Yoram Hazony: Dark side of the Enlightenment.

Yoram Hazony in Wall Street Journal.

A lot of people are selling Enlightenment these days. After the Brexit vote and the election of President Trump, David Brooks published a paean to the “Enlightenment project,” declaring it under attack and calling on readers to “rise up” and save it. Commentary magazine sent me a letter asking for a donation to provide readers “with the enlightenment we all so desperately crave.” And now there’s Steven Pinker’s impressive new book, “Enlightenment Now,” which may be the definitive statement of the neo-Enlightenment movement that is fighting the tide of nationalist thinking in America, Britain and beyond.

Do we all crave enlightenment? I don’t. I like and respect Mr. Pinker, Mr. Brooks and others in their camp. But Enlightenment philosophy didn’t achieve a fraction of the good they claim, and it has done much harm.

Boosters of the Enlightenment make an attractive case. Science, medicine, free political institutions, the market economy—these things have dramatically improved our lives. They are all, Mr. Pinker writes, the result of “a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century,” when philosophers “replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking.” Mr. Brooks concurs, assuring his readers that “the Enlightenment project gave us the modern world.” So give thanks for “thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority” and instead “think things through from the ground up.”

As Mr. Pinker sums it up: “Progress is a gift of the ideals of the Enlightenment, and will continue to the extent that we rededicate ourselves to those ideals.”

Very little of this is true. Consider the claim that the U.S. Constitution was a product of Enlightenment thought, derived by throwing out the political traditions of the past and applying unfettered human reason. Disproving this idea requires only reading earlier writers on the English constitution. The widely circulated 15th-century treatise “In Praise of the Laws of England,” written by the jurist John Fortescue, clearly explains due process and the theory now called “checks and balances.” The English constitution, Fortescue wrote, establishes personal liberty and economic prosperity by shielding the individual and his property from the government. The protections that appear in the U.S. Bill of Rights were mostly set down in the 1600s by those drafting England’s constitutional documents—men such as John Selden, Edward Hyde and Matthew Hale. …

Read the whole thing. (Non-paywall article here.)

Free Republic post here.

American Creation responds to Hazony.

While I can’t speak to the Royal Society or Boyle, I think it’s wrong to categorize Newton as a “politically and religiously conservative figure[].” He was actually some kind of heterodox unitarian Christian of the Arian variety and like his friend John Locke had to be careful with the way in which he publicly articulated his views. Indeed, Newton, even more so than Locke leaves us with a record of private heterodox sentiments that could have gotten him in serious trouble with the then “politically and religiously conservative” figures in Great Britain who could enforce their orthodoxy with teeth provided by the state.

But John Locke gets categorized by Hazony as one of the “dark” Enlighteners. For instance:

One such myth was Locke’s claim that the state was founded on a contract among free and equal individuals—a theory the Enlightenment’s critics understood to be both historically false and dangerous. While the theory did relatively little harm in tradition-bound Britain, it led to catastrophe in Europe. Imported into France by Rousseau, it quickly pulled down the monarchy and the state, producing a series of failed constitutions, the Reign of Terror and finally the Napoleonic Wars—all in the name of infallible and universal reason. Millions died as Napoleon’s armies sought to destroy and rebuild every government in Europe in accordance with the one correct political theory allowed by Enlightenment philosophy. …

The vast majority of scholars who have studied the religious and political positions of both Locke and Newton would agree it makes no sense to categorize them so differently. Either both were “Enlightenment” during the same time and place in Great Britain or neither were. Both were self proclaimed “Christians”; both privately and secretly held heterodox positions; both cautiously articulated novel ideas in politics, science and theology attempting to give a veneer of respectability to the ideas they publicly posited; both were suspected of secret heterodoxy by the orthodox forces of “religious correctness” then in power.

America was very influenced by more moderate strains of Enlightenment, those Scottish “common sense” figures that Hazony doesn’t want to categorize as Enlightenment. But America was also influenced by what Hazony categorizes as bad or “dark” Enlightenment. …

Meaning and identity.

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.

– Viktor E. Frankl, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’

One universal quality of identity is that it gives life a meaning beyond life itself. It offers a connection to the world beyond the self. … Whatever its form, identity offers a sense of life beyond the physical and material, beyond mere personal existence. It is this sense of a common world that stretches before and beyond the self, of belonging to something greater than the self, that gives strength not only to the community but to the individual as well.

– Natan Sharansky, ‘Defending Identity’

The Radical

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading ‘My Year Inside Radical Islam‘ by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. Daveed’s book interested me because his journey in some ways paralleled, and in some ways mirrored, my own. And I believe there are also important lessons to be learned about identity, will, and the spread of radical Islam today.

Daveed was born in 1976, into a liberal, secular Jewish family in Ashland, Oregon. They lived at what he describes as “the hippie end of a hippie town” and embraced a spiritual, multicultural ethos. In his activist college days, he became friends with al-Husein Madhany, who would provide Daveed’s introduction to Islam. Before long, Daveed embraced the Muslim faith and converted.

Al-Husein’s mystical, universalistic, Sufi-oriented brand of Islam appealed to Daveed. But as he became more deeply involved in Islam through the Al-Haramain Foundation, he quickly became exposed to a very different side of the faith – one bitterly opposed to the message of people like Al-Husein.

I recommend reading the book to find out how Daveed found his way out of radical Islam, and came to embrace another faith.

I found DGR’s book fascinating on a number of levels, some of them personal. Like Daveed, I’m a convert, but not to Islam or Christianity. Born in suburban New England about half a generation earlier than Daveed, I grew up in a home that, apart from my family’s lack of Jewish roots, sounds similar to Daveed’s in a lot of ways. My parents were nominally Unitarian Universalists, who had broken away from their conservative Christian upbringings and met in a Unitarian church. As a young adult I became interested in Judaism, learning Hebrew and attending Jewish services (first Reform and Conservative, later Orthodox) from my late teens to early twenties. At 25 I had an Orthodox Jewish conversion.

But I want to get back to DGR’s book. Reading ‘My Year Inside Radical Islam’, I was struck by the way the fanatical Salafi stream of Islam drove out the milder Sufi and Nashqibandi strains – and I was reminded of my friend Michael Totten’s book ‘Where the West Ends‘. Totten traveled throughout eastern Europe and western Asia, along the fault-lines of cultures. He witnessed many things, including the inexorable advance of radical Islam against the moderate forms of the religion. In my review of the book I wrote that

There is the image of the lonely liberal, surrounded by a sea of increasingly hostile and violent factions. There is the conflict between old traditionalism and new fundamentalism. …

The Serbian film writer Filip David is one of those lonely liberals; so is the half-Serbian, half-Bosnian Predag Delibasic, who takes pride in having declared himself variously a Jew, a Muslim, and a Yugoslav – and claims that nonexistent nationality to this day. Perhaps the loneliest, though, is Shpetim Mahmudi, an Albanian Sufi mystic who must watch the gradual encroachment of foreign-backed Arab islamists on the grounds of his religious compound. His story is tragic.

It also points to something important about religious conflict in the Muslim world: that the conflict is often not – as Westerners sometimes imagine – a case of Western modernity threatening to extinguish Islamic tradition. Rather, it is instead a direct attack on centuries-old, evolving religious traditions by well-armed, well-financed followers of a comparatively recent fundamentalist sect. It is ancient moderation versus newfangled fanaticism.

And I think that that’s the same thing Daveed Gartenstein-Ross witnessed in his time in the world of Islam.

My own relationship to religion is complicated and better suited to another post. But I do want to bring up Natan Sharansky’s central insight from his book ‘Defending Identity‘:

The enemy’s will is strong because his identity is strong. And we must match his strength of purpose with strong identities of our own.

The widely-accepted fallacy is that “conflicts arise because of religious dogma, so if we get rid of religious dogma we’ll reduce conflicts”. But the danger in having no fixed set of doctrines is that you can easily get drawn into all kinds of crazy stuff. And that’s as true today as it was when Daveed was in college.

Devotion to a good doctrine can give you the strength and the faith to reject bad ones. What you believe matters.