The Enlightenment Strikes Back

Immanuel Kant. Artist Unknown

Susan Neiman’s book, Moral Clarity, continues to impress. It’s wide ranging, but she points to other books for further, more in-depth study. A writer I had not heard of previously sounds like a great place to go for a comprehensive study of the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel. Huge books for a huge topic. His Radical Enlightenment (2001) and Enlightenment Contested (2006) are 2/3rds of a planned trilogy on the subject.

The strikes back part. Strikes back because the Enlightenment has been under attack for nearly two centuries. It was always attacked from the right, especially on religious grounds, but now from the left as well. It’s a veritable cottage industry to sift through the works of its key philosophers to find precursors for the horrors of the 20th century, from communism to fascism, from the gulag to right wing totalitarian rule. One interesting aspect of critiques. They tend to have a momentum of their own, and rarely stop to note new evidence to the contrary. Neiman and Israel, among others, are presenting that new evidence. Boiled down, the philosophers of the Enlightenment were far more complex than their caricatures would suggest, their thought more diverse, their goals not truly arrogant.

The Enlightenment itself was a critique of superstition, authority, moldy traditions and the acceptance of the status quo. It was not a celebration of cold reason at the expense of the passions, as many critics (beginning with the Romantics) have asserted, but a reassessment of imbalances which had grown deep roots. Kant said “The Death of Dogma is the birth of Morality.” That might be the most concise definition for the agenda of the Enlightenment. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing also provided a model for the project in 1778, when he wrote:

“If God were holding all the truth in the world in his right hand, and in his left the ever-active drive to seek the truth — coupled with the promise that I would always go astray — and told me: choose! I would humbly fall upon his left and say, ‘Father, give! Pure truth is for you alone!'”

Susan Neiman adds:

There were many reasons why Lessing preferred seeking truth to finding it, but one is clear enough: The Enlightenment held movement, not rest, to be the key to human happiness. Investigations of motion in physics and changes in political economy reinforced this general view: Its conception of the good life is never static and never passive.

Another key purpose for her book is to take us back to hope. She wants us to believe again in the possibility of societal change, without cynicism, without defeatism. And she believes that it is necessary to de-link the belief in progress with the horrors of the 20th century. Having lofty goals didn’t cause those horrors. Believing in a better world didn’t cause them. To be a radical utopian today (as George Scialabba might term it) is not to expect utopias to actually occur. It is to set the goals and work toward getting as close to them as is possible, one step at a time. Knowing that we will never get there. But also knowing that if we don’t even begin the journey, we won’t move an inch on the pathway toward the Good, the Beautiful, and the True.

Immanuel Kant said:

The universal and lasting establishment of peace constitutes not merely a part, but the whole final purpose and end of the science of right as viewed within the limits of reason.


Peace is the ground of happiness. If humans seek happiness above all else, we must start there.


The Enlightenment Strikes Back
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