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What Was So Enlightened About That?

Pictures.pagden

Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment
And
Why It Still Matters 

            I remember being introduced to the Enlightenment during my senior year in college, in a course officially denominated 18th Century European Intellectual History or something to that effect. In this course, the professor, a kind, scholarly gentleman whose specialty was Diderot, introduced his clueless undergraduate charges to a sort of Hall of Fame of Enlightenment philosophes and other enlightened figures. In addition to his beloved Diderot, we met Voltaire, Montesquieu, Frederick the Great (an “enlightened despot”), and a host of others. I recall that our professor even allowed Jean-Jacques Rousseau to make a brief and tightly-regulated appearance. I couldn’t help but like the Enlightenment figures’ emphasis on science, reason, and empirical thinking rather than religion; their belief in the equality of all men – for some, even the equality of all men and women; and their willingness to rethink the “timeless verities” that had been handed down from century to century in Europe.

            But as I identified with the enlightened figures of the 18th century, I was consistently brought back to a harsher reality: hadn’t I learned in a previous year’s introductory European History course that the 18th century ended rather badly for France, the epicenter of the Enlightenment? Didn’t the French Revolution that began so nobly with a Declaration of the Rights of Man degenerate into a guillotined bloodbath, with some of the revered Enlightenment figures finding themselves on the chopping block for politically incorrect thinking or insufficient revolutionary zeal? Wasn’t our text punctuated with several gruesome sketches of the guillotine in action? And didn’t that revolutionary zeal inspire a pesky little guy named Napoleon to launch a European war of conquest? What was so enlightened about that?

            In the decades since that course, I have instinctively felt the need to check my natural enthusiasm for the ideals of the Enlightenment by reminding myself of the ignominious ending to the French Revolution, followed by Napoleonic wars of conquest. Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters seeks to uncouple the Enlightenment from the darker chapters of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Pagden’s answer to why the Enlightenment still matters, his somewhat aggressive, in-your-face title, is that it continues to be the baseline for the “broadly secular, experimental, individualist and progressive intellectual world” we inhabit today (p.x-xi). By insisting on “its own unfinished nature,” the Enlightenment “quite simply created the modern world. It is . . . impossible to imagine any aspect of contemporary life in the West without it” (p. 408). In particular, Pagden concludes that modern liberal democracy, the form of political system which, “for better and sometimes for worse, governs most modern societies,” is a “creation of the Enlightenment, refined and institutionalized during the course of the nineteenth century” (p.412-13). Nonetheless, the struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment remains one of the “most persistent, most troubling, and increasingly most divisive” of the ideological divisions within the modern world (p.ix).

            For Pagden, the Enlightenment arose during the “long” 18th century, the last decade of the 17th century through the first decade of the 19th, in the aftermath of the 17th century’s religious wars and the accompanying breakdown of the authority and intellectual unity of the Catholic church. These wars, the Reformation, the “theologically destabilizing impact of the revival of Skepticism,” and the discovery of the Americas had “dealt all the self-assured claims of the theologians a blow from which they never recovered’ (p.96). By the end of the 17th century, Christianity was no longer able to provide the “intellectual and consequently moral certainty that it once had done” (p.406). Pagden describes two broad, intertwined intellectual trends which marked the Enlightenment: reliance upon science and reason, rather the religion and theology, to explain the human species and the universe; and what he calls the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment, its emphasis upon what unites the human species across a vast array of cultures and languages. Pagden sets out these trends in eight erudite if sometimes difficult to follow chapters, each with a snappy title (e.g. “Bringing Pity Back In”; “The Fatherless World”). The most argumentative portion – and for me the most enticing – is his conclusion, entitled “Enlightenment and Its Enemies,” evoking Karl Popper’s World War II-era defense of liberal democracy, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

            The Enlightenment can be studied from numerous angles, but most encompass the study of the thinking of Europe’s enlightened figures, a “self-appointed elite” whose members were, as Pagden phrases it, marked by their “intellectual gifts, their open-mindedness, their benevolence toward their fellow human beings. . . and their generosity” (p.322). Each student of the period has his or her own favorite figures. My undergraduate course seemed to turn around Diderot, whereas Pagden’s interpretation gives preeminent place to two philosophers who thrived outside France, the Scottish David Hume and the German Immanuel Kant. Although the thinking of each ranged broadly, Hume personifies for Pagden the secular thread of the Enlightenment, the effort to supplant religious and theological explanations of man and the universe with a “science of man,” based on such notions as “sentiment,” “empathy, “and “virtue,” rather than simple self-preservation, as Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher and quasi-atheist, had posited. In somewhat different terms, both Hume and Kant articulated the Enlightenment’s cosmopolitan universalism.

            Hume became the “single most influential proponent of a secular ethics based upon a ‘science of man’ which the Enlightenment ever produced” (p.153), Pagden writes. For Hume, the world’s religions – those “sick men’s dreams,” as he called them (p.125) — had only muddled, corrupted and complicated human lives. His demolition of religion was, Pagden argues, “more assertive, better argued, more profound, and has been more long-standing than that of any philosopher besides Kant” (p.146). Moreover, unlike Kant, Hume was “able to demonstrate that religious belief could not exist ‘within the limits of reason alone,’” using Kant’s phrase (p.146). Hume agreed with the Old Testament view that “however varied actual human beings might be, they all shared a common identity as humans,” with “no universal difference discernible in the human species” (p.162). For Hume, “habits,” “manners,” “customs,” are the stuff of which our worlds are made. All that distinguished the “wisest European from the most ignorant ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ is precisely the same as that which distinguishes one ‘civilized’ people from another . . . custom, law, habit, and social expectations” (p.163).

          Pagden cautiously endorses the view of Kant as the “first of the modern liberals” and the first to claim that “modern liberal democracy was bound eventually to become the form of government that all enlightened and civilized peoples would one day embrace” (p.358). Kant’s “cosmopolitan right,” the vision of humanity moving steadily toward a future free of strife and hostility, in which all humans might pursue their own individual ends without endangering those of others, was the “inescapable conclusion of the Enlightenment project” (p.370). Kant, who paradoxically never traveled more than 30 miles away from his native Konigsberg in Germany, also foreshadowed the 20th and 21st century movements toward international justice.

            Kant’s Toward Perpetual Peace, written in the aftermath of the 1795 Peace of Basel, which ended the War of the First Coalition between Europe’s principal monarchies and revolutionary France, set out Kant’s views on ending the scourge of war. In this tract, Kant laid out the case for a hypothetical universal peace treaty that could “ensure the future and inescapably cosmopolitan development of the human race” (p.349). The influence of Toward Perpetual Peace can be seen not only in “contemporary discussions over global governance and global justice but also in the creation of the universal institutions to sustain them, in the League of Nations, the United Nations, and perhaps most closely of all, the European Union” (p.349-50). In bringing the secular, scientific and cosmopolitan threads of the Enlightenment together, Hume and Kant enunciated the Enlightenment objective of creating a “historically grounded human science that would one day lead to the creation of a universal civilization capable of making all individuals independent, autonomous, freed of dictates from above and below, self-knowing, and dependent only on one another for survival” (p.371).

            After setting forth the essential threads of the Enlightenment and highlighting its most consequential thinkers, Pagden finishes with his provocative conclusion, “Enlightenment and Its Enemies,” in which he discusses the case against the Enlightenment. The case amounts to an assault against modernity, Pagden contends, based on “some caricature of a project to reduce all human life to a set of rational calculations” (p.406). Under this view, the Enlightenment produced a culture “devoid of direction and purpose” because the Enlightenment was “fundamentally wrong about morality” as being discoverable by reason alone (p.397). Without the guidelines of tradition, custom and systems of religious belief which the Enlightenment sought to strip away, “humans are lost” and the Western world has been “suffering for it ever since” (p.398). What might be termed the German 4H club, Herder, Heine, and Hegel in the 19th century, and Heidegger in the 20th, propounded the view of the Enlightenment as a “cold, toneless, monstrous and calculating . . . It had tried to crush all of human life, difference, heroism, and desire” (p.387). Over the centuries, Enlightenment, the “Rights of Man,” “Republicanism,” and Kant’s “Cosmopolitanism” all came to be identified in the minds of conservative elites with the destructive power of the French Revolution. Or, as Friederich Karl von Moser, an 18th German jurist and government official, more succinctly put it, Enlightenment “begins with philosophy and ends with scalping and cannibalism” (p.381).

            In response, Pagden comes to what is for me the crux of his argument on behalf of the Enlightenment. Any direct causal link between the Enlightenment and the darker side of the French Revolution, he asserts, is “spurious” (p.389). Had the Enlightenment in fact been a precursor to the Revolution and to Napoleon, he writes, “it would not be of much lasting importance” (p.389). For all its excesses, the Revolution and the Napoleonic era were a “necessary evil” that “ultimately cleared the way for the liberal-democratic order that ultimately came to replace the ancient regime throughout Europe” (p.389). That doesn’t sound to me like an argument that the links between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are “spurious” (which my dictionary defines as “of falsified or erroneously attributed origin”). Rather, Pagden’s account seems to acknowledge that the Revolution and Napoleonic era were intertwined with the Enlightenment, and it is difficult to see how one could argue otherwise.

            The Enlightenment itself was a complex phenomenon, and the interpretation of its legacy some 200 years after the end of the “long” 18th century still excites passions. Given this complexity, we should not be surprised that many paths can be charted from the Enlightenment. I accept as well-founded the link which Isaiah Berlin perceived between the Enlightenment’s utopian universalism and the game plan which Vladimir Lenin devised for Russia. That another path from the Enlightenment leads to modern notions of liberal democracy, Pagden’s primary contention, seems unassailable. And it is not unreasonable to contend, as Pagden does, that the Revolution and the Napoleonic era were necessary disruptions to clear that path. But that is a more modest contention than that links between the Revolution and the Enlightenment are “spurious.”

            After the horrendous wars and genocides of the 20th century, we know that we cannot always count on reason to prevail. There is still tribalism of many sorts that precludes us from seeing the common humanity linking individuals across the globe, and atrocities are committed in the name of religion nearly every day. But the Enlightenment impulses represent for me now, as they did in that classroom several decades ago, the more noble side of human beings and human experience – if only I could only rid my mind of those guillotine sketches in my college textbook.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
January 24, 2015

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Filed under European History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Uncategorized

Are We All Value Pluralists Now?

berlin

John Gray, Isaiah Berlin:
An Interpretation of His Thought

            A year ago, I ranked Isaiah Berlin near the top of my 20th century intellectual heroes, a thinker with profound insight into liberal democracy and its European antipodes, Fascism, Nazism and Communism. Then, I read David Caute’s “somewhat revisionist” portrait of Berlin in Isaac & Isaiah, The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic, reviewed here in December. The Berlin in Caute’s book is, I wrote, “far from an endearing figure,” a smug, vindictive, slightly arriviste member of the British establishment. Having finished Caute’s book, I discovered that John Gray, an eminent professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, now retired, had updated his 1996 analysis of Berlin’s thinking, Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought, with a new introduction (in a review of Caute’s book, Gray also mounted a vigorous defense of Berlin: http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/gray_07_13.php).

          The republication of Gray’s book thus seemed an opportune moment to deepen my understanding of Berlin’s thinking. Alas, after reading the book, Sir Isaiah continued his downward slide on my heroes list. Although I noted no further personal deficiencies, I found Berlin’s thinking anachronistic, a still-useful reminder perhaps that utopian schemes based on man’s perfectibility can lead to totalitarianism, but not much more. The chief insight which Gray attributes to Berlin, that no overarching principles can reconcile conflicting values, may represent solid armchair philosophy but seems of little utility in the real if messy world in which liberal democracies function.

* * *

            Berlin was born into a prosperous Jewish merchant family in Latvia in 1909, and spent formative young years in St. Petersburg, which his family left for Great Britain in 1921 amidst the chaos that followed in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Berlin spent most of his adult life at Oxford, except for brief stints in New York and Washington during World War II and an even shorter period in Moscow in 1945, after the war. Berlin lost both grandfathers, an aunt, an uncle and several cousins in the Holocaust. Having seen the havoc precipitated by the Bolshevik Revolution close up and first hand as a young boy, as an Oxford scholar Berlin retained a life-long aversion to Marxism and Communism, an aversion which he extended to utopian schemes and ideological thinking of all stripes.

          Berlin liked to say that he transitioned in mid-career from a political philosopher to an historian of ideas. The difference can sometimes be difficult to grasp, but the six chapters in Gray’s book seem to fit neatly into one or the other category. The first two, “The Idea of Freedom” and “Pluralism,” along with the last chapter, “Agnostic Liberalism,” capture Berlin’s thinking as a political philosopher. The three middle chapters, “History,” “Nationalism” and “Rationalism and the Counter-Enlightenment” seem to describe Berlin working as an historian of ideas. The core principles which Gray attributes to Berlin, his idea of “value pluralism” and his elevation of “negative” over “positive” freedom as the ultimate liberal value are primarily those of Berlin the political philosopher.

* * *

            Gray considers Berlin’s notion of “value pluralism” to be his “idée matrîssse” (p.158, his master idea), predicated upon the irreconcilability of fundamental human values. Value pluralism presumes that “ultimate human values are objective but irreducibly diverse, that they are conflicting and often uncombinable, and that sometimes when they come into conflict with one another they are incommensurable; that is, they are not comparable by any rational measure” (p.36). Berlin’s value pluralism constitutes for Gray a “single idea of enormous subversive force” because it challenges the basic claim of the “dominant liberalisms of our time” that “fundamental liberties, rights or claims of justice are (or indeed must be) compatible and harmonious” (p.36).

            Negative freedom for Berlin involves “choice among alternatives or options that is unimpeded by others” (p.51; Gray uses the words “freedom” and “liberty” interchangeably). Berlin once argued that the “fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is an extension of this sense, or else metaphor” (p.55). Although the liberal tradition, complex and itself pluralistic, accommodates many conceptions of freedom, the negative one for Berlin is the “most defensible and most congenial to liberal concerns of diversity and toleration . . . most consistent with the rivalrous diversity of human purposes and goods” (p.57-58). Negative freedom “facilitates human self-creation by choice-making among goods and evils that are rationally incomparable” (p.177).

          Positive freedom is a more elusive concept, which Gray defines as the “freedom of self-mastery, of rational control of one’s life” (p.52). Positive freedom implicates “collective self-rule” (p.56). But positive freedom can be utopian-prone, linked to the notion that there is a single path to freedom, “one, and only one course of action, one form of life, for the individual” (p.57). Berlin muddied the distinction, however, when he contended that the two forms are at “no great logical distance from each other – no more than negative or positive ways of saying the same thing” (p.53-54).

            Gray wraps Berlin’s core principles together into an approach labeled “agnostic liberalism” — that there can be “no overarching principle of liberty, and no structure of fundamental rights or set of basic liberties, fixed or determinate in their content and harmonious or dovetailing in their scope” (p.61). Agnostic liberalism rejects the idea of a “perfect society, or a perfect human life” (p.106), and substitutes a “stoical and tragic liberalism of unavoidable conflict and irreparable loss among rivalrous values” (p.36). But to temper what might sound like nihilism, and avoid a collapse into overtly anti-liberal forms of governing, such as Hitler’s National Socialism, Berlin allowed that an agnostically liberal society must maintain a “minimal universalism” (p.191), or “minimal standards of decency” (p.202).

           Berlin’s anti-utopian, agnostically liberal approach is reflected in his ambivalent interpretation of the 18th century Enlightenment. Berlin was committed to the Enlightenment’s “central element,” which Gray describes as “illumination of the human world by rational inquiry” (p.45). But Berlin rejected what he saw as the “universalist or uniformitarian anthropology of the Enlightenment” (p.165), its expectation that human beings would “converge on a universal identity as members of a cosmopolitan civilization” (p.199). The Enlightenment in Berlin’s view “consistently underestimated the significance of cultural difference” (p.144). Differences in culture and language should be preserved and lauded, Berlin contended, not suppressed or reduced to a common denominator. In this sense, Berlin’s thought aligns with that of the German Romantics and thinkers hostile to the Enlightenment. But Berlin’s agnostic liberalism and value pluralism were also a challenge to religious traditions which posit a “best way of life, one force good for all human beings” (p.153), and in this sense are entirely consistent with conventional views of the Enlightenment.

            Berlin’s view of history reflects this skepticism toward the universalism of the Enlightenment (and also reflects his value pluralism, agnostic liberalism, and anti-utopianism). Berlin regarded history as a discipline apart from both the natural and social sciences, affirming a method of inquiry based on “empathy and imagination” (p.116). He rejected as “indefensible” theories of development which postulate general historical laws, whether of progress or decline (p.115). Berlin thus had no use for Whig interpretations of history as embodying improvement or progress. He found such interpretations incoherent because of the lack of “any overarching standard whereby global progress or regress could be judged” (p.118). The idea of a “single human history” was for Berlin as “misconceived and incoherent as the idea of a perfect human life, which it is the deepest import of his pluralism to subvert” (p.109).

* * *

            Berlin’s value pluralism may still be an idea of “enormous subversive force” because of its underlying premise that there can be no overarching standard to harmonize conflicting values. But modern liberal democracies have built into their systems a soft version of Berlin’s value pluralism, allowing room for divergent views to express themselves and compete for influence. Democracies can accept Berlin’s fundamental premise that a collision between basic human values that are legitimate and worthy of respect in the liberal state may not reconcilable by any overarching principle. Democracies, however, do not have the luxury of fretting over the lack of such principles to resolve value conflicts. Accommodating competing values is what democracies do; or, more precisely, liberal democracies should provide a process by which conflicting values can be accommodated. That the accommodation may be imperfect and impermanent is itself consistent with Berlin’s notion of value pluralism.

            Liberty and equality are for Gray the prototype examples of “inherently rivalrous goods” which “often collide in practice” and “cannot be arbitrated by any overarching standard” (p.79). But the list goes way beyond to include national security versus the right of the individuals to spheres of privacy and to know what their government is doing; the right of criminal suspects to a fair process versus the general right of the public to security; the right to exercise one’s religion versus the right of unwilling citizens to be free from state imposition of religion; and the “hate speech” conundrum, the right of unfettered free speech versus the right of minorities to be free from verbal vilification. And on and on.

         Although Berlin was himself no proponent of an unregulated capitalism, his negative freedom aligns closely with the classical liberal view of a minimalist state, associated with such thinkers as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner in the 19th century, and Friederich Hayek and Ayn Rand in the 20th (sometimes termed “libertarianism” in contemporary North America). If liberal values of equal good are inherently irreconcilable and incapable of harmonization, it becomes difficult to argue that the state should privilege any one such value over any another. Instead, the state should privilege “choice-making as the embodiment of human self-creation” (p.176). The counterpart to the minimalist view is by definition more statist. It can embrace Marxist models that verge into totalitarianism, but also includes modern social democracy, in which the state regulates economic activity in the public interest and provides some sort of social safety net to meet “minimal standards of decency” (p.202), to use Gray’s phrase.

           Berlin’s preference for negative freedom was a direct outcome of his aversion to Marxism and Communism, which elevated a statist notion of positive liberty and dismissed negative liberty as an artifact of bourgeois, middle class liberalism that perpetuated economic inequalities. Marxism, however, is no longer with us as a serious argument for structuring the modern state. But if Marxism has largely been confined to the dustbin of history (and to scattered academic departments around the world), so too has the model of the entirely or even predominantly negative state. Outside of active libertarian movements in the United States and Canada, supported by some portions of today’s Republican party, there is almost no enthusiasm for an unregulated capitalist state or one that does not recognize the legitimacy of some sort of social contract between the state and its citizens, establishing “minimum standards of decency” by providing at least a modicum of social welfare benefits to its citizenry

          When they work well, modern democracies accommodate Berlin’s two notions of freedom, maximizing to the extent possible the spheres in which the state abstains from constraining individual choice while regulating economic activity in the public interest and providing some sort of safety net to cushion capitalism’s vicissitudes, so that even the least economically fortunate have the opportunity for the self creation which lies at the heart of Berlin’s preference for negative freedom. This is the model of modern social democracy, the model underlying the European Union’s approach to governance, and one embraced, however timidly, by elements of today’s Democratic Party in the United States.

* * *

          Political theory need not be a blue print for day-to-day governance, but it should nonetheless have some relevance to governing. Berlin’s warnings about the dangers of ideological and utopian schemes, based on misplaced notions of human perfectibility, remain useful reminders. But in today’s democratic world – a significant portion of the planet – ideological and perfectionist schemes of the type that worried Berlin have little influence. The insight underlying Berlin’s value pluralism, that we will never satisfactorily harmonize conflicting values, appears oddly detached from the world in which democracies must operate. From the perspective of the mid-point of the 21st century’s second decade, the agnostic liberalism which Gray attributes to Berlin may still be stoical and tragic, but it also seems to border on irrelevance.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
December 27, 2014

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Filed under Intellectual History, Political Theory