Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment by Pagden is a compelling book. It is not a history, it is not a work of comparative philosophy, and it is not a work of political theory. It is a view of the enlightenment by topics and through the focus of these topics it draws in the principal players in the Enlightenment again and again, intertwining their views in an ever more complex web. Each time Pagden does so he addresses another set of issues and often brings current affairs to the fore as well.

The core of the Enlightenment was the focus on reason and its tremendous powers and the total abhorrence of institutional revealed religion. Faith conflicted with reason. The Enlightenment totally rejected the Scholastics and their use of reason and logic. In a strange way reason dominated even the experimental efforts that surrounded the Enlightenment figures. The author states in his Preface that reason was not overthrowing the passions, but that the claims of reason were to be rejected as well as accepted. The author does also address the concern of Eurocentrism and the placing of the Enlightenment on a secondary state, a place where he believes it is not to be.

The author begins with an attempt to define the Enlightenment, or “Enlightenment” as process. To be enlightened meant being critical and for this capability it meant the use of reason (p 21). He provides a remark from Kant that it is but a few men, since most men and all women are but sheep, which use reason. For others if they can pay others for such things as what to eat, what is moral, then there is no need to think, reason. Yet amidst the mass of historical references the definition of either Enlightenment or the Enlightenment still is elusive. It is built upon reason, but it also appears to be a period based upon a revolt, a revolt from the way things were done, and especially the way one held religious belief.

Chapter 1 presents a somewhat historical context for the beginning of the Enlightenment. On p 33 there is a discussion of the end of the Thirty Years War, with the Peace of Westphalia. This event, the War, still hangs over much of central Europe. Many of the political divisions were religious divisions, and these divisions set the stage for conflicts for centuries to come.

Chapter 2 describes the change which the Enlightenment brought. It also presents one of the most convolved sentences I have ever read. On p 66 the author states:

“The Enlightenment, and in particular that portion which I am concerned, was in part, as we shall now see, and attempt to recover something of this vision of a unified and essentially benign humanity, of a potentially cosmopolitan world, without also being obliged to accept the theologians’ claim that this could only make sense as part of the larger plan of a well-meaning, if deeply inscrutable, deity.”

There are eight commas. But the sentence does accurately describe exactly what the author intends it to be. Yet it is also exemplary of style, which at time may be a bit daunting for the reader.

On p 69 the author provides insight to the debate that lurks below the surface between Hobbes and Rousseau. For Hobbes mankind was fundamentally and aggressive animal and needed the Leviathan to control them. For Rousseau mankind was originally pristine pure and was thereafter corrupted. Both men reached their conclusions by reason devoid of any scientific evidence or facts. That in a sense was the fatal flaw of the Enlightenment. It assumed the overwhelming power of reason as a sine qua non.

On p 77 there is a discussion of natural law and its deficiencies. The author states:

“The entire scholastic theory of moral and political life rested, as we have seen, on the idea that our basic understanding of the law of nature was made up of certain “innate ideas” or “innate senses”.

Then on p 79 he addresses the assault by Locke on this principle by stating:

“Few historians of philosophy have paid much attention to this length onslaught on the notion that there might exist no “innate Principles” or Innate Characters of the Mind which are to be Principles of Knowledge” beyond “a desire of Happiness and aversion of Pain”.

There was thus on the one hand a rejection of innate laws of nature, one that could be reasoned, and the application of reason to all existence.

Chapter 3 is a Chapter regarding a world without God. To some sense it is the Enlightenments fracturing of the past centuries and an attempt to break loose. He contends that man and the result of the Enlightenment can adapt to a civil society san religion. As he says on p 109:

“If it appears to do so now, that is only because of the fear that the Church has, over the centuries, inculcated in it.”

The author seems to align himself very much with those iconoclasts of the Enlightenment as one progress through this chapter.

He continues in Chapter 7 with a discussion of laws. On the one hand we have Montesquieu, and on the other hand we have Robespierre. As he states on p 309:

“Furthermore, political virtue was conceived of as a sentiment and not, as Montesquieu put it, “the consequence of knowledge”. True, the virtuous citizens had to be able to distinguish good laws from bad, but they did not require any special knowledge to do that; they did not need to understand precisely what a republic actually was, or how its institutions operated, or did they – as the ancients would, in fact, have assumed that they did – have to be actively involved in it, in order to love it; for the “last man in the state can have this sentiment as can the first”.”

 There are times when I had difficulty discerning the author from his subjects. This sentence gave me pause. If citizens were to distinguish good laws from bad, how much did they truly have to know? Does this not apply especially to any republic, where representation in a legislative body reflects to some degree the public? I believe the author has some point to be made here but they are somewhat poorly extracted from the sources.

On p 321-322 the authors delves into the Great Society of Mankind by an interesting allusion to foreign aid. To him it would have been an unacceptable concept in the Enlightenment but as an act consistent with Enlightenment thinking it would be congruent.

In his Conclusions he discusses the enemies of the Enlightenment. The discussion is generally in line with modern thinking but there appear to be several divergences. On p 395 there is a discussion of Communitarianism. The author states that Communitarians have much in common with 19th Century nationalists. He discusses the source as Hegelian in part. But he sees the Communitarians as enemies of Enlightenment thinking. This discussion is very interesting and worth a read several times.

He again returns to the Thirty Years War as that seminal event which in a manner kicked off the Enlightenment. For most Americans this is an event at best hidden in the dark past of the World History book. However for a European, this is a dividing line between the past and the present. It was a war of the people, a war of faith, not a war of territory. Even today one feels it when dealing with Poland, Sweden, Austria, Germany, France and so forth.

But the Enlightenment is also a collection of characters. The author brings them to life in his style of topical discussion. Voltaire becomes almost a current day Cable TV commentator, irascible, while at the same time amassing a personal fortune. He went after the Catholic Church, in the guise of attacking religion, but praised the British for their religious tolerance while at the same time the British were massacring the Irish for their faith. At the other extreme he discusses de Tocqueville and his view of the Americas while not discussing the de Tocqueville writing on Ireland the French Revolution.

There is a wealth of books on the Enlightenment and those of Gay, Cassirer and Israel are but three that come to mind. This book is not in that class. The former are historical works that flow in some linear manner; either temporally of thematically. This book is kaleidoscopic in style, with flashes of insight coming and going and then within those flashes incorporating vignettes of the main characters who are players on the stage of the Enlightenment. This is not a text of the type of Skinner who may include all players so that the ones that we see so often are placed within an historical context.

This book, in summary, is a delight to read, albeit not in a linear fashion. It has brilliant flashes of insight and explanation, yet there are times when one yells back at the words in total disagreement. This book draws out thinking in some depth about the Enlightenment more than a linear historical work. It was a delight to read.

However it does pose the question: who is the Voltaire of today?  Is it some "Talk Radio personality, some Cable "New" commentator? They are irreverent, attacking the "system". Then again one may ask who is Robespierre?