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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Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.