Rescuing the Enlightenment From Its Exploiters

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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, u2018giving
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 u2018protecting people's human rights'.

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the rest of the article

August
6, 2010

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