Susan Neiman's reading of the Enlightenment is certainly distinctive, but also offers a courageous and uplifting attempt to tell the story as it is
Our idea of modernity is in many ways defined by that extraordinary flowering of scientific and philosophical ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries known as the Enlightenment. Yet current attitudes to the Enlightenment are ambivalent. Many still see it as unequivocally a good thing: mankind’s coming of age, learning to think freely and independently and throwing off the shackles of obedience to received authority. But there is a dissenting view that has gained new momentum in recent years — that far from heralding a new and glorious dawn, the Enlightenment was born of an overweening arrogance, grossly overestimating the power of human reason and technology to solve our ills and inaugurating a crass materialistic era that has destroyed our reverence for the world and eroded our sense of the sacred.
Susan Neiman’s latest book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists (The Bodley Head, £20), offers a distinctive reading of the Enlightenment that attempts to recover its authentic ideals and rescue it from some of the caricatures advanced both by its defenders and its critics. An American moral philosopher who has taught at Yale and Tel Aviv and now works in Germany, Neiman is committed to promoting a broadly liberal political agenda and, as a writer, to making philosophical ideas accessible to a wide reading public. The latter aim is one in which she largely succeeds in the present book, even if at times she seems to work almost too hard to keep the reader’s attention. A vast and colourful tapestry of texts and events, stretching from the 18th century back to Homer’s Odyssey and the Book of Job and forwards to 9/11 and Abu Ghraib prison, certainly offers plenty to think about, but does not always make the thread of the argument as easy to follow as it might have been in a shorter presentation.
For any philosopher, the two towering geniuses of the Enlightenment are unquestionably Hume and Kant. Hume was certainly no overweening apostle for the power of reason. On the contrary, he famously declared that reason is the slave of the passions and “can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”. And Kant was concerned above all to argue for the limits of reason: once it leaves the “island of truth” that is the observable world, and ventures out on the “foggy ocean” of speculative metaphysics, it is bound to get lost.
Given that both philosophers confine human knowledge to the natural world, do they rule out the sacred? Hume, though himself hostile to religion, and often portrayed as a proto-verificationist, was in fact more like a modern agnostic: there might, he hints, be some “ultimate springs and principles of nature” but they must remain “shut up from human curiosity and inquiry.” And Kant, although he ruled out knowledge of a transcendent domain, did so, as he put it, in order to “make room for faith”.
Neiman seems right, then, in her basic claim that Enlightenment philosophy was not after all trying to confine us to the material world, but allowed at least some space for the human spirit’s yearning for the transcendent. Her own attitude to religion, however, is harder to decipher. On the one hand, she asserts, “To be human is to have needs for transcendence over the brute and shiny objects of experience, needs that both religion and morality at their best fulfil.” But she insists throughout the book on the Humean radical distinction between “is” and “ought” (a distinction, incidentally, that is increasingly challenged by many contemporary philosophers) and she wants (with Kant, as standardly interpreted) to make morality a wholly autonomous domain that need have no recourse to the divine. Taken together, these views mean that her liberal moral agenda and hopes for a more just world remain something of a wish list about the way things should be, but unsupported by any trust in the benign nature of ultimate reality, such as religious belief has traditionally offered.
So how do we sustain our ideals and our hopes, in the face of a world that is often bleakly hostile to our efforts? Neiman draws once more on Kant, in many ways the book’s hero, and reminds us of his luminous first principle of morality: treat people as ends, and never only as means. This encapsulates an ideal of human dignity that is, Neiman plausibly argues, a “major source of progressive politics”. But then the “is/ought” barrier once again comes crashing down: “All too often we experience a world in which dignity is wanting and self-respect destroyed [and hence] the idea of human dignity is a demand on the world, not a fact about it” (emphasis added).
Here, it seems to me, we come up against the fundamental problem with the book’s argument. Although Neiman asserts that our current predicament can be understood by invoking “Kant’s metaphysics”, the Kantian moral imperative, construed in wholly secular terms, is precisely not grounded in any metaphysical vision of a transcendent or ultimate source of goodness, but comes down, in the end, to a mere injunction or “imperative”, which we ourselves decide to issue. Neiman puts it this way: “When you’re in doubt about a moral decision, Kant tells you to resolve it by playing God. [It is] an invitation to imagine yourself at the Creation. Every time you act morally, you have the chance to begin a bit of the world afresh.” Yet although she describes this as “the result not of arrogance but of logic”, the idea of the self-legislating will, which, in Kant’s phrase, is selbstgesetzgebend (“giving the law to itself”), arguably paves the way for that fantasy of “total autonomy” or “self-authorship”, which the critics of the Enlightenment have seen as its most dangerous legacy. For if I can imagine myself as “creator” in this way, there seems nothing to stop the Nazis doing likewise, or someone with an equally malign vision of how to “begin the world afresh”.
Neiman might concede such risks, acknowledging, as she does in several places, that there are no guarantees that humans will make the right choices, or that the future will turn out in the way her liberal ideals require. She does, however, offer certain “signposts” as grounds for hope, citing three major achievements since the Enlightenment: the abolition of public execution by torture, the ending of slavery and the emancipation of women. Unfortunately, however, it is not clear how much mileage can be gained from this type of argument by example, since it is hard to deny the existence of ample evidence, even from recent history, pointing in the other direction, towards the view that human nature remains as prone to evil as it has ever been.
What emerges by the end of this rich and wide-ranging study is a courageous and uplifting attempt to articulate a progressivist vision of how humanity might move closer to a world where justice and equal respect flourish. The book ends, as it begins, with the author’s reflections on the story of Job in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps the most vivid exploration in all of literature of the problem which the existence of undeserved and terrible suffering poses for any providentialist worldview, such as Judaism or Christianity.
The “moral clarity” of the book’s title emerges here as a readiness to tell the story as it is — not to fudge it either by tacking on the “kitsch” of a happy ending or by offering the fatuous interpretation of some of Job’s “friends” (that he is being “tested” or that he must have done something to “deserve” it).
Moral clarity is the readiness to accept that there is no solution to the problem of suffering. Indeed, Neiman says (rightly it seems to me) that there is something “blasphemous” about the many philosophical attempts to resolve it in purely literal and prosaic terms. In the biblical story, what is offered instead is the Voice from the Whirlwind, describing the inexhaustible mystery of creation, “when the morning stars burst out singing, and all the angels shouted for joy”. What we are meant to take away from this, on Neiman’s reading, is that “life itself is a gift…[that] there is no moral order in the world as it is…[and that] creating moral order in the world is just what we’re meant to give back to it”.
Is this, in the end, a religious vision of reality? I think myself that it is. Or, at least, that it could never have come from a writer who was not steeped in the culture and traditions of Judaeo-Christian theism — the culture that some of our contemporary militant secularists are so bent on destroying. Anyone who has followed the journey Neiman takes in this powerful and, in the end, quite moving book, will I think be left with a dilemma. To believe in the vision of justice that she so passionately advocates requires us, as she underlines, to be sustained by hope. Yet if “ought” is as utterly divorced from “is”, as she maintains, if reality has no ultimate goodness at its source and if the final message of Job is that “we are on our own”, then it is hard to see any lasting basis for such hope. So perhaps what we need to recover from the Enlightenment is not, pace Neiman, a secularised interpretation of Kant, but something closer to what Kant himself actually proposed in his Critique of Practical Reason, that a wholehearted commitment to morality inescapably requires faith in the ultimate triumph of goodness, and that this in turn makes believing in God a moral necessity.