Reason obeys itself, and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it. –Thomas Paine
Kings will be tyrants from policy, when subjects are rebels from principle. –Edmund Burke
Now that we’ve discussed the Revolution, let’s turn to the politics of the Enlightenment for a moment. Between them, Revolution and Enlightenment defined much European history and intellectual life throughout “the long nineteenth century” (1789–1917). Some of the ideas that we’ll encounter in future articles will seem strange indeed, but we can perhaps understand them better if we keep this background in mind.
Americans typically think of the Enlightenment in terms of their own Revolution, the Constitution, and the Founders, all of whom were deeply influenced by its ideals. Because of this national self-identification, the intrinsic nobility and justice of the Enlightenment usually passes for common sense with us. How could the Enlightenment possibly be a bad thing for anyone? What could be worse than to reject it? The French perspective is very similar—it was, they believe, their unique contribution to civilization, and they are justly proud of it.
The rest of Europe had a rather different experience of the Enlightenment. For Spaniards, Prussians, Austrians, Russians, and indeed at first the French, the Enlightenment initially appeared under the protection of monarchs called the Enlightened Despots, who expected to realize economic and military advantages by carrying out rational reforms. They were aware of its potentially revolutionary implications (it’s one thing to base government on tradition, another on reason), but they were confident that these could be controlled so long as the philosophers did not do their philosophizing in public. As things turned out, they were wrong.
It is almost impossible to imagine today the excitement and optimism that the French Revolution inspired in its early days (1789–1792). People had lived since time immemorial under the most brutal and senseless despotism; now, they suddenly felt that they had a chance at a better life—not later, in heaven, if they were good, but now, in this life, if they would fight for it. The aristocracy trembled with fear and rage as revolutionaries confiscated their property, shuttered the churches, executed a King, established a Republic, and proclaimed the Universal Rights of Man and the Citizen. Everywhere they looked they saw enemies, fed on the false promises, and only too eager to slit their throats for a little gold. The young, the urban poor, and the ambitious were thrilled at the sight of the corrupt old order being shaken to its foundations. A better, freer, more rational world was within reach—all things seemed possible.
However, as the Revolution entered its more radical phase (1793–1795), the thrill began to wear off. It was one thing to talk about Reason in the abstract, and another to cheer the Revolutionaries in Paris from the safety of Berlin or Madrid. Watching the terror and Napoleon Bonaparte (r. 1799–1814) hollow out the Revolution from the inside was something else all together, let alone having French soldiers invade your country, steal your property, and execute your friends and relations, all while proclaiming, a little too loudly, that all men are brothers. By the time the Napoleonic tide receded, the politics of God and King, Tradition and Order, had once again become the common sense of all right-thinking people. There were, after all, worse things than the status quo—there was war, terror, theft, and the rule of King Mob. However, not everyone felt this way. The memory of the Revolution, despite its failures, was too powerful to be stamped out on the battlefield or abolished by royal decree. Scarred veterans, the vengeful poor, and a new generation of young people watched and waited, certain that their chance would come.
The essential point, for our purposes, is that the Enlightenment was imposed on much of Europe at gunpoint. Where the French quickly decided, in the following generation, that the Enlightenment and Revolution had been good things, once again kicked their king out of power and declared a Republic (1830), and in general liked to see themselves as the agents of a new dispensation of universal liberty and reason, to the people beyond their borders they often looked like swaggering, shallow bullies who had to be fought to the death. Resistance to the Enlightenment became inextricably caught up with resistance to foreign occupation—which is to say, with war-heroism and patriotism. Put another way, the Enlightenment came to mean, for many Europeans, exactly the opposite of what it means for us (if we are Americans.)
This was particularly the case in Prussia, a deeply religious, disciplined, and militaristic society with a big future ahead of it. It had very little cultural life of any kind before the Enlightenment, apart from an extremely rugged and introspective species of Protestantism, and what culture it did have was largely the creation of the Prussian Monarchy, which gained a newfound appreciation for the power of ideas after the disasters of the Napoleonic era. In any case, Prussia had been expanding since the time of Frederick the Great (one of our Enlightened Despots, r. 1740–1786), and over the course of the nineteenth century it became steadily larger and more powerful. Between 1866 and 1871, under “the Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, Prussia led a pan-German confederation in a series of short, sharp wars against Austria, Denmark, and France. In the exhilaration of victory, the allies declared a unified German Empire under the Prussian Monarchy, and effectively ended French domination of the continent. For various reasons, which we cannot get into here, but some of which we have already suggested, the military came to occupy a place for Germans similar to that which the constitution does for Americans—a national institution which all patriotic and right-thinking people revere without question. This would create problems later on, but from 1871 to about 1944, Germany was by far the strongest power in Europe, and knew it. German leaders tended to think of this power holistically, in terms not just of guns and money, but also in terms of prestige, which they tried to secure by fostering the arts, sciences, and scholarship. However, recall that German intellectual life tended to define itself in opposition to the universal claims of the Enlightenment. The central figure in this self-definition, after Immanuel Kant, was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who drew his inspiration from Plato, and to whom practically all subsequent German thought was indebted in one way or another. As a result, Platonic thinking in general, combined with Counter-Enlightenment particularism, tended to define much of the German outlook.
The British intellectual tradition, by comparison, has tended to define itself somewhat ambivalently toward the Enlightenment. Many of its luminaries were British (Locke, Newton, Hume) whose ideas were imported to France (largely by Voltaire), which meant that the British were in a sense its co-authors. But Britain was an implacable foe of Revolutionary France, and in consequence British intellectuals had strong reasons to distance themselves from what they regarded as the overly theoretical and recklessly ideological ideas of the Revolution. Respect for tradition and organic, gradual development, they began to insist, was what made British government successful. They therefore tended to occupy a kind of middle ground between French and American universalism on the one hand, and German particularism on the other. Much in it is familiar to the American outlook, but the British habit of appealing to Britishness as some kind of self-validating principle usually seems a bit odd to Americans, who, like the French, tend to think that Reason is the sole court of appeal.
Some of the ideas we will discuss in the rest of the series will seem strange, and we may be tempted to wonder how anyone could have ever believed such nonsense. But if we keep these national traditions in mind, and the way they each grow out of a unique national experience of Enlightenment and Revolution, we will perhaps be able to see how these ideas might have made sense at the time—or how they might have even become the common sense of our own time, if things had been just a little different….
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.