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What Is Enlightenment?
in 1794 marie-jean-antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, sat in hiding in a tiny room in the house of Madame Vernet in the rue Servandoni in Paris. By the light of a candle, shaded so as not to reveal his whereabouts while the forces of the French Revolution closed in on him, he wrote a brief fragment of what was intended to be a much longer work, the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. Condorcet was one of the great mathematicians of his or any other age, one of the creators of differential calculus, and the first person to attempt to predict the possible outcome of human decision-making by using mathematics, which makes him the forefather of modern political science. He was also a champion of equal rights for women and for all peoples of all races and an abolitionist who devised the world’s first state education system. Like all men of his class in the eighteenth century, he was deeply involved in politics.1 He had been an active supporter of the Revolution in its early stages, becoming the Paris representative of the National Assembly in 1791 and then its secretary. Although a member of the Girodins, the more moderate of the two revolutionary parties, he continued until his death to see the Revolution as a force that had accelerated the normal course of history, and he looked upon the French constitution, as did its authors, as not merely a constitution for a new republican France but a constitution for humankind.2 When, in December 1792, the National Assembly put the king, Louis XVI, on trial as a traitor, Condorcet supported the move, believing, like the Anglo-American radical Tom Paine—now a naturalized French citizen—that it would show the world that kings, too, could be held accountable for their crimes. But because, like all good liberals—like Paine, indeed—he rejected the idea that the state had the right to take human life, he passionately opposed the idea of his execution. This did not win him friends among the revolutionary hard-liners, and when in 1793 he voted against the new constitution proposed by the Jacobins, he was branded as a traitor and an enemy of the Revolution. A warrant for his arrest was issued on July 8, after which he went into hiding in the rue Servandoni. On March 25, 1794, sensing that the forces of the Terror were closing in on him and fearful that his continuing presence might prove dangerous to the good Madame Vernet, he fled Paris, taking with him only a volume of the poems of Horace. He seems to have spent the night of the 26th in the countryside around Clamart, some nine kilometers outside Paris, and on the 27th, exhausted, famished, and apparently wounded in one leg, he stopped at an inn and ordered an omelette. The innkeeper asked him how many eggs he wanted. “Twelve,” replied Condorcet. He was immediately arrested and taken to Bourg-la Reine to await prosecution by the dreaded Revolutionary Tribunal. (Only aristocrats ever ate so many eggs at one sitting.)3 Two days later, on March 29, 1794, he died in prison, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, the victim of what the conservative Anglo-Irish orator, philosopher, and political theorist Edmund Burke nicely called “the delusive plausibilities of moral politicians.”4
Condorcet was one of the most prominent, distinguished, and widely loved victims of the revolutionary fury, yet for the enemies of the Enlightenment, on both the extreme left and the far right, he became one of the worst exponents of the confidence in human rationality that had supposedly made the Revolution possible. “That philosophe so dear to the Revolution,” the arch-conservative Joseph de Maistre said of him, “who used his life to prepare the unhappiness of the present generation, graciously willing perfection to posterity.”5 Maximilien de Robespierre, the sanguineous theoretician of the Terror, thought no better of him. “A great geometrician,” he called him after his death, “or so say the men of letters; a great man of letters in the opinion of the geometricians, and later a timid conspirator despised by all parties.”6
Much of this hostility, and De Maistre’s in particular, was not directed at Condorcet’s mathematical writings, although his vision of a life regulated by the certainty of predication struck some—as it did the Romantic literary critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve—as a recipe for “universal mediocrity,” in which there would be no place “for great virtues, for acts of heroism,” a bright new world whose unfortunate citizens would all die of boredom. It was directed instead at the Sketch, which was his most accessible and would become his best-known work.7
As its somewhat provisional title makes clear, the Sketch is a universal history of mankind, divided into ten “epochs.” It starts in prehistory with small wandering bands whose condition can only be inferred by “examining the intellectual and moral faculties and the physical constitution of man.” It then takes the reader through the successive stages of human social evolution until it arrives at the current condition of the “enlightened nations of Europe.” The final epoch lies in the future. It is here that all the promises of that period, which, like his contemporaries, Condorcet referred to as the “century of light” or the “century of philosophy” and we today call the Enlightenment, “would finally be realized.” The natural sciences, he argued, which had achieved such astounding successes in the seventeenth century, are based upon one single and unwavering belief: that all the laws of the universe are “necessary and constant” throughout time. As humans are part of this universe, the study of their history, although it is unlikely to uncover laws as certain as those of physics, will at least allow the historian to “predict with great probability the events of the future.” What, then, will the future bring? Given the conditions in which he was writing, Condorcet was perhaps being unduly optimistic. But he remained convinced that
Our hopes for the future state of the human species may be summed up in three important points: the elimination of the inequality between nations; progress in equality within the same peoples; and finally the real perfection of mankind. All peoples should one day approach the state of civilization attained by the most enlightened, the most free, and the most free from prejudices, such as are the French and the Anglo-Americans.
Today we have grown wary of the word civilization, after the uses to which, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was put. But Condorcet understood it not as some undifferentiated cultural and political state that all peoples should be compelled to adopt but what he called an “equal diffusion of enlightenment,” a condition in which all mankind would acquire
the necessary enlightenment to conduct themselves in accordance with their own reason in the common affairs of life, and to maintain them, free of prejudices, so that they might know their rights and be at liberty to exercise them according to their own opinion and their conscience, where all might, through the development of their faculties, obtain the certain means to provide for their needs.
In 1794 these conditions clearly did not yet exist. But Condorcet assured his readers that the “progress which science and civilization” had made was such that there was “the strongest reasons to believe that nature has set no limit to our hopes.” Even now, or so he thought, the principles behind the French constitution were shared by all enlightened beings across the world. Soon they would be shared by all mankind. Soon, what he called the “great religions of the Orient”—by which he meant not only Islam but also, and most especially, Christianity—which for so long had kept their cringing adherents trapped in a state of “slavery without hope and a perpetual infancy,” would finally be revealed for the lies, tricks, and deceits that they were. When that day arrived, “The sun will rise only upon a world of free men who will recognize no master other than their own reason, where tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments, will exist only in history or in the theatre.” When that day arrived, as he had told the doubtless skeptical members of the Académie française twelve years earlier, “We will have seen reason emerge victorious from that struggle, so long and so painful, [so] that at last we will be able to write: truth has triumphed; the human race is saved!”8
Some aspects of Condorcet’s imaginary future can today sound uncomfortably like a precursor to the objectives of the civilizing missions that would flood so much of the world in the nineteenth century. Yet for all his belief in the goods that the inescapable forward march of western civilization would finally bring, he was also acutely aware of the depredations that that civilization, in its insatiable quest for “sugar and spices” in Africa, Asia, and America, and “our betrayals, our bloody contempt for men of a different color or belief, our insolence and our usurpations” had inflicted on “those vast lands.”9 But he firmly believed that now that the perpetrators themselves had thrown off the kings and priests who had been largely responsible for these horrors, these depredations would soon be only a distant memory, and the peoples of Africa and Asia (alas, it was already too late for the poor American Indians) would be waiting patiently for the day when they might become the “friends and disciples” of new, enlightened Europeans.
Condorcet’s vision of the future, although challenged and derided, has had and continues to have a powerful hold over the imagination of the western world. It is, although he does not use the term, deeply cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism, like so much else in the western philosophical tradition, has been with us since antiquity. Diogenes the Cynic of the fourth century bce, the man famous for living in barrel and walking the streets of Athens at midday with a lighted lamp in search of an “honest man,” was supposedly the first to declare, when asked from what city (polis) he came: “I am a citizen of the world [kosmo-polites].”10 Later the expression was taken up by the Stoics, who, as we shall see, were to play a transformative role in its subsequent history. For all the opprobrium directed against it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when “cosmopolitanism” came to be cast as a form of immorality, a betrayal of every man’s true and proper objects of loyalty, which was not to the world but to the nation, it has shown itself to be remarkably resilient. It has been the inspiration behind the League of Nations and the United Nations, behind the International Court of Justice and the beleaguered, but still enduring, belief in the possibility for a truly international law. Today it provides the theoretical foundations for the modern conceptions of “international justice,” “geo-governance,” “global civil society,” and “Constitutional patriotism.”11 It has, as the Anglo-Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, himself an exemplary cosmopolitan, rightly says of it, “certainly proved a survivor.”12
The version of cosmopolitanism that Condorcet was proposing, like Condorcet himself, was also unmistakably a creature of “the Enlightenment.” To say that, however, is to beg a number of questions. For just what exactly the Enlightenment was has been the subject of irate and furious debates ever since the eighteenth century itself. No other intellectual movement, no other period in history, has attracted so much disagreement, so much intransigence, so much simple anger. The key terms of almost every modern conflict over how we are to define and understand “humanity”—modernism, postmodernism, universalism, imperialism, multiculturalism—ultimately refer back to some understanding of the Enlightenment. No topic of historical debate, none of the great controversies over the turning points in history or over the moment in which “modernity” is believed to have begun—not the Renaissance, nor the Reformation, not the Scientific Revolution nor the Industrial Revolution—has exercised anything like the hold that the Enlightenment does over the ideological divisions within the modern world.
The struggle over the identity of the Enlightenment was also a part of the Enlightenment itself. In December 1783 the Berlinische Monatsschrift, a widely read and generally progressive journal, published an article by a theologian and educational reformer named Johann Friedrich Zöllner. The article was on the desirability of purely civil marriages—a somewhat recondite topic. It might have passed unnoticed, and probably unread, if it had not been for a single footnote. “What is enlightenment?” Zöllner asked. “This question, which is almost as important as what is truth, should indeed be answered before one begins enlightening. And still I have never found it answered!”13 It was perhaps the most significant footnote in the entire history of western thought—it was certainly the most widely discussed. Six years later, shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution, the German poet and philosopher Christoph Martin Wieland—once described as the German Voltaire—while seated on the toilet and reaching for what he coyly calls a “maculature” (in other words, a piece of toilet paper), found, “not without a slight shudder of astonishment,” that the sheet of “good white soft paper” he held in his hand had printed on it six questions, the first of which was: “What is enlightenment?”14
The debate that Zöllner had inadvertently begun seems to have been a uniquely German event. But the widespread diffusion of the term Enlightenment—Aufklärung in German, Lumières in French, Ilustración in Spanish, Illuminismo in Italian, Oplysning in Danish—and the confusion it aroused was by no means confined to the German-speaking lands (there was, as yet, no such place as Germany). In France, in England, in Spain, in Sweden, in Holland, in Italy, in Portugal people had been asking themselves similar questions since at least the middle of the century. Despite this, however, the answer was very far from being, as Wieland breezily claimed, “known to everyone.” Condorcet himself, who was not beset by the intellectual anxiety that has afflicted modern historians, described it as a “disposition of minds.” The Germans called it a Denkart, a frame of mind, and the French a mentalité, a view on the world. The great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn took it to be the theoretical part of education (culture being the “objective” part).15 For the sometime Jesuit novice and Freemason Karl Leonhard Reinhold, it was the process of “making . . . rational men out of men who are capable of rationality.”16 For the Prussian jurist Ernst Ferdinand Klein it meant, rather more prosaically, the freedom of the press (something he seems to imagine, wistfully, that the Prussian king Frederick the Great had endorsed). For the radical and theologian Carl Friedrich Bahrdt it meant the “holiest, most important, most inviolable right of man,” to “think for oneself.”17 It was a “pure insight,” in the words of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, that seeped into men’s thoughts like a “perfume” or—since Hegel was at best uncertain about its benefits—an “infection.”18 It may well be true, as the twentieth-century German philosopher (and author of what is still one of the most powerfully persuasive accounts of the Enlightenment) Ernst Cassirer said in 1932, that “the real philosophy of the Enlightenment is not simply the sum total of what its leading thinkers . . . [t]hought and taught,” but a process, the “pulsation of the inner intellectual life,” that consisted “less in the certain individual doctrines than in the form and manner of intellectual activity in general.”19 Whatever it was, it was certainly ubiquitous. Even a Scottish cleric on one of the remotest islands in Europe could protest to the urbane lowlander James Boswell that up there in ultima Thule he and his companions were “more enlightened” than Boswell might have supposed.20
Yet for all the questioning, and for all the massive historical industry that has grown up around the Enlightenment, we are still far from certain quite what all this means. What exactly was Wieland’s light? What was its source? Are we talking about a philosophical project or a social movement—or a combination of both, or neither? Then there is a somewhat different question. Even if there were people throughout Europe (even in Scotland) who were proud to call themselves “enlightened,” even if these people were conscious of living through something that might be called “the century of enlightenment” or of philosophy, even if they believed that it was a distinct and probably transformative moment in western history, did these terms—enlightenment, philosophy, and so on—mean the same thing to everyone everywhere? A number of historians have argued that, on close examination, there was so very little in common among, say, British or German philosophers, French philosophes, Italian historians, and Spanish political economists, beyond a dislike of bigotry and a certain conviviality, that it makes no real sense to talk about the Enlightenment. Instead we should, as the historian J.G.A. Pocock has insisted, abandon the definite article altogether and instead talk only about “Enlightenments.”21
It is certainly true that there were some very significant differences among what the enlightened in France, the German-speaking states, or Britain, not to mention in Spain, Portugal, Naples, Milan, Denmark, and Ireland, thought on almost every topic. The intellectual, moral, and affective hold over even the most independent minds of traditions, institutions, religions, and customs obviously varied immensely across Europe. The Italians, the Spanish, and the Portuguese were more cautious about what they said about established religion and monarchical government than either the French or the British (or most of the Germans). The French were more extreme in their impiety than the British, if only because the Catholic Church sought to exercise a far greater hold over what they could say than the more moderate Anglican Church, or even the Church of Scotland, did in Britain. The philosophers, essayists, historians, novelists, playwrights, poets—most escaped any simple description—who, on any account, made up what was called loosely “the republic of letters” were a very heterogeneous group. Some were clearly more radical than others, some were successful, others (often for good reasons) obscure. Some came from comfortable backgrounds, some—including two of the best known, Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—were the children of artisans (although prosperous, educated ones); not a few were titled aristocrats, and some were in minor orders. No group so heterogeneous could ever be expected to agree upon everything, to speak with the same voice, or even to share a common intellectual stance.
Neither can the Enlightenment easily be described as a single, coherent movement any more than any other transformative moment in history. Like the Renaissance, the Reformation and the (much-contested) Scientific Revolution that preceded it, and the Industrial Revolution and the democratic and socialist revolutions that followed, it defies simple description. It was more than a revolution in customs or a project for moderate legal and political reform, as the great Italian historian Franco Venturi argued, although it was clearly also both of these things too.22 It was more than a salon culture or even what the contemporary German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has made famous as a “public space.”23 It was not only a new kind of book trade or an underground of racy, anti-establishment pamphleteers. All these things were, in their ways, highly significant developments in the culture of eighteenth-century Europe.24 But to argue that any one of them, or even all of them together, constituted the Enlightenment is to empty the concept of much of its real philosophical content, and without that it is hard to see that the debate over its identity can be for us, its conscious or unwilling heirs, anything more than a merely antiquarian dispute. For the Enlightenment, as its proponents insisted time and again, was above all else a “century of philosophy.” It is significant that Zöllner did not ask, “What is the Enlightenment?” He did not even ask, “What is an ‘enlightener,’ ” an Aufklärer, or a philosopher, which might have been another way of phrasing the same question. Instead, he asked, “What is enlightenment?” He was not, that is, asking about a mental state, nor about a period in social or intellectual history, nor about the objectives of an intellectual fraternity. He was asking about the content of an intellectual process.
The modern use of this phrase, “the Enlightenment,” also suggests a discrete moment in time—the “long” eighteenth century, as it is sometimes called—marked off by the quite distinct intellectual concerns we associate with the nineteenth century and above all with Romanticism. Needless to say, the Aufklärer themselves did not see it this way. They identified themselves and their objectives with the historical present; their concerns were with the historical future. They were conscious that they were living though a century of “light” or “philosophy.” But they were also acutely aware that, as Kant famously said, although they lived in “an age of Enlightenment,” it was “not yet an Enlightened age.”25 Kant himself did not, in fact, have a very high opinion of the present condition of humanity even within the cultivated and polite societies of Europe.