This is the first in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.
This first presentation was given by Darrin McMahon, the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University.
Before I get into this, it will be relevant to repeat that this is not an ‘atheist’ blog in that I do not discuss evidence for and against whether the proposition “at least one god exists” is true. I take it for granted that it is not true – just as I take for granted that the earth is not flat and that it circles the sun. “The Enlightenment” represents a philosophy that tends to be (though it does not need to be) atheistic. However, it also tends to encompass a set of values. I want to warn the reader not to get confused over the difference between defending or rejecting enlightenment philosophy and defending or rejecting atheism.
As I discussed in the introductory post, the project here is to examine the Enlightenment of the 18th Century (Enlightenment 1.0), look over its successes and its failures, and then to introduce modifications. McMahon started this project quite well by telling us what some critics have said against Enlightenment 1.0.
Many of those critics, as it turned out, charged that these problems were inherent to Enlightenment 1.0 and provided reason to abandon the project entirely. McMahon talked about two groups of critics; religious conservatives who were proposing a competing project called “religious fundamentalism”, and liberals proposing an alternative product called “post modernism.” They, of course, felt (feel) that their products were better than Enlightenment 1.0 in some key areas.
On the religious conservative side, McMahon mentioned the concerns expressed by French priests, such as Charles-Louis Richard in Exposition de la doctrine des philosophes moderns.
In Richard's view the long fuse of the enlightenment was preparing devastation of just this sort. The overturning of altars, regicide, parricide, social anarchy and breakdown, sexual license and dissolution, terror and civil war, followed by despotism and tyranny of a sort never before seen.
McMahon also includes a quote for Sir Isaiah Berlin, The great 18th century philosophers were responsible for a lot of intellectual tyranny ending in the Soviet Union and Gulag.
Anybody familiar at all with atheism in America will not find these accusations at all strange. We are continually told, even by Presidential candidates, that the proponents of science and reason are responsible for the crimes of Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin in the past, and will bring these horrors back if they (we) were given any amount of political power in the future.
The left, McMahon “Enlightenment, we are told . . . behaves towards things as a dictator towards man. The enlightenment is totalitarian. . . . [It] objectified nature and enslaved humanity in a modern myth of a hegemony of reason.”
However, McMahon wants us to dismiss these charges. His argument is that, given the nature of the enlightenment, it is to be expected that the advocates of the conservative status quo and the advocates of radical revolution would both have complaints with the principles and values of the enlightenment.
McMahon itemized the values of the Enlightment
The disposition to live without fear in what might well be a fatherless world.
The disposition to chart our own course and our own ends for ourselves.
The disposition to subject even our most cherished assumptions to constant criticism and investigation – to take nothing on faith.
The adoption of mathematical and historical reason as the sole criterion of truth.
The rejection of supernatural agency – magic, disembodies spirits, divine providence of any kind.
A defense of the equality of all humanity including racial and sexual equality.
A belief in a secular universalism in ethics based on equity, justice, and charity.
The vindication of freedom of expression.
The adoption of democratic-republicanism as the most legitimate form of political organization.
Personal liberty of lifestyle in sexual and other matters.
Comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought based on independent critical thinking.
Given this package of values, there should be no surprise that the advocates of competing system will see the need to vilify it – accusing it of crimes without evidence of its guilt.
Ultimately, McMahon concluded that there is nothing wrong with Enlightenment 1.0, that the alleged problems of the enlightenment are simply the claims of a marketing campaign that has targeted it.
The universal revolution in ideas, education, culture, social theory and political reality postulated by the radical thinkers of the enlightenment were nowhere ever fully carried through and remains today incomplete at least in the United States.
I have long been suspicious of these types of claims. I have heard them over and over again. I have not met a Libertarian capitalist who has not said, when pointing to the failures of libertarian civilizations, that libertarianism has never been tried. Hard-core Marxists still argue that hard-core Marxism has never been tried. Now, McMahon is telling us that the Enlightenment has never been tried.
This is an extremely convenient argument – convenient, because it will never be the case that the ‘pure form’ of any system of any political or economic or philosophical system will ever be tried. The argument, in effect, is so convenient that it should never be used, because it can never say anything substantive.
If somebody were to argue, “My system will work; however, it requires that everybody adopt it and that nobody dissents from it,” that that person is effectively saying that his system will never work. A system does not “work” unless it is capable of working in a society where there is a great deal of disagreement over what the system commands, and even over whether it is a good system.
However, there is a good argument that can be used against any who would hold up Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao as representatives of the fate of the enlightenment. One version of the response would go something like this:
Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that you thought that Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were states in which agents were free to criticize any belief that anybody might want to put forward. See, one of the principles of The Enlightenment is the freedom to challenge every belief; nothing is to be taken on faith. So, if you think that the former Soviet Union represents a criticism of The Enlightenment, then you must think that it is a demonstration of the problems with free inquiry and, I assume, evidence why it would be necessary to prohibit free inquiry and control what people believe.
This is not an argument that states that “The enlightenment has never been tried.” It is an argument that says, “What would have been the case in this alleged counter-example to The Enlightenment if that society had actually embraced the Enlightenment value of free inquiry?”
In asking this type of question, we can readily see that the alleged “excesses” of The Enlightenment were not examples of The Enlightenment at all. They represented a repudiation or a casting off of Enlightenment principles in favor of something else.
Imagine, a parent starts to put together a child’s toy using The Instructions. Half way through the project, he decides he does not need the instructions and he throws them out. Soon, he finds himself in a bind. When this happens, he cries in frustration, “Those instructions were so bad! I started off using them and look where it got me!”
This is . . . shall we say . . . not a particularly impressive model of a valid criticism.
As we start to build Enlightenment 2.0, this still does not tell us of anything we need to change. I repeat; McMahon’s actual argument is that we do not have to change much of anything – that we simply need to re-install Enlightenment 1.0 more carefully, doing a better job of following the instructions.
That may be true. However, we should get a few more opinions before we make that judgment.