The Virgin Birth and other myths

Sins of omission and myths of the Enlightenment.

A protester's shirt displays an embroidery of the Virgin Mary
Pagden’s Enlightenment seems to have come into the world through a rationalist version of the Virgin Birth. Photograph: Getty Images

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)