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.