Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"The thing about light is that it casts shadows"

Kenneth Minogue reviews a new book about how light came into the world quite recently, historically speaking:
Anthony Pagden's The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters [is] a political tract for our time. The Enlightenment features here as the moment when the West not only embraced reason but also became cosmopolitan. Mr. Pagden presents these qualities as the source of such political decency as we may claim in dealing with other peoples. It inspires the internationalist passion for peace and progress that are today in confrontation with the kind of person he refers to, at one point, as the "ignorant, unthinking, sentimentalist usually identified as a 'nationalist.'"

We think of ourselves as enlightened, Mr. Pagden tells us, if we are tolerant and forward-thinking and "if stem-cell research does not frighten us but fundamentalist religious beliefs do." His account of the Enlightenment itself follows several themes, ranging from transcending religious dogma to aspiring to include the whole of mankind within a political structure, thus involving us with one another as fellow citizens. Enlightenment is an optimistic attitude, Mr. Pagden says, in which human beings are thought to be linked by mutual sympathy. Forward-thinking, as he calls it, adumbrates a cosmopolitan future that might ultimately remove the scourge of war from the planet.

One problem with this version of the Enlightenment story is the difficulty of deciding who, from the founding period, counts as belonging to the "club" of the enlightened. After all, one of the more dramatic climaxes of the 18th century was Robespierre's reign of terror during the French Revolution. According to the revolution's enlightened theorists and philosophers, society was to be newly based on virtue. The result, as we know, could be a murderous frenzy. Mr. Pagden is of course eager to drum Robespierre's Jacobins out of his club. ....

Mr. Pagden's basic take on the Enlightenment is locked into secularist legendry—as if intellectual progress only began when philosophers questioned religious authority. Diderot, d'Alembert, Voltaire and other leading thinkers of the Enlighenment, he says, "effectively discredited the idea that any kind of religious understanding might prove a true source of knowledge." ....

Mr. Pagden thinks that it is the enlightened who have taught us to behave altruistically toward distant people we have never meet. He admits that caritas is a Christian virtue but then solemnly explains to us that Christians merely practiced it so as to increase their credit with God. On the very same page we learn of Diderot's complaint that theatergoing Parisians wept over the fate of Phaedra but, as Mr. Pagden puts it, "never gave a single thought to the plight of African slaves." Mr. Pagden fails to note that William Wilberforce and his Christian supporters got the slave trade eliminated. ....

We do indeed owe some of our tolerant openness to the writers of the Enlightenment, but we also owe to them the nightmarish passion to meddle with human life and to attempt to create utopian societies. One benefit of Christianity was that it construed politics as a rather perilous activity carried on by imperfect people within some larger story about God and creation. The first figure who broke out of these confinements (apart from the monstrous Robespierre) was Napoleon. As we now know all too well, masterful radicals come in shapes more horrible than his, but the fashion for ideological enthusiasms to improve our world keeps on generating surprises. The thing about light is that it casts shadows. [more]

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