The Enlightenment had a good run

An angry mob holding torches in a still from the 1931 film “Frankenstein,” directed by James Whale. – getty images

Democracy is in retreat around the world. From Poland and Turkey to Russia and the United States, voters have placed their faith in authoritarian leaders. This should not be surprising. In fact, it is remarkable that the democratic ideal survived so long. Three centuries ago, philosophers of the Enlightenment began telling us that reason is more important than tradition, and that people should shape their own lives rather than submitting to leaders. That was an audacious rebellion against all of previous human history. For a time it seemed to be succeeding.

Today’s cry of protest, though, is a rejection of the Enlightenment. Voters are making clear that they want to be ruled with a strong hand, not rule themselves.

With its emphasis on science, the Enlightenment reshaped the world. Modern prosperity is its legacy — but so is the social upheaval that made prosperity possible. Humanity’s immense material progress has not been matched by moral or political progress. Instead, leadership failures have set off explosions of frustration and discord. Even the two countries where the Enlightenment was born, Britain and France, are being shaken by reactionary movements that reject Enlightenment ideals.

From the dawn of humanity until the 18th century, most people were governed by a simple contract: You obey me, and in return I protect and feed you. Enlightenment philosophers rebelled against this traditional order. They proclaimed that each person has an equal right to shape society. Their message was: Defy tradition and convention! Science and reason are the only truths, so think for yourself! All opinions are equally valid! Submit to no authority other than your own conscience!

When future historians look back over our age, they may wonder what led humanity to take such a daring plunge. Why did we discard authoritarianism, by which the world had been ruled for millennia, and embrace the wild idea of democratic self-rule? Those historians may report that much of humanity corrected course during the 21st century and returned to the time-tested strongman principle.

Modern ideas of freedom are based on the principle that the individual is more important than society. That reflects Western values, but it conflicts violently with what most people in the world have believed since time immemorial. Fine-sounding concepts like democracy and human rights have become cudgels that Western countries use to beat their challengers. The cosmopolitanism that is central to Enlightenment ideals has produced results that disturb people in many societies. This leads them back toward the ruling system that primates instinctively prefer: A strong chief protects the tribe, and in return tribe members do the chief’s bidding.

Most people want to belong to groups. Strong leaders strengthen group identity. Submission gives people a clear place in a hierarchy, while disorder and free will make them anxious and uncertain. “Take but degree away,” Shakespeare warned, “and hark what discord follows.”

Our experiment with individual whim as a basis for government is faltering. Popular democracy will survive, but in many places it will fall under the control of greedy elites and cease to be truly popular — as is happening in the United States. Voters cannot help seeing the corruption of their political systems. They express their anger by turning to demagogues who promise a return to the traditional structures that for centuries gave society a predictable order.

Enlightenment ideals are posited as universal, but in fact the impulse to individualism varies enormously across cultures. So does the value placed on reason. In the West it is supreme, but reason offers little basis for morality, rejects spiritual power, and negates the importance of emotion, art and creativity. When reason is cold and inhumane, it can cut people off from deeply imbedded structures that give meaning to life. That makes them angry. Their anger, as we now see, has political results. They are demanding a new kind of leadership, which is actually the old kind: autocratic, atavistic, and unbound by strictures of prudence, truth, or reason. People are concluding that, as the Enlightenment-era skeptic Edmund Burke put it, “prejudice” is preferable to “naked reason” because traditional ways have “latent wisdom.”

Western projects that place reason ahead of tradition have cut huge numbers of people loose from their social and cultural moorings. Promoters of those projects were liberators who set out to rid the world of oppressive dogma. In the process, though, they turned reason itself into dogma. That led Westerners to consider ourselves superior to people in other countries. We set out to remake them in our image, using violence when necessary.

Today’s global revolt against this arrogance should not be surprising. Enlightenment ideals brought the world much light and wisdom, but they also set off a backlash. It will shape our future. Rationalists and democrats beware.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, and author of the forthcoming book “The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.” Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

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