The reality of the Enlightenment


The reality of the Enlightenment

Anthony Gottlieb talks toleration, autonomy and Spinoza’s God.

Anthony Gottlieb

Topics Books Long-reads

In 2000, scholar, writer and then executive editor at The Economist Anthony Gottlieb received widespread acclaim for the first installment of his survey of Western philosophy, The Dream of Reason, which covered thought from the Greeks to the Renaissance. This year, its remarkable sequel, The Dream of Enlightenment, emerged. Focusing on that ‘150-year burst’ of intellectual energy that begins in Northern Europe after the Thirty Years War, and stretches up to the eve of the French Revolution, Gottlieb provides a profoundly illuminating portrait of an era in which the battles fought (and sometimes won) were to pave the way for the modern age.

The spiked review caught up with Gottlieb to discuss toleration, freedom and the many misconceptions that have, at points, turned Enlightenment thinkers into caricatures of themselves.

spiked review: The Dream… does a fantastic job of making perhaps over-familiar thinkers seem refreshingly foreign. Do you feel that we’ve been too inclined to treat many Enlightenment thinkers as our contemporaries, our fellow moderns?

Anthony Gottlieb: Yes, but in a way that’s really quite natural. They still speak to us, they still have things to say to us, so it’s very easy to make the mistake of thinking that we share exactly the same world. And so we impose our concerns, and our preconceptions, on to them.

One systematic example of this misapprehension concerns the relationship of church and state. Several of the thinkers in The Dream… are quite rightly seen as pioneers or antecedents of forms of secularism, of the idea that church and state should be kept separate. Nowadays, when we think of the separation of church and state, we tend to think of it in terms of the First Amendment, where Americans hold that there should be no state religion.

But for the pioneers of secularism, church and state are not so easily parsed. Take Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), for example. They’ve both been characterised as being in favour of the separation of church and state, of getting rid of a state religion. Yet, in fact, both believed that it was important to have a state religion. And that’s because they, like many of their intellectual brothers in arms, were concerned not with getting rid of state religion but with weakening the power of the priests, the power of institutional religion. They wanted to take away the church’s power and give it instead to the state.

That’s because, as they saw it, the best way of ensuring that religion didn’t lead to all sorts of trouble was both to police it, and to make sure that the state religion was peaceful, non-disruptive, and not run by these mad priests. So Hobbes and Spinoza ended up advocating state religion, rather than opposing it. So I think that’s an example of a contemporary misapprehension of Enlightenment thinkers’ thought.

On lots of smaller matters, one quite often finds these thinkers’ views represented in ways that reflect how we now look at an issue. One example of that is John Locke on innateness. Some modern psychologists for example, with Steven Pinker to the fore, set up a debate between innatists, and, as Pinker puts it using Locke’s own term, ‘blank slaters’, with Locke firmly on the side of the blank slaters. So, on the one hand, there are those like Locke, according to Pinker, who believe the mind is a blank slate, which receives all its ideas via the senses; and, on the other hand, there are those who think that the mind is constituted by all sorts of innate constraints, that we are born with preconceptions and dispositions. Yet Locke, in terms of Pinker’s distinction, is actually more of an innatist than a blank slater. He certainly thought that we have all sorts of innate preconceptions, dispositions and characteristics. What Locke was actually concerned with in his famous attack on innate ideas is the notion that there are certain truths implanted in our brains by God. Because if they are implanted there, then we don’t need to argue about whether or not they’re right or wrong. Locke countered that we must test these ideas for ourselves, and that, I believe, is the main thrust of his attack on innate ideas. But overall I don’t think he should be seen as a blank slater in the modern sense.

review: There has long been a tendency to think of the Enlightenment almost as anti-religious in impulse. Yet The Dream… reveals a far more complex relationship between Enlightenment thinkers and religion, from Descartes’ ‘proofs’ of God’s existence and Spinoza’s idiosyncratic idea of the identity of God and nature to Voltaire’s unequivocal profession of faith. How would you characterise the relationship between Enlightenment thought and religion? Indeed, how central is religion to Enlightenment thought?

Gottlieb: There are certain senses in which it is anti-religious, and certain senses in which it is not. One of the senses in which it is anti-religious, which I’ve already alluded to, is in its attempt to limit the power of the religious authorities – authorities that are not offices of the state, but priests who rose through their hierarchy for religious reasons. These priests were neither elected nor appointed by government; they simply rose through their church or synagogue. So anti-clericalism is a good way of encapsulating the main sense in which the Enlightenment was anti-religious. Its protagonists wanted to limit the power of the church to persecute people and to execute people, merely because they believed and said the wrong things.

However, most of the key Enlightenment philosophers – probably the only exception among the main figures is David Hume (1711-1776) – believed in God. So, in the modern sense, in our sense, they were religious. After all, we tend to think of someone as fairly religious if they believe in God, and those who attack religion today tend to attack the belief in God itself. Of course, none of these figures could openly attack the belief in God, but most of them, I think, really did believe in God. Although, in some cases, their Gods were so unusual that they hardly resembled God at all. Spinoza, as has been mentioned, identified God with nature, which was a very radical idea, and really doesn’t fit with the traditional idea of God at all. Because if God is in some sense the same thing as nature then God can’t have created nature. Another example is Hobbes who, because he was a thoroughgoing materialist, thought that God had to be a physical being, which runs counter to the traditional spiritual conception of God. So their gods were unusual, but I think all of them believed in God. Indeed, the key Enlightenment thinkers were not anti-religious, because they were not denying the existence of God.

review: What really comes through in The Dream… is the extent to which many Enlightenment thinkers were immersed in the natural sciences, in ‘mechanical philosophy’, practically and theoretically. Indeed, as The Dream… reveals, Descartes thought of himself principally as a mathematician and scientist, and Spinoza was famed for his microscopic technology. What’s striking, however, is that they were not only able to reconcile their religious faith with the natural sciences; they actually used natural sciences, the method of mechanical philosophy, to prove the existence of God…

Gottlieb: Yes, it was certainly common throughout the period to think that the more science shows you about nature, the more it showed the evidence of God. Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was very specific about this. He endorsed what we now call the argument of design, that is, the idea that there is evidence of design in nature. Newton thought that the further you looked into the workings of the natural world, the more you saw the evidence of God. And most Enlightenment thinkers, except for Hume and some after him, accepted that idea.

review: Tolerance of dissent features in The Dream… as one of the chief legacies of the Enlightenment. It’s a red thread that runs through many of the thinkers you focus on, from Locke to Voltaire. But it’s the French thinker Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) to whom you accord particular importance – why?

Gottlieb: Locke and Voltaire famously advocated religious toleration, meaning, of course, that one should be free to practise whatever religion one wants, albeit with a few provisos; namely, that certain religions were thought to be politically dangerous. So in Protestant countries, it was held that Catholicism was politically problematic, because, if you are a Catholic, you are supposed to recognise the authority of the pope over that of your national sovereign. So Catholicism presented a bit of a problem for some Protestant thinkers, with Locke a prime example.

Another difficulty with Catholicism, for some Enlightenment thinkers, was that Catholics did seem to be quite keen on persecuting other religions. How then can one tolerate every religion if one includes a religion that does not want to tolerate others?

Bayle is particularly interesting on toleration. Unlike the other most famous writers on this subject, he actually suffered personally from religious intolerance. He was a member of the Protestant minority in France, and his brother actually died in prison as a result of Catholic persecution. So his defence of toleration was more personal and passionate, and, I think, better argued than that of some of the better known advocates of toleration. His concept of toleration was broader, too. Most Enlightenment thinkers, especially Locke, were primarily concerned with the toleration of the different versions – the different sects – of Christianity. Locke was not keen on Eastern religions. Bayle’s defence of toleration was far more broad – he was even sympathetic towards the idea of tolerating atheists. And at this time, the one thing that could not be countenanced was the toleration of atheism. It was felt by many that atheism would lead to moral collapse. There was a very strong belief in those days, as there still is in many places now, that if you do not believe in God, you’re going to be a bad person, and that’s why we mustn’t tolerate it. Bayle was one of the very first people to start undermining that idea.

review: The Dream… beautifully explodes many of the myths around certain thinkers. Given what you write of Locke’s thought, especially its traces of ‘conservative authoritarianism’, should he cease to be thought of as the ‘Father of liberalism’?

Gottlieb: Liberalism is, and always has been, a very vague term. It means different things in different countries. Famously, to be a liberal in Britain is not the same as being a liberal in America. So it’s a very turbid concept. My principal intention with Locke was to show that he diverges quite dramatically from modern forms of liberalism, because he did live in a very different society from ours.

Now, in terms of free expression, Locke can seem liberal. No matter how liberalism is conceived, free expression is always a key liberal value, and I’m certainly not denying that Locke defended it. More importantly, Locke was a key defender of the idea that people have the right to rebel against the sovereign or government, if the sovereign or government is abusing them, is doing something wrong. And I think that’s also a plausible component of liberalism. So if you want to identify him as one of the early defenders of the right to rebel, then that is absolutely correct.

But if you look at some of his other work – basically, his non-philosophical work – then you see something that is deeply illiberal, not just in modern terms, but in the terms of his own day. In the Carolina Constitution of 1669, for example, with which his employer Lord Shaftesbury was involved, Locke essentially advocates hereditary serfdom.

review: Moving on from Locke, over the past couple of decades, a different, more political Spinoza has emerged. Given what you call his ‘gospel of toleration and freedom of expression’, is there a case for Spinoza being the most politically radical and far-sighted of all the Enlightenment’s main protagonists?

Gottlieb: I think in some ways he was more radical and far-sighted, but not especially in political respects. One of his last works was a political treatise, which is sadly unfinished – it stops in the middle of his discussion of democracy, and it would have been wonderful to know how his political ideas developed. But one way in which he clearly was very radical and modern-minded was in his approach to religion, first of all, because, as I’ve said, he identifies God with nature, which brings him very close to today’s unbelievers. Einstein famously said that his God was the God of Spinoza. When he said that, of course, he was speaking to a Rabbi and was trying to be polite, so he was hardly going to profess atheism. But when Einstein said he believed in Spinoza’s God, he was basically saying that he believed in nature. It is really quite incredible how original and powerful is Spinoza’s idea of God’s identity with nature.

And there are several other areas in which Spinoza’s approach was very modern-minded and radical. One, for instance, is his approach to the Bible, which he said we must see as a human document written by fallible humans, and which therefore does not contain the answer to everything. Instead, we must learn to interpret the circumstances and the intentions of the people who wrote it – and he did think it was written by people, rather than divinely inspired. That was of course a very radical idea, and one that was rapidly accepted by intellectuals around the world.

review: Do you also think that his thought seems particularly radical in relation to autonomy? As you write, quoting Spinoza, ‘that thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its own nature alone, and is determined to act by itself alone’. Now Spinoza confines this idea of freedom to God, but he also suggests that humans can, as you write, ‘enjoy a small taste of the autonomy enjoyed by God’ in the domain of reason, in our ability freely to know why things are as they are…

Gottlieb: Yes, this is important. I think what Spinoza has to say about autonomy should also be linked to his defence of freedom of expression, and the freedom to philosophise.

But one has to remember that Spinoza’s views were what we’d now call very elitist. He did think that the common people, in the interests of political stability, must not be disturbed in their traditional religion. The people who were free to wonder intellectually were the intellectuals of those days, the people who could read Latin, who were highly educated – only they must have total freedom. Spinoza was far from alone in this regard. Almost all of the main figures of the Enlightenment were elitists in this sense, which is understandable given their societies were very different to ours.

review: Immanuel Kant, and the German Enlightenment in general, is an absent presence in The Dream…. What was your thinking behind limiting your survey largely to the Anglo-French Enlightenment?

Gottlieb:The reason why Kant is not in this book is very simple. If you are going to divide up philosophy into three segments, as I am doing, it’s pretty much a no-brainer that the second segment has to start with Descartes, and the third segment needs to start with Kant. He was such a revolutionary figure, such an original thinker, that if one is somewhere to divide up modern philosophy from Descartes to the present day, it has to be with Kant. So that’s one main reason he’s not in The Dream…, because he has to be at the start of my next book!

Moreover, these days there are all sorts of Enlightenment – the Jewish Enlightenment, the Latin-American Enlightenment and other regional Enlightenments – discussed by scholars. But the original idea of the Enlightenment, the first group of people who used this metaphor of light, as the secretary of the Académie des Sciences in Paris, Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757), did when he explicitly identified ‘lumière’ with ‘un esprit philosophique presque tout nouveau‘, were the French thinkers I write about. There’s a big danger in using the word Enlightenment too vaguely and too nebulously to cover many different progressive movements from across the world. It becomes less and less clear what you’re talking about. But if you limit the idea of the Enlightenment to the French Enlightenment, you know to a considerable extent what you’re talking about.

Admittedly, some people have been puzzled by the absence of Kant in a book on the Enlightenment, because they instantly associate the Enlightenment with Kant’s famous 1784 essay, What is Enlightenment?. Now, the fact that that essay is so famous is because it is by Kant, not because it says anything radical or new about the Enlightenment. He provided a very good summary of what the Enlightenment was, but his essay in itself is not important. It’s because Kant wrote it that people read it. So, in one sense, Kant is not an important Enlightenment philosopher; he didn’t contribute new ideas to an intellectual movement one would call the Enlightenment.

review: Because the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) contains a reckoning with Enlightenment thought, and tries to solve the problems raised by Enlightenment thought, from the empiricism of Hume to the idealism of Leibniz, is it not an attempt to build on the legacy of the Enlightenment?

Gottlieb: Yes, but it was an attempt to create with Enlightenment thinkers a new era, which is exactly why he belongs to a different book. Because it’s with Kant that a whole new philosophical epoch begins.

Anthony Gottlieb is a British writer and former executive editor at The Economist.

The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy is published by Liveright. (Buy this book from Amazon UK.).

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books Long-reads


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today