One of the most appealing virtues of this book is the author's admiration of the Enlightenment. He writes:
The men of the Enlightenment united on a vastly ambitious program, a program of secularism, humanity, cosmopolitanism and freedom, above all, freedom in its many. forms-freedom from arbitrary power, free- dom of speech, freedom of trade, freedom to realize one's talents, freedom of aesthetic response, freedom, in a word, of moral man to make his way in the world.
This book shows how the thinkers of the Erilightenment – Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet, Holbach, Gibbon and others – invoked classical Greek and Roman literature to battle superstition and Christianity. They worked to reclaim reason and this world as the proper focus of man. Diderot stated their purpose succinctly: "It seems to me that we must study antiquity in order to learn to see nature."
It was from the world of Greece and Rome, Gay demonstrates, that these thinkers learned the supremacy of reason and the possibility of a non-supernatural morality. They began by trying to make Christianity completely rational, then changed to the view that deism and natural law were the only acceptable forms of religion, and inally came to glimpse (although only some took this full, last step) that atheism was the logical position. It was the philosophers of the Enlightenment who argued– for the first time in history – that the Christian Era had essentially been a millennium of barbarism, corruption and stagnation.
One must be aware that, while Gay does present the facts necessary to make the appropriate judgments, one will often disagree with his interpretations of the Enlightenment. For instance, he criticizes Enlightenment thinkers for being too "extreme." More important, he does not do a good job of distinguishing fundamentals from derivatives. He sees the Enlightenment, for example, not as an Age of Reason but as an "Age of Criticism" – an age that questioned everything, including the power of reason. And although he names many fundamentals, he often does so only in passing, with little emphasis. As a result, the reader must exert considerable effort to profit from the book.
But despite these flaws, this is a valuable work. It presents an illuminating account of what impelled the thinkers of the Enlightenment to become such radical foes of mysticism and champions of man.
From The Enlightenment
To make the Greeks into the fathers of true civilization – the fathers, in a word, of the first Enlightenment – was to subvert the foundations of Christian historiography by treating man's past as a secular, not a sacred, record. The primacy of Greece meant the primacy of philosophy, and the primacy of philosophy made nonsense of the claim that religion was man's central concern. There was, therefore, nothing merely academic about Diderot's observation that Thales had been the thinker who “introduced the scientific method into philosophy, and the first to deserve the name philosopher.”
Volume Two of Peter Gay's two-part study is better organized and more essentialized than its predecessor. It is a fascinating and instructive book.
Gay begins by discussing the Enlightenment's new sense of life: the new confidence in man's mind, the pride in man's value and the expectation of progress. The consequences, he writes, were growing freedom in all areas, and a new love of life. "For the men of the Enlightenment," Gay observes – and here they rejected the moral views dominant for centuries – "the issue was not so much to die well. ..but to live to the point."
The author explains the widespread admiration of science, as well as its gradual conflict with Christianity. "There seemed to be little doubt that in the struggle of man against nature, the balance of power was shifting in favor of man."
He also discusses the attempt to study man scientifically and to define human nature in secular terms. The thinkers of the Enlightenment, Gay notes, insisted on man's original innocence, as against the idea of Original Sin. (There is an intriguing section about how the Enlightenment's renewed emphasis on the body– on the value of sensation, pleasure, emotion- eventually led to the disastrous conclusion that emotions are means of cognition.)
Gay explores the rise of the humanities, especially economics and history. He has an interesting discussion of the discovery that there is a harmony of (economic) interests among men-and how this rested on the principle that wealth is not fixed. And he percep-tively describes the struggle to secularize history – i.e., to see historical causation as intelligible and as based on human actions rather than divine edicts. Especially daring was the Enlightenment's view that religion itself was a man-made phenomenon.
As a kind of coda, Gay concludes with a brief explanation of why America was the product of the Enlightenment. He discusses how the thinkers of Europe cheered the Founding Fathers, waning America to become a bastion of freedom and an ideal for the rest of the world. Turgot, for example, declared that the American people were "the hope of the human race; they may well become its model."
While one will sometimes dispute Gay's conclusions (though less so than in Volume I), his only serious flaw is that he occasionally views Enlightenment thought as naive and "simplistic." But over all, Gay clearly demonstrates what constituted the greatness of the Enlightenment. And – in a rebuff of the modern attacks on that culture – he urges our own deficient era to embrace the Enlightenment's soaring ideas.
This review is courtesy of and copyright © by the Ayn Rand Bookstore.