In a very real sense it may be said of the eighteenth century that it was an age of faith as well as of reason, and of the thirteenth century that it was an age of reason as well as of faith. –Carl Becker
In The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932) the famous American historian Carl Becker (1873–1945) offered an influential interpretation of the Enlightenment, which reads it against the grain of most discussions both then and now. As we’ve seen, they typically proceed on the assumption that the Enlightenment was a radical break with tradition, or, on its own terms, the awakening of human reason from the slumber of the dark ages. But history is the study of continuity as well as of change over time, and in certain respects, Carl Becker argued, the Enlightenment was not a break with, but a continuation of, the Christian intellectual tradition.
In the first place, we tend to misunderstand representative figures like Voltaire by overrating their cynicism and underrating their credulity. Candide, for instance, is a very funny satire, which ends with a modest, stay-at-home type of wisdom that Voltaire preached but hardly practiced. Quite the contrary, he was a man of affairs, whose huge ambition was to reform all society so as to bring it into line with reason and nature. In order to do this he wrote hundreds of books, plays, and pamphlets, quarreled with kings and bishops, took his message directly to the people, and tirelessly denounced abuses wherever he found them. That may have been good and proper, but it wasn’t exactly tending his garden. We enjoy Candide because it speaks to our own sensibilities, but we misunderstand Voltaire when we take it as a representative sample of his work. It was not his masterpiece, but a trifle, written to pass the time between episodes of political agitation.
Far from skeptics, Voltaire and the other philosophes were true believers, and utterly certain in their conviction that Reason with a capital “R” contained the solution to every dispute. It thus constituted a sort of revelation to humankind. So, Christianity and the Enlightenment shared a sense of obligation to bring the new creed to the world so that it might be saved from itself—a tradition that is alive and powerfully well today in ideological movements like libertarianism and socialism, or in the oft-repeated desire of American diplomats and politicians to “bring democracy (/liberalism/capitalism/etc.) to the Middle East,” on the assumption that we know what it is good for others and have an obligation to make them see things our way. It is, one understands, not an act of aggression at all, but of charity, and proof of our genuine concern for them. We are never so faithfully the servants of humanity as when we try to persuade it of the rightness and benevolence of our own views, through an appeal to the universal arbiter, reason.
Some Enlightenment thinkers, like David Hume, were atheists, and some others, like John Locke and Isaac Newton, were Christian, but most were deists, who had by no means abandoned belief in God. What they rejected was the superficial, distorted portrayals of him given by the various creeds, preferring instead the simple and pious reverence for nature, and its designer, which constituted the real and timeless religion of humans everywhere. Similarly, it was nonsense to suppose that God would directly and personally intervene in our lives if we asked him to, but that did not mean that there was no providence in nature. On the contrary, it had all been designed from the beginning, by the wisest and most beneficent intelligence imaginable. Thus whatever happened did so according to the will of the designer, and was in that sense providential (although Voltaire would have some doubts about this after the Lisbon earthquake). In that case, to reveal the laws of nature was simply to reveal the laws of God, for the two were one and the same.
They also wanted to be thought “men of virtue,” which at first seems both completely obvious and very curious. Of course everyone wants to be thought virtuous—but in that case, why did they keep insisting on it? To get the answer we must turn away from the heroes of the Enlightenment, and inquire about the villains. It was alleged, by the theologians, that the Enlightenment was an attack on civilization itself, that it would lead to personal wickedness and to social chaos, and that it was thus fundamentally immoral, and had to be rejected as such. (The same charge that is today leveled at critics of the Enlightenment—how the wheel turns!) They therefore needed to cultivate an image of secular saintliness, as some of them (Hume, for instance) in fact did, not simply out of benevolence, but because they were afraid to lend any credence to the charges of their opponents. But notice that in both cases, the rightness of conduct is of course connected to the rightness of one’s belief. What makes a Christian is, after all, not primarily what he or she does, but what he or she believes. So, too, what makes a rational person in the Enlightenment vision of human conduct is not that one helps the poor or renders useful service to the state, for one may do all of that and still be very irrational and unenlightened; what makes one rational is that one accepts the healing and universal power of reason, however it is construed.
The immortality of the soul was similarly retained, as an indispensable prop to the moral order, for if there were no justice after life, as there was but little during it, then justice itself would be unmasked as a farce, and it was not easy to see how civilization could survive that ominous discovery. However, the immortality that the philosophes most earnestly hoped for was to live on in the memory of posterity, and to be thought well of by their descendants. “Nothing is more annoying,” said Voltaire, “than to be obscurely hanged.”
So, too, the Christian conception of history as a linear progression toward some fixed goal. As the Christians had thought of humankind as living in a fallen state, expelled from the happy paradise of Eden, so the philosophes thought of humankind as living in exile from the best, wisest, and happiest society history had ever known: the Roman Empire in the age of Augustus and his immediate successors, which provided for them the blueprint of an ideal society that might, with effort, be restored. Thus they both drew their models of happiness from a mythologized past, and saw the present as a moment of trial between the forces of light and darkness. Reason and ignorance struggled for the soul of humankind in their own day just as righteousness and sin had in another, but the ultimate triumph of reason was assured, as that of righteousness was. In the first case this was the eschaton—the end of the world and the final judgment, where the farce of the present, with its manifest cruelty and injustice, would be set right by a wise and powerful God. In the second case it was through progress—the steady march of history toward greater and greater happiness, wisdom, knowledge, and perfection, through education, science, and reform. So in both visions, history ends as it began, with an idealized vision of human happiness.
This may indeed be taken as the fundamental premise of the Enlightenment—that although it rejected the symbolic order of Christianity, it retained the underlying structure of that order, and brought it down from heaven to earth. Hence the totalizing faiths, the crusades, martyrs, sacred causes, utopias, and all the rest, which so characterize our time as they did the Middle Ages, though they are largely absent from the pagan worldview.
When we discuss relativism or social constructionism, we’re usually referencing the disputes over science and culture that broke out in the 1960s—that is, the views of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, Thomas Kuhn, and other controversial intellectuals of that generation. It is no accident that such radical critiques of the existing order were heard at a moment when that order was being challenged by mass protests, new forms of identity politics, and a spontaneous and irreverent counterculture. The crisis of liberalism (1914–1945) was also a time of great uncertainty, as markets gave way to state planning, and democracy to dictators, until some measure of moral certainty was finally restored with the American entry into the war. Like the 1960s, it also gave rise to a generation of (to speak very broadly) social constructionists, like Karl Mannheim, Oswald Spengler, E.H. Carr, and Carl Becker. His critique of the Enlightenment—which saw it and Christianity alike as chimerical, and better explained by the realities of cognition than of the universe—was made possible by that background, and should be read against it. It is not today a mainstream view, but it remains a minor and perhaps undervalued classic.
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.