Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Counter Enlightenment: Introduction (1)

The present is a series of key postings on the roots of contemporary European political philosophy. These ideas shaped many states on the continent, determined the nature of the Government, and defined the role of the people as state subjects. The result is a distinct European culture that is shaping the world today as it is taking over the USA. 

Cuba, Calle Bernaza. H/t @KarelBecerra.


The idea of the creation of a personalized universe, or rather a personal version of the universe originates with Protagoras (490-420 BC), who said "man is the measure of all things", he meant individual man, rather than mankind. The sophists of the rough, second generation, notably Trasymachus, a character in Plato's Republic, put that notion of subjectivism pragmatically to good use. In classical Greece the sophists used language, not in the service of truth or the transfer of information, but as a strategy for political point-scoring. Does this begin to ring a bell? The sophists held that justice is in the interest of the stronger, that might makes right.

Objectivist philosopher Stephen Hicks in "Explaining Postmodernism" claims that
"Postmodernists - coming after two millennia of Christianity and two centuries of social theory - simply reverse that claim: Subjectivism and relativism are true, except that the postmodernists are on the side of the weaker and historically-oppressed groups. Justice, contrary to Trasymachus, is in the interest of the weaker."

Free Download of Stephen Hicks primer on Postmodernism (PDF)

Contemporary Postmodernists have harnessed this form of political correctness to today's version of the social struggle, a weapon to perpetuate into eternity the strife of oppressed minorities against the 'fake tolerance' of the white, male 'power structure'. The latter should not be understood as 'whoever is in power', but rather 'whoever is in power, other than us'.

Although we have not always seen it for what it was, during the last two and a half centuries or so the fruits of reason have been pitted in an existential dog fight with the reactionary forces of anti-realism. The movement is more generally termed 'the Counter-Enlightenment', to underscore the culture's fundamental rejection of the values of the Enlightenment.

The origin of postmodernism

In his ground-breaking book Hicks posits two theses: that the failure of epistemology (philosophy's study of human knowledge) made Postmodernism possible; and that the failure of Socialism made Postmodernism necessary. What Rousseau, Kant and Hegel were for church authority, the Postmodernistss are for collectivism: their raison d'ĂȘtre is a desperate rationalization for holding on to a rejected system.

The emergence of the Counter-Enlightenment represents the turning point of the age of reason. The era between 1780 and 1815 was a defining period in Modernism, as Anglo-American and German culture split into respectively the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment.

The former began in England, and was picked up by the French. But Roussseau's followers wrested the Enlightenment inspired revolution away from John Locke's (1632 -1704) followers. This quote is from Locke's 2nd Treatise §3:
"In order to preserve the public good, the central function of government must be the protection of private property ..."
... compare that to Rousseau:
"For the creation of a society of 'common will', the people need only accept the dictates of the state" ...

The German reactionaries

The French Revolution turned into the Jacobin Reign of Terror, the particularly bloody, third and last episode. The old German States thereafter, already suspicious of the new order, began a counter movement in an effort to rescue religion from what they saw as the onslaught of reason. When the Enlightened French despot, Napoleon Bonaparte jumped into the vacuum left by the Reign of Terror and conquered Europe, the still largely feudal German states knew for sure what the age of reason had wrought.

The reaction was a counter movement by a brand of collectivist philosophers and intellectuals - politically on the Left as well as on the Right, some religious, later on also atheists - with a number of themes in common: Jean-Jacques Rousseau inspired "anti-individualism, the need for strong government, the view that religion is a matter of the state (whether to promote or suppress it), the view that education is a process of socialization, ambivalence about science and technology, and strong themes of group conflict, violence and war.

Hicks: "Left and Right have often divided bitterly over which themes have priority and over how they should be applied. Yet, for all of their differences, both have consistently recognized a common enemy: Liberal capitalism, with its individualism, its limited government, its separation of church and state, its fairly constant view that education is not primarily a matter of political socialization, and its persistent Whiggish optimism about prospects for peaceful trade and cooperation between members of all nations and groups."

"By the early twentieth century (...) the dominant issues for most continental political thinkers were not whether liberal capitalism was a viable option - but rather exactly when it would collapse - and whether Left or Right collectivism had the best claim to being the Socialism of the future. The defeat of the collectivist Right in World War II then meant that the Left was on its own to carry the Socialist mantle forward."
"Accordingly, when the Left ran into its major disasters as the twentieth century progressed, understanding its fundamental commonality with the collectivist Right helps to explain why in its desperation the Left has often adopted ''fascistic'' tactics."

The merging of law and morality

Another fateful innovation was set in by the counter movement. As had been the logic during the long period of Church authority over morality, arts and science, all modern mainstream Enlightenment thinkers had accommodated the new advances in science and mathematics into Christian belief. Defying Aristotlean wisdom, human nature, as well as Hume's Law -- the confusion of 'is' with 'ought' -- the Counter-Enlightenment philosophers following Rousseau, Kant and Hegel -- even the atheists -- reversed this orthodoxy. The state became the authority on law as well as morality. 

Instead of returning the realm of morality to the individual, statists developed political models, which reflected religious ideals, the re-creation of paradises on earth. These political models sought to mirror the heavens, on the basis of 'as above, so below', macrocosm - microcosm: the ideal society modeled on Heaven. The tenets of the Enlightenment were abandoned and replaced by opposing principles: realism made way for Idea-lism, and individualism for collectivism; emotions, intuition and Revelation were adopted as sources of knowledge rather than reason and experience, social theories replaced liberal capitalist theory.

Universal Enlightenment values were applied, but were limited to specific themes. In these themes God was replaced by whatever fitted the theme: nationalists replaced God with the nation, state adolators deified the state, Socialists society, etcetera. We'll return to that after having a look up close at the main, early protagonists of the Counter-Enlightenment drama.

Up next: ... Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (1712-1778) personal life is marked by traits sounding awkwardly contemporary ...

First posted: March 3, 2008

In this series of the Counter Enlightenment