Why History, Exactly?
The Enlightenment: and Why It Still Matters
Oxford University Press, 2013
The Enlightenment made the modern world. From the second half of the seventeenth until the final decades of the eighteenth century, Christianity progressively failed to provide the intellectual and, consequently, moral certainty which it had done since the foundation of the Church. God was dispelled from the realm of nature by the realisation that natural phenomena were explicable in terms of general laws, rather than through the interventions of a creator, and from human affairs by the establishment of a field of values based on scrupulous rational understanding, detached from authority, tradition, and faith. Through the work of scholars, scientists, philosophers, artists, and political theorists, the eighteenth-century witnessed the discovery of a new definition of humanity, at the heart of which were two interconnected claims, that humans share nothing in common with the divinity and that all humans are essentially alike.
Yet the Enlightenment has attracted numerous critics. The first were commentators on the French Revolution, including Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, who saw it, along with the ensuing Terror, as the natural result of enlightened ideals. They were followed in their turn by Marxists, such Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for whom the philosophy of the Enlightenment had inadvertently provided the theoretical legitimation for imperial expansion, capitalism, and ultimately the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The criticism continues today. There are communitarians, led by the philosopher Alistair MacIntyre, who accuse the Enlightenment philosophers of having made moral reasoning incoherent by searching for the wellsprings of moral action in the desiccated landscape of reason, rather than in the customs and cultural settlements of the communities in which we live. And there are postmodernists, who follow Jean-François Lyotard in arguing that enlightenment thinkers replaced the God of Judaism and Christianity with the equally false gods of reason, justice, and truth. In their different ways, these critics of the Enlightenment are wrong and historical study can show us why.
All this is the opinion of Anthony Pagden, whose The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters is the latest in a long line of vindicatory histories of the period. The story told is a familiar one. Something like it appeared in Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment (1966-69) and can found, among more recent works, in the hefty trilogy by Jonathan Israel. Yet many scholars treat it with caution. Some question whether there was a single Enlightenment or a number of distinct enlightenments, each occurring in its own national context. Others question whether the Enlightenment took place through a radical challenge to traditional belief or through a series of shifts within Christianity, as theologians adjusted their teachings in line with progress in scholarship and science. Still others locate the changes most commonly associated with the Enlightenment in the seventeenth or nineteenth centuries or question, like Diarmaid MacCulloch, whether the Enlightenment has really ended.
Nevertheless, considered as a work of historiography, Pagden’s account has quite a lot to recommend it. He warns against any simple understanding of the Enlightenment as the Age of Reason, noting the importance of sympathy and sentiment, which explained humans’ capacity for moral action without directly invoking God, in the new science of man. Nor does he follow Israel’s lead in insisting tendentiously on the influence of Spinoza or of spuriously dividing the map of the Enlightenment into radical and conservative blocs. A strong chapter explains the influence on enlightened thinking of European colonial encounters in China and Tahiti, which have not featured especially prominently in previous contributions to the field. On the other hand, his central thesis about the new definition of humanity could have been qualified by greater attention to the strains in eighteenth-century theology which emphasised the commonality of divine and human reason.
The real interest of the book, however, lies in the second half of Pagden’s title. He claims that the Enlightenment ‘still matters’ and it is worth going into detail about how this is supposed to work. His argument, roughly speaking, is this, that the history of the last three hundred years shows that the growth of certain attitudes and beliefs—distrust of authority, tradition, and faith; respect for reason and the objectivity of scientific knowledge; belief in equality, a common human nature, and the existence of inalienable rights—has had positive consequences for mankind. We ought, therefore, in light of this history, to adopt these attitudes and beliefs, as well as upholding the work of institutions which embody them—he mentions the EU, the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Court of Human Justice—and criticising institutions which do not, such as the Catholic Church and the government of Iran.
There is clearly some plausibility in this, and much that can be learnt about secularisation (among other matters) from the historical study of the eighteenth century. But there are also rather a large number of problems. The most basic is that Pagden’s historical account offers only partial answers to the accusations made against the Enlightenment which he describes in the introduction and conclusion. There is scant discussion of whether the Enlightenment caused the French Revolution, the Terror, and the ensuing revolutionary wars, the capitalism, imperialism, and nationalism of the nineteenth-century, or the horrors of the Holocaust. There is a similar lack of obvious connection between the historical account provided by Pagden and the accusations made by MacIntyre and the postmodernists that the Enlightenment made moral reasoning incoherent and that it attempted to make universal values out of elite, male, and western notions of reason, justice, and truth.
One might also wonder whether a history of the Enlightenment was the best way for Pagden to defend his political conclusions. If one sought to argue for the merits of enlightened thinking or of institutions which embody enlightened ideals, then one might think that the most extensive, concrete, and relevant evidence would not date from the Enlightenment itself, but from the far more recent past. At very least, if one decided to concentrate on the earlier history, then one’s conclusions would be greatly strengthened by an explanation of how the evidence under consideration related to other evidence which also had a bearing on the case. This is not to say that the history is irrelevant; only that there is a distance between Pagden’s historical account and his political conclusions—a distance which should have been traversed by an explanation.
Equally, if one sought to argue for the merits of enlightened thinking, then one might treat the writings of Enlightenment thinkers not as historical sources, but as the best available articulations of certain important arguments and ideas. One might not even turn to history at all. If enlightened thinking is constituted inter alia by belief in a common human nature, in the probable non-existence of God, and in the existence of inalienable rights, then one might defend these beliefs by demonstrating the truth of the premises of the arguments which support them and the validity of the ensuing logical steps, without recourse to historical evidence.
This is connected to a further problem. While Pagden evidently believes that the Enlightenment had positive results and that its central tenets are true, his arguments are restricted to the former consideration. This means his political conclusions are made to depend very heavily on the truth of his historical account, whereas if he had said more about how those conclusions might be supported by different historical evidence, or through means other than historical study, then they would be more likely to survive an assault on the truth of his historical account. It also seems to lead Pagden to believe that the critics of the Enlightenment are referring to the Enlightenment as a congeries of historical events in their criticism of it. In the cases of Adorno, Horkheimer, and MacIntyre, this is very far from being obviously the case. Adorno and Horkheimer were perfectly clear that their criticisms were not aimed at the Enlightenment per se, but at certain features of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thinking, which they associated, analogically as much as causally, with the Enlightenment. As for MacIntyre, his account of the Enlightenment in After Virtue is so sketchy and historically caricaturish as to raise a real interpretative question about whether he was referring to historical events or to certain possible lines of moral argument.
At bottom, Pagden moves far too quickly from the claim that important aspects of modern life date from the Enlightenment to the claim that the Enlightenment ‘still matters’. Both claims may, perhaps, be true, but the reader would have been placed in a better position to assess the truth of the second claim if more had been said about how it is supported by the first claim. In this respect, the book is exemplary of an often neglected problem in historical writing, in which a question about what we should think or do is shown to have an interesting history, but little is said about how that history might help someone to answer the question. Yet as Pagden eloquently, if unwittingly, shows, the relationship between an historical account and a question about what we should think or do can be anything but straightforward.
Gabriel Roberts is reading for a D.Phil in English at Worcester College, Oxford. He is Editor in Chief of the Oxonian Review.