Review: The Dream of Enlightenment

Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy is a breezy introduction to most of the major philosophers associated with the Enlightenment. The book is organized into short chapters on René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, Gottfried Leibniz, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire.

The exclusion of Immanuel Kant from this list might seem surprising for a book that is about the Enlightenment, but that is because The Dream of Enlightenment is the second volume in a trilogy on the history of Western philosophy. The first volume, The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, spans Antiquity to the Renaissance. The third volume will pick up the story from Kant and carry it forward to the present day.

I bought this book because I was looking for a short overview of modern philosophy before the French Revolution. Having studied the Reformation over the past few months, I’m about to start researching the Enlightenment and this book wasn’t bad for an icebreaker. I was disappointed that there wasn’t a chapter devoted to Montesquieu who was one of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment and one of the biggest influences on the American Founders.

In conversations on Gab, I often encounter the argument that Christianity, especially the Protestant Reformation, is to blame for “radical egalitarianism” and “universalism.” I’ve explored this at length and reject this point of view. Martin Luther and John Calvin were fundamentalists who hearkened back to St. Augustine’s most negative takes on human nature. Luther famously encouraged the German princes to slaughter the peasants in the Peasants’ War. The future of Lutheranism was institutionalization in state churches in Northern Europe. Calvin was the opposite of an individualist, egalitarian and universalist. He also hated the Anabaptists who were persecuted in Geneva.

The most radical fringe of the Reformation – the Anabaptists and antinomian sects – had a bleak future in Europe and were violently repressed almost everywhere except in Moravia. The Reformation eventually led to a world which was governed by the “whose realm, his religion” principle. Every state in Europe came to have an established church and only a handful of Dutch cities practiced Liberty of Conscience. It is true that some of the Anabaptist sects were “radically egalitarian,” but it is hard to see how modern egalitarianism sprang from the likes of the Hutterites, Mennonites and the Amish. Generally speaking, the trend was toward confessionalization and religious intolerance almost everywhere in Europe which culminated in the French Wars of Religion, Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War.

When people today complain about “radical egalitarianism” and “universalism,” they are complaining about the ideology that sprang from the Jacobins and the sans-culottes of the French Revolution and that wasn’t a byproduct of Reformation. Liberalism sprang from the loins of the Enlightenment which was inspired by the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century.

Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Enlightenment illustrates how all the building blocks fell in place: Descartes laid the foundation of individualism with Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) and materialism with his mechanistic physics; Thomas Hobbes contributed the “state of nature” and the “social contract” and vanquished the immaterial soul; Spinoza identified God with Nature; Locke contributed liberty and equality, the rhetoric of natural rights, tolerance and the blank slate; Hume contributed skepticism of miracles and revealed religion and divided “matters of fact” from values; Montesquieu divided sovereignty between three branches of government; Voltaire heaped ridicule upon religion and made an idol out of humanity and Rousseau contributed the general will.

There are various points of disagreement among these men, but there are greater similarities. Hobbes had a bleak view of human nature. Locke had a positive one. Both argued from the “state of nature” and the “social contract” though. Voltaire hated Rousseau and mocked Leibniz with his character Pangloss in Candide. Overall, the effect of the Enlightenment was to sap the foundations of religion with skepticism, to undermine authority and tradition, to promote liberty as the greatest good and to attempt to prop up morality on a new naturalistic basis like the physical sciences.

The Enlightenment was closely linked to the rise of the “mechanical philosophy” and the new materialism. It is inconceivable in the absence of Francis Bacon and Issac Newton. As Tom Richey says in one of his videos, “the Enlightenment was the Scientific Revolution on crack.” We’re going to have a lot of fun in the months ahead going through the philosophes one by one.

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