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Doing the Enlightenment Rag

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Some time ago–back last October, to be exact–I was in the middle of a long set of posts about education.  I had just gotten to the part where I was about to explain that although we talk about “the Enlightenment,” there are actually two Enlightenments and not just one.

And that’s when the lights went out, the tree fell on my house, and we were without heat, electricity, hot water and phones for nine days.

I am not going to go all the way back into all of that right now, although I’d like to get to it sometime.

Right now, I just want to riff off of the last long section in the book I’ve been reading, F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition. 

It has long sections on George Eliot (whom I can handle, if she isn’t one of my favorites), and on Henry James (who is one of my favorites), and, finally, on Joseph Conrad.

Leavis’s favorite author is actually Jane Austen, but she is so much his favorite author that he declares she needs her own book.  Although he mentions her constantly, she doesn’t have her own section here.

I have reached the long section on Joseph Conrad, and I find myself right up against the same wall I always am with Conrad.

On the one hand, what he writes has no attraction for me at all. 

Obviously, I’m in the minority here. Conrad is one of those writers who sells even outside school settings year after year after year.   A movie (Apocalypse Now) adapted from one of his books (Heart of Darkness) was made as late as the 1970s. 

I still just can’t seem to connect with the man’s writing.  Part of that is mostly setting.  I want domestic settings, mostly, and Conrad tends to sea and jungle settings.  I read The Secret Agent, which I’m pretty sure takes place in the backwaters of great cities–but I’m not sure, because I just can’t remember.

That is my essential relationship to Conrad.  He just doesn’t stick in my head.

But there is something else about Conrad, something that makes me wonder why I don’t take to him more.

Conrad is a writer who focusses, almost exclusively, on the kind of political and moral theme that most of us would consider “modern.”

He looks, that is, at the utopian project–all the utopian projects.  His concern is with the people who want to make the world better by first making it worse.  He follows revolution and tourists at the revolution.

Now, this isn’t a particularly unusual bent for a late Nineteenth Century novelist.  I’ve mentioned on this blog Henry James’s The Princess Casamasima. 

What reading Leavis on Conrad has brought home to me is that this particular theme predominates in many late Nineteenth Century novels.  The utopian project that we think of as our own, including manifestations of it that we think of as entirely modern–feminism, for instance, and Marxism, and sex divorced from marriage and family–was a preoccupation not only of Conrad, and of James in at least two places (The Bostonians is his foray into feminism), but of Nathaniel Hawthorne (see The Blithedale Romance) and others less celebrated.  Even Dickens got into the act on and off.

What’s more, it’s really odd have little to nothing has changed in the terms of the argument.  Margaret Fuller and Mary Shelley are running the same arguments for and against position of women in society and the status of love as a slave of convention.  Characters in James and Conrad are running the same arguments on the need to smash the system to bring about true justice. 

If you read through a pile of these books, you’d think we had gotten into a rut somewhere around–well, around when?

I think the answer is–around the French Revolution.

I think that the Enlightenment–dating it from the work of people like John Locke–made a fundamental difference in the nature of Western Civilization. 

It changed the West’s understand of who we are and what we do–what a human being is, how he functions, and what his relationship is to the the world, his fellow human beings, and even to God.

Because in spite of the fact that we now tend to characterize the Enlightenment as a move away from religion, it only sort-of was. 

It’s not just that most Enlightenment thinkers were Deists and not atheists, or that the French Revolution ended up trying to found a Religion of Reason. 

It’s that Protestant Puritan thought is itself a manifestation of the Enlightment. 

I don’t think it’s an accident that the first great wave of what we would now call “liberal” thinking in the United States arose in New England, among people who were the children and grandchildren of the great New England Puritan tradition.

I’ve said there were two Enlightenments, and there were.  I didn’t make that up.  The two Enlightenments are usually called the French and the English or Scottish.  They are distinguished by their understanding of human nature.

The French Enlightenment saw human nature as intrinsically good.  If evil existed in the world, it was because human society, being corrupt, in turn corrupted human society.  If you could perfect society, you could perfect human beings, and put an end to evil in the world for all time.

The English Enlightenment saw human nature as being intrinsically flawed.  Human nature could not be perfected.  In order to construct a just and good society, we had to work with those inherent flaws of human beings. 

That’s why there are checks and balances in the Constitution, and what the “invisible hand of the market” is all about.

But here’s the thing.

I think I may have been concentrating too strongly on a difference that is huge, but maybe not as huge as I thought it to be.

The Puritans were passionate believers in original sin, but they were still men and women who thought they could and should build the perfect society, the society where Good would reign and men and women would live united to God.

That was what the City on the Hill was all about.

If you think of the tradition of Anglophone liberalism being essentially and foundationall Puritan, a lot of what goes on makes sense.

The Mayor Bloomberg Syndrome, for instance, is essentially Puritan.  It’s changed its list of sins, but  the impulse and the foundation are Puritan. 

It is, after all, a Puritan idea that man can never be free until he is free of his sins, and that man can never free himself from those sins. 

Not only God, but government is necessary to teach human beings how to behave, and to make them behave when they just won’t listen.

Of course, you could make the argument that modern conservatives are doing a lot of the same using of government to enforce right behavior, and you’d be right in one sense.  Conservatives are most certainly doing that.

But by the definitions of the 19th Century, our conservatives are also liberals.  They believe in democracy and not monarchy, for instance, and in the free market.

Conservatives as they existed in 1776 or 1850 have more or less died out.

Like it or not, by the original definitions of these terms, we are all liberals now.

And I think this explains, too, why the more I watch the political news from both ends of the spectrum, the more I fell like I’m listening to different performances of the same musical piece. 

Both of the political parties seem to be telling me that they can cleanse me of my sins, if I’d only just recognize what those sins are.

Written by janeh

June 16th, 2012 at 11:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Doing the Enlightenment Rag'

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  1. Just because it always pops into my head whenever I see even a hint of a discussion of human ethics and human “goodness”, one of the flaws if not the basic flaw of most such reasoning is that it misses a key feature of ethical decision making. The differences between what in the language of game theory are zero sum games and positive sum games. A “lifeboat” scenario is a zero sum situation (or at least is usually set up as one), but most social interactions – including government taxation/programs or industrial or other regulations – including such things as marriage laws, are more usually positive sum ‘games’, or can realistically be made into such.

    As long as significant population of voters does not insist on turning everything into (or at least perceives everything as) a zero sum game.


    16 Jun 12 at 3:36 pm

  2. You’re missing the huge difference, and the date and place of the NET should have told you. Hand in hand with that understanding of an intrinsically flawed human nature went a belief in Christianity. When New England’s elites abandoned a religion that told them mankind was inherently sinful, they quickly signed on for the whole Continental Enlightenment program–perfecting human beings to achieve the earthly paradise, with the NET (or the Jacobins, depending) to decide what nature was perfect and what society was paradise. There’s about a generation’s lag time in New England, but no more.

    There’s no reason you can’t be a freethinker and still accept an inherently flawed human nature, and there are some famous individual examples, but it’s an unusual pattern.

    Still, New England never did have a concept of freedom as it was understood in Pennsylvania, Virginia or Tennessee. Of course, neither does Bloomberg.

    Never got Conrad. Of course, Fennimore Cooper had a still more recent movie, and I never got him either.

    Edgar Rice Burroughs I got. And Stan Lee.


    16 Jun 12 at 7:32 pm

  3. Oh. And we are aware that dating the Enlightenment from Locke and then calling the Puritans a manifestation of the Enlightenment has certain inherent difficulties, aren’t we? The Puritans show up in Elizabeth’s day, complete with plain clothes, Biblical first names for boys and girls named after virtues. Locke is 11 years old when the Great Migration ended. His father was a Puritan and a Parliamentary cavalry officer.

    If you said that the English Enlightenment had Puritan roots, you’d have a much more defensible position.


    17 Jun 12 at 9:52 am

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