Adam Kirsch Reviews Zeev Sternhell’s New Book on the Enlightenment v. Romanticism

Are you an Enlightenment universalist, a brooding Romantic, or a Rorty-like Pragmatist trying to split the difference?

Regardless of your answer, a new book has just come out with a very definite point of view on the question (the author is an Enlightenment universalist). Zeev Sternhell’s The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale, December 2009) appears to be, at least in part, a full-throated attack on Romanticism and some of its 20th century sympathizers, like Isaiah Berlin. In a recent review of the book, here’s part of what Adam Kirsch says about it:

For Sternhell, this is a struggle between darkness and light. As his title suggests, he sees not a “counter” to the Enlightenment but simply an anti-Enlightenment, whose representatives from Burke to Berlin have been intent on destroying the values of freedom, justice, and reason. (The cover design of Sternhell’s book, which puts the “anti” in big black Gothic letters, ominously captures the author’s intent.) “If the French Enlightenment…produced the great intellectual revolution of rationalist modernity,” Sternhell writes, the anti-Enlightenment sponsored a different modernity, one that “revolted against rationalism, the autonomy of the individual, and all that unites people: their condition as rational beings with natural rights.”

This “second modernity,” as he calls it, “was based on all that differentiates and divides people—history, culture, language.” And this was no academic debate, no matter how recondite some of the texts Sternhell analyzes might seem. Starting with Burke and Herder, he traces the intellectual lineage of the anti-Enlightenment directly to figures such as Charles Maurras, the godfather of French fascism, and Oswald Spengler, whose influential book The Decline of the West helped to undermine Weimar Germany’s democracy.

Heady and provocative stuff. Here’s a bit more from Kirsch, raising some good questions that the didactic Sternhell seems not to have adequately addressed:

What is missing from Sternhell’s book is any sense of why the anti-Enlightenment flourished in the first place, and how it produced thinkers of the stature of Burke and Herder. Sternhell takes for granted that the Enlightenment—or his preferred version of it—is mankind’s only hope, so that its opponents cannot seem anything other than perverse and malevolent. Yet it was not just these thinkers who felt that the advance of science and liberalism was making the world less happy. The same intuition can be found in almost all the literature of the nineteenth century, from Wordsworth to Dostoevsky, and sometimes even in Mill, the greatest liberal of all. And it was not just conservatives such as Carlyle who attacked the dehumanizing effects of modern life. Liberals and socialists such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and William Morris all felt the same way. When such thinkers looked back to a more organic and religious past, it was not because they were enemies of the human spirit, but because they felt that the spirit was starving in modern conditions. Traditionalism is not always the same as authoritarianism.

Sternhell never really engages this critique of the Enlightenment and its legacy. He simply dismisses it out of hand, leaving the reader to wonder why some of the arguments of Burke and Herder sound so reasonable. On the subject of progress, for instance, Sternhell quotes Kant with implicit approval: “Earlier generations seem to perform their laborious tasks only for the sake of the after ones, so as to prepare for them a further stage from which they can raise still higher the structure intended by nature.” This vision of perpetual progress is noble and appealing; but surely it is not an accurate picture of how history actually proceeds. Worse, it also suggests that our lives are simply tools for building the future, an idea that, in the hands of Stalinism, resulted in a dogma of historical necessity for which no individual life in the present had any intrinsic value. Obviously Kant is not a forefather of Stalin, for whom human beings were means and not ends; but ideas and implications and influence travel in strange ways. And against this view—captured in the old communist slogan that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs”—there appears to be a tonic wisdom in Herder’s belief that “no individual has the right to believe that he exists for the sake of another individual, or for the sake of posterity.”

This then, is a book on the history of ideas, and the way that ideas have shaped history, but in this Kirsch sees the book as a bit myopic:

Sternhell’s exclusive focus on ideas also means that, at times, he seems to grant thinkers an incredible degree of power over history. In his epilogue, he attacks the German historian Ernst Nolte, who became notorious in the 1980s for excusing Nazism as a mere defensive reaction against Communism. In Sternhell’s words, Nolte was guilty of “explaining the European disaster not by the long war against the Franco-Kantian Enlightenment but by 1914 and 1917”—that is, by World War I and the Russian Revolution. Yet isn’t it obviously true that 1914 and 1917 were responsible, even primarily responsible, for the rise of Nazism? If not, why is it that the nationalist ideas of Herder did not produce Nazism at the time of Napoleon? The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition certainly reminds us that ideas have consequences; but they are not the only things that have consequences.

Still, the book looks like it might well be quite stimulating and worth grappling with. It’s at Amazon here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Adam Kirsch Reviews Zeev Sternhell’s New Book on the Enlightenment v. Romanticism

  1. Roger Salyer says:

    Wow, it’s funny that I found this review here!

    I have been waiting to get hold a copy of this book for several months. It is so new that my local libraries and booksellers haven’t yet gotten it. It sounds fascinating. Prof. Sternhell’s other works have been very intriguing and brilliant. Along with James Gregor, I think he is the foremost scholar of fascism (Roger Griffin gets to emotional for my liking.). Sterhell of Tel Aviv U. tells it like it is, without any foolish liberal propaganda, finding it unnecessary and beneath him I suppose.

    My understanding is that Prof. Sternhell is critical of Isaiah Berlin in the book–as being too romantic, insufficiently Enlightenment-supportieve, and insufficiently…well, jacobin. That’s got to be novel stuff, one must say. Since I am a devotee of Joseph de Maistre, and Berlin has been his foremost modern critic, I am anxious to see what Sternhell has to say of the Oxford Don.

  2. Pingback: Zeev Sternhell on The Enlightenment and Its Enemies « Prometheus Unbound

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