In the course of 15 years teaching history at the University of Glasgow, with between a hundred and fifty and two hundred students in my classes, I inevitably received a few complaints. Some have stuck in the memory. ‘He made us read a whole book by Hume.’ Or the student in a class on 19th-century intellectual history who grumbled about having to read books from the anthropology and biology sections of the library; surely that wasn’t part of a history degree? A tiny minority of students found fault with revisionist analysis which punctured reassuring prejudices, not least where contextualisation seemed to verge on extenuation. A Scottish nationalist once objected, for instance, that in a lecture on Jacobitism I whitewashed the reputation of ‘Butcher’ Cumberland.
More perplexing, however, was the irritation of a mature Roman Catholic student who came from the Lanarkshire rustbelt to the east of Glasgow, where sectarian tensions have outlived the heavy industries in whose cultures they once thrived. Simply by calling the Reformation ‘the Reformation’ I had caused him distress. The very term, he contended, suggested that something had been in need of reform. I stood my ground. This was widely accepted as a neutral term of art, and whatever pejorative undertones it might have were not anti-Catholic as such, given the Tridentine ‘reforms’ of the Counter-Reformation.
If any student had objected to the description of the 18th century as ‘the Enlightenment’ – none ever did – I would have capitulated without a struggle; for I have long felt mildly allergic to the expression. Indeed, I found that it had a pernicious effect on the essays students wrote about that century. All too often students would assign writers to one of two camps, the party of enlightened progress or the party of anti-Enlightenment reaction, rather than, as they usually did, treating an author’s argument on its merits. Somehow, year after year, they were so bedazzled by the term ‘Enlightenment’ that they couldn’t resist framing the complex debates of the 18th century as a clash of two rival armies.
There wasn’t a suitable term that could be used instead of ‘Enlightenment’. If anything, the expression ‘Age of Reason’ was even less satisfactory. As Anthony Pagden convincingly demonstrates in The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters, the fixation with the rationality of the Enlightenment misrepresents trends in 18th-century moral philosophy. This was an era when reason was dethroned as the monarch of human behaviour. Philosophers resorted, variously, to the sway of the passions, to the quasi-aesthetic impulse of a hypothesised ‘moral sense’, to the language of sentiment and feelings. Benevolence, it transpired, emerged less from deep-laid, rationally considered plans, than from anticipation of the warm tingle of pleasure which acts of kindness brought to those who performed them. Pagden argues that pity, which ‘had none of the patronising inflexion it has today’, played a central role in the moral vocabulary of the 18th century. Nowadays its meaning and associations have shrunk and narrowed, but then it supplied a new definition, independent of religious presuppositions, of what it was to be human: the capacity of humans as a species ‘to respond to the “sentiments”, the passions and feelings of others’.
This heightened appreciation of sensibility provided the psychological underpinning for the core elements of Pagden’s Enlightenment: its new science of humankind, its cosmopolitan outreach, its aspiration towards a civilised global order, and its attempt to formulate a secular morality more appropriate to the realities of life on earth than to the supposed will of heaven. The impresarios of the Enlightenment promoted an ‘ecumenical vision’ in which the ‘ultimate horizon of loyalty and concern was the species itself’. Beyond the positive law of individual states, beyond even the emergent law of nations whose foundations were laid by Grotius and Pufendorf in the 17th century, lay Kant’s conception of ‘cosmopolitan right’ and associated ideas – advanced during the Enlightenment by the abbé de St Pierre, Christian Wolff, Jeremy Bentham and others – about how a global society, a civitas maxima, might be established and maintained. The construction of a perpetual peace on this scale would not be possible without treating the coarse timber of an all too tribal humanity. The rough edges of customs, and more painfully, of particular rites and beliefs, needed sanding down to a more compatible smoothness.
The drive of the Enlightenment towards a common standard of civility provoked an inevitable backlash, in the 19th century from the Romantic champions of Volk-ish distinctiveness, and ever since from exponents of old-time religion. ‘No other intellectual movement,’ Pagden insists, ‘no other period in history, has attracted so much disagreement, so much intransigence, so much simple anger.’ Pagden is based in Los Angeles, and the world looks slightly different from Glasgow or my recent home in Belfast, where pre-Enlightenment confessional divisions still flourish, but his general point holds good. I am reminded of a radio interview in which the ultra-conservative cleric Edward Norman, then dean of Peterhouse, tried unsuccessfully to cajole the Reverend Ian Paisley into a declaration that liberalism was the root of all evil. Paisley was not to be budged from his own hobbyhorse; of course liberalism was an abomination, but popery, he thundered, was worse still.
Yet regardless of the other enmities they are intent on prosecuting, the enemies of Enlightenment are today legion. Pagden’s book, therefore, serves twin purposes: to explain the Enlightenment and to trumpet its values in a hostile world. Its critics range from the fundamentalists of the Christian right to more sophisticated commentators who see it as a wrong turning which led to totalitarianism, Nazism and a clinical, amoral instrumentality in social relations. Pagden will have none of this. He happily accepts the idea – initially a jibe by its modern opponents – of an ‘Enlightenment Project’, or at least his own version of what the project entailed. Not that Pagden’s account is itself cartoonish; the grand architecture of his argument is finely ornamented with nuance and qualification. Indeed, far from exaggerating the novelty of his cosmopolitan Enlightenment, Pagden locates its roots in Europe’s classical inheritance, or to be more exact, in the interplay of the legacies of Stoicism, Epicureanism and scepticism. Classical texts were raided in a piecemeal and indiscriminate fashion for arguments that might serve 18th-century ends. As a result, philosophical eclecticism proved more common than wholesale adherence to any ancient school. This was further complicated by the easy commingling of seemingly similar Stoic and Christian precepts. Indeed, the ethics of Pagden’s Enlightenment turn out to be a fusion of Christian universalism – necessarily shorn of its metaphysical encumbrances – and an updated Stoicism. His emphasis on the classical foundations of the Enlightenment carries conviction. Its formative decades in the late 17th and early 18th centuries resounded to the cannonades of the Battle of the Books between the Ancients and Moderns, and, as Dan Edelstein has recently shown in The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (2010), the most cited authors in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie were not – as one might imagine of such a daringly modish compilation – the moderns, but Pliny, Ptolemy and Cicero.
Notwithstanding his partisanship on behalf of the Enlightenment, Pagden never resorts to caricature. But he does indulge in synecdoche, presenting a part of the phenomenon – perhaps, to be fair, the most significant part – as the whole. While he acknowledges that some Enlightenment figures, such as the Neapolitan polymath Giambattista Vico, were sincere Christians (possibly despite themselves and the implications of their work), the Enlightenment that Pagden describes is, in his own words, ‘profoundly anti-religious’. The story he tells concerns the failure of religion to provide a compelling account of the human condition. No longer, he argues, did Christianity wield the intellectual authority required to police the realm of knowledge.
Up to a point I agree, but questions arise as to how far advanced this process was during the 18th century, and whether one defines the Enlightenment as a secularist fringe or sees it as a broader movement encompassing a philosophically sophisticated body of liberal believers. The latter definition has become more common over the past thirty years or so, with a growing attention among historians to ‘the moderate Enlightenment’, ‘the religious Enlightenment’, ‘the Enlightenment Bible’ and the role of churches, seminaries and denominational universities as incubators of Enlightened values. The new historiography focuses on the role of moderate clerics in shaping a rational and defensible Christianity purged of both folkloric accretions and the unjustifiable metaphysical excesses which had fed the zealotries of the early modern wars of religion. Historians now tend to view the Enlightenment as a matter of refurbishment and renovation, rather than demolition, or at least recognise that there were two distinct Enlightenments, one radical, which favoured variations on deism, pantheism and atheism, the other moderate and inclined towards a rationalised Christianity. Pagden does not engage with this dominant strain in the historiography, and his analysis of the undeniably vexed relationship between Enlightenment and organised religion will prove a little tart for some tastes.
Does historical revisionism of this sort really matter? How far does neglect of the moderate Christian foothills of the Enlightenment compromise Pagden’s mapping of its peaks? His partial account, it might be argued, is a necessary abridgment. Yet the line between Enlightenment and backwardness in the 18th century lay as often as not within the Church. Hume, for example, maintained cordial relations with the moderate clergy of the Scottish Kirk, some of whom helped to frustrate the attempts of their less tolerant brethren to instigate heresy proceedings against him in the 1750s. So too, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, agnostic clerics such as John Robinson, the author of Honest to God, David Jenkins, the controversial bishop of Durham, the Scots Episcopalian bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, and the Anglican atheist Don Cupitt belong more convincingly in liberal ranks than with authentic enemies of the Enlightenment on the Christian right.
We should not discount the vital progressive function performed by a learned clergy exposed to mainstream higher education. Take the recent archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. A prodigious polymath, Williams is as much the heir of the Enlightenment as the arch-atheist Richard Dawkins. Indeed, Williams’s learned tentativeness seems better to exemplify the spirit – if not the message – of Humean scepticism than Dawkins’s dogmatic ex cathedra atheism. In the same vein, one of Williams’s recent predecessors as archbishop, the late Robert Runcie, described the ethos of the Anglican training college he ran at Cuddesdon in the 1960s as one of ‘detached, slightly amused liberalism’, an echo of the ironic, minimalist churchmanship which so exasperated po-faced orthodoxy during the age of Enlightenment. Indeed, Runcie had a Georgian disdain for enthusiastic displays of piety; he told his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, that he ‘got more delight from lecturing on a Swan Hellenic cruise than … from going to some religious rally’. Despite the obvious differences in metaphysics and temper between the two archbishops and the zoologist, Williams and Runcie seem during their primacies to have been perceptibly closer in outlook and intellectual formation to Dawkins than, say, to a Bible-belt preacher.
Catholicism is much more difficult to parse, not least in its oscillations between Vatican II liberalism and obscurantism. Yet the Church’s anathemas of modernity are to an extent counterbalanced by a polite engagement with cutting-edge inquiry. The papacy has supported an astronomical observatory since the 18th century, located most recently at Castel Gandolfo, with outposts elsewhere, including Arizona. Nor does it flinch from an engagement with intrinsically awkward academic disciplines. A sociologist of religion – himself a somewhat severe atheist – once told me about a major conference held under papal auspices. The Catholic clergy maintained proper academic deportment throughout, the only unfortunate lapse being the relish with which a supposedly secular eminence in the social sciences kissed the pope’s ring.
It would, of course, stretch the notion of a capacious Enlightenment to bursting point were it to incorporate the Catholic Church; but it is worth pointing out that the Church of the 18th century harboured – as it does today – champions as well as critics of Enlightenment. Figures such as Febronius (the pseudonym of Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim), Ludovico Muratori and Lorenzo Ganganelli, who rose to the papacy as Clement XIV, advocated a more reticent and demythologised Catholicism, which turned away from baroque militancy and vacated the political space more properly belonging to the sovereign state. In Atheism in France 1650-1729, Alan Kors has shown that some of the most ingenious arguments for atheism in the Enlightenment were first aired in the teaching of Catholic seminaries which prepared priests to handle any eventuality.
The religious Enlightenment is not the only missing ingredient in Pagden’s account. In somewhat Panglossian mode, he seems to assume an exclusive line of transmission between the 18th-century party of light and progressive opinion in this century. But what about the appropriation of the Enlightenment by the new right? Some branches of conservatism posture – plausibly enough – as custodians of Enlightenment principles. Hume and Adam Smith are celebrated as pointing the way for Hayek, Friedman and public-choice theorists. But conservative flirtation with the Enlightenment takes a decidedly odd turn in the US, where the leaders of the American Enlightenment are separated from their historical context as champions of an intellectual avant-garde. Instead, they are known as Founding Fathers and seen as patriarchal repositories of wisdom, men of massive intellectual heft, but not as theologically liberal sophisticates who might frighten the heartland. The Founders’ deism and lukewarm scepticism are written out of the conservative version of America’s origins, along with Thomas Jefferson’s probing criticism of the Platonised mythologies which disfigured the message of Socrates’ true successor as moral teacher, the man Jesus.
Jefferson was – at least nominally – an Episcopalian. What seems like hypocrisy to us now was then part of a familiar strategy for reconciling irreconcilable religious positions. The double doctrine – the amphibian notion that one might happily combine outward religious comportment with an incompatible inner philosophy – was a common feature of 18th-century discussions of religion, and an obsessive leitmotif in the most widely debated book of the English Enlightenment, William Warburton’s The Divine Legation of Moses (1738-41). What were the mystery cults of pagan antiquity but a means by which an elite of philosophical initiates might practise – concealed from plebeian view – refined philosophical religions far removed from the preposterous polytheistic legends dished up to the masses? Freemasonry, arguably, provided a similarly sophisticated supplement to conventional religion during the Enlightenment. Where we prize personal sincerity in matters of religious belief, the 18th-century approach to the sacred seems offensively profane. Pagden is alert to what seems at times its strange semi-detachment from the numinous, and discusses the cynical view – which enjoyed wide currency in the Enlightenment – that some form of ‘civil religion’ provided ‘the best way to keep the multitude in check’. Doctrines should be evaluated in terms of their social utility, with the metaphysical truth of their theological tenets a less important criterion. Did it really matter whether there was one god or many? As Pagden reminds us, several Enlightened philosophers and historians felt kindly disposed towards the absurdities of polytheism, precisely because religions with multiple deities seemed not to share the brutal persecuting spirit typical of monotheisms. What counted were the sociological consequences of religion. Did a certain kind of religion nurture loyalty, civility and decorum among its adherents, or did it foster an uncivil enthusiasm which might disturb the peace? Did a belief in rewards and punishments in the next life deter the poor man from plundering in this life the château of his lord, and its well-stocked larder?
Among the features of the 18th century which distance it from our present concerns, and make Pagden’s argument for the continuing relevance of the Enlightenment so hard to carry off, are these disconcerting questions of tone and register. Robert Darnton, the most arresting historian in this field, has brought to life an Enlightenment that confounds our categories and conventions, one in which, for example, pornographic accounts of ‘lascivious monks, ruttish nuns, impotent bishops … and lesbian abbesses’ occupied a central place in philosophical literature, and a disenchanted elite flocked to experience the baquet, rods and invisible ethereal fluid of Mesmerism in the hope of a renewed vitality. This was a world where chemistry was yet to be emancipated from the theory of phlogiston, the notion that a fire-like element existed in substances and was released on combustion. Oxygen, whose discovery led ultimately to the unravelling of the phlogiston theory, was hailed at first as dephlogisticated air.
Only a portion of the Enlightenment can be salvaged for use in the present. The rest falls – necessarily – from Pagden’s view. But the Enlightenment has more to offer the present than a much needed ethic for global citizenship. Humans have other wants, less elevated, but just as vital; and our own times lack the rococo charm and whimsy of Uncle Toby and Dr Slop, or Voltaire’s tribe of Amerindian cannibals who – with fastidious quaintness – ate only Jesuits.