Three At-Risk Children of the Enlightenment

Liberty, commerce, and literature do have at least one thing in common — as we now think of these very different subjects, they are all products of the Enlightenment. This is not so surprising, given that so much else in our culture is a product of the Enlightenment.

Liberty is obvious. Our ongoing preoccupation and continuous engagement with liberalism — however the concept may have mutated and modified over the centuries — reflects that the word originally meant the concern for liberty. The liberalism we now call “classical liberalism” was the philosophy of liberty, and that is the bedrock foundation upon which we shift so uncomfortably nowadays. Because it is bedrock, however, it is too often buried, and for that reason the modern concern with liberty has had to take another name, libertarian.

The Enlightenment conception of liberty was less Romantic-individualist than we are accustomed to thinking of it now. The Encyclopedists and the gentlemen (for the most part) of the English and the Scottish and the American Enlightenment essentially invented the notion of individualism that was later nuanced so excruciatingly by the romantic stories of exemplary sufferers that run from Young Werther to Mimi and Rodolfo. Not that these stories stopped appearing in 1890, but the trope had less originality in the twentieth century, which tended toward imitation of a story too good to pass up and good enough for one more retelling. But in the eighteenth century, the gentlefolk of the Enlightenment took their individualism hot from the press, and they did so within the context of another new-old idea — that of “the public.”

Of course, to them “the public” meant that group of the educated and the informed who made up a tranche across classes and even across cultures sometimes. Their idea of the public was more like the Junto study groups Benjamin Franklin put together among his fellow artisans and tradesmen than like the salon society of European aristocrats—in other words, the enemy. It was not comprehensive and all-inclusive; nor was it supposed to be. But it was an idea that informed the century or so of reading and discussion that gave rise to classical liberalism. The struggle against the aristocracies of Europe, whether aristocracies of war or aristocracies of church, were struggles to end the dominance of class granfalloons. Keep that in mind whenever you think of Thomas Jefferson’s letter about the “natural aristocracy,” that of talent.

These mostly men of the new public read their Addison and their Steele and their Swift in The Tattler and in the other newspapers of the new literature and the new opinion at the new coffee houses that were even then birthing insurance companies and stock exchanges. They were engendering commerce in the new mode that was being brought into existence even as the old world tore itself apart in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). The arts reflected— as they always do—the new mode of public life. You can still listen to J.S. Bach’s celebration of the coffee houses of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century in his Coffee Cantata or his secular motet about the comforts of his tobacco-pipe. Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson recently finished a monumental trilogy called The Baroque Cycle that is concerned with all the coming together of liberty and science and commerce in the context of this old-world-passing-away (The first half of the first book, The Confusion is a gargantuan retelling of Voltaire’s tiny wisp of a satire, Candide).

For science was an essential part of the mix, too. Like liberty and commerce (and even literature), science is also a product of the Enlightenment. We can even assign it a definite birth date to modern science: November 28, 1660 (Happy 402nd this fall!), the date on which the Royal Society was founded. These founders pledged to follow the philosophy of Francis Bacon and value only the result of experiment — which set them apart from the Churchmen’s theory-ridden natural philosophy. In John Locke’s hands, Bacon’s experimentalism became Empiricism — and the Enlightenment was under way.

Rationalism was also a hallmark of the Enlightenment, and it really became possible when Bacon’s ideas became prominent. The great social movement that preceded the Enlightenment was the reforming of religion from Medieval Catholicism. Purifying the church had an associated sense of self: the Puritan was personally charged with bringing about God’s will. The artisans and merchants of the new world were doing God’s work in the holy mission of commerce, and continued to do God’s work the next century with tobacco and coffee (and chocolate) in hand. It is a commonplace of American political theory that our individualism comes out of the Puritan tradition — but it is Puritanism put through a refiner’s fire, with all the godly dross burned away. The Puritan stands as God’s hand on Earth; the Enlightenment philosophe stands as his own value.

And these elevated individuals were interested in their own origins and status. The new individualism brought into existence a new literary genre, the novel, which went hand in hand with the romance through the nineteenth century. The romance, which gave its name to the entire period — the Romantic era — is a literary form about social standing, concerned with loss of status and the formation of societies; the novel is a literary form about the formation of an individual mind.

The distinction we now think important between High literature and Pop literature is a very recent evolution, dating from the end of the nineteenth century, when improved printing technology, high-speed presses, fast inks, and the invention of cheap, wood-pulp paper broadened out the definition of “the public.” But literature as a concept did not exist in the modern sense — that is, as a branch of language art distinct from useful or purely utilitarian writing — before about 1795.

The Enlightenment was a powerful and glorious new form of culture, transforming post-Medieval traditions in unexpected ways. Along the way it took in Romantic individualism, unleashing artistic and economic powers that were unprecedented. The slave trade, and then slavery itself, was banished from the west and doors opened on possibilities that were dazzling for these creatures of Prometheus.

But anything that grows also dies; for every Goethe there is a Dickens, pointing to the hard fact that so much of Victorian prosperity is grounded in the suffering of children. The Enlightenment achieved a kind of perfection of the human spirit — But of course, evolution does not stop there; perfection is never good enough. The very coherence of the Enlightenment sensibility shaped the coherence of its dialectical challenge. In fact, the dialectic was defined by Hegel for just that reason: the individualist thesis of the Enlightenment calls its antithesis into existence and shapes the form it takes. In place of the rational individual came the worship of the blood, with the state as the form of the Hegelian world-spirit. The mad rationalism of the Directoire was answered first by Empire and then by the failed democratic revolutions of 1848. The Romantic era wound down a hundred years later in the disillusionment and spiritual paralysis of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” – which itself was dialectically answered by the Führerprinzip — and by a living dialectical as the disillusioned exile Karl Marx sat down in the Reading Room of the British Library.”

We live in another end period now: the old world is visibly, palpably, passing away. The Enlightenment has been set aside in this country; it just does not cooperate too well with the nanny state, with the imperial presidency or with neocon globalist agendas. The drive to roll back the Enlightenment entirely kicked into high gear on September 12, 2001 — and it continues to accelerate.

And what comes next?

If the lessons of history mean anything at all, the next wave will be a dialectical reaction against the deadening hand of neocon globalism and the nanny state. Of some kind.

But it may not be a recreation of the best years of the Enlightenment. Too much blood has spilled on both sides of the great cultural divide. But for the civil values of the Enlightenment to shape the nouvelle vague, they must be there, and prominent in the public debate.

Yes, in an era more polarized, more ox-goring uncivil, than anything in the last hundred years or more, it is precisely literature, liberty, and commerce that must come to the fore; we must repatriate these lost and at-risk children of the Enlightenment. Do it “for the children.”

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Bonfire of the Clichés by Sarah Skwire

    Literary scholar Sarah Skwire asks us to revisit the western canon’s portrayal of business and commerce. Mainstream scholars and libertarians both seem to agree that the “great books” portray business in a uniformly negative light, but Skwire finds the evidence for this contention to be thin. She proposes a much more nuanced view, in which critiques of the market stand side by side with favorable depictions and even sound, encouraging advice for would-be businessmen. It’s time to get beyond the clichés about literature and commerce.

Response Essays

  • The Economics of Shakespeare… and His Critics by Frederick Turner

    Frederick Turner offers a structural explanation for why literary scholars have been so eager to supply anti-commercial readings to the western canon. Literary criticism began among gentlemen; it then passed to the anti-commercial meritocracy of the universities. But alternate readings exist, and Turner even offers a startlingly pro-commerical reading of The Merchant of Venice.

  • Stranger in a Familiar Land by Amy H. Sturgis

    Amy H. Sturgis argues that much of the apparent anti-market bias in literature stems from elitism. By excluding genre fiction, mainstream literary critics also exclude many thoughtful and provocative treatments of markets and their place in political economy. Often the excluded works are highly sympathetic to libertarian ideals. Fiction shapes public opinion, including public opinion about markets, and popular fiction by definition reaches more than any other kind.

The Conversation