Enlightenment, Nature, Liberty, Violence and Loss

So Enlightenment is the one sided celebration of historical progress and reason?  A widespread view but a parodic one.  The eighteenth century movement ideas did establish the idea of a direction in human history, of the increasing role of reason, law, civil government,  manners, culture, sympathy, morals, and so on.  It was also a movement of the growing awareness of loss.  If history has a direction, then the past stages are lost.  Previous ways of thinking sometimes referred to a lost golden age, of some form of innocent humanity, but also though history as a continuous present or as a cycle, so that the past is never completely lost.  It is with us in some way, and will come back in its purest forms, maybe as a moment of apocalyptic redemption which ends all historical changes, or as the renewal of the cycle of history.  

Even at the most superficial level of discussion of Enlightenment, it is ‘known’ that Rousseau wanted a return to natural man.  While this is misleading, it does refer to the reality that Rousseau has a critique of the present, full of history, from the point of view of prehistorical  ‘nature’ and an interest in ways of reducing the gap between historical communities, and natural man which partly expresses itself in a concern with how the historical community first appears.  There is always a sense that a more natural state has been left behind, in ways that can refer to various points in history as well as pre-history.  Ancient republics have more in the way of natural man, without artifice, hypocrisy and self-cpnsciousness, than modern states.  

Montesquieu is sometimes taken as the celebrator of modern monarchies and modern commerce, but this famously ambiguous thinker is just as much concerned with republics which rest on virtue (democratic republics) or moderation (aristocratic republics), and admires them, using them as an implicit point of reference for evaluating modern monarchies based on competition for honour and commercial wealth.  It is honour he emphasises with regard to defining monarchy, so implicitly suggesting that they appeal to antique aristocratic-heroic values of valour in war, even if in a more polite and pacific dress.  

If we think of the two most famous thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith, there is a consciousness of the strength, courage and self-relaince which can be found more in states of ‘barbarism’ and ‘savagery’, and in ancient republics then in the world of refined moral sentiments.  There is discussion of the passionate friendships of antiquity and their absence in the modern civll world, and of the attachment of citizens to their republic. 

Even Kant, often taken as a moralising, rationalistic pedant, only concerned with following rules of pure reason, regrets the decline of war, and finds that war fought according to laws of humanity is sublime, and the sublime in Kant is necessary to the reconciliation of historical humanity with nature.  

The Enlightenment writers who focus most on these issues are Giambattista Vico in the Kingdom of Naples and Adam Ferguson in Scotland.  Both are now secondary figures in Enlightenment compared with Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hume, Smith and Kant.  Vico precedes the other Enlightenment figures with the first edition of The New Science, and even the third edition of 1744 is early in the history of Enlightenment.  Ferguson comes later in 1767 with the History of Civil Society.  Both think of history as cyclical and that is maybe one of the reasons that they are not taken up very often as central to Enlightenment.  The combination of the detailing of cyclical history with an interest in the more progressive Enlightenment aspects of history, also makes their arguments particularly difficult to summarise and follow.  

In Vico there is the account of moving from the age of gods through heroes to men, which is the progress from social relations based of force to social relations based on law.  The relations of law, however, become weaker with the lessening of force, so that state sovereignty cannot maintain itself, and there is a consequent collapse which starts the cycle of history again.  The end of the Roman Empire in the west was one such moment of collapse and return.  Chronologically Vico could have influenced Rousseau, Montesquieu, Smith, Hume and Kant.  I’m not aware of clear evidence that he directly influenced any, but I believe there are good reasons to think that his ideas diffused across Europe, maybe in part through time Rousseau and Montesquieu spent in Italy, and then through Germany, Britain and so on, conditioning the climate of ideas even for those who had not read him, and did not have the Italian to read him soon after publication.  

Ferguson comes late enough to have been influenced by Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hume and Smith and could have been aware of Vico from foreign visitors to Britain, particularly Germans where there was an early awareness of Vico, even if he is not discussed by Kant or Hegel.  For Fergson there is a Hume-Smith type of faith in historical progress towards commercial and civil society, but there is a marked anxiety about the loss of natural liberty, of the greater risk of subordination to tyranny where humans have lost habits of military valour, survival from the land, and general characteristics of toughness and independence.  

Vico and Ferguson establish Enlightenment as regret for natural liberty, courage and self-reliance.  We should just as much read the other Enlightenment thinkers and immediate successors to Enlightenment, like Hegel, from this point of view, as from the point of view of polite manners and legal fastidiousness.  If we look forward to Nietzsche as a key critic of Enlightenment, we can see what he he was drawing on in Enlightenment in order to expose its origins and its violence.  


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