The Virgin Birth and other myths

Sins of omission and myths of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment: and Why It Still Matters
Anthony Pagden
Oxford University Press, 501pp, £29

The Crisis of the European Mind 1680-1715
Paul Hazard
NYRB Classics, 481pp, £12.99

If debating the Enlightenment has become tedious, one reason is that it has produced so many exercises in what old-fashioned religious believers still describe as apologetics – the defence of a pre-existing system of belief. Some of the many recent defences of the Enlightenment are better argued than others. What all of them have in common is that they aim to silence any doubt as to the truth of the creed. Mixing large doses of soothing moral uplift with hectoring attacks on those who wilfully turn their backs on the light, these secular sermons lack the flashes of humour and scepticism that redeem more traditional types of preaching.

Adamant certainty is the unvarying tone. Yet beneath the insistent didacticism of these apologists there is more than a hint of panic that the world has not yet accepted the rationalist verities that have been so often preached before. If the Enlightenment really does embody humanity’s most essential hopes, why do so many human beings persistently refuse to sign up to it?

The latest contribution to Enlightenment apologetics begins with some reasonable caveats. The intellectual shift generally described as the Enlightenment, Anthony Pagden notes, was no more “a single, coherent movement any more than any other transformative movement in history”. It is a mistake to suppose that the “philosophers, essayists, historians, novelists, playwrights, poets” promoted a single view of things. “No such heterogeneous group could ever be expected to agree upon everything, to speak with the same voice, or even to share a common intellectual stance.”

As Pagden writes, some historians of ideas have gone further, suggesting that we should stop referring to “the Enlightenment” and instead talk only of “Enlightenments”.

This could be a clarifying move. Why lump together thinkers and movements as different as Thomas Paine and David Hume, Jacobinism and liberalism into a single category? If we accepted that there were many Enlightenment traditions we could distinguish between those that were liberal and those that were not. We might even contemplate the possibility that some versions of Enlightenment thinking have been implicitly totalitarian.

For those who view Enlightenment thinking as always liberating this is an intolerable idea and Pagden is having none of it. If the Enlightenment has been implicated in modern crimes – imperialist and racist, Soviet and Nazi – that can only be because its values were misunderstood and misapplied, or else deliberately perverted. Enlightenment thinkers, Pagden writes, “spoke in many different voices, wrote in many different languages, and used many different forms of expression, from poetry to biology. But for all that, and though not one of them ever used the world, they all contributed to a single ‘project’.” The unspoken implication is that this project has been and continues to be quintessentially benign.

It is easy to see that this is a fundamentalist position. Evangelical Christians will look at you with blank disbelief if you suggest that Christian teachings played any part in the Inquisition, the early modern witch craze or later forms of persecution. “How could a religion of love,” they splutter, “possibly be responsible for such hateful crimes?” Similarly, today’s Enlightenment evangelists respond to the fact that some of the worst modern crimes have been committed by militant secular regimes with incredulity: “How could a philosophy of reason and humanity possibly be involved in anything so irrational and inhuman?”

These responses illustrate one of the central tenets of fundamentalism: the pristine creed is innocent of all evil. Any fact that runs counter to this conviction is screened out by what Karl Popper – one of the more interesting 20th-century Enlightenment thinkers, who along with Freud is absent from Pagden’s account – called a strategy of immunisation. Just as any Christian who participated in hate crimes can’t really be a Christian, anyone who took part in bloodthirsty political experiments such as Jacobinism and communism can’t really belong in the Enlightenment.

It is a childishly simple-minded evasion, but Padgen follows an immunising strategy of this kind throughout the book. Like many today he is a fierce critic of moral relativism and attributes its wide influence to the Romantic movement. Reading him, you would never know that one of the sources of modern moral relativism is in the writings on climate and cultural difference of Montesquieu (1689-1755), one of the formative Enlightenment thinkers. With its roots in ancient Greek scepticism and having 20thcentury exponents such as the sociologist Karl Mannheim, modern relativism is at least as much a child of the Enlightenment as it is of the Romantic Counter-Enlightenment.

In the same way, Pagden dismisses the argument of the Frankfurt School neo-Marxian philosophers and refugees from Nazism Marx Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno that Enlightenment thinking played a vital part in the development of “scientific racism” and “scientific socialism”. The Frankfurt critique may well be exaggerated. No chain of inexorable cause and effect links Enlightenment thinking with the defining 20thcentury atrocities. If the First World War had not all but destroyed European civilisation, if the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 had been less devoted to revenge and mutual recrimination or Lenin’s Bolsheviks defeated in the Russian civil war, neither the Holocaust nor the Gulag might have occurred. Even so, Horkheimer and Adorno were right in believing that the potential for such crimes was latent in powerful strands of Enlightenment thinking.

It is a demonstrable fact that the Nazis drew heavily on German biologists such as Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who promoted a distorted version of Darwinism to suggest that racial hierarchies were rooted in immutable biological differences. Certainly, the science Haeckel and others invoked was bogus. But it was widely accepted at the time and actively promoted by many who regarded themselves as developing an Enlightenment “science of humanity”. In England, the psychologist and eugenicist Francis Galton expounded similar theories of innate human inequality. When racial pseudo-science was rejected it was not as a result of any exercise in enlightened self-criticism but because the horrible consequences of such ideas were exposed after the military defeat of Nazism. “Scientific socialism” vanished not because the ideology was shown to be nonsense – which Bertrand Russell demonstrated in his neglected masterpiece The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920) – but only when the Soviet state collapsed, 70 years later.

A curious feature of Pagden’s book is that while it is full of hyperbolic claims about the positive role of the Enlightenment in the world today, his account of the movement stops short around the end of the 18th century. Aside from a polemical introduction and conclusion, the eight chapters of this book of over 500 pages deal almost exclusively with thinkers of the 16th to 18th centuries, who are given credit for the emergence of institutions that emerged centuries later, such as the United Nations and a “united states of Europe”, which Pagden tell us sagely has “come close to being (almost) a reality”. To be sure, he is aware that we are still far from realising Enlightenment ideals. But if the modern age has been something of a mixed bag – as even he must admit – he is convinced it can only be because the lessons of the great Enlightenment thinkers have not been properly applied.

You will learn nothing from him of Kant’s racist references to Africans and Jewish religion, or Voltaire’s endorsement of the “pre-Adamite” theory of human origins according to which earlier, more primitive anthropoid species survive as Jews, “negroes” and other inferior human types.

Pagden’s Enlightenment seems to have come into the world through a rationalist version of the Virgin Birth: owing nothing whatever to western monotheism, it marks a rupture in human history. In reality, some of the most influential strands of Enlightenment thinking were inheritances from religion. Pagden devotes considerable space to the thought of John Locke, whom he rightly regards as a formative Enlightenment thinker, without ever considering Locke’s debts to Christianity.

At almost every important point in his political theory, Locke relied on beliefs and assumptions taken from medieval Christian doctrine. His arguments for religious freedom in his A Letter Concerning Toleration are nearly all theological and biblical. If you wrench Locke’s liberal philosophy out of this religious context, it becomes virtually incomprehensible. Since these facts do not fit with a simplistic view of the Enlightenment as being intrinsically hostile to religion, Pagden does not mention them. Carl Becker’s seminal The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932), which traces the dependency of Enlightenment thinking on Christianity, is ignored for the same reason.

Perhaps this is not at bottom a book about the Enlightenment at all. Padgen praises Montesquieu for maintaining against other Enlightenment thinkers that “what was truly significant about China was not its illusory stability but its immobility”, and for all his talk of universal sympathy, an undertone of contempt for non-western cultures runs through the book. What we owe to the Enlightenment, he writes, is not only “the science of human understanding” but “the ways in which we all, in the west, live our political and social lives”. It is a telling formulation of the book’s message. At a time when Europe has achieved the feat of combining immobility with near-collapse, while unprecedented numbers of Americans languish in debt and poverty, it is also strikingly absurd. In the world’s fast-developing countries, there are very few who any longer think of looking to the west for a model of society. If Pagden is presenting an argument for western supremacy, no one is listening.

It is refreshing to turn to a genuine work of intellectual history that is back in print in a new edition published by New York Review Books. First published in France in 1935 and in Britain in 1953, The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715 by the French intellectual historian Paul Hazard (1878-1944) has been justly celebrated for its beautifully written and arrestingly vivid portraits of Europe’s leading thinkers around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Hazard shows how the Enlightenment did not come out of nowhere, but continued earlier traditions of thought –not least Pyrrhonism (the most radical form of classical Greek scepticism), which was revived in early modern times by thinkers such as the Protestant Pierre Bayle (1647-1706). Where Pagden struggles to represent Bayle as a prototype of an all-too-familiar kind of secular humanist, Hazard focuses on Bayle’s intellectual dynamism and inner conflicts, asking: “Did he reach the point of absolute scepticism? He would have done had he suffered his mind to follow its natural bent.” Unlike Pagden, Hazard understood that actual human beings – including Enlightenment thinkers – have little in common with the abstractions of Enlightenment philosophy.

If you want to understand the Enlightenment in its complexity and contradictions, read Paul Hazard’s stylish classic. If you are looking for an intellectual sedative, a prophylactic against sceptical doubt and moral panic, you will be happier plodding your way through Pagden’s tract. There is clearly a niche in the market for books offering comfort and reassurance to troubled Enlightenment fundamentalists, and Pagden’s book is well placed to fill it.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His most recent book, “The Silence of Animals: on progress and other modern myths” is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)

Pagden’s Enlightenment seems to have come into the world through a rationalist version of the Virgin Birth. Photograph: Getty Images

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war