Initiation of an apprentice Freemason around 1800. Via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever Happened to the Enlightenment?

Steven B. Smith—

No period of modern history has come under more intense scrutiny than has the Enlightenment. What is—or was—the Enlightenment?  We have not ceased asking this question and the answer or answers are far from settled.  The question was most famously stated by Immanuel Kant at the start of his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?”  “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” Kant wrote.  “The motto of Enlightenment is therefore:  Sapere aude!  Have courage to use your own understanding.”  All the rest, as they say, is commentary.

The central idea of the Enlightenment was the belief that the increase in knowledge—especially scientific knowledge—will lead necessarily to the progressive betterment of the human condition.  The massive French Encyclopédie published under the directorship of Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert was a barometer of the view that where advances in science go, advances in morality and politics are sure to follow.  To seek to halt or reverse the increase of knowledge would be to halt the forward movement of human progress.  And since the optimum condition for the spread of knowledge requires communication between peoples or scientists and researchers from different nations, there emerged a preference for “open societies,” cosmopolitan societies that favor freedom of commerce and exchange, but above all freedom of opinion and belief.  Societies that not merely tolerate but encourage the widest latitude of freedom will be those that are most likely to share in the new age of enlightenment.

To be sure, not everyone agreed.  The Enlightenment has been dogged from its beginning by its Doppelgänger, sometimes referred to as the Counter-Enlightenment.   Throughout the eighteenth century, warnings of decadence and decline were almost as constant as predictions of progress.  Some of these warnings took satirical form like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Edmund Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society, but no one gave the Counter-Enlightenment its voice more clearly than Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau expressed discontent with the three great pillars of Enlightenment civilization:  science, progress, and commerce.  His attack on privilege and inequality did much to create the language of the European Left; his defense of unique national cultures and rejection of cosmopolitanism did much to create the language of the European Right.  Rousseau was at once neither and both.

The Counter-Enlightenment, as the term suggests, began as a movement of opposition or reaction to a particular form of civilization that can be summed up in one term:  bourgeois civilization.  This form of civilization had produced a new kind of human being—the bourgeois—who was at once polite, civil, and refined, but also, craven, false, and insincere.  Rousseau did not coin this term, but he gave it its popular currency.  To be bourgeois is to live neither for oneself nor for others.  Caught between the peasantry below and the aristocracy above, the bourgeois is a victim of what sociologists today call “status anxiety.”  In particular Rousseau defined the bourgeois as someone “in contradiction” with himself.  It was Rousseau’s attack on the allegedly contradictory nature of the bourgeois society, its lack of wholeness and moral integrity, that would contribute so much to the power of Marxist rhetoric in the following century.

Yet it was not Rousseau but another Swiss, Joseph de Maistre, who made the attack on the Enlightenment a virtual war cry.  Writing in the decade after the French Revolution, Maistre was a prophet of another, even more violent revolution, the Counter-Revolution, whose goal was the total destruction of the legacy of 1789.  For Maistre, the French Revolution was less a political event than a drama played out in providential history.  It was God’s judgment on a society that he deemed horribly corrupt requiring nothing less than total purgation.  Maistre was not a conservative looking to restore the ancien regime of throne and altar but a reactionary or a messianist of the Right.  His goal was not restoration but apocalypse and, if possible, Apocalypse Now.

Maistre’s was an extreme but hardly an isolated voice. He would spawn various imitators from Donoso Cortes in Spain to Carl Schmitt in Germany who regarded the new bourgeois society as intolerably flat, dull, materialistic, and utterly unheroic.  Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest of these critics, saw in the bourgeois the prototype for what he called “the last man” associated with the mass democracies of the future based on the ideas of the rights of man and the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  In such a world, races and cultures will disappear, there will be neither ruling nor being ruled (“both require too much exertion”), and the only great passion will be for comfortable self-preservation.

It did not take long for the anti-bourgeois critique to find its way to America, although in more muted tones.  Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt introduced the term “Babbitry” to describe the small-town American of the 1920s, the philistine who joins civic booster clubs and who praises the virtues of membership.  The journalist H. L. Menken coined the term “booboisie”—a combination of boob and bourgeois—to describe the typical democratic everyman.  In his book Bobos in Paradise—a combination of bohemian and bourgeois—The New York Times columnist David Brooks parodied today’s high-end consumer Yuppies who engage in conspicuous consumption while paying lip service to liberal values:  the kind of people who put an environmental bumper sticker on the back of their suburban SUV.  From Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, we find a pervasive fear of conformism and averageness, as well as contempt for an America that has grown increasingly heartless, repressive, and provincial.

We seem to have come full circle.  I want to suggest that today’s skepticism about the Enlightenment has less to do with its failure than with its success.  The very success of the Enlightenment idea of progress that has made it a barometer of our discontents.  The belief in the liberating power of science has created fears of new forms of domination and control; the ability of commerce to promote unprecedented levels of prosperity has produced an anti-bourgeois backlash focused on mindless consumerism and a heightened sensitivity to new forms of inequality; even the narrative of progress has given rise to a counter-narrative of decline and fall.  We live in a composite civilization made up of competing strands of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment.  The very success of the regime shaped by science, the market, and democracy has made it an object of fear, envy, and contempt.  The Enlightenment has become inseparable from the doubts we feel about ourselves.  We remain perpetually gnawed at by our discontents—and that is a good thing.

Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University.  This essay is adapted from his book Modernity and its Discontents: Making and Unmaking the Bourgeois from Machiavelli to Bellow.

Further Reading:

Modernity and Its Discontents cover

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