Zeev Sternhell on The Enlightenment and Its Enemies

One of the books that I’ve been dropping in and out of this past month is Zeev Sternhell’s The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale 2009). Sternhell’s book is about 450 pages long, and I’m only 150 pages in, but I can already say that it is a seminal study—an unusually important book (if you want to think about the Enlightenment and its enemies). The author has hit upon a compelling—and I think, true—thesis, which is this: the fault line running through much of contemporary culture—not just Western, but global as well—is what to do about the Anglo-French Enlightenment. Here’s how Sternhell puts it (from pages 7-9):

The Enlightenment wished to liberate the individual from the constraints of history, from the yoke of traditional unproven beliefs. This was the motivation of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Kant’s Reply to the Question: What is Enlightenment?  and Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality : three extraordinary pamphlets that proclaimed the liberation of man. It was against the liberation of the individual by reason that the Anti-Enlightenment . . . launched its attack . . . It was not a countermodernity but a different modernity that came into being and that revolted against rationalism, the autonomy of the individual, and all that unites people: their condition as rational beings with natural rights. That second modernity was based on all that differentiates and divides people—history, culture, language—a political culture that denied reason either the capacity or the right to mold people’s lives, saw religion as an essential foundation of society, and did not hesitate to call on the state to regulate social relationships or to intervene in the economy. According to its theorists, the splintering, fragmentation, and atomization of human existence arising from the destruction of the medieval world was the cause of the modern decadence. They deplored the disappearance of the spiritual harmony that was the very fabric of medieval life, and that was destroyed by the Renaissance according to some and by the Reformation according to others. They regretted the passing of the time in which the individual, guided by religion to his last breath, a laborer or artisan living solely for his trade, hedged in by society at every moment, was merely a cog in an infinitely complex machine of whose destiny he was ignorant. Bending over the soil and asking no questions, he fulfilled his function in the march of civilization. On the day when, from being simply a part in a sophisticated mechanism, man became an individual, the modern sickness was born. From Burke to Friedrich Meinecke, the aim remained the restoration of the lost unity. Thus, the outlook of the individual was confined within the straightjacket of the community to which he belonged. The idea of the primacy of tradition, custom, and membership of a cultural, historical, and linguistic community was first put forward by Vico [a professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples, 1699-1741]. Man, said Vico in criticism of the theoreticians of natural rights—Hobbes, Locke, Hugo Grotius, and Samuel Pufendorf—did not create society all of a piece; he is what society made him, his values are social values and are therefore relative. The relativity of values is a fundamental aspect of the critique of the Enlightenment, and the damage it has caused is tremendous. It was this other modernity that brought about the twentieth-century European catastrophe.

As you can see from the above quote, Sternhell doesn’t just think well, he also writes well. And by Sternhell’s reckoning, the Enlightenment is what both the right and the left continue to Jacob-wrestle with (from pages 9 and 10):

Whether it is a matter of ‘reactionary modernism’ or the ‘conservative revolution,’ one is always confronted with the same phenomenon: the content and function of this other modernity remained the same. Its pet aversions, as in the time of Herder and Burke, remain Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire, and the philosophes.

One must also draw attention to another point of very great importance: one of the principal driving forces of this campaign that continued long after the Second World War up to the present day was an attack on the Enlightenment in the name of a certain liberalism, of a pluralism of values that easily ends in relativism. . . . A corollary of antirationalism is relativism: there is thus a nationalist relativism, a fascist relativism, and a liberal relativism.

Adam Kirsch’s Salon review, earlier this year, of Sternhell’s book is what drew me to it in the first place, and looking back at that original review, I now see that Kirsch taps the brake a bit on Sternhell’s Enlightenment-positive narrative with a critique that I think is incisive, and that gives me some qualms about the book as well:

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.

Nevertheless, Sternhell’s book perhaps can’t be expected to do everything—cover both its Anti-Enlightenment territory, which is complicated, and the existential angst  and nausea that naturally accompanies universal humanism and freedom (a world where God is dead, or not talking, and you’re on your own in making meaning and values, both for yourself and with others). But from what I’ve read so far, Sternhell covers the Anti-Enlightenment territory exceptionally well, and for the latter territory (angst ) there are other (similarly thought-provoking) books out there (see here and here).

As for thinking about the Enlightenment generally (both its promises and tensions) there are few better places to go than the Enlightenment inspired Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Zeev Sternhell on The Enlightenment and Its Enemies

  1. Pingback: What is the Enlightenment’s Distinctive Feature? And What Contemporary Movement is the Enlightenment’s Most Representative Heir? « Prometheus Unbound

  2. Pingback: On the Road to Weimar: Pat Buchanan’s New Book | Prometheus Unbound

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