A Placid Portrait of the Enlightenment
One of the more promising cultural developments in these waning days of the West is the growing tendency of the younger generation to look askance at the promises of the Enlightenment. The very word often carries a negative connotation, and its heralds, the philosophes of the Eighteenth Century, are now rarely invoked with reverence, when they are read at all. It is to combat this trend that Louis Dupré, the T. L. Riggs Professor Emeritus of Philosophy of Religion at Yale University, has written this lengthy “intellectual portrait” of the age of lights. “The Enlightenment,” he attests, “has given us some of our most important ideas: an expressive conception of art, a nonauthoritarian view of morality, political theories that build freedom and democracy within the very structures of society,” and, perhaps most importantly in his eyes, “the separation between cult and public life.” These “rational insights” of the Eighteenth Century “have become an essential part of what we are.” We are at home in modernity, and comfortable here.
The picture painted by Professor Dupré, accordingly, depicts the triumphal progress of reason. After an initial chapter in which the Enlightenment is defined according to the critical use of reason and self-consciousness, he devotes chapters to cosmology, the philosophy of man, art, moral theory, political theory, and historiography, before bringing the volume to a close with three chapters on religion. The portrait, however, is no Delacroix. We do not see a bare-breasted Lady Philosophy trampling upon l’infâme while holding aloft the torch of reason. It is, rather, one in the style of Poussin, with “bucolic Arcadias with Roman ruins” that warmly evoke the discarded past as a picturesque background to the heroic present. Fénelon shares a corner of the canvas with Voltaire; Burke and Malebranche are painted as respectfully and accurately as Hume. The portrait’s conception is indebted to Hegel, who “first grasped a crucial feature of the Enlightenment . . . namely, that it was a dialectical movement.” The Diderots and d’Alemberts were always in conversation, or perhaps a “productive struggle,” with “anti-rationalist thinkers.” The Christian religion was always present, its appeal to faith sharpening and being sharpened by the Enlightenment’s use of reason like stone against stone. “In the end,” concludes Professor Dupré, even “religion benefitted” from the Enlightenment, as it shucked off an unwanted reliance upon ancient cosmology and sought “the proper domain of religion in symbols of transcendence.” The portrait, then, is a modern School of Athens. Walking amidst the ruins of the University of Paris we see Descartes and Kant surrounded by a rich cast of fellow students, from Locke to Vico, Leibniz to Lessing. The ruins lie amidst verdure and under a dappled sky. The Enlightenment was a peaceful and disinterested amble, or it should have been.
If the Enlightenment had progressed according to Professor Dupré’s plan, it would not have been so quick to have discarded the order of nature and nature’s God in its search for self-consciousness and the independence of the human mind from the blind acceptance of habit and custom. Can one not be thoroughly modern in one’s philosophical orientation and yet remain respectful of the numinous? Condorcet, Turgot, Fontenelle and all the others who asserted mankind’s rational adulthood during the Eighteenth Century were not so much wrong as they were premature. Kant was more circumspect, but more accurate, in his appraisal: the age was not enlightened, it was an age of Enlightenment. The Age of Lights, then, was mankind’s adolescence, and the French Revolution was a regrettable but necessary coming of age. In the Romantic era, anti-rationalist thinkers “helped to restore the spiritual content” of the human subject, wrongly cast off by the impetuous atheists of the preceding age. Where, then, are we now? Are we adults who, having lost faith in the fairytales of childhood and outgrown the passions of youth, wish to live content and secure in our twilight years? So it would seem. We are not iconoclastic revolutionaries, we are conservatives: “If today we feel that the undesirable conditions in which many humans have to live impose a universal obligation on the conscience of the more fortunate ones, we may find it hard to justify that insight, but we nevertheless know it to be true.” We are all Burkeans now, only the prejudices we defend are those of the New York Times editorial page, and the Revolution we inveigh against is the recrudescence of unexamined belief: “Stunned by the attacks on September 11, 2001, I wondered if there was any purpose in writing about the Enlightenment at a time that so brutally seemed to announce the end of its values and ideals.” What makes the West superior to Islam, what justifies our self-defense and our comfort, is the Enlightenment: “Islam never had to go through a prolonged period of critically examining the validity of its spiritual vision.” It is “the need to question” that has “advantageously distinguished our culture from others.”
And so, as Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, the critical impulse of the Enlightenment has become a traditionalism all its own. Professor Dupré’s Enlightenment responds to Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by embodying MacIntyre’s very point. The resulting portrait is in many ways an engaging one. To portray the Enlightenment as broadly as he does, and to include not only the Germans and Scots, but also Molière and Racine is to paint on a generous canvas. An Enlightenment with Voltaire pushed to the periphery and with a calm, diffuse light shed over a century and more of thinkers standing in decorous contraposto is almost attractive. As portraiture, alas, it is as much an idealization as were Poussin’s landscapes. The Enlightenment as it really was, and as it remains, was a less ambiguous phenomenon, its quest for autonomy less easily harnessed to the order of nature and to nature’s God. Nor was the Romantic grafting back of religiosity onto the new Enlightenment root particularly innocent. Giuseppe Mazzini, unquestionably Enlightened, equally unquestionably religious, was the Western analogue of Muhammed. He was but one of the Enlightenment’s many armed prophets. Locke, running guns for the Whigs in the 1680s, was another. No, the Age of Lights is not best painted in classical equilibrium. Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People was a more truthful, if less flattering, portrait.
Christopher O. Blum is an associate professor in the Department of History at Christendom College. He is the editor of Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition (ISI Books, 2004).
Posted: March 21, 2007
Volume 5, Number 4 (Summer 1965)