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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., $30.00

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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 ...

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