Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Importance of History

Why do I date the Enlightenment, as a historical phenomenon, as beginning in 1648 and ending in 1789?

1648 marked the end of the Thirty Year's War and the Peace of Westphalia. This was the beginning of the secularization of the political; from this point onwards, religious claims were progressively withdrawn from the political and public spheres of society. This made possible the freethinking attitude of Thomas Jefferson, who said, "It does me no harm for my neighbor to say that there are many gods or that there are none."

1789 marked the end of the golden age of the Enlightenment, when conservatives and reactionaries all over Europe became convinced that the wit and bravado of Voltaire necessarily led to the excesses and cruelty of Robespierre.

(Much as later conservatives and reactionaries became convinced that Lenin was the culmination of Marx.)

4 Comments:

Blogger Yusef Asabiyah said...

"1789 marked the end of the golden age of the Enlightenment, when conservatives and reactionaries all over Europe became convinced that the wit and bravado of Voltaire necessarily led to the excesses and cruelty of Robespierre."

Since when do we allow what the conservatives and reactionaries have become convinced of determine for us the beginning or end of anything important?

One reason that I am concerned by the designation of the terminating the golden age of the enlightenment in 1789 is that it means that I can't lump Hegel into the golden age of the enlightenment, and then, with Hegel excluded, my explanation of the counter-enlightenment won't hold much water.

I am glad that you are assigning importance to history, and to the dates of history. I hope you are assigning enough importance to them so that you will allow a little quibbling here.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

If can you can explain why it's important to include Hegel in the golden age of the Enlightenment -- and I suppose you'll need to say something about how you account for the counter-enlightenment -- then I'll gladly reconsider my provisional periodization.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Yusef Asabiyah said...

By my way of thinking, the Enlightenment reaches its apogee with Hegel and his insistence upon the existence of a realizable "absolute knowledge."

I think that the Enlightenment reaches its height with this claim, with this hubristic insistence upon the capacity of human thought to reach the absolute, although in reaching this height, the Enlightenment may also be thought to be reaching its point of absurdity.

It is in the reaction to any claim of, or existence of, absolutes that I place the "counter enlightenment."

9:23 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

You know, in some respects, I'd been thinking about the relation in almost opposite terms -- as the Enlightenment as the critique of totalizing myths, and the Counter-Enlightenment as the nostalgiac longing for a lost unity and totality.

In some respects I think this means that I must regard the "Absolute Spirit" or "Absolute Knowledge" part of the Hegelian story as an element of the Counter-Enlightenment!

But that's far too simplistic. We should discuss Hegel in more depth.

1:53 AM  

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