[Paleopsych] Terry Eagleton: The enlightenment is dead! Long live the Enlightenment!

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Thu Apr 14 14:12:40 UTC 2005

Terry Eagleton: The enlightenment is dead! Long live the Enlightenment!
Harper's Magazine, March 2005 v310 i1858 p91(5).

Discussed in this essay:

The Enlightenment & the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, by Louis 
Dupre. Yale University Press, 2004. 417 pages. $45.

Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons, and 
the Erosion of Common Sense, by Francis Wheen. Public Affairs, 2004. 327 pages. 

Imagine having to choose between two different kinds of society. In one, 
individual freedom and self-determination are cherished values, and the 
political form that they take is known as democracy. All men and women are seen 
as fundamentally equal, and tolerance for their different cultures and 
lifestyles is zealously fostered. Conflicts are to be resolved by recourse to 
reason and argument, rather than to custom, prejudice, authority, and 
tradition. Nothing is to be taken on trust simply because it is centuries old 
or announced by an archbishop. In fact, nothing is to be taken on trust at all. 
Instead of bowing submissively to custom and authority, we are to have the 
courage to think for ourselves. And there are no preordained limits to this 

Discovering the truth for this way of life requires a disinterested judgment 
free of passion, prejudice, and sectarian wrangling. It involves seeing the 
world as it really is, unclouded by fancy theories or abstruse metaphysics. But 
the truth is not an end in itself: the point, rather, is to harness it to the 
use and fulfillment of humankind. This is known as science and technology, 
which are forces for emancipation rather than enslavement. Truth is a 
practical, experimental affair, not a dogmatic absolute. Human beings, who 
stand at the apex of creation, give meaning and value to the world by their 
actions. This is known as history--and if only men and women can resist the 
arbitrary authority of priest and king, cast off irrational prejudices, and 
press knowledge into the service of emancipation, that history is likely to be 
a narrative of steady progress.

[Graphic omitted]Contrast this, then, with the second form of society, in which 
men and women are solitary creatures locked fearfully within their own private 
spheres. All they can know with any certainty is their own immediate 
experience, and even that is alarmingly unreliable. They cannot know enough of 
other people even to be sure that they exist, or that they have minds like 
their own. Communication is sickeningly precarious, and friendship, community, 
and solidarity are less genuine bonds than an interlocking of private 
interests. In fact, it is self-interest that drives this social order, in which 
others are seen either as potential predators or as pale replicas of oneself.

Reason still plays a major role in this culture, but only in a withered, anemic 
sense of the term. It no longer provides a foundation to social life. Instead, 
having scornfully dismissed metaphysical first principles, this society is left 
hanging in a void. It is a cacophony of colliding values, and reason cannot 
adjudicate between them. Reason is just a set of mechanical procedures for 
calculating which means will most effectively secure your self-interested ends. 
Those ends are not in themselves rational: like the instinct for 
self-preservation, they are set by appetites that are built into our nature 
and, as such, are beyond all criticism. Reason becomes a blunt instrument for 
promoting one's own gratification, rather as science and technology are ways of 
mastering and dominating Nature (which includes other people and other 
cultures) so as to press it into the service of one's desires. Torn loose from 
feeling, custom, and the senses, reason runs riot; in fact, it ends up 
replacing the despotism of earlier regimes with a tyranny all its own, from 
which no particle of human life is permitted to escape.

Nature is no longer valuable or meaningful in itself; it is just an inert lump 
of matter to be cuffed into whatever shape takes our fancy. A bleak utility now 
reigns sovereign in social life, expelling all of those dimensions of 
existence--art, feeling, humor, imagination, sensuous fulfillment, doing things 
just for the hell of it--which have a value but no price. A wedge is driven 
between humanity and Nature, as subjects are ripped from objects, bodies from 
souls, and values from facts. God is killed off in all but name, and human 
beings are hoisted into His place at the apex of creation. But exactly because 
they have the absolute freedom to do what they like, whatever they actually do 
seems futile and arbitrary.

The bad news is that no choice is possible between these two ways of life, 
since they are one and the same. Both are images of the Enlightenment, that 
enthusiasm for reason, progress, freedom, science, and secularism that swept 
Europe from Descartes to Kant, and of which modern capitalist societies are the 
inheritors. The even worse news is that you cannot easily pick and choose 
between the two, passing over the less appetizing features for the more 
alluring ones, because they are bound intricately together.

This is not a fact that seems obvious to Louis Dupre, in his impressively 
scholarly The Enlightenment & the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, 
or to Francis Wheen, in his scintillating polemic Idiot Proof. Wheen is a 
doughty champion of the Enlightenment who only grudgingly admits to its 
defects; Dupre, also a fan of the movement, is rather more critical but fails 
to see that its virtues are by and large the flip side of its vices. For a more 
balanced assessment we need to turn to Karl Marx, of whom Wheen, incidentally, 
has written a deeply enjoyable study. Marx was an odd hybrid of scientific 
rationalist and Romantic humanist--that is to say, he was a child of the Age of 
Reason who also launched an implacable critique of it. In this respect, his 
true successor was Sigmund Freud, another rationalist with a profound 
skepticism of reason.

There are those who sing the praises of enlightened thought, from Francis Bacon 
to Francis Wheen, and those who insist that the Enlightenment was all a ghastly 
blunder on which some merciful soul should have blown the whistle long ago. 
Many of the latter camp are now known as postmodernists, for whom reason is 
inherently authoritarian, truth a chimera, and freedom a fiction. For some like 
Theodor Adorno, there is a direct path from the Enlightenment to Auschwitz. For 
others like Jurgen Habermas, only staying faithful to the Enlightenment will 
save us from such horrors. Were the death camps the nadir of a tyrannical 
technology or the ultimate triumph of a barbarous unreason? Or was fascism as 
potent as it was because it managed to combine myth and rationality, the 
archaic and the avantgarde, in a lethal political cocktail?

Marxists, with infuriating smugness, have it both ways. This is charitably 
known as dialectical and less charitably as sitting on the fence. For them, 
post-Enlightenment culture has been both an exhilarating narrative of human 
emancipation and one long nightmare. Each story, moreover, must be read through 
the lens of the other. Freedom is indeed precious, but when it takes the form 
of economic individualism it means hunger, wretchedness, and unfreedom for 
others. Equality in the abstract means gross inequality in the concrete. It 
also means that, as far the marketplace goes, any one individual is 
interchangeable with any other. Politically speaking, we are equal in the 
polling booth but not in the business of government or property. Reason 
protects us from a savage irrationalism, but for all its indispensability it is 
not, in the end, where human life is at, and the problem is to find a way of 
saying so that does not sell out to the racists, charlatans, and latter-day 

Other Enlightenment concepts are equally two-edged. We are urgently in need of 
progress, but not if it means the kind of crass complacency that ignores the 
fact that history for most men and women to date has meant misery and fruitless 
toil and instead traces a triumphalist trajectory all the way from Adam to John 
Ashcroft. Americans are particularly prone to the illusion that everything is 
steadily getting better, whereas some Europeans would be rather crestfallen if 
this turned out to be the case. As for the mastery of Nature, this is sometimes 
essential, not least when the cobra is about to strike or your sailboat is 
rapidly sinking; but we are now imperiled by the whirlwind that this hubristic 
doctrine has set loose down the centuries. The techniques that helped us combat 
plague have turned into one of the most terrifying plagues of all.

The idea of universality, along with the notion of a shared human nature, was 
among the Enlightenment's most vital contributions to human wisdom. Now 
everyone, however obscure or obnoxious, had to be in on the social and 
political narrative, and had the right to be so simply because he was a member 
of the human species, not because he was second cousin to the Archduke of 
Saxony. In practice, however, middle-class society has for the most part paid 
only lip service to this ideal, while concealing its highly partisan interests 
under the cloak of a disinterested universalism. When it prates today of 
bringing freedom and democracy to the Iraqis, rather than tells the truth about 
U.S. corporate greed and a puppet government, it is up to its old tricks. What 
began as a revolutionary concept of universality, with Robespierre, Paine, and 
Jefferson, has dwindled to that bogus version of it known as globalization, in 
which "universality" no longer means respecting everyone's way of life but 
demolishing other cultures in the name of your own supposedly universal values.

Louis Dupre's study of the Enlightenment, ranging as it does over art, 
morality, religion, science, philosophy, social theory, and a good deal 
besides, is a marvel of scholarly erudition. Dupre must be one of the very few 
people on the planet to have read the almost entirely forgotten French 
eighteenth-century playwright Nivelle de la Chaussee, and anyone who has read 
as many of Diderot's dramas as he has deserves both praise and sincere 
commiseration. Dupre may think that the first name of the eighteenth-century 
English novelist Richardson was Herbert rather than Samuel, and he may classify 
the Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson as a Scot, but these are minuscule 
blemishes on a formidably well-researched book, which would make an excellent 
introduction to Enlightenment ideas for the general reader, if it is erudite, 
it is by no means esoteric.

It is, however, more of a compendium than a case. Dupre has an argument of 
sorts, but it rapidly becomes buried beneath a mass of sometimes rather potted 
accounts of individual thinkers. The mighty Jonathan Swift, for example, who, 
like Marx, was both a product of the Enlightenment and a vehement critic of it, 
is dispatched in a single paragraph. The book sacrifices analysis to 
description and depth to range. Its prose style is both lucid and lifeless, 
like Enlightenment reason at its least admirable. Dupre does, however, shed a 
wondrously clear light on the fiendishly difficult Kant, as well as provide 
illuminating accounts of a whole host of major Enlightenment intellectuals from 
Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, and Hume to Gibbon, Newton, Voltaire, Rousseau, and 

What Dupre's exposition really needs is a little more bias. His study is in 
danger of being hopelessly well balanced. It lacks a narrative, thrust of 
argument, or critical edge. The Enlightenment has been described as fostering a 
prejudice against prejudice, meaning that many of its thinkers regarded 
prejudice, in their rationalist way, as the enemy of truth. Yet, as Dupre 
himself recognizes, without a prejudice in flavor of truth we would hardly 
bother to hunt it down; and prejudices can help, as well as hinder, in our 
pursuit of it. Dupre, however, is reluctant in his civilized way to wield a 
cutlass or fight his corner, with the result that his book is too often tepidly 
neutral in tone.

It is not that the author is altogether without ideological opinions. As a 
retired philosopher of religion, he is uneasy with the secular bent of the 
Enlightenment, disapproves of its rejection of absolute moral foundations, and 
devotes a rather unfair amount of space to religion and ethics. His 
predilections betray him at one point into the positively silly statement that 
the age was one of "moral decline," as though historical periods could be 
treated like Restoration rakes. He is visibly rattled by the lacerating satire 
of a Swift, a fact that would no doubt have afforded the sadistic 
Anglo-Irishman some keen satisfaction. Satire is scarcely the most acceptable 
of American modes, though chuckleheaded patriotism certainly is. Dupre has, 
accordingly, no hesitation in commending the U.S. political system as the most 
balanced in all creation, and upbraids Rousseau for not appreciating "the 
dynamic potential of a free market economy." A short stint in the Harvard 
Business School would no doubt have done this Swiss subversive a power of good; 
perhaps one might also rap Cicero over the knuckles for his casual disregard of 
supply-side economics.

In one sense, Dupre's work makes too much of a single entity out of its 
subject. He assumes that all cultures display an organic unity, a highly 
old-fashioned proposition. In another sense, though, he displays the diversity 
and contradictions of this supposedly singular current of ideas, without 
doubting for a moment that it represents a distinctive movement. It is true, 
for example, that many thinkers of the period were bloodless rationalists; but 
as both Dupre and Wheen point out, the Age of Reason was also the Age of 
Feeling. If there was Voltaire, there was also Rousseau; if it was an era of 
utility and calculation, it was also the heyday of sentimentalism, with its 
cults of the self, the inner light, inward experience, authenticity, and 
autobiography. As social life grew increasingly feminized, blushing, weeping, 
swooning, and palpitating grew increasingly de rigueur. It became almost 
obligatory for men to cry in public. Militarism, dominance, and arrogance, all 
badges of the aristocracy, were challenged by fashionable middle-class cults of 
civility, uxoriousness, and sensibility. The middle classes are more 
stereotypically feminine than the nobility, since rather than living by 
incessant warfare they need peace and social order in order to pursue their 
ignoble end of accumulating as much capital as they can. The fact that this 
process in turn tends to lead to warfare is then particularly unfortunate.

Some Enlightenment thinkers championed freedom, whereas others like Diderot 
were full-blooded determinists. There were even rare birds like Kant who backed 
both cases at the same time. Some like Condorcet believed in the possibility of 
infinite progress, whereas others like Montesquieu did not. Some scholars were 
dualists, seeing mind and body as eternally divided, whereas others were 
stubborn materialists for whom the mind was just material motion. There were 
those who trusted the innate goodness of humanity, and those who believed in 
its inherent crookedness. For every atheist, there was a deist like Voltaire 
who acknowledged the existence of God as long as He did as little as possible 
and kept shyly in the shadows.

Louis Dupre tells us early on that he is concerned only with the history of 
ideas. This is a rather convenient move, since if he had put those ideas back 
in their historical context he would surely have had to recognize that the 
Enlightenment was the intellectual expression of a capitalist middle class in 
the ascendant. It is true that the phrase "the rising middle class" is one of 
the great historical cliches, along with "It was an age of rapid change" and 
"It was essentially a period of transition." Wherever one looks in history, the 
middle classes, like bread or the sun, appear to be on the rise. But little can 
be grasped of the Enlightenment unless it is seen not only as a body of ideas 
but also as a militant ideology. And this is something Dupre is notably 
reluctant to do. He also seems rather wary of the idea, touted by some 
commentators, of the "radical Enlightenment"--of that vibrant, dissenting 
subcurrent from Spinoza, William Blake, and Tom Paine to Jefferson and 
Marx--that is firmly committed to the ideas of truth and freedom, but that 
draws consequences from them that are deeply unwelcome to the middle-class 
establishment. It is a tradition that is needed more than ever today, 
confronted as we are by a joint assault on enlightened thought by Texans and 

Francis Wheen, deputy editor of the British satirical journal Private Eye, is 
also far from a favored son of the middle-class establishment, to judge by the 
number of times they have dragged his publication to court for alleged libel. 
His latest book, Idiot Proof, is a robust defense of good sense against what 
its author sees as a recent onslaught of gobbledygook and superstition, all the 
way from creationism and deconstruction to UFOs, fundamentalism, New Age 
twaddle, moral relativism, and Diarrhoea (or the cult of Princess Diana). 
Wheen, who laces his moral passion with a mischievous wit, is both acerbic and 
entertaining about a whole series of idiocies: the marriage of mysticism and 
moneymaking in best-selling American titles like Moses: C.E.O. or If Aristotle 
Ran General Motors; Tony and Cherie Blair bowing and praying to the four winds 
in a Mayan rebirthing ritual; Michel Foucault defending the despotic regime of 
the Ayatollah Khomeini by claiming that the Iranians "don't have the same 
regime of truth as ours"; the fundamentalist belief that the scarlet beast with 
ten horns of the Book of Revelation is (disappointingly enough) the European 
Community, or that the mark of the beast refers to Bill Clinton's fiscal 
policy; the terrifyingly large number of Americans who believe that they have 
been abducted by aliens. (So they have, but the alien in question is a Texan 

Codes, conspiracies, prophecies, encryptions: in all these ways, a civilization 
in which everyday life seems increasingly directionless compensates for a lack 
of sense with an excess of it. Frenetic over-interpretation makes up for a 
general hemorrhage of meaning. The more crassly materialist modern life 
becomes, the more it gives rise to pseudo-spiritual claptrap. As social life 
grows increasingly two-dimensional, it grabs for some spurious sort of depth. 
The more ruthlessly rationalized the society, the more desperately irrational 
its members. Capitalism is at once far too rational, trusting in nothing that 
it cannot weigh and measure, and far too little as well, accumulating wealth as 
an end in itself. It is shot through with myth and pinned together by 
collective fictions. No rational animal would spend ten minutes with a 
junk-bond trader.

Wheen is also right to see American voluntarism--the faith, so bemusing to 
Europeans, that you can do anything if only you put your mind to it--as a form 
of incipient madness. Much of the book is a superb, remarkably well-informed 
satire of corporate corruption from Thatcher to Enron, though with admirable 
evenhandedness Wheen also turns his fire on hypocritical leftist attitudes to 
the murderous thugs of radical Islam (considered okay, since they're 
anti-American). He has an extraordinary immunity to bland pieties and a natural 
allergy to sanctimonious cant.

Yet it is questionable whether you can lump together Ronald Reagan, Jacques 
Lacan, radical Islam, and the worship of the market as instances of the same 
phenomenon. Nor did all this irrationalism start somewhere in the 1970s, as 
Wheen seems to imagine. His nostalgia for the good old days before the Fall 
Into Folly is just the kind of thing that in a different mood he himself might 
mock. Every age mixes the rational and irrational--Isaac Newton was a devout 
believer in alchemy--and to see our own times as exceptionally kooky is an 
example of the apocalyptic style of thought this book rightly deplores.

If Idiot Proof lumps different kinds of irrationality too quickly together, it 
is also a touch too convinced that "reason" always means the same thing. The 
problem is to cling to reason without making a fetish out of it; and Wheen, to 
his credit, concedes that the search for absolute objectivity is a myth. What 
is hard is to distinguish creative challenges to a too narrow notion of reason 
from irrationalism pure and simple. What are the relative proportions in D. H. 
Lawrence or the Surrealists? Both fascists and feminists have their objections 
to the Enlightenment, though their motives are very different.

Wheen and Dupre make the point that most criticism of the Enlightenment is 
unconsciously indebted to it. Some feminists, for example, are understandably 
uneasy about its notion of scientific rationality, but it is also from the 
Enlightenment that the modern idea of liberation is derived. Even so, neither 
author pays much attention to the rich legacy of criticism of Enlightenment 
thought known as Romanticism, which is hardly to be placed on the same level as 
prime ministerial rebirthing rituals. Wheen, whose clear, companionable style 
reflects the finest spirit of the Enlightenment, also needs to distinguish his 
defense of common sense from the kind of English philistine (usually to be 
found running a country pub with regimental ties on the wall) who mocks all 
words of more than two syllables and regards it as plain common sense to keep 
the blacks out of the country. The trick is to be a skeptic without being an 
intellectual thug.

Several of our greatest apologists for reason--Marx, Freud, Thomas Mann--are 
conscious that unreason always lurks somewhere at its root. For Freud, the ego 
draws for its power on the very id that threatens to overwhelm it. Human 
civilization is wrested laboriously from forces and processes that are not in 
themselves rational, and that constantly threaten to return it to the Dionysian 
chaos from which it emerged. It is because this civilization is so fragile that 
we must pay homage, like Dupre and Wheen, to the reason that stands guard over 
it. Yet when reason detaches itself from its material roots and grows 
hubristic, falling prey to a belief in its own autonomy, it becomes simply 
another form of irrationalism. As Edmund Burke recognized, absolute reason or 
freedom is a form of insanity, if this was true of the Jacobins he confronted, 
it is equally true of neoconservatives today. Reason, then, must somehow keep 
faith with the irrational forces from which it springs, acknowledging their 
power as the ancient Athenian state paid its dues to the terrible power of the 
Furies, and in doing so sought to turn them to its advantage. But that is not 
to surrender to them.

Some years ago, I took part in a conference on eighteenth-century literature 
that ended with a general toast to the Enlightenment. At Oxford or Yale, this 
might well have been greeted with some sardonically raised eyebrows. But this 
was in Cape Town, a year or so before the overthrow of apartheid.

Terry Eagleton is at work on a book about the philosophy of terror. His last 
review for Harper's Magazine, "I Am, Therefore I Think," appeared in the March 
2004 issue.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list