In Defence of the Enlightenment

December 31, 2009

On what intellectual and moral bases do we wish to construct our communal life? We will not receive any help from politicians (obsessed as they are with political correctness, greed and getting or holding on to power), from media pundits (for whom coarse "celebrities" and destroying anything intelligent are all that counts), nor from religious "leaders" (whose emanations, varying from empty waffle to incitements to mass murder of those who do not cling to similar fatuously irrational beliefs, do not inspire confidence), so there is not much about which to be cheerful. Clearly we are moving very far away from the humanist dimensions of the European Enlightenment as we jettison any conceptual skeleton that provides the structure for what we say and do. We are losing our sensibilities and our connections with the past. Those are reasons enough for welcoming this little book (first published in French in 2006, and translated here by Gila Walker).

The Enlightenment did not originate in the 18th century: it owed much to Antiquity, to the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance and to the seismic shifts of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It was therefore largely concerned with absorption, with the taking on board of views that had been in conflict, with a rediscovery and reinterpretation of Classical Antiquity, with the reception of what was ancient and modern and with abstractions (such as ideas of what constituted freedom and equality).

Even more importantly, it gathered together a vast amount of knowledge, and attempted to apply it to the real world of the time. It encouraged total freedom to study, question, criticise and challenge dogma: it attempted to free human beings from the tyranny of authority that was religious in character. In other words it removed the shackles imposed by belief in the supernatural, rejecting the submission of society to precepts, the legitimacy of which was supposedly granted by gods or ancestors or both. Essential to this, of course, was the separation of religion from the governance of the state. Reason was to predominate, as was knowledge, opening gates to possibilities of development of the sciences. All forms of education were promoted, from primary schools to scientific academies, and new discoveries were made widely available, not only to a select few but to the general public as well.

So where, one might ask, are the Lockes, Humes and Voltaires (to name but three giants of the Enlightenment) of the 21st century as we pedal backwards into darkness and chaos? Where indeed! The Enlightenment occurred at a time of vociferous debate, not consensus, yet today it is obvious that mass media, controlled by very few individuals, and employing apparatchiks incapable, it seems, of original thought, are promoting the bland soup of received opinion, enemy of rational debate. Those old adversaries of the Enlightenment (arbitrary authority, fanaticism and obscurantism) are all rampant, not least in the first state born of Enlightenment principles, the United States of America, where some 39 per cent of the population, we gather, think the Bible was directly dictated by God and should be taken literally.

All contemporary Western societies are now under attack from fundamentalism, and not only the Christian brand: the fact that politicians and the media are terrified of even mentioning this, despite the evidence that it is an obvious and very real danger, says much about cowardice, stupidity and contemporary society's betrayal of the ideals of an Enlightenment to which we owe so much. Perhaps this is because humanity remains in a state of infantilism, like a child who cannot move forward without being ordered to do so. Milton hoped that one day mankind, by the free exercise of reason, would eventually become adult. The opposite seems to be occurring, and this is, or ought to be, a source of immense concern to all thinking people. Tzvetan Todorov argues that we must re-establish Enlightenment thinking in a way that preserves the past heritage while subjecting it to a critical examination: the way things are going, this reviewer would say there is no chance of that happening now, given the intellectual mediocrity, avoidance of the truth and moral cowardice everywhere obvious in those who hold positions of power.

This thought-provoking book should be read by everyone who fears for our future: it is both important and timely, though it is probably far too late to have any effect on obvious and terrifying decline and surrender to irrational madness. Radical desacralisation, loss of meaning and universal worship of Relativism have done immense damage: they are distortions of Enlightenment principles, and are the offspring of carelessness, cant and cowardice.

In Todorov's book, however, references could have been fuller, and an index would have helped.

In Defence of the Enlightenment

By Tzvetan Todorov
Atlantic Books
176pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781843548133
Published 1 December 2009

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