Reason, Religion and the Terror

Anthony Pagden’s celebration of the Enlightenment swiftly turns into a sustained, and unwarranted, diatribe against religion

Books History
Seeking to explain vast complexities: "Newton" (1795) by William Blake

So why does the Enlightenment still matter? Anthony Pagden thinks that he has a very good answer. Imagine inter alia that the Protestant Reformation had never occurred, that the theories of Copernicus and Descartes had proved too much for the Church to tolerate, that David Hume had failed to revolutionise philosophy, that Bougainville had never left France to travel to the Pacific, and that Kant, lecturing only to listless students, had achieved renown not for his three great Critiques but for his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime. Imagine too that European society had become increasingly theocratic and incapable of scientific and social innovation. In 1789 the Ottoman armies march into Paris and a few years later the Koran is being taught at Oxford University. The Ottoman Empire stretches from the Himalayas to Scotland and survives into the 20th century, and, believing itself to be the end of history, might still survive to this day. As Pagden points out, something not entirely dissimilar did in fact befall the Islamic world. Not implausibly, Europe without the Enlightenment could have followed just such a trajectory.

Pagden’s claims on behalf of the Enlightenment therefore are not modest ones. In essence, he believes that it aspired to demonstrate the unassailable truth of two very important, but still controversial, ideas: that the human species had nothing in common with divinity and therefore that a science of man had to be resolutely secular; and, secondly, that there existed a universal “human nature”, which could be understood wherever it was found. From this it followed that “all human beings shared a common disposition for a shared, and universal, social and political life in what would ultimately be called the ‘city of the world’.”

Pagden’s account of the systematic destruction of theology as the master science and its replacement by the new human sciences is richly fascinating and told with great concision. So too is his narrative of how, from the late 15th century onwards, Europeans looked beyond their own continent for the evidence with which they could construct a history of humankind. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the discovery of Tahiti, Pierre Bayle’s reflections on the possibility of a society composed only of atheists, and the unsuccessful attempts of the Jesuits to reconcile Confucianism with Christianity, all find their place in this tale. There is also a succinct description of how Enlightenment writers were able to broaden and modify Thomas Hobbes’s description of humans as driven solely by self-interest to include the all-important qualities of “sentiment” and “sympathy”. Pagden also sees that, for the most part, these same writers took the emergence of a commercial society to be the final stage of a civilising process that would not only contribute to the ease of modern life but also increase our mutual dependence across the globe.

In all this, however, the polemical edge to Pagden’s argument is only ever thinly hidden. For many years the standard account of the Enlightenment was provided by Peter Gay. “There were many philosophes in the eighteenth century,” Gay wrote, “but there was only one Enlightenment.” More recently, Jonathan Israel (in three magisterial volumes) has suggested that we should speak  in terms of a moderate and a radical Enlightenment. Pagden takes a position close to that of Gay. For all that “they spoke in many different voices”, he writes, the “true philosophes…all contributed to a single ‘project’.” 

Pagden’s Enlightenment, in short, is the Enlightenment of Immanuel Kant, that of subjecting all dogmas to critical evaluation; in Kant’s famous phrase, of “daring to know”. Redescribed by Pagden, it is an assault on the past in the name of the future, “the beginning of modernity, as an open-ended, continuing progression, subject to constant scrutiny”. It is the intellectual movement that ultimately gave birth to liberal democracy and to our sense of global citizenship. What the Enlightenment was quite definitely not, in Pagden’s view, was the simple and exclusive application of reason to explain the vast complexities of the human condition. 

According to Pagden, therefore, there was no causal connection between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and thus no responsibility of the Enlightenment for the Reign of Terror. Nor can the Enlightenment stand accused of the numerous evils with which it has been associated from the Romantics onwards: pseudo-scientific racism, empire building, the devastation of the environment, the destruction of cultural identities, economic globalisation, and, of course, the mobilisation of modern technology to produce the gas chambers of Auschwitz. 

And here the stakes are high. For, if Pagden has Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s infamous Dialectic of Enlightenment in his sights, so too he is gunning for Alasdair MacIntyre and the argument advanced in the latter’s After Virtue. MacIntyre’s alternative future is not one where an ossified Europe has fallen under Ottoman rule but where, thanks to Enlightenment, we have lost any sense of morality and where, worst of all, we are not aware of it. 

It is not difficult to have considerable sympathy with this. Universities are now full of postcolonial theorists, communitarians, postmodernists and multiculturalists only too eager to have a swipe at any aspect of Enlightenment universalism they can lay their hands on and, in the process, to condemn Western civilisation as a form of cultural and political tyranny. 

The trouble is that, in Pagden’s hands, this turns into a sustained diatribe against religion, and for Pagden religion only ever seems to exist in the form of the reactionary doctrines of Joseph de Maistre or the obscurantist fundamentalism of the American Midwest. Has Pagden, one wonders, ever heard of the concept of a Christian Enlightenment? Does he have any awareness of the fact that there were many Christians-Catholics included — who were receptive to the intellectual advances of science and who shunned blind dogma? In short, to see the Enlightenment in terms of a stark and irreconcilable division between secular philosophes and religious anti-philosophes is a gross simplification, and one that is ill served by suggesting that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI suffers from a form of intellectual bipolar disorder. The Enlightenment, it seems, is what “most educated people” believe in.

Pagden argues (in a text littered with typos) that if the developing world gives billions to help the poor and needy in less privileged countries, it is because we see them as being humans like us. This, he states, “could hardly have occurred” without the Enlightenment. Funnily enough, it had never dawned on me before that this was why I give money to Christian Aid.