Enlightening About the Enlightenment

Kenneth Minogue reviews Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters. He notes that Pagden stresses tolerance, forward-thinking, secularism, cosmopolitanism, and optimism as themes.

Minogue makes several pertinent criticisms.


One problem … is the difficulty of deciding who, from the founding period, counts as belonging to the “club” of the enlightened.

Should the club include Robespierre, the Marxists (and hence Stalin or Pol Pot)?

One might ask whether the Enlightenment is a period or a party, an era or a faction.

Second, Minogue rightly objects that intellectual progress is much older. The growth of reliable knowledge long precedes the 18th century.

Mr. Pagden’s basic take on the Enlightenment is locked into secularist legendry—as if intellectual progress only began when philosophers questioned religious authority. … Our Western civilization is indeed remarkable, but the reason is that, well before the 18th century, it had been the only culture in the world exploring the possibilities of free inquiry and intellectual rigor.

Third, Enlightenment political ideologies were not all nice.

We do indeed owe some of our tolerant openness to the writers of the Enlightenment, but we also owe to them the nightmarish passion to meddle with human life and to attempt to create utopian societies…. the fashion for ideological enthusiasms to improve our world keeps on generating surprises. The thing about light is that it casts shadows.

That seems about right. The Enlightenment gave us some fine features, but also some annoying bugs.



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5 responses to “Enlightening About the Enlightenment

  1. Michael Lotus and James Bennet point out in America 3.0 that most of the great ideas we associate with the enlightenment – civil liberties, separation of church and state, political equality, free elections, trial by peers – all have deep roots in England’s medieval and early modern society. I was fairly convinced by this analysis; their bibliographic essay suggests that The Theme Is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition is a good introduction to the topic.

    • I normally don’t read such books, but it sounds like America 3.0 is a cut above the rest.

      • It has the usual limitations of any book aimed at more popular audiences. I disagree with a lot of it. But if a book must be written for the educated, non-specialist masses, then that is the way to do it.

  2. LFC

    In an earlier post you criticized Jennifer Mitzen’s review of Pinker; yet in glancing at Mitzen’s review, I see that one of her criticisms of Pinker is that he takes too one-sided and uncritically celebratory a view of the Enlightenment, which sounds v. much like Minogue’s criticism of Pagden.

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