The Portable Enlightenment Reader - Isaac Kramnick (1995)


FEW HAVE CAPTURED the spirit of the Enlightenment, its intellectual and social agenda, as has Mozart in his operas. The Magic Flute, with its secular priests presiding over Temples of Wisdom, Reason, and Nature, is a series of variations on the triumph of light over darkness, of sun over moon, of day over night, of reason, tolerance, and love over passion, hate, and revenge. Masonic imagery and symbolism abound in the opera, as the Freemasons Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, bring the disdain for superstition and mystery in church and state, which so marked this most radical of Enlightenment groups, into their musical and literary texts. Similarly, The Marriage of Figaro is a rendering of Enlightenment social ideals, a lyrical hymn to the individualistic claims of self-made assertive men who achieve their place through hard work, skill, and talent, as opposed to aristocrats who are simply born to privilege. What have you done to earn your fortune, rank, and position? Figaro asks the great nobleman Almaviva. He answers his own question: “You took the trouble to get born, and no more.”

It was the assumed triumph of these ideals that led the French philosopher D‘Alembert to call his eighteenth century l’age des lumieres, the age of splendid illumination, of light and enlightenment. He and his fellow intellectuals, he assumed, would realize the project begun by the Renaissance: to lift the darkness that fell with the Christian triumph over the virtues of classical antiquity. While it is French eighteenth-century thought that is conventionally depicted as best embodying Enlightenment principles, with the writings of the philosophes and their magisterial seventeen-volume Encyclopidie given pride of place, the Enlightenment was, in fact, an intellectual movement that knew no national boundaries. The philosophes themselves saw three Englishmen as the prophets of Enlightenment, and they dedicated their Encyclopidie to Bacon, Locke, and Newton. Jefferson, an American disciple of the Enlightenment, agreed, ordering for his library in 1789 a composite portrait of the same three Englishmen. They had, he wrote to a friend, laid the foundation for the physical and moral sciences of modernity and were “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.”1

The Enlightenment was an international movement that included French, English, Scottish, American, German, Italian, Spanish, and even Russian schools. Voltaire and Montesquieu visited England and wrote extensively about its institutions. Franklin and Jefferson visited England and France and were well connected with writers in both countries. The intellectual ferment was transnational. John Adams wrote his Defense of the Constitution of the United States of America in response to criticism from the philosophe Turgot, and Smith’s Wealth of Nations was translated into French by Condorcet. Mozart’s operas as Enlightenment icons epitomize the internationalism of the movement as well. The Austrian composer used Figaro, a literary invention of the Frenchman Beaumarchais, who, in addition to writing Le mariage de Figaro in 1778, had been involved in secret French munitions deals to help the revolutionary Americans. Beaumarchais’s play was immediately translated into English by Thomas Holcroft, Enlightenment novelist and close friend of Enlightenment philosopher William Godwin. Mozart’s librettist for Figaro,Lorenzo da Ponte, was an Italian who lived in London in the 1790s and became, finally, a professor of Italian literature at Columbia University in New York City.

Dating an intellectual movement like the Enlightenment is never precise, but a rough guide would emphasize the hundred-plus years from the 1680s to the 1790s. The beginnings are marked in Britain by the Glorious Revolution in 1688, which provided a constitutional arrangement repudiating Stuart autocracy and ushering in religious toleration, as well as by the writings of Locke and the publication in 1687 of Newton’s Principia. The French beginnings are signaled by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and the writings in the 1680s of Bayle and Fontonelle. The end of the Enlightenment is best linked to the realization of its ideals in the revolutionary fervor that swept through America, France, and even England in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, which in turn produced the romantic and conservative reactions of the early nineteenth century.

The initiating events of the 1680s provide glaring evidence of the differing political contexts in which the Enlightenment occurred in its French and British settings. In the liberal atmosphere of Augustan and Georgian Britain, religious toleration and freedom of publication generally flourished. Louis XIV’s decision in 1685 to revoke the limited toleration given French Protestants in 1598, on the other hand, ushered in a century of illiberal and autocratic rule in that country, with first the persecution and then the flight of the Huguenots. Royal and clerical control and censorship of publication led to the arrest of writers like Voltaire, as well as the condemnation and suppression at various times of works by Helvétius, Diderot, d’Holbach, Montesquieu, and of the Encyclopidie itself in 1759. Performances of Beaumarchais’s Le mariage de Figaro were proscribed in the 1780s by royal decree. In turn, French writers like Montesquieu and Diderot, in order to avoid suppression, often resorted to using observations from fictional foreigners to criticize French political institutions or the Catholic Church. The harsher realities of repression and persecution understandably give the writings of the French Enlightenment a tone that is more bitter and less compromising than is found in the British. Not that despotism, when freed from religious zeal, was utterly incompatible with enlightenment. For several of the philosophes—Voltaire, Diderot, and Helvétius, for example, the political ideal was the “enlightened despotism” of a reforming monarch, like Frederick in Prussia or Catherine in Russia, who, while sponsoring religious toleration, was committed to the rational reform of political, legal, and economic life befitting an age of reason.

These political differences notwithstanding, the intellectuals of the French and British Enlightenment operated in relatively similar settings. They shared the profound transformation of Western life brought by commerce and industrialization and, with it, the emergence of middle-class Figaros as the new cultural ideal. Far from being alarmed at this great change, they generally embraced the new commercial civilization and its values, seeing it as a progressive, reforming force that would undermine the dead hand of aristocratic privilege and religious fanaticism. Theirs was also an age of increasing literacy, as for the first time in history reading ceased to be a monopoly of the very few, the rich, and the clergy. It was also an age when intellectuals eagerly wrote for and to this wider audience of new readers, not yet having become alienated from the philistine public in a posture of romantic weariness.

What was the message of these Enlightenment intellectuals? What were their ideals? They believed that unassisted human reason, not faith or tradition, was the principal guide to human conduct. “Have courage to use your own reason—that is the motto of Enlightenment,” Kant wrote in 1784.2 Everything, including political and religious authority, must be subject to a critique of reason if it were to commend itself to the respect of humanity. Particularly suspect was religious faith and superstition. Humanity was not innately corrupt as Catholicism taught, nor was the good life found only in a beatific state of otherworldly salvation. Pleasure and happiness were worthy ends of life and realizable in this world. The natural universe, governed not by the miraculous whimsy of a supernatural God, was ruled by rational scientific laws, which were accessible to human beings through the scientific method of experiment and empirical observation. Science and technology were the engines of progress enabling modem men and women to force nature to serve their well-being and further their happiness. Science and the conquest of superstition and ignorance provided the prospect for endless improvement and reformation of the human condition, progress even unto a future that was perfection. The Enlightenment valorized the individual and the moral legitimacy of self-interest. It sought to free the individual from all varieties of external corporate or communal constraints, and it sought to reorganize the political, moral, intellectual, and economic worlds to serve individual interest.

Central to the Enlightenment agenda was the assault on religious superstition and its replacement by a rational religion in which God became no more than the supreme intelligence or craftsman who had set the machine that was the world to run according to its own natural and scientifically predictable laws. This deism, so reminiscent of the cosmic outlook of the ancient Stoics, was inherently anticlerical and deeply suspicious of religious fanaticism and persecution. More than anyone else, Voltaire and his motto Ecrasez l’infâme symbolized the war against torture and persecution bred by the infamy of religious fanaticism. But virtually all the Enlightenment theorists followed the lead of Locke in demanding religious toleration. Religion removed from public life and public authority would be reserved for the private sphere of individual preference and individual practice. Public matters in a commercial society involved markets and property, not the saving of souls. So Voltaire approvingly described the Royal Exchange in London as the place where “the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts.”3 Jefferson, in turn, rendered the same liberal, tolerant theme in simple American folk wisdom: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”4

If religion was the principal villain of the Enlightenment, then science was its hero. The eighteenth century began the Western love affair with science and technology that only now shows signs of being broken up by environmentalism and certain strands of postmodernism. Science embodied reason, and a scientific worldview embodied a rational perspective freed from religion and superstition. Moreover, science, a very practical science, would ameliorate human life, providing the comfort that accompanied happiness in this world. Many of the Enlightenment writers were themselves scientists. Locke, Hartley, and La Mettrie were doctors; Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot were authors of scientific papers; d’Alembert, Richard Price, and Condorcet were mathematicians; Priestley, Buffon, and Franklin were world-famous scientists; and even Tom Paine was the inventor of the iron bridge.

Science was in the service of reform. According to Priestley, science would “overturn in a moment ... the old building of error and superstition.” It would “be the means, under God, of extirpating all error and prejudice, and of putting an end to all undue and usurped authority.” Science also fueled millennial fervor in the Enlightenment. It was the basis for an unbounded faith in progress, a belief in perfectibility and the imminent elimination of pain and suffering. Priestley, Condorcet, and Turgot assumed that science would create a people “more easy and comfortable,” who would “grow daily more happy.” “Whatever was the beginning of the world, the end will be glorious and paradisiacal.”5 Science might even eliminate mortality, as Franklin wrote to Priestley:

The rapid progress the sciences now make, occasions my regrets sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the heights to which may be carried in a hundred years, the power of man over matter.... All diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of old age, and our lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian standard.6

Progress was a leitmotiv of the Enlightenment, but not only in the dreams of scientists like Priestley and Franklin. It was central, for example, to the writers in the Scottish Enlightenment and their sociological “histories” of the stages of social development. Smith, Ferguson, Miller, and Kames wrote of the four stages of human progress—the hunting, pasturage, agricultural, and commercial—and they saw this evolutionary process as moving humanity from “rude” simplicity to “civilized” complexity. Like Mandeville, Hume, and Voltaire, and unlike Rousseau, they accepted and defended the luxury of contemporary “civilized” commercial society. Condorcet, in turn, read a clear-cut egalitarian political message in the patterns of scientific and commercial progress. His optimistic hope for the “future condition of the human race” was “the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.”7

Such faith in progress required a jaundiced view of the past, and once again Voltaire was the Enlightenment’s guide. History, he wrote in 1754, was “little else than a long succession of useless cruelties” and “a collection of crimes, follies, and misfortunes.”8 Progressive, perfectible humanity disdained the superstitious past and traditions in general, for it could not pass the skeptical test of reason. The American philosophe Jefferson summed up well this Enlightenment ideal in a letter to his friend Priestley, attacking what the former labeled “the Gothic idea,” which has one “look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind.” Just as Priestly had insisted that “those times of revered antiquity have had their use and are now no more,” so Jefferson agreed that Americans would have nothing to do with such errors:

To recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion, in learning, is worthy of those bigots in religion, and government, by whom it is recommended, and whose purpose it would answer. But it is not an idea which this country will endure.9

One clear feature of the Enlightenment’s idea of the “true perfection of mankind” was that humanity be comfortable and happy. Maximizing public happiness was a central theme in the utilitarian politics of Helvétius, Beccaria, Priestley, and Bentham. The Enlightenment was convinced, as Bayle wrote, that basic to the human temperament was “our natural inclination to seek pleasure.”10 In reaction to the religious view that in this life and under its veil of tears a virtuous person lived a life of self-denial and privation, Enlightenment writers emphasized enjoyment and happiness, not the least of which was sensual pleasure. How better to ridicule the asceticism and self-denial preached by religion than to mock it in sexual fantasy. So it was that the eighteenth century is the fountain of modern pornography, be it the Marquis de Sade or John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Montesquieu, Diderot, and even Franklin wrote their share as well. In his Encyclopédie entry on “Enjoyment” (jouissance), Diderot praised sexual pleasure as the most noble of passions. To the “perverse man” who takes offense at this praise “I would evoke Nature before him, I would make it speak, and Nature would say to him: why do you blush to hear the word pleasure pronounced, when you do not blush to indulge in its temptations under the cover of night.”11

Happiness was an explosive political ideal as well, for it was closely linked to the new world of individualism and the legitimacy of self-interest. Jefferson knew exactly what he was doing when he changed Locke’s trilogy “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Property, and the individual’s right to it, was but one expression of the larger human right to individual happiness. The emphasis is properly on the individual’s happiness, for the Enlightenment’s revolutionary objective, enshrined in Jefferson’s text for the Declaration of Independence, was to place at the heart of politics the sacredness of each separate individual’s own quest for happiness and the good life. No longer was there assumed to be a Christian conception of the good life or the moral life, which the church and state defined and to whose common values it led all men and women. The Enlightenment assumption was that each individual pursued his or her own happiness and their own individual sense of the good life—so long, that is, that in doing this they did not interfere with other people’s life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness—or as Jefferson put it, so long as “it neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.”

There is a profoundly radical individualism at the heart of Enlightenment thought. Its rationalism led Enlightenment philosophy to enthrone the individual as the center and creator of meaning, truth, and even reality. Descartes had doubted everything, but he could not doubt himself. He as the I, the irreducible thinking being, existed at the core of reality. This epistemological and ontological focus on the individual provided by Descartes’s cogito ergo sum was reinforced in Enlightenment thought by Lockean sensationalism. The mind as a “blank slate” received sensations from the external world. That individual mind imperially ordered chaotic sensory experience, constructing, therefore, its own meaning for the world. This Lockean portrayal of individuals as sole intellectual creators of their universe dominates the eighteenth century, from the writings of his disciples Hartley and Condillac to Helvétius, Beccaria, and Condorcet. No wonder, then, that Diderot and d’Alembert dedicated the Encyclopédie in part to Locke.

It wasn’t only Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, however, that held the Enlightenment in thrall. It was also the political liberalism of his Second Treatise on Civil Government. Indeed, it is in its basic assumptions about society, so heavily influenced by Locke, that one sees best the linkage of the Enlightenment’s ideals and liberal individualism. Enlightenment liberalism set the individual free politically, intellectually, and economically. The political universe was demystified, as the magical power of thrones, scepters, and crowns was replaced by rational acts of consent. The individual (understood, of course, in the Enlightenment as male and property-owning) did not receive government and authority from a God who had given his secular sword to princes and magistrates to rule by his divine right. Nor did the individual keep any longer to his subordinate place in a divinely inspired hierarchy, in which kings and noblemen had been placed above him as “your highnesses” who were society’s natural governors. Government was voluntarily established by free individuals through a willful act of contract. Individuals rationally consented to limit their own freedom and to obey civil authority in order to have public protection of their natural rights. Government’s purpose was to serve self-interest, to enable individuals to enjoy peacefully their rights to life, liberty, and property, not to serve the glory of God or dynasties, and certainly not to dictate moral or religious truth.

Enlightenment liberalism freed the individual in the intellectual and moral world as well. Here, too, Locke provided the basic text with his Letters on Toleration and his argument that governments were only concerned with the worldly matters of life and property, not with immaterial things like salvation of souls. No summum bonum, no unquestioned and absolute truths were to be enforced on the individual by public authority, be it secular or spiritual. If men and women were not to slaughter each other in religious wars, then matters of belief and moral conviction had to be reserved for the private realm, where each individual was free to believe as he wished. Public law no longer enforced God’s higher truths nor any ideal of the moral life; it merely kept order. What individuals privately believed seldom stole property or injured others. Clerical or royal censorship and persecution of free individual minds was the lightning rod for Enlightenment contempt.

As Enlightenment liberalism would free the individual from intellectual constraint, so it would also liberate that individual from economic restraints on private initiative. Rejected were the ideas of a moral economy in which economic activity was perceived as serving public moral ends of justice, whether these be realized through church-imposed constraints on wages and prices, or through magistrates setting prices and providing relief to insure that the poor not starve. Church, state, and guilds were no longer to superintend economic activity; individuals would be left alone to seek their own self-interest in a free voluntary market, which through “an invisible hand” would produce the good of all. These Enlightenment ideals are associated principally with Adam Smith and the French physiocrats Turgot and Quesnay, but they pervade the era and are found in writers as disparate as Voltaire, Priestley, and Jefferson. So too, we should also note the fundamental unity of the Enlightenment’s message, for the economic liberals, the Smiths and the physiocrats, were as strongly committed to the principles of political and intellectual individualism as were the rest of the Enlightenment intellectuals.

Indeed, it is Smith who weaves together all the social strands of Enlightenment individualism with his striking insights into human nature. In commercial societies, Smith suggested, the individual was ever ambitious and striving. Every individual “seeks to better his own condition.” This ambition, Smith writes, is “a desire which comes with us from the womb and never leaves us until we go into the grave.” Life, he wrote, was “a race for wealth and honors and preferments.” Life is no longer a hierarchal ladder or chain of being. In commercial society, life is a race. This race should be fair; each and every runner in it should have an equal opportunity to win. Each competitor will “run as hard as he can, and strain every move and every muscle, in order to outrun all his competitors.” Interfering with other runners or seizing special advantages is “a violation of fair play.”12 But merit, talent, virtue, and ability are, alas, no sure indicators of success, because the church, the state, and the aristocracy are too involved in the race. By reserving offices, power, and authority for the privileged, they tilt the competition in favor of an idle aristocracy devoid of the talent and virtue of a Figaro—or a Mozart, for that matter.

We have here the powerful Enlightenment liberal ideal of equal opportunity and social mobility for self-made individuals. Figaro and his middle-class friends would use these ideals to storm the hierarchical bastions of privilege, and they would realize the universal Enlightenment ideal of a “career open to the talented” with the subversive egalitarian potential that would be realized in the American and French revolutions. But one must be careful in assessing the extent of the Enlightenment’s commitment to equality, of the philosophe’s real attitude to the people. There were class, gender, and racial restrictions in “the race of life.” An occasional uneducated poor man might make it into the competition, but strict barriers kept virtually all women and people of color from the starting line. Even the enlightened Mozart, for example, has racist and patriarchal themes in The Magic Flute.

The ideal of equality of opportunity at its origins was both an effort to reduce inequality and to perpetuate it. It appeared egalitarian because it lashed out at the exclusiveness of aristocratic and clerical privilege, but it sought to replace that secular and spiritual elite with a new meritocratic elite, albeit one more broadly based in talent and merit. Equality of opportunity is not really a theory of equality but one of justified and morally acceptable inequality. What can legitimize some having more than others? Only that all have had an equal opportunity to have more. Equality for Enlightenment liberalism really means fairness, no rigging of life’s rewards by priests or princes. Let all men who are not of color have an equal chance to win in the social competition that is the race of life, just as all claimants to truth compete freely in the marketplace of ideas.

Equal opportunity and a boundless optimistic faith in progress found their eighteenth-century home in America and her revolution, which appeared to many contemporaries to embody the Enlightenment in action. Her politics, after all, were utterly secular. While the Articles of Confederation gives credit to “the Great Governor of the world,” the Constitution has no mention of God whatsoever. Jefferson and Madison sought to evict religion from public life, while Anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution unsuccessfully criticized the new order as falsely based on the religion of nature and reason, neglectful of Christian virtue and morality. Condorcet described America as of all nations “the most enlightened, the freest and the least burdened by prejudices.”13 Its respect for human rights, he wrote, was a lesson for all the peoples of the world. He offered what would be the characteristic praise of America, where there were “no distinctions of class” and where property was secure and industry and hard work encouraged. There was no spiritual or political aristocracy in America, he wrote, “to hold a part of the human race in a state of humiliation, simplicity, and misery.”14 Diderot, in turn, saw America as “offering all the inhabitants of Europe an asylum against fanaticism and tyranny.”15 For Turgot the American people were “the hope of the human race, they may well become its model.”16 Tom Paine joined the chorus, writing that the cause of America was “the cause of all mankind.” Free of clerical and political tyranny, America was “an asylum for mankind.”17

If America was the embodiment and natural home of the Enlightenment, according to Europe’s advanced thinkers, then the American who best personified the Enlightenment ideal was Benjamin Franklin. A veritable cult of Franklin developed: English baby boys were named Benjamin and French artists painted Franklin as Turgot had described him: “He seized fire from the heavens and the scepter from the tyrant’s hand.” More than anyone, Franklin brought together Enlightenment politics and science. After his death Benjamin West gave his fellow Americans a mythic Franklin on canvas, which is used for the cover of this book. The heroic philosopher-scientist with his calculations in his left hand, his simple laboratory equipment in the corner, reaches his right arm to the kite string and the key while lightning shoots from the sky and the key to Franklin’s fist. Nature is harnassed by the hand of rational humanity, assisted as always at such meta-historic moments by helpful and hardworking cherubs.

Tocqueville later saw in America the realization of the Enlightenment spirit that he traced to Descartes. Like Descartes, he wrote, Americans instinctively doubted tradition and subjected the truth of all opinions to individual reason and judgment. For others, America represented a happy marriage of Enlightenment religious and social ideals. A close friend of Priestley wrote in 1784 that “the people of America have a saying—that God Almighty is Himself a mechanic, the greatest in the universe; and He is respected and admired more for the variety, ingenuity and utility of his handiwork than for the antiquity of His family.”18 To reinforce this Enlightenment conviction, there is also Jefferson writing in 1788 that “there is not a crowned head in Europe whose talents or merits would entitle him to be elected a vestryman by the people of any parish in America.”19

European crowned heads would fall in the years immediately following Jefferson’s boast, and in the French Revolution much of the Enlightenment’s agenda seemed to be realized, in some cases with a bloody vengeance. Parliamentary institutions and the Declaration of the Rights of Man replaced the politics of the aristocratic and monarchical old order. Feudal restrictions on individual economic activity were removed. Primogeniture, tithes, and obligatory service to the lord of the manor were replaced by new economic ideals focused on individual property rights and free-market principles. The state took over church property and schools and made the clergy civic employees. The revolutionaries waged a vigorous campaign to “de-Christianize” France, culminating in the replacement of Catholic dogma and clerical fanaticism by Temples of Reason in which the Supreme Being, the God of Nature, would be worshiped.

Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and the contributors to the Encyclopédie were by no stretch of the imagination political revolutionaries, but they have nonetheless been pilloried for creating a climate of intellectual distrust for traditional authority that made Revolution, and its excesses, possible. Rather unfairly, in fact, much of the debate over the Enlightenment these last two hundred years has focused on assessing its role in producing the French Revolution, as if that were the only basis for evaluation. Burke and de Maistre set forth the terms of discourse. The Revolution, according to Burke, was produced by a conspiracy of men of letters. He was proud that the British were “not the converts of Rousseau, not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvétius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers.”20 He prepared the ground for the nineteenth-century romantic assault on the Enlightenment with his suggestion that the power of reason in men was small and that they needed to be guided by feelings, emotion, historical tradition, custom, and a reverence for old ideas (prejudice) and old institutions (prescription). Deference to political hierarchy and established religion were restored as worthy social ideals by this gravedigger of the Enlightenment. The French clergyman de Maistre echoed Burke in his plea for respecting power and ideas that “have been established from time immemorial.” Like Burke he ridiculed the abstractions of Enlightenment thought, its tendency to invoke a priori ideals like the rights of man. The Enlightenment, for de Maistre, was guilty of the satanic sin of pride, seeking to give to man the power and insights of God. The “mad philosophes,” de Maistre wrote, sought with their “presumptuous wisdom ... to guide the universe.”21 These apostles of tolerance, humanity, intelligence, virtue, and reason, he thundered, had left France littered with corpses and tombs.

In the nineteenth century the battle continued. Liberals paid homage to the Enlightenment and invoked its individualistic vision of citizens voluntarily consenting to government, acting freely in the marketplace and thinking, publishing, and believing what they wanted to, without interference from church or state. Science and its seemingly unbounded power to tame nature, to ameliorate the human condition, and to fuel progress kept alive a vital part of the Enlightenment legacy. Conservatives, on the other hand, insisted on respect for the very authority the Enlightenment ridiculed, while the romantics replaced what they took to be the Enlightenment’s flawed and limited ideal of human reason with the richer potential of feeling, intuition, imagination, and spirit. Marxism was ambivalent about the Enlightenment. Marx and Engels were themselves products of Enlightenment optimism, with their assumptions about inevitable historical progress, their self-proclaimed scientism, and their dismissal of religion. Yet they also offered a full-blown critique of the Enlightenment, for the “kingdom of reason,” Engels wrote, “was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie.”22

The twentieth century, with two cataclysmic wars, the madness of the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags, has tragically tried the Enlightenment liberal’s faith in reason and optimistic belief in progress. The writings and work of Freud and his disciples have in their own way contributed to disenchantment with Enlightenment assumptions about rationality. Some, like Carl Becker and J. L. Talmon, have criticized the Enlightenment as an unrealistic quest for earthly perfection. For Becker, this is reminiscent of older Christian utopianism, simply substituting infinite terrestrial progress for the paradisiacal afterlife. For Talmon, the secular perfectionism of the Enlightenment is a dangerous anticipation of the social messianism he finds writ large in modem totalitarian movements. Becker and Talmon are, in their own ways, repeating the Burkian reaction John Adams felt on first reading Condorcet’s Outline of a Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind:

The public mind was improving in knowledge and the public heart in humanity, equity, and benevolence; the fragments of fuedality, the Inquisition, the rack, the cruelty of punishments, Negro slavery, were giving way etc. But the philosophers must arrive at perfection per saltum. Ten times more furious than Jack in The Tale of a Tub, they rent and tore the whole garment to pieces and left not one whole thread in it. They have even been compelled to resort to Napoleon, and Gibbon himself became an advocate for the Inquisition. What an amiable and glorious Equality, Fraternity, and Liberty they have now established in Europe.23

The twentieth century’s critique of the Enlightenment has been most subtly expressed by Theodore Adorno and Max Horkeimer, who, in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, lament that “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.”24 Following Adorno, a series of different thinkers argued against the Enlightenment’s faith in progress, instrumental reason, science, and human liberation. Writing from a Marxist perspective, Adomo, Horkeimer, and their later disciple Herbert Marcuse connected the project of the Enlightenment with late-capitalist “administered society.” The Enlightenment’s venerable claim to have demystified the world, argue Adorno and Horkeimer, was ultimately transformed into bourgeois domination. The critical edge of reason became “instrumental reason” or rationalization; the liberal society became the total system. The Enlightenment’s “disenchantment” of nature, Adorno and Horkeimer suggest, bore its final fruit in Auschwitz.

This Germanic Marxist critique was echoed by the Parisian avant garde, particularly Michael Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard. Foucault’s writings are punctuated by a deflation of the Enlightenment’s program for liberation and tolerance. In Madness and Civilization, Foucault argues both that Enlightenment “reason” was articulated by a careful “silencing” of what he calls “unreason,” and that nominally progressive modes of treatment were in fact dissimulated efforts of control. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault situates Enlightenment humanism in terms of the emergence of the modern prison system. He argues that the individual is not a subject of study or liberation but an effect of knowledge produced in “disciplinary” organizations (prisons, schools, the army, and so forth). Whereas Foucault takes aim at humanism and rationalism, Lyotard’s The Post-Modern Condition trumpets that the post-modem age has dispensed with all “myths of progress.” The Enlightenment (under which was subsumed Marxism as well), he claims, foundered on a specious “grand narrative.”

These often dire pronouncements are by no means identical, nor are they without complexity. Adomo’s understanding of the Enlightenment, after all, labors over what he calls a dialectical contradiction, in which the searching and critical projects of the Enlightenment (to which he is indebted) are inseparable from instrumental and dominating reason. Likewise Foucault’s later work, especially an essay on Kant’s What Is Enlightenment, reconsiders his summary dismissal of the Enlightenment. Perhaps most significant, however, Adorno’s heterodox student Jurgen Habermas has recast the Enlightenment as “an unfinished project” and has theorized at length on the possibility of rational democratic speech communities.

Postmodernist, feminist, and certain strands of communitarian thought reject in general what they take to be the Enlightenment’s inadequate conception of selfhood and individuality, with its ideal of a central autonomous self defined by its isolation and separateness. This Enlightenment self is uninvolved with relationships to others, its critics claim, and is mistakenly held to be the creative center of its world and of meaning. This solitary self is an empty self, unencumbered and un-situated, an autonomous master of its own destiny through self-generated voluntary agency, by which it dominates reality. In place of this false unique self, presumed by Enlightenment liberalism, these schools offer instead individuals as socially constructed, as never solitary but always involved in social relationships, selves shaped by history, tradition, and aspects of identity that society and social classes construct and over which individuals have little control. Rejection of the Enlightenment’s rampant individualism leads some of these critics, like pornography-censorship advocates, to call for shifting attention away from individual rights to a greater concern for community or group rights. With their insistence on complex webs of relationships, and the inevitably constraining power of community, tradition, and social construction over individuals, these most recent critics of the Enlightenment, whether they intend to or not, ironically often end with depictions of a social world that in some respects Enlightenment liberals had set out to destroy.

Not that the Enlightenment has lacked its vigorous defenders in recent decades. Peter Gay, for example, has not only deftly disposed of Becker’s indictment of the Enlightenment’s “heavenly city,” he has also offered a magisterial two-volume study that is an Enlightenment apologia for our times. More recent criticisms of the Enlightenment from conservatives and communitarians or from leftist postmodernists and feminists have been answered by a vigorous new school of neoliberals, which continues to plead for the Enlightenment liberal values of tolerance, individualism, and respect for rights.25

This brings us a long way from Mozart’s Temples of Wisdom, Reason, and Nature and from his Figaro insisting that Almaviva and his kind dance to the new tune that he and his self-made friends were playing. But Mozart’s Temples and his Figaro are, of course, still very much with us, as are the Enlightenment ideas and ideals he codified. How we respond to them, how we evaluate them today, ought not to be shaped, however, by how well authorities like Burke, Becker, Adorno, Talman, Habermas, or Gay have understood the Enlightenment. In the spirit of the Enlightenment itself, any assessment of it must be grounded on how each new reader responds on his or her own to the writings of the Enlightenment, which is why we offer this anthology.26


1 Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Boyd, et al. (Princeton, 1950), Jefferson to John Trumbull, 15 February 1789, vol. XIV, 561.

2 See this book, page 1.

3 See this book, page 133.

4 See this book, page 160.

5 Priestley, Reflections on the Present State of Free Inquiry in This Country (London, 1785), 101; F. W. Gibbs, Joseph Priestley (New York, 1967), 62.

6 See this book, page 74.

7 See this book, page 27.

8 See this book, pages 371, 375.

9 Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Ford (New York, 1905), vol. IX, 102; Priestley, Lectures on History and General Policy (London, 1782), 349.

10 See this oook, page 77.

11 See this book, page 266.

12 See this book, page 508, and Theory of Moral Sentiments (Edinburgh, 1759), vol. I, 188.

13 See this book, page 27.

14 See Nicholas Capaldi, The Enlightenment (New York, 1968), 268.

15 Cited in Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (New York, 1977), 577.

16 Ibid., 556.

17 T. Paine, Common Sense, ed. Kramnick (London, 1976), 120, 100.

18 T. Cooper, Some Information Respecting America (London, 1794), 230.

19 The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. E. Dumbauld (New York, 1955), 172.

20 Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. T. Mahoney (New York, 1955), 97.

21 Cited in William F. Church, The Influence of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution (Boston, 1964), 17.

22 Cited in Jack Lively, The Enlightenment (New York, 1966), 105.

23 Cited in Brinton, The Age of Reason (New York, 1956), 622.

24 Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York, 1969), 3.

25 See the writings of Don Herzog, Stephen Holmes, Amy Guttman, and Nancy Rosenblum.

26 The editor would like to thank Jim Fuerst and Louis Ayala for their help in preparing this Reader. Jonathan Brody Kramnick made important contributions to the introduction and Kimberley Shults and Michael Busch were invaluable in translating my handwriting to the printed page.