Magazine | July 9, 2018, Issue

Was the Enlightenment Racist?

John Locke (via Wikimedia Commons)
Some of its proponents were, but the solution was built in

Jamelle Bouie, the chief political correspondent for Slate, recently penned an essay suggesting that the Enlightenment was racist — though the real point seemed to be that liking the Enlightenment too much is kind of racist. Regardless, the essay set off quite a hullabaloo, mostly on Twitter. His main targets were two new books, Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker, and Suicide of the West, by yours truly. Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist bogeyman of the moment for many liberals, was namechecked for good measure.

A wide array of writers took sides, either condemning the essay or defending it. The battle lines mostly tracked the Left–Right divide, but not entirely. For instance, Ross Douthat of the New York Times and National Review sided with Bouie, tweeting “That the Enlightenment was and remains a mixed bag whose intellectual-political-economic matrix made racism worse for a while (and may again, who knows?) is neither a radical nor an ignorant opinion.”

Before I go on, let me disappoint many of my defenders and state here that I think Douthat is mostly right. The Enlightenment was a mixed bag and it remains one as well. But Bouie, who makes many fine points, is ultimately wrong — and in many of the ways that I think Pinker is wrong in his discussion of the Enlightenment.

In Pinker’s immensely useful book, the Enlightenment was — and is — a singular thing. It is a rebellion against all superstition and an affirmation of the glory of science and reason above all else. In 1784, Immanuel Kant published an essay titled “An Answer to the Question: What Is the Enlightenment?” Pinker summarizes Kant’s reply to his own question. The Enlightenment, Kant said, was “humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity,” its “lazy and cowardly” obedience to the “dogmas and formulas” of religious or political authority. “Dare to understand!” was its motto. And so on. Pinker doesn’t adopt Kant’s definition wholesale, but he clearly subscribes to these bits. “If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common,” Pinker writes, “it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.”

And here lies the first problem and the prime source of confusion. That’s not the Enlightenment. To be sure, it is a major current of the Enlightenment — because the scientific revolution was a major part of the Enlightenment — but the problem with Pinker’s tale is that whenever he runs into examples of Enlightenment thought that took account of, had some modicum of reverence for, or even created their own versions of faith, dogma, revelation, authority, and sacred texts, he simply waves his hands and says, in effect, “That’s not the Enlightenment.”

The simple fact is that, however useful it may be as a shorthand term, there was no single thing called “the Enlightenment.” Many intellectual historians divide the Enlightenment into the French Enlightenment and the Scottish Enlightenment. Others identify an “English Enlightenment” and a “German Enlightenment” as well. And within all of the countries that enjoyed an Enlightenment, there were fierce internecine disputes about what it was and what it required. In France, some disciples of the Enlightenment cut off the heads of other disciples of the Enlightenment.

The esteemed intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb in her book on the Enlightenment names three different ones in its subtitle: “The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments.” But the key word there is “Roads” — plural — for it suggests that there was no single path to the sunny uplands of history we live in now. When this subject comes up, I often borrow a line from Mike Myers in his old Saturday Night Live skit (and in the movie So I Married an Axe Murderer): When it comes to Enlightenments, “if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap.” While the Scottish Enlightenment of Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and — most of all — Adam Smith is my favorite, this is of course unfair to countless seminal non-Scottish thinkers to whom we owe a great deal (though I like to think they were Scots — just born in the wrong place).

Bouie writes that “in [Goldberg and Pinker’s] telling, the Enlightenment is a straightforward story of progress, with major currents like race and colonialism cast aside, if they are acknowledged at all. Divorced from its cultural and historical context, this ‘Enlightenment’ acts as an ideological talisman, less to do with contesting ideas or understanding history, and more to do with identity.” While this may draw some blood from Pinker, it misses the mark with me entirely (and in fairness, I don’t think Pinker is playing anything like the identity-politics games that Bouie insinuates he is). I discuss race quite a bit in Suicide of the West, though I confess that colonialism is largely absent, because I think it’s irrelevant to my argument. Its relevance to the Enlightenment is questionable as well, given that European colonialism predates the Enlightenment by a couple of centuries, and imperialism — a near-synonym of colonialism — precedes the Enlightenment by millennia.

While I certainly discuss the Enlightenment, I rely more on the term “the Miracle” (borrowing from Ernest Gellner and Robin Fox). In my telling, the Miracle is a decidedly cultural phenomenon, deeply informed by the sorts of faith, dogma, and sacred texts that Pinker banishes from the Enlightenment. Indeed, echoing Joseph Schumpeter, I argue that many of the forces unleashed by the Enlightenment — rationalism, the market, hyper-individualism — are in fact threats to sustaining the Miracle. This is why National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty argues in his review:

Goldberg’s book, in a way, is a rejoinder to Steven Pinker’s recent efforts. For Pinker, the Enlightenment provides an almost unstoppable engine of material and civilizational progress. You just have to beat back the religious cranks and dumb political theories that occasionally get in the way of its progress. Goldberg is here to remind us that in fact the great engine of Progress depends on a complex mix of religious, institutional, and cultural inputs. Press too hard on any part of it and the whole thing can fall apart. Goldberg emphasizes civilization’s vulnerability.

But Bouie’s error is not confined simply to a misreading or mischaracterization of my book. I have no problem conceding, certainly for the sake of argument or even on the merits, that modern notions of race and racism can be traced back to the Enlightenment, in part because nearly everything in the modern world can be traced back to the Enlightenment(s). Where Bouie, Douthat, and others have a point is in their argument that the scientific superiority of the Enlightenment combined with its ability to rationalize prejudice made things such as colonialism, slavery, and racism somewhat worse, for a time. But isn’t this at least a backhanded acknowledgment that technological science and reason provide a distinct comparative advantage in the age-old story of conquest?

Bouie may also be correct that “it took the scientific thought of the Enlightenment to create an enduring racial taxonomy and the ‘color-coded, white-over-black’ ideology with which we are familiar.” I wonder how “enduring” this racial taxonomy really is, though. It’s certainly weaker now than pretty much ever. Indeed, a sign of its weakness is that the only people who regularly divide the world into such taxonomies, aside from alt-right troll armies, are leftists determined to convince everyone that these taxonomies still define our lives. When I read overheated jeremiads about “white supremacy,” I often think the Jeremiah is a bit like a boxer so determined to go twelve rounds with a weaker opponent that he keeps propping him up so he can hit him again.

Regardless, while it may be true that the Enlightenment helped create these taxonomies, what it did not create is bigotry. Prejudice against those who are different is part of humanity’s basic programming, not an intellectual invention. Indeed, bigotry is no more a human invention than the opposable thumb. “We are by nature indifferent, even hostile, to strangers; we are prone toward parochialism and bigotry,” writes Yale University professor of psychology and cognitive science Paul Bloom in his book Just Babies. “Some of our instinctive emotional responses, most notably disgust, spur us to do terrible things, including acts of genocide.” Bloom describes how all of us are born with an innate distrust of strangers, particularly ones who don’t look like us. But skin color is hardly the only thing that can trigger this response. After all, for most of human history, few humans ever saw other humans who looked physically different from them. Cues of difference can take the form of clothing, hairstyle, or body paint, or can result simply from not instantly recognizing someone. (There’s an important part of our brain dedicated solely to recognizing faces, because instantly recognizing kin and distinguishing them from strangers, friends from foes, was often the key to survival.) Even Margaret Mead, who famously propagandized about the nobility of the savages she studied, conceded that “most primitive tribes feel that if you run across one of these subhumans from a rival group in the forest, the most appropriate thing to do is bludgeon him to death.”

The Chinese general Ran Min was no product of the Enlightenment. Yet in a.d. 351 he issued his infamous “extermination order” mandating that all Wu Hu people be killed. King Æthelred the Unready did not rely on notions of white supremacy when he ordered the slaughter of all Danes in England in 1002. The Massacre of the Latins in Constantinople, not to mention the sadly countless pre-Enlightenment genocidal campaigns against the Jews, did not hinge on the scribblings of Kant or the philosophes.

In fairness to Bouie: He acknowledges that racism and bigotry predate the Enlightenment, he just argues that the Enlightenment made things worse. In the short term, in some instances, he’s probably right. But in the long term he’s obviously been proven wrong. Most of the dogmas and doctrines that fueled or justified bigotry, slavery, and genocide before the Enlightenment were presented as immutable and existential. Notions of “noble blood” and aristocracy do not have an internal expiration date. Beliefs that the neighboring tribe must be eradicated do not contain within them an argument for their own illegitimacy. The identitarianism of the European reactionary Right of the 18th century held that various races and ethnicities were permanent and eternal. Some Enlightenment figures may have agreed with such views, but the Enlightenment contained within it an argument that would, over time, make such views untenable.

The emancipation of the Jews throughout Europe would have been unthinkable without the Enlightenment. Moreover the emancipation of slaves and serfs in Europe and in America would not have happened without the ideas of the Enlightenment. But while the Enlightenment was a necessary ingredient, it was not a sufficient one. The great abolitionist movements of England and America invoked Enlightenment concepts of equality, but they also derived much of their power and passion from religion.

One of the miraculous things about the Miracle is that it provides alternative — and vastly superior — moral guidance about how people should regard strangers. Jewish monotheism argued that all members of the faith are servants of God and therefore endowed with dignity and equality. As for strangers, the golden rule applied: “Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Christianity universalized these ideas. Did Christianity or Judaism always live up to their ideals? Of course not. But that doesn’t detract from the value of those ideals. The market, meanwhile, chipped in where Christianity fell short, turning strangers from presumed enemies into potential customers, employees, or suppliers of goods and services. The rule of law, which borrowed heavily from the Judeo-Christian worldview, made the market sustainable. And the rule of law was argued into existence with that core tool of the Enlightenment: reason. Indeed, John Locke, whom Bouie unfairly considers an important architect of slavery and racism, was among the first to introduce the idea that no man — not even a king — was born with the right to rule over others without their consent. (Contrary to a lot of confusion in the debate over Locke, his influence derived more from his work on empiricism than from his political work, though it was certainly in his political writings as well.)

Locke didn’t create the revolution in rights that he is often credited with. Rather, he represented the triumph — or, rather, the emergence — of an idea whose time had come. Was Locke bigoted toward blacks? Sure. He was also bigoted toward Catholics. His Letter Concerning Toleration was one of the great moral advances in human history. He argued that members of religious sects such as the Puritans deserved to enjoy the rights of citizenship and freedom of conscience. But did the Catholics? No way, answered Locke. Did his position derive from rank theological animus? Certainly in part. But it also surely derived from the political and social context in which he lived. The Whigs believed that the Catholic Church was a foreign enemy, and the Spanish its military wing. Locke would have been fine with freedom of Catholic worship, but he feared (not always implausibly) that Catholics were a fifth column for a foreign power. Regardless, Locke was not immune to the instinct toward tribalism and distrust of the other (no one is). But that doesn’t mean that the internal logic of his argument wasn’t a huge advance on what came before. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson, indisputably a product of the Enlightenment, picked up the baton of Locke’s argument and carried it to its natural conclusion, putting into law religious liberty for all in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (which he wrote).

Jefferson’s blind spot was the issue of slavery. But his line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” served as the linchpin for the inevitable unfolding of emancipation and the civil-rights movement. That argument, advanced most famously, and importantly, by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., depended on Enlightenment-based notions of equality, and was deployed with the tool of reason. But, again, reason alone did not make it persuasive. Persuasion required appeals to the faith and dogma that Pinker belittles.

The relevant point here is that reason is like fire, an immensely useful tool that can very easily destroy if not used correctly. Many of Bouie’s critics rightly note that his argument could just as easily be deployed against the scientific revolution. Many of the early champions of biological racism invoked not mere reason but science itself to justify their bigotry — just as those who today celebrate snuffing out “imperfect” babies in utero use science to rationalize their agenda.

Reason is of course vital for scientific endeavors. But its greatest value in human affairs is its ability to inform the conscience and illuminate morality. Ayn Rand was certainly a creature of the Enlightenment, but the heart of the conservative critique of Rand — most famously stated by Whittaker Chambers in these pages — was that cold reason is not enough. Both Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin were champions of one strain of Enlightenment thought. Indeed, they were heirs of the Jacobins, who were members in good standing of the Enlightenment at its height. The Jacobins sacrificed thousands of humans to their goddess of reason. Marxist-Leninists killed millions in the name of scientific socialism. In a magazine he edited called “Prosveshcheniye” (Russian for “Enlightenment”), Lenin wrote that “the philosophy of Marxism is materialism.” Emerged from the intellectual ferment at “the end of the eighteenth century in France, where a resolute struggle was conducted against every kind of medieval rubbish, . . . materialism has proved to be the only philosophy that is consistent, true to all the teachings of natural science and hostile to superstition, cant and so forth.” Of course, the Marxists modified Enlightenment thinking by adding big portions of Hegelianism and Romanticism (replacing the mechanical metaphors of the Enlightenment with dialectical ones about process). But the continuity was strong. It was based chiefly on a belief in the “perfectibility of man,” a Rousseauian idea that infected the French Enlightenment even though it should properly be filed under “Romanticism.” Under the banner of perfectibility and science, Marxist-Leninists slaughtered millions and enslaved millions more in Russia, China, and elsewhere. They didn’t use the term “slave,” of course; they used reason to come up with euphemisms.

This is the great danger of worshiping reason untethered from the faith and dogma of the Miracle. Without the yoke of religiously informed morality and concepts of universal truth, reason can run wild. As Bertrand Russell argued about philosophical pragmatism, another sect of the cult of reason: “In the absence of any standard of truth other than success, it seems evident that the familiar methods of the struggle for existence must be applied to the elucidation of difficult questions, and that ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth.”

Science and reason often steer us wrong, because what is believed to be a fact of science and reason in one moment — phrenology, Lysenkoism, biological racism, etc. — will be deposed by science and reason the next. Science can also lead us astray because its power and authority are seductive, leading people to employ what Friedrich Hayek derided as “scientism” — the tendency to use the language and categories of science to enthrone ideas that are not necessarily grounded in science itself. The philosopher Edward Feser argues, rightly,  that scientism is a fallacy on its face, because it exempts itself from the scientific method. Scientism is often hard to spot, but one useful clue is when people claim that “the science is settled” on a topic, in order to shield those invested in a particular policy or concept from further scientific inquiry.

What is required to prevent reason from becoming tyrannical is not the dethroning of the Enlightenment championed by today’s postmodern Left but the understanding that the best ideals of the Miracle — natural rights, the sovereignty of the individual, innate human dignity, and equality before God and government alike — serve as the true North of our moral compass regardless of what direction science or reason seem to be pointing us in at any given moment.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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