Rescuing the Enlightenment from its exploiters

Many of today’s self-styled ‘Enlightened thinkers’ actually have little regard for the freedom of conscience and principle of autonomy that underpinned Enlightenment thought. Tzvetan Todorov gives them their comeuppance.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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While the Enlightenment, ‘one of the most important shifts in the history of man’ as one recent account put it, has certainly had its detractors, who blame it for anything from the Holocaust to soulless consumerism, it now also has a veritable army of self-styled heirs. Militant secularists, New Atheists, advocates of evidence-based policy, human rights champions… each constituency in their turn will draw justification from the intellectual emanations of that period beginning roughly towards the end of the seventeenth century and culminating – some say ending – in the 1789 French Revolution and its aftermath. And each in their turn will betray it.

It is not deliberate treachery. This is no reactionary dissimulation – it is more impulsive than that. Still, in the hands of the neo-Enlightened, from the zealously anti-religious to the zealously pro-science, something strange has happened. Principles that were central – albeit contested – to the Enlightenment have been reversed, turned in on themselves. Secularism, as we have seen recently in the French government’s decision to ban the burqa, has been transformed from state toleration of religious beliefs into their selective persecution; scientific knowledge, having been emancipated from theology, has now become the politician’s article of faith; even freedom itself, that integral Enlightenment impulse, has been reconceived as the enemy of the people. As the Enlightened critics of Enlightenment naivete would have it, in the symbolic shapes of our ever distending guts and CO2-belching cars, we may be a little too free.

Published in France in 2006, but only recently translated into English, philosopher Tzvetan Todorov’s In Defence of Enlightenment is, in short, a corrective. And insofar as it offers a polite but stern rebuke to those who distort the Enlightenment project, often in its own specious name, it is a welcome corrective at that.

So, when taking militant secularism to task, despite its claims to lie within the Enlightenment tradition, Todorov points out that the attacks launched against religion by thinkers like John Locke or Voltaire were not targeted at its content – they were targeted at its form as part of the state. For such fundamentally liberal thinkers, temporal and spiritual authority made for an unholy alliance. That the enemies of the secular ideal, the would-be enslavers of the individual’s conscience, were indeed religious does not invalidate this assertion. The problem was not faith itself, but the assumption of state power by a particular faith in order to persecute those with different beliefs. What may have taken a Catholic form in seventeenth-century Spain too often possesses a secular guise today.

Or take the current fetishisation of The Science, or as Todorov calls it, ‘scientism’, ‘a distortion of the Enlightenment, its enemy not its avatar’. We experience this most often, although far from exclusively, through environmentalist discourse. Here, science supplants politics. Competing visions of the good are ruled out in favour of that which the science demands, be it reduced energy consumption or a massive wind-power project. This, as Todorov sees it, involves a conflation of two types of reasoning, the moral (or the promotion of the good) and the scientific (or the discovery of truth). In effect, the values by which one ought to live arise, as if by magic, from the existence of facts. In the hands of politicians this becomes authoritarian: ‘Values seem to proceed from knowledge and political choices are passed off as scientific deduction.’ There need be no debate, no reasoned argument, because the science tells us what to do.

Enlightenment thought, Todorov maintains, stands in contradistinction to such oppressive, enervating tendencies. And it is here that this little book is at its most strident. For Todorov, the key thing about the Enlightenment project is the principle of autonomy – that is, ‘giving priority to what individuals decide for themselves over what is imposed upon them by an external authority’. In each corruption, in every distortion of Enlightenment thinking drawn out by Todorov, it is this core principle – the autonomy of the individual, from our freedom of conscience to our freedom to decide how to live – which often lies ravaged, effaced by an external authority that knows what’s best for us. This underpins Todorov’s criticism of scientism, dogmatic secularism, and even human rights, where too often one or more sovereign territories decide what is best for another under the guise of ‘protecting people’s human rights’.

Like much else of the Enlightenment today, the notion of autonomy is accorded a nominal respect. But beneath the praising epithets, there lurks not a defence of freedom, but a suspicion. A case in point comes in the form of a recent essay, A 21st Century Enlightenment written by Matthew Taylor, the current head of that most austere of English Enlightenment institutions, the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA). The musty, old eighteenth-century Enlightenment was wonderful, he proclaims. Democracy, science… all good, tip-top stuff. Lip service duly paid, he suggests some moderations, some adjustments – after all, we know so much more now, especially about a rather shabby-looking human nature. ‘I suggest we need to aim for a self-aware form of autonomy, informed by a deeper appreciation of the foundations, possibilities and frailties of human nature’, he declares. That is, ‘by understanding that our conscious thought is only part of what drives our behaviour… we can become better able to exercise self-control’. The latest research, neurological, psychological and plain old sociological, is his guide here. On its basis, ‘the moral and political critique of an individualist, rational-choice model of autonomy now has an evidence base’. And armed with this evidence base, expert-guided politicians are now all too free to make decisions for us.

Taylor’s surreptious argument, smuggled in under Enlightenment garb, is not unique. But it is indicative. We are simply not rational enough, runs the common refrain. Driven by psychological quirks, and a relentlessly unreliable set of barely conscious interests, neither can we trust ourselves, nor can we be trusted. In the words of the bestselling Nudge, Homo Economicus, that centrepoint of the great Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith’s world, is really that irrational, unreliable actor Homo Sapiens. Through contemporary eyes, our autonomy is not what it was.

What’s curious about this denigration of the ideal of autonomy is that it is far from new. While the criticism might be dressed in the new-fangled lexicon of behavioural psychology, it’s as old the reactionary sentiment itself. We are still being deemed too in thrall to an irrational set of impulses. Moreover it is a criticism with which Todorov’s heroes were not only familiar but fully prepared to reckon. In Discourse on Inequality (1754), Rousseau writes: ‘Nature commands every animal, and beasts obey. Man feels the same impetus, but he knows he is free to go along or to resist; and it is above all in the awareness of this freedom that the spirituality of his soul is made manifest.’ Freedom here is not conceived naively; rather freedom is defined in terms of our inclinations, our appetites, our impulses. It’s just that where Taylor, for instance, identifies their existence as a refutation of autonomy, Rousseau sees them as the condition for freedom’s sheer possibility – the sheer possibility that one can act according to laws other than those of nature, human or otherwise.

It was this distinction between inclination and autonomy, between necessity and freedom, that Kant seized upon to develop his formulation of moral reason. This meant the ability of every rational being to act, to exercise their will, according to our own, rationally generated idea of the law, of what it is right to do. In the domain of ethics – not physics – we, as rational beings, are potentially a law unto ourselves. ‘Will is the kind of causality belonging to living beings so far as they are rational’, wrote Kant in his 1785 volume Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals: ‘Freedom would then be the property this causality has of being able to work independently of determination by alien causes.’ To act according to one’s own reason, and to act morally, to be one’s own cause in the world, is to be self-determining. It is to be free.

Kant, like Rousseau, like Voltaire, in fact like any other person who has thought seriously about freedom, was not naive. He did not believe that we always act rationally, that we always, as rational beings, do good, let alone adhere to the categorical imperative: ‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’ This was why the moral imperative takes the form of an ‘ought’ and not a will. There was – and is – no inevitability about people’s actions and decisions. There was – and is – no way of guaranteeing people’s judgement is correct. But – and this is what separates Enlightenment thinkers from their current epigones – they knew that the only people who can decide how they ought to live their lives are those people themselves. ‘Nothing is required for this enlightenment’, wrote Kant in 1784, ‘except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters’.

Todorov’s book is a timely reminder, a pertinent assertion of principles. To each distortion, to each grisly reversal of Enlightenment thinking, he offers an elegant rejoinder. But the very simplicity of the tactic can leave the reader unmoved. It just looks too easy. The problem is this: the Enlightenment appears here as a purely intellectual phenomenon. Likewise, its betrayal presents itself as a mere intellectual error, an aberration in the history of ideas. But just as the Enlightenment cannot be separated from the social struggles underpinning its triumph at the end of the eighteenth century, so its degeneration – the ‘destruction of reason’ as one thinker was to call it – cannot be separated from the history of bourgeois reaction that succeeded it. Any redemption of the hopes of the Enlightenment, any revival of the core principles of Enlightenment, from autonomy to secularism, can never be a purely intellectual exercise.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

In Defence of the Enlightenment, by Tzvetan Todorov, is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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