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Enlightenment without end

If we no longer seek virtue and salvation, we should blame the triumvirate of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Adam Smith.

According to David Wootton, we are living in a world created by an intellectual revolution initiated by three thinkers in the 16th to 18th centuries. “My title is, Power, Pleasure and Profit, in that order, because power was conceptualised first, in the 16th century, by Niccolò Machiavelli; in the 17th century Hobbes radically revised the concepts of pleasure and happiness; and the way in which profit works in the economy was first adequately theorised in the 18th century by Adam Smith.” Before these thinkers, life had  been based on the idea of a summum bonum – an all-encompassing goal of human life. Christianity identified it with salvation, Greco-Roman philosophy with a condition in which happiness and virtue were one and the same. For both, human life was complete when the supreme good was achieved.

But for those who live in the world made by Machiavelli, Hobbes and Smith, there is no supreme good. Rather than salvation or virtue they want power, pleasure and profit – and they want them all without measure, limitlessly. Partly this is because these are scarce and highly unstable goods, craved by competitors and exposed to the accidents of fortune, hard to acquire and easily lost. A deeper reason is that for these thinkers human fulfilment is something that is pursued, not achieved. Human desire is insatiable and satisfaction an imaginary condition. Hobbes summarised this bleak view pithily: “So that in the first place I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” As Wootton notes, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards voiced a similar view of the human condition in their song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. Whether they knew it or not, the lyric captured the ruling world-view of modern times.

Wootton is an innovative historian of ideas who has written illuminatingly about the rise of modern science. His book The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (2015) showed how a world shaped by rapidly accumulating knowledge differs fundamentally from earlier, pre-modern worlds in which it was believed that everything truly important was already known. For Wootton, the rise of science was a paradigm shift in our view of the world even more far-reaching than those discussed in Thomas S Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn argued that rather than being incrementally increased as new knowledge becomes available, scientific theories tend to be maintained and extended until they are suddenly overthrown in a revolutionary upheaval and a new paradigm installed.

For Wootton, the rise of science was the biggest paradigm shift of all – a cognitive revolution that altered the way humans think about the world completely and irreversibly. Between the 16th and 18th centuries the writings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Smith established “an Enlightenment paradigm”, a system of beliefs about human beings as largely selfish creatures, sociable insofar as they feel sympathy for one another and realise that their welfare is intertwined, but essentially governed by the pursuit of their own desires.

In this system, the only rational goal of society is the maximum satisfaction of wants, and the only way of achieving this is a commercial society based on a market economy, private property and limited government. In this view, goodness is simply a set of strategies for pursuing whatever human beings most desire. Moral reasoning of the sort practised by Aristotle and Aquinas depended on the belief that there is an objectively good way of life. Once that belief has been given up, the pursuit of goodness is meaningless. All that remains is a utilitarian cost-benefit calculus.

Wootton presents the conceptual shift that gave birth to our life today in a book that is ambitious and impressive in its sweep. Nearly a third of Power, Pleasure and Profit’s 400 pages consist of scholarly notes and appendices. Yet Wootton’s vividly written narrative never loses momentum. Few academic books tell such a gripping story of how ideas can change the world. Yet it is a story that leaves out an enormous amount, and the view of “the Enlightenment paradigm” that Wootton presents is both parochial and anachronistic. He does not suggest that Enlightenment thinkers promoted a homogeneous set of ideas. “‘The Enlightenment’ is a problematic term,” he writes, “because it is easy and fruitful to multiply enlightenments.” Enlightenment thinking was riddled with “bitter disputes”, with radicals and conservatives adopting diverging views of the limits of human sociability. For all these caveats, Wootton’s Enlightenment paradigm is extraordinarily narrow:

When, at the end of the 20th century the collapse of communism seemed to herald a new world order, that order was to be based on Enlightenment principles: free markets, freedom of speech, the separation of religion from the state. When we talk about Western values, the values we have in mind are the values of the American Founding Fathers, which are Enlightenment values. When we describe what is good about our societies and when we criticise their failings, we are mobilising arguments developed within the Enlightenment paradigm… In the West, Enlightenment values, free markets, and political liberty are intertwined and interdependent.

Not only does this define the Enlightenment in terms of an American hegemony that is now plainly in the past. Focusing on a narrow subset of liberal ideas, it also excludes other ideas and movements that form part of the Enlightenment on any longer and wider view. Marx’s thought consisted in large part of a criticism of what Wootton defines as the Enlightenment paradigm. But Marx’s was an immanent critique of Enlightenment thinking, and the movements he inspired always regarded themselves as continuing an Enlightenment project.

When communists in Russia and China attempted to remake their countries on a new model, they believed they were replacing backward and spent civilisations by one based on Enlightenment ideas of progress and rationality. Yet Marx is mentioned by Wootton only once and Russia not at all. When China makes an appearance it is in the context of a discussion of the price of precious metals in the 18th century. Marxism surfaces near the end of the book, but as one item in a long list of highly disparate movements – “religious revivalism, idealism, socialism and Marxism, social Darwinism, the emergence of moral philosophies based on altruism, and in the 20th century Freudianism and postmodernism” – all of which Wootton describes as “attacks on the Enlightenment framework”.

In fact most of these movements represented extensions of Enlightenment thinking rather than rejections of it. Social Darwinists believed they were developing an Enlightenment science of human nature based on physiology. The vastly influential 19th-century positivist Auguste Comte – who invented the word “altruism” in order to define his secular ethic – saw himself as working in the tradition of the 18th-century French encyclopedists. Freud insisted to the end that he was applying scientific rationalism to the study of the human mind. Even 20th- and 21st-century postmodernists take their lead from Nietzsche, a lifetime admirer of Voltaire who situated himself at the end of Enlightenment thinking not outside of it. None of these movements can be plausibly described as simply attacking the Enlightenment.

Enlightenment thinking has continued in a variety of forms that Wootton’s narrow paradigm would exclude. At the same time powerful movements have arisen that promote a variety of counter-Enlightenment projects, of which he is dismissive:

The Enlightenment has resisted all efforts to kill it off. Over and over again garlic and crosses have been held out to defeat it; again and again a stake has been driven through first one and then another vital organ. Yet, vampire-like, it returns to life. When at the beginning of the 20th century Max Weber described the disenchantment of the world and said we are trapped within the iron cage of instrumental reasoning, it was Enlightenment values that he was describing… Weber was right – no matter how we try to escape, we remain within the cage.

Like Weber, Wootton exaggerates the rationality of modern life. It is true that regimes promoting counter-Enlightenment ideologies have so far been defeated. The Nazi regime, which rested on counter-Enlightenment ideas of blood and soil as well as invoking a racist biology inherited from some Enlightenment thinkers, was less efficient as a war economy than democratic Britain. Isis failed in its project of establishing a territorial state as a result of superior Western weaponry. But it is also true that Western governments have been profoundly influenced by modes of thinking that reject instrumental reason.

If our world was ruled purely by rationality of the kind promoted by Machiavelli or Hobbes, some of the errors and follies of recent times might well have been avoided. Could anyone deploying cost-benefit analysis have dreamt up the ruinous invasion of Iraq? Ten minutes of instrumental reasoning would have shown that the impact of regime change was at best unpredictable and would most likely be disastrously chaotic. More than by bungling realpolitik, the Iraq adventure and its yet more disastrous rerun in Libya were inspired by strands in Enlightenment thinking that Wootton neglects – notably the persisting influence of ideas derived from Western religion.

A major ingredient in the intellectual melange from which these “wars of choice” sprang was the ideology of democracy promotion – the belief that human beings everywhere dream of being delivered from tyranny. Originating in core Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant – whose political thinking was shaped by the universalistic evangelism of Christianity – this secular faith has been at least as influential in modern politics as utilitarian cost-benefit analysis.

The third of Wootton’s intellectual revolutionaries, Adam Smith, also relied on the formative ideas of monotheism. His argument for free trade deployed a Christian belief in a divine providence that placed peoples with different skills in different parts of the world so that they could trade with one another productively. Similarly, the Enlightenment of the American Founding Fathers depended on theistic assumptions about human rights being grounded in duties to God. When 21st-century liberals piously defer to Enlightenment values, it is this theistic inheritance they unwittingly invoke.

Earlier types of thinking did not altogether disappear with the rise of the Enlightenment, they mutated. Here the Enlightenment resembles modern science. Wootton uses the idea that the rise of science was a cognitive revolution as the model for the shift he claims has occurred in ethics and politics, and without doubt science has changed the world profoundly.

Our lives are daily transformed by technological spin-offs from the accelerating advance of scientific knowledge. But this has not meant the end of myth-making or magical thinking. Quite the contrary: science has itself become a vehicle for myth and magic. The belief that science can abolish immemorial evils is plainly magical thinking, and yet it continues to be widely accepted. How often have we been told that science can banish famines? No doubt new technologies can make physical shortage of food a thing of the past but science cannot prevent catastrophic famines of the kind that is now engulfing Yemen, for example. The causes of such famines are not in physical scarcity but human behaviour. If millions starve to death in that unfortunate country, it will be because of a reckless war. The growth of scientific knowledge does not make human beings more reasonable. It merely gives some of them more power to do what they want. Rather than irrational behaviour being eliminated, science has magnified the scale and consequences of human crime and folly.

There never was a revolution in the human mind of the sort Wootton believes occurred with the rise of science, and nor was there a paradigm shift of the kind he imagines happened with the Enlightenment. Weber’s iron cage – the irreversible triumph of instrumental reason – was a mirage. There was a good deal of conceptual change in early modern times, but it was far from being the all-encompassing shift that Wootton postulates. Nor is the current dominance of Wootton’s Enlightenment – which he greatly exaggerates – irreversible. It is a feature of Kuhn’s theory that paradigms are regularly overthrown. Might not the Enlightenment paradigm suffer this fate? Wootton considers the question only very briefly:

The future may be very different. One day robots may do all the hard work, energy may come from sources which make it effectively cost-free, and genetic modification may make disease and pain things of the past. In that world the Enlightenment paradigm, which originates in a recognition of scarcity, in the realisation that pleasure and happiness are in short supply, will come to seem irrelevant.

Here Wootton seems to allow that we might escape the iron cage after all. Advances in technology could give us the key. It is an unlikely prospect. Far more plausibly, scarcity will not be ended and new labour-saving technologies will become weapons in future power struggles. As in the past, science will be used as a tool in human conflict. If Wootton’s Enlightenment is discarded in another paradigm shift it will not be because of the advance of technology but instead the imperatives of politics. The liberal Enlightenment will be ditched when it no longer gives people enough of what they want. 

John Gray’s books include “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

Power, Pleasure and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison
David Wootton
Harvard University Press, 400pp, £24.95

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.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state