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Enlightenment, Yes!

The controversial leftist Israeli politcal scientist Zeev Sternhell paints a damning, if perhaps uncontextualized, portrait of ‘anti-Enlightenment’ thinkers

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An girl holds a sign reading “Democracy Yes” during a rally ouside Sternhell’s Jerusalem home in October, 2008, after the historian was wounded in a pipe-bomb attack.(Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

Few people know the power of evil ideas more intimately than Zeev Sternhell, the eminent Israeli political scientist. As a child, Sternhell, who was born in Poland in 1935, saw his mother killed in the Holocaust. He was sheltered by Polish Catholics, and survived the war thanks to false Aryan identity papers; after 1945 he lived with relatives in France, then emigrated to Israel in 1951. His long scholarly career has been dedicated to tracing the intellectual origins of fascism: his best-known book, Neither Right Nor Left, showed how deeply fascist ideas had taken root in France in the decades before the Second World War. In addition to his renown as a scholar—he is a longtime professor at the Hebrew University, and a winner of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor—Sternhell is known in Israel as a committed left-wing Zionist and a supporter of Peace Now. It was on account of his political views that, in 2008, a fanatical West Bank settler attempted to assassinate Sternhell with a pipe bomb—thus demonstrating, tragically, that the evils of fanaticism and chauvinism can attack the Jewish people from within as well as from the outside.

It makes sense, then, that when Sternhell comes to consider The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale University Press), he should write with something more than detached intellectual curiosity. Even the title of the book has a polemical edge. Ordinarily, when historians of ideas talk about conservative and nationalist thinkers like Edmund Burke and Johann Gottfried Herder—18th-century figures who opposed the rationalist and universalist ideas we associate with the 18th century—they speak of the “counter-Enlightenment.” The term was popularized by Isaiah Berlin, who meant to suggest that the counter-Enlightenment was a viable alternative to the tradition of Voltaire and Rousseau, or at least a potential resource for combating the Enlightenment’s hubris.

For Sternhell, who makes Berlin in particular a target of stinging criticism, there is nothing worth taking from that alternative tradition. As his title suggests, he sees it as not a “counter” to the Enlightenment but simply an anti-Enlightenment, whose representatives from Burke to Berlin have been intent on destroying the values of freedom, justice, and reason. (The cover design of Sternhell’s book, which puts the “anti” in big black Gothic letters, nicely captures the author’s intent.) “If the French Enlightenment…produced the great intellectual revolution of rationalist modernity,” Sternhell writes, the anti-Enlightenment sponsored a different modernity, one that “revolted against rationalism, the autonomy of the individual, and all that unites people: their condition as rational beings with natural rights.”

This “second modernity,” as he calls it, “was based on all that differentiates and divides people—history, culture, language.” And this was no academic debate, no matter how recondite some of the texts Sternhell analyzes might seem. Starting with Burke and Herder, he traces the intellectual lineage of the anti-Enlightenment directly to figures like Charles Maurras, the godfather of French fascism, and Oswald Spengler, whose influential book The Decline of the West helped to undermine Weimar Germany’s democracy. In the early 20th century, Sterhnell writes, the anti-Enlightenment “came down into the street,” with catastrophic results for the world, and for the Jews in particular.

Sternhell’s book is organized around major themes in anti-Enlightenment thought—there are chapters devoted to “The Revolt against Reason and Natural Rights,” “The Intellectual Foundations of Nationalism,” and “The Law of Inequality and the War on Democracy.” But because Sternhell returns again and again to the same hated figures and ideas, “The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition” reads less like an intellectual history than like a torrential indictment. The chief figures in the dock are Burke, who opposed the French Revolution and exalted the bonds of tradition, and Herder, who saw the French love of abstract ideas as a threat to the German genius for instinct and poetry. They are followed by the Scottish conservative Thomas Carlyle, the French historians Ernest Renan and Hippolyte Taine, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, Maurras and Spengler, and a few others, all of them foes of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the idea of universal reason.

Reading Sternhell’s unrelentingly hostile account of these thinkers leaves no doubt that they sponsored many repugnant and dangerous ideas. They taught that human beings cannot be trusted to govern their own destinies; that only force can compel the herd of men to behave themselves; that nations are essentially divided by culture and language, and so can never truly understand one another; that progress in education and democracy meant the decline of the spiritual and social order which made the Middle Ages, in their view, the high point of human history. A world governed on anti-Enlightenment principles, there can be no doubt, would be infinitely worse than a world governed on the principles of Voltaire and Diderot.

What’s missing from Sternhell’s book is any sense of why the anti-Enlightenment flourished in the first place and how it produced thinkers of the stature of Burke and Herder. Sternhell takes for granted that the Enlightenment is mankind’s only hope, so that its opponents cannot seem other than perverse and malevolent. Yet it was not just these thinkers who felt that the advance of science and liberalism was making the world less happy. The same intuition can be found in almost all the literature of the 19th century, from Wordsworth to Dostoevsky. And it was not just conservatives like Carlyle who attacked the dehumanizing effects of modern life. Liberals and socialists like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and William Morris all felt the same way. When such thinkers looked back to a more organic and religious past, it was not because they were enemies of the human spirit, but because they felt that the spirit was starving in modern conditions.

Sternhell never really engages this critique of the Enlightenment and its legacy. He simply dismisses it out of hand, leaving the reader to wonder why some of the arguments of Burke and Herder sound so reasonable. On the subject of progress, for instance, Sternhell quotes Kant with implicit approval: “Earlier generations seem to perform their laborious tasks only for the sake of the after ones, so as to prepare for them a further stage from which they can raise still higher the structure intended by nature.” This vision of perpetual progress is noble and appealing; but it also suggests that our lives are simply tools for building the future, an idea that, in the hands of Stalinism, meant that no individual life had any intrinsic value. Against this view—captured in the old Communist slogan, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs”—there appears to be important wisdom in Herder’s belief that “no individual has the right to believe that he exists for the sake of another individual, or for the sake of posterity.”

At the same time, Sternhell’s belief in the power of ideas means that he offers little sense of how political, economic, and social changes affected the way ideas were received and transformed. For instance, he blasts Renan for writing that “the masses only have the right to govern if they know better than anyone else what is best,” a frankly elitist and anti-democratic notion. But as Sternhell notes, Renan wrote this in reaction to the demise of the France’s Second Republic, when the majority of the people elected Napoleon’s corrupt, ineffectual nephew as president and then applauded his decision to abolish democracy and become emperor. It was this coup that, Renan said, “made me disgusted with the people,” and it was a feeling shared by many liberals at the time—even the arch-liberal John Stuart Mill opposed universal suffrage.

Sternhell’s exclusive focus on ideas also means that, at times, he seems to grant thinkers an incredible degree of power over history. In his epilogue, for instance, Sternhell attacks the German historian Ernst Nolte, who became notorious in the 1980s for excusing Nazism as a mere defensive reaction against Communism. In Sternhell’s words, Nolte was guilty of “explaining the European disaster not by the long war against the Franco-Kantian Enlightenment but by 1914 and 1917”—that is, by World War I and the Russian Revolution. Yet isn’t it obviously true that 1914 and 1917 were responsible, even primarily responsible, for the rise of Nazism? If not, why is it that the nationalist ideas of Herder did not produce Nazism at the time of Napoleon? The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition passionately reminds us that ideas have consequences; but they are not the only things that have consequences.

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Joseph says:

>For instance, he blasts Renan for writing that “the masses only have the right to govern if they know better than anyone else what is best,” a frankly elitist and anti-democratic notion.<

Did you expect differently from a man who demonizes anyone to the right of him, religiously or politically? Just google his name for all kinds of outrageous statements and accusations made by the good professor over the years.

What kind of “enlightenment” can we expect from someone who advised Palestinian terrorists: “You shouldn’t be killing us [I guess he meant the Israelis who live in the pre-1967 borders]; you should be killing the settlers”?

Stephen says:

No enlightenment is perfect. Voltaire himself, whose name was nearly synonymous with the movement, was in fact virulently anti-Semitic. Societies adopt ideas and discard ideas over time with no apparent “path to perfection.” The French 18th c. Enlightenment carried several themes that continue to play out in modern culture, others have been replaced. There is nothing wholly unique about “the” (18th c.) Enlightenment that should make it stand out as the ultimate model of society.

This is another example of treating “Enlightenment” as a monolith (whether pro or con). Might I recommend to all the many volumes J.G.A. Pocock has written on Gibbon to see how Enlightenment took many and conflicting forms, and the same goes for all “reactions” to it (or them).

Marooned says:

As important an examination as can be done in this time.

The current surge of anti-enlightenment activism, in the United States and many other societies, is too easily seen as very recent and without the roots that go back to the 17th-18th centuries. By better understanding the proponents of anti-enlightenment concept and thereby seeing the results of their ideas, we can better deal with present-day attempts to undo enlightenment understandings.

Toryhere says:

Burke was just as much a product of the Enlightenment as any French intellectual, only cleverer.

What this strange Israeli chap doesn’t seem to understand is that totalitarianism had its roots not in reaction to the French Revolution, but in the Revolution itself. It is the enlightenment thinkers who push the collective above the individual, not Burke.

Shalom Freedman says:

Sternhall is portrayed here in far more favorable terms than he in my judgment merits. First of all, note the unfair presentation, the envious presentation of the work and thought of Isaiah Berlin. Berlin is one of the great political thinkers of the twentieth century. Perhaps more than any other thinker he showed the limitations of any absolute utopian ideal, and argued strongly for a kind of freedom and liberal democracy most suited to the well- being of mankind.
Also the excess worship of the Enlightentment fails to see the true picture. Voltaire and Diderot were not all about Liberation and Learning but rather very much about narrow petty spites and jealousies, small hatreds and grudges. Out of the Enlightentment came the extremes of the French Revolution and in a sense the ‘liberation’ which was Marxism.
In dealing with political opponents in Israel Sternhall tends to be a demonizer, one full of spite himself, in this sense a true heir of the worst of the Enlightentment.

The masses have the right to govern if, as Renan says, they know better than anyone else. And vice versa. Obviously. So does anyone know better than anyone else? No. Nobody does. Not even Sternhell, who doesn’t even know that Burke defends rights (in India, America, Ireland, England and France) and opposes the armed doctrines (and injustices and oppression and greed) that puts people’s rights at risk. Carlyle was a reactionary. But Burke? Clearly not.

Don Phillipson says:

It looks as if Sternhell is unfamiliar with Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (2005) which to my eye demonstrates much better the differences between (say) Burke and Voltaire and Jefferson, and thus gives a better account (like Berlin) of persisting national differences in styles of thought.

Brian Switzer says:

Sternhall is amusingly as fanatical and one-sided as he claims are the so-called anti-Enlightenment thinkers. The real danger comes from the blind belief that democracy and mere analytical, problem-solving reason are self-evident absolute goods. Correct me if I am wrong, but did not this very reasoning produce soul-destroying consumerism, materialism, and environment-destroying products? One thinker not mentioned in this article is Rousseau. Where would he stand in Sternhall’s simplistic pantheon of Enlightenment/Anti-Enlightenment thinkers?

As a Lefty, Sternhell is incapable of seeing that the Greens, the Global Warming activists and the EU and Arab jew-haters are also strongly anti-enlightenment.

Chocolate says:

How many people would like to go back and live in the time of Edmund Burke? How many would like to live in America or Europe where only the rich and powerful had any power. Of course maybe we do.

Rationalists love uniformity and hate variety, subtlety and individual independence. They seek to wrench humanity from its traditions, from the continuity of existence that constitutes identity, and subject humanity to their utopian fantasies. They believe that the hard rationalist method is the only species of meaningful inquiry. One can oppose this point of view without being hostile to progress (Burke certainly wasn’t) or science or reason.

I’m delighted to see comments here that call attention to the truth that the Enlightenment was not a monolithic intellectual enterprise, and that Burke belonged to it. There are indeed anti-Englightnment forces today whose danger lies not only in undermining ethical universalism (which Burke surely believed in) which actually elevates prejudice to the same level of legitimacy as the absolute — which Burke did not do, much as he did value the utility of prejudice. Burke demonstrated his belief in the rights of Americans, Irish and Indians as well as Englishmen. He simply saw the folly of philosophical rationalism (not to be confused with reason), and in doing so was able to predict its development into totalitarian tyranny.

The Terror of French Revolution flows out of Enlightenment rationalism, as does the Communism of Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot. Sternhell has apparently not read Michael Oakeshott, or if he has, he was just as bewildered by him as by Edmund Burke.

Giordano Bruno says:

Sad to read the self-congratulatory lucubration’s of so large a gathering of undereducated rightists commentating and supporting their “arguments” by citing such worthies as Mrs Himmelfarb-a well documented right wing extremist.
Just to cite a flavour of their idiocies I cite “What this strange Israeli chap doesn’t seem to understand is that totalitarianism had its roots not in reaction to the French Revolution, but in the Revolution itself. It is the enlightenment thinkers who push the collective above the individual, not Burke.”
A French King said
L’Etat c’est moi- surely more foundational. The terror of the Inquisition founded by a Totalitarian Church is the modern foundation of totalitarianism

Tom Haig says:

I’m not sure that Rousseau fits entirely within the Sternhell’s ‘good’ Enlightenment tradition either… sure he was a proponent of the social contract, but the romanticism that he promoted was readily co-opted by Robespierre and Saint-Just to justify The Terror.
As Simon Schama’s ‘Citizens’ makes clear, much of the modernising, Enlightenment programme of economic rationalism and technocracy/meritocracy was begun under the Ancien Regime, and in fact more interrupted than advanced by the Revolution.

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Enlightenment, Yes!

The controversial leftist Israeli politcal scientist Zeev Sternhell paints a damning, if perhaps uncontextualized, portrait of ‘anti-Enlightenment’ thinkers

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