The Intellectual Origins of Modernity, by David Ohana

Book of the week: Jane O’Grady assesses a bold analysis of how ‘modernity’ failed to live up to the ideals of the Enlightenment

August 22, 2019
Prometheus’ sacrilege of stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind is due to his courage and altruism
Source: Reuters
Prometheus’ sacrilege of stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind is due to his courage and altruism

In a celebrated essay of 1784, Immanuel Kant responded to the question “What is Enlightenment?” by saying that it represented “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity”, the sort of immaturity that leads us to get others – authors, pastors, doctors, officers – to think for us. The motto of Enlightenment was “Sapere Aude! Dare to know!” wrote Kant, and he condemned any attempt to curtail the expansion of knowledge as “a crime against human nature, whose essential destiny lies precisely in such progress”.

Modernity is often regarded as an extension of the Enlightenment, a development of its imperative to free-thinking and discovery. Michel Foucault, for example, argued in 1984 that modern philosophy “is attempting to answer the question raised so imprudently two centuries ago: ‘was ist Aufklarung?’” For David Ohana, by contrast, modernity, although a product of the Enlightenment, subverted its ideals of rationality, universality, progress and science into a “will-to-power” that would change, dominate and sully the world and humankind.

Ohana is professor of modern European history at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and The Intellectual Origins of Modernity is concerned more with history and politics than philosophy, although, oddly, it offers neither a definition nor a date for “modernity”. It might seem less a book than a haphazard collection of papers – focusing mainly on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Michel Foucault – except that, bestriding it, and giving it a fascinating coherence, is the figure of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and whom Ohana takes to epitomise the spirit of modernity.

A specialist in comparative national mythologies, he begins with a reminder that many Western myths convey “the ambivalence of human knowledge” and the notion that to know is a sin. The Eden myth, which is shared by the three Abrahamic religions, stresses not only Adam and Eve’s disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit and God’s punitive rage, but also the transformation that the fruit effected. Knowledge of good and evil gave them the ineluctable possibility of choice, forever expelling them from oneness with the present moment and with themselves. Knowledge itself is seen as alienating.

We often consider the Greeks as exempt from this sort of Judaeo-Christian guilt. Socrates associated knowledge with virtue, as Ohana reminds us, and lack of knowledge with error and evil. But, he also points out, the Greeks had their own myth of a Golden Age in which men lived in harmony until the Titan Prometheus tried to create a new upright-walking man who would resemble the gods, for which hubris he was forever enchained.

One of the many differences between the myths of Prometheus and the Fall is that Prometheus’ sacrilege is not due to weakness of character, like Adam’s, but to courage and altruism. Ohana, who admires as well as regrets such overweening ambition, notes how the Enlightenment contained the seeds of its own destruction. Its thinkers, he says, “replaced the religious concept ‘God’ with the modern concepts ‘nature’ and ‘reason’”, and some followed Rousseau in unfavourably contrasting nature with the artificial and the civilised. But, he adds, they found it as hard to account for how the (pristine, noble) natural became the (corrupted) unnatural as theologians have found it to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful God in effect set up our foreparents to sin.

The book opens with Rousseau, whose equivalent to the Fall is when “someone first enclosed a plot of ground” and persuaded everyone else that it was his. Ohana stresses Rousseau’s proto-Marxism in identifying private property as the source of inequality, and his ambivalent use of “Prometheus’ torch” in Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, which presciently warns of the dangers of science. Not only was he “an intellectual who was contemptuous of intellectuals, who glorified sentiment in the name of reason”, says Ohana, but, in his tract Emile, he advocated an education that promoted “freedom but also servitude, individuality, but, no less, conformity”.

“The image of chains runs like a thread through the writings of Rousseau,” we are told, but if he laments our fetters, he also considers them inevitable, just as he called his own inconsistencies “necessary”. Here, suggests Ohana, he was exposing some of the paradoxes inherent in the Enlightenment ideal of freedom.

“The main achievement of the Enlightenment,” argues the author, was the “universal concept of humankind”, which overrode arbitrary rankings of status, tradition, nationality and faith. But that left open the question of how far the universalised human was to be regarded (or to regard himself) as an individual to be protected from society, or as integrally part of a class, society or nation. The extent and limits of his freedom will vary, and clash, according to which aspect is emphasised.

For Marx, socialism, with its stress on social relations, trumped individualistic liberalism. He took Prometheus as “a model for the liberation of the proletariat and the whole of mankind from the fetters of capital”. But did that justify territorial expansion in the name of universal liberation? Ohana discusses the ambivalence of Marx, and later Lenin, over that very question. Ultimately, he says, “the Soviet Union, which considered itself the spearhead of the international revolution, was actually a disguise for Russian nationalism”. The French Revolution (which Ohana calls “the first test of the Enlightenment”) had already “missionised” its message across national boundaries with swords as well as words. Although initially, in 1789, it legislated for individual rights, four years later these were abolished under the Terror.

But, as Ohana shows, liberal capitalism, which trumpets permissiveness and choice, also betrays the Enlightenment. In the early 19th century, de Tocqueville called socialism “the new servitude”, but he also discerned in current American society a “tyranny of the majority” that threatened to be more insidiously tyrannous than any flesh-and-blood tyrant in that it infiltrated opinion and will, and pre-empted originality. In the mid-20th century, Marcuse (rightly resurrected by Ohana) inveighed against the specious freedom that capitalism proffered, and how it fabricates “false needs” which only aggravate suffering and promote “spiritual repression”.

The book traverses the “nebulous charm” of late-19th-century decadence and various forms of anarchism, that invariably start from the benign premise that humans are basically good and just need to be liberated from laws to flourish naturally, yet so often end up advocating violence and nihilism. The “inevitable product” of the religion of Prometheus, in which humanity is God, says Ohana, was the conclusion that “present humanity had to be sacrificed for the sake of a future humanity”. He is rather too abstract on this theme, although he uses the concrete example of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the extreme left group who kidnapped and killed in the 1970s in their pledge to (in Ulrike Meinhof’s words) “provoke the hidden fascism in society so that everyone can see it”.

We end with Michel Foucault, who, finding nothing else to unmask, turns on truth, which itself, it seems, is suspect – except in the case of whatever Foucault says about it. He pronounced “the death of man” and asserted that the task of the intellectual is not to tell others what to do, although offering several recommendations himself. He thus seems to mimic as much as invert enlightenened thinkers. In one way, plus ça change; in another, as Ohana skilfully shows, the Enlightenment is travestied.

Jane O’Grady is a co-founder of the London School of Philosophy and taught philosophy of psychology at City, University of London. She is also the author of Enlightenment Philosophy in a Nutshell: The complete guide to the great revolutionary philosophers, including René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and David Hume (2019).

The Intellectual Origins of Modernity
By David Ohana
248pp, £115.00

ISBN 9780815363125
Published 1 April 2019

The author

David Ohana, professor of modern European history at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, was born in Morocco in 1952 but moved to Israel at the age of 4. He studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and, after completing a PhD there in 1989, won a Fulbright Fellowship at Harvard’s Center for European Studies. He has taught at the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of California, Berkeley and served as a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Van-Leer Institute, where he founded and ran the Forum for Mediterranean Cultures.

In 2000, Ohana moved into the desert to work at BGU, where, he once told an interviewer, “he had the feeling that he had come to the end of the world” and missed “the possibility of sitting in a coffee shop”, although he added that he was quite capable of thinking and writing in a prison cell. An expert in national myths, he has been highly prolific in English, French and Hebrew. Books such as The Last Israelis (1998), The Origins of Israeli Mythology: Neither Canaanites nor Crusaders (2012) and Nationalizing Judaism: Zionism as Theological Ideology (2017) turn the spotlight on the fierce debates and political upheavals in his own country. Yet he has also ranged far more widely, in Hebrew-language books such as The Order of the Nihilists: The Birth of a Political Culture in Europe 1870-1930 (1993) and The Rage of the Intellectuals: Political Radicalism and Social Criticism in Europe and Israel (2005). 

The second of these takes a fairly bleak view of intellectuals and anticipates some of the themes of The Intellectual Origins of Modernity. “Egalitarian, absolute visions of redemption lead inevitably to the opposite,” he explained at the time of its publication. “There is an ineluctable law that brings you from paradise to hell.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Extinguishing the Enlightenment

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