The Anti-Enlightenment Makes a Comeback

Trying to get rid of liberalism has led to things that aren't as bad as people complaining about secularization, individualism, and free markets.

Tablet, a right-wing online magazine, ran an essay by journalist and author Liel Leibovitz called "It's the Liberalism, Stupid" in July. It was about Jewish life and general culture and ideas. Its goal was to challenge the idea that the excesses of modern American progressivism, like identity politics and speech suppression, are caused by a dislike of liberalism. It's not just liberals who are bad, says Leibovitz. It's also liberals who support small government and conservatives who don't like big government. This is the classical liberalism brought in by the Enlightenment, which is what Leibovitz thinks is the real bad guy. A lot of people find it hard to believe that the Enlightenment era had so many good things, like stable democracies and life-saving science. But Leibovitz says that this rosy view of the liberal order doesn't take into account its flaws.

This root-and-branch rejection of Enlightenment liberalism was once only for extremes. It's becoming more common on both sides of the political spectrum. For anyone who cares about freedom, it's a bad trend. It comes from bad history and even worse reasoning.

People used to think that humans could do both good and bad, so they needed moral instruction or tradition to keep them in line with the idea that humans are born good, not evil, so society should be held together by the social contract instead of tradition or faith. This is what Leibovitz says happened in his story. As long as liberalism was kept in check by powerful forces of tradition, like family and religion, we were fine. In the modern era, those forces began to fade away, allowing radical individualism to take over. In the end, birth rates dropped, homes broke, and "detached and uprooted people" became lonely, angry, and paranoid. "You can call it woke culture if you want, but it's just the end of the Enlightenment," says Leibovitz.

Leibovitz's snarky critique of Enlightenment liberalism is so bad that one might wonder if it's worth responding to at all. Benjammin Franklin was said to believe that the noblest savage was good, but Leibovitz thinks this isn't true. He also confuses the Hobbesian concept of a social contract in which people "sign away a host of [their] inherent rights" to the state with the Lockean principle, which states that legitimate government must have the ongoing consent of the people it governs. This essay, which was published in a mainstream intellectual magazine, is part of a larger trend of explicitly anti-liberal, anti-Enlightenment rhetoric from conservatives. This is why this essay is important.

This conservative attack on the liberal tradition and the Enlightenment is being matched by a growing trend in progressive discourse that is very against the liberal tradition and the Enlightenment. A lot of this talk is serious, but it also has a lot of muddled arguments. When Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty of shooting three people during the Kenosha, Wisconsin, 2020 riots on the grounds of self-defense, a piece by journalist Barrett Holmes Pitner on the left-leaning website, The Daily Beast, used the opportunity to criticize John Locke's Enlightenment philosophy and its role in the American founding. This is why: Using deadly force to protect property is not only OK because Locke's formula says that these three things are important, but it also used to justify slavery as a form of property ownership. Pitner makes a mistake when he says that Locke tried to justify slavery in his seminal work, the Second Treatise of Government.

A lot of people are worried that liberal democracy is getting less and less safe all over the world. The attacks on Enlightenment liberalism from both sides, not just the fringes, are a bad sign.


Anti-liberal talk on the right has been around for a long time, but it has become more popular thanks to the success of Patrick Deneen's book, Why Liberalism Failed, in 2018. In Deneen's book, he attacks liberalism in a much more sophisticated and civil way than Leibovitz did. Deneen argues that liberalism, which emphasizes personal autonomy, leads to the dissolution of communal and familial bonds, atomization, moral nihilism, political alienation, and the hollowing out of culture and education because it emphasizes personal autonomy over community and family. It didn't fail because it didn't live up to itself, but because it was true to itself. There's a reason it didn't work out: "It worked out because it worked out." Provocatively, he said that the Founding Fathers were to blame for the bad things that liberals did in the United States.

The next year, the religious conservative magazine First Things ran a lot of articles against Enlightenment liberalism and old-style American conservatism that was too focused on individual liberty, tolerance, and pluralism. "Conservative Democracy" by American-born Israeli political scientist Yoram Hazony, the author of the controversial 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism, was one of the most well-known. Hazony, like Deneen, says that liberalism has failed. Deneen, on the other hand, only offers vague and localized alternatives. Hazony, on the other hand, proposes an alternative form of democratic government that explicitly rejects the liberal Enlightenment tradition based on reason, "the free and equal individual," and "obligations arising from choice." This is not what conservative democracy is all about. The main values of this type of democracy are state-sponsored majority religion and immigration restrictions, while individual freedoms are only allowed if they are part of national tradition and custom. Hazony, on the other hand, wants to turn the American founding into a conservative movement by getting some of the founding fathers to join. He does this by reducing the Lockean roots of the American Revolution to some "Enlightenment rationalist phrases" in the Declaration of Independence, which he thinks are not very important.

Hazony and Deneen, on the other hand, are some of the more moderate critics of the Enlightenment on the right, and they should be pointed out that way. Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule is one of the Catholic integralists, who believe that the law should be changed to make sure that everyone is treated equally. They say that conservative Catholics in the United States should work to build a political system in which the state is spiritually subordinate to the Catholic Church and is based on its tenets and values, which is why they say this. If you live in the United States now, you might think this is a crazy idea because only one-fifth of the population is Catholic. Sohrab Ahmari, a conservative Catholic, says that "a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good" is far more appealing to conservatives. There's also the fact that integralists have been having something of a comeback in mainstream conservative venues (like the Law and Liberty website, where Ave Maria University professor James M. Patterson wrote about it last year).


Right-wing critics of the Enlightenment often say that modern progressivism is a continuation of the radical individualism of the Enlightenment. This is a paradox. In a First Things article in 2019, Ahmari wrote that "the movement we are up against also values autonomy above all; indeed, its ultimate goal is to secure for the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition." This is what he meant. Ahmari says that the goal of this quest is to make sure that everyone agrees with everyone else's choices. People who have traditional religious views should help with same-sex weddings as bakers or florists, and sexually active gays should be able to serve in religious groups on college campuses. Ahmari says that conservatives who value individual freedom have no defense against that logic. There is, of course, a strong counterargument that individual autonomy also protects religious freedom, and in fact, French has always been in favor of it.

Today's left-wing progressivism only values individual autonomy and self-determination in certain situations, like when people can live their lives the way they want to. In general, it has a very negative view of these things. Indeed, classifying people by their racial, ethnic, and sexual identities is at the heart of the progressive worldview, which says that universalism is an imposition of white European and patriarchal values on people who aren't straight white males or white European and patriarchal people. In social justice circles, it's common to think that individualism, rationality, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values are traits of "whiteness" or "white supremacy culture." This idea has been used in "anti-racist" training workshops. It's hard for them to see how this view is similar to one that white supremacists have been making for a long time.

On the left, direct attacks on the Enlightenment have become more common. They mostly focus on the idea that Enlightenment-based philosophy and science have been involved in, and tainted by, racism. "The Enlightenment has been tarnished by its association with European colonialism, and the Enlightenment universalism is a sham because 'the rights of man' are really 'the rights of white men.'"

If you read the Daily Beast article, you'll see that it points the finger at Locke, but there have been many more sophisticated critiques of this idea, like the work of the recently deceased Jamaican American philosopher Charles W. Mills and the Slate article by journalist Jamelle Bouie in 2018 that said that people who point to the Enlightenment as a beacon of freedom, progress, and humanism have to deal with its dark side. The Enlightenment and its thinkers are not only guilty of supporting slavery and colonial oppression, but they also made scientific racism and racial classification. Race as we know it is a product of the Enlightenment, says Bouie. Racism came about because thinkers who advocated liberty but also supported slavery had to find a way to classify enslaved people as "subhuman," which is what race is all about, he says.

This is the dark side of the Enlightenment

There is no doubt that the Enlightenment and its legacy have a dark side, just like everything else in history. Because they were not included in the Enlightenment liberals' ideal of a free, self-reliant person (women, blacks, and other minorities), or because they didn't want to join in (they didn't want to be a part of the group) (religious and cultural traditionalists). Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson, two people from the Enlightenment, explained why nonwhite people were treated as less important than white people. Enlightenment thinkers didn't like some of their spiritual offspring, such as the Jacobins of the French Revolution. They didn't like rich people and "fanatical" peasants who were very religious. In terms of race relations, the American republic did a lot worse than the French republic did. This is partly because France's racial problems were sent to its colonies. But when it came to religious and political pluralism, the American republic did a lot better.

Yet, it's important to point out that the Enlightenment was not nearly as one-dimensional as critics often make it out to be. This is a common mistake in pro-Enlightenment narratives, like the one written by linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason. Even in one country, France, it had people who were deists, theists, believers in "natural religion," and a few atheists. Also, the Age of Reason was also the age of sentiment and a time when people were very interested in the study of human nature and passions. The Enlightenment was "a revolt against rationalism," cultural historian Peter Gay said in his 1966–1969 book The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. Gay also said that the Enlightenment was "a rejection of religious anti-rationalism." It also praised the virtues of family, domestic happiness, and community, not radical individualism. This is what the Enlightenment thought about.

Enlightenment views on race and slavery were at least as complicated as they are now. In the past, people used religious, legal, and economic reasons to justify racial subjugation and exploitation. But now, people are using pseudoscience to justify these practices, and they don't like it. Diderot, the French Encyclopedist, was one of many Enlightenment philosophers who were against colonialism and slavery. He was one of the authors of A History of the Two Indies, which was a best-seller and at one point was banned. It was written by Abbot Guillaume Raynal, and it was critical of Europeans' behavior in the Americas, coastal Africa, and Asia. Vartija says that these thinkers didn't use race to make human rights and chattel slavery work together. Instead, they were disgusted by the slave trade and colonialism, which made them want to fight for human rights. Holly Brewer, a history professor at the University of Maryland, says in Aeon magazine that "slavery's roots were in absolutism, not liberalism," and that "liberalism came about because of slavery." Brewer says that the Enlightenment's attack on the idea that a person's place in society was set by God when they were born led to the end of slavery.

Enlightenment-style scientific exploration also led to attempts at racial classification, which played a role in the rise of scientific racism in the 1800s. Even if this classification was made by Enlightenment people, like Comte Georges Louis Leclerc deBuffon, it did not rely on the idea that races were set in stone, did not assume that white people were better than other people, and did not try to justify racial oppression.

Ad hominem attacks against the Enlightenment can come from both the right and the left, and they can be very inaccurate. Accused of hypocrisy and collusion in slavery: Locke briefly owned stock in the Royal African Company (which was given to him as payment), and he is said to have written the 1669 Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which made slavery more legal and strong. This is not true. Yet, there is a lot of debate about how much of a role Locke played in drafting the constitutions as a secretary to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. It's clear that Locke didn't just oppose slavery in his seminal work, Two Treatises of Government. He also backed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in part because the king it overthrew, James II, was a supporter of slavery.

Hazony, on the other hand, says that Locke, Spinoza, Kant, and Descartes, along with Spinoza, Kant, and Descartes, are childless bachelors who believe in a free, atomic individual because of their narrow perspective. Locke didn't just think the family was important to civil society and the development of the individual. He was also a pediatrician who advised friends on how to raise their kids. In the same way that Hazony is attacking a cartoon version of Locke and the Enlightenment, he is attacking a cartoon version of Locke.


As it turns out, there have been Enlightenment wars before. In 2000, a political scientist at Boston University wrote an article in the journal Political Theory called "What Enlightenment Project?" In it, he looked at two common criticisms of the Enlightenment: from the right, that the Enlightenment is too focused on the individual at the expense of family and community; from the left, that the Enlightenment's concepts of freedom and human rights are Eurocentric and racially exclusionary. But the arguments have become much more bitter, extreme, and public.

During the 20th century, fascists and communists often used their arguments to say that they didn't like or didn't agree with Enlightenment liberalism. It was before that, both the Progressive Era reformers in the United States and the pro-slavery secessionists in the Confederacy framed their goals as a rejection of Enlightenment liberalism. Liberalism was said to be out-of-date, wrong, or made up to be used as a tool of oppression. These anti-liberal arguments led to some of the worst things that have happened in the modern world.

Because liberal democracies are defined by their history of the Enlightenment, attempts to find good alternatives to classical liberalism have often failed. Deneen's book, Why Liberalism Failed, from the right, says that liberalism's positive gains must be preserved, but it doesn't really offer any programs or solutions. Instead, it encourages people to build cultural enclaves outside of the liberal consensus (he cites the Amish as an example). Ironically, liberal pluralism is the thing that makes it possible to do that. In Charles Mills's critique of the Enlightenment's "racial contract," he says that the Enlightenment's own intellectual tools should be used to get rid of racism in liberalism. This is how it works:

Such critics of the Enlightenment show how deeply we all have liberal ideas about morality. It's hard for them to explain their critiques without referring to liberal ideas. A different way of looking at things would be so disgusting that it's almost impossible to defend, and many of its own supporters are afraid of it.

However, in the last few years, solutions that are openly authoritarian have become more popular in both camps. Among the right-wingers, Hazony wants conservative democracy and religious diktat, Ahmari says that accepting Trump's populist leadership should be a conservative credential, and the nationalist right is in love with illiberal foreign leaders like Hungary's Viktor Orbán, which is why Hazony and Ahmari are on the same page. People on the left are trying to get "wrongthink" out of academic, cultural, and corporate institutions. There are also more calls for government power to stop people from saying what the left thinks are bad ideas. Hate speech bans are getting a lot of attention again, as well as proposals for a "antiracist constitutional amendment" and a federal "department of anti-racism." When people start flirting with communism again and make excuses for the Soviet empire, this is also a sign that people are still interested in it.

One could argue about "both sides' ism" and keep debating which kind of authoritarianism is more dangerous. While this is going on, each side points to the other's authoritarian excesses as a reason to give up liberal tolerance in the fight against the evil enemy.

Remember that even though Enlightenment liberalism had its flaws, it was also trying to break with an oppressive order based on political, religious, and social tyranny. And when people tried to replace it with something else that was better, they kept getting new forms of tyranny. When we get past the caricatures, the Enlightenment is complex enough to have a lot of different ideas. Before we call it a failed experiment or a tool for oppression, we should know its history and how important it is to huge leaps in moral progress.

Trying to get rid of those foundations has led to things that aren't as bad as people complaining about secularization, individualism, and free markets. A new and better anti-Enlightenment political philosophy hasn't been able to show that it isn't just repeating the same mistakes, which could lead to disaster.


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