The French Enlightenment was all hype and no substance. As Edward Feser tells it
Enlightenment is about having the right sensibilities, uttering the right shibboleths, and, perhaps above all, hating the right people. To be Enlightened is to be in love with the idea of being Enlightened, never to shut up about how wonderful it is to be Enlightened, never to stop insisting how very awful and unenlightened are those who don’t like the Enlightenment. It is about excluding those people from the ever-widening circle of inclusion, and keeping their ideas off the freethinker’s limitless menu of options.
Also, William Cavanaugh has demolished the historical claim that the philosophes saved Europe from religious violence.
This reminds me of something I came across in a one-volume history of philosophy. I remember the author was Anthony Kenny, but it’s been years and I’m going from memory, so I can’t give specifics. Anyway, the book comes around to the eighteenth century. Kenny gives a couple of boilerplate sentences about the French Enlightenment. Epochal victory of Reason over Superstition, or some such at least superficially very positive thing. Then he drops the subject and moves on to England and Germany, where Hume and Kant actually had some interesting ideas to contribute. I can’t help thinking that the sentence on the philosophes was actually a joke for the alert reader, who is sure to notice that Kenny spends only devotes to the entirety of this great triumph of the human mind about a hundredth of the space he’d given to Bonaventure or Duns Scotus.
Here’s something else I remember from that book’s introduction (or conclusion–one or the other) that would be a fun topic for discussion. Kenny says, if I recall, that on any philosopher’s list of the six greatest philosophers in history, four of the names would be Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant, but there would be no agreement on the other two. Kenny gives Aquinas and Wittgenstein for his preferences, both of whom I think are overrated by their fans.
My votes: Avicenna and Hegel. Avicenna because most of the Thomist adjustments to Aristotelian metaphysics actually come from or through him, and his argument for God’s existence is far stronger than anything in Thomas’ sloppy Five Ways. Hegel because he’s the greatest political philosopher of all time.
Here’s some other suggestions:
Most overrated philosopher: Spinoza
Most overmaligned philosopher: Descartes
Greatest irony: that orthodox Catholic philosophers tend to blame everything on William of Ockham and Rene Descartes, the two most innovative Catholic philosophers in history.
I’d love to hear philosopher-opinions from my readers, most of whom are better educated than I.
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