Rescuing the Enlightenment from its exploiters
Many of today’s self-styled ‘Enlightened thinkers’ actually have little regard for the freedom of conscience and principle of autonomy that underpinned Enlightenment thought. Tzvetan Todorov gives them their comeuppance.
(Spiked) -- by Tim Black --
While the Enlightenment, ‘one of the most important shifts in the history of man’ as one recent account put it, has certainly had its detractors, who blame it for anything from the Holocaust to soulless consumerism, it now also has a veritable army of self-styled heirs. Militant secularists, New Atheists, advocates of evidence-based policy, human rights champions… each constituency in their turn will draw justification from the intellectual emanations of that period beginning roughly towards the end of the seventeenth century and culminating – some say ending – in the 1789 French Revolution and its aftermath. And each in their turn will betray it.
It is not deliberate treachery. This is no reactionary dissimulation – it is more impulsive than that. Still, in the hands of the neo-Enlightened, from the zealously anti-religious to the zealously pro-science, something strange has happened. Principles that were central – albeit contested – to the Enlightenment have been reversed, turned in on themselves. Secularism, as we have seen recently in the French government’s decision to ban the burqa, has been transformed from state toleration of religious beliefs into their selective persecution; scientific knowledge, having been emancipated from theology, has now become the politician’s article of faith; even freedom itself, that integral Enlightenment impulse, has been reconceived as the enemy of the people. As the Enlightened critics of Enlightenment naivete would have it, in the symbolic shapes of our ever distending guts and CO2-belching cars, we may be a little too free.
Published in France in 2006, but only recently translated into English, philosopher Tzvetan Todorov’s In Defence of Enlightenment is, in short, a corrective. And insofar as it offers a polite but stern rebuke to those who distort the Enlightenment project, often in its own specious name, it is a welcome corrective at that.
So, when taking militant secularism to task, despite its claims to lie within the Enlightenment tradition, Todorov points out that the attacks launched against religion by thinkers like John Locke or Voltaire were not targeted at its content – they were targeted at its form as part of the state. For such fundamentally liberal thinkers, temporal and spiritual authority made for an unholy alliance. That the enemies of the secular ideal, the would-be enslavers of the individual’s conscience, were indeed religious does not invalidate this assertion. The problem was not faith itself, but the assumption of state power by a particular faith in order to persecute those with different beliefs. What may have taken a Catholic form in seventeenth-century Spain too often possesses a secular guise today...MORE...LINK