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From Diderot to Charlie Hebdo, what were the enlightenments?

A rational discussion in a French salon. Wikimedia

On July 14, 1936, the 147th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, members of the French Popular Front, the broad progressive coalition against fascism, paraded through Paris. The people’s banners bore portraits of three heroes of the 18th century French enlightenment: Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau.

Perhaps some amongst the January 2015 rallies in solidarity with those killed by Islamist extremists from the satirical rag Charlie Hebdo might have been aware of this august heritage.

Denis Diderot for his part had never been shy of the kinds of indiscretion Charlie Hebdo had made its daily fare. At the end of the 1740s, the novelist, pamphleteer, encyclopaedist, and agitator found himself for a time in the Bastille for his Letters on the Blind, for the Purposes of those who can See.

Several of the most famous works of Voltaire, meanwhile, (that wit into whose hands “hell had poured all its powers”, as reactionary Joseph de Maistre raged) were satires like the hilariously irreverent Candide.

Posterity has widely attributed to the same Voltaire the bon mot that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The defence of the right of pamphleteers to criticise, even mock, other peoples’ convictions while fearing no physical harm, nor prosecution by the state, marks out one of the still-contested heritages of the European enlightenment or enlightenments.

There are many others: feminism; calls for the separation of church and state and wider dissemination of education amongst the population; defences of the liberties of citizens against arbitrary persecution by the state; the first argued oppositions to the death penalty; advocacy for the freedoms of conscience, expression, and religious conviction and practice, this side of harming others.

Yet in much learned opinion, the 18th century enlightenment has not had a great seven decades, since the unlikely alliance of Soviet communism and the Western liberal democracies defeated Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany: a regime that (Goebbels gloated) aimed to erase the legacies of 1789 from the historical map.

There is an old joke: how many postmodernists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer? None: the enlightenment is dead.

In another unlikely alliance, since the 1970s, postmodern cultural critics have joined forces, often unknowingly, with neoconservatives in Europe, the US and elsewhere. All impugn the enlightenment as more akin to what one intellectual father of the ‘neocons’, Leo Strauss, called an “Obfuscation.”

The enlightenment, or enlightenments, were never uncontroversial.

Voltaire was forcibly shuffled from Paris to the provinces, then Frederick’s Germany, then from there to neutral Switzerland, in his ongoing campaigns to proselytise for the sciences, oppose violent prejudices, and encourage ‘natural religion’ for a few and religious toleration for all.

One Catholic critic accused him of being en confiance with the devil, even going so far as to publish some of the diabolical partners’ supposed correspondence.

The French revolution, many of whose votaries drew inspiration from Rousseau, also soon attracted critical fire.

First came Edmund Burke in the United Kingdom (whose “great revolution” had been eminently more civil). Then came European reactionary thinkers like the afore-mentioned Joseph de Maistre. At least one of them (Monsieur de Bonald) speculated in all piety that this event was ushering in the apocalypse.

It is fair to say that the German volkisch authors of the 19th century, deeply anti-liberal, anti-modern, and deeply convinced of German cultural and racial superiority, very soon began to decry the “shallow materialism” of their urbanite, cosmopolitan French cousins.

It is more surprising that the enlightenment has been so widely disowned by cultural critics whom the Murdoch Press globally has turned a lively trade vilifying as “left-wing elites”.

Yet with the collapsing credibility of Soviet Marxism after the war, and then the revolutionary overturning of the West’s colonial possessions in the global South, many cultural critics have adapted many of the longstanding motifs of the reactionary criticisms of “the enlightenment”.

This enlightenment, we are told, was characterised by a naïve, dogmatic faith in human reason to supplant religion and reshape the world in its own image. It was fatally attracted to utopian visions of total social renewal whose practical results have, universally, been disastrous.

Its confidence in human reason vindicated a deeply intolerant attitude towards other, religiously-based cultures. Its white progenitors’ humanitarian ideals concealed and abetted their continuing racial prejudices, and colonial, global profiteering.

Its touted sciences have delivered human beings from material want. But they have robbed the world of all the enchantments that once captivated and enriched our souls.

Its advertised universalism has smuggled in, and served to rationalise to this day, particularist agendas of Western self-aggrandisement.

In an enthusiastic but in many ways representative work, Requiem for Modern Politics, our author thus makes it clear that, Popular Front notwithstanding, when we point to Voltaire, Diderot or Rousseau, we point to the sources (circa 1750) of just about all of 21st century evils:

Explosive population growth, widespread habitat destruction, disastrous pollution, and every other aspect of ecological devastation; increasing crime and violence, runaway addictions of every kind, the neglect or abuse of children, and every other form of social breakdown; antinomianism, nihilism, millenarianism, and every other variety of ideological madness; hyper-pluralism, factionalism, administrative despotism, and every other manifestation of democratic decay; weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, the structural poverty of underdevelopment, and many other global pathologies …

There are arguably several problems with these views of the enlightenment which, after 2007, we might say have become almost “too big to fail” in parts of the culturosphere.

The most basic of them, as a collection on Postmodernism and the Enlightenment by experts in the history of 18th century ideas sets out to show, is that they happen to be largely untrue to their objects.

One forthright respondent, reviewing this book, has gone as far as to charge postmodern critics of trafficking in “ignorant prejudices” about the 18th century authors and debates. This is strong fare.

One of the dreams of Diderot, underlying his lifelong obsession with compiling a global Encyclopaedia of all forms of human knowledge, was the unification of knowledge across different fields.

Certainly, the reader today who crosses disciplines between some areas of philosophy or the social sciences into the history of ideas faces an extraordinary surprise, when it comes to the “century of light”.

For historians of ideas barely agree that there was “one” intellectual movement called “the enlightenment”, let alone that all of its progenitors agreed on every thing.

Anyone who has spent a little time with lettered gens will know how unlikely it is that two or more of us, except if we are disciples of one common master, will agree on any two given things.

As it turns out, nearly everyone amongst the “lumieres” disagreed with Rousseau (the man and the arguments), not least Diderot.

Voltaire, this scourge of French Catholicism, spent the last ten years of his life fighting campaigns on two fronts, on one front against the French Church, and on the other, the radical materialists led by Helvétius and d’Holbach.

Then there is the question of different national enlightenments, beginning with the competing Dutch and English movements of the 17th century.

One of the most influential recent accounts by historian Jonathan Israel wants to divide the different national movements along one, bifurcating axis, in effect doubling the number again.

On one side, there are more radical figures like Helvétius or la Mettrie in France, their ideas hearkening back to the Dutch pantheist Baruch de Spinoza and looking forward to later modern democracies.

In the other camp, there are “moderate lumieres” (of whom Israel is less fond) on both sides of the channel. These figures were more sceptical, and unconvinced that the world could be wholly explained on a solely “immanent” basis (through science and reason alone).

They were also more inclined to advocate for political reform, accommodating le monde comme il va while trying to change it, rather than aiming at a complete revolutionary overthrow of all pre-standing modes and orders.

Faced with so many enlighteners and enlightenments, it is unsurprising that nearly each of the one-dimensional postmodern, neoconservative images of this intellectual moment in European cultural history turn out to be one-sided.

Far from wide-eyed rationalist fundamentalists, many of the leading lights of the “century of light” were litterateurs. Practising what they preached, they were convinced of the need to write works of imaginative literature to bring enlightenment to wider reading audiences across Europe.

Anyone who has read Voltaire’s Candide, a literary satire directed against the kind of Rationalist “optimism” that had led the philosopher Leibniz to propose to prove a priori that this world was “the best of all possible worlds” will know how bizarre it is to suppose that Voltaire was a capital “R” Rationalist, rather than a sceptically humane defender of critical reasoning.

The only moral theory of the enlightenment, before the late-coming German philosopher Immanuel Kant, built its calls for respect for all peoples on the “moral sentiments” of human beings. Reason, that “slave to the passions” (David Hume), does and should play second fiddle to our empathetic imaginative capacities to identify with the feelings, aspirations and perspectives of others.

Far from ushering in universal godlessness, the enlightenments of the 17th and 18th centuries saw the proliferation of different Christian and post-Christian forms of religion. One of these was the Deism of figures like Voltaire. For this perspective, a life lived “with goodness, justice, virtue and humanity” is the true temple of God.

Far from unself-critical Europhiles, Voltaire and others got themselves into trouble with regnant authorities for suggesting that their Chinese contemporaries, and China’s much older Confucian civilisation, seemed to be a good deal more enlightened than anything or anyone in 18th century Europe.

Smith, Diderot and Abbé Raynal, meanwhile, were amongst the first white authors to criticise global European colonialism – a practice which had begun under the aegis of the one and universal Church, when the Spanish and Portuguese benignly divided the entire globe between themselves in the mid-15th century.

To underscore, this was some time before Montesquieu penned his (again scandalously impartial) Persian Letters in the early 1720s, sounding the first notes of the French enlightenments, or Diderot found himself learning about the Bastille from the inside three decades later.

There is an old story that Chairman Mao once responded to the question “what do you think of 1789?” with a rare flash of wit: “it is too soon to tell”.

Debates about the nature and legacy of the 18th century enlightenment or enlightenments in Europe remain divisive. They are central to many disciplines in the social sciences.

This is because it is arguably “too soon to tell” what all the outcomes of this profoundly important moment in European history are and will be.

How will different nations respond to the threats to civic peace posed by extremists claiming authority from different religious traditions as the justifications for their violences? Will they do so by giving up on the political and civil liberties won since the later 17th century?

How will modern societies continue to balance toleration for different religious and cultural traditions with requirements of functional social unity, and the ability to forthrightly parry continuing fundamentalist charges that toleration is code for “relativism” or “weakness”, not a precondition for civility in multicultural societies?

How will countries like Australia respond to the growing challenges posed by neofascist movements like United Patriot’s Front, each very much hostile to the legacies of the enlightenments, and many looking back explicitly to precedents in the interwar fascist movements which swept Europe in the catastrophic wake of the first World War?

That we will continue to face and debate these and many other questions bequeathed us by the enlightenments, and that so many dissenting voices about the “century of light” remain, is itself one of these enlightenments’ many, not always comforting, cultural legacies.

But whichever way our reason, different upbringings, and competing passions direct us, we surely must make every effort to rightly understand what the enlightenments were and are – so we can, amongst other things, also be wholly clear about just what we will be laying aside if we turn our backs on their contested legacies, and continuing challenges to us today.

Deakin University will host an event on ‘Rethinking the Enlightenment’ with leading Australasian and international keynotes, December 16-17 2015.

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