Leading an Enlightenment Life in an Anti-Enlightenment World - The Objective Standard

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. . . .


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).

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