Yoram Hazony writes an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal that takes on recent paeans to the Enlightenment by David Brooks and Steven Pinker. A taste:
... 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.That's Dr. Hazony's thesis. He is a very learned man who makes many apt points. But there is also a great deal of contention in what he asserts and how he categorizes and understands things. I would argue he is, if anything, just as mistaken as what he tries to refute.
The way Hazony operates is that the good things for which the Enlightenment tries to take credit for is not "Enlightenment," but something else. The bad things ... well that's "Enlightenment," indeed "dark Enlightenment." The problem is much of what he tries to say isn't Enlightenment actually is Enlightenment, just a different kind of Enlightenment. And much of what he sees as "dark Enlightenment" is actually responsible for "good" things that we'd like to claim.
For instance, Hazony writes:
... When I was a graduate student at Rutgers in the 1980s, the introductory course in modern political theory had a section called “Critics of the Enlightenment.” These figures included more conservative thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. They emphasized the unreliability of “abstract reasoning,” which they believed could end up justifying virtually any idea, no matter how disconnected from reality, as long as it sounded self-evidently true to someone.But Hume, Smith, certainly and even Burke, arguably were part of the "Enlightenment," just a different wing of it. Google "Scottish Enlightenment" and you will see what I mean.
Hazony's treatment of Isaac Newton is equally problematic:
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, founded in 1660, was led by such men as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, decisive figures in physics and chemistry. Again, these were politically and religiously conservative figures. They knew the arguments, later associated with the Enlightenment, for overthrowing political, moral and religious tradition, but mostly they rejected them.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.
Just look at what Hazony above wrote about Locke and his "myth was Locke’s claim that the state was founded on a contract among free and equal individuals." Yet this is central to the thought of America's revolution and its Declaration of Independence.
Notice, I didn't say this is central to the thought of America's Constitution. One could argue, after the East Coast Straussians, that whereas the Declaration is very Lockean, the US Constitution is not.
Below is what Hazony wants to credit with creating the 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.
These statesmen and philosophers articulated the principles of modern Anglo-American constitutionalism centuries before the U.S. was created. Yet they were not Enlightenment men. They were religious, English nationalists and political conservatives. They were familiar with the claim that unfettered reason should remake society, but they rejected it in favor of developing a traditional constitution that had proved itself. When Washington, Jay, Hamilton and Madison initiated a national government for the U.S., they primarily turned to this conservative tradition, adapting it to local conditions.As noted above, we could argue that US Constitution was not "Lockean," therefore, didn't represent Locke's Enlightenment. I would also concede that 17th Century English constitutionalism was a notable source for the US Constitution ("the Laws of England" or "Common Law" was one of Bernard Bailyn's five principle ideological sources for the American Founding).
But what's interesting is that since Washington, Jay, Hamilton and Madison are named -- three of whom authored the Federalist Papers explicitly telling us what they thought of the US Constitution -- we might look to their writings and see who they sourced. And I don't think it matches what Hazony attempts to argue.
Indeed Donald Lutz et al. authored a notable study, very often used by Christian Nationalists to show abundant biblical citations in the founding record. But what is often overlooked is that the biblical citations abounded during the revolutionary period, not during the framing of the US Constitution.
This was Lutz's conclusion on the framing of the US Constitution:
The Bible's prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible has little to say. The Anti-Federalists do drag it in with respect to basic principles of government, but the Federalist's inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.So Lutz et al. credit "Enlightenment rationalism" for the Constitution. Also interesting is that when "biblical" citations were abounding during America's revolutionary period they tended to be in sermons, many of which also cited Locke and his "dark Enlightenment" ideas in the form of a synthesized political theology.
This presents a problem for Dr. Hazony when he attempts to connect the "Enlightenment" of the French Revolution to Marx.
... Mr. Pinker’s 450-page book doesn’t mention the French Revolution. Mr. Pinker cites Napoleon as an “exponent of martial glory” but says nothing about his launching a universal war in the name of reason. These writers also tend to pass over Karl Marx’s debt to the Enlightenment. Marx saw himself as promoting universal reason, extending the work of the French Revolution by insisting that the workers of the world stop (again in Mr. Brooks’s words) “deferring blindly to authority.” The “science” Marx developed “from the ground up” killed tens of millions in the 20th century.But we've seen Hazony connect Locke to the French Revolution and I noted Locke's centrality to the American Revolution. Look. These are all distinct events. We can connect and distinguish among all of them. If if we can connect, which I think you can, the French Revolution to Marxists revolutions, and likewise connect the American Revolution (through Locke) to the French Revolution, it follows we can connect the American Revolution to Marxists revolutions.
And indeed, many Americans at the time (according to John Adams 1/3 of the population) supported the French Revolution. When political parties emerged much to the consternation of Washington, the Democratic-Republicans as a group, led by Jefferson and Madison supported the French Revolution with Madison in 1792 connecting the two as follows:
In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example and France has followed it, of charters of power granted by liberty. This revolution in the practice of the world, may, with an honest praise, be pronounced the most triumphant epoch of its history, and the most consoling presage of its happiness. We look back, already, with astonishment, at the daring outrages committed by despotism, on the reason and the rights of man; We look forward with joy, to the period, when it shall be despoiled of all its usurpations, and bound for ever in the chains, with which it had loaded its miserable victims.This sounds to me like Madison is crediting "Enlightenment" for the American Revolution and its connected successor in France.