Did the Enlightenment fail?

  • Themes: Books, Enlightenment, History

The Enlightenment was born out of the bloody conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries and dedicated to tolerance and moderation. The violence of the French Revolution appeared to mark its failure.

The Festival of the Supreme Being at the Field of Mars, 8 June 1794, 1794.
The Festival of the Supreme Being at the Field of Mars, 8 June 1794. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The End of Enlightenment: Empire, Commerce, Crisis, Richard Whatmore, Allen Lane, £30 

Surveying the state of philosophical inquiry in the second half of the 19th century in Human, All Too Human (1878), Friedrich Nietzsche concluded that it ‘was not Voltaire’s moderate nature, inclined towards regulating, purifying, and reconstructing, but Rousseau’s passionate follies and half lies that aroused the optimistic spirit of the Revolution’. And, he continued, it was down to the ascendancy of revolution over philosophy that ‘the Spirit of enlightenment and progressive development has been long scared away’.

Nietzsche’s characteristically enigmatic remarks have confused historians and philosophers alike, who tend to regard the Enlightenment and the Revolution as manifestations of the same story of philosophical and political progress that gave rise to the modern world. Not so, argues Richard Whatmore in his gripping new book The End of Enlightenment. Instead, Whatmore argues, many of the thinkers we associate with ‘the Enlightenment’ today saw the French Revolution as the nightmarish conclusion of the century-long breakdown of an enlightened social order, and a return to the fanaticism, enthusiasm, and violence of the wars of religion in the 17th century.

Contrary to the popular understanding of the Enlightenment as a primarily French movement dedicated to the achievement of democracy, liberalism, and the rule of reason, Whatmore’s Enlightenment was a way of thinking born out of the bloody conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries, dedicated to toleration, free commerce, international peace, and political moderation. In Whatmore’s telling this movement was led, above all, by thinkers such as Hume and Montesquieu, who preached moderation at home and restraint abroad.

These thinkers were broadly sympathetic to ‘governments of laws’ of all kinds, including both traditional republics and constitutional monarchies, and opposed to ‘the government of men’, whether it took the form of tumultuous democracy or unrestrained despotism. On the international stage, they hoped to reshape politics around ‘fundamental principles of law, commerce, morality, and politics sufficiently comprehensive to embrace all states’, as Whatmore puts it.

The End of Enlightenment  tells the story of how this vision of a pacified, cosmopolitan, and tolerant world came to an end in the final decades of the 18th century, and the various strategies devised by leading Enlightenment thinkers to arrest or even prevent decline. To do so, the book offers a survey of leading 18th-century philosophers, politicians, and pamphleteers, centred on two groups of thinkers. The first, comprising Hume, William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (prime minister from July 1782 to March 1783), Edward Gibbon, and later Edmund Burke, sought to save the Enlightenment through the creation of moderate governments closed off to popular politics, fanaticism, and utopian schemes for systematic political and social reform. The second comprised Catherine Macaulay, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft, who put their faith in the possibility of restoring Enlightenment via revolutionary transformation.

Although these two groups differed in their strategies for saving or restoring Enlightenment, they agreed that the latter half of the 18th century had seen the eclipse of the values they held dear, principally at the hands of a rising fanaticism oriented towards the pursuit of commerce and wealth. Just as the religious fanatics of earlier centuries had turned to war, intolerance, and murder in service of the faith, so, too, did modern peoples wage wars of conquest and build empires in pursuit of money and trade. This, these thinkers all believed, was particularly the case in Great Britain, whose balanced constitutional monarchy was collapsing into a populist, xenophobic, despotism in the pursuit of empire.

A politics oriented towards the preservation of peace and moderation had, they argued, given way to the brutal logic of international realpolitik as the states of Europe converged around a style of politics based on sustaining the fiscal-military state and acquiring closed markets. From the first Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54) onwards, Europe had slowly been consumed by wars inspired by the ‘jealousy of trade’, a term made famous by Hume in the 18th century. Now ‘addicted’ to commerce and empire, Hume and those who followed him believed that Europe, especially Britain, was racing towards ruin.

Yet these thinkers differed about what it would mean to prevent this downward spiral and ‘save’ the Enlightenment. For Hume, and later for Shelburne and his circle, the only solution was a process of moderate reform, which could undo the ‘mercantile’ commercial systems that were promoting war and xenophobia and prevent a return to a world of ‘barbarism and religion’, to use Gibbon’s phrase. In such a political settlement, there was no place for the people. The ‘inundation of the rabble’, Hume wrote, had upset the fragile equilibrium which underscored the moderate political culture that had once assured Britain’s liberty and brought to power demagogues such as Chatham and John Wilkes. For Burke, writing a generation later, such insights had only been confirmed by the excesses of the French Revolution as it descended into violence, terror, and the pursuit of empire.

To counteract a descent into demagogic populism, Hume and Shelburne even contemplated the possibility of royal, aristocratic, or military coups to prevent democracy from destroying liberty. By the end of his life, Burke had reached an even more apocalyptic conclusion: only a brutal struggle unto death between Britain and France could save the Enlightenment from an excess of liberty. The defenders of moderation, tolerance, and peace had become fanatics of Enlightenment.

For Macaulay, Brissot, Paine, and Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, popular politics and revolutionary violence were precisely the means to restore enlightened values. Drawing on the ‘Commonwealth Republican’ tradition, which grew out of the experience of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, they believed that ‘the people at arms’ could restore virtue and govern themselves freely, revivifying the liberties crushed by the rise of commercial society. Putting their faith in the American and later French revolutions, they believed that the radiant dawn of Enlightenment would follow the dark night of late 18th-century imperialism.

They too were disappointed. Macaulay died believing the French Revolution had failed and was turning against her principles; Brissot was sent to the guillotine; and Paine came to believe that both the American and French republics had descended into terror. Even Wollstonecraft, who died believing that a ‘revolution in manners’ could still inaugurate the final emancipation of humanity, was convinced that the French Revolution had descended too far into violence and despotism to be the vehicle for that transformation.

By the turn of the century, the French Republic, the last gasp of the Enlightenment, had transformed into the very bellicose imperial project it had been designed to counter, exacerbating all of Britain’s worst tendencies in the process. The Enlightenment, in other words, had not only ended, but failed.

Today, we tend to see the Enlightenment as the birth of our world, but, as Whatmore concludes his book by arguing, this would have been quite an unusual claim to many of those philosophers who advanced the cause of Enlightenment in the first place. Despite the ubiquity of appeals to ‘the Enlightenment’ in our political discourse, what it was remains elusive. The End of Enlightenment  offers a partial answer to this long and storied question, first asked by Immanuel Kant in his 1784 essay ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’. Partly drawing on the work of the late J.G.A. Pocock – to whom the book is dedicated – Whatmore reframes the Enlightenment as a project for political moderation opposed  to popular government, excessive appeal to abstract reason in politics, and to the dominion of ‘systems’ over human action.

By looking at what the Enlightenment was not, and by exposing how some of its major proponents reacted to the birth of our world of large, commercial, and militarised states, Whatmore poses an arresting provocation: what if our world is not Enlightened at all, but a product of the Enlightenment’s failure?


Angus Brown