The Enlightenment: A Useful Myth

In his February New York Times column titled “The Enlightenment Project,” David Brooks examined the legacy of the Western Enlightenment and excoriated the supposed “anti-Enlightenment threats” which, he believes, are arrayed against that legacy today. Part-paean to the ideas of Kant and Locke, part-lament for the supposed rejection of these ideas by the likes of Trump, Putin, and China (who, in Brooks’ view, are all part of the same “anti-Enlightenment” trend), his article, if nothing else, displays the deep worry of its author. In a grim, overwrought tone, Brooks declares that we have entered a period of surging anti-Enlightenment sentiment, and are in dire need of an “Enlightenment hero”—such as Abraham Lincoln, whom he describes as “a classic Enlightenment man”--to “vindicate faith in democracy and the entire Enlightenment cause.” Today’s “racial separatists and…populist ethnic nationalist movements,” he says, are quintessentially “anti-Enlightenment,” preferring “direct rule by one strongman” to democracy, and “hostile” to the “rules-based systems, multilateral organizations…[and] messy compromises of democratic politics” that characterize, in his view, Enlightenment-style government.

Yet, while Brooks’ article succeeds in showcasing the standard liberal (specifically, socially liberal) beliefs on the topic--lionizing the Enlightenment as forerunner of modern secularism, democracy, and human rights--it hopelessly mischaracterizes the historical reality. The Enlightenment was, in fact, far more varied and rough-edged than many of its modern liberal/moderate admirers care to admit. Brooks and similar commentators have, in recent years, tended to adopt a narrow, sanitized view of the Enlightenment that allows them to claim for themselves what many see as a grand historical tradition while ignoring the more uncomfortable aspects of that tradition. For them, the Enlightenment is the pure source from which the glories of contemporary secular democratic society flow; it is the prototype of their own ideals, which by its arrival on the benighted historical scene brought sunlight into the dark corridors of Western philosophy. In their mythos, the Enlightenment era exchanged gothic superstition for neoclassical rationalism, and began the arduous march to the modern, liberal, secular ideology that they supposedly exemplify. In this narrative, modern social liberalism is the sole inheritor of Kant, Rousseau, Washington, Lincoln, et al. (whom Brooks seems to blend into a composite intellectual whole), and is the defender of “authentic” Enlightenment ideology--the very wellspring of modernity and democracy itself--which the likes of today’s social conservatives (or even worse, Trumpians), can only pretend to represent. Yet, notwithstanding its popularity, this view is easy enough to dispel.

Brooks’s first error lies in painting with a broad brush. While amidst praise of the “Enlightenment project” he acknowledges several of its shortcomings--its tendency to write off religion and race, to reduce people to “rational egoists,” and to install what he describes as “soulless technocrats” in power--these acknowledgments only assess discrete parts of the wider, and sometimes much darker, Enlightenment project.

It is undeniable that religion and race were prominent in the worldview of several of the Enlightenment’s foremost thinkers. For some Enlightenment thinkers, their problem was not, as Brooks says, “writing off” race and religion, but just the opposite. To prove my point, I need only reference Thomas Jefferson, who is, perhaps more than any other man, the representative of Enlightenment thought in American history. Jefferson’s belief in the importance of race in human affairs is well known, and not only from his slaveholding. During his life, he authored several intellectual writings on race, including his famous Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), his only book, written five years after the Declaration of Independence. In Notes, Jefferson lays out a thoroughly Enlightenment view on race, utilizing contemporary science and philosophy to argue that the black race is inferior to the white race. Jefferson’s influence on this topic, in the words of historian Edward L. Ayers and writer Bradley C. Mittendorf, “would be immense.” Written as a response to several French officials with whom Jefferson shared Enlightenment views, the book justifies slavery by arguing that, in terms of reason, blacks are “much inferior to whites,” and possess a “dull” intellect that renders them unfit for the freedom guaranteed to whites in the new nation. In its use of reason and late eighteenth century ideals, Jefferson’s work is a thorough product of the Enlightenment.

Notwithstanding his often unorthodox views on the subjects of religion, Jefferson also referred to Christianity as the “purest system of morals ever before preached to man” and encouraged “the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus” in his oft-quoted January 19, 1810 letter to William Baldwin (the main thrust of this letter was to criticize certain American Quakers who Jefferson felt were exhibiting more loyalty to Quaker leaders in England than to the policies of the United States government). In his optimistic February 27, 1821 letter to Timothy Pickering he also wrote: “I have little doubt that the whole of our country will soon be rallied to the unity of the Creator, and, I hope, to the pure doctrines of Jesus also.” While Jefferson’s Unitarian faith was certainly unorthodox, perhaps even radical in some respects, these are hardly the words of a man with a “tendency to write off religion.”

As an aside, in this article I will refrain from making any reference to “Enlightenment thinking” as if it had an existence outside the minds of its proponents; it never was, and never can be, anything but what its philosophes wrote and published. It has no existence of its own, and can never become the substitute divinity, the secular replacement for Judeo-Christianity, that some individuals have supposed it can be. In Marxist parlance, the process of “Reification” is that by which purely human creations are misconstrued as "facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will." I believe that Marxism itself, among other ideologies, is guilty of this in the extreme, and will therefore refrain from falling into the reifying trap.

To return to the main topic, Jefferson’s views are echoed by thinkers like Benjamin Franklin and John Locke. Franklin argued in his 1751 treatise Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc., for the multiplication of the “purely white” race in America--namely, the Anglo-Saxon race--and the exclusion of the “swarthy” and “tawny” peoples of southern Germany, southern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Locke, for his part, famously asserted that slaves could justifiably be taken and held under Enlightenment doctrine, and composed the 1669 Carolina Constitution--a document recognized by many historians as an exemplar of Enlightenment thought--with the provision that, “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.”

As Yale history professor David W. Blight explained in a 2008 lecture, “White Southern defenders of slavery were--to some extent--like other Americans--products of the Enlightenment… Conservativism--deep organic forms of Conservativism--[are] not antithetical to the Enlightenment, at least not entirely.” Yet at the same time, as Blight said, many antebellum defenders of slavery went so far as to revile that most conservative of concepts: natural law. If they did not outright reject natural law, they certainly, in Blight’s words, reviled it insofar “as it can be applied to the possibilities of man,” meaning his possibilities for personal advancement. We are thus left with an interesting contrast; namely, that while Enlightenment thinkers often adopted ideas, like slavery, that are usually considered extremely retrograde, they did so while rejecting the even more ancient philosophical tradition of natural law. Unlike Enlightenment thought alone, natural law would have, in principle, protected slaves from the most degrading aspects of chattel slavery as practiced in the Americas; it would have, in the tradition of Aquinas’ philosophical school, defended their inherent humanity.

But there is a further point to make. Both Northerners and Southerners, in Blight’s phraseology, “breathed in” the legacy of republicanism from the American Revolution. In this sense, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and Alexander Stephens, its vice president, can be categorically described as proponents of the Enlightenment. Like Thomas Jefferson, these men believed in Enlightenment ideals of self-government, respected the American founding documents, and argued that “negroes” were fated for subservience to the white man. In supporting the Confederate Constitution, which shared the bulk of its governmental philosophy with the U.S. Constitution while differing in several key aspects, Davis and Stephens perpetuated the Enlightenment principles of the eighteenth century. Even in his famous 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” in which he expounded the foundations of Confederate nationhood, Stephens argued that modern science had disproven the line “All men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence, and that slavery was therefore philosophically justified. That the single most significant expression of Confederate political philosophy employs not conservative principles (as the contemporary narrative would have one think) but modern science to justify slavery probably ranks as one of the great ironies of American history.

David Brooks’ assertion that the Enlightenment is innately bound to democratic ideals also falls flat. In eighteenth-century Europe, the Enlightenment’s foremost political exponents--King Frederick the Great of Prussia, Emperor Joseph II of Austria, and Empress Catherine the Great of Russia--were all absolute monarchs, immortalized in Western history as the “enlightened despots” (a moniker also bestowed on rulers like Gustav III of Sweden and Maria Theresa of Austria). “The Enlightenment Project,” in and of itself, was evidently not enough to spread the democratic ideals that Brooks so extols to the Russian empire. Each of these rulers, while endorsing “Liberty, the soul of all things!” (Empress Catherine’s words), respecting a degree of religious freedom (while legally upholding the state church, as Emperor Joseph did), and sponsoring modern philosophers (such as Frederick the Great, who sponsored and corresponded with Voltaire), retained strongman-type dictatorial powers that would probably make the likes of Vladimir Putin blush. Emperor Joseph’s overweening church policies were enough to spark the first Belgian Revolution in 1789, while Catherine the Great banished thousands of unruly serfs to Siberia without compunction; King Frederick’s policy of constant war and military impressment is also a matter of historical record. The few relatively free regimes in Europe, such as the Polish Commonwealth and Great Britain, were free because of their pre-Enlightenment traditions of representational government--the Sejm, the Magna Carta, the British houses of Parliament--not because of the Enlightened despotism practiced by Empress Catherine and defended by Voltaire (who also defended the proposition that blacks were less human than whites). Modern nationalism, too--of which Putin and China are certainly strong proponents--was born in the 1789 French Revolution, the very crucible of the Enlightenment. Furthermore, a number of historians argue that the fundamental impetus for the American Revolution lay not in the eighteenth century Enlightenment movement but, on the contrary, in the older values of Anglo-Saxon parliamentarianism and individual liberty that numerous leading patriots felt were being violated by the British government in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. One need only examine the colonial rhetoric surrounding the inalienable “rights of Englishmen” during this period, or study John Adams’ positive views on the tradition of English representative government, for evidence of this argument.

Even in contemporary times, then, the Enlightenment has a mixed ideological impact. As more than one thinker has noticed, Nazism was born in Germany, the very heartland of the Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view that the state itself represents the will of the people, likewise, prefigures modern totalitarianism, and the nationalism of modern China.

Where does this leave us with respect to Brooks’ article? Is the real, historical Enlightenment, with all its shortcomings and contradictions, even something that one ought to emulate? Was Abraham Lincoln great because he was a champion of Enlightenment, or for some deeper reason? President Lincoln certainly did not “perpetually tell [himself] that religion is dead,” as Brooks says Enlightenment figures often do. On the contrary, in his 1861 Inaugural Address, Lincoln declared verbatim that, “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.” And in his 1865 Inaugural Address, he called upon his fellow citizens to have, “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” When Brooks points to Lincoln’s faith in Providence and “ultimate justice” as the factor that let him prevail, he is onto the whole truth, but fails to bring the point to its conclusion. Some aspects of the Enlightenment certainly bequeathed succeeding generations with solid lessons (the philosophy of the American founders being perhaps the prime example), yet the “Enlightenment project,” even in its sanitized “mythic” form, can never be the end-all-be-all of our worldview.

The conclusion must be, that while Brooks is free to claim the Enlightenment mantle, he must, by the same token, allow Putin, the Russian tsars, and the old Southern slaveholders to share that mantle. Whether one admires the old Confederacy, adheres to Voltaire’s views on race, or is a David Brooks-style progressive, one must accept this. But if one wants to find the true grounding for a just, human existence, he should place the lessons and varied principles of the Enlightenment, as President Lincoln did, second to a convinced faith in “Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land.” This Judeo-Christian ethos--belief in truth beyond amoral utilitarianism--is what truly sets great rulers and societies above the fray; it still is “competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.”

Jack H. Burke is a member of the Fordham University Class of 2017

In his February New York Times column titled “The Enlightenment Project,” David Brooks examined the legacy of the Western Enlightenment and excoriated the supposed “anti-Enlightenment threats” which, he believes, are arrayed against that legacy today. Part-paean to the ideas of Kant and Locke, part-lament for the supposed rejection of these ideas by the likes of Trump, Putin, and China (who, in Brooks’ view, are all part of the same “anti-Enlightenment” trend), his article, if nothing else, displays the deep worry of its author. In a grim, overwrought tone, Brooks declares that we have entered a period of surging anti-Enlightenment sentiment, and are in dire need of an “Enlightenment hero”—such as Abraham Lincoln, whom he describes as “a classic Enlightenment man”--to “vindicate faith in democracy and the entire Enlightenment cause.” Today’s “racial separatists and…populist ethnic nationalist movements,” he says, are quintessentially “anti-Enlightenment,” preferring “direct rule by one strongman” to democracy, and “hostile” to the “rules-based systems, multilateral organizations…[and] messy compromises of democratic politics” that characterize, in his view, Enlightenment-style government.

Yet, while Brooks’ article succeeds in showcasing the standard liberal (specifically, socially liberal) beliefs on the topic--lionizing the Enlightenment as forerunner of modern secularism, democracy, and human rights--it hopelessly mischaracterizes the historical reality. The Enlightenment was, in fact, far more varied and rough-edged than many of its modern liberal/moderate admirers care to admit. Brooks and similar commentators have, in recent years, tended to adopt a narrow, sanitized view of the Enlightenment that allows them to claim for themselves what many see as a grand historical tradition while ignoring the more uncomfortable aspects of that tradition. For them, the Enlightenment is the pure source from which the glories of contemporary secular democratic society flow; it is the prototype of their own ideals, which by its arrival on the benighted historical scene brought sunlight into the dark corridors of Western philosophy. In their mythos, the Enlightenment era exchanged gothic superstition for neoclassical rationalism, and began the arduous march to the modern, liberal, secular ideology that they supposedly exemplify. In this narrative, modern social liberalism is the sole inheritor of Kant, Rousseau, Washington, Lincoln, et al. (whom Brooks seems to blend into a composite intellectual whole), and is the defender of “authentic” Enlightenment ideology--the very wellspring of modernity and democracy itself--which the likes of today’s social conservatives (or even worse, Trumpians), can only pretend to represent. Yet, notwithstanding its popularity, this view is easy enough to dispel.

Brooks’s first error lies in painting with a broad brush. While amidst praise of the “Enlightenment project” he acknowledges several of its shortcomings--its tendency to write off religion and race, to reduce people to “rational egoists,” and to install what he describes as “soulless technocrats” in power--these acknowledgments only assess discrete parts of the wider, and sometimes much darker, Enlightenment project.

It is undeniable that religion and race were prominent in the worldview of several of the Enlightenment’s foremost thinkers. For some Enlightenment thinkers, their problem was not, as Brooks says, “writing off” race and religion, but just the opposite. To prove my point, I need only reference Thomas Jefferson, who is, perhaps more than any other man, the representative of Enlightenment thought in American history. Jefferson’s belief in the importance of race in human affairs is well known, and not only from his slaveholding. During his life, he authored several intellectual writings on race, including his famous Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), his only book, written five years after the Declaration of Independence. In Notes, Jefferson lays out a thoroughly Enlightenment view on race, utilizing contemporary science and philosophy to argue that the black race is inferior to the white race. Jefferson’s influence on this topic, in the words of historian Edward L. Ayers and writer Bradley C. Mittendorf, “would be immense.” Written as a response to several French officials with whom Jefferson shared Enlightenment views, the book justifies slavery by arguing that, in terms of reason, blacks are “much inferior to whites,” and possess a “dull” intellect that renders them unfit for the freedom guaranteed to whites in the new nation. In its use of reason and late eighteenth century ideals, Jefferson’s work is a thorough product of the Enlightenment.

Notwithstanding his often unorthodox views on the subjects of religion, Jefferson also referred to Christianity as the “purest system of morals ever before preached to man” and encouraged “the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus” in his oft-quoted January 19, 1810 letter to William Baldwin (the main thrust of this letter was to criticize certain American Quakers who Jefferson felt were exhibiting more loyalty to Quaker leaders in England than to the policies of the United States government). In his optimistic February 27, 1821 letter to Timothy Pickering he also wrote: “I have little doubt that the whole of our country will soon be rallied to the unity of the Creator, and, I hope, to the pure doctrines of Jesus also.” While Jefferson’s Unitarian faith was certainly unorthodox, perhaps even radical in some respects, these are hardly the words of a man with a “tendency to write off religion.”

As an aside, in this article I will refrain from making any reference to “Enlightenment thinking” as if it had an existence outside the minds of its proponents; it never was, and never can be, anything but what its philosophes wrote and published. It has no existence of its own, and can never become the substitute divinity, the secular replacement for Judeo-Christianity, that some individuals have supposed it can be. In Marxist parlance, the process of “Reification” is that by which purely human creations are misconstrued as "facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will." I believe that Marxism itself, among other ideologies, is guilty of this in the extreme, and will therefore refrain from falling into the reifying trap.

To return to the main topic, Jefferson’s views are echoed by thinkers like Benjamin Franklin and John Locke. Franklin argued in his 1751 treatise Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc., for the multiplication of the “purely white” race in America--namely, the Anglo-Saxon race--and the exclusion of the “swarthy” and “tawny” peoples of southern Germany, southern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Locke, for his part, famously asserted that slaves could justifiably be taken and held under Enlightenment doctrine, and composed the 1669 Carolina Constitution--a document recognized by many historians as an exemplar of Enlightenment thought--with the provision that, “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.”

As Yale history professor David W. Blight explained in a 2008 lecture, “White Southern defenders of slavery were--to some extent--like other Americans--products of the Enlightenment… Conservativism--deep organic forms of Conservativism--[are] not antithetical to the Enlightenment, at least not entirely.” Yet at the same time, as Blight said, many antebellum defenders of slavery went so far as to revile that most conservative of concepts: natural law. If they did not outright reject natural law, they certainly, in Blight’s words, reviled it insofar “as it can be applied to the possibilities of man,” meaning his possibilities for personal advancement. We are thus left with an interesting contrast; namely, that while Enlightenment thinkers often adopted ideas, like slavery, that are usually considered extremely retrograde, they did so while rejecting the even more ancient philosophical tradition of natural law. Unlike Enlightenment thought alone, natural law would have, in principle, protected slaves from the most degrading aspects of chattel slavery as practiced in the Americas; it would have, in the tradition of Aquinas’ philosophical school, defended their inherent humanity.

But there is a further point to make. Both Northerners and Southerners, in Blight’s phraseology, “breathed in” the legacy of republicanism from the American Revolution. In this sense, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and Alexander Stephens, its vice president, can be categorically described as proponents of the Enlightenment. Like Thomas Jefferson, these men believed in Enlightenment ideals of self-government, respected the American founding documents, and argued that “negroes” were fated for subservience to the white man. In supporting the Confederate Constitution, which shared the bulk of its governmental philosophy with the U.S. Constitution while differing in several key aspects, Davis and Stephens perpetuated the Enlightenment principles of the eighteenth century. Even in his famous 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” in which he expounded the foundations of Confederate nationhood, Stephens argued that modern science had disproven the line “All men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence, and that slavery was therefore philosophically justified. That the single most significant expression of Confederate political philosophy employs not conservative principles (as the contemporary narrative would have one think) but modern science to justify slavery probably ranks as one of the great ironies of American history.

David Brooks’ assertion that the Enlightenment is innately bound to democratic ideals also falls flat. In eighteenth-century Europe, the Enlightenment’s foremost political exponents--King Frederick the Great of Prussia, Emperor Joseph II of Austria, and Empress Catherine the Great of Russia--were all absolute monarchs, immortalized in Western history as the “enlightened despots” (a moniker also bestowed on rulers like Gustav III of Sweden and Maria Theresa of Austria). “The Enlightenment Project,” in and of itself, was evidently not enough to spread the democratic ideals that Brooks so extols to the Russian empire. Each of these rulers, while endorsing “Liberty, the soul of all things!” (Empress Catherine’s words), respecting a degree of religious freedom (while legally upholding the state church, as Emperor Joseph did), and sponsoring modern philosophers (such as Frederick the Great, who sponsored and corresponded with Voltaire), retained strongman-type dictatorial powers that would probably make the likes of Vladimir Putin blush. Emperor Joseph’s overweening church policies were enough to spark the first Belgian Revolution in 1789, while Catherine the Great banished thousands of unruly serfs to Siberia without compunction; King Frederick’s policy of constant war and military impressment is also a matter of historical record. The few relatively free regimes in Europe, such as the Polish Commonwealth and Great Britain, were free because of their pre-Enlightenment traditions of representational government--the Sejm, the Magna Carta, the British houses of Parliament--not because of the Enlightened despotism practiced by Empress Catherine and defended by Voltaire (who also defended the proposition that blacks were less human than whites). Modern nationalism, too--of which Putin and China are certainly strong proponents--was born in the 1789 French Revolution, the very crucible of the Enlightenment. Furthermore, a number of historians argue that the fundamental impetus for the American Revolution lay not in the eighteenth century Enlightenment movement but, on the contrary, in the older values of Anglo-Saxon parliamentarianism and individual liberty that numerous leading patriots felt were being violated by the British government in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. One need only examine the colonial rhetoric surrounding the inalienable “rights of Englishmen” during this period, or study John Adams’ positive views on the tradition of English representative government, for evidence of this argument.

Even in contemporary times, then, the Enlightenment has a mixed ideological impact. As more than one thinker has noticed, Nazism was born in Germany, the very heartland of the Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view that the state itself represents the will of the people, likewise, prefigures modern totalitarianism, and the nationalism of modern China.

Where does this leave us with respect to Brooks’ article? Is the real, historical Enlightenment, with all its shortcomings and contradictions, even something that one ought to emulate? Was Abraham Lincoln great because he was a champion of Enlightenment, or for some deeper reason? President Lincoln certainly did not “perpetually tell [himself] that religion is dead,” as Brooks says Enlightenment figures often do. On the contrary, in his 1861 Inaugural Address, Lincoln declared verbatim that, “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.” And in his 1865 Inaugural Address, he called upon his fellow citizens to have, “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” When Brooks points to Lincoln’s faith in Providence and “ultimate justice” as the factor that let him prevail, he is onto the whole truth, but fails to bring the point to its conclusion. Some aspects of the Enlightenment certainly bequeathed succeeding generations with solid lessons (the philosophy of the American founders being perhaps the prime example), yet the “Enlightenment project,” even in its sanitized “mythic” form, can never be the end-all-be-all of our worldview.

The conclusion must be, that while Brooks is free to claim the Enlightenment mantle, he must, by the same token, allow Putin, the Russian tsars, and the old Southern slaveholders to share that mantle. Whether one admires the old Confederacy, adheres to Voltaire’s views on race, or is a David Brooks-style progressive, one must accept this. But if one wants to find the true grounding for a just, human existence, he should place the lessons and varied principles of the Enlightenment, as President Lincoln did, second to a convinced faith in “Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land.” This Judeo-Christian ethos--belief in truth beyond amoral utilitarianism--is what truly sets great rulers and societies above the fray; it still is “competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.”

Jack H. Burke is a member of the Fordham University Class of 2017

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