Tag Archives: Anthony Pagden

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.

First,

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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