Friday, March 28, 2014

Hope for the future or naïve optimism


What are we to make of the 18th-century European Enlightenment? In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, the scholar Keith Thomas writes:
Supporters [of the Enlightenment] hail it as the source of everything that is progressive about the modern world. For them, it stands for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future. By contrast, its enemies accuse it of "shallow" rationalism, naïve optimism, unrealistic universalism, and moral darkness.
Readers of this blog will know that I stand among the "supporters," this in spite of the moral wreckage of the French Revolution and the various human tragedies of industrialization, plantation slavery, imperialism, occultism, and two world wars. Lord knows, the human race was not perfected by the likes of Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Diderot and Kant. I am no "naïve" optimist, but I would still maintain that the ideals of the Enlightenment, as enumerated above by Thomas' "supporters," are humankind's best hope for a future free of the grossest malevolencies of the past.

As I understand the Enlightenment, it was an attempt to work out the religious, political and economic implications of the wildly successful Scientific Revolution of the previous century, and the person who launched the project was an ex-communicated Jew of Amsterdam, Baruch Spinoza, most prominently in his 1670 book Theological-Political Treatise.

That the Scientific Revolution was successful at its own project -- mathematical reasoning, empiricism, systematized doubt, naturalism -- can hardly be doubted; we live in a world that has flowed inevitably from that success. Spinoza embraced the paradigm and expanded it. There are no miracles, he wrote, nor divine providence. No immortality of souls. The Bible is not the word of God but a work of human literature. Religion has nothing to do with theology or sectarian dogma. Religious authorities have no place in government. Tolerance for diversity, freethinking, and democracy should be the foundations of a modern state.

Well, we can guess how the book was received, even in relatively liberal Amsterdam. Steven Nadler has traced the reaction in his very readable A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age. It can be debated, of course, whether Spinoza's secularism defined an age, then or now, but it was reinforced by the philosophes of the 18th century and continues to undergird the rights even of those who reject Spinoza's premises. I would argue that "the book forged in hell" is a foundational document for what little post-Enlightenment heaven we find in the world today.