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Enlightenment: Failure or Defeat?

As an ideologically obstinate communist, when confronted with that system's failures, will often automatically respond that communism hasn't failed because in fact it has never been completely attempted, so we can imagine a partisan of the Enlightenment proposing that Enlightenment hasn't failed, it has merely been stalled or even defeated by other, momentarily stronger, contingencies. Enlightenment thought, while in some cases disparate, tends to postulate certain if/then relationships. To chose just two examples: If people are tolerant, then they will be happy, or If people are free from coercion, then they will think for themselves. It is not enough for a critique of the Enlightenment to observe in opposition to these postulates that in the post-Enlightenment era people are unhappy or herd-like. Such a critique must undermine the causal link between the purported conditions and their supposed results, proving that the conditions involved give rise to results contrary to those desired. The critique cannot merely locate instances in which an Enlightenment view of future circumstances is overly optimistic.

Voltaire's propagandistic essay Traité sur la tolérance (A Treatise on Toleration, 1763) begs a critique. The essay declares, “The less we have of dogma, the less dispute; the less we have of dispute, the less misery. If that is not true, then I am wrong” (Voltaire 209). The understanding of this essay is that the brutal Calas affair, in which the Huguenot Calas family was punished for their son's suicide, came to stain an otherwise enheartening historical progression, a belated but at least clearly visible civilization of Europe, and particularly of barbaric Christendom. The affair is attributed to reactionary fanaticism, which, in the throes of its defeat by reason, becomes all the more ferocious. The first implication in all this is that tolerance is reasonable, that it is Any Thinking Man's conclusion, so that an enlightened, reasonable man will never be intolerant. The second implication is that, while fanaticism can be eradicated, every moment until it is eradicated is perilous, so that partisans and propagandists such as Voltaire are crucial in the intermediate period, as in their writings they are called upon to continue to state the importance of tolerance to an impressionable population.

Along the same lines as Voltaire, Immanuel Kant articulates the process of Enlightenment as one occurring by gradations, that is, among certain individuals, and then others, until eventually it has overtaken all. The thesis of his essay Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? (An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?, 1784), namely, that free thought is the natural state to which human beings will individually return when they are not subject to coercion, is formulated such that it depends for its universal actualization on the magnanimity of those precocious individuals who should happen to emancipate themselves from mental slavery before the rest of mankind. Kant does not hold it to be impossible that such enlightened individuals might agree amongst themselves to keep the rest of the population enslaved. Instead, he judges in advance that any such agreement would be void, insofar as it would be a crime against human nature, which is to say that the subjugated immature class would naturally rebel. Unfortunately this premise is unsound. Kant has no basis for his faith in fairness, especially as his essay already includes an emasculation of free thought, which is to be permitted only as long as it does not translate itself into action.

To Voltaire, in opposition to Kant, the defining aspect of an enlightened subject is his toleration of competing subjectivities. To Kant, that same subject is defined by his maturity, that is, his willingness to think for himself. Correspondingly, each author has a unique understanding of what the primary threat to Enlightenment is, so that each essay contains within it the implication of its own radical alternative: Voltaire, in admitting the need for partisan defenders of the Enlightenment, allows that toleration equals weakness. His essay implies the problem of the Democrat, whose extreme toleration for viewpoints in opposition to his own reduces him to passivity and silence and leads to his own annihilation. According to this world-view, fanatical forces are those which are not enlightened but which nonetheless accompany the process of Enlightenment, insofar as they arise in a reactionary fashion precisely when an appreciable portion of society is becoming tolerant. Correspondingly, Voltaire's Enlightenment causality schema cannot be challenged. If people were tolerant, it is not impossible that they would be happy. This tolerance has merely failed to take hold.

Kant's understanding of Enlightenment is a shade more perverse, and therefore, more insightful, than that of Voltaire. To him, an enlightened subject is a free-thinker but not, necessarily, a tolerant one, so that the author's denial of the feasibility of a despotic enlightened cabal comes too late to negate that very possibility. Voltaire's Enlightenment cosmology necessitates a blithe faith in history, a belief that anti-Enlightenment forces will not strangle Enlightenment as it is born. But Kant's understanding of Enlightenment is that it is the source of its own detractors, a flaw that no optimism can efface. Kant's essay foreshadows the debacle of the enlightened despot, who frees himself and enslaves the people.

This despot is a figure who appears and reappears in the canon of the post-Enlightenment pornographer-philosopher the Marquis de Sade. Sade's enlightened protagonists, such as, for example, Dolmancé of La Philosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom, 1795), are most importantly despots, seizing upon libertinage as the most subjective and despotic activity available. Sade attributes every sexual whim to Nature, and defines Enlightenment as an obedience to that nature, an obedience newly enabled by the defeat of oppressive religion and monarchism. As a result, there is a terrifying authority behind a sexually domineering attitude that might otherwise be amusing or absurd. Sade's work thematizes the domination of women by men but more importantly for this discussion it thematizes the dominations of objects by a subject. While the defenders of Sade rightly point out that in his writings he is a proponent of fewer laws, not more, and so therefore is not a fascist, their understanding here of the meaning of fascism is incomplete. While Sade does not experience the simple joy of relinquishing all decision-making capacity and submitting to the fascistic impositions of another, he fiercely asserts his own right to similarly impose, to remain willfully blind to the pleasure and pain of others. In Voltaire's terms, sadism is a lack of tolerance. Voltaire gives, as an example of the line of thinking antithetical to the Enlightenment, the dictum, “Believe what I believe, and what thou canst not believe, or thou shalt perish”, while underlying such an unenlightened philosophy is Dolmancé's ultimate justification for his own libertinage, “There is no possible comparison for what others experience and what we sense”.

Any argument attempting to determine whether or not Enlightenment has failed inevitably reduces to a matter of definitions. Sade's hero is an enlightened man according to Kant but not according to Voltaire. And yet, if this hero has been seen to have wreaked havoc upon post-Enlightenment history then it is both Kant and Voltaire who are to blame. These two are guilty of proposing historical trajectories that were either bound to be defeated (Voltaire) or to fail (Kant), leading to mass disillusionment and a post-modern morass. Their Enlightenment philosophies, whether internally contradictory or merely glaringly incomplete, effect a certain jubilant hope while neglecting to account for the opposing forces that arise, whether as or against that hope's fulfillment.



Cletus the Foetus says re Enlightenment: I'd be a little careful about what I attribute to Sade, an ironist, on the basis of what his characters say. He did support the pre-Reign of Terror Revolution, for example.

He's right of course.