Book Notes: “Enemies of the Enlightenment” by Darrin M McMahon

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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23 Responses

  1. JoeSal
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    The primary oppresive social constructs of the time were the cross and crown. The path to moving sovereinty more toward the individual was to use philosophy as the solvent to deconstruct.

    Today the oppresive constructs are crown and political correctness. The path to moving sovereinty more toward the individual is to use philosophy as the solvent to deconstruct.

    The idea of deconstructing the biological family was a foolish notion. The biological family is not a social construct but a biological construct, and a necessary one in the reproduction of man.

    If using philosophy is a solvent/tool to use to deconstruct social constructs, then why isn’t it seen as primarily a instrument of the rightward?

    Jay used the term ‘bastard children of the enlightenment’ once, and i often wonder what he meant.Report

    • InMD in reply to JoeSal
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      Remember the other thread where I mentioned philosophy versus history? I think the answer is in our own confused history of radical Protestantism and how it influences culture and our own vector as a polity. By breaking away from Britain pre-French revolution we’ve put ourselves on a slightly different path.Report

      • JoeSal in reply to InMD
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        I do remember. I think also that Marx was over there and Josiah Warren was over here. (They had actually seen the Owenites fail.) I continue to think that was the divergent point of how America was on a different path.
        It might also explains to a degree why rightward anarchy is found mostly/only here.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to JoeSal
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      There was a book that came out in the 90’s that blew me away called Voltaire’s Bastards (John Ralston Saul). In it he talks about The Enlightenment and some of the things it pulled off and how we’re half-assedly not even really trying to do the things that it attempted with its full ass.

      We’re not children of the Enlightenment, really.
      We’re the Enlightenment’s bastards.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to JoeSal
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      I mean, yeah and no- families will definitely exist even if you hope to abolish them, but the exact forms they take are more culturally specific. Most of us haven’t been in arranged marriages, but there are parts of the world where they are common, and they used to be the norm in Europe as well as certain immigrant communities in America. Similarly, there are parts of the world where bigamy is seen as natural. The nuclear family, meanwhile, has a fairly short history- too short to say with certainty that it works better or worse than extended families or tribes.

      Where the philosophes had a point was the family in pre-modern Europe was seen as analogous to the crown or the church: you had a father figure with complete authority and, as long as that authority was not diminished, the family was healthy. This is fine, provided Dad’s not a drunk, a layabout, an abuser, or otherwise deficient. If so, you’re pretty much stuck with it because it’s the natural chain of being. It’s a bit like democracy- it’s preferable to other forms of government not because it produces better leaders, but it allows you to get rid of bad ones.

      On the other hand, we still treat divorce glibly. I read somewhere that 1/3rd of men don’t really get over their divorce. Certainly, neither of my parents ever really did. We tend to treat it as a civil contract- and those are easy to break through the law. But, there is something to the idea that the way to stay married is to not divorce, if that makes sense. (I trust it does for longtime marrieds)

      But, again, if dad’s a p.o.s. then patriarchy doesn’t work so well.Report

      • JoeSal in reply to Rufus F.
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        If dad’s a p.o.s. the biological construct doesn’t work well either. Which means when choosing a mate in either social or biological construct it is to a females( and males) advantage to not choose a pos partner.

        Now as far as efficiency of reproducing people, it is hard to argue there is something more efficient or self governing than the biological construct of a family.

        Not to say it is perfectly efficient.Report

  2. Rufus F.
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    This I was confused by- Jay said sort of the same thing in the other thread and, honestly, I’m not sure I really understand:
    “If using philosophy is a solvent/tool to use to deconstruct social constructs, then why isn’t it seen as primarily a instrument of the rightward?”

    I mean, conservatism and the right-wing defined themselves from the beginning in opposition to philosophy and in defense of social stability and hierarchies, which they didn’t see as constructs. Jaybird said in the other thread he’s a conservative because he’s a huge supporter of the Enlightenment. I mean, I think I know where y’all are going with this, but…

    Voltaire’s Bastards is a great book- I haven’t read it since undergrad, but I think the idea was the Enlightenment was much more radical than we remember. It was certainly corrosive of the social order, whereas “conservatisme” was largely trying to remind us that we need the social order and that far worse things can come out of its collapse. Where I think we’re stuck is they were both right. Besides, as someone once said, those in power tend to do far more to bring themselves down than their critics ever do.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F.
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      If we define “conservativism” as little more than “how my parents said they did things when they were kids”, modern conservativism is little more than a desire to return to the… 80’s? 90’s?

      If “progressivism” is little more than “how we’re doing things now is bad, they could be so much better, here: read this theory! Now let’s change things!”, then progressivism only changes targets, not tactics.

      And today’s progressive is tomorrow’s reactionary. Wistfully remembering the days when we had old conservatives that were overcomeable with yesterday’s progressive thought. Kids today just don’t appreciate how much better yesterday’s progressive thought was.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird
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        I agree that ‘conservatism’ shouldn’t just be “let’s go back to whatever was going on a few generations ago,” but I do think there are some fairly consistent ideas. So, for instance, the idea that social order is fragile and precious and we should prefer incremental changes that preserve social stability over burning it down and starting over again- that seems like a fairly standard conservative idea. Same with the idea that traditions preserve some sort of wisdom or we wouldn’t be handing them down. At least those two ideas I would consider fairly perennial among those calling themselves conservatism, right?Report

  3. Marchmaine
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    Well now we’re wandering into my neighborhood. My oldest and best pal from Grad School edited and translated Critics of the Enlightenment which is an anthology of texts from François-René de Chateaubriand, Louis de Bonald, Joseph de Maistre, Frédéric Le Play, Émile Keller, and René de La Tour du Pin.

    I think it’s a bit of misdirection to say the ‘conservative’ tradition is anti-philosophy when in this context it is anti-Philosophe. But that’s rather the heart of the matter, the Enlightenment wasn’t the liberation of philosophy it was (among other things) the substitution of a new method of rational inquiry that carries within it the seeds of own critique. It ultimately isn’t better, and itself falls victim to its own successor rationality. We think ourselves Enlightenment thinkers, but we’re not. But here I’m mostly following MacIntyre.

    I do, however, take your point that most of the plain writing was in defense of the order of society and its natural antecedents; I wish I could point to Bonald and say he nailed it… but best I can do is say one should read Bonald et. al. to understand the Enlightenment and why it failed the way it did.Report

  4. Rufus F.
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    Ohhh believe me- I am very happy to wander into these particular weeds.

    You’re right. It is a bit unfair to say the conservatives were anti-philosophy, but they did come out of a tradition of let’s say “resistance” to the philosophes and perhaps of unease with the implications of 18th century philosophy. Of those writers you mentioned, I’m probably best acquainted with Chateaubriand, who took part in a fairly vigorous campaign against the philosophes in defense of Christianity, after returning from exile in 1800, but sort of moderated his stance over time. And his real target quickly became Napoleon.

    Really, what muddies the waters when we talk of these things is the polemical tradition in French culture. The camps loved to divide themselves against each other. Even the Romantics were fairly well reconciled with the Enlightenment and Classicism too. They spoke about it as somewhat of a catastrophe, but in practice treated it more as incomplete than corrupt. There are several registers of human experience beyond the realm of wit and reason. I tend to think of the critiques as broadening the Enlightenment more than killing it off.

    But, the people McMahon is dealing with? They were insistent that they were saving their nation from Satan himself, or at least his servants.Report

  5. gabriel conroy
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    This is far, far from my bailiwick (and I haven’t read the book to boot), but this type of statement always bothers me a little (bold added by me):

    ….opposition to Modernity is an intractable element of Modernity and is deeply religious in nature. The book was likely written for readers who, it was assumed, needed this reminder.

    To be clear, my problem isn’t with your rendering of the book (again, I haven’t read it, and I trust that you’ve probably got it right), it’s the old trope where, “X is opposed to Y is actually a part of Y all along.” I see that a lot. I’ve even said similar things, too. But there seems to be something a bit question-begging about it. There’s also something a bit snide, too. I have a hard time putting my finger on it, but it’s almost as if the person is saying, “what the opponents are saying doesn’t make any sense because they’re part of what they’ve been opposing all along.”

    It’s hard to explain why I don’t like it. It’s also possible I’ve got it wrong, too.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to gabriel conroy
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      From Genealogy of Morals (scroll down to 27):

      It is much rather only one of its last stages of development, one of its concluding forms and innerly logical outcomes. It demands reverence, this catastrophe of two thousand years of breeding for the truth which concludes by forbidding itself the lie of a faith in God. (The same process of development in India, which was fully independent of Europe and therefore proof of something—this same ideal forced things to a similar conclusion. The decisive point was reached five centuries before the European calendar, with Buddha, or more precisely, with the Sankhya philosophy. For this was popularized by Buddha and made into a religion.) Putting the question as forcefully as possible, what really triumphed over the Christian God? The answer stands in my Gay Science, p. 290: “Christian morality itself, the increasingly strict understanding of the idea of truthfulness, the subtlety of the father confessor of the Christian conscience, transposed and sublimated into scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price. To look at nature as if it were a proof of the goodness and care of a god, to interpret history in such a way as to honour divine reason, as a constant testament to a moral world order and moral intentions, to interpret one’s own experiences, as devout men have interpreted them for long enough, as if everything was divine providence, everything was a sign, everything was thought out and sent for the salvation of the soul out of love—now that’s over and done with. That has conscience against it. Among more sensitive consciences that counts as something indecent, dishonest, as lying, feminism, weakness, cowardice. With this rigour, if with anything, we are good Europeans and heirs to Europe’s longest and bravest overcoming of the self. All great things destroy themselves by an act of self-cancellation. That’s what the law of life wills, that law of the necessary “self-overcoming” in the essence of life—eventually the call always goes out to the lawmaker himself, “patere legem, quam ipse tulisti” [submit to the law which you yourself have established]. That’s the way Christianity was destroyed as dogma by its own morality; that’s the way Christendom as morality must now also be destroyed. We stand on the threshold of this event. After Christian truthfulness has come to a series of conclusions, it will draw its strongest conclusion, its conclusion against itself. However, this will occur when it poses the question: “What is the meaning of all will to truth?” Here I move back again to my problem, to our problem, my unknown friends (—for I still don’t know anything about friends): what sense would our whole being have if not for the fact that in us that will to truth became aware of itself as a problem? . . . Because this will to truth from now on is growing conscious of itself, morality from now on is dying—there’s no doubt about that. That great spectacle in one hundred acts, which remains reserved for the next two centuries in Europe, that most fearful, most questionable, and perhaps also most hopeful of all spectacles . . .

      He went nuts after this. Or maybe he was already nuts when he wrote it.

      Anyway, he’s seeing the same thing.Report

      • gabriel conroy in reply to Jaybird
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        I went a little bit nuts reading it, though to be honest, I didn’t read it closely enough to actually understand it. A failing on my part, I’m sure.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to gabriel conroy
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          I probably gave waaaaay too much context. Let me distill it down to a few sentences (that I will edit and add emphasis to):

          That’s the way Christianity was destroyed as dogma by its own morality; that’s the way Christendom as morality must now also be destroyed. We stand on the threshold of this event. After Christian truthfulness has come to a series of conclusions, it will draw its strongest conclusion, its conclusion against itself. However, this will occur when it poses the question: “What is the meaning of all will to truth?” Here I move back again to my problem, to our problem: what sense would our whole being have if not for the fact that in us that will to truth became aware of itself as a problem?Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to gabriel conroy
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      Well, it’s likely that I’m getting his argument right, but expressing it too simply.

      What I think he’s getting at is something that historians have pointed out for a while, which is that you get a good number of people in the era after say, 1789, who call themselves defenders of tradition against a supposed onslaught of modernity. What exactly that means varies, but in general commercial, democratic, secular society is held to be corrosive of traditional ways. What historians have pointed out is that those defenders of tradition tend to be far less traditional than they want to admit and the traditions they defend are often largely invented.

      So, on one hand, it’s a simple logical circularity that you can’t have defenders of tradition against modernity without having modernity to weaken traditions. But even groups of so-called “fundamentalists” tend to be shaped more than they hope to admit by the big bads of commercial, secular, liberal democratic society.

      However, I would agree with you that it’s snide and a bit unfair to say that they can’t really oppose Modernity because they’re a part of Modernity. I think most of us have very mixed feelings about the world we’ve inherited, which makes them no less valid.Report

      • gabriel conroy in reply to Rufus F.
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        Thanks so much for your comment–and for clarifying the argument.

        On a tangential note, but somewhat related (er, because it’s a “tangent”), I remember taking a philosophy of science class as an undergrad. When the question of whether “science is value free” came up, the right answer we were supposed to give was, “saying science is value free is itself a value statement (and therefore science isn’t value free).” That irked me for reasons that the above quoted argument irked me, even though it was correct that . (Of course, you, and the author, have a point about how tradition is invented and how the ant-modernists have/had already adopted many of the elements of modernity.) That said, I might be giving short shrift to that class and that professor.Report

        • gabriel conroy in reply to gabriel conroy
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          And to be clear, I’m sometimes guilty of exactly the same thing. I’ve been known, from time to time, to suggest that atheists (or at least “some” atheists) actually demonstrate they believe in god by the nature of their opposition to the notion of a god. If I took my realization further, maybe I’d actually admit to myself, “hey, if it doesn’t feel good when people do it to me and mine, maybe I shouldn’t do it to them and theirs.” I confess that I’m not quite there yet.Report

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