Over the weekend, CBS News analyst and Slate correspondent Jamelle Bouie ignited a fiery intellectual debate seemingly from whole cloth when he indicted the Age of Enlightenment as the font from which white supremacism sprang. “[T]o put it bluntly,” he wrote, “racism is an enlightenment idea, whose foundations were laid by key thinkers like [John] Locke and [Immanuel] Kant.” This was not a hit-and-run assault on the intellectual heritage that forms the foundations for the modern state in which the people are sovereign. He refined his case down to the contention that Enlightenment luminaries erected pseudo-intellectual structures to support “scientific” claims to white racial superiority, and those structures served as the basis for colonialism and slavery.
The basis for his critique is debatable. Kantian philosophy holds that certain immoral behaviors that infringe upon the life and liberty of others remain absolutely prohibited even if they would yield more happiness to the perpetrator than would moral acts. This is a deontological ethos that buttresses what we now consider the rule of law. David Hume, who Bouie demonstrated shared a then-popular racist view of blacks, also authored taxonomies of the nature of liberty and truth itself that informed what Thomas Jefferson labeled “self-evident” truths; among them that all men are created equal and are, thus, privy to the universal rights enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. And John Locke, along with egalitarian philosophers like Francis Bacon and Montesquieu, expounded upon the absolute rights of man and property that are referenced frequently in the Federalist Papers—without which it is unlikely that the Constitution and its subsequent amendments would have been possible.
This argument now begins to look familiar. It reflects the fundamental divide that distinguishes a conservative outlook from a progressive view of intellectual history, so you might think that those who rushed to defend Bouie’s critical view of the Enlightenment and its variants were all progressives. You’d be wrong.
“That the Enlightenment was and remains a mixed bag whose intellectual-political-economic matrix made racism worse for a while (and may again, who knows?) is neither a radical nor an ignorant opinion,” New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat wrote in Bouie’s defense. “[I]f you’re one of the many people who apparently believe some variation on ‘the Enlightenment and only the Enlightenment gave us the tools to critique racism and abolish slavery,’ please read more books.”
Indeed, Douthat is no novice when it comes to criticizing the Enlightenment. In a February criticism of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!, Douthat articulated a conservative criticism of the Age of Reason that is shared by a growing constituency on the right, but it is one that is centered on the notion that the period’s hostility toward piety is where it all went wrong. “[I]f Pinker and others are genuinely worried about a waning appreciation of the inquiring scientific spirit,” he wrote, “they should consider the possibility that some of their own smug secular certainties might be part of the problem . . .”
That hostility toward secularism also serves as the basis for Federalist contributor John Daniel Davidson’s attack on the assumptions on which Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West is founded. Relying heavily on University of Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Davidson noted that the classical philosophy that gave us modern capitalism and self-government also yielded “abortion, euthanasia, and transgenderism.” The West isn’t committing suicide, he wrote, it’s dying a natural death: “Maybe the only way forward is to go back and rediscover the things we left behind at the dawn of the Enlightenment.”
For conservative Catholics like Douthat, a natural hostility toward the Enlightenment isn’t particularly unique. In the first half of the 19th Century, creating an intellectual framework to serve as an alternative to the secular ideals espoused by Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith—all of whom were perceived to be products of the Protestant Reformation—seemed like an existential imperative. The Jesuit philosopher Luigi Taparelli passionately criticized these philosophers in a collection of essays entitled Tyrannous Liberty, which was exactly what it sounds like. One of his students, Matteo Liberatore, went on to draft Pope Leo XIII’s influential 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. That address outlined a collectivist vision of social organization, in which the Church delved into the divisive social and economic questions of the day and the state’s responsibility to its citizens. It is no coincidence that Taparelli is among the first to articulate a vision of what he called “social justice” in a context that is recognizable to modern observers.
There’s nothing unhealthy about the intramural debate on the right over the legacy of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it’s far more stimulating than most of what passes for modern political discourse. Yet something is disconcerting about Douthat’s impulse to reinforce Bouie’s characterization of this period and its thinkers, which, while containing grains of truth, was narrow and cosmetic. Both Douthat and Bouie have their problems with the Enlightenment. For Bouie, it’s racism. For Douthat, it’s secularism. The two objections don’t seem to overlap, but an alliance of convenience has nevertheless emerged out of this shared hostility. That is the definition of a political coalition.
An effort to forge a contrived synthesis between the populist right and left has become a preoccupation of political arsonists like former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who has recently tried to forge an alliance with Senator Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Perhaps they do not share the same economic, social, or political philosophies, Bannon reasoned, but their mutual antipathy toward the pillars of social stability render these quasi-revolutionaries natural allies. If that seems irrational to you, you’re just not angry enough. Conservatives would do well to remember that their enemy’s enemy is not their friend.