Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Beyond Good and Evil: The Neo-Cons' Favourite Philosophy Had a Distinctly Seamy Side, Finds John Gray

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Beyond Good and Evil: The Neo-Cons' Favourite Philosophy Had a Distinctly Seamy Side, Finds John Gray

Article excerpt

It is not surprising that Enlightenment thinking has become fashionable again: in uncertain times, people turn to the security promised by faith. For the signatories of the Euston Manifesto as for American neoconservatives, the cure for our contemporary ills is clear: back to the Enlightenment. For these people the Enlightenment is a holy amulet, able to ward off the evil forces of terrorism and religion while offering sanctuary to endangered liberal values.

They are half right: liberal values are certainly at risk, but it is silly to look to the Enlightenment to safeguard them. It was a hugely complex movement, and some of its most influential thinkers were enemies of liberalism. Karl Marx allowed liberal values only a transitional role in human development, while Auguste Comte, founder of the influential positivist movement, rejected ideals of toleration and equality. Yet this was not simply a battle of ideas. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the anti-liberal strand of Enlightenment thinking gave birth to the "scientific racism" that would be adopted by the Nazis. This ideology can be traced back to Kant's lectures on anthropology, published in 1798, in which he maintained, for instance, that Africans are inherently disposed to slavery.

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As an intellectual movement, the Enlightenment has always had a distinctly seamy side. In its political incarnation, it was one of the factors that shaped modern-day terror. Right-thinking French philosophes campaigned for the prohibition of torture, but their ideas also gave birth to the Jacobin Terror that followed the French revolution. …

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