Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Enlightenment Gone Mad

Philip Trower enlightens on the Enlightenment.
MercatorNet: Do you sense a danger of people accepting the ideas of leading Enlightenment figures as having quasi-Scriptural authority? Should students be taught a more critical and detached view of Enlightenment values, do you think?

Trower: Again my answer is a double Yes -- if by quasi-Scriptural authority you mean treating the leading figures as if they had been recipients of a divine revelation. Since they were not, and to be fair did not claim to be, it is of the highest importance that those ideas should be looked at critically, which is what I have tried to do in the first seven chapters of my recent book. Looking at them critically does not mean denying the elements of truth but freeing the elements of truth from distortions, exaggerations, or downright errors.

Let me give some examples. If there is no God, where do human rights come from? The State? But a State which gives them can withdraw them. How do we know what is right and wrong? By majority vote? Who would seriously maintain that? Through conscience? Yes, but what is conscience and how does it fit into a materialistic or crudely Darwinian picture of world history? Why do many people, even if only implicitly, believe in perpetual progress? There is no evidence for it. That history is going to come to a climax in a kingdom of justice, love and peace is simply a Judaeo-Christian idea removed from the other side of the Last Day into this.

Trower also explains:

However it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that these ideas have not come down to us with a single meaning about which everyone agrees. Collectively, they are more like a religion with different denominations. Right from the start, which we can place in the second half of the 17th century, we can see a difference between what I will call the Anglo-Saxon Enlightenment and the French or Continental Enlightenment.

The former has always had a looser more pragmatic approach to ideas and situations, resembling an ethos or attitude of mind more than a creed. The chief emphasis has been on individual liberty and freedom of expression with room being made for the incorporation of Christian and other beliefs.

The French or Continental variety on the other hand, has invariably been highly dogmatic and anti-religious, with Christianity as its main target. What makes the situation particularly confusing is that since the end of the Napoleonic wars the adherents of both forms have usually referred to themselves as liberals.

Today, I would say, it is more accurate and meaningful to describe modern adherents of the French school as secularists, since they are increasingly bent on forcing other people to submit to their principles whether they agree with them or not -- a very illiberal standpoint -- and keep the name liberals for genuine adherents of the Anglo-Saxon form in so far as they survive. A notable feature of the English scene over the last ten years had been the decline of Anglo-Saxon liberalism and the growth of the French secularist form. Today, one can fairly, I believe, describe secularism and political correctness as "liberal fundamentalism".

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