As Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Arab and Muslim world are engulfed in flames, sectarian strife, social turmoil, and just plain misery, I keep wondering if these warring nations and factions will be ever get exhausted enough to sue for peace like the one signed in the German region of Westphalia in 1648. The Peace of Westphalia ended religious wars in Europe and paved the way for a brighter, more enlightened future. How long would it take Muslims to start reexamining their prejudices and acquire the courage to walk away from their primitive traditions? For this is what an elite group of Europeans did in the 17th and 18th centuries. They gave us a chance to rescue ourselves, our societies, and our futures from the terrible despotisms of the past and guide us along the pathways of hope and freedom.
It is, therefore, not unsurprising that Anthony Pagden, author of The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters (2013), unsure of whether we really grasp the momentous significance of the cultural revolution that swept northern Europe in the late 17th and early 18th-centuries, asks us to imagine a world in which such a revolution never took place, or was stamped out by religious fanatics, as happened in the world of Islam. With the death of the Aristotelian philosopher Averroes in 1198, the “Arab Renaissance” came to an end and Muslim nations were gradually weakened and succumbed to European colonialism. Muslims, in other words, paid a dear price for turning away from the Greek legacy and its Hellenizing influences.
There was much to justify cynicism in 17th-century Europe, but the undaunted band of Enlightenment thinkers would not succumb to gloomy assessments of human nature. They were convinced that humans are bonded not by brute sensation, but by imagination, which fuels empathy, or sympathy. “Homo homini, natura amicus” (“man is by nature the friend of man”), the Italian economist Antonio Genovesi stated in a sort of rebuke to the Thomas Hobbeses of the world. David Hume came to a similar conclusion when he saw the interests of the individual and society as indivisible. This humanism allowed people to read the world anew, away from divine dictates, and rely on what came to called the “human sciences” to build a cosmopolis—a global community united by friendly commerce and sympathy.
Religion, as the economist Robert-Jacques Turgot argued in 1775, must be kept away at all costs. The primitive tales of the Bible were now seen as embarrassingly outdated and outright dangerous. In his 1770 tract, On Perpetual Peace, Voltaire decried the “Christian barbarities” that, he calculated, led to more than nine million deaths since the birth of the religion. Gods were human creations, argued Baron d’Holbach, and Christian virtue is mere hypocrisy, stated the materialist La Mattrie, author of The Natural History of the Soul and Man a Machine. To La Mattrie, there is only one life and it is on earth. The exit of God from history was under way.
This new order, Pagden tells us, meant rethinking the whole meaning of existence by relying on the new “human sciences.” Self-knowledge was a must. “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan/The proper study of mankind is Man,” the poet Alexander Pope famously put it.The study of customs was important, too, since people, undifferentiated by biology, were separated by climate and environment. (Racist views existed but were rare or, as in the case of Immanuel Kant, abandoned.) There is one human nature but different behaviors. George-Louis Leclerc, compte de Buffon, author of the 36-volume Natural History, put it well when he said “le style c’est l’homme même.” Montesequieu, author of the hugely influential The Spirit of the Laws, paid attention to “customs and manners” to understand “civil and political laws,” Thinkers struggled with the vexing issue of inequality, leading someone like Jean-Jacques Rousseau to speculate that it is driven by the quest for recognition and social esteem, something akin to the notion of happiness in the American Declaration of Independence.
The exploration of newly discovered worlds, with radically different human cultures, further discredited the Judeo-Christian narrative. The voyages of the “traveler-philosopher” Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729 – 1811) not only introduced the world to the South American plant that bears his name today but also to Tahiti, the new paradise in the Pacific, where humans lived unburdened by the damaging morals of Christianity.
There were lessons to be learned from such discoveries, but the path to civilization, as Denis Diderot emphasized, is practically irreversible. “I prefer refined vice under a suit of silk,” Diderot wrote in 1776, “than stupid ferocity beneath an animal skin.” It is life in the cities that gives us civilization, for cities bring different people together in conversation. The course of human history, from pre-historic times to the 18th century, was a long march toward civilization. In this sense, though the Enlightenment is an exclusively northern European phenomenon, it rests on shared universal foundations.
Religions and absolute monarchies were losing their legitimacy and Europe’s monarchs adapted to the times. Before becoming Holy Roman Emperor in 1790, Peter Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany, famous for abolishing the death penalty on November 30, 1786 (a date that is still celebrated today as “Cities for Life Day”), approved a written constitution that would have restricted his powers. Despite such examples, however, a freely negotiated social contract in a republic or “commonwealth” were the sine qua non of citizenship. One could live in an English-style monarchy with its “Patriot King,” but that’s as far as anyone was willing to go.
Although the nation was sovereign, many warned against the perils of patriotism, since the goal of civilization is a global cosmopolis, not a world of warring tribes. A “civitas maximas,” or “supreme state” is what humans need, according to the German mathematician and philosopher Christian Wolff. The Swiss diplomat Emer de Vattel published the first book ever on international law, one that was eagerly read by America’s founders. To Vattel, sympathy and peaceful trade are what unite nations and could lead a global prosperous community. A universal republic, with its capital in Paris, was imagined by the Prussian Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce, Baron de Cloots, who was guillotined in 1794. Others imagined a federation of European states, or simply a European union. In his book, Toward Perpetual Peace, a Philosophical Project (1795), the 71-year-old Kant talked about a “cosmopolitan right” in a “representative republic” but remained wary of mob despotism in democracies. Such republics could eventually unite in a league or state of nations that, in time, would lead to “an international state.” As we now know, Kant’s ideas proved to have lasting powers.
Pagden takes some time out to note that the Enlightenment was not without its critics. It was blamed for the French reign of Terror, following the Revolution of 1789, and seen as naive response to the human condition, described best by Hobbes. It was accused of overlooking the fact that reason itself—the arm on which the whole edifice of the Enlightenment rests—is inescapably informed by language and tradition, and, therefore, the past. Europe was, in fact, created by violence and people need awe and religion to behave. Nations that could grow into a federated “United States of Europe,” argued Giuseppe Mazzini, were the solution. More recently, philosophers such as the British Alasdair MacIntyre, author of After Virtue, made a case for communal roots as an antidote to the abstractions of the Enlightenment. In other words, the project of the cosmopolis is still a work in progress.
No human vision is perfect, but Pagden’s book leaves no doubt that our world is, in many respects, the child of the brave radical thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, the few who dared to question dogmas, sometimes at their own peril. They wanted a world free from the tyranny of religions that enslaved and infantilized people, and imagined, in the words of Condorcet, a “state of the human species.” The Enlightenment introduced the notion of universal education, the equality of races and sexes, and the possibility of world peace through trade and conversation.
Most importantly, the Enlightenment, in Kant’s definition, enshrined the Roman poet Horace’s injunction Sapere Aude (dare to know) as the guiding principle to a better life for all. Let’s hope violent extremists and murderous terrorists have the courage and wisdom to take up Horace’s challenge and resist the destructive ghosts of our troubled past.