Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe (1770-1945): Texts and Commentaries - Vol. 1

By Balázs Trencsényi; Michal Kopeček | Go to book overview
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INTRODUCTION

László Kontler: The Enlightenment in Central Europe?

The question mark at the end of my title is intended as a reminder of the, still, problematic nature of these terms, especially when used in combination with one another. Happily, the editors save me the effort of explicating the second one: heuristically, 'Central Europe' here stands for what was once the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Habsburg Monarchy—and that is just about as acceptable as any (or several) other notions of the same. But what about the Enlightenment in these lands? Did they have one?

The question is not as trivial as it might look at first glance. On the linguistic evidence, the answer should be surely and unhesitatingly in the affirmative. There was oświecenie (Pl. 'enlightenment'2), there were promoters of világ or világosság (Hun. 'light') as well as patriots regarded as prosvitljeni or rasvečeni (Cro. 'enlightened') even if only buditelé (Cz. 'awakeners'3—forerunners of the National Awakening). Nevertheless, until relatively recently the underlying ideas of authoritative approaches to the Enlightenment rendered, in the final analysis, all claims inherent in this vocabulary unserious. We were told that the Enlightenment was, for better or worse, the instrumentalization of reason, the disenchantment of the world: man's confidence—or conceit, depending on the perspective—that he could become the master of nature by expelling the element of wonder from it; a 'modern paganism,' a secular utopia erected by its champions, a petit troupeau des philosophes, on the power of critical reason to bring and adjudicate tradition and prejudice before its tribunal.4 'Enlightenment' inevitably came to be measured by proximity to a standard which was anti-clerical and freethinking, whose tendency was antithetical to (at least, revealed) religion and could well be materialistic, and subversive of other authorities as well. The epicenter from which all of these rays of Enlightenment were supposed to be disseminated was, of course, Paris, with some secondary or subsidiary points of orientation for those who listened to the call of the times. By definition, recipients would produce belated and more or less faint replicas of the original—

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