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3 August 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:08am

Which “Enlightenment” values?

Thierry Chervel takes issue with John Gray's pessimistic worldview

By Jonathan Derbyshire

Thierry Chervel, editor of the German website Perlentaucher (and its English-language sibling, Sign and Sight), has fastened on to something John Gray says towards the end of his recent NS review of Timothy Garton Ash’s latest book, Facts Are Subversive.

Gray notes that Garton Ash abandons the term “Enlightenment fundamentalism”, which he had previously used, to controversial effect, in a 2006 essay for the New York Review of Books entitled “Islam in Europe” (there, Garton Ash described the Dutch Muslim apostate and women’s rights campaigner, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as an “Enlightenment fundamentalist”, setting off a pan-continental debate in the process):

If Garton Ash is reluctant to talk of Enlightenment fundamentalism, this may be in part because it suggests that we are at risk of drifting into an intractable conflict. Yet clearly the danger of clashing fundamentalisms is real.

According to Chervel, Gray’s “pessimistic worldview” (which I anatomised in an NS profile here) requires the presence of contending world-historical forces locked in eternal and intractable conflict. “Calling the Enlightenment fundamentalist,” Chervel writes, “is the dream of an apocalypticist who is waiting for the clash of cultures to happen.”

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Leaving aside the question whether Chervel has characterised Gray’s views correctly here, it is certainly the case that “the Enlightenment”, for Gray, is a kind of secular salvation myth, a vision of human perfectibility that inspired Lenin as much as Locke, Mao as much as Mill. And, for that reason, you could be forgiven for thinking that, in Gray’s hands, “Enlightenment” is a historical term of art so capacious and flexible that it explains almost nothing (this is certainly what Will Hutton suggested to me when I spoke to him for the profile: “[The] dark, troubling aspect of John’s thinking is that he tracks all mistakes back to the Enlightenment: Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Marx, Alan Greenspan, New Labour are all tributes to Enlightenment theology. It doesn’t wash. … [P]rogressives should be wary of a thinker who is so sceptical about the Enlightenment.”)

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But as Gray himself is well aware, and as Garton Ash in fact points out in another piece in the new book, there wasn’t one Enlightenment, but several:

To say “Enlightenment values” is not enough. Which Enlightenment? The Enlightenment of John Locke, which claimed freedom for religion, or that of Voltaire, which aspired rather to freedom from religion?

And nor does a commitment to, say, a secular public sphere (if that isn’t an Enlightenment value, I don’t know what is) require a blanket vilification of religion and all its works, or, pace Gray, an unempirical belief in the inevitable decline of religious faith. As Garton Ash recognises,

we … need to be clearer about the difference between secularism and atheism. Secularism … should be an argument about arrangements for a shared public and social life; atheism is an argument about scientific truthm individual liberation and the nature of the good life. … The public policy argument about freedom from or in religion should operate on different levels.