Rehabilitating the Enlightenment?

By Hartle, Ann | Modern Age, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Rehabilitating the Enlightenment?


Hartle, Ann, Modern Age


The Enlightement: History of an Idea by Vincenzo Ferrone, trans. Elisabetta Tarantino (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015)

Western civilization, we are told, has entered a post-Enlightenment, postmodern, and post-Christian era. The horrors of the twentieth century--totalitarianism, the Holocaust, two world wars--have destroyed every illusion about the ability of autonomous human reason to transform the world into the heavenly city of the eighteenth-century philosophers. A post-Enlightenment era must be a postmodern and post-Christian era because the origins of the Enlightenment are to be found in the sixteenth century: the meaning of the Enlightenment is inseparable from the meaning of modernity as such. The Protestant Reformation had destroyed the unity of Christendom, and modern philosophy had turned from the contemplation of reality to the Cartesian "subject," freeing philosophy from its status as handmaiden to theology.

Ferrone's book is a defense of the Enlightenment, not for the sake of Western civilization, but for the sake of the European Union. "The new united Europe that is on the rise," he says, "badly needs to find again its authentic roots" in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. To make this defense, he must argue against the view that sees in the Enlightenment the cause of the French Revolution with its Reign of Terror, the horror that foreshadowed the unspeakable atrocities of our own day. Because philosophers such as Hegel, Horkheimer, and Adorno argue that there is indeed a necessary connection between the Enlightenment and the Terror, Ferrone must argue for the separation of the historical understanding from the philosophical understanding of the Enlightenment. Somehow, by giving a historical account, with all the complexities, contingencies, and discontinuities of the eighteenth century, the inevitability of the connection between the Enlightenment and the Terror, he believes, will begin to fade from sight, and the Enlightenment can be seen as a relatively innocuous "cultural revolution," a kind of reformation of the Old Regime.

But, contrary to Ferrone, it is impossible to separate the historical from the philosophical precisely in the case of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is an "idea." (The subtitle of the book is History of an Idea) In fact, it is a new idea. What is an idea? An idea in the modern sense is not the way in which the mind is conformed to reality, the way in which the mind is "measured" by what actually is, or the adequation of the intellect to being. On the contrary, an idea is a production of the mind itself. The Enlightenment is a new idea of how things ought to be. As Ferrone insists, philosophers of the Enlightenment wanted to "change our reality" and "to change the world through ideas." The Enlightenment is the project of making the world conform to its own idea, to the "dreams" of the philosophers.

The philosophers, then, on account of their "moral superiority," constituted a "new elite," a "new aristocracy," replacing all traditional elites. This new intellectual elite was "determined to change the way people thought" and thus to change the world order. The Enlightenment was "the laboratory of modernity." History was, in effect, the laboratory of the philosophers.

Ferrone argues that the unifying principle and defining trait of the Enlightenment is the idea of "the emancipation of man through man." The Enlightenment was an "emancipation project" intended to create a "new civilization" grounded in the autonomy and centrality of man. First and foremost, then, it is the emancipation from religion and the elimination of transcendence in favor an "entirely immanent standpoint." Voltaire, for example, saw no need for a religious foundation based on revelation in order to establish the new universal morality. Jesus Christ was a great and admirable man, but only a man.

Yet, most Enlightenment philosophers did recognize the need for religion as a support for the social bond. …

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