Editor’s note: This essay originally was delivered as a presentation at TOS-Con 2019 and retains the quality of the oral presentation. Notes have been added to elaborate certain points and provide citations.
Deborah Feldman was born into an orthodox Jewish community in New York City, where she was raised to defer, obey, and yield her will to the religious authorities who had planned out her life in advance. In her memoir, Unorthodox, she explains that she graduated early from high school, “because there [was] no point in wasting another year in pursuit of an education [I didn’t] need. . . . I [would] never be allowed to find work. . . . [A]ny effort invested in my education after this point would be a complete waste.”1 She knew something was wrong with the society in which she lived, but she didn’t yet know what to do about it.
At the age of seventeen, Feldman was put into an arranged marriage with a man she had known only for half an hour. Once she became a mother, she yearned for an education. “I [was] exhausted by the years I [had] spent pretending to be pious and chastising myself for my faithlessness,” she said. “I want[ed] to be free . . . to acknowledge myself for who I am, free to present my true face to the world.”2 She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College—telling her husband it was for a business degree—but found in literature a doorway to another world. She left the orthodox community and became a best-selling author and journalist.
A similar story is told by Yeonmi Park, who escaped the totalitarian slavery of North Korea in 2007. In her book In Order to Live, she explains that
every subject we learned—math, science, reading, music—was delivered with a dose of propaganda. . . . In North Korea, it’s not enough for the government to control where you go, what you learn, where you work, and what you say. They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience.3
After she escaped, she attended a school where on one occasion she was asked what her favorite color was. She found herself unable to answer. The very idea of having a favorite anything puzzled her. “Why would anyone care about what ‘I’ wanted,” she thought. “There was no ‘I’ in North Korea—only ‘we. . . .’ It took me a long time to start thinking for myself and to understand why my own opinions mattered.”4
Another intellectually heroic woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, had a similar background. She was born in Somalia and raised in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Given a strict Muslim upbringing, she received a meager education—mostly memorizing the Koran. At last she escaped to the Netherlands in 1992 and, soon after, enrolled in a university to study political science. She was impressed by how the Dutch valued freedom. “Four hundred years ago, when European thinkers severed the hard bands of church dogma that had constrained people’s minds, Holland was the center of free thought,” she writes in her memoir, Infidel.
The Enlightenment cut European culture from its roots in old fixed ideas of magic, kingship, social hierarchy, and the domination of priests, and regrafted it onto a great strong trunk that supported the equality of each individual, and his right to free opinions and self-rule—so long as he did not threaten civic peace and the freedom of others. . . . And here, this commitment to freedom took hold of me, too.5
These stories are at once horrifying and inspiring.6 That these remarkable women from such diverse backgrounds ultimately found freedom and a world of ideas and experiences to enrich their lives is a cause for celebration and for reflecting on how fortunate we are—those of us who did not face such daunting odds. It’s also cause for reflection on the millions of people today who still live in the silent, senseless darkness of ignorance and terror.
Yet it’s worth remembering that in the light of history, the experiences these women escaped are not only not rare, but are in fact how most people have lived for most of their lives in most of the nations of the world. Illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, hunger, and disease are by a wide margin the most common state of affairs in which humanity has found itself. It is only in the past two centuries that a portion of the human race has risen out of darkness into enlightenment. And it has done so in a manner very much like the stories these women tell.
Escaping the Darkness
What I mean is that although these are stories of personal liberation and discovery, Western civilization as a whole went through something similar on a culture-wide level beginning around 1700, in a period that we, appropriately enough, call the Enlightenment. This was a time during which intellectual leaders—scientists, philosophers, economists, politicians, and historians—began to advance a new way of thinking, one that emphasized reason and discovery rather than power and dogma. Their ideas were not entirely new, of course—one can trace their inspiration to Rome and Greece—yet they transformed our view of human life. They inspired and fashioned a set of personal and social values that are almost solely responsible for the improvement in the condition of mankind in the past two centuries—and, more important, offered opportunity to countless people like Park, Feldman, and Hirsi Ali.
The word “improvement” is hardly adequate. The transformation of the world in the past two hundred years is so mindbogglingly enormous that the English language does not contain superlatives powerful enough to describe it. For some indication of the degree to which the ideas of the Enlightenment have improved human life, consider the fact that George Washington had more in common with Julius Caesar than he did with us. Both lived in a world lit and warmed by fire, traveled by sails and horses, and wrote on paper, largely by hand. Washington—the greatest American—never did almost any of the things we consider quintessentially American today. He never ate a hamburger. He never listened to rock ’n’ roll. He never texted while driving.
But let’s get more specific. Since Washington’s day, life expectancy has nearly tripled in Europe and the Americas. Diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, and polio virtually have been eradicated. Wealth has increased beyond our capacity to measure.7
As Steven Pinker writes in his book Enlightenment Now, “In 1800, no country in the world had a life expectancy beyond 40. . . . [But] an African born today can expect to live as long as a person born in the Americas in 1950 or in Europe in the 1930s.”8 And thanks to life-improving, as well as life-saving medicines, people get more use and enjoyment out of their longer lives. “In developed countries,” writes Pinker, “out of the 4.7 years of additional expected life” that have been added to the human life span, “3.8 were healthy years”—meaning that “people today live far more years in the pink of health than their ancestors lived altogether.”9
Access to food has improved so much that in the United States today, obesity is a greater problem than starvation. And even in the poorest countries, the rate of undernourishment has fallen from 50 percent after World War II to about 13 percent today. “In two hundred years,” writes Pinker, “the rate of extreme poverty in the world has tanked from 90 percent to 10, with almost half of that decline occurring in the last thirty-five years.”10
Labor-saving machinery has improved life far beyond our capacity to appreciate. Take just one example: Pinker observes that the cost of light has fallen dramatically over the past two centuries. “In 1800, an Englishman had to toil for six hours to burn a tallow candle for an hour.” Today, you’d have to work “a half-second for the same hour [of light] from a compact fluorescent bulb—a 43,000-fold leap in affordability in two centuries.”11
Access to education has improved astonishingly, also. A century and a half ago, the average American had a little over four years of schooling. Today, it’s closer to fourteen. But even in less-developed countries such as India, that number has risen from effectively zero in 1870 to more than four today12—meaning that people in New Delhi now are better educated than New Yorkers were when they were building the first skyscrapers. And this education isn’t just rote learning. Intelligence tests reveal that people around the world are improving in their analytical thinking. Hard as this may be to measure, the evidence shows that humans don’t just know more but are increasingly adept at solving problems by applying intellectual skills.13
Along with these improvements has come an increase in happiness. Statistics show that 90 percent of Americans rate themselves as at least “pretty happy,” and a third call themselves “very happy.”14 We see some indications to the contrary—increasing levels of Americans report feelings of anxiety and depression, and even an increase in suicide. But this can be explained at least in part by our increased expectations from life. In Washington’s day, a farmer who suffered a misfortune—be it illness, injury, or crop failure—was likely to just die at the age of thirty-five, and, consequently, cease to worry about things. Today, the average American lives twice as long, and as a result has at least twice as many opportunities for disappointment or frustration. We are lucky enough to live in a world where we’re angry that the WiFi on Southwest Airlines rarely works and costs $8 a pop.
This, incidentally, is the kernel of truth in the accusation that capitalism causes unhappiness. It does, in the sense that by improving the standard of living, it creates a situation in which more people are living longer who are able, as a result, to experience—and survive—unhappy circumstances. But, of course, they also experience joy, discovery, wonder, and flourishing.
How did we reach this glorious, unprecedented, magnificent state of affairs? This explosion in the standard of living has its roots not in some accidental distribution of natural resources, but in the presence of certain intellectual and moral virtues. It was these virtues that created the Enlightenment—and they are the same ones that Park, Hirsi Ali, and Feldman took such risks to embrace and defend.
The Enlightenment Virtues
The spirit of the Enlightenment might be summarized in a Latin maxim that the French philosophe Voltaire adopted as his personal motto: sapere aude, or dare to know.15 Certainly that motto expresses the bravery of the women I’ve mentioned. But perhaps a better motto would be nullius in verba, which means “don’t take anyone’s word for it.” This is the motto of the Royal Society, the world’s first scientific fraternity, which was founded in London in 1663. Intellectual leaders in this era strove to understand the world not in terms of command but in terms of causes. In other words, natural phenomena resulted not from God’s will but from natural causation. And in a broader sense, they viewed knowledge not as the say-so of one’s ancestors but as the result of independent judgment—judgment based not on habit, faith, or revelation but on reason and experiment.
During this period, Isaac Newton published his analyses of gravity and optics; Adam Smith essentially invented economics; Edward Jenner created the first vaccine; Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod; Voltaire and Edward Gibbon wrote their pathbreaking critiques of Christianity; and the concept of inalienable human rights was born in the writings of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine.
Even more profound was a change in the conception of what life is about. In his book In Defence of the Enlightenment, the philosopher Tvetzan Todorov listed what he calls the three basic principles of the Enlightenment movement: autonomy, universalism, and the “human end purpose of our acts.”16 By autonomy, he means the right of the individual to make the choices that matter in his or her own life. By universalism, he means the search for values that do not depend on culture or circumstance, but on human nature—and this includes the principle of equality whereby we respect that others have the same right to direct their own lives that we have. And by the human end purpose of our acts, he means a focus on pursuing ends in this world, rather than ends allegedly dictated by the gods of another.
Where previous generations had viewed humanity as a cog in a social, political, cultural, or religious machine, Enlightenment thinkers began to view human life in individualistic terms. They emphasized the individual’s inherent value—his personal experience, knowledge, desire, and skill—and they believed that the reward for self-improvement—and especially for exertion in learning about the world and exercising our faculties in it—was enjoying happiness. Just as proper diet and exercise require us to obey nature, but come with the reward that they also makes us feel physically healthier and happier, so the exercise of personal virtue, curiosity, and hard work makes us both better people and happier people. As Alexander Pope—the greatest poet of the Enlightenment—put it, “Reason, passion, answer one great aim; / That true self-love and social are the same / That virtue only makes our bliss below.”17
Note that word below—Pope’s concern was with our happiness in this world, not a reward in the next. The purpose of virtue is not to appease the gods or please kings or the tribe, but to enjoy a full and flourishing human life. “The business of men,” wrote John Locke, is “to be happy in this world by the enjoyment of the things of nature subservient to life, health, ease, and pleasure.”18
I want to focus on “enjoyment,” because enjoyment is a particularly Enlightenment concept. Previous generations had not held that enjoyment was a significant value in human life, either at the individual or collective level. Individuals did not exist to enjoy their lives, according to the Medieval era, or even the Renaissance. They existed to serve God—often as manifested in the state—and they were expected to value submission, obedience, and subordination and to strive to reconcile themselves to the dictates of Heaven. Wishing to enjoy life simply because it is one’s own—enjoying the experience of living for its own sake—was viewed as positively sinful. The Middle Ages, therefore, had celebrated such figures as Saint Simeon Stylites—the early Christian mystic who sat meditating on a fifty-foot pillar and smiled placidly as maggots ate his flesh.19 This contrasts sharply with the Enlightenment ideal of enjoyment, which meant a tranquil sense of self-sufficiency well summarized in Washington’s favorite Bible verse, Micah 4:4: “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”20 When the Constitution speaks of “domestic tranquility,” it is referring to this fundamental Enlightenment vision.
This was a revolutionary idea. During the Middle Ages or even the Renaissance, intellectual leaders virtually never celebrated this notion of enjoyment. St. Augustine uses the word “enjoyment” to refer to the duty we supposedly owe God to perceive and respect the proper place of things in the supernatural order of the universe, a concept scholars call “beatific enjoyment.”21 In Shakespeare or the King James Bible, the word “enjoy” typically is used in the sense of consume—which comes closer to the Enlightenment notion, but it is still significantly different. But in the Enlightenment, the word enjoyment takes on a distinct meaning. One 1780 dictionary defined it as “pleasure arising from possession or fruition.”22 Enlightenment enjoyment is a distinctive kind of happiness—not greed, but satisfaction in ownership, particularly the possession of knowledge; it’s a type of pleasure in settled proprietorship experienced by a person as conscious magnanimity or serenity. And the concept of enjoying oneself is a joy in self-possession and self-control.
In 1726, Benjamin Franklin wrote out a list of what he called the Thirteen Virtues, which encapsulate Enlightenment thinking on the subject. The classic Renaissance virtues were humility, kindness, temperance, chastity, patience, charity, diligence.23
But Franklin’s list is temperance, silence (“avoid trifling conversation”), order (i.e., organization), resolution (i.e., determination), frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility (“imitate Jesus and Socrates”).24
The two lists contain several parallels—but the differences are more revealing. Charity is absent from Franklin’s list (although he considered some aspects of charity as belonging to justice).25 And diligence is replaced with resolution—the difference being that one can have a duty to be diligent at tasks assigned to one, but resolution is about self-chosen obligations. Most of all, whereas the Renaissance virtues overwhelmingly are concerned with duties owed to others—kindness, patience, charity—Franklin’s are concerned primarily with the flourishing of the individual.
This is even true of the term “humility,” which appears on both lists. Franklin adds “imitate Jesus and Socrates”—when, in an important sense, neither man was at all humble.26 Socrates chose to be executed rather than buckle under the demands of the crowd—and even after he was condemned to death, he told the Athenian jury that they should give him a lifetime pension instead. Nor was Jesus particularly humble. He defied the Roman Empire because he said he was the messiah. What Franklin means by “humility” here is hold truth as your highest value, above all of the riches in the world.
Virtues as Prescriptions for Enjoyment
Franklin’s list reads more like a doctor’s prescription than like a list of commands. They’re a prescription for enjoying life—and for being worthy of that enjoyment.27 They’re rational prescriptions for attaining happiness, not pledges to obey God’s will, or slogans about emotional fulfillment—and they focus on self-control, rather than self-expression. This self-control did not mean self-denial.28 Rather, it meant the conscious discipline of devoting one’s energies to rational, life-enhancing pursuits. Enlightenment virtues for personal happiness and social flourishing emphasized curiosity, reasoned debate, intellectual comradeship, and respect for cultural differences.
By “respect for cultural differences,” the Enlightenment thinkers did not mean cultural relativism—that no culture is better than another. Rather, they respected cultural differences by acknowledging that culture is the product of contingent, historical conditions and does not reflect permanent, insurmountable differences between people. This was another crucial Enlightenment value: the concept of a common, universal humanity. Where previous generations had thought of mankind as bound within tribal and historical circumstances, the Enlightenment sought to understand the commonality among human beings.29 One reason European Enlightenment figures were so fascinated with other cultures—with Native Americans, Polynesians, and Asians—was because they hoped to find in these diverse peoples evidence of deeper, universally human moral and political values that would cross cultural boundaries.
To summarize then—which is hard to do, given the immense complexity of the historical trends we’re talking about—the Enlightenment was an era that prioritized human flourishing over the discharging of supernatural duties, that sought universal moral values rooted in human nature rather than tribal background or historical circumstances, and that pursued answers to scientific and philosophic questions through reason, skepticism, curiosity, experiment, and free speech. And the purpose of all of this was the individual’s rational enjoyment of this life.
To return to the heroines with whom I began, consider how their lives reflect the principles of the Enlightenment. They felt within themselves the need for something other than obedience and drudgery. They sought a world of autonomy, universality, and the human end purpose of their acts; a world they could comprehend, and in which they could direct their own lives as they chose; in which they could practice the Enlightenment virtues of resolution, tranquility, industry, sincerity, and “humility” in Franklin’s sense, holding to truth at all costs; a world in which they could make these choices themselves, on the basis of their own rational considerations rather than supernatural or totalitarian command. Although they came from backgrounds where such desires were deterred and penalized—where all of the forces of family, church, and state were leveled against their longing to become who they knew they could be—their yearning for freedom could not be abolished. The caged bird, as we all know, sings of freedom.30
Romanticism and the Counter-Enlightenment
But it is that very singing for freedom that has led—and still leads—some intellectuals to oppose the Enlightenment movement. And this hostility to the Enlightenment comes from directions that we tend today to call the left and the right—although these terms can be misleading in this context, because the differences are superficial at best. Whether described as culturally on the right or the left— “conservative” or “Progressive”—today’s opponents of the Enlightenment are, of one variety or another, spokesmen for the counter-Enlightenment movement we call Romanticism.
Romanticism rejects the Enlightenment’s hard-nosed realism and retreats into spiritual mystery—or, to be more precise, mystique. It’s hard to define Romanticism, precisely because of its slippery, mythological quality.31 But the 20th-century philosopher Isaiah Berlin described it in terms of “three doctrines”: first, that the fundamental function of human beings is self-expression; second, that belonging, and specifically belonging to a group, is central to individual identity; third, “that ideals—true ideals—are often incompatible with one another and cannot be reconciled.”32 That irreconcilability means that all we can do is dedicate ourselves fully to (essentially arbitrary) values with our full beings. And that last belief manifested itself in an emphasis on authenticity, the breaking of boundaries, and the irrepressible impulse—that is, passion—as opposed to moderation, or comprehension, or the humane application of reason to life’s problems.
You may have noticed a subtle conflict between the first two items on Berlin’s list. One paradox of Romanticism was that it seemed simultaneously individualistic and collectivistic—it celebrated bold and iconoclastic individuals, but it also generated such collectivist doctrines as Rousseau’s “general will” or the German concept of the volkgeist. But the paradox is easily explained, because the Romanticist celebrated not the individual application of reason, but the expression of identity. And the source of that identity was incomprehensible and innate impulses—whether in the form of unquestioned group traditions, allegedly supernatural revelations, or emotional drives and gut feelings. In short, the Romanticist prized wildness. And just as animals in the wild often gather in herds, so the Romantics saw nationalism or tribal identity as the source of the genuine self. Thus the “self-expression” of Romantics was often the expression of collectivist ideals—so-called national spirit or volkgeist. “When each [nation] . . . develops and forms itself in accordance with its own peculiar quality,” wrote Romantic philosopher Johann Fichte, and when “each individual develops himself in accordance with that common quality . . . then, and then only, does the manifestation of divinity appear.”33
The Romantics distinguished civilization—which, they held, was an artificial construct of reason and therefore inauthentic—from culture, which expressed the ineffable, mystical, hereditary forces of History and the People.34 The origin of Germanness, for example, lay in the misty race memory of the volkgeist, in traditions and collective history that could not be subjected to rational analysis. This was what “authenticity” meant to the Romanticist—unlike the Enlightenment thinker, who would have said nothing can be authentic that is not in harmony with reason. The Romanticists believed—and still believe—that civilization, language, and reason itself estrange us from nature—separate us from a transcendent or blissful union with the truly real.
I want to emphasize this. Whatever their differences, what the Romantics shared was their rejection of the Enlightenment idea that reason, experiment, or persuasion should enable us to make use of the world and improve human life. The Enlightenment held that civilization protects us from nature. The Romantics believed it alienates us from nature.
What I’ve called the “left-wing” variety of Romanticism is based on the writings of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau famously wrote that man is born free but is everywhere in chains, yet Rousseau believed these chains were self-created. And they were created in particular by reason. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, he fashioned a story—a new creation myth—that explained why people today are unequal. In the beginning, he wrote, natural man in his primordial state was in harmony with nature. “Savage man,” he claimed, was “intelligent and enlightened”—indeed, “a very philosopher, capable of investigating the sublimest truths.”35
But then came the great catastrophe that ended this Garden of Eden. That was “the invention of language.”36 Language was evil because it gave mankind the tool to understand his condition, to imagine a better world, to create civilization—and therefore, to be unhappy. “A free being” such as primitive man cannot possibly suffer, argued Rousseau.37 But in civilized society “we see around us hardly a creature . . . who does not lament his existence.”38 Suicide only occurs in modern, civilized society, claimed Rousseau. “I ask, if it was ever known that a savage took it into his head, when at liberty, to complain of life or to make away with himself.”39
Rousseau celebrated the primitive because in a pre-civilized world there was—he claimed—no distinction between mine and thine, between happiness and unhappiness, between man and nature. Nor was there any internal strife. Primitive man is free of self-contradiction and therefore happy.40 He is ignorant of vice because he has peaceful passions. He is moved by compassion and generosity, because he does not think about tomorrow but lives solely for today. He does not desire things he doesn’t need. He lives in harmony with nature—so much so, Rousseau tells us, that wild animals in the jungle will not attack him. That harmony has been ruptured by the invention of language—which is to say, the advent of reason. Such corrupt notions as selfishness and private property are merely a consequence of reason, because it has tamed man, destroyed his wildness, created inequality, jealousy, and misery.
Rousseau, in short, was the patron saint of hippies—and, to some extent, of Disney movies. It is from him that we get today’s idealization of pre-civilized life, as well as today’s primitivist hostility to civilized society, technological progress, and what postmodernists call the “cultural hegemony” of reason. Rousseau argued that now that we are suffering in a world infected with the evil of reason and selfishness, our only solution is to obliterate these premises—that is, to destroy what Rousseau himself regards as the foundations of civilization—and to substitute for them a new society based on “natural passions.” In this new tribalism, government will not be distracted by selfish concerns but will achieve what is best for all of the tribe’s members—and if those tribal members are still distracted by selfishness, the tribe will punish them in order to ensure that the “general will” of the group is vindicated.
Today’s left may not like to admit that their ideas were created by a dead white European male named Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but that is the case.41 Many prominent environmentalists, for example, are outspoken enemies of technology who idealize primitive lifestyles for their alleged harmony with nature—a harmony that, by the way, is almost entirely fictitious—and condemn technological advancement, even when it is cleaner than the alternative, because it alienates man from nature.42
Especially guilty here is the postmodern left, which not only denounces the Enlightenment for disrupting the harmony and equality that primitive man allegedly enjoyed—but even objects to the word “primitive,” on the theory that value judgments of that sort are imperialistic and racist. Primitive life, in this view, is just another mode of living, and we should not judge or impose reason, science, and discovery on other people. Of course, to suggest that people in other, less-prosperous countries are somehow better off without the blessings of science and reason, or that they prefer to live without them, is itself a form of projection that truly is oppressive. The Rolling Stones, of all people, captured this form of anti-Enlightenment thinking quite well in the lyrics of one of their songs: “You say poverty is picturesque / As you drag your nails across my chest / You’re so cold / You’re so cruel.”43 Yes, indeed.
The cultural left has embraced the idea that there are different epistemologies—one culture’s “way of knowing” is just as valid as another—and to argue that reason is superior to mythology and superstition is, to their minds, a form of bigotry.44 One revealing example of this appeared recently at an event in New York, where school administrators were undergoing “racial sensitivity training.” They were shown a slide that listed elements of “White Supremacy Culture.” Among them were:
- Objectivity: “The belief that there is such a thing as being objective.”
- Either/or Thinking: “Seeing things in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, black or white.”
- Worship of the written word: which “prioritizes writing skills rather than the ability to relate to others.”45
Objectivity, individualism, the written word—these are, of course, the foundations of all civilized society and are present in any culture committed to the values of autonomy, universality, and humanism—let alone of enjoyment. It seems never to have occurred to the creator of this slide that people who are not white can also be objective, individualistic, or perfectionistic.
This is worth emphasizing, because the universality of the Enlightenment is principally concerned with the idea that values such as these are not confined to any particular cultural, racial, or historical background, but can be embraced by all human beings; and that their beneficial consequences—objective science, individual flourishing, an ever more perfect world—can be enjoyed by people of all races, anywhere. That is why people as diverse as Ayaan Hirsi Ali from Somalia, Yeonmi Park from Korea, and Deborah Feldman from New York can be drawn to these values. Only a racist would suggest that these values are off-limits to them, or that they were too deluded to realize that they were white supremacists all along. Only a sexist would imply that these feminist heroes, by consciously embracing the Enlightenment legacy, are somehow male chauvinists.
There is, of course, no truth to the premises of the Rousseauian worship of the primitive. Native cultures are not the environmentally conscious societies they’re portrayed as but are often astonishingly wasteful and unsanitary. So-called natural man does not live in harmony with nature but in constant warfare against it—and suffers anxiety as an almost constant state. He faces a daily struggle for subsistence. His life is at the mercy of the weather, of his religion, and of wild animals, who—contrary to Rousseau—do indeed attack humans. As for primitive man’s treatment of women—it is almost uniformly brutal. From the Cherokee of 19th-century Georgia to the Yanomamö people of the Amazon rainforest today, women in primitive societies are treated as beasts of burden and breeding stock. As far as cultural relativism is concerned, it is interesting, is it not, that cultural relativism is only a phenomenon of Western intellectuals. Cultural relativism is not found in indigenous cultures elsewhere in the world.
Edmund Burke’s Mystique
Turning to what I’ve called the “conservative” Romantics, they share with the Rousseauians the belief that human reason has alienated us from the authentic order of the universe. But in their case, that authentic order is the hierarchical structure of society. This structure reveals the divine will through the ineffable workings of cultural traditions; the divine right of the king (or, nowadays, the divine right of your local community) exists to bring order to the chaotic world of natural man. Reverence for tradition is the critical social value, and science and reason are to be despised for upsetting these long-standing habits. And habit is the word for it. These reactionaries believe that reasoned deliberation about justice, for one, is dangerously corrosive to society.
A good example of this kind of thinking is the 20th-century Romantic D. H. Lawrence.46 In his 1923 book Studies in Classical American Literature, Lawrence described a scene in Richard Henry Dana’s memoir, Two Years Before the Mast, in which Dana wrote about witnessing a sailor being brutally flogged by his ship’s half-mad captain. Dana bemoaned the brutality and injustice of the punishment. But Lawrence thought Dana had it backwards. “It is good for Sam to be flogged,” wrote Lawrence.
It was a passional justice. . . . Mechanical justice even is a foul thing. For true justice makes the heart’s fibres quiver. You can’t be cold in a matter of real justice . . . Sam got no more than he asked for. It was a natural event. . . . The sailors understood spontaneous passional morality, not the artificial ethical.47
“Artificial ethical” is a good phrase—it precisely expresses what the Romantics believed—that rational concepts of justice are paltry and inauthentic, whereas “passional morality” is the genuine article, precisely because it is not rational but arises from the gut or from social traditions.
This strain of hostility to the Enlightenment is rooted in the writings of the British politician Edmund Burke, whose famous book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, was published a century before Lawrence was born. In his book, Burke lamented that the Enlightenment had destroyed “the age of chivalry” and replaced it with an era “of sophisters, economists, and calculators. . . . Never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.”48
Burke’s euphemisms are important here. By focusing all of his poetic, blurry-eyed sentimentality on such phrases as “the age of chivalry,” and disregarding the harsh, material reality of the oppression, ignorance, and misery, of which the pre-Enlightenment world consisted, Burke was playing a trick on his readers. And I mean “trick” quite literally.
There is one particularly revealing phrase in this passage from Burke: “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded.” Note the word “economists.” At the time Burke wrote this, the science of economics—what was then called “political economy”—was a new idea. This idea—represented most famously in the writings of Adam Smith—was that economic and political institutions could be understood, not in terms of mysterious, indefinable, emotionalistic notions such as “chivalry,” but in precise and rational terms such as contract, rights, property, supply and demand, efficiency—and these things could even be measured. Sophisters, economists, and calculators are people who view politics, morality, or other aspects of life in humanist terms and seek to analyze and understand them as rational, comprehensible values. To view government as an institution that serves human needs, rather than as a mysterious, divinely proclaimed order, hovering in the mist of such vague conceptions as chivalry, was an immense innovation—and that is what Burke was denouncing. By lauding the age of chivalry and denouncing sophisters, economists, and calculators, Burke essentially was arguing that government is like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and that people such as Smith or Paine were ruining the effect by pointing out that it’s a trick. In Burke’s eyes, the magician’s hocus-pocus was just what government is, and to point that out, or to try to explain to the audience what the magician was really doing—was a threat to the “passional morality” and the mystique of the age of chivalry.
Burke was quite candid about this. He was opposed to what he called the “empire of light and reason,” because it would “rudely [tear] off” “all the decent drapery of life . . . furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination . . . to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature.”49 Or, less euphemistically, Burke believed that government consists of power and subordination that must be disguised pleasantly with “drapery.”
Burke admitted that the chivalry he was celebrating was a “pleasing illusion,” but he believed it worth preserving because it had, “without confounding ranks . . . produced a noble equality and handed it down through all the gradations of social life.”50 Note the term “noble” here—not actual equality, but “noble” equality, which did not eliminate the “gradations of social life.” In other words, every person in this feudalistic society of chivalry knew his place and didn’t seek to escape it. This is what Burke meant when he celebrated the “proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart” and that “servitude” that somehow embodied “the spirit of an exalted freedom.”51 Read that sentence in the voice of a 19th-century southern slave master, and its barbaric and cruel essence becomes clear.
Today’s followers of Burke still oppose the Enlightenment legacy for the same reason: because it focuses not on the preservation of social order, but on such vulgar considerations as the amelioration of human suffering, ignorance, and risk and the promotion of enjoyment. Consider, for example, one of the more prominent conservative enemies of the Enlightenment today, Sorhab Ahmari, who recently wrote in the religious journal First Things that the Enlightenment is responsible for “the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, community solidarity, and much else” and has led to “the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness.”52
Like Burke, Ahmari deploys these euphemisms carefully—after all, to the Burkeans, euphemisms are just what politics is all about. Let us rudely tear them away. When Ahmari writes of “permanent truths,” he does not mean the natural rights of mankind, let alone the economic forces of supply and demand or the scientific laws of biology. He means religious dogma, handed down by an established church.
When he speaks of “family stability,” he does not mean harmony attained by respecting and nourishing the value of every family member. He means the subordination of each one to unchosen obligations, the prohibition of the right to marry for large portions of our society, and opposition to the right of unhappy spouses to divorce and to value their own flourishing and happiness along with their family commitments.
When he speaks of “communal solidarity,” he means the right of the community to sacrifice the happiness and freedom of individuals within that community—to censor people; to dictate how they may use their property and which jobs they may take; to tell them which books they may read and which movies they may watch.
And when he denounces “the cult of competitiveness,” he means the right to excel, the right to aspire, the right to pursue happiness and achieve one’s dreams. He is mounting a direct attack on the value of enjoyment. When Ahmari denounces what he calls the “fetishizing of autonomy,” his meaning is unmistakable: individualism—the right of the individual to his own life—is his primary target.
Ahmari and his admirers pledge themselves to a society of—in Burke’s words—“submission,” “obedience,” “subordination,” and “servitude.” And they do so while wrapping themselves in the American flag.
This becomes obvious in another First Things article that Ahmari recently praised, in which the author, Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez, speaks—believe it or not—of “recovering the Hispano-Catholic Founding of America, which . . . enjoyed a much wider geographic sphere and cultural span than did the second, Anglo Founding.”53
Now, think about that sentence for a moment. When the author speaks of the “wider geographic sphere” of this so-called Hispano-Catholic Founding, he’s referring to the colonization and enslavement of the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores in the 15th and 16th centuries. Have the nations of Central and South America benefited as much from that founding as we in the United States have from ours? Is the political culture of Catholic Central America as prosperous, safe, and free as ours? The answer, of course, is no: The Hispano-Catholic founding was rooted not in peace, freedom, commerce, opportunity, and the enjoyment of human happiness, but in exploitation and subordination of human beings for the alleged glory of God.
America’s founding fathers were quite open in their hostility to that form of Catholicism, which they rightly saw as profoundly cruel, corrupt, and inhuman. Yet Gomez, amazingly enough, writes that the true founding of America came not on July 4, 1776, when America’s founders pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, to conceive a nation in liberty, and the right to pursue happiness—no, it came on December 9, 1531, when a peasant in Mexico had a supernatural vision of the Virgin Mary at Guadalupe.
I kid you not. He writes,
Guadalupe is the true “founding event” in American history. We are all children of Guadalupe and Guadalupe gives us the true history of America. In God’s plan, this hemisphere was chosen as the site for the building of a new . . . world of faith. . . . The way forward for our Church and our country is a return to Guadalupe.54
One might expect to find such nonsense written on an anonymous MySpace page by a bearded fanatic in a shack in the woods, but no—this was published by the prominent conservative journal First Things, as something to be taken seriously. Still, let us give these writers this much credit, at least: They are not lukewarm. Ahmari and Gomez openly admit the conflict: On one hand, the freest, happiest, wealthiest civilization ever built—one that welcomes people of all races and all backgrounds, one constructed on universal human values of reason, individualism, objectivity, and freedom—and, on the other hand, the dreary tyrannical poverty, ignorance, and slavery of the 15th-century Catholic New World colonies. The choice is reason and flourishing on one hand, or mysticism and subordination on the other.
Enlightenment and Life
Which should we choose? This audience knows well enough. The Enlightenment culture is the culture of life. Its values of autonomy, universalism, curiosity, humanism—that is, of reason—are what has lengthened, enriched, and even created life in ways unheard of in all the aeons of human existence before the Enlightenment. Those who would romanticize the anti-Enlightenment cultures from which Deborah Feldman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Yeonmi Park fled, on the grounds that they give people a sense of tradition, community, and belonging—or shields them from the “cult of competitiveness”—are celebrating something deeply inhuman.
Having said this, there is something worth admiring in Romanticism—specifically, its art. Much of the art and literature of that era is moving and beautiful, thanks largely to the Romantics’ fascination with a kind of individualism. In fact, Ayn Rand called herself a Romanticist in her aesthetics. But Objectivism is unique in subordinating the passions of the Romantics to the supremacy of reason that was characteristic of the Enlightenment. This is something Rand’s critics often overlook. In her essay “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” she made it clear: “To rebel against the metaphysically given [as Romanticism does],” she wrote, “is to engage in a futile attempt to negate existence.” On the other hand, “to accept the man-made as beyond challenge is to . . . negate one’s own consciousness. Serenity comes from the ability to say ‘Yes’ to existence.”55
That last sentence is particularly keen. Serenity is a quintessential Enlightenment value—it is the type of enjoyment the Enlightenment philosophers pursued. But the phrase “say ‘yes’ to existence” is a literal translation of the phrase “jasagen,” or “yes-saying,” which Friedrich Nietzsche used to refer to the fundamentally Romanticist embrace of life.56 By combining these two things—affirmation and existence, rationally understood—in a single sentence, Rand is celebrating the reason of the Enlightenment with the passion of Romanticism—which is virtually unique in the philosophical world. Where the Enlightenment celebrated self-control and the Romanticist celebrated self-expression, Rand held that self-control is a form—indeed, the only genuine form—of self-expression.57
I submit that a vision of this kind is what motivated the heroines with whom I began this essay. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Yeonmi Park, and Deborah Feldman decided that they were not on the path that they knew was right—when they sought the opportunity to apply their own minds to the problem of living, to pursue happiness and realize their talents and virtues, they devoted themselves to that vision as much as any hero of romantic literature—but their goal was not the mindless primitive impulses of Romantic philosophers. It was a rational vision of the free and self-disciplined mind. They did indeed disrupt the “family stability” and “communal solidarity” that had been foisted upon them. They did indeed seek to “rudely [tear] off” the “drapery of life” in which they had been smothered. They sought a world devoted to individualism, objectivity, either/or thinking, and the written word. They sought a world of autonomy, universality, and the human end purpose of their acts. They did it to seek their rational happiness as free and independent beings, because they know that their lives and their minds are their own, and that the enjoyment of their own lives is a value to be nurtured and celebrated. They are better for it—and so are all of us.
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1. Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 111.
2. Feldman, Unorthodox, 111.
3. Yeonmi Park, In Order to Live (New York: Penguin, 2015), 46–47.
4. Park, In Order to Live, 216.
5. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel (New York: Free Press, 2007), 238–39.
6. A similar story is told by Tara Westover in her recent best-selling memoir, Educated (New York: Random House, 2018). Raised in an abusive family of religious fundamentalists in rural Idaho, Westover was given only sporadic schooling but chose to study on her own to take the admissions test to attend Brigham Young University. She graduated in 2008 and ultimately earned a PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 2014.
7. I mean this literally. Efforts to compare wealth across historical periods—say, to claim that £100 in 1750 is the equivalent of $100,000 today—are untenable and misleading. No amount of money in 1750 would have purchased an iPhone or a car, meaning that the poorest people today are, in almost any meaningful sense, richer than the wealthiest people of two centuries ago. Therefore, it is literally impossible to measure the increase in wealth over that period. See Don Boudreaux, “You Are Richer Than John D. Rockefeller,” Foundation for Economic Education, April 22, 2017, https://fee.org/articles/you-are-richer-than-john-d-rockefeller/.
8. Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Penguin, 2018), 55.
9. Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 59 (emphasis added).
10. Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 87.
11. Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 254.
12. Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 238.
13. Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 240–43.
14. Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 271.
15. Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, vol. 1 (New York: Norton, 1966), 3; David Beeson and Nicholas Cronk, “Voltaire: Philosopher or Philosophe?,” 62, in Nicholas Cronk, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Voltaire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
16. Tvetzan Todorov, In Defence of the Enlightenment (New York: Atlantic Books, 2009), 5.
17. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man and Other Poems (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994), 79.
18. Locke concludes, “and by the comfortable hopes of another life when this is ended.” Locke was certainly a religious man. But this does not contradict the fact that for Locke, being “happy in this world” is “the business of men,” because he goes on to say that the only things we need “for the attainment of those ends”—that is, happiness on earth and the comfortable hopes of an afterlife—are “the management of our own actions, as far as they depend on our will.” It is “agreeable to [God’s] goodness, and to our condition, that we should be able to apply [reason and skill] to our use . . . as to be able to make them subservient to the convenience of our life, as proper to fill our hearts with praise of his bounty.” Peter King, ed., The Life and Letters of John Locke (London: Henry Bohn, rev. ed. 1858), 90–91.
19. Will Durant, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1935), 60.
20. Washington quoted this passage many times in his writings and speeches. See, for example, John Rhodamel, ed., George Washington: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1997), 553, 685, 997.
21. Severin Valentinov Kitanov, Beatific Enjoyment in Medieval Scholastic Debates (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014), xv.
22. Charles Marrriott, The New Royal English Dictionary (London: Wenman, 1780), n.p.
23. These seven virtues correspond to the seven deadly sins of Christian tradition and date back to the Dark Ages. Isvan Pieter Bejczy, The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages (Boston: Brill, 2011). They combine the “classic cardinal virtues” of ancient Roman philosophy with the “three theological virtues” of Christian belief, and today they are part of the Catholic catechism.
24. Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography, Part Two, reprinted in J. A. Leo LeMay, ed., Benjamin Franklin: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1987), 1384–85.
25. In his list, Franklin wrote under “justice,” “wrong none, by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.” Franklin: Writings, 1385.
26. Myra Jehlen, Readings at the Edge of Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), describes Franklin’s phrase as “magnificently paradoxical” and explains that “Franklin’s concept of imitation . . . does not envisage submerging his own in God’s all-embracing Being,” but rather the opposite: “the investment and management of private selfhood in the rising market of a new nation.” See Jehlen, Readings at the Edge of Literature, 16.
27. Thomas Jefferson wrote a similar list. His ten rules of life were:
1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
3. Never spend your money before you have it.
4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
6. We never repent of having eaten too little.
7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened! (by which he meant, don’t worry about things).
9. Take things always by their smooth handle.
10. When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.
Letter to Thomas Jefferson Smith, February 21, 1825, in Merrill Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1499–1500. Note that once again, these rules focus entirely on how to live a happy and flourishing life, as opposed to obligations owed to society or the gods—and that they are virtues of reason, not of passion or feeling.
28. Franklin expressly rejected the idea that self-denial was the essence of virtue. Franklin: Writings, 242.
29. This is one reason why the voyages of exploration undertaken by James Cook, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and Meriwether Lewis and William Clark differ so markedly from the voyages of conquest undertaken by the conquistadores of the 15th and 16th centuries. Unlike the latter, the former aimed to learn about different cultures in an effort to understand the universal qualities of human nature. See Timothy Sandefur, “Captain Cook: Explorer of the Enlightenment,” The Objective Standard 12, no. 2 (Summer 2017).
30. Although today best known from the title of Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou drew the metaphor from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s haunting 1893 poem “Sympathy.”
31. The fundamental characteristic of Romantic philosophy was its prioritization of the will over reason. (Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999], 70, 108.) In Friedrich Nietzsche, it is the will of superlative individuals—a proposition Nietzsche based on the purportedly “aristocratic” virtues of pre-Christian civilization. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols §5, 473–79, in Walter Kaufmann, ed., The Portable Nietzsche [New York: Penguin, 1976].) In fact, Nietzsche’s denunciation of Socrates’s “dialectic” parallels Rousseau’s contention that language destroyed the utopian state of nature. (See Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols §7.) For expressly religious Romantics, the relevant will was the will of God—as understood through supernatural revelations or through supernatural rationales for observable phenomena. The prime example of this is the Holy Alliance in Europe or religious defenders of slavery in the United States. For collectivist-minded Romantics, the relevant will was the will of groups such as the volk, typically as manifested in, and articulated by, the leader. As Hannah Arendt put it, Romanticism’s “unlimited idolization of the ‘personality’ of the individual, whose very arbitrariness became the proof of genius”—that is, Romanticism’s prioritization of the will—made possible a “fundamental belief in personality as an ultimate aim in itself” and a belief in the idea that what made these special personalities possible was “the ‘innate personality’ . . . given by birth and not acquired by merit.” (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism [San Diego: Harcourt, rev. ed. 1976], 167–69.) This conception of authenticity as inherent and inherited—something that “could not be retraced to any human deed”—easily exploited the idea of biology and vague notions of ethnic tradition to give birth to the racist strain of Romanticism at the root of Nazism. It is this elevation of the will over reason that led Ayn Rand to characterize both Nietzsche and his religious enemies as essentially “mystics,” one “of muscle” and the other “of spirit” (For the New Intellectual [New York: Signet, 2009], 13–14).
32. Berlin, Romanticism, 58.
33. Johann Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, translated by R. F. Jones and G. H. Turnbill (Chicago: Open Court, 1922), 232.
34. Although in German, all nouns are capitalized, translators and commentators of Hegel traditionally capitalize these terms when rendering them into English to emphasize that Hegel is referring not merely to the passage of time or to groups of individuals, but to universal, even personified, forces. See Quentin Lauer, Hegel’s Idea of Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), 4 n. 2.
35. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality in Great Books of the Western World, translated by G. D. H. Cole (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), 339.
36. Rousseau, Discourse, 342.
37. Rousseau, Discourse, 342.
38. Rousseau, Discourse, 342.
39. Rousseau, Discourse, 342.
40. Rousseau held that primitive man is free of self-contradiction because he is “radically independent”—meaning that he acts based on his will, without the intercession of reason or worry about the future. See Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 282. As a result, Rousseau viewed civil society, which is premised precisely on such considerations, as “characterized by a fundamental self-contradiction.”
41. Stephen Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Roscoe, IL: Okham’s Razor Publishing, expanded ed., 2011); Stephen Eric Bronner, “The Great Divide: The Enlightenment and its Critics,” New Politics 19, no. 3 (1995): 65–86.
42. Gary Harrison, “Romanticism, Nature, Ecology,” Romantic Circles (2006), https://romantic-circles.org/pedagogies/commons/ecology/harrison/harrison.html; Kenneth William Singer, “Rousseau and Modern Environmentalism,” MA thesis, 1991, https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0100761.
43. The Rolling Stones, “Already Over Me” (1997).
44. Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, eds., The Flight from Science and Reason (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1999).
45. Susan Edelman et al., “Richard Carranza Held ‘White Supremacy Culture’ Training for School Admins,” New York Post, May 20, 2019, https://nypost.com/2019/05/20/richard-carranza-held-doe-white-supremacy-culture-training/.
46. One excellent analysis of Lawrence’s anti-Enlightenment views is John R. Harrison, The Reactionaries (New York: Schocken, 1967), ch. 5. Harrison notes that Bertrand Russell “said that Lawrence had developed the whole philosophy of fascism before the politicians had thought of it” (189) and demonstrates how accurate Russell’s detection was.
47. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Viking, 1961), 118–19. I draw this example from C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Industrial Revolution, edited by Stefan Collini (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 87–88.
48. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1969), 170.
49. Burke, Reflections, 171.
50. Burke, Reflections, 170.
51. Burke, Reflections, 170.
52. Sohrab Ahmari, “Against the Dead Consensus,” First Things, March 21, 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/03/against-the-dead-consensus. The article appears as a manifesto signed by multiple writers, but Ahmari has acknowledged his authorship. See Sohrab Amari, “Against David French-ism,” First Things, May 29, 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/05/against-david-french-ism.
53. Jose Gomez, “Mary, Foundress of America,” First Things, August 29, 2017, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/08/mary-foundress-of-america.
54. Gomez, “Mary, Foundress of America.”
55. Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), 27.
56. Samuel Ijesseling, “Nietzsche’s Yes and Amen,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 22 (Fall 2001): 36–43.
57. As mentioned in note 33, Rand saw Nietzsche’s “subordinat[ion of] reason to ‘will’” as the fundamentally Romantic element of his thought and the essential quality that distinguished her views from his. See Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Penguin, 1943), xii. See also John Ridpath, “Ayn Rand Contra Nietzsche,” The Objective Standard 12, no. 1 (Spring 2017).