The frontispiece of the 1772 Encyclopedie, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, with Truth at its centre. © Lebrecht Music and Arts

Breaking the Enlightenment spell

Idealising the age of reason as a perfect model of truth, virtue and knowledge is bad history as well as bad philosophy
June 17, 2015
The Enlightenment: History of an Idea by Vincenzo Ferrone, translated by Elisabetta Tarantino (Princeton University Press, £19.95)

The humble ambition of every historian, as defined by Leopold von Ranke nearly two centuries ago, is to describe the past as it really was. But no one will be satisfied with mere lists of stuff that happened. WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman were nearer the mark when they suggested, in 1066 and All That, that a historian who wants to be useful must know how to “console the reader,” focusing on what is “memorable,” showing how it became “the cause of nowadays and the end of History,” and deciding whether or not it was a Good Thing. “All other history,” as they pointed out, “defeats itself.”

The naming of epochs has always been one of the historian’s main tasks. Tom Paine hit a bullseye in 1792 when he reflected on the recent “revolutions of America and France” and proclaimed that “the present age will hereafter merit to be called the age of reason.” His words were astute because the idea of an “age of reason” was already established as a way of referring to a stage in life when feckless innocence gives way to adult responsibility. The result was the consoling idea that humanity was finally coming of age.

Paine was not the first to speak of living in the age of reason—or “Enlightenment” as it came to be called—and 18th-century historians were already well versed in the related vocabularies of antiquity and renaissance or the ancient, middle and modern ages. Any tuppenny pedant could, of course, tell you that these terms will highlight some things and conceal others, introducing biases and serving ideological agendas. On top of that, they threaten a self-confirming cycle of supposition and evidence: certain individuals and works will be raised to canonical status because they are supposed to be typical of their epoch, and then they will be looked to for proof that the epoch was indeed suffused with the spirit for which they were canonised. Like tourists who refuse to notice anything not in their guidebooks, seekers after the spirit of an age are liable to end up chasing their tails in ever-decreasing circles.

The naming of epochs may be arbitrary but it can be productive. It endows history with momentum and moral purpose, encouraging us to mourn the passing of a gilded age, or glory in the boldness of modern times and the brilliance of the Enlightenment. But we can always defy the implicit propaganda: we can make fun of golden ages, or try swimming against the tide of modernity, or reversing the Renaissance and reviving the mysteries of the Middle Ages. The massed forces of reason are not irresistible either: reaction against the optimism of the Enlightenment was a theme of 19th-century conservatism, and parts of the revolutionary left would come round to much the same opinion, blaming the Enlightenment for the collapse of working-class militancy and the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century.

Vincenzo Ferrone, a professor of modern history at the University of Turin, is keen to defend the Enlightenment. He is a champion of the secular trinity of scientific rationality, individual liberty and equal human rights. But he is also a seasoned historian of 18th-century European thought, and is fed up with the conventional wisdom of the Enlightenment as an age of reason. In his latest book—first published in Italian in 2010—he attempts to explain where this convention came from and why he regards it as intellectual surplus baggage.

Every attempt to define an epoch—the age of steam, say, or the age of empire, or the age of the internet—involves making a link between two different registers: on the one hand a specific kind of activity, and on the other a stretch of historical time. As far as Ferrone is concerned, however, the idea of the Enlightenment is unique because it yokes a period not with something real but with a set of ideals: philosophical notions of truth, virtue and knowledge. It soon becomes clear that Ferrone does not hold philosophers in high esteem, regarding them as muddle-minded fantasists, lost in a “foggy and imaginary” realm of “abstract constructions” such as “spirit” and “subjectivity.” As far as he is concerned, the Enlightenment is another of their high-flown fictions, and when the historians took it over they had no inkling of the trouble they were getting into. It would prove to be a philosophical Trojan horse, or poisoned chalice, and Ferrone repeatedly denounces it as an ircocervo—a monstrous hybrid of goat and stag, or, as his translator would have it, a “centaur.” He then sets out to “break the spell of the centaur” by documenting the damage it has done.

He starts with an essay by Immanuel Kant that appeared in a monthly Berlin magazine in 1784 under the title “Was ist Aufklärung?”, or “What is Enlightenment?” It is not Kant’s best work, but it is one of his shortest and most anthologised, and it offers a handy account of Enlightenment, describing it as an eternal yearning for intellectual autonomy, rooted deep in human nature. This yearning had hitherto been cruelly frustrated, but Kant thought that things might be about to change. Various recent developments—the American revolution and the reforming government of his own sovereign master Frederick the Great—seemed to offer “indications” that “obstacles to universal Enlightenment” were being gradually removed, and he therefore permitted himself to salute the dawning of an “age of Enlightenment.”

According to Ferrone, however, the title of “father of the Enlightenment” does not belong to Kant but to GWF Hegel a generation later. Kant’s “age of Enlightenment” was the expression of a bland hope for perpetual peace, but Hegel was more circumspect and pessimistic. When he took up the idea of Enlightenment in his Phenomenology in 1807, he treated it as part of a tragedy in which a shallow and conceited form of rationality led to disaster. He also rooted it in France rather than America or Germany, and treated it as a prelude to the storming of the Bastille, followed by revolution, suspicion and the Terror. Hegel’s farrago soon degenerated into “the philosophers’ Enlightenment,” as Ferrone calls it: a set of commonplaces about how Voltaire and the other French philosophes inspired the French revolution—a tall tale which became “a fundamental universal category in the intellectual life of the western world.”

Ferrone observes Hegel’s centaur rampaging through Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, until it stirs up a storm of “relativism” and “nihilism” in Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty. This “vociferous army of theoreticians of the postmodern,” he says, seems to have “missed no opportunity to pronounce the death of the Enlightenment,” and eventually the “postmodern virus” penetrated even the Church of Rome, as Benedict XVI spearheaded a revival of anti-Enlightenment obscurantism.

In the second half of the book, Ferrone turns on his fellow historians, accusing them of surrendering to the philosophers without a fight, and urging them to break with the idea of an Enlightenment in which “materialism” and “atheistic propaganda” led up to the French revolution. His list of culprits is headed by Jonathan Israel, whose prodigious trilogy on Radical Enlightenment has, he thinks, reawakened the centaur. Israel modified the old story by locating the origins of the revolution not in the “moderate Enlightenment” of the urbane French thinkers but in a “radical Enlightenment” which he traces to some plebeian followers of Baruch Spinoza in the Dutch republic around the middle of the 17th century. Israel has been reproached by unsympathetic critics for failing to engage with the philosophical arguments of his heroes, but from Ferrone’s point of view he is guilty of the opposite mistake, allowing genuine historical research to be usurped yet again by mere “history of philosophy.”

After all that you might expect Ferrone to jettison the whole idea of an age of Enlightenment; but instead he proposes a slightly modified account. His Enlightenment began at the end of the 17th century, arising not from militant atheism but from gentle humanism. It was rooted in a flexible and dynamic theory of nature, together with the expansion of cultural literacy through the circulation of periodicals and the creation of public clubs and coffee houses, and it reached its “apex” a hundred years later, in the inclusive cultural achievements of Pierre de Beaumarchais and WA Mozart, Jacques-Louis David and Francisco Goya, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, Gotthold Lessing and JW Goethe. It was both a product of the obsolescent political structures of the 18th-century Europe—“a legitimate child of the Ancien Régime,” as Ferrone puts it—and a radical “cultural revolution” that was destined to become “the founding event of modern Western identity,” leading to the “steady rise of a new civilisation.”

Ferrone believes that his revisionist portrait captures “the real intellectual life of the European Enlightenment,” rescuing it from the philosophical centaur and reaffirming the “autonomy and prerogatives of historical knowledge.” But it is hard to see how he figures that out: arguments about what is really “central” to 18th-century culture sound about as sensible as disputes about whether sausages are more significant than cheese, and they are not likely to be resolved by ditching the “methods and objectives of philosophers” in favour of “those of historians.” Ferrone’s idea of an Enlightenment that led to a “cultural revolution” against the Ancien Régime is much closer than he realises to the Hegelian idea that it was always destined to lead to the French revolution, while his contention that it owes its “original intellectual profile” to humanism rather than atheism does not take him very far from the realm of philosophical ideals. Some of us may wonder why we should be forced to choose between Ferrone’s version of 18th-century intellectual history and Israel’s: why not recognise there is a scintilla of truth in both, and perhaps in dozens of others as well? Alternatively, we might conclude that the very idea of an age of Enlightenment lost its usefulness long ago, and should now be put out to grass.