Book Notes: “The Enlightenment on Trial” (2017)

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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19 Responses

  1. I’ve heard that the very notion of the Enlightenment was created as anti-Catholic propaganda – a distinctly inclusive and rational, Protestant culture, free from the papist yoke. I’m curious what your thoughts on this are.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      There was a lot of Enlightment in 18th century France, which was definitely anti-clerical and anti ‘Big Church’, but in no way pro-Protestant.Report

    • From my study of the American Founding, Protestantism and Enlightenment really seriously bled together and anti-Papism was one of the threads that connected them.

      You have a figure like Ezra Stiles who was a hard core orthodox Protestant at the time of the French Revolution and he supported the revolution when it started to get really out of hand and made rationalizations for it.

      You also had Enlightenment oriented unitarians — Richard Price and Joseph Priestley — who believed in sacred scripture and prophesies like Daniel and Book of Revelation which they predicted the success of the French Revolution would usher in a millennial republic of liberty, equality and fraternity.Report

    • I have some issues with Jonathan Israel, but I am increasingly sympathetic to his idea that what he calls “radical enlightenment” basically begins with Spinoza and is much more strongly skeptical about religion than the “moderate enlightenment”, which even tended towards a sort of Puritanism in some of the Rousseauian wings. One of the things I found interesting in this particular book is that, even where they were more inclined to use the secular law courts, most of these colonial people still seemed fairly loyal to the Church.Report

  2. Burt Likko says:

    I am massively heartened by the notion that the act of pursuing one’s rights in a civil court has been identified as the defining act of the average person experiencing and making real the ideals of the Enlightenment.

    I am also massively heartened by the cognate notion that the kings and queens of the late Renaissance were persuaded to open the courts thus. A debt we owe not just to the philosophes of the Enlightenment, but to their predecessors the Humanists in those same Renaissance royal courts.

    An open, independent, unbiased, and transparent judicial system, affording fair process and an opportunity to be heard to all, is at the bedrock of that concert of notions made real — the rule of law, a fair society, governmental legitimacy — which make up the greatest legacy our ancestors could possibly have left us and which we must consider it among our highest of duties to pass on, intact and strengthened if possible, to future generations.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    You establish an ideal of universal rights, blind justice, and Enlightenment and, next thing you know, you’ve got the riff-raff arguing that this crap should apply to them too.

    I’m almost scared to go back and re-read what Nietzsche said was likely to happen after this part. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t good.Report

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I’m skeptical about the notion that slaves in Spanish colonies were instrumental in whatever is meant by “liberation theology that so dominates Western thought,” particularly if that is supposed to mean abolition.

    I think the history of slave liberation contains fundamental ironies. While slavery in some form or another has existed in all parts of the world, it died of apparent natural causes in Northwestern Europe (France and England) by the fifteenth century. Due to constant friction with the Islamic world, slavery remained a constant reality in the Mediterranean sphere regulated by a legal framework supplied by Roman civil law. The English did not recognize any such continuity with Roman civil law, had no laws regarding slavery, and none of its eminent jurists set out to even discuss the matter.

    None of this prevented England from becoming a major actor in the transatlantic slave trade, but as the only such power that did not create an imperial slave code, the blank space remained open for continuous debate. This leads to the simple observation by Lords Mansfield in the Sommerset case (1772) that there is no law authorizing slavery, and the first state to pass a law to abolish slavery, Vermont (1775). And eventually to British Imperialism ending the legal recognition of that from most countries other than Haiti and the U.S.

    When I think of the concept of Enlightenment, I don’t think about tinkering within the framework of millennia-old laws, but of something more revolutionary, like there will be no slavery.

    Recommended reading: Seymour Drescher, “Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery.”Report

  5. aaron david says:

    “An open, independent, unbiased, and transparent judicial system, affording fair process and an opportunity to be heard to all, is at the bedrock of that concert of notions made real — the rule of law, a fair society, governmental legitimacy”

    Bares repeating.

    the rule of law, a fair society, governmental legitimacy
    lotta people don’t see that

    Not who ya think though…

    Great piece Rufas.Report