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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Endarkenment

H/T to Ophelia Benson on this one. Via Butterflies and Wheels, I came across this review of a new book by Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale University Press). If anyone wants to send me a review copy of this, I'd love one. If anyone wants to review it for JET, well I'll certainly consider a review as long as it is made relevant to JET's interest and meets the other criteria.

Meanwhile, this review contains a fair bit of snark near the end, but it's not obvious that it's justified. Some of the reviewer's own claims seem to be open to debate. E.g., sure there's a sense in which Nazism was a product of the First World War, i.e. the outrageously punitive terms imposed on Germany fueled a craving for revenge and redress. They may have made a second world war inevitable, though a further war does not always follow from crushing defeat and harsh terms of surrender. In any event, surely Sternhell is correct that Nazism was not just a reaction to the First World War and the Russian Revolution. The form of German militarism that arose in the 1930s was shaped by many ideas in the German culture that could be traced back for centuries. It's simplistic to say that one or two events, alone, led to something as horrible, yet bizarre, as Nazism. History is far messier than that.

The commenters seem to be even less helpful, with much anti-Enlightenment feeling being vented, and a great deal of uncritical praise for Edmund Burke. Burke, of course, was no saint. Much of his energy was wasted on his successful-at-the-time (but ultimately futile in the sweep of history) campaign to retain the Test and Corporation Acts, which prevented non-Anglicans from matriculating at Oxford or Cambridge or holding offices under the Crown. He was convinced that public order required this kind of draconian interference by the secular authorities in matters of religion. Thanks to Burke's efforts, these unjust and unnecessary laws remained on the books in England until as late as 1829. While we can praise Burke for his opposition to the more apocalyptic aspects of the French Revolution, he was far more deeply and nastily conservative than his modern-day fans like to paint him.

If the French Revolution went overboard in one direction, Burke certainly did in the other.

6 comments:

Ernie Fraser said...

Do you ever read the French philosopher Michel Foucault? He seemed to be on a bit of an anti-enlightenment crusade.

Rana said...

Wasn't the whole of Tom Paine's Common Sense a rebuttal against Burke's "argument" - and the whole think still reads like common sense today.

Roger said...

"and the whole thing still reads like common sense today."...except that the French Revolution, which Paine defended on rational enlightenment grounds, was unenlightened product of the enlightenment. Reason may be the best guide to policy; worshipping Reason is not a reasonable policy.

Probably the most interesting sceptical contrmporary view of the Enlightenment is John Gray's which is more-or-less that whether reason and enlightenment are good things is irrelevant; too many people just don't or won't live by them.

Russell Blackford said...

I'm not a big fan of Foucault. Tried to get into him 20 years ago, but never could - though I thought maybe there was more to him than to some of the folks who use jargon based on him and other French luminaries.

Frank said...

It seems like continental philosophy in general has a big hate-on for modernity and the enlightenment. I can't tell you how tired I am of reading yet another book that blames everything bad in the world on modernity and the nation state. They all end up sounding the same. Obviously we have to be critical of modernity (if such a broad term is even useful) but in certain areas of academia, it seems like its become a convenient scapegoat to rail against in order to establish your ideological bonafides. For example, vaccination programs weren't implemented to save lives; they were implemented so that the nation could colonize the bodies of its citizens. As a premodernist, you'd think this wouldn't bother me as much, but it really annoys me.

Ophelia Benson said...

John Gray's a good example of knee-jerk Enlightenment-hatred. He goes in for that classic thing of claiming that Enlightenment types worship progress or believe progress is inevitable or think utopia is possible or similar bullshit. He makes me tired.