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  • Modern science, medicine, political freedom, the market economyall of them, we're told,

  • are the result of a sort of miracle that took place 250 years ago.

  • That miracle is called the Enlightenment, a moment in history when philosophers suddenly

  • overthrew religious dogma and tradition and replaced it with human reason.

  • Harvard professor Steven Pinker puts it this way: “Progress is a gift of the ideals of

  • the Enlightenment.”

  • There's just one problem with this claim.

  • It isn't really true.

  • Consider the U.S. Constitution, which is frequently said to be a product of Enlightenment thought.

  • But you only need to read about English common lawwhich Alexander Hamilton and James Madison

  • certainly didto see that this isn't so.

  • Already in the 15th-century, the English jurist John Fortescue elaborated the theory ofchecks

  • and balances,” due process, and the role of private property in securing individual

  • freedom and economic prosperity.

  • Similarly, the U.S. Bill of Rights has its sources in English common law of the 1600s.

  • Or consider modern science and medicine.

  • Long before the Enlightenment, tradition-bound English kings sponsored path-breaking scientific

  • institutions such as the Royal College of Physicians, founded in 1518, and the Royal

  • Society of London, founded in 1660.

  • The truth is that statesmen and philosophers, especially in England and the Netherlands,

  • articulated the principles of free government centuries before America was founded.

  • So why give the Enlightenment all the credit?

  • Apparently because it doesn't look good to admit that the best and most important

  • parts of modernity were given to us by individuals who nearly all held conservative religious

  • and political beliefs.

  • The claim that all good things come from the Enlightenment is most closely associated with

  • the late-18th-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant.

  • For Kant, reason is universal, infallible, and independent of experience.

  • His extraordinarily dogmatic philosophy insisted that there can be only one correct answer

  • to every question in science, morality and politics.

  • And that to reach the one correct answer, mankind had to free itself from the chains

  • of the pastthat is, from history, tradition and experience.

  • But this Enlightenment view is not only wrong, it's dangerous.

  • Human reason, when cut loose from the constraints imposed by history, tradition and experience,

  • produces a lot of crazy notions.

  • The abstract Enlightenment philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau is a good example.

  • It quickly pulled down the French state, leading to the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror,

  • and the Napoleonic Wars.

  • Millions died as Napoleon's armies sought to rebuild every government in Europe in light

  • of the one correct political theory he believed was permitted by Enlightenment philosophy.

  • Today's cheerleaders for the Enlightenment tend to skip this part of the story.

  • They also pass over the fact that the father of communism, Karl Marx, saw himself as promoting

  • universal reason as well.

  • His newscienceof economics ended up killing tens of millions of people in the

  • 20th century.

  • So did the supposedly scientific race theories of the Nazis.

  • The greatest catastrophes of modernity were engineered by individuals who claimed to be

  • exercising reason.

  • In contrast, most of the progress we've made comes from conservative traditions openly

  • skeptical of human reason.

  • The Enlightenment's critics, including John Selden, David

  • Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, emphasized the unreliability ofabstract reasoning

  • and urged us to stick close to custom, history, and experience in all things.

  • Which brings us to the heart of what's wrong with today's idolization of the Enlightenment.

  • Its leading figures were not skeptics open to what history and experience might teach us.

  • Their aim was to create their own system of supposedly infallible truths independent of

  • experience.

  • And in that pursuit, they were as rigid as the most dogmatic medievals.

  • Anglo-Scottish conservatives had a very different goal.

  • They defended national and religious tradition, even as they cultivated what they called a

  • moderate skepticism”—a combination that became known ascommon sense.”

  • I think a lot about common sense these days, as I see American and European elites clamoring

  • forEnlightenment Now.”

  • They rush to embrace every fashionable newism”—socialism, feminism, environmentalism,

  • and so ondeclaring them to be universal certainties and the onlypolitically correct

  • way of thinking.

  • They display contempt towards those who won't embrace their dogmas, branding themunenlightened,”

  • illiberal,” “deplorable,” and worse.

  • But these new dogmas deserve to be greeted with some of that old Anglo-Scottish skepticism.

  • Enlightenment overconfidence in reason has led us badly astray too many times.

  • I'm Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism, for Prager University.

Modern science, medicine, political freedom, the market economyall of them, we're told,

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What Was the Enlightenment?

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/01/29
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