CRF Blog

Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?

by Bill Hayes

In Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History? for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reviews three new books that question Enlightenment ideas: Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy by Joel Mokyr, and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari.

Mishra’s thesis is that our contemporary misery and revanchist nationalism can be traced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romantic reaction to Voltaire’s Enlightenment — with the Enlightenment itself entirely to blame in letting high-minded disdain for actual human experience leave it open to a romantic reaction. In Mishra’s view, Voltaire — whose long life stretched from 1694 to 1778 — was the hyper-rationalist philosophe who brought hostility to religion out into the open in eighteenth-century France, and practiced a callow élitist progressivism that produced Rousseau’s romantic search for old-fashioned community. Rousseau, who, though eighteen years younger, died in that same fateful year of 1778, was the father of the Romantic movement, of both the intimate nature-loving side and the more sinister political side, with its mystification of a “general will” that dictators could vibrate to, independent of mere elections. The back-and-forth of cold Utopianism and hot Volk-worship continues to this day. The Davos men are Voltaire’s children, a transnational and fatuously progressive élite; Trump and Brexit voters are Rousseau’s new peasant hordes, terrified of losing cultural continuity and clan comfort.

Piling blame on Voltaire as an apostle of top-down neoliberalism is familiar from John Ralston Saul’s 1992 “Voltaire’s Bastards,” and the idea of Rousseau, the Genevan autodidact, as the key figure in the romantic political reaction against modernity, even as the godfather of Nazism, was present in Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy,” back in the nineteen-forties. A fan of Voltaire will object that Mishra offers a comically partial picture of him, neglecting his brave championing of the fight against torture and religious persecution. Mishra’s Voltaire is a self-seeking capitalist entrepreneur, because, among other things, he established a watch factory at Ferney — as a refuge and asylum for persecuted Protestants. Casting Voltaire as the apostle of fatuous utopian progressivism, Mishra curiously fails to note that he also wrote what remains the most famous of all attacks on fatuous utopian progressivism, “Candide.”

The truth is that no thinker worth remembering has some monolithic “project” to undertake; all express a personality inevitably double, and full of the tensions and contradictions that touch any real life. Voltaire was greedy, entrepreneurial, self-advancing; he was also altruistic, courageous, and generous. He spread Enlightenment ideas to the farthest outposts of Europe — and he sold them out to the autocrats who lived there. A persistent oddity of intellectuals is that when they’re talking about someone they actually know they offer a mixed accounting of bad stuff and good stuff: he’ll drive you crazy with this, but he’s terrific in that. The moment someone becomes a feature of the past, however, he is reduced to a vector with a single transit and historical purpose. If we treated our friends the way we treat our subjects, we wouldn’t have any. (Mishra himself is a voice against the neoliberal consensus who also writes a column for Bloomberg View. This does not make him a hypocrite. It makes him, like Voltaire, one more writer who works for a living.)

Mishra’s Rousseau, infatuated with a dream of ancient Spartan order and inflamed with resentment at the condescension of the Enlightenment élite, is more recognizable. [more]

CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive has two lessons on Enlightenment ideas:

1. Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau on Government.

2. “Tolerance: Voltaire and the Spirit of the Enlightenment.” This lesson is currently available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.