What do you see when you think of the Enlightenment?
For me, the word — capitalized so grandly — brings to mind a pleasing scene of a group of philosophes sitting outside a Parisian café in the sun.
Their wigs, of various hues, shine in the bright light.
They gesticulate wildly, laugh, slap one another on the backs, raise glasses of wine high, all the while dreaming up a new world.
I can see just see them, can’t you? Slender Voltaire with his wry smile…
Open-faced, balding Diderot, who tapped the intellects of his age to produce his great Encyclopédie…
Then my mind leaps to England and Scotland, and I think of John Locke with his clear prose and unforgettable nose…
I think of the “Scottish Enlightenment” — which has been the most long-lasting — and, at the center of it, the great, fat genius of empiricism (and the philosopher who had the most profound impact on me when I read him at Oxford), David Hume. With his admirer and fellow empiricist Adam Smith not far off, tossing a silver coin in the air.
In literature I think of Swift, Pope, Laurence Stern.
And as an American I can’t leave out Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, the Federalist papers. For the Constitution was truly a product of the Enlightenment. It’s not only a work of brilliant political philosophy (influenced heavily by Locke and Montesquieu), but it’s a hands-on blueprint for the longest lasting experiment in representative government the world has ever known.
What images come to mind for you?
Rising above individuals now… to a higher level of abstraction… I see the light of Reason penetrating everything.
The world, opening up to human beings in a new way.
Now it can be examined naturalistically, through science and rationality.
Universal values emerge. Human rights. The abolition of slavery. Women’s rights. The shackles of religion, racism, dogmas of all kinds… finally thrown off!
Free now, to stand on our own feet, to use our own perception, our own minds.
Benjamin Franklin, braving a lightening storm to bring us light.
That all sounds good, no?
But there is another side to the Enlightnment, of course. (Some of you might have gotten there already as I was busy singing its praises?)
Elevating “reason” at the expense of emotion.
Giving birth to false utopias.
Advancing a cult of “objectivity.”
A dangerous ideology to support the Powers that Be.
Sweet-talking its way to Colonial rule over “primitive” peoples.
Destructive of the old, the intuitive, the unique, the weird, the wonderful, the intuitive, the paradoxical, the inexplicable.
Oh, and despite its claims of turning to nature… quite severed from the natural world.
In short, a dream turned nightmare.
I propose that we tackle this question head-on, don’t you?
Where do you stand? Where do you come out? What is the right use of reason? What threat do you think it poses?
Here are this month’s readings, for your consideration:
I thought we should start with two luminaries of the Enlightenment, as they explore the interaction of European values with other cultures, other lands. In this light (so to speak), I encourage you to read:
1. Denis Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s ‘Voyage’ (click the title for the pdf), and
2. Voltaire’s Candide (you can find a copy, right?)
Both of these works can easily be found online in their French originals.
After that, we are going to turn our attention to the other side of the equation — that is, to critiques of the Enlightenment.
3. Isaiah Berlin, “The Counter-Enlightenment” from Against the Current.
4. Isaiah Berlin again, this time an excerpt from “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West” from The Crooked Timber of Humanity.
5. Excerpts from The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse by Steven D. Smith.
Again, you can click directly on the titles of all except Candide to get the pdfs.
Let me know if you have any trouble.
Remember, make it personal as you read.
And as always, please feel free to write in with other suggestions or questions or comments.
Happy reading and reflecting. See you on the 5th!