Turner and Patterson: Reclaiming the Enlightenment

Frederick Turner: The issue that I’d like us to address is this. As Bill says, the Enlightenment classical liberal position, despite Reagan and Thatcher, has become a minority view in our culture–even an amusing eccentricity for the popular press when it features the Libertarian party and Ron Paul. Bill also points out that those ideas need to be kept alive until the present nanny state has bankrupted itself.

The big mistake that classical liberalism made, however, was to abandon the realm of culture–the arts and literature–to the various apostles of Blut und Boden, heroic class struggle, “caring” statism with its Arts Councils, and the special interests of sexual, ethnic, religious, regional, and lifestyle minorities–all of whom regarded rational debate, markets, the ethics of civility and respect, and individualism as the enemy. The Republic of Letters fell because it came to ignore the arts and literature, which were immediately claimed by Nazi, communist, fascist, and socialist forms of modernism and postmodernism.

The challenge now is to recover a robust realm of art and literature that recognizes the deep beauty of human liberty, rationality, and enterprise (science fiction is a promising holdout in this respect).

There is very little patronage–in the form of endowed prizes, periodicals, educational institutions, museums, presses, commissions, etc–for arts that flout the anti-Enlightenment consensus. Beauty has been saddled with the label of kitsch. If our novels, poems, movies, paintings, plays and architecture all implicitly tell us to pay more taxes to support “fairness” and “progressive” social activism instead of creating the wealth and technology that will open up everybody’s future, that’s what we are going to get.

William H. Patterson, Jr.: Quite agree with Fred’s sentiments here. When lit’ry people let down their hair at conferences, one of the big laments is how big a gap has opened up between what for want of a better term we shall call “theory” and “practice.” Deep in their cups (tea, presumably), these academics will sometimes go so far as to admit that there is actually very little connect between the academy and the intellectual life of the nation, and that academic life is more pragmatically viewed as a gigantic job fair, with placement and advancement the prime considerations as to what may and may not be said.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • William H. Patterson, Jr. reflects on the origins of liberty, commerce, and literature as we have come to understand them today. He finds that all three have a common root in the European Enlightenment. History, however, often comes in cycles or waves, and the fortunes of all three have risen and fallen over time. He expresses the hope that each of the three “at-risk children of the Enlightenment” will flourish in the coming decades.

  • 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.

  • 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.