The Enlightenment was an age of wizards and weirdos
Patrick West sees a medievalist take revenge on an era that mocked all that came before it
The Dark Side of The Enlightenment
By John V Fleming
W H Norton, £16.99
In academia and among the intelligentsia it’s long been fashionable to deride the claims and pretences of the Enlightenment, with its dual principles of detached reason and objectivity. Ever since the thoughts of postmodernists Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty et al became voguish in the 1970s among red brick universities, the belief spread that the tenets of the Enlightenment were not only arrogant and spurious, but also actually dangerous. The application of reason, logic, categorisation and industrial progress led us, after all, to the atom bomb and Auschwitz.
Although postmodernism isn’t spoken of today with the breathless reverence it was in its late 1980s and early 1990s heyday, Enlightenment values are still disdained. We live in an age in which everyone’s subjective opinions must be valued and in which we have become more censorious to spare the feelings or “deeply held beliefs” of others. Perspectives, not objective knowledge, are what matters in an age in which Voltaire’s first principle – the right to be offensive – is anathema.
This isn’t an entirely bad thing. The advocates and devotees of the Enlightenment have often been unwilling or unconscious of its debt to a Christian world perspective. The concept of the individual (and from it the Rights of Man) evolved from that of the soul. Progress is a secularised form of Providence, while egalitarianism was promoted, especially among low church Protestants, by those who had read in the Bible that we are all God’s children.
It’s in this spirit that John V. Fleming has written The Dark Side of The Enlightenment, criticising its boastfulness, and especially the manner in which it belittled much that came before it. As a professional medievalist, Fleming feels the Enlightenment cast a permanent slur on the Middle Ages, caricaturing it as an era of “brutality, disease, ignorance, and superstition”. This “Gibbonesque view … has become permanent in our lexicon”, he says. So, if the Middle Ages weren’t that “medieval”, in the pejorative sense of that word, maybe the Enlightenment wasn’t so enlightened.
“One of the paradoxes of the Enlightenment,” writes Fleming, “is the fascination of many of the enlightened with the occult.” It was an age in which knowledge was sought as much through the “dark arts” of magic and alchemy as detached, objective enquiry. It was a time in which Freemasonry did not wither, but enjoyed a rebirth, as did the associated cult of Rosicrucianism, which in the early 17th century declared there to be a secret brotherhood of sages and alchemists ready to transform Europe scientifically, politically and culturally.
There was no dichotomy between reason and mysticism, Fleming observes. The pursuit of truth came in many guises, some ostensibly rational, others not, and many indistinguishable from either category.
We tend today to differentiate alchemy from chemistry, but that is merely a linguistic nicety: the latter emerged from the former. (The author might have added that astronomy emerged directly from astrology.)
Nevertheless, Fleming does not believe the Enlightenment was an era of clean, delineated materialism. “The mainstream of European thought was not materialist but sacramental,” he says. “In the sacramental view, the material and visible world paralleled another that was immaterial and invisible.”
Like John Carey’s recent book, Victoria’s Madmen, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment follows the format of a potted biography. Likewise, it introduces us to a bizarre collection of motley characters and ostensible charlatans possessed with esoteric beliefs in the so-called Age of Reason. As a result, the book veers from bitty to sprawling to chaotic. It concludes by veering off into a dual biography of an Egyptian wizard called Count Cagliostro and the novelist, preacher and mystic Julie de Krüdener. The book has no conclusion, leaving the reader to wonder whether it could have actually done with a rigorous dose of Enlightenment-style rationalisation.
Ultimately, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment tells us nothing new – at least in its overarching thesis. You don’t have to be a Foucault scholar or post-structuralist to appreciate that the Enlightenment contained its own contradictions or fundamental elements of superstition and religiosity. Anyone who has read the Fortean Times in the last 30 years can tell you the same: that the men of reason could also be quite barmy, or imprisoned by their own delusions (or meta-narratives, if you will). No one has believed in the absolute division between post-Enlightenment positivism and pre-Enlightenment primitivism for decades. Even today’s popular arch-rationalists such as Richard Dawkins and Professor Brian Cox can talk of nature in poetic and rhapsodic ways.
Ultimately, I fear that John Fleming isn’t fighting a war with today’s ostensible rationalists. He is, in fact, still quarrelling with those long dead arch-prophets of the Enlightenment – Kant, primarily – who thought so little of his beloved Middle Ages.