Enemies of the Enlightenment

The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity

By Darrin McMahon, 2001

There’s something that’s always puzzled me in histories of eighteenth century thought.  During the second half of the century, the Catholic Church was subjected to a campaign of vilification by a mob of hate-filled French pseudo-intellectuals calling themselves “philosophes”.  This whole time, the Church did nothing worth recording to defend Herself.  Finally, the Revolution came, and the Church started being robbed and persecuted by self-declared disciples of the philosophes.  It is only at this point that the great counter-revolutionary writers almost simultaneously appear:  Burke, Chateaubriand, Bonald, and de Maistre.  Why only then, and why all at once?

The standard explanation among conservatives, to the extent that there is one, is the genius of Edmund Burke.  The philosophes were so brilliant, or the Catholics so stupid, that no defense of the Old Regime was possible until a Protestant genius developed entirely new arguments.  This explanation has never seemed likely to me.  First, it neglects how fundamentally different Bonald’s thought was from Burke’s.  Second, the arguments of writers like Diderot, Helvetius, and Voltaire were so crude that even mediocre Catholic minds should have been able to counter them.

In this book, McMahon quotes extensively from pre-Revolutionary defenders of throne and altar to show that these writers did anticipate most of the characteristic arguments of the counter-Revolutionaries:  the importance of religion to social order, the connection between the authority of God, fathers, and kings, the danger in reducing the state or family to a contract, the social value of prejudice and tradition, the inadequacies of abstract reason, and the idea of their enemies as a conspiracy of atheist anarchists.  Most of the material in Burke et al was standard anti-philosophe stuff.  Furthermore, they predicted, in gory detail, the persecutions of the Church and nobility, the massacres, and the wars that would come to pass if the philosophes’ ideas were ever implemented.  This last bit is the reason we only hear about anti-Enlightenment thinkers after the Revolution got underway.  Before the Revolution, the idea that Voltaire’s disciples would turn into bloodthirsty lunatics if they ever came to power sounded kooky; after the Terror, it sounded prescient.  Needless to say, the counter-Revolutionaries weren’t shy in pointing out these demonstrations of their prophetic powers.

McMahon himself seems to have a low opinion of what he calls “anti-philosophe discourse.”  He thinks it is an error to reify the “Enlightenment” as if it were an entirely unified thing.  He also thinks it is wrong to say that the royalist Catholics successfully predicted that philosophe would cause the Terror because the precise sequence of events was “complicated”.  These qualms seem to have more to do with the nominalism of the author than any flaw in anti-Enlightenment thinking.  He could make the same arguments against any attempt to classify thinkers or to assert historical causality.  As McMahon acknowledges, the anti-philosophes were well aware (and liked to point out) that philosophe writers contradicted each other, and that some failed to realize the radical consequences of their ideas.  Nevertheless, the Catholics identified, correctly I believe, a common commitment and way of viewing the world that distinguished Enlightenment thinkers.  It can be summed up in the word “impiety.”  Catholics realized that impiety has a logic of its own, and that its adherents will tend to be dragged further and further along it, regardless of their initial intentions.  The impiety of philosophe must eventually destroy religion and monarchy, promote sexual immorality, and attack parental authority.  That is its nature.  Who can deny that, for two and a half centuries, it has done just that?

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