Enlightenment Now, Please
Ignorance. Ironically and cleverly, and I daresay even deliberately, it’s the word with which Steven Pinker ends his latest work, Enlightenment Now. It meets the tired eye like a subtle coda of a discordant type. Deftly placed, it’s the word upon which the eye finally rests. But, lest you think that you’ll close this book and, turning from it, walk away thinking ignorant thoughts as the placement of this final word may lead you to believe, or having a darkened mind, or shivering with a cold, benighted view, I’m writing to assure you that this won’t be the case. If, perchance, after having read this book, you do happen to find yourself in a state of being that’s actually more and not less ignorant than that state in which the book found you, it’s no fault of the erudite and optimistic Pinker. If you leave this book a hopeless ignoramus, as to it you wretchedly came, it’s only by way of your voluntary commitment to remaining in the dark. And when ignorance is voluntary, as the ever-enlightened Dr. Samuel Johnson once remarked, it’s downright criminal.
Pinker, the Canadian-turned-Harvardian psychologist, linguist, and current intellectual star will lead you like Virgil led Dante through the course of the most important development in the intellectual life of civilized man. He will be your captain as you chart the minds of the Enlightenment’s great thinkers and navigate the new worlds that they found and whose discoveries we now take as our own. He’ll be your learned astronomer as you look above to the constellations, in which these immortal minds still live. There, as beautiful sparks, he’ll show you their collective and enduring luminescence and import. Only in this knowledge and in this pursuit of the unknown can humanity better orient itself north to yet further improvement and undiscovered lands. That said, his exaltation and defense of the Enlightenment is biased, but forgivably so. It may even omit its flirtation with destruction—better known as the French Revolution. But who could blame a man for fawning over that most prodigious half-century of human thought?
The Enlightenment, even in its own day, was an amorphous thing. From that time till ours, to many people, it’s been many things. To Voltaire, it was a quite literal manifestation of his very soul. His name (which, fantastically, was not at all his name, but a witty anagram or a family pseudonym or some combination of the two) was and continues to be a synonym for the age. Without him, yes, the show that was the Enlightenment would’ve gone on, but it would’ve done so lacking its star performer, its patron saint if you will. He provided it its incomparable éclat. He, along with other (and in many cases lesser) French philosophes, was not only an original thinker, and an endless wit, but a popularizer of that which was best thought in his day. And while not everyone agreed with the conclusions he drew, none could reproach his intellect nor his effect (so much so, that it was admitted by a leading conservative at the time, with a sense of frank veneration, that “no one has ever married blasphemy and obscenity so happily together” as had Voltaire. Like a later Oscar Wilde, his eloquence—even when loutish—was positively dazzling and refused to be ignored.
Perhaps unintentionally, but definitely to his and our benefit, Voltaire became a man of the world. Travelling to London because of his temperament (he was banished from France for having challenged an aristocrat to a duel) and thence to Prussia because of his friendship (he was a court favorite of Frederick the Great) before finally and peacefully settling in Geneva, he witnessed first-hand the explosive growth of knowledge outside the Parisian city-limits of his youth. There, in France, clericalism retained its stubborn hold on the mind. Nationalism had become ever more narrow-minded; Jansenism ever more ascetic; Catholicism ever more doctrinaire and as an intended consequence of all of the above, science and culture lived on in their perpetual states of infancy. Voltaire brought them into their long-awaited adolescence. He replaced as the apotheosis of man the skeptical Cartesian with the empirical Newtonian. He turned the bawdiness of Rabelais into the sublimity of Milton. Ultimately, in doing what he did, Voltaire achieved a Titanic feat. Like Atlas did the sky, Voltaire lifted the collective intelligence of an entire continent and carried it on his back. He studied many, integrated few, imitated none, and surpassed all in the process of making knowledge more widely known.
As though a contagion of curiosity, the Enlightenment spread from Voltaire’s France to all corners of the Western world. To Hobbes, to Hume, to Locke, to Smith, to Reynolds, to Jefferson, to Franklin, to Kant, to Beccaria, to Diderot, to Montesquieu—it was the greatest awakening the world would ever know. Progress, in the ideas of these thinkers, had never been so progressive. They were keen social psychologists well before their time, with seminal works like A Theory of Moral Sentiments and A Treatise on Human Nature. They were sagacious social contract and political theorists, with works like The Leviathan, The Second Treatise of Government, The Declaration of Independence, and The Spirit of the Laws. They were humorists, artists, and economists, and again—in at least one of the three—were so remarkably ahead of their time, that it’s astounding to consider how far they’d come.
To others, though, it was a bit too much and rather too soon. Edmund Burke, the Irish critic of the Enlightenment from within and from the right, feared that all of this progress must be coming at a cost. As history’s consummate conservative, Burke feared (as all self-respecting reactionaries do) that the well-established and vital cultural mores, so long entrenched in the pre-revolutionary societies and in his heart, would be made to bear the brunt of this progress. He saw its excesses and though he was sympathetic to the Enlightenment’s cause, he continued to watch it with an attentive and wary eye.
Still, further on the right than Burke was Justus Möser, whose History of Osnabruck was the idyllic conception of the yet undiscovered and unified German state. He conceived as the best possible way of life a pre-capitalistic, inward-looking provincialism. He wanted small, humble cottage industries, not dynamic, paradigm-shifting cities of smoke, sweat, and filth. He wanted social stability and hierarchy carved in the traditional way. Meritocracy was a nuisance, democracy a nonsensical, potentially self-injurious dream. His was an idea radically at odds with the universalism, the capitalism, the humanism, and the broad-seeking outreach that the Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire sought.
So too was the Enlightenment’s most famous critic from within but, this time, from the left—Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The son of an itinerant watchmaker, this unexpectedly timely philosopher Rousseau succeeded Voltaire in the immensity of his success (his father, admitted Rousseau with characteristic honesty, was “in no way distinguished among his fellow citizens”). Leave it to an ambitious son to outpace the achievements of his father. Rousseau the younger was industrious, endeavoring, and optimistic. Add to this his tendency toward being an insatiable autodidact, and he became a compelling intellectual by his own effort and grit. He’d become a force with whom the old guard entrenched Frenchmen in their ossified Academies would be made to contend.
Rousseau’s insight was simple. Man, in his natural and pre-civilized state, was nothing of the solitary, nasty, nor brutish being as he was so unflatteringly described. Nor did he have an ingrained proclivity toward war. Rather, he was sweetly and innocently good. His relations, in accordance with his common man, were defined by altruism, reciprocity, and general bonhomie. His life—defined as one lived as a noble savage—was a happy and an edenic one, during which he’d feel little want and even less fear. Though modern anthropology begs to differ, at the time, Rousseau’s construction of pre-historic man was eagerly embraced; people wanted a more sanguine outlook on life and of the natural tendency of man. In Rousseau’s Social Contract and his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, this is precisely what they found. The ideas therein had scant precedence in the French salons, in the belles-lettres, and in the philosophical treatises of the day. People were excited to read of this novel hypothesis, to learn of the felicity inherent to nature, and of the inspiring austerity of early man. Just the same, they were disheartened to recognize in their own lives the loss of this idyllic world and to see as its replacement a mean, supercilious, and cruel modern day.
To the rescue came Rousseau. His revelation was that man needed not the decadent societal and cultural institutions to which he was presently bound. To man, civilized society was a quite unnatural, artificial, and altogether recent thing. Surely, the way in which we live today—dissolute, materialistic, immoral, and soft—was not the way in which we lived so many happy years ago. Meditating on the state in which man was born, Rousseau concluded that we were indeed born to be free, yet in every place and at every time, we’ve been in chains. Doubtless, we are slaves, but in confronting this fact, we’ve become comfortably negligent and insouciantly blasé. The chains were modern society and all of its incurable ills (today they might be called celebrity-addiction, social media infatuation, and the like). And while they might be garlanded and festooned with sciences, flowers, and the arts, we’d be better off tossing away these modern fetters and returning at once to our primal urge.
Little did he know it at the time, Rousseau had created a movement. He was the harbinger of the Counter-Enlightenment that was soon to come. In the intellectual ground made fertile by the Enlightenment (of which, no doubt, he was an integral part), he planted the seeds of the Romantic response that would inspire the 19th history, infect the 20th, and recrudesce in our own.
Bridging this gap, between, Enlightenment and Romanticism—between reason and emotion, was Georg Hegel. Best known and least understood for his pseudo-scientific concept of the dialectic (which was later to be annexed and reupholstered by the Romantic Socialist, Karl Marx), Hegel arrived on the intellectual scene at the very end of the Enlightenment. A Prussian standing astride two worlds, Hegel made a laudable, though perhaps futile attempt to reconcile the waning liberalism of “old” and the waxing Romanticism of new. Like those slowly deceasing thinkers of the Enlightenment before him, Hegel believed ardently in the individual. He saw in every single person—man, woman, and child—an autonomous and distinct being. He thought that to each person there was due a unique dignity and respect.
Nevertheless, like Möser and like Burke a generation ago, Hegel also recognized man’s place within society’s carefully-structured institutions—a point on which he and Rousseau clearly differed. These ancient edifices, at which many Enlightenment thinkers looked in contempt, shouldn’t be so carelessly shaken down. Man is not an island, nor should he strive to be one. Without his having a say in the matter, he’s born to an established milieu and must conform to traditions, customs, and mores. The societal, historical, and cultural womb through which he passes into life can’t be ignored when he first opens his eyes and learns to speak. He owes to his ancestry and his society a massive, if not self-incurred debt.
It was in the post-Hegelian world that the Enlightenment began to lose its luster and its radiance began to dim. The Napoleonic Wars had ended and the reclaimed nations and their peoples were in the process of rediscovering not only their sovereignty, but their identity. The Industrial Revolution was no longer a revolution; it had become for the proletariat a toilsome, precarious, and cruel way to make ends meet. It had completely alienated the worker from his passion and etiolated nature’s rosy color from his once vibrant skin. Anemic and searching for greater, higher, and nobler meaning, he and his generation paved the way for the German Romantics.
German Romanticism took hold, and from that time until this, with its indefatigable Teutonic grip, it never did let go. To return to Pinker, the author shrewdly points this out. He expounds on the transition from Enlightenment, to Romanticism, to Marxism, to Structuralism, to the current bane of the university and indulgence of the radical left—Post-Modernism. He heaps especial scorn on Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he considers particularly pernicious in the evolution of these ideas.
To speak as though one had a complete and lucid understanding of Nietzsche’s philosophy would be to speak in vain and to boast in folly. Isolated in his many surroundings—be they the mountains of Switzerland or the alluring port cities of Italy and of France—and infatuated in every part of the world with his virile worldview, one can’t help but think that an objective of Nietzsche’s was to be generally inscrutable. Though he was inarguably an original mind, his philosophical lineage encounters many branches on the way down toward its fundamental root. He was cut most immediately in the cloth of the misogynist Schopenhauer and the idealist Schelling. From Spinoza, he inherited the Dutchmen’s skepticism as it applied to institutionalized religion and from Heraclitus, he grounded his entire thought on the conflict between opposites—between that which he’d later deem Apolline and Dionysic.
An admirer of everything classical and Greek, he, like Rousseau before him, saw in the Spartans an admirable people and a strenuous way of life. Imitating them and their rugged and uncompromising nationalism, fixing ourselves to their romantic militarism, and keeping in tune with their severe pride would be the best thing that our effeminate and languid societies could do.
In many ways, one can easily understand how this concept of man persists in its undying appeal. Nietzsche wanted us to live dangerously. He wanted us to build our homes on the molten promontories and on the bubbling, precarious slopes of Vesuvius; only by doing so would we be awarded with the most picturesque and glorious of views. As did Walt Whitman, with whom Nietzsche shared for the most part a contemporaneous life, the philosopher like the poet urged us to sail forth—and to steer for the deep waters only. Only by navigating the unknown could we find new lands and new prizes worthy of our claim. To begin the process, we must shuffle off the tethering coils of religion and soberly face our problems anew. Only in this way can we, by our own efforts and without the importunately absent divine intervention, improve our lots in life. The idea here is to develop self-reliance in its rugged, sober, and irreligious form.
So far as it goes along these lines, Nietzsche’s philosophy is generally harmless (although, to the religious person, it’s sure to offer offense). It so happens that it’s with these lines that many endeavoring young adults become smitten. They see not, or rather willfully blind themselves to the other side of Nietzsche’s thought. It’s a side that’s explicit, dangerous, and atavistic, and it’s the one to which Pinker turns his uncompromising scrutiny. What’s forgotten after you’ve built your home on the mountain and vanquished the tempest and the high seas is that Nietzsche recommends that you also “live at war with your peers and your selves” and that you become “robbers and conquerors so long as you can”. You needn’t worry about living as a shy deer in society’s womanly forest; you will be “a ruler and a possessor” and you’ll gladly and rapaciously and unapologetically take what’s not given you. After all, the lives of the mass of humanity “count for nothing”. Your personal transcendence from sheep to lion to child to ubermensch is all that really matters. Then, and only then, you’ll become the ultimate arbiter of good and evil; of morality and all that it does and does not entail.
A concept couldn’t sail much further away from the collective lighthouse that was the radiating influence of such consummate Enlightenment moralists as Smith, Kant, and Hume. Unlike Nietzsche, these three exemplars of the Enlightenment viewed life and the many relationships therein as a giant and unprecedented non-zero-sum game. This wasn’t something that they took for granted. They, more than anyone at the time, recognized just how tenuous and potentially auspicious the very thought of it was. They didn’t want blood, they didn’t want soil, and they certainly didn’t want some brazen ubermensch physically imposing his will over everyone else. They wanted amicable commerce, delightful conversation, improved morals, edified instincts, sympathetic concern for all humans, animals, and sentient beings, and—perhaps most ambitiously of all—they wanted in Kant’s words, perpetual peace.
It’s no wonder then, that in defending the Enlightenment and its ideals, Pinker finds Nietzsche to be nothing more than a pernicious bête noire. In spite of all the glitter in which he’s so commonly and devoutly dressed, and in spite of his appeal to the youth and to the leftist intelligentsia of our day, Nietzsche is, in the final tally, anathema to all things for which the liberal, democratic, humanistic, rational, moral, and progressive West stands. He’s a philosopher to whom we’ve given far too many plaudits and too few checks. He’s a thinker from whom too many totalitarians and despots have sped away back to their Central Committees and to their Third Reichs with dangerously “progressive” ideas, and to whom they’ll always faithfully return. He is, in Pinker’s final analysis, the antithesis of the Enlightenment ideal. To remain ignorant of this, again to the admonishment of the good Dr. Johnson, would indeed be criminal.
So, we must demand Enlightenment, and—if we are to heed Pinker’s urgency—we must demand it now. We must be intrepidly optimistic about our future, but soberly and acutely cognizant of our past. We must see the Enlightenment for the blessing that it is and not take for granted the ignorance that was overcome in achieving it. Let Pinker’s title serve as a peremptory guide: banish ignorance, employ your reason, proceed with progress, refine your science, and celebrate the humanism that binds us all. Extol the past and its incomparable minds, but live and prosper in the now—re-discover the Enlightenment today.