The stars of the Enlightenment have always featured in university syllabuses. Many of them are almost household names, like Adam Smith, David Hume, or Voltaire. But in recent times, perhaps because of pressure from Islam, resurgent Christianity and post-modern thinkers, there is a nostalgia for Enlightenment values. More and more one finds scientists, politicians and journalists appealing to them to justify policies. To put this development in perspective, we spoke with British writer and journalist Philip Trower.
MercatorNet: "Enlightenment values" are often assumed to be the defining values of our society. Does this hold water? Are there different strands in the Enlightenment, some positive and some negative?
Trower: My answer to the first question is definitely Yes. It would be hard to deny that "Enlightenment values" have for some considerable time been the defining beliefs of all Western societies. By Western societies I mean all societies deriving their culture from what we can call the European or Graeco-Roman/Christian synthesis. Indeed by this time, I believe, we can speak of them as the prevailing religion in most Western societies, if we define religion as a world view determining the purpose of human existence and the right way to live it.
To the second part of the question my answer is again Yes. Almost any body of philosophical opinion will have some elements of truth in it. If it didn't, it wouldn't attract any adherents, in which case we would never hear about it. But there is more to be said in this instance. Enlightenment values or doctrines all derive in one way or another from the above mentioned synthesis, or are in some way compatible with it. It is difficult to think of anything in them which is entirely original.
As for the negative aspects or strands I would say they are due either to important components of that synthesis having been omitted, to the way they have been re-arranged, to the mistaken inferences often drawn from them, or to this or that one being given exaggerated emphasis. This is why Chesterton could already in his day speak of the modern world being full of Christian ideas gone mad. Separated from their original context, they can become like crates in a ship's hold that have broken loose from their moorings and can go crashing about until they are broken to pieces in a storm.
MercatorNet: What would you define as "Enlightenment values"?
Trower: I don't think there will be much disagreement about that. I would summarise them as: belief in perpetual progress; belief in the power of unaided reason to resolve all human problems, ensure that the rights and dignity of all are respected, and lead humanity into a final state of spiritual and material perfection and happiness; belief in liberty, equality and fraternity as the indispensable ingredients of that perfection and happiness; and finally belief in democracy and the pursuit of human rights as the infallible means of securing them. Evil and sin are chiefly thought of as due to ignorance and can therefore effectively be overcome by the right kind of education.
MercatorNet: Do you sense a danger of people accepting the ideas of leading Enlightenment figures as having quasi-Scriptural authority? Should students be taught a more critical and detached view of Enlightenment values, do you think?
Trower: Again my answer is a double Yes — if by quasi-Scriptural authority you mean treating the leading figures as if they had been recipients of a divine revelation. Since they were not, and to be fair did not claim to be, it is of the highest importance that those ideas should be looked at critically, which is what I have tried to do in the first seven chapters of my recent book. Looking at them critically does not mean denying the elements of truth but freeing the elements of truth from distortions, exaggerations, or downright errors.
Let me give some examples. If there is no God, where do human rights come from? The State? But a State which gives them can withdraw them. How do we know what is right and wrong? By majority vote? Who would seriously maintain that? Through conscience? Yes, but what is conscience and how does it fit into a materialistic or crudely Darwinian picture of world history? Why do many people, even if only implicitly, believe in perpetual progress? There is no evidence for it. That history is going to come to a climax in a kingdom of justice, love and peace is simply a Judaeo-Christian idea removed from the other side of the Last Day into this.
MercatorNet: You have argued that the Enlightenment should be regarded as a Christian heresy. What do you mean by this?
Trower: I mean it is not an accident that this particular body of ideas developed in Europe. It is, I believe, historically inconceivable that they could have developed in any culture other than a Christian one. As I have already indicated, we could describe it as a secularised "Christianity"; a "Christianity" with the supernatural dimension removed.
However it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that these ideas have not come down to us with a single meaning about which everyone agrees. Collectively, they are more like a religion with different denominations. Right from the start, which we can place in the second half of the 17th century, we can see a difference between what I will call the Anglo-Saxon Enlightenment and the French or Continental Enlightenment.
The former has always had a looser more pragmatic approach to ideas and situations, resembling an ethos or attitude of mind more than a creed. The chief emphasis has been on individual liberty and freedom of expression with room being made for the incorporation of Christian and other beliefs.
The French or Continental variety on the other hand, has invariably been highly dogmatic and anti-religious, with Christianity as its main target. What makes the situation particularly confusing is that since the end of the Napoleonic wars the adherents of both forms have usually referred to themselves as liberals.
Today, I would say, it is more accurate and meaningful to describe modern adherents of the French school as secularists, since they are increasingly bent on forcing other people to submit to their principles whether they agree with them or not — a very illiberal standpoint — and keep the name liberals for genuine adherents of the Anglo-Saxon form in so far as they survive. A notable feature of the English scene over the last ten years had been the decline of Anglo-Saxon liberalism and the growth of the French secularist form. Today, one can fairly, I believe, describe secularism and political correctness as "liberal fundamentalism".
MercatorNet: But does this mean that the Enlightenment values of liberty, equality and fraternity, which are fundamental for contemporary culture, are incompatible with Christian values?
Trower: Certainly not. It is a matter of how they are understood and presented. A simple example. Although liberty, especially inner liberty, plays an essential role in the Christian scheme of things, since Christianity is about man's response to God through love, and love is impossible unless it is given freely, liberty is not the supreme good as it is, at least theoretically, in Enlightenment belief. In Christianity top place is allotted to the pursuit of goodness and truth. When the pursuit of liberty is exalted above its rightful position and made an end in itself you are laying the foundations for a society of self-seekers. The common good will suffer.
While on the subject of liberty, another point worth noting is the number of prominent people today in the fields of science and philosophy who, while in a general way subscribing to Enlightenment values, call in question the possibility of free will on what they would claim are scientific grounds, since if man is not a spiritual as well as bodily being free will is impossible. Our thoughts and decisions are determined by the operations of our brains.
Similar criticisms can be made of attempts to absolutise equality. Let's adopt a materialist standpoint for a minute and ask ourselves in what ways we are equal. We have the same human nature and certain similar ways of reacting to things. But in every other way we are glaringly unequal. And everyone knows this, though hardly anyone in public life would be prepared to say it . That is why when our prime minister, Mr Blair, bangs on about equality, I am tempted to write a letter asking him to send me a cheque for 100,000 pounds to make our incomes more equal. I don't grudge him his extra wealth. It is simply a consequence of his having greater talents of a certain kind.
Is there then no other basis for seeing and treating men as in some way equals except their physical resemblances? Of course there is. And once again it comes from the fact, and only from there, that we are all children of the same Creator, who alone can give rights in certain key areas that are the same for all. This, the only solid basis for a doctrine of human equality that doesn't have large elements of sham and fraud about it, is at the same time strongly reinforced by the Christian doctrine of the Redemption. Christ died for all without exception. Indeed I would say that this is where the modern preoccupation with equality originates. And much the same can be said about the Enlightenment concept of fraternity. It is an attempt to interpret in purely natural terms St Paul's teaching about the Church. In the Church of Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, man nor women, slave nor free.
MercatorNet: You make an interesting observation in your most recent book that the French revolutionaries planted "trees of liberty" — but not trees of equality or fraternity. Does this suggest that Liberty is the principal Enlightenment value — and that the two others must sometimes be sacrificed to it?
Trower: Not if we take into account the whole spectrum of Enlightenment denominations. I have already referred to the difference between the Anglo-Saxon and French sub-divisions within liberalism. Once the French Revolution broke out, the problem of reconciling the highest degree of liberty with the highest degree of equality produced a third major denomination, the egalitarian current, which eventually gave birth to the various forms of socialism and communism. We should never forget that Marxism and other forms of what is called totalitarian democracy are just as much offspring of the Enlightenment as the libertarian currents.
The cult of liberty had top place during the French Revolution because the Revolution was in the main guided and controlled by members of the educated middle-classes for most of whom it remained top priority throughout the 19th century. However, people at the bottom of the social scale were more interested in having enough to eat and decent living conditions than in liberty, and therefore in a more equal distribution of the goods of life. If this could be obtained by the sacrifice of liberty, so be it.
Communism, the acme of the egalitarian trend, can be seen as the most ambitious attempt ever undertaken to realise the Christian doctrine of what is now called the "universal destination of earthly goods," which means that the products of nature and human ingenuity are meant by God for the benefit of all not just a privileged few, in equitable if not equal amounts. And it has also demonstrated how appallingly harmful even the most exalted ideas can become when ripped from their right context.
Fraternity, being a movement of the heart, has fared somewhat differently, since it is hardly something you can establish by compulsion or legislation. Over the 300 year period that has felt the influence of Enlightenment values in one form or another it has been like other sentiments, sometimes genuine, sometimes phoney. I like the story of the disenchanted French revolutionary who went about saying "Be my brother or I'll kill you" until he was arrested and guillotined.
MercatorNet: One senses that Enlightenment values are under siege nowadays. Is this true? Who are the "barbarians at the gates"?
Trower: I'm not sure who or what you have in mind. Are you thinking of post-modernists, New Agers, or Islamic fundamentalists? Rather than "barbarians" at the gates, I'm inclined to see traitors within the gates, by which I mean our contemporary Western secularists who are betraying what has always been best in Enlightenment values in order to establish centralised secularist states with illiberal powers of coercion and with atheism as the state religion. Unless there is a sudden reaction, I believe we shall shortly be seeing the death of classical liberalism and the good things we owe to it, like the abolition of the slave trade.
Philip Trower studied at Oxford and worked in literary journalism for the Times Literary Supplement and Spectator. He has written two novels. His latest book is The Catholic Church and the Counter Faith: A Study of the Roots of Modern Secularism, Relativism and De-Christianisation.