Sunday, February 3, 2019

On The Counter-Enlightenment

A Painting of Rousseau (1753)
The term “counter-enlightenment” became popular about 200 years after the Enlightenment, when Isaiah Berlin used it in his essay, “The Counter-Enlightenment,” to refer to the opposition to the French Enlightenment. The essay was published in 1973, and in 1981, it was reprinted in a collection of his works, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas.

Berlin argues that the central principles of the French Enlightenment were “universality, objectivity, rationality, and the capacity to provide permanent solutions to all genuine problems of life or thought, and (not less important) accessibility of rational methods to any thinker armed with adequate powers of observation and logical thinking,” and the opposition to it “occurred in various forms, conservative or liberal, reactionary or revolutionary, depending on which systematic order was being attacked.”

He names philosophers like Giambattista Vico, Johann Georg Hamann, Joseph de Maistre and a few others as the chief architects of the Counter-Enlightenment. Berlin describes in detail the illiberal ideas of de Maistre to establish the point that the Counter-Enlightenment was a force of evil. Here’s an excerpt:
In a striking image de Maistre says that all social order in the end rests upon one man, the executioner. Nobody wishes to associate with this hideous figure, yet on him, so long as men are weak, sinful, unable to control their passions, constantly lured to their doom by evil temptations or foolish dreams, rest all order, all peace, all society. The notion that reason is sufficient to educate or control the passions is ridiculous. When there is a vacuum, power rushes in ; even the bloodstained monster Robespierre, a scourge sent by the Lord to punish a country that had departed from the true faith, is more to be admired - because he did hold France together and repelled her enemies, and created armies that, drunk with blood and passion, preserved France - than liberal fumbling and bungling. Louis XIV ignored the clever reasoners of his time, suppressed heresy, and died full of glory in his own bed. Louis XVI played amiably with subversive ideologists who had drunk at the poisoned well of Voltaire, and died on the scaffold. Repression, censorship, absolute sovereignty, judgements from which there is no appeal, these are the only methods of governing creatures whom de Maistre described as half men, half beasts, monstrous centaurs at once seeking after God and fighting Him, longing to love and create, but in perpetual danger of falling victims to their own blindly destructive drives, held in check by a combination of force and traditional authority and, above all, a faith incarnated in historically hallowed institutions that reason dare not touch.
Berlin notes that the failure of the French Revolution to achieve its objective of creating a better society marks the end of the French Enlightenment as a movement and a system. But the surprising thing is that he does not hold the philosophers of the French Enlightenment—Rousseau, Diderot, and others—accountable for the bloodbath of the French Revolution. He absolves them, even though the French Revolution was an outcome of their teachings.

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