Tag Archives: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Reporting From the Front Lines of the Enlightenment

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Robert Zaretsky, Boswell’s Enlightenment

           The 18th century Enlightenment was an extraordinary time when religious skepticism rose across Europe and philosophes boldly asserted that man’s capacity for reason was the key to understanding both human nature and the nature of the universe.   In Boswell’s Enlightenment, Robert Zaretsky, Professor of History at the University of Houston, provides a highly personalized view of the Enlightenment as experienced by James Boswell (1740-1795), the faithful Scottish companion to Dr. Samuel Johnson and author of a seminal biography on the learned doctor.  The crux of Zaretsky’s story lies in  Boswell’s tour of the European continent between 1763 and 1765 – the “Grand Tour” – where, as a young man, Boswell encountered seemingly all the period’s leading thinkers, including Jean Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie Arouet, known to history as Voltaire, then Europe’s two best known philosophes. Zaretsky’s self-described purpose is to “place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment” (p.16-17). Also figuring prominently in Zaretsky’s account are Boswell’s encounters prior to departing for Europe with several leading Scottish luminaries, most notably David Hume, Britain’s best-known religious skeptic. The account further includes the beginning phases of Boswell’s life-long relationship with Johnson, the “most celebrated literary figure in London” (p.71) and, for Boswell, already a “moral and intellectual rock” (p.227).

         But Zaretsky’s title is a delicious double entendre, for his book is simultaneously the intriguing story of Boswell’s personal coming of age in the mid-18th century – his “enlightenment” with a small “e” – amidst the intellectual fervor of his times. The young Boswell searching for himself  was more than a little sycophantic, with an uncommon facility to curry favor with the prominent personalities of his day – an unabashed 18th century celebrity hound.  But Boswell also possessed a fertile, impressionable mind, along with a young man’s zest to experience life in all its facets. Upon leaving for his Grand Tour, moreover, Boswell was already a prolific if not yet entirely polished writer who kept a detailed journal of his travels, much of which survives. In his journal, the introspective Boswell was a “merciless self-critic” (p.97). Yet, Zaretsky writes, Boswell’s ability to re-create conversations and characters in his journals makes him a “remarkable witness to his age” (p.15).  Few individuals “reported in so sustained and thorough a manner as did Boswell from the front lines of the Enlightenment” (p.13).

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        In his prologue, Zaretsky raises the question whether the 18th century Enlightenment should be considered a unified phenomena, centered in France and radiating out from there; or whether it makes more sense to think of separate Enlightenments, such as, for example, both a Scottish and a French Enlightenment. This is a familiar theme to assiduous readers of this blog: in 2013, I reviewed Arthur Hermann’s exuberant claim to a distinct Scottish Enlightenment; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s more sober argument for distinctive French, English and American Enlightenments. Without answering this always-pertinent question, Zaretsky turns his account to young Boswell’s search for himself and the greatest minds of 18th century Europe.

        Boswell was the son of a prominent Edinburgh judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, a follower of John Knox’s stern brand of Calvinism and an overriding force in young Boswell’s life. Boswell’s effort to break the grip that his father exerted over his life was also in many senses an attempt to break the grip of his Calvinist upbringing. When as a law student in Edinburgh his son developed what Lord Auchinleck considered a most unhealthy interest in theatre — and women working in the theatre — he sent the wayward son from lively and overly liberal Edinburgh to more subdued Glasgow. There, Boswell came under the influence of renowned professor Adam Smith.  Although his arguments for the advantages of laissez faire capitalism came later, Smith was already a sensation across Europe for his view that empathy, or “fellow feeling,” was the key to understanding what makes human beings good.    A few years later, Lord Auchinleck started his son on his Grand Tour across the European continent by insisting that young Boswell study civil law in the Netherlands, as he had done in his student days.

        Throughout his travels, the young Boswell wrestled with the question of religious faith and how it might be reconciled with the demands of reason. The religious skepticism of Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau weighed on him.  But, like Johnson, Boswell was not quite ready to buy into it. For Boswell, reason was “not equal to the task of absorbing the reality of our end, this thought of our death. Instead, religion alone offered respite” (p.241). In an age where death was a “constant and dire presence,” Boswell “stands out for his preoccupation, if not obsession, with his mortal end” (p.15). Boswell’s chronic “hypochondria” – the term used in Boswell’s time for depression — was “closely tied to his preoccupation with his mortality” (p.15).  For Boswell, like Johnson, the defense of traditional religion was “less fear of hell than fear of nothingness – what both men called ‘annihilation’” (p.85).

      Boswell’s fear of the annihilation of death probably helps explain his life long fascination with public executions. Throughout the Grand Tour, he consistently went out of his way to attend these very public 18th century spectacles, “transfixed by the ways in which the victims approached their last moments” (p.15). Boswell’s attraction to public executions, whose official justification was to “educate the public on the consequences of crime” was, Zaretsky notes, “exceptional even among his contemporaries” (p.80). But if the young Boswell feared death, he dove deeply into life and, through his journal, shared his dives with posterity.

        A prodigious drinker and carouser, Boswell seduced women across the continent, often the wives of men he was meeting to discuss the profound issues of life and death. At seemingly every stop along the way, moreover, he patronized establishments practicing the world’s oldest profession, with several bouts of gonorrhea resulting from these frequentations, followed by excruciatingly painful medical treatments. Boswell’s multiple encounters with the opposite sex form a colorful portion of his journal and are no small portion of the reason why the journal continues to fascinate readers to this day.

        But Boswell’s first significant encounter with the opposite sex during the Grand Tour was also his first significant encounter on the continent with an Enlightenment luminary, Elisabeth van Tuyell van Serooskerken, whom the young Scot wisely shortened to “Belle.” Boswell met Belle in Utrecht, the Netherlands, his initial stop on the Grand Tour, where he was ostensibly studying civil law. Belle, who went on to write several epistolary novels under her married name, Isabelle de Charrière, was a sophisticated religious skeptic who understood the “social and moral necessity of religion; but she also understood that true skepticism entailed, as Hume believed, a kind of humility and intellectual modesty” (p.127). Belle was not free of religious doubt, Zaretsky notes, but unlike Boswell, was “free of the temptation to seek certainty” (p.127).   Boswell was attracted to Belle’s “lightning” mind, which, as he wrote a friend, “flashes with so much brilliance [that it] may scorch” (p.117). But Belle was not nearly as smitten by Boswell as he was with her, and her father never bothered to pass to his daughter the marriage proposal that Boswell had presented to him. The two parted when Boswell left Utrecht, seeking to put his unrequited love behind him.

        Boswell headed from the Netherlands to German-speaking Prussia and its king, “enlightened despot” Frederick the Great.  Zaretsky considers Frederick “far more despotic than enlightened” (p.143), but Frederick plainly saw the value to the state of religious tolerance. “Here everyone must be allowed to go to heaven in his own way” (p.145) summarized Frederick’s attitude toward religion.  Frederick proved to be one of the era’s few luminaries who was “indifferent to the Scot’s irrepressible efforts at presenting himself to them” (p.141), and Boswell had little direct time with the Prussian monarch during his six month stay.

          But Boswell managed back-to-back visits with Rousseau and Voltaire in Switzerland, his next destination. Rousseau and Voltaire had both been banished from Catholic France for heretical religious views. Rousseau, who was born in Calvinist Geneva,  was no longer welcome in that city either because of his religious views.  Beyond a shared disdain for organized religion, the former friends disagreed about just about everything else — culture and civilization, theater and literature, politics and education.  Zaretsky’s chapter on these visits, entitled “The Distance Between Môtiers and Ferney” – a reference to the remote Swiss locations where, respectively, Rousseau and Voltaire resided — is in my view the book’s best, with an erudite overview of the two men’s wide ranging thinking, their reactions to their impetuous young visitor, and the enmity that separated them.

         Zaretsky describes Rousseau as a “poet of nature” (p.148), for whom religious doctrines led “not to God, but instead to oppression and war” (p.149).   But Rousseau also questioned his era’s advances in learning and the Enlightenment’s belief in human progress. The more science and the arts advanced, Rousseau argued, the more  contemporary society became consumed by personal gain and greed.  Voltaire, the “high priest of the French Enlightenment” (p.12), was a poet, historian and moralist who had fled from France to England in the 1730s because of his heretical religious views. There, he absorbed the thinking of Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton, whose pragmatic approach and grounded reason he found superior to the abstract reasoning and metaphysical speculation that he associated with Descartes. While not an original or systematic thinker like Locke or Bacon, Voltaire was an “immensely gifted translator of their work and method” (p.172).

         By the time Boswell arrived in Môtiers, the two philosophes were no longer on speaking terms. Rousseau publicly termed Voltaire a “mountebank” and “impious braggart,” a man of “so much talent put to such vile use” (p.158). Voltaire returned the verbal fire with a string of vitriolic epithets, among them “ridiculous,” “depraved,” “pitiful,” and “abominable.” The clash between the two men went beyond epithets and name-calling. Rousseau publicly identified Voltaire as the author of Oath of the Fifty, a “brutal and hilarious critique of Christian scripture” (p.180). Voltaire, for his part, revealed that Rousseau had fathered five children with his partner Thérèse Levasseur, whom the couple subsequently abandoned.

        The enmity between the two men was not an obstacle to Boswell visiting each, although his actual meetings constitute a minor portion of the engrossing chapter. Boswell had an “improbable” five separate meetings with the usually reclusive Rousseau. They were wide-ranging, with the “resolute and relentless” Boswell pursing “questions great and small, philosophical and personal” (p.156). When Boswell pressed Rousseau on how religious faith could be reconciled with reason, however, Rousseau’s answer was, in essence, that’s for you to figure out. Boswell did not fare much better with Voltaire on how he might reconcile reason with religious faith.

          Unlike Rousseau, Voltaire was no recluse. He prided himself on being the “innkeeper of Europe” (p.174), and his residence at Ferney was usually overflowing with visitors. Despite spending several days at Ferney, Boswell managed a single one-on-one meeting with the man he described as the “Monarch of French Literature” (p.176). In a two-hour conversation that reached what Zaretsky terms “epic proportions” (p.178), the men took up the subject of religious faith. “If ever two men disputed with vehemence we did” (p.178), Boswell  wrote afterwards.  The young traveler wrote eight pages on the encounter in a document separate from his journal.  Alas, these eight pages have been lost to history. But we know that the traveler  left the meeting more than a little disappointed that Voltaire could not provide the definitive resolution he was seeking of how to bridge the chasm between reason and faith.

          After a short stay in Italy that included “ruins and galleries . . .brothels and bawdy houses. . .churches and cathedrals” (p.200), Boswell’s last stop on the Grand Tour was the island of Corsica, a distant and exotic location where few Britons had ever visited.  There, he met General Pasquale Paoli, leader of the movement for Corsican independence from the city-state of Genoa, which exercised control over most of the island. Paoli was already attracting attention throughout Europe for his determination to establish a republican government on the island.  Rousseau, who had been asked to write a constitution for an independent Corsica, wrote for Boswell a letter of introduction to Paoli.  During a six-day visit to the island, Paoli treated the mesmerized Boswell increasingly like a son. Paoli “embodied those ancient values that Boswell most admired, though frequently failed to practice: personal integrity and public authority; intellectual lucidity and stoic responsibility” (p.232). Paoli’s leadership of the independence movement demonstrated to Boswell that heroism was still alive, an “especially crucial quality in an age like his of philosophical and religious doubt” (p.217). Upon returning to Britain, Boswell became a vigorous advocate for Paoli and the cause of Corsican independence.

        Boswell’s tour on the continent ended — and Zaretsky’s narrative ends — with a dramatic flourish that Zaretsky likens to episodes in Henry Fielding’s then popular novel Tom Jones. While Boswell was in Italy, Rousseau and Thérèse were forced to flee Môitiers because of hostile reaction to Voltaire’s revelation about the couple’s five children. By chance, David Hume, who had been in Paris, was able to escort Rousseau into exile in England, leaving Thérèse temporarily behind. Boswell somehow got wind of Thérèse’s situation and, sensing an opportunity to win favor with Rousseau, eagerly accepted her request to escort her to England to join her partner.  But over the course of the 11-day trip to England, Boswell and Thérèse “found themselves sharing the same bed. Inevitably, Boswell recounted his sexual prowess in his journal: ‘My powers were excited and I felt myself vigorous’” (p.225). No less inevitably, Zaretsky notes, Boswell also recorded Thérèse’s “more nuanced response: ‘I allow that you are a hardy and vigorous lover, but you have no art’” (p.225).

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       After following Boswell’s encounters across the continent with many of the period’s most illustrious figures, I was disappointed that Zaretsky does not return to the question he raises initially about nature of 18th century Enlightenment.   It would have been interesting to learn what conclusions, if any, he draws from Boswell’s journey. Does the young Scot’s partaking of the thoughts of Voltaire, Rousseau and others, and his championing the cause of Corsican independence, suggest a single movement indifferent to national and cultural boundaries? Or should Boswell best be considered an emissary of a peculiarly Scottish form of Enlightenment? Or was Boswell himself too young, too impressionable – too full of himself – to allow for any broader conclusions to be drawn from his youthful experiences about the nature of the 18th century Enlightenment? These unanswered questions constitute a missed opportunity in an otherwise engaging account of a young man seeking to make sense of the intellectual currents that were riveting his 18th century world and to apply them in his personal life.

Thomas H. Peebles

Florence, Italy

January 25, 2017

 

5 Comments

Filed under European History, History, Intellectual History, Religion

Extraordinarily Intense and Abstract

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Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think:

An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People 

 

     You may wince at the title of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s book, How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People.  Attempting to explain in book form “how the French think” seems like an audacious if not preposterous undertaking. Yet, however improbably, Hazareesingh, a professor at Oxford University who also teaches in Paris, somehow accomplishes the daunting tasks he sets for himself: identifying the “cultural distinctiveness of French thinking” (p.3) and showing how and why the activities of the mind have “occupied such a special place in French public life” (p.7).

     In his sweeping, erudite yet highly-readable work, Hazareesingh affably guides his readers through three centuries of French intellectual history. Hazareesingh approaches with light-hearted humor his impossibly broad and – certainly to the French – highly serious subject. He assumes that it is possible to make “meaningful generalizations” about the “shared intellectual habits of a people as diverse and fragmented as the French” (p.17). He is most concerned in presenting selected “meaningful generalizations” about how the French – and particularly France’s intellectual elite — have looked upon the country, its past, its major political institutions, and its place in the larger world.  He places particular emphasis upon the theories and ideas which have sustained France’s political divisions since the 1789 French Revolution.

     Hazareesingh finds French thinking to be both extraordinarily intense and, by Anglo-American standards, extraordinarily abstract. Ideas in France are “believed not only to matter but, in existential circumstances, to be worth dying for” (p.17). He identifies a quintessentially French “fetish” – a term used frequently throughout his book – for “unifying theoretical syntheses and for formulations which are far-reaching and outlandish – and sometimes both” (p.111). The notion of knowledge as “continuous and cumulative, which is such a central premise of Anglo-Saxon epistemology,” is, Hazareesingh argues, “alien to the French way of thinking” (p.21).  French ideas tend to be the product of a form of thinking which is “not necessarily grounded in empirical reality,” giving them a “speculative” character (p.21).

     More than elsewhere, French thinking tends to look at issues as binary choices, between either A or B: nationalism or universalism; individualism or collective spirit; spiritualism or science. French thinking also reserves a special place for paradox, producing passionate rationalists, revolutionary traditions, secular missionaries and, on the battlefield, glorious defeats.  France’s vaunted sense of exceptionalism, which lies in its distinct “association of its own special quality with its moral and intellectual prowess” (p.11), endures today side by side with a pervasive sense of pessimism and decline – malaise.  In the 18th century, French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu observed that French thinkers had mastered “doing frivolous things seriously, and serious things frivolously” (p.7), and Hazareesingh finds that the same “insouciance of manner” also endures in today’s France.

      Hazareesingh arranges his work into ten chapters, working toward the present. He starts with the influence of 17th century philosopher, mathematician and scientist René Descartes on all subsequent French thinking. Within a Cartesian framework, he then discusses in the next five chapters distinctive 19th century modes of thought in France: exotic sects devoted to mysticism and occultism; the powerful influence of science on 19th century French thinking; the evolution of notions of a political Left and Right; and the emergence of a French view of “the Nation” and French identity toward the end of the century.  Although focused on the 19th century – and in some cases, the 20th century up to the fall of Third French Republic in 1940 – these chapters also address the contemporary presence and influence of the chapter’s subject matter. Each could serve as an informative and entertaining stand-alone essay.

      The chapter on the emergence of the political Left and Right in the aftermath of the French Revolution is both the thread that ties together the book’s chapters on 19th century French thinking and its  link to the final four chapters, on post World War II French political and social thought. These final chapters revolve around the providential leadership style of Charles de Gaulle and the persistent attraction of communism as the heart of the French intelligentsia’s opposition to de Gaulle. Along the way, Hazareesingh discusses a host of post-World War II French thinkers, particularly the ubiquitous Jean Paul Sartre.  He also provides an illuminating overview of the Structuralist movement, which gained great sway in academic circles, especially in American universities, for its grandiose analysis of human culture. Its key thinkers – Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Fourcault, Jacques Derrida – seem to personify France’s proclivity for abstract if not obtuse thinking.  In his final chapters, Hazareesingh describes the widespread contemporary French malaise, with French historians and its political intelligentsia looking at the country, its past and future, with a deepening sense of pessimism and despair.

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     In Hazareesingh’s estimation, modern French thinking began in the 17th century with René Descartes and his belief in the primacy of human reason, the “defining feature of the human condition” (p.50). Descartes’ signal contribution was to “accustom men increasingly to found their knowledge on examination rather than belief” (p.33), thereby rejecting arguments based upon religious faith.  The esprit cartésian, “based on logical clarity and the search for certainty” (p.33), rests on the conviction that reason is the “only source of our ability to make moral judgments and impose a durable conceptual order on the world” (p.50).

     The distinction between a political Left and Right, Hazareesingh writes, has often been viewed as a manifestation of the Cartesian character of French thought and its “propensity to cast political ideas in binary terms and to follow lines of reasoning to their extremes” (p.133). The distinction originated in the early phases of the French Revolution, when supporters of the king’s prerogative to veto legislation gathered on the right side of the 1789 Constituent Assembly, while opponents of the royal veto grouped on the Assembly’s left side.  Throughout the 19th century and up to the fall of the Third Republic in 1940, the subsequent debate between Left and Right was “largely between advocates and opponents of the French Revolution itself” (p.136).

     Central to the mindset of the many tribes on the Left during the 19th century was a “belief in the possibility of redesigning political institutions to create a better, more humane society whose members were freed from material and moral oppression” (p.137). This entailed above all establishment of a republican form of government, with power “exercised by elected representatives in the name of the people” (p.137). Political change “could be meaningful only if it was comprehensive and cleansing” (p.143).  The conceptual origins of European socialism and social democracy may be found on the left side of the 1789 Constituent Assembly.

      The 18th century Swiss political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided a major share of the conceptual underpinning for France’s Leftist sensibilities.  Rousseau concluded that it was “plainly contrary to the law of nature” that the “privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitudes are in want of the bare necessities of life” (p.79-80). Rousseau’s protean political philosophy appealed simultaneously to the “libertarian yearning for absolute freedom, the progressive quest for a better world and the collectivist desire for equality” (p.80). In the mid-19th century, the ideas of Auguste Comte further animated the Leftist vision. One of the 19th century’s “most original standard-bearers of Cartesianism” (p.33), Comte’s comprehensive attempt to unite all forms of scientific inquiry into a single overarching philosophical system inspired a republican faith in education and science as keys to building a progressive, secular and just society.

     The counterpoint to the vision of the French Left was shaped by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (discussed here in May 2015 in a review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, And the Birth of Right and Left).  Burke’s Reflections constituted “such an iconic representation of anti-1789 sentiment that copies were burned in bonfires by revolutionary peasants” (p.138). Like Burke, the political Right in France defended the entrenched institutions that the French Revolution sought to uproot — notably, monarchy, aristocratic privilege, and the Catholic Church – and stridently resisted the democratic and republican impulses of the Left. The language of the Right was “typically about the avoidance of conflict, the defense of hierarchy, the appeal to tradition and religious faith. . . the Right was predominantly concerned with the preservation (or restoration) of social stability” (p.141).

     In the first half of the 19th century, the most fervent proponents of the Right’s conservative vision were Catholic traditionalists and the royalists who never relinquished their dream of a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Hazareesingh credits the ultra-royalist polemicist Joseph de Maistre with encapsulating the Right’s aversion to everything associated with the 1789 Revolution. De Maistre saw the events of the 1790s as a “manifestation of divine retribution for decades of French irreligiosity and philosophical skepticism” (p.138). The notion  of universal rights of man was to de Maistre a “senseless abstraction.”  De Maistre is best known to history for his observation that he had “seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians. . . but as to man, I have never met one” (p.138).

      A central theme in the mythological imagination of the Right in the latter half of the 19th century was the “presence of sinister forces working to unravel the fabric of French society.” These destructive agents were “all the more noxious in that they were often perceived to represent alien interests and values” (p.150).  Jews in particular came to be identified as posing the ultimate existential menace to traditional conservative ideals, as manifested in the notorious affair involving Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish Army officer wrongly convicted of spying for Germany in 1896 (three books on the Dreyfus Affair were reviewed here in 2012).  In the 20th century, the French political Right contributed to the “genesis of fascist doctrine” in Europe (p.147). The demise in 1944 of the collaborationist Vichy regime that ruled much of France during the years of German occupation marked the effective end for this traditional, counter-revolutionary French Right.

 

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      After World War II, two developments reshaped the schism between Left and Right: the emergence of a “new synthetic vision of Frenchness, centered around Charles de Gaulle, and the entrenchment of Marxist ideas among the intelligentsia” (p.191). In their “schematic visions of the world after the Second World War, and in their bitter opposition to each other,” Gaullists and Marxists, “symbolized the French capacity for intellectual polarization and their apparent relish for endlessly reproducing the older divisions created by the Revolution” (p.196).

     De Gaulle modernized French conservative thought by “incorporating more fraternal ideals into its scheme of values, notably, by granting voting rights to women and, later, ending French rule in Algeria” (p.192). Although his leadership revolved around his own charismatic persona as the incarnation of the grandeur of France — echoing Napoleon Bonaparte – De Gaulle was also relentlessly pragmatic.  He “did not hesitate to discard key elements of the heritage of the French Right, especially its hostility to republicanism and its xenophobic, racialist and anti-egalitarian tendencies” (p.192).

     The French intelligentsia’s “extraordinary fascination” with communist theory was “born out of the First World War and its apogee in France between the 1930s and the ‘60s coincided with one of the most troubled periods in the nation’s modern history” (p.102). Although ostensibly identifying with the Soviet Union as a model of governance, French communism “remained deeply rooted in [France’s] historic political culture” (p.107). Through the 1960s, communism offered its intellectual adherents a “way of experiencing the values of friendship, human solidarity and fraternity” (p.107).

     Throughout the post-War period, Jean Paul Sartre dominated the French intellectual landscape. The “flamboyant personification of the French ‘intellectual,’” Sartre combined high visibility interventions in the political arena with an “original synthesis of Marxism and existentialism” and a “commitment to revolution, ‘the seizure of power by violent class struggle’” (p.230). After Sartre’s death in 1980 and the election of reformist Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1981, Hazareesingh observes a change in the tone of the discourse between the political Left and Right.

      The ideals at the heart of Sartre’s “redemptive conception of politics – communism, revolution, the proletariat – lost much of their symbolic resonance in the 1980s,” Hazareesingh indicates. Marxism “ceased to be the ‘unsurpassable horizon’ of French intellectual life as the nation elected a reformist socialist as its president, the Communist Party declined, the working class withered away and the Cold War came to an end” (p.236).   By the time Mitterrand was elected in 1981, the “division between Left and Right was already beginning to decline. . . the Right had moved away from its republican rejectionism . . . [and] the Left completed the movement in the 1980s by abandoning the universalist abstractions that underpinned progressive thought: the belief in human perfectibility and the sense that history had a purpose and that capitalist society could be radically overhauled” (p.158).

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        Today, France grapples with a “growing sense of unease about its present condition and its future prospects” (p.21), the French malaise. The factors giving rise to contemporary malaise include the decline of the French language internationally, coupled with France’s diminished claim to be a world power. But since the late 1980s, France’s pervasive pessimism seems most closely linked to issues of multi-culturalism and integration of France’s Muslim population.  Like every European nation with even a modest Muslim population, how to treat this minority remains an overriding challenge in France.  Few thinkers. Left or Right, are optimistic that France’s Muslim population can be successfully integrated into French society while France remains true to its revolutionary republican principles.

     Hazareesingh sees the rise of France’s nationalistic, xenophobic National Front party, originally headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now by his estranged daughter, Marine Le Pen, as not only a response to the pervasive sense of French national decline but also a telling indication of the diminished clout of today’s political intelligentsia.  He chastises the “collective inability of the intellectual class” over the past decade to “confront the rise of the Front National and the growing dissemination of its ideas among the French people — a silence all the more remarkable as, throughout their history, and notably during the Dreyfus Affair, French intellectuals were at the forefront of the battle against racism and xenophobia. It is a measure of the disorientation of the nation’s intellectual and cultural elites on this issue that some progressive figures now openly admit their fascination with Jean-Marie Le Pen” (p.256-57).

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     Despite the doom and gloom that he perceives throughout contemporary France, Hazareesingh concludes optimistically that in facing the challenges of the 21st century, it is “certain” that the French will “remain the most intellectual of peoples, continuing to produce elegant and sophisticated abstractions about the human condition” (p.326). Let’s hope so – and let’s hope that Hazareesingh might again provide clear-headed guidance for English-language readers on how to understand these sophisticated abstractions, as he does throughout this lucid and engaging work.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 9, 2016

 

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Politics, Uncategorized

What Was So Enlightened About That?

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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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