Why I am not enlightened

I’ve just finished reading Roy Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world (Penguin, 2000), which is a remarkable blend of erudition and entertainment. As I read it, however, one thing kept striking me. Porter says at the start:

I find enlightened minds congenial: I savour their pithy prose, and feel more in tune with those warm, witty, clubbable men, than with, say, the aggrieved Puritans who enthral yet appal Christopher Hill or with Peter Gay’s earnestly erotic Victorians.

I have almost the opposite impression. There were many admirable ideas that came from Enlightenment thinkers in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from political liberty and religious tolerance, to the rise of the novel and better treatment of animals and the mentally ill. But I really do not like the period or its representatives and I cannot warm to them. There are three main reasons I have for my distaste. One is the Enlightenment contempt for Christianity (which I want to discuss separately).

The second is the smugness of so many of the writers. Porter comments; ‘On this [charity to the poor], as in so many other matters, the enlightened were nothing if not self-congratulatory.’ Some of this complacency arises from the fact that from the start of the Hanoverian period in Britain progressive thinkers were politically in the ascendancy and so prone to vindicate the status quo rather than challenge it. Hence all the emphasis, for example, on the sanctity of property. But I think the smugness has deeper roots. Christian writers have often been smug, but Jesus’ own statements have always been available to prick complacency and expose hypocrisy. In contrast:

Whereas Christian humanism gloried in arduous choice – witness Samson Agonistes or Rasselas – the enlightened always wanted, nay expected to have their cake and eat it.

One of the key Enlightenment ideas was the perfectibility of man (and possibly woman as well, but that’s a separate issue). There was no sin, just ignorance, which could be removed by education/enlightenment. If enlightenment could bring humans towards perfection, it was an inevitable temptation for progressive thinkers to imagine (even if they never explicitly stated it) that they were themselves were therefore pretty near perfect. There was also a deep-seated tendency to despise ‘the vulgar’, even among those who theoretically cared deeply for the people.

The third problem in Enlightenment thought was its paradoxical potential for both cruelty and authoritarianism, paradoxical because of its humanitarian and libertarian ideals. Niebuhr’s comments about the problems of idealism are very relevant here, and how men who ‘know’ how the world can be made perfect can be ruthless in enforcing their will. Locke argued for religious tolerance, but not for Catholics, because their beliefs were a danger to the state. The arguments of Adam Smith and others about the virtues of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market lead to all the potential cruelties of the free market. Enlightenment ideals could believe that the enjoyment of wealth for the prosperous was virtuous, but that the wages of the poor had to be kept low to make them industrious. As Porter puts it:

The Enlightenment piloted a transition from homo civilis to homo economicus, which involved the rationalization of selfishness and self-interest as enlightened ideology, the privatization of virtue and the de-moralization of luxury, pride, selfishness and avarice.

One strand of Enlightenment thought also had an authoritarian streak: Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism, in particular, shows this. He was one of the greatest enthusiasts for the workhouse: ‘a mill to grind rogues honest and idle men industrious’. Bentham was in theory an individualist, thinking that individuals should be able to find happiness in their own way, but his urge for mastery had a totalitarian side:

If it were possible to find a method of becoming master of everything which might happen to a certain number of men, to dispose of everything around them so as to produce on them the desired impression, to make certain of their actions, of their connections, and of all the circumstances of their lives, so that nothing could escape, nor could oppose the desired effect, it cannot be doubted that a method of this kind would be a very powerful and a very useful instrument which governments might apply to various objects of the utmost importance.

Enlightened absolutism (which Porter doesn’t discuss, since it wasn’t a British phenomenon) thus wasn’t as much of as a contradiction as it might have seemed. If there was no higher authority than the state (once religion had been cut down sufficiently) and if what the populace really needed was education and reformation into virtue, then why shouldn’t it be done by one enlightened ruler. After all, s/he would not necessarily be corrupted by absolute power, because there was no such thing as sinfulness.

Roy Porter’s book is a good counter to the view of Michel Foucault etc. that the Enlightenment was solely repressive, but it does also show some of the darker tendencies of the movement, as well as its considerable triumphs.


One thought on “Why I am not enlightened

  1. It’s interesting to speculate in Back to the Future style on whose minds in which period we’d find congenial – probably come in for some nasty shocks.

    My non-specialist view of the character of historical eras is that each tends to oppose that which preceeded it. The Enlightenment was against the Church and the ignorance and superstition they associated with it. Enlightened rationalism, with the flaws you note – contempt for Christian values, smugness and over confidence in their own righness – was in turn superceeded by Romantism.

    I wonder how historians of the future will characterise our own era.


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