Review: The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction (John ROBERTSON)

Review: The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction (John ROBERTSON)
by Allan LEONARD for Mr Ulster
1 May 2017

The Enlightenment is one of Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introductions” series; there are over 400 volumes. Written by experts, they “are for anyone wanting a stimulating and accessible way into a new subject”.

Professor John Robertson’s treatment of the Enlightenment is at times neither.

Robertson’s framework is a valid one — that the Enlightenment was a philosophical construct more than a historical event.

But the way he goes about explaining and describing this is dry and laden with detail.

For example, while print culture is undoubtedly important (nay, crucial), here we also learn the licensing deals between Charles-Joseph Pancoucke and Le Breton of Encyclopédie by Jean D’Alembert and Denis Diderot (pp. 92-98). Repeated episodes like this make it a not very short introduction.

I will synthesise Robertson’s arguments on the Enlightenment and freedoms of religion and expression, along with the role of public opinion, not only because they are important to me but his fine concluding chapter underlines their relevance in our present less certain political world.

Robertson explains well the philosopher Locke’s argument of toleration, a defence of Protestant Dissenters’ freedom to worship (as separate from the established Church of England) (p. 38). Locke’s argument excluded Catholics (subjects of a foreign power) and atheists (no salvation). Philosopher Voltaire’s Traité sur la tolérance (1763) resolves this, removing theology so that toleration itself will lead to ‘the physical and moral well-being of society’ (pp. 41-42).

The American colonies implemented the theory by repudiating the Church of England and codifying the separation of church and state in its constitution. In England, the church wasn’t disestablished, but Catholics were deemed to be not so much a threat to the state; the idea of toleration was deconfessionalised (p. 42). (This may help explain why some Protestants in Northern Ireland are less tolerant of Catholics, deeming them subjects of a foreign power and a threat to the state.)

Robertson provides a good (but complicated) review of the philosophical arguments of the nature of society and the state (pp. 52-54). The debate is on the sociability of man and whether this is natural or must be guided (and enforced). Enter philosophers Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf, Thomasius, Locke, Carmichael, Pascal, Nicole, Mandeville, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith.

The Irish Presbyterian philosopher Frances Hutcheson (1694-1746) argued that ‘natural social affections were the precondition of entering a civil society’ (p. 56). The natural affections were God’s ordering of the world, but the sanction of the afterlife was only ‘an additional inducement to moral culture’. Some stricter Scottish Presbyterians noted this, and would have deemed Hutcheson with suspicion. (This reminds one of the internal Presbyterian debate over the Westminster Confession of Faith.)

An evolution of this argument is political economy, which Robertson suggests was the core of the Enlightenment’s contribution to Western thought: ‘the prospect of human betterment, in this world rather than the next, in the present over the past’.

Yet this is one framed in historical experience, that while a society’s economy may not grow forever, no state could control the diverse and varied activities of a modern commercial economy; governments needed to listen and respond to society.

In other words, the Enlightenment’s perspective on the role of public opinion was made more important. But would it confirm or undermine its philosophical principles?

For example, philosopher David Hume made the observation (‘Of the first principles of government’ (1741)) of how easy the many are ruled by the few: “[The] governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”

This acknowledges a destablising power of opinion on the state, with those in authority wishing to defend affairs of state as a ‘reason of state’ and not to be rendered part of the public realm. How thus to manage opinion?

In some cases, opinion management failed — American and French revolutions immediately come to mind. So a triumph of the Enlightenment or something altogether different? Robertson argues the latter, defining revolution as ‘the revenge of political agency upon the impersonal, gradual process of change’ as envisaged by the Enlightenment.

But Robertson goes too far is describing the French Revolution as the antithesis of Enlightenment (p. 116). Through the book you can’t describe the evolution of the freedom of expression and power of public opinion upon government, and then deny revolution as a logical outcome. Perhaps revolution may not be the ideal outcome — lives are lost through political violence — but revolution reveals that society’s limit of frustration with what it deems as acceptable levels of progress. (A government could alternatively try to suppress societal expectations, but that to me would be the antithesis of Enlightenment.)

In the final chapter, Robertson describes the debate among philosophers of the contemporary relevance of Enlightenment. An important question that defenders of the Enlightenment have to ask themselves was whether its universal, rational formula for true knowledge and morals actually lead to betterment. Update Hume’s observation above with a populist rise to fascism.

The answer has been provided more by historians than philosophers, as Robertson explains (pp. 124-126). The main defence is to associate Enlightenment with modernity, citing the collapse of Marxism, the revival of religion for political argument, and finally dismissing postmodernism as a relativisation of truth. The corollaries are that Enlightenment provides a better framework for political economy, secularism is a better form of civic politics, and the morality of diminishing cruelty remains valid.

Philosophically, the argument can go both ways (see critiques of Kant). Robertson concludes by suggesting that what could be best worth remembering about Enlightenment is not that it offers a fixed view of what progress is, but to learn from the process that its thinkers took in understanding the problems they faced, and how their imagination led to original proposals.

I find this especially relevant in light of debates about the West and so-called ‘clash of civilisations’ as well as resurgences of populism in Western democracies.

My humble suggestion is to highlight the value of engagement with the public, so they themselves agree how progress will be achieved without violating rights of others, and while maintaining principles of tolerance. The blind spot among Modernisers is that this need not be under capitalism, secularism, or Western notions of morality.

To paraphrase Kant, if we wish Enlightenment to forge a world citizenship, our imagination needs to go visiting, to learn from our collective catastrophes as well as how we have achieved our futures.

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