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Volume 3, Number 1 (Autumn 1962)

The Dark Ages of the Enlightenment

The Brave New World of the Enlightenment
by Louis I. Bredvold.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961. 164 pp.

Peter J. Stanlis

Fifteen years ago, Louis I. Bredvold noted that Carl Becker’s The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers needed badly to be rewritten. Becker’s serious confusions concerning the meanings of “Nature” and “Reason” in eighteenth-century thought, which derived from his somewhat positivist assumptions, his sociological methodology and political liberalism, stood greatly in need of correction. Drawing from over forty years’ experience as a scholar and teacher in the history of ideas and eighteenth-century literature, Bredvold himself has corrected the errors of Becker’s book.

But far beyond this, The Brave New World of the Enlightenment is a very learned, objective, witty, and challenging study of the speculative theories concerning human nature and society from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century. Even those who are already well aware of the irrationalities of the “Age of Reason,” will find much insight and wisdom in Bredvold’s study. To the uninitiated this book could come as a startling revelation of the ideas that have brought contemporary man to his present dilemma.

Bredvold makes it clear that the twentieth century, in its character, its philosophical assumptions, and its social objectives, to a considerable extent at once reflects and refines upon the ideas born during the Enlightenment: “We are to a marked degree the continuators of the Enlightenment in our persistent inclination to expect from science the final and complete explanation of our human nature and destiny.”

In the first chapter, BredvoId describes the essential principles in the classical and Christian juridical doctrines of the Natural Law, with “all its assumptions and implications” concerning man and society. The vital distinctions between “Nature” as an ethical norm and “Nature” as a physical phenomenon, and between normative “Right Reason,” as derived from Cicero, as distinct from discursive or analytical “Reason,” as set forth by Descartes and Hobbes, so often ignored or obscured in eighteenth-century studies, receive from Bredvold a masterful and clear exposition. These distinctions between the law for man and the law for things are essential if readers are to understand the revolutionary nature of theories concerning man and society since the eighteenth century.

This first chapter, “The Rejection of the Theory of Natural Law,” makes it clear that the Enlightenment began by discarding as unscientific the traditional ethical principles and the conception of man taught by Natural Law and Christianity. In the next four chapters, entitled “The New Promise of Science,” “The Sentimental View of Human Nature,” “Following Nature,” and “Prospects of Utopia,” Bredvold describes how the philosophers of the Enlightenment “turned their search in another direction and elaborated substitute doctrines.” In the final chapter, “Burke and the Reconstruction of Social Philosophy,” the author shows how “Burke rejected these substitutes and reaffirmed the ancient doctrine.” Throughout the book descriptions of the conflicting philosophies of man are punctuated by Bredvold’s shrewd, incisive, ironical, and witty comments. These analytical observations greatly sharpen the implications to twentieth-century man of the traditional and revolutionary doctrines, as they affect our thinking in law, politics, education, science, and religion.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment—Hobbes, Locke, Shaftesbury, Hartley, Hume, Priestley, and Godwin in England, and Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Condillac, Helvetius, Diderot, Voltaire, D’Holbach, Rousseau, and Condorcet on the Continent—in one way or another rejected or drastically modified some essential doctrine of the Classical and Christian philosophy of man. It is dangerous to generalize about these writers, who differed sharply among themselves, and whose conceptions of human nature ran the whole gamut from the hard-headed cynicism of Hobbes, Mandeville, and Helvetius—who believed that man is by nature totally selfish, and without social benevolence—to the soft-hearted sentimentality of the “men of feeling,” such as Shaftesbury and Rousseau, who believed in the natural goodness of man. Nevertheless, to the extent that scientific positivists and sentimental moralists were both materialists and determinists, they rejected the Christian doctrine that man is created in the spiritual image of God, and that man transcends physical nature by virtue of his free will and capability of living according to the imperatives of moral laws. They also rejected the doctrines of original sin and salvation through grace, which taught that man is naturally imperfect or “fallen,” that is, insufficient in himself, but capable through his spiritual nature of being redeemed by improving his moral, intellectual, and aesthetic potential through the practical aids to grace furnished by inherited corporate institutions.

But the philosophers of the Enlightenment regarded history as only a record of man’s crimes and follies. So they looked on man’s inherited institutions, and his system of civil laws, social manners, and local customs, not as necessary instruments of redemption, not as the means by which, however imperfectly, men established in society good order, civil liberty, and justice, but rather they regarded institutions as impediments to the fulfillment of infallible science, or as corruptors of man’s natural goodness. Many of the philosophers rejected the Aristotelian precept that man is “by nature” a political animal. They ignored the historically developed community life of European civilization, made an antithesis between man’s “artificial” institutions and a pre-civil “state of nature,” and took their norms for individual freedom from physical nature. The Enlightenment philosophers abandoned not only the Natural Law and basic Christian principles, but also centuries of the historical achievements of Europeans.

In turning their backs on their inheritance, Bredvold notes, these philosophers proposed that “all the age-old problems of man were to be solved by the new science of man.” Hobbes was probably “the first notable writer to proclaim that we could solve our social and moral problems if we only made our social sciences as scientific as mathematics and physics.” This was the first step toward the conviction of the philosophes that the laws of physical science would “supersede the old-fashioned moral laws.” In order to establish “an enlightened social science . . . the philosophes . . . liked to consider man as part of physical nature, as operating under the same kind of law. They would have been reluctant to agree with Emerson’s dictum that there is one law for man and one for thing.”

Hobbes and the philosophes were convinced that the methods of the physical sciences, following the logic of a priori geometrical reasoning and quantitative analysis, were capable of infallible certainty, and were equally valid whether applied to physical nature or to human nature, to physics, chemistry, and astronomy, or to ethics, law, and politics. These “Newtons of moral science” hoped to discover and apply a moral calculus, identical to Newton’s mathematical calculus in the study of the physical cosmos. Their materialism destroyed the Christian distinction between man and thing. The philosophes conceived of human nature as a soulless mechanism, a mere protoplasmic extension of physical nature, abstracted from history and from obligations to the moral principles of religion and Natural Law, and wholly subject in behavior to the laws of physical motion, as discovered by scientific techniques. On this materialist foundation the new science of man was to usher in a brave new utopian world.

Contemporary “scientific” behavioral psychology and sociology are in a direct line of descent from the crude materialist assumptions of Hobbes, the a priori methodology of Descartes, and the “moral calculus” of the Utilitarians of the later Enlightenment, such as Bentham. In this connection Bredvold quotes and applies to great effect A. D. Lindsay’s famous indictment of the a priori method in Bentham’s utilitarianism. In the preface to Halévy’s The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (1928), Lindsay wrote that it was of “special interest and value to us at present” to see Halévy’s

convincing demonstration of how deeply the Benthamites were influenced by their belief in the possibilities of applying to the study of man and society the principles and methods of the physical sciences. This is the clue to some of the most curious aberrations of their thought, and to much of their short-sightedness. The belief is still with us. It is curious how often men are still found to argue, in the manner of Bentham, that if certain things are admitted to be true, sociology could not be an exact science, and therefore the admissions must not be made. (p. 113)

This positivist-utilitarian belief is still very much with us. The rationalist utopian social theories of the Enlightenment, which Burke condemned as “metaphysical insanity,” have been greatly extended by our behavioral scientists. William Hazlitt’s witty stricture on Bentham—“Strict logicians are licensed visionaries”—applies far more to many current behavioral studies. The “curious aberrations” concerning man in the theories of the Enlightenment are today being repeated with infinite variations by an endless stream of “projects” sponsored by some of the wealthy American foundations. In our time, as never before since Descartes, unbounded faith in the methodology of physical science in human affairs has become an end in itself. This is evident in John Dewey’s educational theories, in “scientific” descriptive scholarship in the humanities, which reduces everything to linguistic patterns, in the theoretical “social engineering” of behavioral psychology and sociology, and in legal and political positivism, which erases all distinctions between de jure and de facto law, and makes the aggrandizement of power an end in itself. In brief, the application of the methods of physical science to man has resulted in the denial of normative ethical principles by which to determine values and judge human behavior.

The connection between the philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern political absolutism is clearly established by Bredvold: “Scientific positivism cannot escape from the consequences of its own theory and its own method,” because “the theory inevitably leads to the conclusion that the government which has the power de facto is the source of law, that law is nothing but the commands of those who have the power.” For “if the Law of Nature is eliminated,” and there is “a complete severance between law and ethics,” then positivism denies there is a moral law to which the power of the state is subject. When this happens, “there is only one alternative” for legal and political authority, namely, “power or might.” Modern political totalitarianisms, whether nationalist, economic, scientific, or democratic at their foundations, are merely disguised variations of Hobbes’ absolutism. It was an historical accident that Hobbes’ absolutism favored monarchy. The positivist principle that power or might makes right, as Hobbes admitted, is possible under a democratic form of government, as when popular will is conceived to be superior to legal constitutional and moral restraints. The crude old contemptible maxim, “the king can do no wrong,” has been magically transmuted in our era, by appeals to benevolent science, to German and Italian nationalism, to Marxian economic and class interest, and to popular democratic sentiment and majority will, into the subtle new glorious maxim, “the state can do no wrong.”

Although modern positivism follows Hobbes and Descartes in its materialism and methodology, it has largely discarded Hobbes’ cynical conception of man in favor of Rousseau’s more flattering faith in man’s natural goodness. By this theory all social evils not yet solved by scientific methods are explained wholly by external causes, through a bad arrangement of social machinery. The theory of man’s natural goodness goes a long way toward explaining the philosophical difficulties the West faces in dealing politically with Communism.

As heirs of the Enlightenment, many social theorists in the West are unaware of how deeply they share with Communism a faith in materialism and the methods of physical science as applied to man. Many in the West hold a Rousseauist belief in the natural goodness of man, combined with the materialist principle of the omnipotence of the environment. These principles are fundamental. The circumstantial differences found in party allegiance, in national self-interest, in the means by which social objectives are to be reached, are all trivial by comparison. To the extent that the philosophy of the Enlightenment has permeated Western thought, our statesmen are disqualified or at a disadvantage in waging an ideological war with Marxian tyranny on moral grounds. The West cannot endure half positivist and half Christian. In the late eighteenth century, no one knew this better than Edmund Burke.

Bredvold’s final chapter is an excellent synthesis of recent studies of Burke’s political philosophy. He notes that “Burke in one place or another objected to almost every step in the dialectic of the speculative philosophers of the Revolution.” Burke’s arguments against the Enlightenment have made him the chief spokesman for those who would preserve the traditional institutions and principles of the Christian commonwealth of Europe and the West, against the subversive forces of scientific materialism and political absolutism in any form. Burke’s Natural Law and Christian view of human nature had a large place for moral prudence, for the infinitely complex and corporate non-rational elements in man, for his necessary inherited institutions, for laws, manners, customs, and traditions of living. Burke’s skepticism toward self-sufficient rationalism struck at the very heart of the Enlightenment philosophy of man.

Like Aristotle, Burke considered “delusive geometrical accuracy in moral arguments, as the most fallacious of all sophistry.” He rejected the “moral calculus” of Hobbes, Descartes, and Bentham, and with it the whole assumption of the Enlightenment that politics is a social science based on the methods of physical science and quantitative analysis. In his aphorism, “Art is man’s nature,” Burke also rejected the Rousseauist or sentimental side of the Enlightenment, which made an antithesis between “art’” and “nature.” In light of this, it is not surprising that Karl Marx despised Burke and attacked him as an enemy of dialectic materialism, and that today in the West Burke is still the frequent target of positivists and sentimentalists.

A reader of The Brave New World of the Enlightenment will get many rich insights into the eighteenth-century theories of man that have brought contemporary man to his historical crisis. He should also understand better the possibilities and the means by which the times may be redeemed, from the brave new world of the Enlightenment, as fulfilled in Orwell’s novel 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in a resurgence of the Christian commonwealth of Europe, as envisioned by Burke.  

At the time of writing, Peter J. Stanlis was Professor of English, University of Detroit. He is currently Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, at Rockford College and is ranked among the foremost scholars of Edmund Burke and Robert Frost.

Posted: March 27, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

Imagination it is that shapes society—moral imagination, or idyllic imagination, or diabolic imagination.

Russell Kirk

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