What is the Enlightenment’s Distinctive Feature? And What Contemporary Movement is the Enlightenment’s Most Representative Heir?

Zeev Sternhell, in his recent book, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition  (Yale 2009), offers reason  as the Anglo-French Enlightenment’s distinctive feature, and the ingredient that made for its historic break with the past (41):

Criticism of the existing political order, but also criticism of morals, religion, law, and history, from the point of view of reason is the distinctive feature of the Enlightenment. Kant knew this, and Cassirer and Husserl made a point of praising reason at a critical juncture in the history of their age. A comprehensive critique of what exists marks the entrance to rationalist modernity. It was in the last years of the seventeenth century that modernity began to appear as a radical break with the past (antiquity), and above all with its accepted models.

In other words, the Enlightenment (in Kant’s phrase) “dared to know,” bringing all things under the domain of human rational criticism—critical thinking. Depending on your view, it was either a form of liberation or hubris, but not even religion could any longer be shielded from reason’s harsh and withering sun.

And to apply one’s reason confidently to the world also meant this: there could be no sheepish nods to a glamorized past (medieval or ancient). As Sternhell notes, “the idea that the ancients were ‘giants’ and the moderns ‘dwarfs'” gave way to a very different attitude: that “the moderns were no longer afraid to assert their superiority” (42).

Indeed, for the Enlightenment philosophes, the past was largely characterized by barbarity, a calamity to be learned from, then avoided. Like the post 9-11 New Atheists of today, Enlightenment philosophes tried to analyze how civilization had reached such an absurd impasse via religion, and how universal human reason might work them out of it. Here’s Sternhell again (44):

If, as Fenelon thought, the world had only just emerged from barbarism, it could not possibly seek its norms of conduct in the long night from which it had just emerged. As a result, an extraordinary reservoir of intellectual and then political energy was released. Each generation now felt itself free to engage not only in the discovery of the physical universe but also in that of history, of anthropology, of new political and social structures. The individual felt himself to be master of his existence, equal to the most powerful, capable of forging for himself a world that his ancestors could not even dream of. He began by drawing up accounts and speculating on the reasons for the misfortunes that overtook him.

In Sternhell’s last sentence above the contemporary heirs of the 18th century philosophes are, I think, made obvious: they are the post 9-11, science oriented and positivist New Atheists. Just as the 18th century philosophes foregrounded reason and traced the calamity of Western Civilization largely to religion, so the 21st century New Atheists do likewise (and for the same reasons). Put differently, Hume and Voltaire were then, Dennett and Dawkins are now. They are the new stones on which the builders of religious, particularist, or relativist architectures—be they liberals or conservatives—stumble.

As well they should.

Let freedom and reason reign—and ring.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to What is the Enlightenment’s Distinctive Feature? And What Contemporary Movement is the Enlightenment’s Most Representative Heir?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    The New Atheists have no right to call them selves heirs to the Enlightenment. They must first expunge the collectivist / religious dogma of Karl Marx. Until they learn to apply emergence to both biology AND society theirs is simply another fantasy for the weak minded and self deluded.

  2. santitafarella says:


    You lost me on the New Atheist = Marxist link. Michael Shermer, for example, is a very, very vocal libertarian. And Sam Harris and Hitchens support US foreign policy. Perhaps you’re using the Marxist label in broader terms than I would.

    Of course, Rand was an Enlightenment positive thinker as well.

    And some members of the original Enlightenment (like Rousseau) had democratic collectivist sympathies.


    • andrewclunn says:

      I am not attempting to imply that all or even the majority of the New Atheists have Marxist tendencies, however unless they are critical of irrational belief systems being forced on people, then they are drawing an imaginary line where somehow ‘religion’ is suspect but only certain world views qualify as ‘religions.’ All world views deserve to be analyzed critically, oh, and Sam Harris is no atheist, he’s a Buddhist apologist and an idiot.

  3. santitafarella says:


    Buddhism is a form of atheism. Buddha taught the anatman doctrine against the theistic Hindu atman doctrine. That’s the pivot around which Buddhism and Hinduism split—one believed that the atman (Brahman, God) undergirded the universe as a monistic unifier, and Buddha taught that, in fact, by meditation, we discover that what Hindus interpret as a fullness is actually an emptiness—that all things are, at bottom, contingent and empty of ultimate substance. It is completely coherent to be an atheist and a Buddhist. Indeed, it could be argued that Buddhism is a way to make contact with nihilism, and is an Eastern form of Western Stoicism (also part of the Western philosophical secular tradition).

    There are books, by the way, that link up Western secular philosophy—in particular, Nietzsche’s ideas about nihilism—and Buddhism. Nietzsche’s response to nihilism, of course, was very, very different from the Buddha’s. See the scholar David Loy’s books at Amazon. Search for them with David Loy and Buddhism. That should probably bring them up. His one with the word “Transcendence” in the title is really good.


    • andrewclunn says:

      Which branch of Buddhism is that?


      Mahāyāna constitutes an inclusive tradition characterized by plurality and the adoption of new Mahāyāna sūtras in addition to the earlier Āgama texts. Mahāyāna sees itself as penetrating further and more profoundly into the Buddha’s Dharma. There is a tendency in Mahāyāna sūtras to regard adherence to these sūtras as generating spiritual benefits greater than those that arise from being a follower of the non-Mahāyāna approaches to Dharma. Thus the Śrīmālādevī Sūtra claims that the Buddha said that devotion to Mahāyāna is inherently superior in its virtues to the following the śravaka or pratyekabuddha paths.[35]

      The fundamental principles of Mahāyāna doctrine were based on the possibility of universal liberation from suffering for all beings (hence the “Great Vehicle”) and the existence of buddhas and bodhisattvas embodying Buddha Nature. Some Mahāyāna schools simplify the expression of faith by allowing salvation to be alternatively obtained through the grace of the Amitābha Buddha by having faith and devoting oneself to mindfulness of the Buddha. This devotional lifestyle of Buddhism is most strongly emphasized by the Pure Land schools and has greatly contributed to the success of Mahāyāna in East Asia, where spiritual elements traditionally relied upon mindfulness of the Buddha, mantras and dhāraṇīs, and reading of Mahāyāna sūtras. In Chinese Buddhism, most monks, let alone lay people, practice Pure Land, some combining it with Chán (Zen).[36]

      Most Mahāyāna schools believe in supernatural bodhisattvas who devote themselves to the perfections (Skt. pāramitā), ultimate knowledge (Skt. sarvajñāna), and the liberation of all sentient beings. In Mahāyāna, the Buddha is seen as the ultimate, highest being, present in all times, in all beings, and in all places, and the bodhisattvas come to represent the universal ideal of altruistic excellence.



      Theravada belief, Buddhas, gods or deities are incapable of giving a human being the awakening or lifting them from the state of repeated cycle of birth, illness, aging and death (samsara). For Theravadans, Buddha is only a Teacher of the Noble Eightfold Path, while gods or deities are still subject to anger, jealousy, hatred, vengeance, craving, greed, delusion, and death.

      It is believed that some people who practice with earnestness and zeal can attain Nirvana within a single lifetime, as did many of the first few generations of Buddha’s disciples. For others, the process may take multiple lifetimes, with the individual reaching higher and higher states of realization. One who has attained Nirvana is called an Arahant. Since Lord Buddha is believed to have possessed the ultimate knowledge on guiding a person through the process of enlightenment, Theravadans believe that disciples of a Buddha attain enlightenment the most quickly.


      • santitafarella says:


        As with any religious tradition, there is populist Buddhism and then there are the Buddhist ideas that have been honed in upon by intellectuals. I suggest that rather than falling down the rabbit hole of populist Buddhism (with its superstitions and gods), that you explore Buddhism from the vantage of its intellectual tradition (or perhaps via Zen), starting with the concept of Sunyata. Sunyata is where a lot of Buddhist insights and the Western intellectual tradition most obviously intersect. The Sunyata doctrine constituted the central split between Buddhism and Hinduism in India (which is where Buddhism started). It was Buddha’s anti-essentialist insight—that all things are contingent and transitory—and so, ultimately, empty of Self (Atman), that makes Buddhism, absent its populist accretion of gods, an atheist philosophical position, and something of interest to Western intellectuals. The earliest Buddhist traditions represent Buddha as an anti-metaphysician, an anti-essentialist. The Wikipedia article below on Sunyata attempts to distance the doctrine from nihilism (nihilism is a bad word in the West), but I think it is semantics. Buddhism is an insight about nihilism and contingency and change. It’s early Indian texts, and its Zen texts, are as worthy of reading as Darwin or Nietzsche. Anyway, here’s the Sunyata article at Wikipedia:



      • santitafarella says:

        Another thought on this: the form of meditation that, for example, an atheist like Sam Harris probably practices is Vipassana. I used to do Vipassana every morning for a couple of years, but I got lazy and had kids etc. etc.

        Vipassana is easy to do: you just do some yoga or sit and set your mental space up ironically (as an unattached observer of whatever passes through the sky of your mind or your sensorium). It is an open witnessing that does not grasp or avoid what is experienced, and it is attentive to change. The insight of the meditation is to notice the transitory nature of the thoughts and the sensorium that pass through the sky of your experience.

        I suppose you could also just watch television on a couch, and if you’re attentive, get the same insight. There’s lots of ways to wake up to the nature of the passing show. Vipassana is television before there was television (I suppose).

        The “blue sky vantage” from which Buddhism watches the show is the same “blue sky vantage” that Hindu meditators experience as well. Then they watch the clouds go by with equanimity. But one calls the blue sky the Atman (Hinduism: “Self,” God, the essense that witnesses Maya, the illusionary cloud-show going by) and the other (Buddhism) calls the mental sky “anatman” (“the no-self,” non-essence, emptiness). The Big Daddy Self of Hinduism is the Blakean “nobodaddy” of Buddhism.

        Anyway, here’s Wikipedia on vipassana:



  4. santitafarella says:


    And here’s something I wrote a while back on the Hindu Bhagavad Gita on the Big Self v. the little self. Buddhism would simply make the Big Self a ‘no self’:



    • andrewclunn says:

      I was under the impression that it would transform the little self into a no self. (I’m not done reading, so will respond in more detail later.)

      • santitafarella says:

        The little self is a transitory cloud rapidly going by. If you are going to attach to it, then I suppose the advice would be this: carpe diem.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s