June 22, 2003

Sweep of reason

Critics say the Islamic world needs its own Enlightenment. But just how enlightened was our own?


NO SOONER HAD structural engineers set to work analyzing the wreckage of Sept. 11 than critics began to sort through the materials of culture, testing for signs of stress and strain. They examined our civilization's towering achievements-reason and tolerance, skepticism and science, progress and freedom of inquiry. And they weighed the forces that aimed to bring them down-fanaticism and prejudice, intolerance and superstition, the cult of violence and the will to power. How, many wondered, could other cultures be encouraged to build with the one in order to brace for the other?

One word kept coming up: ''Enlightenment.'' ''Wanted, an Islamic Enlightenment to End Religious Intolerance,'' declared the headline of a Thomas Friedman column in the International Herald Tribune on Dec. 16, 2001. In the same week, the editors at the conservative National Review expressed regret that Islam had failed to undergo the ''chastening experience'' of an Enlightenment (to say nothing of a Reformation or Counter-Reformation). Tariq Ali, a Pakistan-born journalist and editor at the New Left Review, was ready to agree, penning ''A Letter to a Young Muslim'' in which he urged the Islamic world to embrace the ''values of the Enlightenment'' as a means to combat ''ideological delusions'' and ''institutional oppression.''

As we attempt to rebuild Iraq, Afghanistan, and other non-Western areas of the world, invocations of this kind remain common. But they beg several questions: What is Enlightenment, or rather, what was Enlightenment? and why has it had so many foes? As pressing today as in the 18th century-when a movement of that name gave rise to the dream that the modern world would someday dispel darkness and fanaticism-the questions suggest that of the many hard encounters forced by the fallout of 9/11, not the least may be with history itself.

The publication several months ago of the ''Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment'' (Oxford), edited in four volumes by the University of Pennsylvania historian Alan Charles Kors, is in this respect extremely well timed. Contemplated for years, and comprising the contributions of many of the world's leading Enlightenment scholars, the work was not intended as a response to current events. Yet as Kors says of the Enlightenment, ''We are all its heirs.'' Everything that we associate with it, ''positively, negatively, or simply analytically, remains of profound importance in the history of our path to the present and of our present itself.''

As the reader will learn by consulting the entry of that name, ''encyclopedias'' were themselves an Enlightenment invention: They sought, in the words of the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot, ''to collect all knowledge scattered over the face of the earth.'' The encyclopedias bespoke confidence in the human ability to understand the world through investigation and analysis, as opposed to through revelation, magic, or the ex-cathedra pronouncements of religious men. They proclaimed faith in the fundamental importance of unhindered exchange, free inquiry, and free trade. And they evinced belief in the possibility of social progress through knowledge, the conviction that better understanding could make the world a better place-happier, freer, more humane.

These pronouncements may sound inflated to modern ears, inured as we are to the extravagant claims of the typical book jacket. Yet such aspirations to freedom were not idle cant. Diderot's bold assertion that ''all things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone's feelings'' landed him in jail. And his own great encyclopedia's attempt to displace scripture as the source of all learning earned his modern book of books a place on the Church's black list.

Religious conservatives have tended ever since to view the Enlightenment and its books with suspicion. They are hardly alone. When the upheavals of the French Revolution revealed the perils of unraveling established authority, many wondered if the Enlightenment injunction to ''Dare to know''-to think for oneself-was really such a good thing.

To 19th-century socialists or 20th-century Marxists, on the other hand, the Enlightenment seemed a rather tepid affair. Its vaunted liberal freedoms and individual rights, they argued, were really the false freedoms of the few, merely used to promote the rising bourgeoisie's ascent to power. By contrast, in the aftermath of World War II, critics of a variety of political persuasions came to see the influence of the Enlightenment as all too vast.

In an infamous case for the prosecution, the left-leaning German philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argued that the Enlightenment was responsible for the Holocaust. Incapable of defining absolute moral ends, the Enlightenment's ''instrumental reason'' could define only means. A tool of power, it encouraged human beings to see their fellows as objects to be exploited like the natural resources of the earth. ''Enlightenment behaves towards things,'' Horkheimer and Adorno affirmed, ''as a dictator toward men.'' In a grim pun, they added, ''The fully enlightened earth radiates the triumph of destruction.''

Looking on from a quite different perspective, leading defenders of the West during the Cold War, such as the Oxford political theorist Isaiah Berlin, leveled similar charges regarding the allegedly totalitarian tendencies lurking in the Enlightenment. In their view, however, the end product was not the Holocaust but the Gulag. The Enlightenment's will to intellectual mastery, they charged, and its attempt to link all values-moral, political, and aesthetic-to a uniform rational system was akin to the perverted force that drove communist tyranny, stamping out genuine pluralism and difference in the name of reason.

More recently, a number of postmodern scholars have given their own spin to such interpretations. Frequently drawing on the work of the late French philosopher Michel Foucault, they tend to be suspicious, even contemptuous, of the Enlightenment's claims on behalf of reason. Such critics point out, for example, that so-called ''enlightened'' scientists developed dubious and ultimately insidious ways to classify gender difference and racial inferiority in the 18th century, basing their conclusions on the alleged authority of reason. And they press the uncomfortable fact that good enlightenment figures like Jefferson, Kant, and Hume had what by today's standards are extremely distasteful views on ''inferior'' (e.g., nonwhite) peoples. Far from being a movement of freedom, enlightenment was a tool of hegemony and social control.

It is one of the many virtues of Kors's undertaking that he never tries to stifle this debate. Also evident in the new encyclopedia is the fact that Enlightenment scholarship has moved away in the last several decades from an exclusive focus on a few great names to a consideration of much wider phenomena. One can read here about the growth of Masonic lodges and civil society, about markets and medicine, publishing and preachers, Jesuits and Jews, as well as the life of Voltaire.

There is even an entry on ''coffeehouses and cafes.'' Dubbed ''penny universities'' in England-reflecting their atmosphere and the price of a cup of joe-they served as meeting points for the public-minded, providing free newspapers and piping hot discussion, in which reason, not status or class, served as the ultimate criterion of merit. Such was their importance as a new locus of public opinion that the contemporary German philosopher Jrgen Habermas has argued convincingly that the caf was a key institution in the birth of democracy.

The movement that emerges from these entries was a multifaceted affair, active in the drawing rooms and watering holes of great cities like London, Vienna, Philadelphia, and Milan, but also in provincial hamlets via the provincial press and in the garrets and gutters of Paris and Berlin. Frequently anticlerical, it nonetheless found common cause with a great variety of initiatives for religious reform, backing ''rational religion,'' ''reasonable Christianity,'' and the enlightened Judaism of the ''Haskalah.'' Marshalling disparate forces, the movement drew together a range of diverse energies just as it has drawn together a range of diverse critics ever since.

Yet the vehemence and extent of this criticism should give us pause. For what to the Enlightenment's defenders seem perfectly innocuous values have often seemed, to its opponents, deeply threatening. Judging from the West's own experience, the very effort to spread the values of the Enlightenment summons the Enlightenment's enemies into being.

Which is not to suggest that the Enlightenment's defenders should give up the fight. But it is to caution, as we prepare to bring the torch of reason to areas of the world still clouded in darkness, that we take great care-lest in doing so, we set off conflagrations.

Darrin M. McMahon is the author of ''Enemies of the Enlightenment'' (Oxford). He is writing an intellectual history of happiness for Grove/Atlantic Press.

This story ran on page D4 of the Boston Globe on 6/22/2003.
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