The Brothers Koerbagh

Jonathan Rée

  • Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan Israel
    Oxford, 810 pp, £30.00, February 2001, ISBN 0 19 820608 9

You might have expected the idea of Enlightenment to have gone out of fashion by now. Indeed you might have expected the entire pack of tacky Victorian labels for cultural periods – the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Romanticism, Modernity and so on – to have fallen into disuse long ago. They seem to belong to a world we have lost, where the whole of history was a brief, memorable tale spanning little more than a hundred generations. It was a world where history began in Homeric Greece or the Garden of Eden and marched up to the present in a few manly strides before moving to a final consummation, which might not be so far away. But does anyone believe that kind of history any more? It is over a century since historians started getting their professional act together and coming to terms with global diversities and Darwinian time-scales; and you might have thought their first priority would have been a ban on the outmoded simplicities of period thinking.

The 20th century was, however, an epoch of unprecedented epoch-mania. Nothing was allowed to be its own individual self; everything had to be interpreted in terms of what was typical for its time. A handful of nit-picking philosophers and pukka historians may have frowned their disapproval, but why should anyone care as long as the trade in periods and period styles was booming? Critics, sociologists and cultural commentators had a vested interest in the idea of history as a single time-line divided into distinct epochs each with its own cultural or philosophical signature, and they were not about to give up the discursive rewards of their unreflective historicism.

One of the strangest things about the century of period thinking was that all its stories led back to the same place. There might be dozens of alternative histories of the present age, but they all intersected at some point in the 18th century known as the Age of Reason, or more vividly the Enlightenment (or le siècle des lumières, die Aufklärung or l’illuminismo). Essentially, the Enlightenment was taken to be Europe’s concerted effort to cleanse itself of the last residues of barbarism and medieval superstition and replace them with liberalism, science and secular philosophy. Everyone agreed that the Enlightenment reached its prime in France in or about the third quarter of the century, and its principal heroes were always referred to as Philosophes. (Philosophy may not have been their strong suit; but the word was left untranslated in deference to the quintessential Frenchness of the whole affair.) Its most glorious achievement was taken to be Diderot’s Encyclopédie – 17 grand folio volumes compiled between 1751 and 1765 with dozens of collaborators, including d’Alembert, Quesnay, Rousseau and Voltaire. But it was also implicated in the origins of the French Revolution, and its reputation went into decline as the Revolution lost its youthful bloom; for a while, indeed, it was totally eclipsed by the Romantic reaction with its factitious liking for the Middle Ages. Before long, however, medievalism became a term of ridicule again, and the Enlightenment achieved a spectacular comeback by transforming itself into all-conquering Modernity and expanding to colonise the globe. When Modernity eventually lost its way and had to abdicate in favour of its designated successor, the publicists for Postmodernism had a ready-made explanation at hand: since Modernity was just the Enlightenment writ large, the crimes and calamities of the 19th and 20th centuries could all be traced to the 18th century and its over-investment in the power of reason. Postmodernism was nothing if not post-Enlightenment.

The idea of the Enlightenment goes back to the 18th century itself, in particular to Kant and a miniature essay called ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ which he wrote in 1784. He started by acknowledging that we all have an ingrained desire to live lazily, even if it means bending our knees to tyranny and locking our imaginations in a prison of old-fashioned clichés. But we are also endowed with a contrary impulse: an urge to throw off our intellectual shackles and start thinking for ourselves – in other words, an instinct for Enlightenment. As Kant defined it, Enlightenment was simply the process of ‘humanity’s escape from self-imposed tutelage’, and even if our habitual cowardice and timidity would always try to thwart it, it was so deeply embedded in human nature that it was bound to triumph in the end, not only in individuals but across nations, too, and eventually throughout the human race.

The definition is an ingenious amalgamation of a priori philosophy, empirical history and political special pleading. It enabled Kant to make Enlightenment not only a necessary and universal structure of the human mind, but also a precarious outcome of historical contingencies. No doubt every generation contained a scattering of passionately enlightened thinkers, but, according to Kant, their ardour could not take hold among ‘the great unthinking masses’ until the political conditions came right. The social propagation of Enlightenment presupposed a powerful but forbearing state prepared to protect the ‘public use of reason’ and guarantee the right of authors to publish their work without fear of censorship or persecution. ‘Once freedom is granted,’ Kant concluded, ‘Enlightenment is almost sure to follow.’ He was convinced, moreover, that Enlightenment’s day was dawning even as he wrote: he had the good fortune to live in an epoch – ‘the century of Frederick’ he called it – in which the promise of general Enlightenment could at last be fulfilled. He conceded that he did not yet live in ‘an enlightened age’; but thanks to his liberal Prussian king it was at least an ‘Age of Enlightenment’.

Kant’s confidence in the ultimate triumph of Enlightenment never wavered, though it took a terrible battering in the remaining twenty years of his life. Frederick the Great died in 1786, to be succeeded by the notably unenlightened Frederick William II; and if the storming of the Bastille seemed to herald an enlightened age in France (‘I have seen the glory of the world,’ Kant said), the subsequent course of the Revolution was not so gratifying. A generation later, however, the amalgam of philosophical necessity, historical contingency and political duty in Kant’s conception of Enlightenment provided Hegel with much of the material for his Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel was perhaps the first thinker to treat the Enlightenment as a thing of the past, pronouncing in 1807 that it had always been destined to fail because, for all its harping on about reason, it was nothing like as rational as it thought. When it tried to discredit traditional Christianity as a tissue of absurdities created by conspiracies of priests, for example, it was not only overlooking the implicit rationality of popular religious practice, but also painting a prophetic self-portrait. It was the catastrophe of Jacobin supremacy in Paris in 1793-94 that revealed the true meaning of the Enlightenment’s infatuation with its own cold calculations. The fake religiosity of the Festival of the Supreme Being hovered over the corpse of Revolutionary reality like ‘the exhalation of a stale gas’, as Hegel put it, and a monstrous equation between suspicion and guilt led straight to the Terror. The absolute freedom of the Enlightenment was the negation of trust, faith, love, life and history: all it meant was death by guillotine – ‘the coldest and meanest of all deaths’, Hegel said, ‘with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water’.

Subsequent philosophical discussions of the Enlightenment have done little more than echo the original masters, usually with a bias towards Hegel and Romanticism. In his urbane study of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), however, Ernst Cassirer launched an appeal against ‘the verdict of the Romantic Movement on the Enlightenment’. Accusations of frigid intellectualism and complacent authoritarianism were unfounded, according to the great Kantian. Despite its occasional bouts of bumptiousness, the Enlightenment had cured European thought of its fixation on reductive analyses based in mechanics and geometry and taught it to prefer holistic syntheses rooted in organic natural harmonies. The Enlightenment, in Cassirer’s opinion, had successfully carried out all the ‘great intellectual tasks which 18th-century thought had to accomplish’.

Twelve years later, in exile in Los Angeles, Horkheimer and Adorno launched an ultra-Hegelian counter-attack. In Dialectic of Enlightenment they asked themselves ‘why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition’ was ‘sinking into a new kind of barbarism’. They scrutinised ‘the habits and tendencies of the spirit of the age’ and found themselves looking back to the Enlightenment for an answer. They discovered, naturally enough, that until the opening years of the French Revolution it had been a boldly progressive movement; indeed they confessed that their own commitment to ‘social freedom’ was ‘inseparable from enlightened thought’. On the other hand, they also found that the Enlightenment had turned out to be inherently self-destructive: its ambition to abolish myth was inherently mythological, and in the end the whole movement had degenerated into reactionary savagery. In the long run, indeed, the Enlightenment was responsible for the crazed subjectivism and murderous manipulativeness that was currently wrecking the Europe they had fled.

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