Enlightenment values

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and why it still matters (a present from Son 1 for Christmas along with home-made biscuits and sweets – how well I brought him up). The ‘why it still matters’ argument is that we’ve inherited from the Enlightenment’s ‘science of man’ the values of common humanity, universality, a ‘global civic ethic’; and that these are values well worth defending against narrow nationalism and exclusive communities.

The book concludes:

“Nothing in the future will ever be achieved by shutting ourselves up in communities, by measuring out our lives by the horizons of what our fathers and forefathers have set down for us …. Much of what modern civilization has achieved we obviously owe to many factors, from increased medical knowledge to vastly improved methods of transport, which although they are an indirect legacy of the Enlightenment, and the revolutions in science and technology which both preceded and followed it, have no immediate of direct connection to its ideals. But our ability to even frame our understanding of the world in terms of something larger than our own small patch of ground, our own culture, family or religion, clearly does.”

The book is excellent on the intellectual restlessness that drove Enlightenment thinkers – something that Hobbes attributed to all of us, “the general inclination of mankind.” He argued against the Aristotelian idea of the ultimate good or greatest good: “There is no such Finis Ultimus, no summum bonum as is spoken of in the books of the old Moral Philosophers. Nor can a Man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he whose senses and Imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another.” (Leviathan 70 I xi)

Hobbes was at the most radical end of the spectrum, but Kant agreed – sadly, finding a pithy quote from Kant is difficult, but he emphasised the ‘proceeding and growing activity’ rather than the end-state of happiness, which seems to me similar to Czistalmilhalyi’s ‘flow‘. Kant was also firmly against state paternalism: “A government established on the principle of benevolence towards the people, like that of a father towards his children – that is, a paternalistic government – … is the greatest despotism thinkable.” So it’s clear what he would have made of the current vogue for governments ‘nudging’ us all to be ‘happy’!

Pagden is – like me – a big fan of David Hume. (Incidentally, I learned that Hume might have been the first philosopher in Britain to earn a living from writing – not that it can be a crowded field.) He writes that part of Hume’s importance stems from his appreciation that in the study of humankind, the object and the subject doing the observing are the same – and putting that into practice in his own writings. As Diderot phrased it: “It seems to me that one must be at once inside and outside oneself. One must perform the roles simultaneously of the observer and the machine that is being observed.” (I wish I’d read this before giving a lecture last summer!)

Pagden is of course alert to the negative aspects of the Enlightenment and its consequences, perhaps best encapsulated in Edmund Burke’s opinion that it combined: “Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come into contact.” Isn’t that combination still found on the trendy, universalist left, those who eat organic quinoa but won’t send their children to the local state school because it’s full of poor people? More seriously, communitarian thinkers of course reject the individualism they trace to the Enlightenment, and the pace of change and loss of traditional identity. This is not a set of concerns to be dismissed lightly. Similarly, the Aristotelian theme of virtue has – quite rightly – enjoyed a revival post-crisis, when the loss of moral compass in the modern global economy became so apparent. (This review of David Caute’s new book on Isaiah Berlin, Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic, indicates that Berlin – an evangelist for Enlightenment values – was also well aware of their negative aspects too.)

Yet progress is a bit out of fashion – we fear the robots rather than embracing them. So a reminder of the achievement of the Enlightenment at a time when there seems to be an inclination to pull up the drawbridge and turn away from the world is timely. As Mary Wollstonecraft put it: “The more I see of the world, the more I am convinced that civilization is a blessing not sufficiently estimated by those who have not traced its progress.”

The book is not chronological; rather, each chapter covers a theme, with as a thread running through it the debate about the role of government – in the historical context bookended by the English Civil Wars and Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-17th century and the French and American Revolutions in the late 18th century. Over the years I’ve read many books about the subject – Roy Porter’s Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World is still a favourite. This is a worthy addition to the shelf.

My one quibble is the number of typos in this book – from the minor like missing commas to frequent substitutions like ‘palette’ for ‘palate’ and ‘Chaplin’ (as in Charles) for ‘chaplain’, as if dictated to word-recognition software. There are one or two per page. Surely OUP could have run to a copy-editor?

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