The Other Enlightenment: Beyond the Myths

The great thinkers of the French enlightenment made their names by challenging the traditional authorities of thrones and altars. Voltaire was repeat-exiled for it, Diderot imprisoned, Montesquieu censored. Yet today, much of the Left has abandoned the enlightenment, seeing it as wholly corrupted by the legacies of colonialism, racialized slavery, and the gender double standard. Meanwhile, some on the Right have looked to reclaim it, in particular appealing to the core enlightenment value of freedom of speech or of the press.
Yet, as often happens when authors and ideas get politicized, they also get misrepresented. We want the symbolic cache of having Voltaire in our ranks, or else not to have to be burdened with reading his works before judging them. We rely on third-hand and fourth-hand accounts, until “the enlightenment” becomes an abstraction and a cultural football.

Thus, for some on both Left and Right today, “the enlightenment” stands as proxy for “Western civilization”. If you’re on the Right, this “civilization” would be under threat from Leftist forces. If you’re from some elements of the Left, it would be a wholly dark legacy which we should criticize, en bloc, in order to somehow transform, en bloc.

Ironically, if “the enlightenment” stood for anything (and there are big debates about whether there was only one such “enlightenment’, and whether it was not irrevocably divided between different streams, etc.), it might be a declared enmity on false generalizations—about entire peoples, races, genders, even periods of history.
Enlightenment thinkers like the aforementioned Montesquieu, Voltaire and Diderot took early modern thinkers led by Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Pierre Bayle as their heroes. These thinkers had each tried to anatomise the ways the human mind is drawn to views which flatter our existing prejudices and desire for distinction from others, and how we tend to turn upon people whose views disagree with our own, unless we become more critically self-aware, self-reflective, and cautious in our judgments.
One slogan for the enlightenment might therefore be: “judge less, and more carefully—and always be aware of all the ways in which the human mind tends to get things wrong”.

The enlightenment the lumières (as they were styled) hoped to achieve through their encyclopedias, dictionaries, plays, novels and stories was one which would hence cultivate new ways of thinking, less prone to the kinds of collective, mad superstitions that would lead a man like Jean Calas, as late as 1762, to be hanged by a Catholic mob in Toulouse on the false pretense that he had wanted to stop his boy converting to the One True Faith.

How to do this, if not by writing story after story in which the main characters would be figures like Uzbek and Rica, Persian visitors to Paris who can’t get over how weird, in places almost crazy, 1720s Catholic France appears to them (Montesquieu’s Persian Letters); how weird but liberal England looks to a Frenchman in exile and how backwards France appears in comparison (Voltaire’s Letters on the English); how ridiculously proud and miniscule our species’ sense of cosmic centrality would look to civilizations advanced enough to conduct interstellar travel (Voltaire’s Micromegas); how unenlightened most people with sight appear compared to a blind man like Nicolas Saunderson, who could conduct geometry and teach mathematics at Cambridge without the capacity to see (Diderot’s Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who Can See [great subtitle]); how unrealistic and needlessly cruel European marriage customs of the day were, when compared to the sexual norms of Tahitians (Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage)?, and more.

Any reader of Voltaire will know that, far from an imagined Eurocentrism, his histories were amongst the first to take seriously non-European culture, and his stories are regularly peopled by Hurons, Chinese sages, Brahmins, Persians, Peruvians, Babylonians, and many others.

Any reader of Diderot will soon discover that, in his interpolations to the very widely read History of Two Indies, he was the author of some of the most inflammatory attacks on the barbarism of Europeans’ violence against, and enslavement, of the peoples of other continents.

Any reader of the Encyclopedia will know that, in this central book of the enlightenment, alongside many articles written by clergy and establishment figures, there are also deeply impious criticisms of the established religion, Christianity, and an impassioned call for the end of the African slave trade as an abomination to “all religion, morals, natural law, and human rights”, a trade which, if it could be “justified by a moral principle, then there [could be] absolutely no crime, however atrocious, that cannot be legitimized.”

The enlightenment figures were many of them historians, like Montesquieu as well as Voltaire. It can seem sometimes today as though we are losing our sense of history, and that the texts and challenges of the enlightenment—just 250 years ago—have largely already been forgotten, or consigned to specialised scholarship.
What is left is the memory that here was an intellectual ferment, a series of debates and improbably prolific, gifted, and humane thinkers, whose work made a difference. And so, people who fear what they take that difference to have been, condemn “the enlightenment”, often in ways that fall far short of accuracy. Those who wish to profit from aligning themselves with this legacy celebrate forms of “the enlightenment” which are scarcely closer to the realities.
To learn to think critically, for ourselves, but also by taking into account the perspectives of others, even or especially those we disagree with, and being willing to acknowledge our faults and limitations. That is the enlightenment’s challenge, or the enlightenment as a challenge, as against a long-passed period of intellectual history which has become a political flag or a football.
What is tolerance, Voltaire asked: “it is the appurtenance of humanity. We are all full of weakness and errors; let us mutually pardon each other our follies–it is the first law of nature”.
If today were post-enlightenment, as many postmodernists have long thought would be a good idea, we can imagine that our world would be filled with competing tribes, each absolutely certain they are right, and each becoming more and more willing to use more and more illiberal means to try to stamp out opposing views, and suppress their representatives. In the meanwhile, even science would be politicized, religion turned into an engine of war, and the bases of pluralistic, peaceable societies like Australia would be beginning to fray.
Surely, this could only be an imagination.
Assoc. Prof. Matt Sharpe teaches How to Be a Stoic at Think Inc. Academy, and is author of the upcoming book The Other Enlightenment (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022), as well as Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond (Balboa/Hay Press, 2022).