Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Two Enlightenments

There's nothing very new about the culture wars. They have existed in one form or another for centuries.

I was reminded of this when I read David Brooks' excellent column on the two Enlightenments, the British and the French. Link here. Brooks finds the origin of our current disputes over the value of individual freedom versus the power of the state in the conflict between the British and French Enlightenments.

The culture wars have taken on different forms at different times. And they have involved different issues. Nowadays, of course, everyone claims the mantle of freedom and everyone claims the mantle of reason.

But one man's freedom is another man's oppression, and one man's rational choice is often derided if it does not correspond to what a higher authority believes to be true.

So, I do not want to say that one side favored freedom and reason while the other did not. The real distinctions are more complex, and the journey through this intellectual thicket more difficult than we have been led to believe.

For some the culture wars are simply a continual debate between the followers of Plato and those of Aristotle.

Since Aristotle's thought did not enter European civilization until the Middle Ages, we may see the beginning of the medieval culture wars in the struggle between the Dominicans and the Franciscans, or better, between those who followed the rational thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and those who preferred the spiritual path of St. Francis of Assisi. That conflict dates to the 13th and 14th centuries. Aquinas was one of those most responsible for advancing Aristotle's thought.

Evidently, the conflict between these monastic orders was not the first evidence of a cultural schism in the Church. A century earlier the powerful mystic St. Bernard of Clairvaux used his power to have the great rational thinker, Pierre Abelard, excommunicated.

Most of us have learned that Abelard got himself into serious trouble, and suffered a grievous injury, for falling in love with his young tutee Heloise. Truth be told, the greater part of his trouble involved marrying said Heloise and then refusing to acknowledge their union in public.If you would like to read the rest of the story, especially the part about the intellectual disputes, I would recommend Etienne Gilson's wonderful account.

A more consequential schism was initiated by Martin Luther in the early years of the 16th century. I think it is fair to say that Luther's Reformation tried to break down the Church's monopoly on salvation. And Luther also attacked the Church's control over Bible reading and interpretation.

His individualistic and anti-institutional movement allowed everyone to read and interpret the Bible freely. It sought to overcome the weight of dogma and the inquisitions and witch hunts that the Church, in an effort to impose one true belief, had been practicing for centuries.

The battle between the Protestants and the Church was often fought in terms of reason versus superstition, but it would hardly be fair to say that Thomas Aquinas was anything but rational. Medieval theology, to say nothing of scholastic philosophy, was an orgy of rational deliberation and analysis.

Many have noted correctly that the Lutheran project would have been impossible without the advent of the printing press. Taking the Biblical text out of the hands of the scribes and the Doctors of the Church would have been a near impossibility without a technology that could produce more and more affordable books.

We tend to think of the printing press as an unalloyed good. Yet, those who heretofore exercised control over information and ideas were hardly thrilled by the prospect of having everyone being free to interpret sacred texts as they would wish.

When thinkers rail against communications technology-- today they are on the warpath against the internet and the blogosphere-- I believe that they simply do not respect the minds of people who are less educated than they. Being unenlightened would-be despots, they dream of nothing more than shutting down dissent. And going back to a time when they were controlling access to information and opinion and when very, very few people had the means to question their facts or opinions.

After the Reformation had struck the first blow for individual freedom the next blow was struck by the Industrial Revolution.

Using accumulated scientific and technical knowledge the Industrial Revolution began, in the 18th century, to transform the labor market from manual labor, animal labor, and cottage industry into factory and machine-based manufacturing.

But the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by British Enlightenment philosophers, like David Hume and Adam Smith, who argued for free enterprise, free markets, and free trade. When these philosophers argued for free trade over protectionist tariffs, they were striking a blow for freedom against the power of the state.

Their views did not go unchallenged. At the same time Romantic poets like William Blake and William Wordsworth led a counterrevolution that sought to recover what had been lose when manufacturing became concentrated in factories and where reason, not inspiration, began to set economic policy.

Those debates were hardly sterile academic exercises. The Industrial Revolution disrupted society in ways that were unprecedented. And while some saw what had been gained, others were fixated on what had been lost. Thus, two cultures, one progressive, the other reactionary.

The British Enlightenment philosophers argued for economic progress while the poets argued for a return to the state of nature.

Perhaps it is paradoxical, but the British Enlightenment also respected the rational decisions that had been taken in the past. The accumulated wisdom of rational beings constituted tradition. An Edmund Burke argued strenuously against the French Enlightenment and French Revolution with their tendencies to destroy the past and attempt to create a new world from scratch.

French Enlightenment philosophers, followed by the philosophical work of German idealists like Kant and Hegel, believed in the power of reason, but they largely preferred the conclusions drawn by their own superior rational faculties. Like a Martin Heidegger in the 20th century, they saw themselves as potential philosopher kings who would help create a brand new world.

Of course, the British Enlightenment philosophers were also mining the resources of their nation's experience with the common law. The tradition of the common law, instituted by Henry II in the 12th century, involved allowing individual judges to decide cases as they were presented, according to precedent and their best judgment. The common law is an accumulation of case law decisions; its decisions were not graven in stone. If they commanded respect it was for their having endured and served as a way to adjudicate disputes fairly.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes was later to argue, the common law is a perfect example of judicial trial and error, of establishing laws that worked for the people in place of laws that had been dictated by higher authorities.

At the time Henry II's innovation severely circumscribed the Church's power and authority. And this caused the conflict between Henry II and Thomas a Beckett. To add a little perspective, at roughly the same time that Henry II was initiating the common law, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was presiding over a kangaroo court that condemned Peter Abelard for heresy.

More importantly, perhaps, is what the common law wasn't. It was not a set of rules concocted by a small group of great thinkers. It was not the work of philosopher kings.

As it happened the French Enlightenment was far more radical than its British counterpart. It wanted to tear down everything, including the monarchy, the aristocracy, the clergy, and the industrial order. It had so much faith in the power of reason that it believed that once it tore everything down, once it deconstructed the world, it could replace it with a social order that was more consonant with Nature.

It owed more to poetic inspiration and the spiritual side of life, the ability to see the true Ideas, than it did to scientific experiment, or to the trial-and-error judicial cobblings that constituted the common law. Where the British Enlightenment believed sufficiently in reality to allow it to cast judgment on its efforts, the French Enlightenment, through a Rousseau, concocted a mythic pre-civilized world against which all of the rest was to be judged.

The new socius was not going to be based on the Industrial Revolution or principles of free trade. To the extent that it followed thinkers like Rousseau, it worked to restore man's harmony with Nature. Roughly in the way that Romantic poets had been calling for. And this meant instituting a reactionary deconstruction of the Industrial Revolution.

Beginning with Rousseau's notion that man was born free but is everywhere in chains, the French Enlightenment sought to return to a mythic, natural world order where freedom meant being free from the constraints of organized, to say nothing of, civilized society.

I confess to being very much on the side of David Brooks when he closes his column with these words: "Yet there is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong."

He might have mentioned that the French Enlightenment thinkers, to say nothing of their followers and acolytes, did not really believe in facts or in the reality of human nature.

No comments: