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.)
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. …