Arguments about the Age of Reason have become stale. Can a new book transform the debate?by Ollie Cussen / May 5, 2013 / Leave a comment
Like all good liberal intellectuals of the last century, Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog spent a great deal of time agonising over the legacy of the Enlightenment. Cuckolded and divorced, Herzog seeks to make sense of himself, his country, and his century by writing unsent letters to philosophers and politicians, alive and dead. He laments the “liberal-bourgeois illusion of perfection, the poison of hope,” and demands that President Eisenhower “make it all clear to me in a few words.” Instead, he learns the brutal truth from his friend Sandor Himmelstein. “Somewhere in every intellectual is a dumb prick,” Sandor tells Herzog. “You guys can’t answer your own questions… What good are these effing eggheads! It takes an ignorant bastard like me to fight liberal causes.”
In the last decade or so, defenders of the Enlightenment have shunned Herzog’s anxieties about liberal modernity in favour of Sandor’s belligerence. In the wake of 9/11 and the perceived threats of Islamic fundamentalism, a brotherhood of articulate, no-bullshit philosophes, led by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, dragged debates about the Enlightenment’s legacy out of the academy and into the public sphere. They traced all that was worth defending in the modern western world to the 18th century, when rationality, science, secularism and democracy took hold of the European mind.
Though they possessed an impressive capacity for tub-thumping alarmism, these modern freethinkers were by no means the first to mobilise the Enlightenment for their cause. The 18th-century philosophes such as Voltaire, Diderot and d’Alembert effectively volunteered their services to the debates of subsequent generations by presenting themselves as the vanguard of modernity. In 1784, Immanuel Kant famously described the Enlightenment as “humanity’s escape from self-imposed tutelage”; it was an intellectual revolution which allowed the human mind to fulfil its natural desire to think for itself, and from which social and political freedom would follow. In short, the Enlightenment presented itself as the dawn of modern self-consciousness, and as the beginning of reason’s slow but inexorable triumph over myth and obscurantism.
Of course, the philosophes’ self-fashioning as liberators of mankind invited detractors. Just over 20 years after Kant’s triumphalist declaration, Hegel would blame the Enlightenment for the guillotine and the bloody excesses of the French Revolution, thus laying the groundwork for the criticism that the Enlightenment had sacrificed…