Friday, November 05, 2004

It's the Other Enlightnment

Garry Wills has an odd op-ed in the New York Times called "The Day the Enlightenment Went Out" (hat-tip to Cliopatria for the link). He asks such questions as "Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?" If we are going to use such a criterion, I'm suddenly in doubt as to whether France in the French Enlightenment would count. Despite Wills counting America as an Enlightened nation in its inception, we wouldn't have counted then, any more than we do now. But he goes on to say:

America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of Enlightenment values - critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences. Though the founders differed on many things, they shared these values of what was then modernity. They addressed "a candid world," as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, out of "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind."

I'm not sure what Wills means by "the first real democracy in history," but it seems to me that the U.S. was far more a product of British thought than French thought; and while we talk about a Scottish Enlightenment, and could potentially do the same with England, we normally think of France when we talk about "Enlightenment values". Arguably, our Enlightenment values were Scottish rather than French. John Witherspoon, sixth president of the College of New Jersey (a.k.a Princeton), signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a leading member of the conservative side of the Scottish Enlightenment - the Popular or Evangelical Party of the Church of Scotland; and there was clearly interest in the whole movement well before he was invited to become president of an obscure backwoods colonial college (which he proceeded to turn into the foremost educational institution in North America, turning out the likes of James Madison). And the Scottish Enlightenment was a more conservative Enlightenment than anything on the Continent. Wills goes on to bemoan ignorance in the populace; but I don't think "Enlightenment values" have ever been a cure for that in any age or country. They're values, after all, not facts; and, what is more, nothing in Enlightenment values prevents the possibility of ignorance: you can be just as wrong respecting the evidence or the sciences as you can be right, and I think history shows that all over the place. In any case, it is certainly true that the main impetus of the Scottish Enlightenment would have had no problem with the Virgin Birth. (That they probably would for the most part have had no problem with evolution, too, is just a guess; but a reasonable one, I think, given their interest in the subject, and the early response of evangelicals and moderates to Darwin. They would have had no patience for anyone trying to use it as a weapon against Christianity, though.)

Wills then goes on to talk vaguely about fundamentalism. Strictly speaking, 'fundamentalism' is hard to pin down; and, what is worse, it is generally not a helpful descriptive term but a derogatory stereotype. It's very difficult to know what people are talking about when they use the term. I haven't a clue as to how Wills intends it.

But I do like Wills's ending. We should yearn back for the Enlightenment: the Scottish one, which (if I may be partisan a moment) for all its faults was far more reasonable and moderate (and democratic) than anything the Continent ever produced.

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