Shedding Light on Unenlightened Claptrap About the Enlightment
- Our Western civilization is indeed remarkable, but the reason is that, well before the 18th century, it had been the only culture in the world exploring the possibilities of free inquiry and intellectual rigor. The complex beginnings of what makes the West different go back to medieval times and indeed in some respects back to Greece, Rome and Christianity itself. The individualists who transformed our world appeared all over Europe, rather fitfully in medieval times but from the 16th century onward with increasing confidence. As Montesquieu observed, European monarchies were quite different from both the Roman republic and the despotisms prevalent elsewhere.
The book's author, says Prof. Minogue, "thinks that it is the enlightened who have taught us to behave altruistically toward distant people we have never meet" and "admits that caritas is a Christian virtue but then solemnly explains to us that Christians merely practiced it so as to increase their credit with God." Counters the reviewer:
- Whether it is the truth about reality or not, Christianity has been central to creating a gentle and decent (and philosophically lively) civilization of such power that our problem is accommodating the people who want to join it. "Go thou and sin no more" is way ahead of beheading or stoning sinners and probably ahead of counseling or psychotropic medication as well.
- One benefit of Christianity was that it construed politics as a rather perilous activity carried on by imperfect people within some larger story about God and creation. The first figure who broke out of these confinements (apart from the monstrous Robespierre) was Napoleon. As we now know all too well, masterful radicals come in shapes more horrible than his, but the fashion for ideological enthusiasms to improve our world keeps on generating surprises. The thing about light is that it casts shadows.