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Dan Edelstein on the Enlightenment

Dan Edelstein joined the Stanford French & Italian Department in July 2004. He received his Ph.D. in May 2004 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he wrote a dissertation on mythology and mythography in the French Enlightenment and their role during the French Revolution (“Restoring the Golden Age: Myths in Revolutionary Culture and Ideology”). His […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
And we're coming to you live from the Stanford campus.
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Is everybody entitled to an opinion?
I wonder about that.
Is everybody entitled to an opinion?
It all depends on where you are and whom you ask.
All I know is that on this show everyone is entitled to my opinions
and to the opinions of my guests.
We're not bashful here.
We're not miserly.
We're in fact exceedingly generous when it comes to dispensing our opinions.
We're here to instruct and delight and to talk about literature, life, and the history of ideas.
So as everybody in, as everybody in, this symposium is about to begin.
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That's a question you can't even ask in some places.
Is everyone entitled to an opinion?
Try expressing an opinion these days in southern Iraq,
where the good people we liberated from the oppression of a tyrant,
have now imposed Islamic law in various cities.
The women have been re-veiled and sent back behind their walls.
The local authorities are whipping men suspected of drinking alcohol.
They've burned down beauty parlors and stores at sold CDs.
No more money, no more fancy dress.
This other kingdom seems by far the best, until its other jaw reveals
abscess and loose obedience to a vegetable law.
No music, no attic, no sharing the world with women.
Free speech?
No, this my friends is the dark.
Oh, dark, dark, dark.
They all go into the dark.
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
the captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
the generous patrons of the arts, the statesmen and the rulers,
distinguished civil servants, chairman of many committees,
industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
and we all go with them into the silent funeral.
That's T.S. Eliot, by the way, from his poem, "The Four Portets."
It's bad enough that we all have to go into the dark eventually
when our mortal lives reach their appointed end.
But let us at least live in the light while we're here.
Why bring the darkness down upon ourselves before our time is up?
On my more sentimental or naive days, I look at other parts of the world
and say to myself, "Thank God for the West.
Thank God for decadence.
Thank God for the Enlightenment."
It's the Enlightenment, or so we're told,
that gave rise to the Declaration of the Rights of Man,
that brought about the political reforms and revolutions that ushered in our modern freedoms,
that gave us constitutions that protect the rights of minorities,
grant us freedom of speech,
and give the individual basic counterpowers against the power of the state.
Thank God for the Enlightenment.
Without it, we would be lost in prejudice, intolerance,
and the arbitrary exercise of state power.
And none of us would be entitled to an opinion.
On my less sentimental days, I see a different picture, though.
I look at the rest of the world and say to myself that the West
has brought about the biggest calamity in human history.
Industrialization, modernization, globalization.
These are forces coming from the West that have uprooted and brutalized,
untold millions of people, battered and destroyed societies
which suits traditions, trace back thousands of years.
The drive to bring Western Enlightenment to the dark corners of the Earth
was behind the colonization of Africa, the enslavement of millions.
The Enlightenment is also behind the runaway pranks of science and technology,
which are about to bring you mangulous dream of full-scale eugenics on a silver platter.
Yes, my friends, on my glumier days, I see the Enlightenment as the cause of much evil,
and I side with Charles Budleir, who believe that with its crass empiricism and materialism,
the Enlightenment declared unconditional war on what was most spiritual and beautiful in the Western soul.
The romantic stride to salvage what was left of it,
but the forces arrayed against the spiritual life of the West
were too strong and too pervasive, and here we are in what the modernists of the 20th century called the Wasteland.
Clearly, I have a problem. I additudes towards the Enlightenment are conflicted and downright contradictory.
On the one hand, I'm ready to pledge my allegiance to it. On the other, I'm ready to denounce its demonic legacies.
To help me sort out these confusions, I have with me in the studio a very special guest,
who has devoted the past several years of his life to studying this phenomenon we call the Enlightenment.
His name is Dan Edelstein, and he is an assistant professor of French here at Stanford.
Dan, welcome to the program. Thank you.
Dan is a specialist of 18th century French thought and literature,
and he is currently working on a book about the role of myth and enlightenment thought.
So, Dan, before we discuss the Enlightenment as such,
can you tell our listeners why you decided to choose it as your topic of studying the first place?
Well, I would be disingenuous if I didn't acknowledge that there was obviously a fair amount of coincidence and chance and finding this topic.
It's kind of doubly ironic that I'm working on the Enlightenment because I came to it through 20th century poetry
and precisely writers such as Elliot and their use of myth and modernism,
and taking this subject back into the 19th century through German Romanticism,
I realized that it would be incomplete if I didn't consider the huge impact of the French Revolution primarily,
also of late 18th century development, cultural development in how mythology and antiquity was viewed.
And this came as quite a surprise to me because like most everyone I associated an Enlightenment thought with a very anti-mythical bias,
and indeed that bias is there going back to Pierre-Bél and Fontainez in the late 17th early 18th century,
and throughout the first half of the 18th century mythology was pretty much what the Enlightenment defined itself against.
They, the Protestant humanist who was writing at the late 18th century, sorry late 17th century,
he defined everything that was wrong with in his view European culture at the time as paganism,
and it was up to philosophy to destroy this paganism, and this is a theme that would come back continually, particularly in Voltaire,
and then something started to change towards the last quarter of the 18th century,
all of a sudden there were certain types of paganism that were okay in particular Egyptian myths, Egyptian rituals,
and I think that this was largely due to a rise of interest in Freemasonry, but also I think it revealed a very particular tension in Enlightenment thought,
which was that, well here, I'm sorry, let me, for our listeners there who aren't specialists in the Enlightenment,
the everyday conception of the Enlightenment was that it was based on the rule of reason that we have to bring rationality to bear in human affairs,
social, political, that as you were saying, it was also a protest against what was understood to be the ignorance and superstition of the past,
and that would presumably include myth, but I hear you to be saying that the story is not that simple, that it's not Enlightenment versus the pagan myths or the even Christian myths,
if you want to use that term, which some of them might have wanted to use, but that there is a power that myth still exerts over Enlightenment thinking.
Do I get you right when I say that?
Yeah, I'm not sure that it's a power of myth in a primitive power of myth that reverts during the Enlightenment,
but indeed I think that the Enlightenment found that it's very difficult to, as you say, sort of transform the world according to a more rational basis,
without giving some sort of traditional authority to that gesture.
What do you mean by traditional truth?
Let me give an example, when Rousseau in the social contract is discussing how is it possible to create essentially the best political system,
so the old philosophical question.
He ends up at a very surprising point.
He ends up acknowledging that I quote, "without gods, we cannot give laws to men."
Now, we're already talking about someone who is not a kind of mainstream Enlightenment thinker, at least as far as I was taught when I was studying this,
that there are a lot of tensions between his theories of nature and the gods compared to the de-grills and the other self-declared atheists.
Yeah, well, that's very true.
But what's interesting is that Rousseau says the gods, and therefore kind of avoids the whole religious question,
and I think translates it onto a more cultural level.
I agree that the Enlightenment is a very complex time in there, many different currents.
That said, even somebody like Voltaire, and even someone like D'Drow, would end up searching for a tradition,
which they could connect their vision of Enlightenment, too.
They actually, for all the talk of a blank slate and cutting off with tradition,
they ended up often just going farther back to nature, for instance.
Yeah, the role of nature, and in line, I think, is one that we're going to want to talk about.
Let's talk first about reason.
An ordinary understanding would see some kind of antithetical relationship between reason and myth,
we're talking about myth.
But I would say that the Enlightenment gave birth to the myth of reason.
I don't see them as really mutually exclusive.
On the contrary, I think that the long-lasting enduring power of the Enlightenment was that it was able to, again,
take reason and make of it something that had almost a kind of supernatural authority and charisma,
and could therefore be embraced as the new foundation for the reorganization of all of society and human relations.
And only myths take on this kind of magnitude.
So how do you see the role of reason playing out there?
But I agree with you.
And I think the most empirical proof of what you're saying is that during the French Revolution,
there was a brief period in which the revolutionaries created a cult of reason centered around the goddess of reason.
And so it really did acquire this mythical quality in which ultimately one had to have a faith in reason rather than actually practice rational authority.
But to backstep a little, I think that it would be mistaken to view the entire Enlightenment through the prism of this sort of rationalizing, mechanical vision of the world,
mainly because they were actually reacting against that. That's a very 17th century idea.
And this may seem like sort of petty distinctions, but in the history of ideas, there really is a huge jump between philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza, even Leibniz to some extent.
And then the French Enlightenment, which essentially completely was under the sign of British empiricism with an emphasis on the senses.
And from there an emphasis on sensuality as well.
I mean, I agree once again Rousseau was not perhaps the best example of Enlightenment thought, but when he said that in the confessions, I felt before I thought, or before I reasoned,
he was actually expressing a very standard empiricist view.
Impairicism for our listeners who maybe haven't taken R.I. home course, by the way, is a British-based movement in philosophy,
which was very important for the French Enlightenment thinkers, in particular Voltaire, when he goes to England, and he discovers John Locke, who was one of the great Ur empiricists.
And the right-source letters, those philosophical letters back, and says that now we have to base our knowledge has to be experiential.
It has to be proven and demonstrated that we're no longer going to take for granted things that we can't know.
He also bought into John Locke's theory of the mind as a tabulat, as that the mind does not have any innate ideas, and it's just there as a blank slate,
and whatever comes into it, whatever is written on it through experience, and through culture, and through education.
And that's what it's going to become.
And here this leads someone, I can first say, at another, in the argument, thinkers to believe that all the problems in the world just have to do with bad education.
They have to do with, you know, catechisms from religion, superstitions, pagan beliefs, and so forth, and if we could just clear the slate,
then we can start this whole program of, let's say, social re-engineering, basing all our decisions on the law of reason,
and that we would have, you know, the brave new world, a world that was free from oppression, free from the fanaticism, intolerance, and so forth.
All this relies upon philosophical or metaphysical presuppositions that come from empiricism, which in my view are hopelessly naive.
The idea of the mind as a tabulat is a tabulat is, it's from the point of view or another enlightenment finger, Vico, this is risible.
The mind is born, not within eight ideas per se, but it's born into history, and it has its own sort of mandates coming with it from the beginning.
So is there something naive or over-eager about the enlightenment idea that if only we could change the circumstances in which we live and the way in which we go about educating?
People in society that everything could be put on a completely new footing.
Well, certainly presented that way, it does sound very naive, but I think that there's another side to the pedagogical program of the enlightenment,
which is actually the center at the very heart of the enlightenment.
We often speak of the enlightenment as a collection of thinkers and a particular corpus of works, but that's to forget that at the time at least, the enlightenment was really defined as a social project.
The idea was not that, or was not only that knowledge in society could be thought through in a more rational fashion, the idea was that individuals throughout Europe was primarily at the time just a European phenomenon and American could acquire the individual use of their reason and become mini philosophers or full-fledged philosophers themselves.
At that level, there is an inherent pedagogical aim, which granted certainly is naive, and I think the philosophers, the philosophers often realize this and indeed most of them ended up espousing rather elitist ideas about social management.
The one thing though that I would add to the history of the mind in the 18th century, there was, I mean, Locke's essay on human understanding was probably the most important text both for epistemology for the history of ideas and for cognition at the time.
But there was a whole other side, which was, again, nature and the idea that education was less about imprinting certain things onto this lax tablet of the mind than it was about allowing natural impulses and instincts to have free reign in society.
Yeah, and there's another big problem I have with the Enlightenment that, and I'm with Bodle, I don't know if it's my ex-gotholys or my Catholic upbringing, but the notion that if we can get back to a state of nature, then human nature will be benevolent.
And all the corruptions are due to the organizations of human society rather than based in some sort of original sin.
Bodle, I thought this was the most pernicious idea of the 18th century, and I don't know, look, I think that the one doctrine in Christianity for which there's an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence is a doctrine of original sin.
As Bodle says, every time you open a newspaper, you have endless testimonies about the depravity of human nature. You can see it.
Why would the Enlightenment thinkers imagine that by going back to nature or recovering some natural state that this would lead to the good rather than the opposite?
Well, I think when we're forced to choose between one or the other, it ends up being basically a battle between myths, right?
Because that human nature is inherently good, granted that definitely rests on the myth of the golden age when we didn't need laws.
But to see the opposite side, as you bring up the original sin, I think the philosophers were largely reacting against the mythical nature of that position.
And some of at least part of their arguments for the opposite side would have been just to play devil's advocate and to sort of release people from the power of that belief on them.
That said, you know, Rousseau's noble savage, the Islanders of Tahiti and Dijreau, definitely these are central beliefs and representations in Enlightenment thought.
But I don't think the philosophers really believed that in human nature there was only good and that everything else was bad.
They were too smart to believe such a simplistic Dijreau, even Rousseau was.
But they had some reason for promoting this idea, at least in modified versions.
And so I guess if you're going to ask the question of Kile Lente de Lietlente, what is the interest behind their interest in human talking about noble savages and inherently good human nature?
Well, let's get back to what we were saying before about the social purpose of the Enlightenment.
We have to remember that they were really fighting a pretty intense PR battle against a very well organized and well-oiled institution, namely the Catholic Church.
And when they would come up with statements such as, you know, human nature is good, don't believe in the original sin.
This really was a rhetorical and to some extent ideological attempt to wean people from the power of the parish priest and also to redeem humanity in a sense of human nature,
not only in its primitive form, but in the basic form that we experience it at a day-to-day level.
So, for instance, on the depravity of the flesh, this was one of the areas where the church really had a stranglehold on people,
threatening them with hell if they had any lewd desires.
Well, that's a place where the philosophers quite cunningly saw that they could really battle the church on this one because they offered a much more pleasing version of human pleasure and human nature.
Yeah, until you get to Machidusad.
It will make your norse of interest.
Well, it becomes, yeah.
So, Dan, I made a number of, I expressed a number of opinions, let's say, in my opening account.
To which you are entitled, to which I am entitled, then you are entitled as well.
Let's face it, we don't go and get PhDs and labor for years and years not to have that entitlement.
But, so, when you say that it's the social side, that the enanement was primarily a social movement,
My reaction, here's how I would resolve my contradictions, is I think the enanement was great when it comes to the social and political reforms that came out of it,
in particular, the American Constitution.
But, my question, I have two questions. One is, had there been no such thing as the enanement in the history of ideas?
When all these fields of sort of the empiricists and so forth, would the modern era not found another way to arrive at the kind of modern freedoms and doctrines of tolerance and protection for the rights of minorities?
We not have arrived there by some other route.
To what extent is there really an indebtedness to this thing we call the enanement for the kind of freedoms that we treasure today?
Well, there I really agree with you because if you just go back to the 17th century, and particularly to Britain in the 17th century,
you find for instance a fourth century before the French Revolution, the Bill of Rights, which if not in content, already sort of expressed the key notion that individuals have inalienable rights,
most notably the Habes corpus, which was in trying at that time. And similarly, you can even look even farther back into history and find the notion of religious freedom, which was at least first enshrined in the 1598 Edictiv not, for instance.
The The Fido's Office role in all of this was definitely battling for the souls of individuals. They were trying to spread these ideas. They weren't really, you can't credit them for having invented them or for having formulated them. They certainly helped propagate them.
But the entire was an apostle of tolerance, definitely did not invent that notion.
So it's really not clear what the lines of causality are. So in the same way then that it's up in the air, whether without this intellectual movement called the enanement, we would have had our constitutional freedoms.
Maybe my other kind of my pessimism on my gloomy or days that somehow the enlightenment is responsible for a lot of the woes of the modern world, including I don't know even the whole presumption to bring enlightenment and bring Western enlightenment to the dark corners of the earth.
Well, there's a real irony there, which is that the The Fido's Office, the French philosophers, were among the first to denounce the excesses of colonialism.
And the idea is full of scorn for what the Spanish and Portuguese were doing in South America. Some other of his stories mock both the French and the British and India.
And the whole similarly, the Abirina, I mean there are all these examples of real intellectual engagement against colonialism and against any sort of spreading of Western culture.
Also, you only really find this idea that Europe has a civilizing mission to spread Christianity and European values to the dark corners of the earth at the end of the 19th century.
You get it here and there elsewhere, but this is actually a very modern concept that does not really originate in any clear way from the enlightenment.
No, it doesn't originate, but it could be one of the consequences or outcomes of enlightenment.
Certainly, one of the concepts that's most associated with the enlightenment is that of progress.
That was almost a religion or a doctrine of faith that in the perfectability of humankind and this kind of inexorable progress that we make historically.
And he was in the name of progress and ideas surrounding the concept of progress that the late 19th century was more than 19th century phenomenon.
But think of Kurtz in the heart of darkness. He is the prince of enlightenment. He is the one who has all the idealism, the Western idealism of curing the savages of their be-knited ways and so forth.
But we know that he was more savagement than any savage, that he was the quintessence of bad faith.
So whether the philosophy of themselves were against colonialism and were against the exploitation of Western values through the other parts of the world, the fact is that a myth did arise from these ideas that the West is the beacon of light.
And I don't think that we're over this yet. I think that history is still alive and well and that we're living right in the midst of it.
Well, I agree with you. Getting back to your first point though, I think that this idea, the idea of the West in nature of periodity is definitely there in the 18th century.
There's no denying it. And it's always based on our superior scientific knowledge. It was in the late 18th century that the first really visible technological sort of quantum leaps occurred.
And I think of the first hot air balloon that was launched in the end of the 18th century and people just started getting this idea that the West was on the verge of some incredible scientific revolution that was going to bring these amazing technologies to everyone.
And I think that I think definitely fueled the notion that we have some right to give this to other people. That said, in the 18th century, I think that there was usually, and you can't generalize too much when talking about these different currents of thought, but there was usually the idea that at the end of this perfectable movement was some sort of redeemed state of nature.
I mean, it wasn't the simple state of nature, but there was, we were doing sort of, we were doing nature's will. It's a theme that comes out continually during the French Revolution. There was this idea that we were returning to some state of nature.
And what's interesting is that we always think of the state of nature in this sort of the vision of the happy savages, et cetera, that we've inherited. But there was a very different type of original state that also had gained currency in the 18th century.
There was this idea that at the beginning was not simplicity, but was great technological complexity. This is pretty much was a result of the discovery of the huge antiquity of India and of the sophistication of Sanskrit.
And soon you had this sort of anti-goldenage myth, which was kind of the myth of Atlantis.
We're talking with Dan Eles, doing we're going to be right back.
How about that?
Dan, let's move on to, you mentioned the French Revolution. I think it's relatively uncontroversial that the Enlightenment was directly causally involved in that phenomenon, or maybe it's not controversial.
It is controversial, but everything's controversial.
But let's assume our naive in a naive way that the French Revolution was directly indebted to the ideas of the Enlightenment. It ends up with a reign of terror.
How do you see the reign of terror in relation to the French Revolution and does Enlightenment thought have anything to do with the outcome of that revolution?
Okay, well, I should say first that people have been disagreeing on this point for ever since the reign of terror.
And I can't claim that there's any consensus or that my opinion, though perhaps entitled, carries much weight in these debates.
But just to give my entitled opinion that I would say that there's a definite role of certain strands of Enlightenment thought, particularly in the reign of terror.
You can see this in different ways. There was a very influential group of scholars, lead notably by Keith Baker here at Stanford, that argued that it was a sort of russoist idea of the general will, that because it could not accept disagreement because it sought absolute consensus was very influential in silencing those that disagreed with it.
And I think you can see it also in the huge emphasis on pedagogy and on sort of these great,
Martian reforms of education that the terrorists tried to attempt, I would actually point to another aspect of Enlightenment thought in sort of my sense of this continuity, which is once again the role of nature and the idea of natural right.
We tend to think of natural right as being at the heart of the American Revolution. In fact, I think its role is greatly exaggerated. Whereas in the case of the French Revolution, they started with this declaration of human rights and rights of the citizen, in which they were very cautious about natural right. They didn't want to give it too much emphasis because I think they were aware of where it could lead because once you start saying that we have a natural right to equality,
then you know, why not abolish all differences, why not abolish property. So they were sensitive to that. But more importantly, what emerged during the reign of terror was the idea that those who do not respect natural right are denatured. They have become monsters. And this is something that you find throughout natural right theories of the 18th century in law and in Rousseau and others.
They become enemies of the human race and as such, they forfeit their rights and also they have to be killed because you can't trust them. They're just not like us. And this is what the king was described as then the aristocrat to the everybody that was against the regime was branded.
This is grotesque. And this is why I think a society which tries to found itself on ideas and the rule of reason can always find some kind of rascial cenation by which you silence and kill the enemy of the people.
We saw this in the Soviet Union that we want to talk about the 20th century totalitarianism, but it seems to follow very much the same pattern where you have a theory of where the good lies, you base that theory on some concept of that it's either the iron laws of history that lead to it or it's what nature will or it's the general will of the people.
And then in the name of this conviction, everything becomes permissible. So is there something in the Enlightenment exaltation of the idea of a liberated future for humanity that also provided license for some horrible atrocities?
There definitely is a connection between a sort of revolutionary utopianism and 20th century totalitarianism. The question is how rooted was revolutionary utopianism in Enlightenment thought.
I don't think that simply by positing that there may be a better future that some of the inequities of the present can be resolved by say rationalizing the justice system, which was one of the main hobby horses or causes of the Enlightenment.
I don't think that that per se leads in an eteleological way to a totalitarian system and perhaps what makes the Enlightenment so fascinating and yet so difficult is that the philosophers were a very sensitive to say local differences in their ideas and their political ideas for instance.
When Russo was asked to write a constitution for Poland, he was ready to renege on some of the ideas he had expressed earlier and except for instance that Poland historically had an aristocratic chamber and that it would do more harm than good to get rid of this chamber.
So he dealt with that and you find the same thing with Voltaire when Voltaire was dealing with Geneva and politics. He was very Republican and yet when he would talk about other monarchies for instance he was a royalist.
I think that we mistake the Enlightenment when we see it through the lens of the revolution which may indeed have been rooted in certain Enlightenment strands but ignored others and that was perhaps why it went awry.
I'm not trying to imply that I'm actually a fan of the French Revolution.
In the final analysis I forgot it beyond the reign of terror and so forth. It did something to change France in a way that had a lot of positive effects clearly.
Now France is, we've been talking a lot about France, it's not the only place where the Enlightenment took hold. We talked about England.
When we say a word it just briefly about Germany where someone like Emmanuel Kant wrote a very short essay. It's only seven pages but it is called what is Enlightenment and it begins with that great opening sentence.
Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity where immaturity means the refusal to think for yourself.
Then he goes on trying to really negotiate all the tensions that might be present from this opening statement, bringing it particularly into the political sphere, evoking a concept of a public sphere where free speech should be allowed under all conditions but behaviour.
Oh, they, obey. Talk as much as you want, says the benevolent enlightened monarch for a degree. Talk as much as you want, argue as much as you want, but obey.
So here we have, well at least we get 50% of what Hannah Arendt thought the public sphere was supposed to be about, namely a place where citizens' speech and action could have a stage, could have a stage for that.
We don't get any action but we do get a speech. So how do you read Kant's essay on what is Enlightenment?
I think from that very first sentence it's clear that he is addressing the social side of the Enlightenment.
It's every individual is supposed to think for him or herself. It's not now all philosophers shall unite and follow scientific methodology.
It's less about what he's doing as an out-clear than about what he hopes the age will become. We're not in enlightened age yet and therefore refers to everyone else.
It's a very interesting text because I think it's actually really unwittingly which is rare for Kant.
It puts its finger on one of the central paradoxes of the Enlightenment, which is that while we have this social project to liberate people from the clutches of the church, it's very clear in Kant's essay that it really is religion that he's directing his text against.
So while that's the project, everybody by themselves, by their own reason, will become free, they have to do it correctly, he says.
They have to, you know, there's a certain rigor to it. Basically if you force him a little bit, they have to be Kantian philosophers.
Otherwise they're not doing it right, they're not really being liberated.
So here we have, I think, this almost insurmountable paradox in the Enlightenment, which is that you're supposed to think for yourself on the one hand, but you're supposed to sort of miraculously end up thinking like the major philosophers who don't even agree.
So there's this utopia of a consensus that's going to emerge, that never does, and in fact throughout the 18th century everybody's always complaining that they don't agree.
And so here I think we do have an example of a sort of naive vision of this enlightened age to come where we'll all be on the same page, and yet this supposes, you know, this, as you'd said, a sort of myth of reason that is always the same for everyone.
Let's switch to America. America has been called the child of Enlightenment, and I think that's a beautiful kind of parrot. If you take Kant's definition that Enlightenment is man's emergence from itself imposed in maturity into maturity. You talk about a child of Enlightenment, it's kind of weird, but nevertheless.
Is it controversial in your field to say that the Enlightenment, yes, was directly responsible for some of the founding fathers' conception of how to found a republic and frame a constitution?
I know, I don't think that one can deny, I mean just from reading the Federalist, you're well aware of the huge important that multi-scuse on the spirit of laws played in John Adams thinking.
I think it gets a little more confusing when you try to distinguish between, say, French Enlightenment and the British Republican tradition stretching back even to the Commonwealth and the 17th century.
I mean, when you get into the Constitution and the actual American republic, as opposed to the sort of confederation that existed between the Declaration of Independence and the promulgation of the Constitution, at that period I think it's, I'm not an expert on American history, but it does seem undeniable that the Enlightenment tenets and legacy is huge.
What I find quite interesting though is that that really wasn't as important in the first part than the revolutionary part, and this perhaps points to one of the distinctions between the American and the French Revolution and why the American one didn't have a reign of terror.
When you look at the debates and even the language that went into the Declaration of Independence, it was much less an Enlightenment document or an Enlightenment gesture even as it was a traditional British constitutional act.
And it's interesting I find that in that respect, it wasn't because of any sort of Enlightenment desire to reform, to start anew that the American republic sort of got started, but it was actually by reverting to this very traditional gesture.
Yeah, that's great. The first line of the Declaration of Independence, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and so endowed by their career.
I started that because I found it quite astonishing that the first version was we hold all these truths to be sacred and undeniable.
And then that was revised, I believe it was by Benjamin Franklin, if I'm not mistaken, we hold these truths to be self-evident, which is a beautiful Enlightenment kind of modification.
It would seem because self-evident is to whom are these truths self-evident?
Well, they're not self-evident to anyone who is looking at history in any kind of objective, dispassionate, empirical way, because nowhere in history or on the earth could anyone find a government in which people were equal endowed with these inalienable rights and so forth.
So it's clearly self-evident to the eye of reason, but that means that it's projected into, it's not something that has happened yet.
And I also believe that there is a new, testamental subtext to that notion of self-evidence, which is the Pauline letter to the Hebrews where faith is defined as the substance of things hoped for
and the evidence of things unseen.
And that becomes interesting to think of the Declaration of Independence as really an act of faith or declaration of faith in certain values or rights, political realities, which have not become, not political reality, political desi de rato, which have not become realities, which are still unseen in the world, but are to be realized.
Through the founding, or the independence of America, and it's strange the way constitutions, whatever their original intention was, and I agree with you that it probably owed a lot more to British constitutional monarchy and republicanism and so forth.
But once you start putting words down on paper like that, and you have a sacred scripture, which is what our constitution is, it seems like you have opened up the possibility for things to happen historically that would not have ever happened otherwise.
So that's one reason why I have a certain skepticism with regard to the Enlightenment per se, because I don't find anything in that tradition which allows for the possibility of a certain magic that would take place at a level which is not controlled by our rational faculties, which is not controlled by the empirical laws of nature.
And it's not subject to that kind of rational analysis, but it happens regardless.
So, but it's just to use the word magic, because I, when I find, what really actually I work on in the 18th century is less the sort of the canon of philosophers, but this other side of the 18th century, which is often sort of ignored, which is precisely those that would have continued the Enlightenment into metaphysical, into more occult areas.
But did so with this very bizarre Enlightenment style, and they were the ones that were writing up these new mythologies for Masonic lodges.
They were the ones often doing sort of the crazier experiments like Mesmer's magnetism, etc.
And in this sphere, one actually finds that the very millenarian faith that perhaps was also present in the Declaration of Independence, this faith not based on reason, purely, I mean, I'm not sure where they got it from, but that was a very sort of mythological vision of a coming golden age that things were going to happen and they didn't really know how.
And perhaps one of the problems with the Enlightenment was that the strictures against less faith than any sort of non-founded sort of social engineering were so strong that this faith had to could only express itself in a kind of very marginal way.
Let me ask you this one question about Jefferson. It's the most simple question in the world, but it's one that still baffles me. How can this man have enlightened?
After you read everything he says about the quality of peoples and so forth, and that some people are born either you're on the side of the hammer or the anvil and so forth.
How could this guy be a slave owner? How is that possible? I don't have an answer.
I mean, I can't answer. I mean, what's, what you find similar problems in all of the Enlightenment figures, I mean, Voltaire thought that all human races had a separate origin and there was, I mean, you can definitely find the traces of a sort of scientific racism, well even before the 18th century, but they were very present in the 18th century as well.
I've made money through the slave trade.
That's where my Voltaire and the inclinations come in because the pervasiveness of bad faith, you see that's one thing that worries me about Enlightenment.
I think I'm grateful to all the constitutions which have been, but the idea that there are, what are the defenses against bad faith or false consciousness if you want to use that time?
And if someone like Voltaire or someone like Jefferson could find a way to reconcile these things which were as opposite on, if they could be in terms of the spectrum, then I wonder what extent we can really fall back on the law of reason when in moments of extremity.
Dan, we don't have a lot of time and I wanted to tell our listeners a few things about this program. We're still in the fall interim period and, you know, we've been on air a few times that you're my first guest and first time on the program, but Monday they're going to be establishing the fall schedule and we're hopefully going to be with you every week. Hopefully Tuesdays five to six, that's what I've requested, but it's not written in stone, so stay tuned for that.
And all these programs, the past ones and future ones will be available on a special webpage where they have been archived and those of you who are interested can go to the Stanford French and Italian department, web page and just click on highlights and you'll be referred to entitled opinions.
There are already about three or four shows archived. They're already last week. We had Renee Girard on the program, Sip Gumbrick. We spoke with Laura Whitman before that about Michel Toudinia in 20th century fiction. We're talking with Dan Edlstein here now about invitement thought.
And we only have about five minutes left, Dan. This discussion obviously we're not going to bring it to a conclusion as such. And I know that we promise to talk about totalitarianism in the 20th century and what kind of relation if any had to enlightenment thought.
I would like you to give a chance to have a chance to tell our listeners there what you're going to be doing this year at Stanford. I know as your second year as an assistant professor in the Department of French and Italian, and you're going to be teaching some courses this year that will be directly related to this topic of the Enlightenment.
Yes, well in the winter quarter I'll be teaching a course on mostly enlightenment political theory but also stretching back to the 17th century it's entitled absolutism enlightenment and revolution.
And that also is one of the core curriculum for the French major. And then in the spring quarter I'm teaching a class called the World According to Jean-Jacques which is on Rousseau, Rousseauism and enlightenment.
And I am again in the spring. Yes, what are you doing in I am? Well I'm afraid that the actual corpus is confidential still but also no no we're going to be doing probably bookacho maybe a madam de la fayette or Malleire, Dito and that's in the epic journeys modern quests track correct.
Great and you've been here already how do you like it so far? Well let me say that Stanford to me is like the enlightenment I want to your good days.
You know the Stanford students certainly don't need us to flatter them but I think that when you came here at least you've told me personally that you find them eminently teachable.
There's not much need for too much ideology of pedagogy here. They've definitely learned to exercise their reason freely.
Okay. Well we've been talking with Dan Elstein about enlightenment thought and it's been very stimulating we're going to continue this he will be a free from guests on this program I hope.
Next week I'm going to be speaking with Professor Honejid had whom I had on last week but we're doing it in a two-part series last week we were speaking about his theory of memetic desire and how he saw it operative in European fiction and in Shakespeare.
But next week we're going to take that forward to his whole theory of sacrifice and scapegoat rituals and the violent origins of religion.
So you're not going to want to miss that. Check the schedule hopefully it'll be Tuesday's at five and check the website on the web page of the French and Italian department.
So this has been entitled opinions stay tuned for your imaginary friend that will be coming up at the top of the hour and we'll see you next week.