Modernity: Enlightenment or Anti-Enlightenment?

Radical Enlightenment is a set of basic principles that can be summed up concisely as: democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promoting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing control of the legislative process. Its chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights, and status irrespective of what they believe or what religious, economic, or ethnic group they belong to, and that consequently all ought to be treated alike, on the basis of equity, whether black or white, male or female, religious or nonreligious, and that all deserve to have their personal interests and aspirations equally respected by law and government. Its universalism lies in its claim that all men have the same right to pursue happiness in their own way, and think and say whatever they see fit, and no one, including those who convince others they are divinely chosen to be their masters, rulers, or spiritual guides, is justified in denying or hindering others in the enjoyment of rights that pertain to all men and women equally.

– Jonathan Israel,  A Revolution of the Mind

Think about it, read those words again a second, maybe even a third time. Then ask yourself this: What is at stake in this enlightenment project? Reason, universalism, and emancipation. The Age of the Enlightenment spawned our modern world, and still effects us with its contagious ideas on equality, liberty, race, gender issues, and, most of all the right to certain inalienable rights based on natural law. Yet, under the veneer, the surface of our histories is that other tradition, the darker modernity that some call the Counter-Enlightenment. Yet it is much more than a counter it is a deadly enemy, so needs a more forceful appellation: the Anti-Enlightenment. Some may well ask: Were there two modernities? A Radical and a Reactionary path to the modern world? And, are we still playing out the dark political history of this ancient battle? As we think through the issues surrounding modernism we should ask ourselves a simple question: Which modernity – the Enlightenment model or the Anti-Enlightenment model? There seems to be a confusion as to which modernity is more viable in our world today. The choice is before us, shall we side with the radical philosophes of the original Enlightenment; or, with their foes of the Anti-Enlightenment? For me the choice is clear: the tradition of the radical party of the Enlightenment traditions holds for me the only viable path forward as we think through issues of modernity and the politics it spawned. But why has the other modernity, the Anti-Enlightenment tradition displace the original Enlightenment project, how did it attain such an insidious hold over our world and spawn the neoliberal worldview? First we need an understand of just what the Enlightenment is, but more than that we need a better understanding of its enemies, the Anti-Enlightenment tradition which has for two hundred years from the time of Herder and Burke maligned both the philosophes and their ideas of reason, universalism, and emancipation.

If one could choose only three texts to typify the Radical Enlightenment which ones would you choose? For me it would be simple: John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Immanuel Kant’s Reply to the Question: What is Enlightenment?, and Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: each a refinement of the central dictum of the Enlightenment – the liberation or emancipation of men and women everywhere. Yet, it would be such revolutionaries as Robespierre and the Jacobins’s  who would castigate the original radical enlightenment philosophes complaining that the “modern philosophy” opposes “feeling,” and especially the sentiments of the ordinary person. Here, ironically, Robespierre’s Jacobinism closely converged with royalist Counter-Enlightenment ideology, both propagating the myth of the Enlightenment as a coldly clinical, unfeeling machine of rational ideas, brutalizing natural sentiment and destroying instead of furthering what is best in human life. This allegation was taken up internationally and became a stock theme of British attacks on the “modern philosophers” in the 1790s.1

Yet, as Israel points out throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mainstream thought in Britain, Ireland, and America, following Locke and Newton and supplemented by Scottish Common Sense, remained always implacably hostile to this tradition of radical thought spawned by the philosophes.  For the moderate mainstream, whether we consider Hume, Ferguson, Adam Smith, Frederick the Great, Benjamin Franklin, Montesquieu, Turgot, or Voltaire, was inherently antidemocratic, anti-egalitarian, and reluctant to concede a full toleration. In Britain, Moderate Enlightenment, culminating in the ideas of Edmund Burke, eventually developed a remarkably dogmatic and intolerant social and political conservatism, stubbornly intent on defending virtually all existing institutional, ecclesiastical, and legal forms. Much the same unbridgeable dichotomy between a dominant Moderate and oppositional Radical enlightenment infused the Enlightenment controversy in Ireland. Mainstream publicists in the Irish debate of the 1780s and 1790s routinely distinguished between “True Enlightenment,” as they designated Enlightenment based on Locke and Montesquieu, and “pernicious” Enlightenment, meaning Enlightenment rooted in “modern philosophy,” which they deplored as materialist, atheistic, and subversive of the British Empire. These publicists were, however, defending social and ecclesiastical hierarchies, privileges, discrimination, and disabilities that scarcely anyone today would attempt to justify.(ibid.)

As Zeeve Sternhell describes it in his monumental history of The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition there are two modernity’s, one that produced the radical enlightenment of the French and English/Scottish Enlightenment of Kant’s sapere aude – ‘Dare to be wise!’, based on reason, autonomy and universalism which believed that the “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” As Oliver Sensen tells us the autonomous individual was for Kant central to his practical philosophy, and the idea of autonomy is both multifarious and complex: it is an account of reason; it is positive freedom; it is a capacity for self-determination through the will’s self-legislation of the moral law; it is an ideal of moral self-determination in accord with the moral law; it is the basis of dignity; it is a theory about the nature and authority of moral obligation; and it is a theory of morality that implies the falsity of moral theories that make morality and its authority conditional on factors external to the will of the obligated person. In contemporary conceptions, by contrast, autonomy is conceived of as the capacity for rational choice that defines the competency of persons, a capacity that is also the source of dignity and the rights of self-determination that said dignity confers on persons. (here)  Kant would have us be independent thinkers, able to stand on our own two feet and speak our thoughts out of the honesty of our being:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding! (here)

On the other hand there was another path to modernity, a darker turn back toward the comfort of a feudalism that nourished dreams of unity and a static timeless order of control and domination. As Sternhell describes it this modernity was based on all that differentiates and divides people, a political culture that denied reason either the right or the capacity to mold peoples lives, saw religion as the essential foundation of society, and did not hesitate to call on the state to regulate social relationships or to intervene in the economy.(8)2 In the twentieth-century we see this other modernity rise up from 1913 onward as either the ‘reactionary modernity’ or ‘conservative revolution’ which has been constant in denying the radical enlightenment project of Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire, and the philosophes any latitude within its confines. And, its incessant enemy has and will always entail the Idea of Autonomy itself, arguing instead that the individual should belong to the communitarian statist values of nationalism and the logics of local socio-cultural manifestations as opposed to all universalizing conceptions of the human.

Sternhell tells us that if we had to look for a beginning point of this darker modernity that is still with us today that one could do no better than in the works of Johann Gottfried Herder. He suggests that with Herder we might begin with Another Philosophy of History for the Formation of Mankind which was an explicit defense against the rationalist modernity or radical atheistic enlightenment of the French Philosophes, and tried within its pages to argue for a different alternative modernity. The other arch-enemy of the radical enlightenment was none other than Edmund Burke who described the Enlightenment as a “guiding spirit of a movement of intellectual conspiracy whose aim was the destruction of Christian civilization and the political order it had created.(11)

Herder and Burke, Carlyle and Taine, Renan and Maurras all were members of this club of the Anti-Enlightenment. Then later Spengler, Croce, and Meinecke would consolidate much of its message. By the mid-twentieth century we’d find another breed of those counter-current thinkers arise. It was Nietzsche himself that said in Daybreak (197 German Hostility to the Enlightenment): “Let us consider the intellectual contribution to general culture made by the Germans of the first half of this century, and let us take first the German philosophers: they retreated to the first and oldest stage of speculation, for, like the thinkers of dreamy ages, they were content with concepts instead of explanations – they brought to life again a pre-scientific species of philosophy.”3 He continued, saying,

The whole great tendency of the Germans was against the Enlightenment and against the revolution in society which was crudely misunderstood as its consequence: piety towards everything that exists sought to translate itself into piety towards everything that ever had existed, to the end that heart and spirit might once more become full and no room be left for future and novel goals. The cult of feeling was erected in place of the cult of reason, and the German composers, as artists of the invisible, emotional, fabulous, unsatisfied, built at the new temple more successfully than any of the artists of words or of ideas. (ibid.)

In the 1950’s Isaiah Berlin would consolidate the ideas of the – what he termed, the Counter-Enlightenment during the Cold War era that would be taken up by both the liberal and conservative that would form the core set of values and ideas of the neoliberal movement of today. In his book Against the Current in an essay titled the Counter-Enlightenment he begin to attack the universalism of the Enlightenment and its core values of Natural Law. For him the Enlightenment held to a tenacious and unfounded belief in “one set of universal and unalterable principles governed the world for theists, deists and atheists, for optimists and pessimists, puritans, primitivists and believers in progress and the richest fruits of science and culture; these laws governed inanimate and animate nature, facts and events, means and ends, private life and public, all societies, epochs and civilisations; it was solely by departing from them that men fell into crime, vice, misery”(3).4 It was against this core set of values and beliefs that the counter-enlightenment would bring formulate an “attack upon this that constitutes the most formidable reaction against this dominant body of belief”(4).

So for Berlin the choice was clear, he would side with all those like Giambattista Vico felt that the Cartesians were profoundly mistaken about the role of mathematics as the science of sciences; that mathematics was certain only because it was a human invention. It was Vico who through his cultural mythology of cyclic turns of history would also deny universalism and the doctrine of a timeless natural law the truths of which could have been known in principle to any man, at any time, anywhere.(5) He would also be the harbinger of all those later postmodernists and multiculturalist relativists who would insist on the “plurality of cultures and on the consequently fallacious character of the idea that there is one and only one structure of reality which the enlightened philosopher can see as it truly is, and which he can (at least in principle) describe in logically perfect language – a vision that has obsessed thinkers from Plato to Leibniz, Condillac, Russell and his more faithful followers.”(6)

The second pillar of the Anti-Enlightenment in Berlin’s pantheon was J.G. Hamman who as Berlin describes forcefully, saying, “If Vico wished to shake the pillars on which the Enlightenment of his times rested, the Königsberg theologian and philosopher, J. G. Hamann, wished to smash them.”(6) As Berlin remarks:

Hamann began as a disciple of the Enlightenment, but, after a profound spiritual crisis, turned against it, and published a series of polemical attacks written in a highly idiosyncratic, perversely allusive, contorted, deliberately obscure style, as remote as he could make it from the, to him, detestable elegance, clarity, and smooth superficiality of the bland and arrogant French dictators of taste and thought. Hamann’s theses rested on the conviction that all truth is particular, never general: that reason is impotent to demonstrate the existence of anything and is an instrument only for conveniently classifying and arranging data in patterns to which nothing in reality corresponds; that to understand is to be communicated with, by men or by God.(7)

Yet, it was Hamann’s disciple Johann Gottfried Herder who would become the ultimate foe of the Enlightenment. It was Herder who would be the progenitor of all those sociological thinkers after him that centered their theories on affects, as Berlin describes it he believed that to understand anything was to understand it in its individuality and development, and that this required a “capacity which he called Einfühlung (‘ feeling into’) the outlook, the individual character of an artistic tradition, a literature, a social organisation, a people, a culture, a period of history”.(10) According to Berlin Herder was “the greatest inspirer of cultural nationalism” and it was his privilege to be the dark precursor of all multicultural relativists everywhere, which as Berlin remarks, Herder’s “relativistic passion for the individual essence and flavour of each culture that most profoundly influenced the European imagination”.(12) Berlin continued, saying: “For Voltaire, Diderot, Helvétius, Holbach, Condorcet, there is only universal civilisation, of which now one nation, now another, represents the richest flowering. For Herder there is a plurality of incommensurable cultures.”(12)

Herder’s contemporary, Justus Möser, the first historical sociologist, would become the harbinger of all those later romantic, vitalist, intuitionist and irrationalist thinkers of every stripe and persuasion. Berlin goes into detail, saying,

Although the influence was not direct, these are the very tones one hears in the works of Burke and many later romantic, vitalistic, intuitionist, and irrationalist writers, both conservative and socialist, who defend the value of organic forms of social life. Burke’s famous onslaught on the principles of the French revolutionaries was founded upon the selfsame appeal to the ‘myriad strands’ that bind human beings into a historically hallowed whole, contrasted with the utilitarian model of society as a trading company held together solely by contractual obligations, the world of ‘sophisters, economists and calculators’ who are blind and deaf to the unanalysable relationships that make a family, a tribe, a nation, a movement, any association of human beings held together by something more than a quest for mutual advantage, or by force, or by anything that is not mutual love, loyalty, common history, emotion and outlook.(13)

Berlin details out the Romantic Era poets, playwrights, philosophers, etc. who all shared a dislike of the sciences and the universalism of the Enlightenment traditions based on natural law. Whether it was William Blake in England, Schiller in Germany, or such leaders of the Sturm und Drang as Lenz, Klinger, Gerstenberg and Leisewitz are outbursts against every form of organised social or political life.(14) For Berlin it was Herder’s cry of that resounds within the entire Sturm und Drang movement: ‘I am not here to think, but to be, feel, live!’, or ‘heart! warmth! blood! humanity! life!’(14) The Gothic and Romantic elements would find their greatest dark precursor in the writings of the Marquise de Sade: ”

The inspiration of this work is a violent, radical individualism, which represents an early form, not unlike the contemporary erotic fantasies of the Marquis de Sade, of a craving for escape from imposed rules and laws whether of scientific reason or of political or ecclesiastical authority, royalist or republican, despotic or democratic.(15)

This anti-rationalist fear of science would spawn all those later reactionary forces of the counter or anti enlightenment. As Berlin states it:

This faith in a peculiar, intuitive, spiritual faculty which goes by various names – reason, understanding, primary imagination – but is always differentiated from the critical analytic intellect favoured by the Enlightenment, the contrast between it and the analytic faculty or method that collects, classifies, experiments, takes to pieces, reassembles, defines, deduces, and establishes probabilities, becomes a commonplace used thereafter by Fichte, Hegel, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Goethe, Carlyle, Schopenhauer and other anti-rationalist thinkers of the nineteenth century, culminating in Bergson and later anti-positivist schools.(17)

At the core of this stream of Anti-Enlightenment thought would be an aggressive nationalism, self-identification with the interests of the class, the culture or the race, or the forces of progress – with the wave of a future-directed dynamism of history, something that at once explains and justifies acts which might be abhorred or despised if committed from calculation of selfish advantage or some other mundane motive – this family of political and moral conceptions is so many expressions of a doctrine of self-realisation based on “defiant rejection of the central theses of the Enlightenment, according to which what is true, or right, or good, or beautiful, can be shown to be valid for all men by the correct application of objective methods of discovery and interpretation, open to anyone to use and verify”.(18-19) For all these Anti-Enlightenment advocates in the last two hundred years it came down to a rejection of the central principles of the Enlightenment – universality, objectivity, rationality, and the capacity to provide permanent solutions “to all genuine problems of life or thought, and (not less important) accessibility of rational methods to any thinker armed with adequate powers of observation and logical thinking – occurred in various forms, conservative or liberal, reactionary or revolutionary, depending on which systematic order was being attacked”.(19-20)

For Berlin the central tenet of the Enlightenment was its rejection of the central Christian doctrine of original sin, believing instead that man is born either innocent and good, or morally neutral and malleable by education or environment, or, at worst, deeply defective but capable of radical and indefinite improvement by rational education in favourable circumstances, or by a revolutionary reorganisation of society as demanded, for example, by Rousseau.(20) Against this Enlightenment creed an array of formidable foes from the reactionary world would arise in the French counter-revolutionary writers de Maistre, Bonald and Chateaubriand who “held the Enlightenment to be one of the most foolish, as well as the most ruinous, forms of social thinking”. (21) For Berlin de Maistre and his brethren all maintained that ‘Reason’ is the “thinnest of walls against the raging seas of violent emotion: on so insecure a basis no permanent structure can ever be erected”(22). He continues:

Irrationality, so far from being an obstacle, has historically led to peace, security and strength, and is indispensable to society: it is rational institutions – republics, elective monarchies, democracies, associations founded on the enlightened principles of free love – that collapse soonest; authoritarian churches, hereditary monarchies and aristocracies, traditional forms of life, like the highly irrational institution of the family, founded on lifelong marriage – it is they that persist.(22)

For de Maistre it is the dark instincts that govern man and societies; only élites which understand this, and keep the people from too much secular education that is bound to make them over-critical and discontented, can give to men as much happiness and justice and freedom as, in this vale of tears, men can expect to have. But at the back of everything must lurk the potentiality of force, of coercive power.(22-23) It was de Maistre who would state that the social order in the end rests upon one man, the executioner.(23)  In the end Isaiah Berlin was a defender of the Anti-Enlightenment and saw in all those radical emancipatory proclamations from either Left or Right nothing more than an imposition of tyranny and malefaction. Sternhell tells us that by the end of his life (Berlin died in 1997) Berlin would become venerated to the point of almost being unassailable for many scholars.

Yet, as Sternhell recognizes it was Berlin’s opposition to the Enlightenment that we should remember him rather than as some kind of hero of democracy and its values. Berlin was of the opposition and argued against rationalism, universalism, and natural rights. One is also reminded of Berlin’s stance on the two forms of liberty, that of the ancients and the moderns, the one based of a postitive conception, the other negative: 1) the positive being of the ancients in which the “advantage that liberty, as the ancients conceived it, gave the people, was actually to be among those that ruled; while, 2) the negative liberty, represented a conception in which the people “only need, in order to be happy, to be left in complete independence with regard to everything touching their occupations, their enterprises, their sphere of activity, their fantasies”. (Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”) As Sternhell remarks Berlin in the end would affirm his stance on liberty by siding for the negative liberty, which by his definition of liberty “created a hierarchy of values in which noninterference in the affairs of the individual – negative liberty – was in the final analysis the only acceptable definition” (396). Against a positive liberty that supported a desire for justice and equality and for which democracy is the means of achieving a decent human order, Berlin promulgated a stance that believed positive liberty lead to all those totalitarian disasters of the modern world.(396)

In the end Berlin would come to see the radical Enlightenment as the enemy, see the radicals as harbingers and zealots, rather than as – as Sternhell remarks, ‘moderate reformers’. Against Berlin and the Anti-Enlightenment gang, Sternhell sees in them and their ilk: “All the detractors of the Enlightenment made the philosophes out to be the founders of modern fanaticism, when it was [the philosophes] who fought against fanaticism and on behalf of tolerance; they made them out to be “monists” and rabid Eurocentrists, when [the philosophes] showed a respect unknown in the Christian world for non-European cultures and for cultural pluralism.”(411)

Sternhell uses Berlin as a typical case of our times, as a representative figure of the Anti-Enlightenment who formed a new core group of counter-figures for a different modernity that that of the radical Enlightenment that has been so well documented by Jonathan Israel and other scholars. What Zeev Sternhell’s book, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, gives us is the full panoply of all those reactionary anti-enlightenment forces that have tried to displace the Enlightenment’s vision of modernity with their own, displacing the core values of reason, universalism, and liberty as conceived by the radical philosophes, and as Israel argues, the true harbingers of our future based on this core set of principles: “democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promoting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing control of the legislative process.”

Yet, we have to admit the Enlightenment has failed to produce the goods, the progressive strain has led us into a cul de sac of defeatism and less that empowered politics. We stand on the edge of a precipice like Nietzsche’s Last Men, apathetic, disgruntled, pacified and unwilling to motivate ourselves into struggle, much less revolution and change. We seem more like the nightmarish denizens of a climatological burp in the long history of the planet ready to sink rather swim in the struggle to gain a foothold onto a worthy future. Instead the future like some metallic beast seems already reconstructing us from within metamorphosing us into things beyond reckoning, no longer human but rather inhuman to the core we seem like machinic automatons in a singular system of capitalization that is no longer run by an elite or Great Leader, but rather by the very inorganic algorithms of an advanced AGI (artificial intelligence) sent back in time to recalibrate the coming apocalypse.


1. Israel, Jonathan (2011-09-06). A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Kindle Locations 2978-2983). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Zeeve Sternhell. The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale 2010).
3. Friedrich Nietzsche. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) (Kindle Locations 2025-2027). Kindle Edition.
4. Berlin, Isaiah (2012-06-30). Against The Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (Pimlico) (p. 3). Random House. Kindle Edition.

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