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The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture
The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture
Louis Dupré
Yale University Press, 2005
416 pp., 30.0

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Daniel Ritchie


The Enlightenments

There were many.

At my 25th college reunion, a gentleman (attending his fiftieth) challenged one of the more progressive faculty members about our school's complete lack of a curriculum: I hope, he said, we can at least agree that our graduates should share the Enlightenment values of self-criticism, dialogue, and openness to contrary opinions. Oh, sure, said the progressive, effectively shutting the old man up. The next year this professor, along with 15 other faculty members, protested the very presence of Justice Antonin Scalia on campus, refusing even to listen to him speak. Mr. Enlightenment, let me introduce you to Professor Postmodern.

When I witnessed the exchange at reunion, it struck me as poignant and a little pathetic. The older alum had studied under a curriculum, distinguished in its day, that was birthed during the last efflorescence of an Enlightenment humanism that had survived World War II. By that point the college, like so many in the United States, had cast overboard the cargo of its religious heritage, freeing the modern ocean liner of higher education of so many antiquated sails and weather glasses and rituals of a bygone era. For these children of the Enlightenment, education was the crucial element in making us decent and humane citizens, capable of preserving liberty while expanding equality. Their chief historical enemy was to become Joseph McCarthy, and the civil rights movement would shortly embody their noblest ideal.

While the older alumnus still thrills to the voyage he embarked on in mid-century, however, higher education has moved on to a postmodern ethic that embraces the power to stifle dialogue. Adorno and Horkheimer had it right, in this view, when they identified the roots of 20th-century totalitarianism in the Enlightenment's wish to limit truth to a rationally conceived, mathematized world. Their broadside crippled the Enlightenment heritage far more effectively than 19th-century Romanticism had done. Michel Foucault would shortly sink it.

So what was the Enlightenment, as it was experienced and has come down to us? The literature is vast, but two very different books on this 17th- and 18th-century movement, one by Louis Dupré and the other by Gertrude Himmelfarb, together offer a useful introduction. Himmelfarb gives substantial treatment to America but hardly notices science. Dupré has hardly a word for America while the implications of science are apparent throughout. This contrast suggests larger differences between the books. Himmelfarb's volume is a readable, strongly focused book on politics that explains three different approaches to the social significance of the Enlightenment—British, American, and French. The American Enlightenment, she argues, was preoccupied with the shape of political liberty, the British explored the basis for social virtue, and the French sought a completely new approach to reason. Her sharp focus causes Himmelfarb to exclude (from Britain) the significance of the scientific revolution associated with Sir Isaac Newton. Here, Dupré is the better guide. Despite Newton's own wishes, Newtonianism became the basis for a materialistic worldview that treated the universe like a clock, society like an automatic system, and man like a machine. It wasn't until the rise of 20th-century physics that key philosophical and theological issues could be put back on the table—freedom and indeterminacy, the relationship of observer to the observed, and the hospitality of the universe to creation. The challenge in reading Dupré, a distinguished Catholic philosopher of religion from Yale, is that he's written an encyclopedic approach to the period. A much longer book than Himmelfarb's (the respective pagecounts are misleading), The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture conveys a lifetime of learning—or rather, only a part of Dupré's formidable learning—at the cost of a clear narrative thread.

Robespierre is a harbinger for postmodernism's attraction to power, spectacle, and enforced virtue.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is one of those rare writers who are always worth reading. In a career that has spanned more than fifty years, she has brought deep historical insight and a clear style to timely issues, from political leadership to marriage and poverty. In Roads to Modernity, she explores the modern sources for a free, stable, and virtuous polity. Why have these 18th-century sources in Britain and America proven largely successful? Why did they fail in the French Revolution?

In recent years "the Enlightenment project" has fallen on hard times, sometimes for good reason, sometimes not. To pick up the college reunion story, Enlightenment humanism failed to recognize its own rootedness in particular historical traditions. At its best, this humanism could aspire to the level of Mark Van Doren's course in Shakespeare, which Thomas Merton took at Columbia in 1936: "A course in literature should never be a course in economics or philosophy or sociology or psychology," he writes in The Seven Storey Mountain. "Nevertheless, the material of literature and especially of drama is chiefly human acts—that is, free acts, moral acts. And, as a matter of fact, literature, drama, poetry, make certain statements about these acts that can be made in no other way." However loving his description of Van Doren's teaching, Merton is uncompromising in his analysis of "the sweet and nasty disease of the soul that seemed to be rotting the whole of Europe, in high places above all," which had converted charity into gentlemanly behavior and enlightenment into chic Freudian or Communist leanings. Well, there are no Van Dorens or Mertons now. Instead, we have postmodern intellectuals who cannot distinguish between a legitimate social theory and a fraud, as Alan Sokal notoriously demonstrated when his 1996 hoax found publication in a leading journal. We have academic leaders at Columbia, Duke, and elsewhere who employ their energies to defend campus appearances by apologists for terrorism.

So maybe there was something to be said for the Enlightenment after all? Himmelfarb thinks so, and her book seeks to reclaim it by re-charting its boundaries in Britain, America, and France. Well over half of her book—its most original portion, in my view—treats Britain. She goes beyond John Locke, whose undeniable influence on political theory has caused us to overlook thinkers who provided a broader basis for the modern social and economic life we enjoy. Against Locke's unyielding critique of innate ideas, for instance, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury argued for an embedded moral sense of right and wrong. Far from being a tabula rasa, the human mind is predisposed to recognize good and evil. And far from Hobbes's anti-social view of human nature, Shaftesbury builds the social virtues upon a foundation of natural sympathy and compassion, without the self-interest and optimism that compromise Rousseau's writings on these subjects.

Adam Smith, whom Himmelfarb explains with equal skill, takes the moral sense further. Restoring Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to its central place in his thought, she counters the notion (unfortunately repeated by Dupré) that Smith believed self-interest alone could result in social harmony. "'[T]o feel much for others and little for ourselves,'" she quotes Smith as writing, and "'to restrain our selfish and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.' " Tocqueville would later highlight the need for Americans to preserve their mores, especially through religious institutions and non-political associations, in order to combat individualism and nurture the benevolence, compassion, and sympathy essential to democratic society. Contemporary with Adam Smith, Edmund Burke also emphasized the crucial role played by these social affections, and the ease with which they had been destroyed in the French Revolution. Burke saw them as the legitimate descendants of medieval chivalry, and incorporating them into the modern age was the work of the "moral imagination," as he put it. The revolutionaries spurned this task: "Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this [revolutionary] mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression in persons so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place."

In the American tradition, the religious basis for these social affections may be found in the sermons of the Calvinists, Deists, Congregationalists, and Baptists who shaped the nation. Their meditations on virtue and republican government lie outside the scope of Himmelfarb's book, but here is a representative sample from the Calvinist preacher David Tappan:

[The Christian revelation] superadds a new scheme of truth, suited to the lapsed state of mankind, which at once encourages, directs, assists and constrains to universal goodness; it presents the Deity, in the full orbed luster of his perfections; it displays the matchless philanthropy, the generous expiation and intercession of his Son; it offers and conveys the needed succours of his spirit …. Must not these discoveries [tend to] produce, to ennoble, and improve every branch of a virtuous character?[1]

I've said that Dupré's book lacks clarity, but it is not without a thesis. In the Enlightenment, he explains, reason is viewed as a construction of the mind. While the Greeks had viewed reason as an ordering principle, inherent in reality, Enlightenment thinkers began to see the mind itself as the source of meaning and of truth. Often, however, Dupré's thesis is submerged in various excurses on 18th-century figures and movements. His book is marked by brilliant flashes of insight alternating with a disappointing failure to advance his thesis, as in this explanation of a passage from d'Holbach:

The distinction which has been so often made between the physical and the moral man is evidently an abuse of terms. Man is a being purely physical. [d'Holbach's] System admits as truth only what is accessible to the methods of the positive sciences. The objectivism heralded by d'Holbach came to play a major part in the scientific philosophy of the nineteenth century. Those who have read Edward Wilson's Consilience would hesitate to declare it extinct today …. [d'Holbach's] atheism differs from today's secularism, which is less concerned with opposing religion than with filling the cultural vacuum left by its disappearance …. Today modes of "low" transcendence are often filling the place previously occupied by the high transcendence of God. Primary among them may well be the aesthetic experience. Like religion, that experience integrates the various aspects of our world within a single coherent vision that radiates with a glow of transcendence.

I know a lot more about d'Holbach after reading Dupré's treatment, but I'm still unclear whether he represents the central strand of the Enlightenment or a particularly extreme wing of it. And I could do with a sentence that firmly traces the genealogy of Wilson's Consilience. Dupré's splendid discrimination of today's secularism from Enlightenment atheism, however, shows the book at its best. Similar insights abound: Deism was only interested in God as a support for its physics and morality; social contract theory is really an ideology for change rather than a science of politics; secular theories of progress assume that truth, happiness, and freedom are to be realized only at the end of history; by abandoning theology as a merely rationalist enterprise, pietism widened the gap between culture and faith.

I'm afraid, though, the book is written at such a high intellectual level that non-specialists will find it forbidding. Dupré expects you to know what the "Catonic obsession" was (to obliterate Carthage), and the phrases from French and Latin are sometimes translated, sometimes not. The book evidently overtaxed Dupré's editors at times, for they failed to catch obvious errors about Pascal's "waiver" and the misspelling of the poet Ben Jonson's name. An encyclopedic work like this will invite more important errors as well. Dupré mistakenly identifies Jonathan Swift with the misanthropic ravings of his literary creation, Lemuel Gulliver, and what little he says about Samuel Johnson could have remained unsaid. Still, the book is an invaluable resource on the religion and philosophy of the 18th century, and it accounts for dozens of the figures and movements of the era, Fnelon as well as Descartes, Swedenborg as well as Kant.

After reading these books, one is struck again that so wordy an event as the French Revolution left so little political philosophy worth reading. Condorcet, predicting the perfection of humanity up to his very death in a prison cell, would be a caricature of revolutionary optimism if he were a fictional character. The most effective of the revolutionary writers, Sieyés, was a propagandist, not an original thinker. The figure who has been overlooked, in my view, is Robespierre. We make ourselves into the "dupe of words," he declared in his great speech on terror, if we listen to those who call for dialogue and moderation. He grew suspicious of words and declared that the true reign of justice was engraved upon the heart. What need, then, to listen to the Brissotins or the Hérbertists—or the Scalias? Robespierre truly saw that the French Enlightenment had issued in aridity of thought and poverty of soul. He is a harbinger for postmodernism's attraction to power, spectacle, and enforced virtue. Fortunately, these books demonstrate that there were many Enlightenments. Himmelfarb and Dupré will help us craft many responses to their legacy.

1. See Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805, Vol. 2 (Liberty Fund, 1998).

Daniel Ritchie is professor of English and founding director of the Humanities Program at Bethel University. He is the author most recently of The Fullness of Knowing: Modernity and Postmodernity from Defoe to Gadamer, just published by Baylor University Press.

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