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The enlightenment is dead! Long live the Enlightenment!

Discussed in this essay:

The Enlightenment & the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, by Louis Dupre. Yale University Press, 2004. 417 pages. $45.

Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons, and the Erosion of Common Sense, by Francis Wheen. Public Affairs, 2004. 327 pages. $25.

Imagine having to choose between two different kinds of society. In one, individual freedom and self-determination are cherished values, and the political form that they take is known as democracy. All men and women are seen as fundamentally equal, and tolerance for their different cultures and lifestyles is zealously fostered. Conflicts are to be resolved by recourse to reason and argument, rather than to custom, prejudice, authority, and tradition. Nothing is to be taken on trust simply because it is centuries old or announced by an archbishop. In fact, nothing is to be taken on trust at all. Instead of bowing submissively to custom and authority, we are to have the courage to think for ourselves. And there are no preordained limits to this inquiry.

Discovering the truth for this way of life requires a disinterested judgment free of passion, prejudice, and sectarian wrangling. It involves seeing the world as it really is, unclouded by fancy theories or abstruse metaphysics. But the truth is not an end in itself: the point, rather, is to harness it to the use and fulfillment of humankind. This is known as science and technology, which are forces for emancipation rather than enslavement. Truth is a practical, experimental affair, not a dogmatic absolute. Human beings, who stand at the apex of creation, give meaning and value to the world by their actions. This is known as history--and if only men and women can resist the arbitrary authority of priest and king, cast off irrational prejudices, and press knowledge into the service of emancipation, that history is likely to be a narrative of steady progress.

Contrast this, then, with the second form of society, in which men and women are solitary creatures locked fearfully within their own private spheres. All they can know with any certainty is their own immediate experience, and even that is alarmingly unreliable. They cannot know enough of other people even to be sure that they exist, or that they have minds like their own. Communication is sickeningly precarious, and friendship, community, and solidarity are less genuine bonds than an interlocking of private interests. In fact, it is self-interest that drives this social order, in which others are seen either as potential predators or as pale replicas of oneself.

Reason still plays a major role in this culture, but only in a withered, anemic sense of the term. It no longer provides a foundation to social life. Instead, having scornfully dismissed metaphysical first principles, this society is left hanging in a void. It is a cacophony of colliding values, and reason cannot adjudicate between them. Reason is just a set of mechanical procedures for calculating which means will most effectively secure your self-interested ends. Those ends are not in themselves rational: like the instinct for self-preservation, they are set by appetites that are built into our nature and, as such, are beyond all criticism. Reason becomes a blunt instrument for promoting one's own gratification, rather as science and technology are ways of mastering and dominating Nature (which includes other people and other cultures) so as to press it into the service of one's desires. Torn loose from feeling, custom, and the senses, reason runs riot; in fact, it ends up replacing the despotism of earlier regimes with a tyranny all its own, from which no particle of human life is permitted to escape.

Nature is no longer valuable or meaningful in itself; it is just an inert lump of matter to be cuffed into whatever shape takes our fancy. A bleak utility now reigns sovereign in social life, expelling all of those dimensions of existence--art, feeling, humor, imagination, sensuous fulfillment, doing things just for the hell of it--which have a value but no price. A wedge is driven between humanity and Nature, as subjects are ripped from objects, bodies from souls, and values from facts. God is killed off in all but name, and human beings are hoisted into His place at the apex of creation. But exactly because they have the absolute freedom to do what they like, whatever they actually do seems futile and arbitrary.

The bad news is that no choice is possible between these two ways of life, since they are one and the same. Both are images of the Enlightenment, that enthusiasm for reason, progress, freedom, science, and secularism that swept Europe from Descartes to Kant, and of which modern capitalist societies are the inheritors. The even worse news is that you cannot easily pick and choose between the two, passing over the less appetizing features for the more alluring ones, because they are bound intricately together.

This is not a fact that seems obvious to Louis Dupre, in his impressively scholarly The Enlightenment & the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, or to Francis Wheen, in his scintillating polemic Idiot Proof. Wheen is a doughty champion of the Enlightenment who only grudgingly admits to its defects; Dupre, also a fan of the movement, is rather more critical but fails to see that its virtues are by and large the flip side of its vices. For a more balanced assessment we need to turn to Karl Marx, of whom Wheen, incidentally, has written a deeply enjoyable study. Marx was an odd hybrid of scientific rationalist and Romantic humanist--that is to say, he was a child of the Age of Reason who also launched an implacable critique of it. In this respect, his true successor was Sigmund Freud, another rationalist with a profound skepticism of reason.

There are those who sing the praises of enlightened thought, from Francis Bacon to Francis Wheen, and those who insist that the Enlightenment was all a ghastly blunder on which some merciful soul should have blown the whistle long ago. Many of the latter camp are now known as postmodernists, for whom reason is inherently authoritarian, truth a chimera, and freedom a fiction. For some like Theodor Adorno, there is a direct path from the Enlightenment to Auschwitz. For others like Jurgen Habermas, only staying faithful to the Enlightenment will save us from such horrors. Were the death camps the nadir of a tyrannical technology or the ultimate triumph of a barbarous unreason? Or was fascism as potent as it was because it managed to combine myth and rationality, the archaic and the avantgarde, in a lethal political cocktail?

Marxists, with infuriating smugness, have it both ways. This is charitably known as dialectical and less charitably as sitting on the fence. For them, post-Enlightenment culture has been both an exhilarating narrative of human emancipation and one long nightmare. Each story, moreover, must be read through the lens of the other. Freedom is indeed precious, but when it takes the form of economic individualism it means hunger, wretchedness, and unfreedom for others. Equality in the abstract means gross inequality in the concrete. It also means that, as far the marketplace goes, any one individual is interchangeable with any other. Politically speaking, we are equal in the polling booth but not in the business of government or property. Reason protects us from a savage irrationalism, but for all its indispensability it is not, in the end, where human life is at, and the problem is to find a way of saying so that does not sell out to the racists, charlatans, and latter-day barbarians.

Other Enlightenment concepts are equally two-edged. We are urgently in need of progress, but not if it means the kind of crass complacency that ignores the fact that history for most men and women to date has meant misery and fruitless toil and instead traces a triumphalist trajectory all the way from Adam to John Ashcroft. Americans are particularly prone to the illusion that everything is steadily getting better, whereas some Europeans would be rather crestfallen if this turned out to be the case. As for the mastery of Nature, this is sometimes essential, not least when the cobra is about to strike or your sailboat is rapidly sinking; but we are now imperiled by the whirlwind that this hubristic doctrine has set loose down the centuries. The techniques that helped us combat plague have turned into one of the most terrifying plagues of all.

The idea of universality, along with the notion of a shared human nature, was among the Enlightenment's most vital contributions to human wisdom. Now everyone, however obscure or obnoxious, had to be in on the social and political narrative, and had the right to be so simply because he was a member of the human species, not because he was second cousin to the Archduke of Saxony. In practice, however, middle-class society has for the most part paid only lip service to this ideal, while concealing its highly partisan interests under the cloak of a disinterested universalism. When it prates today of bringing freedom and democracy to the Iraqis, rather than tells the truth about U.S. corporate greed and a puppet government, it is up to its old tricks. What began as a revolutionary concept of universality, with Robespierre, Paine, and Jefferson, has dwindled to that bogus version of it known as globalization, in which "universality" no longer means respecting everyone's way of life but demolishing other cultures in the name of your own supposedly universal values.

Louis Dupre's study of the Enlightenment, ranging as it does over art, morality, religion, science, philosophy, social theory, and a good deal besides, is a marvel of scholarly erudition. Dupre must be one of the very few people on the planet to have read the almost entirely forgotten French eighteenth-century playwright Nivelle de la Chaussee, and anyone who has read as many of Diderot's dramas as he has deserves both praise and sincere commiseration. Dupre may think that the first name of the eighteenth-century English novelist Richardson was Herbert rather than Samuel, and he may classify the Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson as a Scot, but these are minuscule blemishes on a formidably well-researched book, which would make an excellent introduction to Enlightenment ideas for the general reader, if it is erudite, it is by no means esoteric.

It is, however, more of a compendium than a case. Dupre has an argument of sorts, but it rapidly becomes buried beneath a mass of sometimes rather potted accounts of individual thinkers. The mighty Jonathan Swift, for example, who, like Marx, was both a product of the Enlightenment and a vehement critic of it, is dispatched in a single paragraph. The book sacrifices analysis to description and depth to range. Its prose style is both lucid and lifeless, like Enlightenment reason at its least admirable. Dupre does, however, shed a wondrously clear light on the fiendishly difficult Kant, as well as provide illuminating accounts of a whole host of major Enlightenment intellectuals from Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, and Hume to Gibbon, Newton, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Herder.

What Dupre's exposition really needs is a little more bias. His study is in danger of being hopelessly well balanced. It lacks a narrative, thrust of argument, or critical edge. The Enlightenment has been described as fostering a prejudice against prejudice, meaning that many of its thinkers regarded prejudice, in their rationalist way, as the enemy of truth. Yet, as Dupre himself recognizes, without a prejudice in flavor of truth we would hardly bother to hunt it down; and prejudices can help, as well as hinder, in our pursuit of it. Dupre, however, is reluctant in his civilized way to wield a cutlass or fight his corner, with the result that his book is too often tepidly neutral in tone.

It is not that the author is altogether without ideological opinions. As a retired philosopher of religion, he is uneasy with the secular bent of the Enlightenment, disapproves of its rejection of absolute moral foundations, and devotes a rather unfair amount of space to religion and ethics. His predilections betray him at one point into the positively silly statement that the age was one of "moral decline," as though historical periods could be treated like Restoration rakes. He is visibly rattled by the lacerating satire of a Swift, a fact that would no doubt have afforded the sadistic Anglo-Irishman some keen satisfaction. Satire is scarcely the most acceptable of American modes, though chuckleheaded patriotism certainly is. Dupre has, accordingly, no hesitation in commending the U.S. political system as the most balanced in all creation, and upbraids Rousseau for not appreciating "the dynamic potential of a free market economy." A short stint in the Harvard Business School would no doubt have done this Swiss subversive a power of good; perhaps one might also rap Cicero over the knuckles for his casual disregard of supply-side economics.

In one sense, Dupre's work makes too much of a single entity out of its subject. He assumes that all cultures display an organic unity, a highly old-fashioned proposition. In another sense, though, he displays the diversity and contradictions of this supposedly singular current of ideas, without doubting for a moment that it represents a distinctive movement. It is true, for example, that many thinkers of the period were bloodless rationalists; but as both Dupre and Wheen point out, the Age of Reason was also the Age of Feeling. If there was Voltaire, there was also Rousseau; if it was an era of utility and calculation, it was also the heyday of sentimentalism, with its cults of the self, the inner light, inward experience, authenticity, and autobiography. As social life grew increasingly feminized, blushing, weeping, swooning, and palpitating grew increasingly de rigueur. It became almost obligatory for men to cry in public. Militarism, dominance, and arrogance, all badges of the aristocracy, were challenged by fashionable middle-class cults of civility, uxoriousness, and sensibility. The middle classes are more stereotypically feminine than the nobility, since rather than living by incessant warfare they need peace and social order in order to pursue their ignoble end of accumulating as much capital as they can. The fact that this process in turn tends to lead to warfare is then particularly unfortunate.

Some Enlightenment thinkers championed freedom, whereas others like Diderot were full-blooded determinists. There were even rare birds like Kant who backed both cases at the same time. Some like Condorcet believed in the possibility of infinite progress, whereas others like Montesquieu did not. Some scholars were dualists, seeing mind and body as eternally divided, whereas others were stubborn materialists for whom the mind was just material motion. There were those who trusted the innate goodness of humanity, and those who believed in its inherent crookedness. For every atheist, there was a deist like Voltaire who acknowledged the existence of God as long as He did as little as possible and kept shyly in the shadows.

Louis Dupre tells us early on that he is concerned only with the history of ideas. This is a rather convenient move, since if he had put those ideas back in their historical context he would surely have had to recognize that the Enlightenment was the intellectual expression of a capitalist middle class in the ascendant. It is true that the phrase "the rising middle class" is one of the great historical cliches, along with "It was an age of rapid change" and "It was essentially a period of transition." Wherever one looks in history, the middle classes, like bread or the sun, appear to be on the rise. But little can be grasped of the Enlightenment unless it is seen not only as a body of ideas but also as a militant ideology. And this is something Dupre is notably reluctant to do. He also seems rather wary of the idea, touted by some commentators, of the "radical Enlightenment"--of that vibrant, dissenting subcurrent from Spinoza, William Blake, and Tom Paine to Jefferson and Marx--that is firmly committed to the ideas of truth and freedom, but that draws consequences from them that are deeply unwelcome to the middle-class establishment. It is a tradition that is needed more than ever today, confronted as we are by a joint assault on enlightened thought by Texans and Talibans.

Francis Wheen, deputy editor of the British satirical journal Private Eye, is also far from a favored son of the middle-class establishment, to judge by the number of times they have dragged his publication to court for alleged libel. His latest book, Idiot Proof, is a robust defense of good sense against what its author sees as a recent onslaught of gobbledygook and superstition, all the way from creationism and deconstruction to UFOs, fundamentalism, New Age twaddle, moral relativism, and Diarrhoea (or the cult of Princess Diana). Wheen, who laces his moral passion with a mischievous wit, is both acerbic and entertaining about a whole series of idiocies: the marriage of mysticism and moneymaking in best-selling American titles like Moses: C.E.O. or If Aristotle Ran General Motors; Tony and Cherie Blair bowing and praying to the four winds in a Mayan rebirthing ritual; Michel Foucault defending the despotic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini by claiming that the Iranians "don't have the same regime of truth as ours"; the fundamentalist belief that the scarlet beast with ten horns of the Book of Revelation is (disappointingly enough) the European Community, or that the mark of the beast refers to Bill Clinton's fiscal policy; the terrifyingly large number of Americans who believe that they have been abducted by aliens. (So they have, but the alien in question is a Texan oilman.)

Codes, conspiracies, prophecies, encryptions: in all these ways, a civilization in which everyday life seems increasingly directionless compensates for a lack of sense with an excess of it. Frenetic over-interpretation makes up for a general hemorrhage of meaning. The more crassly materialist modern life becomes, the more it gives rise to pseudo-spiritual claptrap. As social life grows increasingly two-dimensional, it grabs for some spurious sort of depth. The more ruthlessly rationalized the society, the more desperately irrational its members. Capitalism is at once far too rational, trusting in nothing that it cannot weigh and measure, and far too little as well, accumulating wealth as an end in itself. It is shot through with myth and pinned together by collective fictions. No rational animal would spend ten minutes with a junk-bond trader.

Wheen is also right to see American voluntarism--the faith, so bemusing to Europeans, that you can do anything if only you put your mind to it--as a form of incipient madness. Much of the book is a superb, remarkably well-informed satire of corporate corruption from Thatcher to Enron, though with admirable evenhandedness Wheen also turns his fire on hypocritical leftist attitudes to the murderous thugs of radical Islam (considered okay, since they're anti-American). He has an extraordinary immunity to bland pieties and a natural allergy to sanctimonious cant.

Yet it is questionable whether you can lump together Ronald Reagan, Jacques Lacan, radical Islam, and the worship of the market as instances of the same phenomenon. Nor did all this irrationalism start somewhere in the 1970s, as Wheen seems to imagine. His nostalgia for the good old days before the Fall Into Folly is just the kind of thing that in a different mood he himself might mock. Every age mixes the rational and irrational--Isaac Newton was a devout believer in alchemy--and to see our own times as exceptionally kooky is an example of the apocalyptic style of thought this book rightly deplores.

If Idiot Proof lumps different kinds of irrationality too quickly together, it is also a touch too convinced that "reason" always means the same thing. The problem is to cling to reason without making a fetish out of it; and Wheen, to his credit, concedes that the search for absolute objectivity is a myth. What is hard is to distinguish creative challenges to a too narrow notion of reason from irrationalism pure and simple. What are the relative proportions in D. H. Lawrence or the Surrealists? Both fascists and feminists have their objections to the Enlightenment, though their motives are very different.

Wheen and Dupre make the point that most criticism of the Enlightenment is unconsciously indebted to it. Some feminists, for example, are understandably uneasy about its notion of scientific rationality, but it is also from the Enlightenment that the modern idea of liberation is derived. Even so, neither author pays much attention to the rich legacy of criticism of Enlightenment thought known as Romanticism, which is hardly to be placed on the same level as prime ministerial rebirthing rituals. Wheen, whose clear, companionable style reflects the finest spirit of the Enlightenment, also needs to distinguish his defense of common sense from the kind of English philistine (usually to be found running a country pub with regimental ties on the wall) who mocks all words of more than two syllables and regards it as plain common sense to keep the blacks out of the country. The trick is to be a skeptic without being an intellectual thug.

Several of our greatest apologists for reason--Marx, Freud, Thomas Mann--are conscious that unreason always lurks somewhere at its root. For Freud, the ego draws for its power on the very id that threatens to overwhelm it. Human civilization is wrested laboriously from forces and processes that are not in themselves rational, and that constantly threaten to return it to the Dionysian chaos from which it emerged. It is because this civilization is so fragile that we must pay homage, like Dupre and Wheen, to the reason that stands guard over it. Yet when reason detaches itself from its material roots and grows hubristic, falling prey to a belief in its own autonomy, it becomes simply another form of irrationalism. As Edmund Burke recognized, absolute reason or freedom is a form of insanity, if this was true of the Jacobins he confronted, it is equally true of neoconservatives today. Reason, then, must somehow keep faith with the irrational forces from which it springs, acknowledging their power as the ancient Athenian state paid its dues to the terrible power of the Furies, and in doing so sought to turn them to its advantage. But that is not to surrender to them.

Some years ago, I took part in a conference on eighteenth-century literature that ended with a general toast to the Enlightenment. At Oxford or Yale, this might well have been greeted with some sardonically raised eyebrows. But this was in Cape Town, a year or so before the overthrow of apartheid.

Terry Eagleton is at work on a book about the philosophy of terror. His last review for Harper's Magazine, "I Am, Therefore I Think," appeared in the March 2004 issue.
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Author:Eagleton, Terry
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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