Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity
By Darrin M. McMahon
Oxford University Press, 262 pages, $35
As everyone knows, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is filled with valuable observations about the United States. America’s unprecedented social equality, its freedom, its vibrant intermediary institutions, even its volatile racial situation”all of these subjects are treated with a depth and subtlety that have yet to be surpassed. And then there is Tocqueville’s revealing, and less frequently noted, discussion of the surprising relationship between Enlightenment and Christianity in America. The United States is a country, he claims, that combines widespread Enlightenment with a deep and abiding faith in God. Just as, for Americans, it is the observance of divine laws that guides man to freedom, so it is that religion . . . leads [him] to Enlightenment.
In Tocqueville’s native France, as throughout much of the European continent, things were very different. Since the early seventeenth century, the age-old ideals of civilization and intellectual Enlightenment had been employed as weapons in an ideological campaign. While many thinkers continued to seek knowledge for the same reasons philosophers had pursued it for millennia”for its own sake, in order to glorify God, to satisfy human curiosity”others had a different aim. Such figures as Hobbes, Spinoza, Bayle, Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, Helvétius, La Mettrie, d’Holbach, Rousseau, Condorcet, and many others”Europe’s first intellectuals”wanted above all to use recent scientific discoveries to inspire skepticism about the truth of the Christian religion, and thus to undermine its spiritual authority. To be sure, not all of these writers went as far as Voltaire’s Écrasez l’infâme! Some, like Locke and Kant, wanted merely to reform, or liberalize, Christianity. (At least Protestant Christianity. For Locke, Catholics, like atheists, must not even be tolerated.) Yet their program of Enlightenment was based on a series of deeply anti-Christian and even antireligious assumptions.
For the vast majority of the philosophes, orthodox religious belief was inspired by nothing nobler than ignorance and fear. Lacking knowledge of the true causes of events within the world, most people live their lives in a terror that can be diminished only by embracing comforting superstitions. This situation”which, according to the leading figures of the Enlightenment, prevails whenever and wherever people lack knowledge of the natural world”was made considerably worse in Europe by the presence of a class of clergy who claimed to possess esoteric knowledge that entitled them to rule the ignorant and fearful masses. Genuine Enlightenment thus requires both that intellectuals dispel superstition by popularizing the findings of modern science and, even more importantly, that they use a potent combination of reason and rhetoric to discredit the Church’s claim to rule in spiritual matters. (When it comes to the issue of whether the Enlightenment relied more heavily on reason or rhetoric in its battle with orthodoxy, it is useful to recall Gotthold E. Lessing’s comment that the philosophes didn’t so much refute religion as attempt to laugh it into submission.)
More than three centuries after it began, the assault on the Church in the name of antireligious Enlightenment has been quite successful. England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland”today these are more or less secular societies. As Tocqueville noted, the situation has been somewhat different in America, where, for much of our history, Enlightenment has not been defined in opposition to religious faith. But even in the United States, latter-day philosophes have come to dominate the universities and other cultural institutions whose task it is, among other things, to chronicle the past. No wonder that throughout the contemporary West the intellectual and social history of modernity is so often told from the standpoint of those who sought to stamp out religious orthodoxy. Reading the leading histories of the period, one hardly hears that there was another side to the story. Even so-called postmodernists, who claim to champion the marginalized, have not stooped to examine the writings of those figures, both clerical and secular, who stood up for the Church in its battle with its harshest critics.
Darrin M. McMahon’s Enemies of the Enlightenment is thus an extremely important book. While a handful of scholars have followed the lead of Isaiah Berlin in studying the ideas of such important Catholic Counter-Enlightenment theorists as Joseph de Maistre, Louis Bonald, and François René Chateaubriand”each of whom established himself as an important social thinker in the wake of the violence of the French Revolution-McMahon is more ambitious. Recognizing that many of the ideas of these thinkers were prefigured in the polemical writings of men and women who attempted to defend the Church in the decades before the Revolution, McMahon begins his story of the French Counter-Enlightenment in the mid-eighteenth century, with such long-forgotten pamphleteers as Nicolas-Joseph-Laurent Gilbert (1750-1780), Madame de Genlis (1746-1830), and Philippe-Louis Gérard (1739-1813). Years before the ghastly excesses of the French Revolution, these authors warned that the Enlightenment (in McMahon’s words) augured regicide, anarchy, and the annihilation of religion.
By the time McMahon has moved beyond the writings of these and many other individuals from the pre-Revolutionary period to examine Counter-Enlightenment literary productions during the Terror, the Empire, the Restoration, and the Bourbons’ final downfall in the revolution of 1830, the reader has come to know scores of obscure characters as well as witnessed the emergence of dozens of ideas that, to this day, constitute the modern right-wing vision of the world. McMahon summarizes the elements of this vision as follows. It includes an emphasis on
the importance of religion in maintaining political order, . . . the perils of intellectual and social license, the valorization of the family and history, the critique of abstract rights, the dangers of dividing sovereignty, and the need for a strategic alliance between throne and altar.
While certain of these elements have dropped out over the years”the spread of democracy has, for example, meant less focus on the crucial importance of monarchical institutions”the right continues to adhere to roughly the same set of mutual assumptions and postulates that were first articulated in France over two centuries ago.
If McMahon had merely traced the lineage of these ideas back to forgotten figures of the ancien régime, his book would be a significant work of scholarship. But he attempts much more than this. McMahon intends his book to be a contribution to understanding the character of modernity, above all in Catholic countries, but also much more broadly, in Christian and even non-Western cultures.
For all of the appeals to the past among the anti-philosophes, McMahon maintains that they brought into being something distinctly new. As he writes, the Counter-Enlightenment’s defense of tradition was not traditional, its reverence for history was a historical departure, and its arguments for the family and patriarchal power were a response to novel threats both real and perceived. That is, in McMahon’s view, the very act of defending norms, practices, and beliefs that previously had been taken as givens ended up generating an entirely novel ideological position. Moreover, the polemicists of the right pushed their agenda by direct participation in the new public sphere, also a uniquely modern product. Hence, contrary to the antimodern motivations of the anti-philosophes themselves, the Counter-Enlightenment must be considered a thoroughly modern movement. And despite the assumptions of many of today’s nouveau-philosophes, the modern era must be understood less as a period of progressive secularization than as one characterized by a developmental struggle between the forces of Enlightenment and the oppositional movements it brought into being.
This is a provocative thesis, and one worthy of serious reflection. Conceiving of modernity as an ongoing contest between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment leads McMahon to the intriguing conclusion that today’s culture wars have been a permanent feature of modern life from the beginning. Going further, he offers a word of caution to those inclined to contribute to the struggle on the right side of the battlefield. McMahon argues that the conservative impulse to defend religious orthodoxy against Enlightenment tends to produce, by a kind of inexorable logic, a reactionary ideology that is at least as radical as its secular Enlightenment antagonist.
Though McMahon’s explanation of this latter point is less clear than we might have hoped, the danger apparently follows from the right’s tendency to accept the Enlightenment’s interpretation of modernity as homogeneously secular”and, as a result, to seek its complete overthrow. But since, in McMahon’s view, modernity is itself constituted by the conflict between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, this counterrevolutionary effort is ultimately futile. And that very futility can inspire a degree of desperation that is compatible with political extremism of various forms, as reactionary forces come to embrace any political movement that holds out the (impossible) hope of routing modernity once and for all.
What, then, would McMahon have us do? The question is not as inappropriate as it might seem. While a work of scholarship need not, and often ought not, seek to offer practical political guidance, Enemies of the Enlightenment leaves its readers feeling somewhat perplexed about what the author’s interpretation implies about the daunting social, political, and cultural questions raised by the persistent conflict between the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. For the most part, the book floats high above such issues, looking down on them from a position of detachment. Does a healthy politics require a religious foundation? Is unlimited social and intellectual license compatible with the common good? Are families endangered by a generalized decline in respect for authority? McMahon refuses to answer such questions because he is led by his argument to claim that this very way of posing the questions reflects a Counter-Enlightenment bias. It is, he asserts, a mark of the anti-philosophes to adopt a Mani chean outlook that divides the world between good and evil, right and wrong, right and left. To propose an answer to these questions would be to take sides in the very debate he wishes to assess disinterestedly.
McMahon thus portrays himself as a partisan of the center, and invites us to join him there. But can his center hold? We have reason to doubt it. While he never takes up an explicit defense of the Enlightenment against its critics, he does repeatedly claim that the Counter-Enlightenment’s view of the philosophes as atheistic hedonists bent on undermining religious and political order, authority, and tradition is a construction that distorts their actual positions. Yet, at other points, he admits that such views were not arbitrary. Indeed, he points out that many of the philo sophes denied that egotism, ambition, vanity, and covetousness were vices. Moreover, they almost uniformly reject[ed] the view that human nature had been vitiated by the Fall. Their hostility to Catholic prudery inspired them to spice their works with ample lubricious material as well. Citing two examples from the many others that could be adduced, he notes that the dreamer of Diderot’s Rêve de d’Alembert . . . interrupts a disquisition on materialism to masturbate in the presence of his hostess, . . . and Les Bijoux indiscrètes blurs the lines between pornography and philosophie even further, centering the story’s action around two talking vaginas.
And still McMahon maintains that the majority of anti-philosophe accusations were vastly overstated and grossly unfair. Such statements are, to put it mildly, unconvincing. McMahon’s own examples make it abundantly clear that, in fact, the philo sophes and their critics were in considerable agreement about the character and content of the liberationist aims of the Enlightenment. What led to passionate disagreement between them was a dispute about whether those aims were compatible with the common good and human happiness.
Despite his efforts to remain above the fray, McMahon is clearly on the side of the French Enlightenment. He has, for instance, comparatively little to say about how vastly overstated and grossly unfair were the philosophes’ original attacks on religion and its place in human life. Likewise, rather than crediting the early anti-philosophes with at least a modicum of insight for predicting that the influence of the Enlightenment would lead France to be engulfed by horrors, McMahon simply dismisses their warnings as hyperbolic extremism. Thus, even if his ostensibly evenhanded study of the Counter-Enlightenment does not actively defend the cause of the philosophes, it does have the practical effect of furthering the Enlightenment’s agenda by discrediting its critics.
This is unfortunate. The last thing we need now is a tacit apology for the aggressively secular Enlightenment that dominated France in the eighteenth century and permeates our universities and institutions of higher culture today. And neither do we need another attack on the Counter-Enlightenment forces that (in many cases, understandably) overreacted in an attempt to defend religion against the secularist onslaught.
What we do need is to recognize that the experience of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment in France (and on the European continent more generally) tells us less about the character of modernity as such than it does about one way”and not a particularly felicitous way”that the relation between knowledge and religion can be conceived in modern times. As Tocqueville noted, there is another possibility. The American experience”at least until the mid-1960s”demonstrates that Enlightenment and religion need not be antagonistic. Indeed, they can nurture one another. What we need today, above all, is to understand how to recapture and sustain this symbiotic relationship. And this is a project to which McMahon’s book, as informative and meticulously researched as it is, has precious little to contribute.
Damon Linker is associate editor of First Things .