Saving the European Enlightenment

The European Enlightenment, which for the sake of convenience I take to extend from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (or very arguably the Peace of Augsburg in 1555) down to the advent of post-modernist ideology sometime in the middle 1960s, remains the basis of the current socio-political order, not only in Europe, but in all nations that trace their cultural, social, ideological, and political DNA back to 16th- and 17th-century Europe, i.e., virtually all the First World and all the former colonies / dependencies thereof (e.g., Australia, India, et al.). In particular, and much closer to home, the American Constitution would be utterly inconceivable without the Enlightenment, especially as it was expressed in Great Britain and Scotland.  This has been so true for so long that we have come to consider the European Enlightenment as existing on a par with the speed of light being 300K km / sec, Newton's gravitational constant -- with physical law generally. So the thought that we should someday have to undertake the defense of the Enlightenment, its practices, its priorities, and its values, has been well-nigh inconceivable. Defending the Enlightenment would seem as unthinkable as defending the idea that pi is an irrational, transcendental number.

Treaty of Westphalia, 1648

Until now. Now the Unthinkable has become quite thinkable.  The philosophy and Weltanschauung of post-modernism have been released from their previous biosafety-level-4 containment in university English and philosophy departments and actually put into practical use in many Western or Western-derived nations, often the very nations that birthed and nurtured the Enlightenment, as witness events unfolding in France, Germany, Hungary, England ... and, of course, the United States. So those of us who revere Enlightenment culture are faced with the question:  how do we defend the Enlightenment heritage and socio-political priorities from the explicitly fascist, and fascist-adjacent, orders now being spawned by the post-modernist philosophy now in the wind? The bad news is that it must be defended. The good news is that it can be defended. The following is how to defend it.

It is quite possible to critique the Enlightenment as at least implicitly biased in terms of race, culture, and class.  The Enlightenment, like all things human, suffered from its own imperfections. For example, many of the heirs of the Enlightenment among the American Founders were member of the aristocracy (though even the American aristocracy was little more than upper middle class, compared to their British counterparts), were racists and therefore usually slave owners (Washington, Madison, and Jefferson) or former slave owners (Franklin), and most believed in a form of Euro-centric cultural bias.  However, subsequent history shows that the architects of the Enlightenment were these things, not because of the Enlightenment, but despite it, and that their descendants addressed these issues, not by repudiating the principles of the European Enlightenment, but by getting better at practicing those principles. To cite just one example, the ongoing civil rights movement in the United States originates, not from a disavowal of the principles of the Enlightenment, as embodied in the US Constitution, but by implementing those principles more radically and consistently, as with the application of the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment. Even the flaws of the Enlightenment argue for more of the Enlightenment, not less.

When practiced with uncompromising, even ruthless, consistency, the principles of the Enlightenment are all self-correcting. Rather like science. Consequently, the secret to defending the Enlightenment against the "para-fascist" depredations of post-modernism is likewise to practice those Enlightenment principles more consistently, even more ruthlessly, than heretofore -- and to do so these days more than ever before on an individual level, as individual men and women.  Collective action is all well and good, but any communities or movements or political-action groups we form in response to the "para-fascist" post-modernist assault on Enlightenment values and practices will be only as effective as our own commitment as individuals to these values and practices: a million zeros will still only add up to zero.

(Before you read any farther in this column, I urgently recommend you read David Brooks’ superlative New York Times piece on just this issue “The Enlightenment Project”.)

Acting as individuals to preserve the principles of the European Enlightenment in the shelter of our own intellects and moral consciences is a many-splendored undertaking, involving action on several different fronts.

o Learn

One of the more obvious areas where the Enlightenment project is being challenged today is in the area of science.  The post-modern challenge to the Enlightenment incorporates a certain skepticism about science, the scientific method, the epistemological foundations of science, and consequently the utility  of science as a means of ascertaining true knowledge about the external world.  Post-modernist critiques of science are often written by people – Lyotard, Foucault, et al., come to mind immediately – whose attainments in other fields are undisputed, but whose knowledge of science, and scientific methodology affords them just enough knowledge to be dangerous.  One thinks, in particular, of science skepticism based on the belief that ancient myths and belief  systems, and contemporary spirituality, are just as revelatory of the Universe as empirical science. So learning involves:

--  Familiarizing oneself with contemporary findings in the sciences, especially biology and physics.

This does not mean becoming a biologist or a physicist, but it does involve cultivating a degree of working-knowledge-level familiarity that enables one to penetrate the superficially attractive but shallow façade of contemporary pseudo-sciences like intelligent design, creationism, and the supposed “proofs” in quantum physics of the existence of God.

--  Developing a working knowledge, not of particular sciences, but of the scientific method itself, and the role of data and methodology.  For example, one often hears it alleged that science requires “just as much faith” as religion. Like many other skeptical arguments, this is just true enough to be dangerously misleading.  There is a sense in which science presupposes a certain type of faith, but any attempt to equate the two dies the death of a thousand qualifications, and it is only an unfortunate accident of language that the same word “faith” is used to connote both. Learn and develop an ability to discuss the differences.

--  For Americans, one of the most useful elements of learning would be a close and sustained study of how the principles of the European Enlightenment became instantiated, first, in the Declaration of Independence, and later in the US Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. In particular, pay special attention to both “religion” clauses of the First Amendment about the equality of all religious traditions before the civil law, and how such a principle decisively disposes of arguments to the effect that the United States is a “Christian nation” in any sense but the purely cultural. Such a consideration is especially pertinent in light of the “needs of the community” criterion for truth often prevalent in post-modernist writings.

o Contribute

There are many worthy causes that are dedicated to upholding various aspects of the Enlightenment consensus.  The following are suggestions only, intended to give you some idea of where one’s monetary contributions could be expected to maximize “bang for the buck”:

--  Scientific organizations like the Keck Telescope

-- Organizations dedicated to the dissemination of contemporary astronomical / cosmological knowledge to the general public, one of the most brilliant of which is 'Imiloa of Hawaii. (In fact, the word "imiloa" in Hawaiian means "wide dissemination of knowledge".)

--  One’s university and / or various particular departments therein (e.g., my wife and I contribute to my old Oxford University college, Exeter)

--  Organizations dedicated to the defense and preservation of the founding principles of various Enlightenment-grounded values and practices like free speech / press, due process, etc., e.g., the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, the National Constitution Center, and the First Amendment Center

--  One’s local museums, symphony orchestras, and arts organizations as practitioners of First Amendment liberties

o Listen

I have found that one of the most effective ways of catching the overall “flavor” of the European Enlightenment, and catching it on an intuitive and affective level in a way that transcends words and “logo-centric” discourse, is through music.  The music of Enlightenment composers – Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Telemann … the pantheon goes on … – is, by turns and often simultaneously, elegant, reasoned, passionate, playful, yet always disciplined in a way that flows out of the music itself rather than being imposed extraneously from without.  Listen to the gracefully galloping first movement of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G.  Listen to Franz Josef Haydn’s matchlessly graceful String Quartet in F-Major, Op.3 No. 5. (The third movement alone could well serve as a kind of “theme music” for the entire European Enlightenment.)  The hallmark of virtually all the music of the Enlightenment is grace and freedom within the bounds of an intrinsic discipline that does not constrict, but rather liberates … in other words, the diametric opposite of the characteristically post-modern hostility toward all forms of discipline as instruments of oppression.

o Read

Rather than compile a reading list, which would probably stretch for the length of a dozen "Skeptics" columns, I will mention a few books, and recommend that those of you who want to do “deep dives” into the history and ideology of the Enlightenment read these books, and then sample the sources, both primary and secondary, in the footnotes and bibliographies.

--  From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Jacques Barzun

Barzun’s book can serve admirably as a kind of Baedecker guide-book to the European Enlightenment, both in the British Isles and on the Continent.  Its bibliography is exhaustive and a comprehensive reading of it would be exhausting.

In terms of the Enlightenment roots of the US Constitution and of American constitutionalism, there are none better than:

--  America's Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law, Yale

--  The Bill of Rights:  Creation and Reconstruction also by Amar

The latter is especially useful in terms of assessing how the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment affected the interpretation of the Constitution “proper” and the Bill of Rights

--  The Invisible Constitution (Inalienable Rights) by Prof. Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law

A very instructive, but eminently readable, treatment of 10th Amendment un-enumerated rights

--  On Reading the Constitution also by Prof. Tribe

Very useful “how-to” book on how to read – and not read – the Constitution

--  Desperately Seeking Certainty: The Misguided Quest for Constitutional Foundations by Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry

The most sheerly entertaining book on constitutional theory – three words I never thought to find in the same sentence – I have ever read, in which interpretation theory is developed in parallel with a recipe for latkes.  Please.  Just read it.

--  The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn

For my money, the masterpiece of them all in terms of the Enlightenment, especially English / Scottish Enlightenment, roots of the American Revolution and Constitution

--  A Primer on Postmodernism by Stanley J. Grenz, Pioneer McDonald Professor of Baptist Heritage, Theology, and Ethics at Carey Theological College and Profess at Regent College in Vancouver, BC

For sheer clarity of exposition of an intrinsically murky subject, Prof. Grenz’s book cannot be beaten.  The last few chapters are written from a conservative evangelical standpoint, from which those not like-minded may demur, but that does not alter the clarity of the preceding text.

--  Basically, anything by Prof. Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School

Prof. Jurgen Habermas

But choose your text carefully.  Habermas is widely – and justly -- regarded as the greatest European philosopher since Immanuel Kant, and his texts are about as dense and impenetrable as those of his intellectual predecessor. Habermas is a voice in the wilderness in terms of his withering critiques of post-modernism, especially those written by his Frankfurt School Colleagues Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.  Good luck with this! When I first encountered the Frankfurt School, I had a full head of hair and weighed 50 pounds less.

o Challenge

Be vocal. Be assertive. Be downright damned obnoxious. I am personally embarrassed by the number of occasions when I remained silent while people, gestating a nascent Trump-supportive complex of attitudes and ideas, spewed ill-informed slanders against President Obama in ways that would have embarrassed "Bull" Connor and his police dogs back in the early 60s. Such people were obviously ignorant, cousin-fornicating rednecks who could be safely ignored. Aside from that Trump-supporter stereotype being false on its own terms, I forgot that even ignorant, cousin-fornicating rednecks still vote. Which they did. I should have spoken up, loudly, vociferously, even offensively. Now I do. In fact, now I make Barney Frank look like a Trappist monk at meditation.  But my consciousness was raised too late. People who defend the Enlightenment project have to be much more assertive, often aggressively so. Enlightenment values, Enlightenment attitudes, Enlightenment practices, Enlightenment institutions -- these are never simply given, like the value of pi. They must be defended.  So now we have to learn to:

--  Defend the value of science and the integrity of the scientific method by learning – to cite a few of the more pertinent examples – what the theory of evolution through natural selection really says (Hint:  it does not say “humans came from monkeys” or that “evolution is random”)

--  Constantly defend the rights of religious minorities by maintaining that the United States is a “Christian nation” only in a purely cultural sense, not as a matter of law

--  Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem is a double-edged sword:  it cuts both ways.   Asserting, as globally true, that verbal and written texts are subject to endless interpretation is itself an example of an attempt to “universalize” a text, and therefore – according to Goedel’s Theorem – render the text contradictory.  Like any other universe of discourse, post-modern ideology is valid – at most – only locally, not as a universal principle.

Karl Marx began The Communist Manifesto with the statement “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism”. My equivalent is “A spectre is haunting the West – the spectre of post-modernist nihilism”. The virus of post-modernism has escaped into the political ecosystem, with results that are most evident in the election of Donald Trump in the US – the first completely post-modern American President -- but that are also afflicting the European nations that nurtured the Enlightenment and the constitutional socio-political order it engendered.  (What a stinging historical irony that the nation where Adolf Hitler rose to power is also the same nation whose Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is the modern-day Leonidas defending the Thermopylae of the West against the assault of the post-modern Persians.) If the heritage of the Enlightenment is to be preserved, along with the constitutional, latitudinarian, rights-centric socio-political order it engendered, it will be up to the beneficiaries of that order – us – to do so.

No one else will.  No one else can.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:
"The Milkmaid" ... Johannes Vermeer ... Public domain
"Flat earth" engraving ...  Camille Flammarion ... Public domain
"Vitruvian Man" ... Leonardo DaVinci ... Public domain
William Herschel's telescope ... Artist unknown ... Public domain
Albert Einstein ... Ferdinand Schmutzer ... Public domain
Johann Gutenberg reviewing a press proof ... Artist unknown ... Public domain
Treaty of Westphalia, 1648 ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Jurgen Habermas ... Wolfram Hake ... CC-BY-SA-3.0

 

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