Zeev Sternhell’s Question: What Is To Be Done About The Anglo-French Enlightenment?

In The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale 2009), Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell (b. 1935) sees a fault line running through much of contemporary global culture: what to do about the Anglo-French Enlightenment. By the Anglo-French Enlightenment, he means the intellectual movement initiated in 17th century Europe and that culminated in the American and French revolutions of the 18th century, its most distinguishing characteristic being the following (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.

Note the emphasis on criticism and reason. For Sternhell, the Enlightenment gave birth to two contending modernities—one rational, one antirational (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.

In Europe, early opposition to the Enlightenment sought a turn away from rational criticism’s powers of acidity, and toward an organic ideal:

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.

Rationalist modernity, for Sternhell, is also tied up with placing the individual above the collective, and so constitutes a second target, after reason, for antirationalist modernity:

On the day when, from being simply a part in a sophisticated mechanism, man became an individual, the modern sickness was born. From [Edmund] 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.

By “the twentieth-century European catastrophe,” Sternhell means, of course, German Nazism, which he traces to the German philosopher and theologian Johann Gottfried von Herder (pg. 274):

The antirationalist form of modernity, as we have seen throughout this book, stressed all that divides and isolates people, all that is specific to them and unique about them, and opposed all that could unite them. This second modernity also marked the birth of nationalist ideology, and the true founding father of this ideology was Herder. His direct influence continued to be felt even in the mid-twentieth century. A reading of Herder also raises the great question posed by the two centuries since the French Revolution, which still in our own day remains one of extreme actuality: Is a liberal nationalism conceivable? Can it now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, become a historical reality? We shall see that the idea of a nation of citizens conceived as a political and not as an ethnic body did not survive the first years of the French Revolution. This political and judicial view of the nation was nipped in the bud by the Herderian revolt against the Enlightenment. It was the Herderian vision of a cultural, ethnic, and linguistic community that was to become the ideal of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, not that of a community of individuals united by reason, their interests, and the defense of their rights.

In addition to reason and the rights of the individual, Sternhell identifies religion as the third bone of contention between the two modernities (pg. 80):

[Herder’s] critique of the Enlightenment was a barrier against the encroaching forces of destruction, as religion had been replaced by deism, which he saw as a by-product of mechanistic philosophy and an ally of enlightened and antinational rule. In that world going to its ruin, all vital forces were sapped by rationalism, the search for happiness had replaced the idea of service, and the idea of progress had undermined faith as well as the cardinal virtues of obedience, self-denial, and respect for authority and the family.

Herder and [Edmund] Burke both knew that modern thought was born at the moment when man took the place of God.

Lastly, Sternhell sees the tension between the two modernities also present in debates over relativism with regard to truth claims (from pages 9 and 10):

One must also draw attention to another point of very great importance: one of the principal driving forces of this [antirational] 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.

One objection that might be raised to Sternhell’s analysis, and that can serve to complicate it a bit, is to ask the following question: aren’t there really three modernities (libertarian rationalist, organic antirationalist, and organic rationalist)? In other words, weren’t there two organic catastrophes in the 20th century, one associated with antirationalism and devoted to a fanatic nationalism (Nazism); the other associated with rationalism and devoted to a Hegelian-inspired and utopian internationalism (communism)? Whence the individual and the individual’s unbridled  exercise of the critical mind in either of these two forms of organic modernity? Put another way, what’s the difference between an individual-subsuming organicism that claims to embody a mythic past on behalf of feeling and one that claims to look to the future in the name of reason?

And hasn’t there even been a third catastrophe—a collective psychic catastrophe—since the Enlightenment: a pervasive science and capitalism inspired sense of human alienation? Adam Kirsch’s 2010 review of Sternhell’s book for the New Republic raises this objection:

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.

The debate over the Enlightenment continues, and is one of the spectres that haunts critical theory.


  • Sternhell, Zeev. The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale 2010).
  • Kramnick, Isaac. The Portable Enlightenment Reader (Penguin 1995).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Zeev Sternhell’s Question: What Is To Be Done About The Anglo-French Enlightenment?

  1. Paradigm says:

    I have to ask: why discuss Enlightenment in terms of Locke, Rousseau and others who had no access to the scientific knowledge of human nature that we have today? Because it all boils down to human nature right? I think psychologist Jonathan Haider that I mentioned is right in stressing certain moral foundations as necessary for normal life and for any society. Enlightenment only embraced three of these – liberty, justice and (possibly) caring for others. The others, respect for authority, ingroup loyalty, and religion were dismissed. But all of these foundations have been present in various degrees in all known societies, suggesting they are crucial for the survival of the individual as well as for society.

    America is in principal built on the justice and liberty but in reality the other foundations have always been there. That is up until the 1960s when white Christians gradually became less dominant and ingroup loyalty and religion weakened as well as respect for authority. At which point the murder rates and other crime soared until 1990 when it went down again due to an aging population. Another example is the fact that Estonian and Polish schoolchildren outperform Swedish children as well children from other western European countries. They don’t have our resources but they have more moral foundation to build their society with.

    For this and many other reasons I don’t view Enlightenment or its heritage as guided by rational thought. It’s more akin to Ayn Rand’s travesty of rationality.

    Check out Haidt’s TED talk. It’s definitely worth the 20 minutes,

  2. The debate definitely haunts critical theory — in fact Enlightenment revisionism is arguably foundational for the critical theorists (Habermas, Horkheimer & Adorno, et. al…). The way Enlightenment ideas are interpreted basically lays out the modern political landscape, and yet too many don’t have the historical training or vision to appreciate this. The discussion of this question may be one of the central narratives in modern historical scholarship…

    Been meaning to check out Sternhell’s book for a while now. Thanks for the reminder!

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