How the Man of Reason Got Radicalized

The Enlightenment is under very bad weather right now. The French eighteenth-century movement that once was seen to have bathed Europe in the light of reason—fighting for science against superstition, and for liberty against bondage—has become the villain of many a postmodern seminar and of even more revisionist histories, from left and right alike. The Enlightenment's supposed faith in reason—its desire to be sure that every “passion'll / soon be rational,” to adapt the enlightened Ira Gershwin—is held responsible for racism, colonialism, and most of the other really bad isms. Enlightenment order is now understood as overlord violence pursued through other means. Its true symbol is not some peaceful Temple of Reason but the Panopticon—the all-surveying, single-eye system of Jeremy Bentham's ideal prison. Where pre-Enlightenment Europe was sporadically cruel, post-Enlightenment Europe was systematically inhumane; where the pre-Enlightenment was haphazardly prejudiced, the Enlightenment was systematically racist, creating a “scientific” hierarchy of humanity that justified imperialism. “Reason” became another name for bourgeois oppression, the triumph of science merely an excuse for more orderly forms of social subjugation.

Well, all views produce counter-views, but—and this is one of the lessons of the Enlightenment itself—they tend to come less often from within the era's Academy of Orthodoxy than from traditions blooming outside it. So, these days, the anti-Enlightenment view is countered most potently by a set of parallel popular enthusiasms. Outside academia, the Enlightenment is not just in good odor but practically Hermès-perfumed. Voltaire has been the subject of (by my count) five popular and mostly positive biographies in the past decade alone, and now the brightest Enlightener of them all, Denis Diderot, is being newly enshrined in two fine books written by American scholars for a general audience: Andrew S. Curran's “Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely” (Other Press) and Robert Zaretsky's “Catherine & Diderot” (Harvard), an account of Diderot's legendary collusion with a Russian autocrat.


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