At the Libre Pensée

Just one more thing. The first three paragraphs of this review of biographies of Rousseau and Voltaire in the Nation. They’re good.

After all, the great battles of the Enlightenment had burned out long before. Religious intolerance and fanaticism were no longer matters of major concern. Indeed, for many of my French fellow students, the great enemy was the Enlightenment itself. Every week they would cram into a crowded lecture hall at the Collège de France to hear Michel Foucault, then in the last year of his life, explain how the eighteenth century saw the imprisoning of the Western world in a straitjacket of mental discipline. They struggled to grasp the quicksilver sentences in which Jacques Derrida deconstructed the criteria of rationality and truth that eighteenth-century philosophy had taken as axiomatic. They spoke derisively of an Enlightenment that had culminated not in modern democracy but in Auschwitz.

Yes and I kept asking plaintively ‘So what would you like instead? What do you want instead of the Enlightenment? What do you propose to use instead of rationality and truth?’ And by gum – you’ll be amazed to hear this – answer came there none. So I sat down and folded my hands and waited patiently for B&W to come into existence.

Today, things look rather different. Pace Foucault, enlightened psychiatrists and prison reformers do not seem particularly dangerous compared with suicide bombers and book burners. In the twenty-first century the Enlightenment appears anything but the triumphant imperial “project” denounced by vulgar postmodernists. Its heritage is fragile and endangered. Admittedly, its works remain in the “canon”–but perhaps only because they go largely unread in certain quarters. I sometimes wonder what would happen if, for instance, a public university system asked all entering students to read Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, with its deep, deliberate offensiveness toward Christianity.

No need to wonder – the merde would hit the fan, that’s what.

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