Dark Bedfellows

Postmoderns and traditionalists unite against the Enlightenment

If you think you've sorted out your scorecard in the culture wars, try guessing who wrote this obituary for the Enlightenment, circa 1992: "The claims of universal reason are [now] universally suspect. Hopes for a system of values that would transcend the particularism of class, nationality, religion and race no longer carry much conviction. The Enlightenment's reason and morality are increasingly seen as a cover for power, and the prospect that the world can be governed by reason seems more remote than at any time since the eighteenth century."

On the face of it, this is a fairly standard exercise in academic postmodernism. There's the reason-is-dead theme; the announcement of the failure of the "Enlightenment project"; the typical deconstructionist swipe at the use of reason as a "cover for power"; and the multiculturalist view of all value systems as contingent on such matters as class and race. Throw in "phallologocentric hegemony," and the parody would be complete.

And yet this quote appeared not in a pomo academic journal like Social Text (of Sokal hoax fame) but in the orthodox Catholic New Oxford Review. Its author was the late Christopher Lasch, a social theorist (The Culture of Narcissism, The Revolt of the Elites) who has a large following among many of the very sorts of people--center-left communitarians, Strauss-influenced conservatives--who consider themselves immune to trendy downtown ideology.

If, unlike Lasch, you think reason hasn't been discredited; that some institutions (such as free speech and private property) can be prescribed universally; and that moral reasoning, while at times a cover for the illegitimate workings of power, is in the end the best hope for overturning them, then you may be feeling a mite lonely. Hardly anyone is defending the Enlightenment these days, while across the political spectrum it seems most heavy-duty thinkers can't stand it.

The arrows land from every direction. Environmentalists, notes The Economist, chide the Enlightenment for launching a "western Promethean conception of human relations with the earth." "Racism and enlightenment are the same thing," adds one of the critical race theorists quoted by Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry in Beyond All Reason: The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law (1997), while Colorado law professor Richard Delgado suggests: "If you are black or Mexican, you should flee Enlightenment-based democracies like mad, assuming you have any choice" (never mind that, as it happens, the actual migration seems to run in the opposite direction). On the right, Roger Scruton in City Journal finds and expresses unease about a "growing tendency" among American conservatives to turn against the Enlightenment as well.

So what is it, exactly, that's so upsetting to these people about the period when the lights came on in Western culture?

The Enlightenment, writes Edward O. Wilson in Consilience, is "the West's greatest contribution to civilization. It launched the modern era." In a fierce, hot blast of invention, intellect, and enterprise--the period can conveniently be dated to the century between 1687, when Isaac Newton published his Principia, and 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was devised--Europe and America forged not only the modern scientific method but also modernist thinking about metaphysics and morality, government, and society.

A few simple but sweeping propositions emerged. The universe is governed by fixed, objective, and impersonal laws, in principle discoverable by the exercise of human reason, experience, and observation. Traditions, customs, and claims of revelation cannot expect to be permanently insulated from such rational scrutiny, and, while no part of humanity's complex inheritance should lightly be discarded, beliefs and practices that prove squarely inconsistent with reason and experience ought eventually to yield ground.

By challenging the intellectual authority of the church, the Enlightenment made its first set of durable enemies; it soon went on to anger the throne as well, by systematizing the idea of individual rights and adding what historian Isaac Kramnick calls the "explosive" proposition that the individual had a morally legitimate right to pursue happiness. "Enlightenment liberalism set the individual free politically, intellectually, and economically," writes Kramnick in his introduction to the Viking Portable Enlightenment Reader.

Derided by some for their abundant confidence in Progress writ large, Enlightenment thinkers also believed in progress writ small, in the form of personal self-cultivation. The emergent Enlightenment man might be at once a man of affairs, a scientist, and an agitator: Condorcet was a mathematician, Locke a physician, Jefferson an agronomist and architect. Self-cultivation would enable an obscure provincial to shed his hometown prejudices and become a sophisticate, a "citizen of the world" accepting the best productions and ideas of all lands.

No citizen was more worldly than businessman-diplomat-inventor Ben Franklin, who "seized fire from the heavens and the scepter from the tyrant's hand," and who, after rendering due service to his Philadelphia neighbors, went on to be fussed over in Paris salons. Assailed during his life as a libertine and infidel, Franklin was one of history's most persuasive moralists, Poor Richard's Almanac having inculcated more sound conduct than all the works of the Puritan Fathers.

While on the subject, there's no doubt which country best embodied Enlightenment ideals: the United States. "An asylum against fanaticism and tyranny" (Diderot), America achieved with its Constitution the highest proof of the practical uses of speculative philosophy. Known as the land of the "self-made man"--a concept Kramnick sees as closely related to that of the Enlightenment man--America was also the land of individual rights and, before long, of science. Even the great exception in the American scheme of freedom, the tenacious existence of slavery in the South, was destined to be eroded at last by the free exercise of moral reasoning.

To be sure, Enlightenment thinking generated its own fads, blind spots, and excesses, especially in undervaluing long-evolved traditions and overrating the prospects for redesigning basic institutions from scratch; these richly deserved their later correction by such figures as Burke and Hayek. And it got widely blamedfor the French Revolution's horrors--although, since the philosophes themselves got purged fairly early in the game, the exercise might seem a bit like blaming Kerensky for Leninism. Still, the criticism stuck and the lessons were fairly learned: Edinburgh and not just Paris came to set the tone, and few people any more wish to rename the months.

But it's one thing to trim the hedge and another to hack at its roots. Today's diverse opponents of the Enlightenment seem to be attempting just that, in ways that often converge curiously with each other:

Cut science down to size. A key tenet of the postmodern study of science, according to Noretta Koertge's introduction to the new essay collection A House Built on Sand, is that the field needs to have its claims to objectivity deflated: "Science must be `humbled.'" Echo on the right: Paul Johnson, whose London Spectator column has a distinctly crankier streak than the doorstop histories he ships across the Atlantic, now rails against "scientific triumphalists" and names, as the chief menace to be fought in the new century, "Darwinian fundamentalists."

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