aided by Jean d’Alembert, directed, edited and partially wrote between 1747 and 1765. By the eve of the French Revolution, Robert Darnton estimates, twenty-five thousand sets of the Encyclopédie had been sold across Europe. The work was conceived with the conscious intention of spreading enlightenment and science throughout France and beyond – and combating ignorance and superstition. It embraced new categories of knowledge not included in the traditional notion of “learning”: entries pertaining to philosophy, the classics, law, natural history, political economy or theology were joined by others on agricultural, horticultural, mechanical and even domestic arts, with a system of cross-referencing that encouraged the curious browser to waste time pleasantly. Thus, for example, an entry on sugar, its cultivation in the French plantations of the Antilles and its processing and distribution, might lead the reader on to other entries on slavery, with views both for and against; alternatively he might be directed to a recipe for jam, or a pear tart. This tendency towards a significant recasting of the topography of knowledge, together with an implied shift in its custodianship from the universities ‑ and the men in black who controlled them ‑ to the private or even semi-public library, contained within them a quite definite democratic seed. Learning might not, as the philosophes who endorsed the Encyclopédie project claimed to think, set you free; but it could make you wonder why you were not. If experience now increasingly appeared to indicate to growing numbers of men that their social superiors were in many cases more ignorant and uncultured than themselves, then the obvious question was in what sense were they better, and by what right did they rule? But such speculations, and the answers they elicited, were for the most part for some time in the future.
The early eighteenth century was not a particularly revolutionary era in the history of science; rather it was a period when knowledge moved steadily forward by further developing the discoveries of the previous century. What was new was the unprecedented degree of diffusion of at least some measure of scientific awareness, which meant that for many people the new ideas were in fact being laid on a foundation of virtual ignorance, or what the enlightened liked to call “gothic” superstition. Something of the flavour of traditional learning is given in this account of medieval world geography quoted by Daniel Boorstin in his book The Discoverers:
… the inhabited earth had been divided between the three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Asia was named after a Queen Asia “of the posterity of Shem, and is inhabited by 27 peoples … Africa is derived from Afer, a descendant of Abraham [Ham], and has 30 races of 360 towns,” while Europe, named after the Europa of mythology, “is inhabited by the 15 tribes of the sons of Japheth and has 120 cities.”
And as the world was the centre of the universe, so Jerusalem was the centre of the world – and so it appeared on medieval maps. For did not the Bible say: “This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the middle of the nations”?
It was this kind of specious certitude based on nothing – or based on nothing other than tradition and authority – that the Enlightenment sought to blow away. And yet it is a certitude of their own that Enlightenment thinkers and their supposed intellectual heirs are most often accused of today, in particular a wrongheaded belief in the “pernicious myth” of progress or the “delusion” of improvement. Thus John Banville on his favourite modern philosopher:
It is not too much to say that [John] Gray considers the Enlightenment to have been little short of a catastrophe, for it was the philosophers, unconsciously pining for the certainties of the old religion, who instituted the notion of the human adventure as an ever-ascending journey towards perfection and worldly redemption. For Gray, the Enlightenment idea of the soul progressing in tandem with technological advances is pernicious. Progress in science is real ‑ painless dentistry and the flush lavatory, he concedes, are certain goods ‑ but spiritual progress is a myth. “Scientific and technological advance has not, and cannot, diminish the realm of mystery and tragedy in which it is our lot to dwell.”
A number of things might be said about this. First, while John Gray often refers in passing to the Enlightenment, he seems much more exercised by certain intellectual traditions of the nineteenth (positivism) and twentieth (free market liberalism) centuries: of the five essays grouped under the heading “Enlightenment and Terror” in the recent anthology of his work Gray’s Anatomy, none in fact deals other than glancingly with the eighteenth century or with Enlightenment thinkers. Second, the notion that the philosophes saw human history as “an ever-ascending journey towards perfection” is a caricature; while it may approximate to the views of (the mathematician) Condorcet, it is much less true of thinkers of a more complex cast of mind, like Montesquieu or Hume (indeed Rousseau, one of the most important Enlightenment thinkers, may be said to have thought the opposite). Third, endless linear spiritual progress or improvement (in a society) is indeed a myth, but it is equally a myth that anyone much believes in it. Practical progress however, (not just scientific progress but scientific progress underscored by political will) is another matter. The very significant decreases in child mortality that followed the ending of the Franco regime in Spain did not come from new scientific or medical discoveries but from new health policies, implemented by politicians from the tradition that, in continental Europe, is called “progressive” (progress vs order being the commonly understood ideological opposition).
A certain imprecision in language here may lead us into a difficulty: if asked bluntly “Do you believe in progress?” one might warily reply “What do you mean by ‘believe’?” A twenty-one-year-old Trotskyist may be supposed to believe in socialism, and so may, let us say, Lord Kinnock. The young Trotskyist believes that, given the obviously terminal condition of capitalism, the perfectly just and rational system of socialism is now almost certain to be introduced across many parts of the world, and within a few years too. Lord Kinnock on the other hand believes that socialism’s inherited value system, its focus on equality and its concern for the excluded remain the wellspring from which practical policy, itself open to constant revision, should be derived. There is an intellectual believing in and a moral believing in (we would really be better off with two distinct words), and the latter can, in certain circumstances, persist even where the former has become a little frayed.
“The Enlightenment,” writes Tzvetan Todorov in his newly translated introduction to the ideas of the philosophes, “was at once rationalist and empiricist … receptive to the Ancients and to the Moderns, to the universalists and the particularists … details and abstractions, nature and art, freedom and equality”. Its thinking, furthermore, “was formulated by a great many individuals who, far from agreeing with one another, were constantly engaged in bitter discussions, from one country to another and within each country … The Enlightenment was an era of debate rather than consensus.” Nevertheless, Todorov is able to discern what he calls a broad “Enlightenment project”, built around the ideas of autonomy, secularism, truth, humanity and universality. This is, of course to foreground the movement’s political as opposed to its scientific content ‑ which is all very well as long as we are clear what it is we are doing and we do not too confidently say of any partial picture: “This is the Enlightenment.”
It is also arguable ‑ and Todorov does argue it ‑ that an exaggerated faith in science led some Enlightenment thinkers to discern “laws” in areas of human experience (the ubiquitous “laws of nature”, for example) which are perhaps too knotted and complex for rigid laws to apply. Autonomy, for Todorov, can be expressed both negatively and positively. Negatively, the enlightened man will emancipate his thinking from authority, particularly but not exclusively from supernatural or “revealed” authority (the Bible or the teachings of the Church). Positively, he will then, in association with his fellows, constitute new norms and laws, based not on something outside himself but using human reasoning, and with the aim of contributing to human happiness. Importantly, where divine truth was single (it came from one source, God, and was conveyed through the Book or the Church) human truth comes from multiple sources. The very name of the movement in French, les Lumières (the Lights, not the Light), is indicative of this plurality. Similarly, the arena in which man will exercise his autonomy will be a social, not an individual one. Having turned away from the dogmas of revealed religion as a source of right action a man must not now simply please himself but act according to the dictates of a wisdom achieved through a process of thought and dialogue.Enlightenment ideas were naturally opposed as soon as they appeared by defenders of the institutional church and traditional authority. This was scarcely surprising: in addition to whatever (varying) investment they had made in Christian faith and doctrine, the higher clergy had a quite considerable stake in the material advantages their positions brought them. They were also likely to be closely connected with, indeed intimately related to, the most powerful figures in society. (Alfred Cobban has called the French church in the eighteenth century “a system of out-door relief for the aristocracy”.) Opposition to the new ideas was only to strengthen later in the century and in the early nineteenth through their association with the upheavals and violence of the 1790s. To some the equation was simple: Enlightenment equalled Revolution and Revolution equalled Terror. For and against the Revolution, for and against the Republic were to remain for a long time a fault line in French politics, with the church, until the last sixty years, very much in the against camp. Atrocities committed in this bitter and intermittently “hot” war tend to be remembered by each side only selectively. The Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy – a quite admirable figure ‑ was shot by the revolutionary communards in 1871 when the French government refused to entertain an exchange of hostages. The extravagant Basilica of Sacré Coeur, which towers over what had been the rebels’ stronghold in Montmartre, was built at the request of Darboy’s successor to “expiate the crimes” of the communards ‑ of whom as many as tens of thousands were either summarily shot or legally executed by the French state after “order” was restored: this white Terror is not quite so well known nor so deeply imprinted on the popular consciousness as the swish and thump of the guillotine in the 1790s.“The Revolution began with the Declaration of the Rights of Man,” wrote Bonald, “which is why it ended in blood.” Todorov summarises: the Enlightenment’s mistake was to have replaced God as the source of ideals by man, collective traditions by reason (which each individual could use as he or she saw fit), hierarchy by equality, and unity by the cult of diversity.
Some or all of these views are still espoused by Christian conservatives: Todorov cites TS Eliot’s haughty dismissal of ‑ it would seem ‑ all secular democratic thought (“If you will not have God … you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin”) and Solzhenitsyn’s rejection of rationalist humanism and characterisation of eastern communism and western consumerism as evils of equal standing. Finally there is Pope John Paul II: “If man can decide by himself, without God, what is good and what is bad, he can also determine that a group of people is to be annihilated.” It is hard to know just what to say about this crass ‑ and in intention surely bullying ‑ statement: men have always been able to do evil (for want of a better definition to pursue their own ends with disregard for others and using extreme cruelty) and have always done it, frequently, it must be repeated, in the name of religion (or civilisation, or empire, or a fusion of these). In so doing they have never required the philosophical approval of Diderot or Kant or any other bookish philosopher for their actions. Lurking behind the Christian conservative position ‑ and sometimes not so far behind‑ one can often discern a longing for the old forms of social hierarchy and subordination: the problem with the Enlightenment then seems to be not just that it paved the way for atheism and the decline of religion but that it tended (eventually) to put power in the hands of those who have no business exercising it. Entertaining though the conservative Catholic historian Michael Burleigh’s colourful accounts (Earthly Powers, Sacred Causes) of “progressive” and revolutionary excess may be, it is well to remember that they are written by a man with an almost spaniel-like devotion to the imaginary virtues of the gentry and the “wellborn” ‑ not to mention a marked dislike of the bloody Irish. (The art historian Lord Clark may have been nearer the mark on the charms of the rich when he judged England’s landowning class to be, for the most part, “as ignorant as swans”.)
Though Todorov quotes with approval Kant and Diderot’s celebration of independent thought (“Have the courage to use your own understanding”), he also stresses that man does not live in an “individualist” vacuum:
[Human beings cannot] do without tradition, that is, without a heritage transmitted by their elders. Living in a culture is the natural state for human beings and the fact is that culture and, to begin with, language are transmitted by those who came before us … Tradition is constitutive of human beings; it is simply that it does not suffice to make a principle legitimate or a proposition true.
Equally, truth ‑ or let us more modestly say “working truth” ‑ is not arrived at alone but in dialogue with ideas other than one’s own, either through reading or in conversation and debate with living people. While Enlightenment thinkers seem to have at first conceived of a debate about what was true in terms of a struggle between science and faith, reason and tradition, the area of dispute could also be extended to what was good, to the question of how men should best be ruled and society be organised. If the king received his crown from God, then that was that: one might petition God’s representative but one did not demand anything from him. Moreover, this world being of very little importance compared with the next, the question of how it should be ordered was of relatively little moment: it was infinitely more important to save one’s soul than to save the polity, let alone humanity. If, however, this world was all we had, or all we could be sure of, questions about how it should be governed, and in whose interest, could not be avoided for long. Montesquieu believed that men whose minds were unfettered should govern themselves; but the people, by reason of their very multiplicity, could not govern directly and hence entrusted that power to the prince, who governed in the interest of all. Rousseau not only upheld the human (as opposed to divine) origins of power, he also argued that it could not be given away, only lent. Our “rulers” then are not our masters but our servants, to whom we have entrusted a task. If we are not satisfied with their performance we can take the power back, and this is what the American colonists in fact did in the 1770s, founding the first self-governing republic of modern times.
Todorov’s modest definition of secularism might prove of interest to those church figures who see it as the great bête noire, the enemy of religion, even, as Pope Benedict has seemed to argue, the ultimate cause of child sexual abuse by priests.
Since the beginnings of European history we have grown accustomed to distinguishing between temporal and spiritual power. When each enjoys autonomy in its sphere and is protected against the encroachment of the other, we speak of a secular society.
The Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria set forth the distinction between sins and crimes: laws must pertain only to relations between citizens in the polity; transgression of church laws (or of “the laws of God”) cannot be a crime in the public sphere and the state cannot punish such transgression.(It is not just ‑ or even not principally ‑ Catholic societies which have threatened this encroachment of the state into private lives on behalf of religious principle: it has also been characteristic of Calvinism, in its Genevan, Scottish and North American embodiments.) Beccaria also noted another threat to individual freedom in the shape of the tyrannical head of the family. Just as each individual above the age of reason had the right to his or her beliefs, so also they had a right to freedom of action in the public sphere and the state could be appealed to to uphold that right against an oppressive patriarch: Thus “the spirit of liberty will not only breathe in each public place of the city, and in the assemblies of the nation, but in private houses where men find the greatest part of their happiness and misery”.
Todorov points to the danger that the state (or the republic) might, having deprived traditional religion of its dominance and coercive power, put another, equally constraining, belief system in its place, as indeed the French revolutionaries tried to do with their new political religion (“Robespierre is a priest, and never will be anything else,” said Condorcet). He does, however, somewhat glide over the fact that the Jacobins did not merely institute their new religion: they also brutally persecuted the ministers and followers of the old one. Todorov’s version of secularism, however, is a sane and balanced one, where the state does not encroach on the church and the church does not encroach on the state. Though one suspects he is not personally religious, his writing is free of that waspish animus so characteristic of the public statements of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the Laurel and Hardy of militant, missionary atheism. In contrast to many of our contemporary secularist propagandists he requires tolerance and respect for himself – and so he extends it to others.
Todorov follows Condorcet in arguing for a clear distinction between the spheres of the good and the true. While a religion or a state may concern itself with what is good – the good of the soul in one case, the good of society in the other – science concerns itself solely with what is true. And where religions, says Voltaire, are many (and hence definitions of the good may be many), science is one – for who ever heard of sects of algebraists? Condorcet saw in early post-revolutionary France the danger that the good, or the state’s definition of the good, might pose to the quest for the true.
Moralism reigns when the good prevails over truth and, under the pressure of the will, facts become malleable materials … Alarmed by the enthusiasm of the revolutionaries who pictured contemporary France as a new Sparta, [Condorcet] affirmed the independence of science and of the quest for enlightenment. The Terror, which was a period of extreme moralism when the exigency of virtue left no room for any independent form of truth, eventually triumphed over Condorcet’s resistance, for he perished in its reign [he died in prison in obscure circumstances – EOD].
If Condorcet fell victim to “moralism”, he was himself, Todorov argues, prone to a different and opposite intellectual vice, that of scientism. Scientism holds that knowledge is not only necessary to make people happy (Rousseau strongly disagreed) but that it is sufficient. Condorcet held that there was no need, in determining action in the public sphere, to refer to any particular values or objectives; right action would automatically flow from knowledge of the truth.
If anything, Todorov somewhat understates the degree to which the tendency to scientism of some Enlightenment thinkers constitutes a serious weakness in their thought. Who, asks Voltaire, ever heard of sects of algebraists? It may well be the case that truth, or (provisional) certainty, is more easily arrived at in mathematics and the physical sciences than in other areas of human inquiry, but even in this field where measurement is king we cannot exclude sharp disagreements. Do we not have sects of climatologists? Perhaps it is not quite so easy in practice to completely strip away the instinct which feels the good from the intellect which seeks the true. And this is not to mention human frailty, pride, spite and envy: Voltaire could not possibly have foreseen the massive expansion of university education and the vast array of new subjects it was to discover in the course of the twentieth century. He could therefore scarcely have imagined the great hatreds of the rival sects of philosophers, psychoanalysts, sociologists, linguists, historians and literary scholars who now glare at each other across the frozen steppes of the global academic “community”.
The Enlightenment’s shift in focus from God to Man is no doubt seen by all religious thinkers as an error and, as we have seen, by Christian conservatives as a disaster for civilisation. And yet, Todorov argues, it did not always seem to be such a momentous move to those who preached it at the time.
Christianity posited the equivalence of two loves, the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour. St Paul proclaimed many times that ‘one who loves another has fulfilled the law’. All that Enlightenment thinkers did was to affirm that for them one of the terms of this equation was good enough. ‘It’s enough to hold to Christian love,’ Lessing declared in 1777, ‘what happens to the Christian religion does not matter.’ The doctrinal and institutional framework was what was rejected, not the content that it brought to the fore.
The reverend fathers who taught us in school that Voltaire was the devil incarnate might have been surprised – we would certainly have been – to read the words of the inscription on his tomb in the Panthéon: “He fought atheism and fanaticism. He inspired tolerance and asserted the rights of man against feudal servitude.” (Il combattit les athées et les fanatiques. Il inspira la tolérance, il réclama les droits de l’homme contre la servitude de la féodalité.)
Man, for the enlightened thinker, was the centre of the universe and his business was the pursuit of happiness. Happiness was to be found, for most of the philosophes, not in wealth but in love and friendship. “Destroy love and friendship, what remains in the world worth accepting?” Hume asks. But for Lavoisier, happiness was not just the responsibility of the individual. Speaking to the Estates-General in 1789 he declared: “The object of every social institution is to make all those who live under its law as happy as possible. Happiness must not be reserved to a small number of people. It belongs to all.” Many might be inclined to agree with the great chemist about the desirability of a wider spread of happiness (in 1709-10 half a million people died from famine in France; in the mid-century it is calculated that the capital boasted five hundred goldsmiths). It is well to be sceptical, however, about the ability of politics, or the state, to deliver happiness, or indeed the notion that it “belongs to all” as of right. Human beings have a great capacity for engendering their own unhappiness ‑ indeed, as Philip Larkin observed, for passing it on through the generations. It might be more modest, and more realisable, to leave happiness to chance and seek to establish a right to security. Socialists or social democrats, realising perhaps that it is dishonest, have more or less given up promising equality (of outcome), though some of them (a minority, it now often seems) are still keen on equality of opportunity. But even that has become a politically problematic goal given how much middle class energy is focused on securing for their offspring superior opportunity ‑ normally by simply buying it on the market.
After the collapse of twentieth century totalitarianism and “the ultimate victory of democratic states” (but how do we know it is ultimate?), Todorov finds a situation in which democracy no longer arouses passion, individual autonomy is reinforced and what people ask of the state is “simply to eliminate obstacles to individual happiness, not to ensure it”. On the whole he seems to see no loss in this and is content to have people left alone “to make their lives more beautiful and rich in meaning”. It might be pointed out, however, that to cease to ask anything, or anything much, from the state is to cease to be a citizen; and citizenship is a concept that has existed for a very long time outside as well as inside totalitarian systems. Surely there must also be more people around than there were three years ago who would like the state, or some coalition of states acting together, to protect us all – if they are able ‑ from being destroyed by that faceless and terrible god “the markets”.
Todorov’s final stop-off in his survey of Enlightenment values – and it is probably the most problematic ‑ is the idea of universality, “the fact that all human beings belong to the same species and that consequently they have the same right to dignity”. The first part of this proposition may be unchallengeable – it is indeed a fact that all human beings are human beings – but the second part is an assertion, and one which does not command universal consent. We have seen recently that a “right” which most Europeans, to varying degrees, take for granted (that of free access for those in need to some kind of at least partially adequate healthcare) is quite actively contested in the United States (“you have to earn healthcare”), often indeed by people who have a very elevated notion of other rights, like the right to bear arms or America’s right to do as it pleases in the world. Rights then can be in the eye of the beholder. In his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau argued that “It is manifestly against the Law of Nature … that a handful of people abound in superfluities while the starving multitude lacks in necessities.” But what law is this? Is it not more often the case (and therefore more “natural” or more approaching what people are inclined to call a law) that the strong – whether individuals or nations – will grab from the weak anything they can and leave them with just enough ‑ or sometimes not enough ‑ to keep body and soul together? It may very well be that we think it is a good idea that people should be treated equally regardless of their social class or race or religion or sex, but if we do we must assert this politically and see if anyone agrees with us. It is hard to see that there is anything natural about any of these rights: they have not existed in most historical periods and cultures. And as Edmund Burke might have pointed out they did not arise “naturally”, that is to say out of gradual change in custom and practice, but as ideas more or less fully formed in men’s intellects. If they have come to be at least partially taken for granted in many parts of “the West” this is as a result of political effort – indeed the constant promotion of ideas of equality has been a large part of the business of liberalism and socialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
“Do human beings have, in addition [to their rights as citizens], rights that proceed from their mere quality of human beings?” Todorov asks. Theorists of natural law have thought so, citing the right “that belongs to the individual as an individual”. The problem, however, is that normally there is in this case no state equipped with a legal apparatus to guarantee them (though international courts and tribunals now exist for particular cases). But apart from the legal and judicial problem there is what might be called a moral one. Are we entitled to impose our views on other cultures? Does a female child have the right not to have her body mutilated through excision? Or do we have the right to tell another culture, living abroad or as immigrants in our own societies, that its traditional practices are wrong? What about the right of girl children to attend school and become literate? The right to vote, to organise political parties, to run free newspapers? Democracy may be taken for granted here but it is not in China (because society might become unmanageable) or in fundamentalist Islamic culture (because it is for God, not man, to rule). These are difficult questions and we must realise that even if we think we should intervene to protect certain rights we may not be able to. Todorov tries to adopt an even-handed approach to these matters, but the end result unfortunately seems a little like floundering:
Universality doesn’t justify the use of force, outside legal confines. But neither does the respect for the individual mean that there are no grounds for common norms. It is not because a practice is deeply rooted in the traditions of a foreign country that it does not deserve to be condemned. Excision is a case in point: a transgression of human rights, it does not warrant armed intervention, but the latter is not the only means of action. We sometimes forget that, in the not so distant past, our own practices were very different from what they are today.
What this would seem to mean in practice is that violations are indeed violations, and not just different customs. They should be considered crimes, but they are not crimes we can either stop or punish. This dispiriting conclusion may well, in many cases, be close to the truth. With the search now on in Afghanistan for allies among previous enemies, whatever prospects might once have existed for some measure of female emancipation have probably dimmed. The “good Taliban”, if he can be found, will be the one who agrees not to host al-Qaeda, not the one who doesn’t burn down schools.
Todorov, a hugely impressive Franco-Bulgarian polymath who has written books on linguistics, literature and poetics, anthropology, art, history and political ideas, was prevailed upon to write the present work to coincide with an exhibition on the Enlightenment at the French Bibliothèque nationale entitled “Lumières! Un héritage pour demain” (Enlightenment! A heritage for tomorrow). The book was published in France in 2006 under the title L’Esprit des Lumières (The Spirit of the Enlightenment). In some ways the French title is more appropriate to the book Todorov has written (and to its origins, which are not mentioned in the English edition). It is primarily a work of popularisation and an introduction which specifically sets out to demonstrate the “relevance” of a number of concepts which strongly emerged in eighteenth century thought to the problems and challenges of the twenty-first. And this it achieves admirably. It is only partially a defence of the Enlightenment, first because Todorov is only prepared to stand behind some of the ideas of philosophes, secondly because he does not – indeed could not in such a short book – systematically take on the many critics of the rationalist and progressive tradition, from Burke onwards.
As Todorov makes clear early in the book, there can be no definitive statement of what the Enlightenment stood for, given that its leading thinkers often contradicted (and indeed in many cases strongly disliked) each other. However, it can be said that the general tendency of the “new” thought of the eighteenth century was to support thinking that had freed itself from the claims of Revelation and authority; that it tended to support freedom of conscience and freedom of religion; that it tended to support the emancipation of disenfranchised and persecuted minorities such as Protestants and Jews (it was sometimes less sympathetic to persecuted Catholics); that it was generally against slavery and for the education of women on equal terms with men; that it leaned towards a more democratic arrangement of society, though cautiously; that it aspired to equality before the law and sought to limit or abolish aristocratic and clerical privileges. Anti-Enlightenment (or “Counter-Enlightenment”) tradition, on the other hand, of which Edmund Burke was the first great representative, valued tradition and hierarchy above analysis “from first principles”. Against the notion that society might be constructed on a rational basis, the Irish statesman asserted the value of what he understood to be collective traditions that had evolved over time (traditions others might perhaps have seen as abuses or oppressions). He also opposed democracy ‑ but then so did Voltaire. The anti-Enlightenment tended to see the need for a certain ferocity in justice and the penal code, though Burke condemned the death penalty as a barbarity. It upheld religion and detested atheism (or anything that might be construed as travelling on the road thereto); but sometimes it seemed to do so less from a deep-seated Christian faith than from a belief in religion as a cohesive (or even coercive) force: for if there was no God (and no Hell) perhaps everything might be permissible. Even Voltaire, a deist, is said to have remarked: by all means let us discuss the possibility that God does not exist, but let me first send my servants home lest I have my throat cut in bed.
If the Enlightenment is mentioned in popular discourse today, it is as like as not for it to be condemned for its supposedly facile optimism. As I have argued, this is something of a caricature, though it has some truth in relation to a few of the figures who made up this wide and numerous movement. Yet if certain of the gentlemen philosophes of the eighteenth century tended towards optimism perhaps they may have had their reasons. After the grim seventeenth century ‑ and in particular the Thirty Years War, with its devastating levels of civilian casualties (more than half the population in some areas) ‑ the relative peace of the eighteenth seemed to many to promise a new and happier era. It was a period when education and literacy were spreading and it seemed that men had, for the most part, decided to stop slaughtering each other in religious wars. The expansion of trade and the enrichment and burgeoning power of the bourgeoisie, the growth of literacy and leisure, provided new opportunities for many. The most prolific and representative composer of the century, the great Josef Haydn, after some decades as court musician (or “music servant”) to the aristocratic Esterházy family, was finally freed, by the death of his prince in the early 1790s, to travel to London, where he made a fortune playing and conducting new works to immense acclaim before large bourgeois audiences. With the money he had earned he established for himself a small but comfortable house with a few servants in the village of Gumpendorf outside (now inside) Vienna, cultivated his friends and composed the splendid oratorio The Creation, a work whose libretto is loosely based on Milton’s Paradise Lost and which in good Enlightenment fashion retells the biblical story up to but excluding the Fall of Man. To listen to this, or indeed any of Haydn’s work, suffused as it is with grace, joy, balance and order, is to experience something of the calm and quiet optimism with which the eighteenth century mind – on its good days – felt able to approach the world.
From the vantage point of 2010, where ecological disaster nudges ever closer and the citizen, even the state, appears powerless against the destructive forces of the market, where a decadent media seems to have rotted the collective mind and rendered us virtually incapable of serious critical thought, it is possible to look back on the age of Voltaire and Montesquieu as a happier time and one with much future progress ahead of it (Robespierre and the guillotine notwithstanding). And yet, for all the seriousness of our current problems, perhaps we are not in quite as bad a state as we were in 1929 or 1940. Kant, Hume and Diderot taught us that we must at all times use our heads, hold arrogant or incompetent authority to account and where necessary challenge prevailing orthodoxy, whatever that might be ‑ so let us not bask in the “mystery and tragedy” of existence but get on with it. In such difficult times, it could be that it is facile pessimism rather than facile optimism that is our greatest enemy.
Note on sources: the account of the trial and execution of Thomas Aikenhead comes from James Buchan’s very enjoyable Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World. I have also been guided by Norman Hampson’s The Enlightenment and Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire’s L’Europe Des Lumières, which concentrates on European networks of freethinking, and in particular freemasonry. Zeev Sternhell’s Les anti- Lumières: Une tradition du xviiie siècle à la guerre froide (new paperback edition 2010) traces opposition to Enlightenment ideas from Edmund Burke to Isaiah Berlin, while Daniel Lindenberg’s Le Procès des Lumières (2009) follows this tradition up to Hayek, Leo Strauss, the neo-liberal and neo-conservative traditions and the development in western Europe of an intellectually justified xenophobia.
Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the drb.