“Reason obeys itself, and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.” – Thomas Paine
“Kings will be tyrants from policy, when subjects are rebels from principle.” – Edmund Burke
Now that we’ve discussed the Revolution, let’s turn to the politics of the Enlightenment for a moment. Between them, Revolution and Enlightenment defined much European history and intellectual life throughout “the long nineteenth century” (1789 – 1917). Some of the ideas we will encounter in future articles will seem strange indeed, but we can perhaps understand them better if we keep this background in mind.
Americans typically think of the Enlightenment in terms of their own Revolution, the Constitution, and the Founders, all of whom were deeply influenced by its ideals. Because of this national self-identification, the intrinsic nobility and justice of the Enlightenment usually passes for common sense with us. How could the Enlightenment possibly be a bad thing for anyone? What could be worse than to reject it? The French perspective is very similar – it was, they believe, their unique contribution to civilization, and they are justly proud of it.
The rest of Europe had a rather different experience of the Enlightenment. For Spaniards, Prussians, Austrians, Russians, and indeed at first the French, the Enlightenment initially appeared under the protection of monarchs called the Enlightened Despots, who expected to realize economic and military advantages by carrying out rational reforms. They were aware of its potentially revolutionary implications (it’s one thing to base government on tradition, another on reason), but they were confident that these could be controlled so long as the philosophers did not do too much philosophizing in public. As we now know, ideas tend to take on a life of their own, and even for the most ruthlessly efficient state, controlling them is an extremely uncertain business.
It is almost impossible to imagine today the excitement and optimism that the French Revolution inspired in its early years (1789 – 92). People who had lived since time immemorial under the most brutal and senseless despotism suddenly felt they had a chance at a better life – not later, in heaven, if they were good, but now, in this life, if they would fight for it. The aristocracy trembled with fear and rage as revolutionaries confiscated their property, shuttered the churches, executed their King, established a Republic, and proclaimed the Universal Rights of Man and the Citizen. Everywhere they looked they saw enemies, fed on the false promises, and only too-eager to slit their throats for a little gold. But people who had been kept on the outside of the old order - the young, the poor, the merchants, the intellectuals, people with brains and ambition but no family name - were thrilled to see the corrupt old order being shaken to its foundations. A better, freer, more rational world was within reach. All things were possible.
However, as the Revolution entered its more radical phase (1793 – 95), the thrill began to wear off. It was one thing to talk about Reason in the abstract, or to cheer the Revolutionaries in Paris from the safety of Berlin or Madrid. It was quite another to watch the Terror (1793-94) and the Bonaparte dictatorship (1799) hollow out the Revolution from the inside, and still another to have French soldiers show up on your doorstep. By the time the Napoleonic tide receded (1814), the politics of God and King, Tradition and Order, had once again become the common sense of all right-thinking people. There were, it turned out, worse things than the banal stupidity and injustice of the status quo – there was war, terror, theft, and the rule of King Mob.
However, not everyone felt this way. The memory of the Revolution, despite its failures, was too powerful to be stamped out on the battlefield or abolished by royal decree. Scarred veterans, the vengeful poor, and a new generation of young people watched and waited, certain that their chance would come. But perhaps more importantly, nations the restored aristocracy itself recognized that they could not turn back the clock. In order to defeat the Revolution in France, they had been forced to revolutionize their own countries - through mass conscription, mass politics, by fostering industry and commerce, and by ceding one feudal privilege after another to draw on the military and economic power of the people. Not all of the time, but often enough, the North and the West prevailed against the East and the South, because those were the directions in which Revolution and Enlightenment tended to travel. The last hurrah for the aristocracy was the First World War. After that, the aristocracy was finished as a political power in Europe, and the "long nineteenth century" became the "short twentieth century," where totalitarianism rather than aristocracy was the principle challenge for the ideals of the Enlightenment.
The essential point, for our purposes, is that in the early days the Enlightenment was imposed on much of Europe at gun-point. Where the French quickly decided, in the following generation, that the Enlightenment and Revolution had been good things, and in general liked to see themselves as the agents of a new dispensation of universal liberty and reason, to the people beyond their borders they often looked like swaggering, shallow bullies who had to be fought to the death. Resistance to the Enlightenment became inextricably caught up with resistance to foreign occupation – which is to say, with war-heroism and patriotism. Put another way, the Enlightenment came to mean, for many Europeans, exactly the opposite of what it means for us (if we are Americans.)
This was particularly the case in Prussia, a deeply religious, militaristic, and culturally backward society with a big future ahead of it. "Germany" at this time was a geographic expression - there was no state of Germany as there was a state of France or of Britain. Rather, German-speaking Europe was divided between Prussia in the North, Austria in the South, and hundreds of statelets in between. Beginning with the career of Fredrick the Great (one of our Enlightened despots, r. 1740 - 86), Prussia began to edge out Austria, and over the course of the 19th century it became steadily larger and more powerful. Between 1866 and 1871, under “the Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, Prussia led a pan-German confederation in a series of short, sharp wars against Austria, Denmark, and France. In the exhilaration of victory, the allies declared a unified German Empire under the Prussian Monarchy, and effectively ended French domination of the continent.
If the great moment of national self-consciousness in France was the Revolution, that same moment in Prussia was resistance to the French occupation that followed. And as the Enlightenment provided the ideology of the Revolution and of France, the Counter-Enlightenment (Romanticism) provided the ideology of the Counter-Revolution and of Prussia, and indeed of German-speaking Europe. Patriotic German intellectuals began to look for a hard counter to the universal and rationalist claims of the Enlightenment - something that would defy reduction to logic and matter.
One of their answers to this challenge was history, which, they were confident, could not be reduced to a formula. It was therefore a matter of state interest to fund research into history. Germany established the first modern research-oriented universities, and the German model was gradually adopted by most other countries in the West - France in the mid-19th century, Britain and the United States in the late-19th, Russia in the early-20th. As a result, German historical thought was far in advance of that of other nations during the 19th century, and was indeed widely imitated in other countries. Thus most of our historians and philosophers of history will be German until we reach the 20th century. There was historical work being done in other countries, to be sure, but they were very frequently "playing catch up."
The central figure in this self-definition was Georg William Freidrich Hegel, who drew his inspiration from Kant and from Plato, and to whom practically all subsequent German thought was indebted in one way or another. As a result, Platonic thinking in general - which is very different than the empiricism that we typically take for granted as English-speakers -, combined with Counter-Enlightenment particularism, tended to define much of the German outlook. This accounts for much of the seeming otherworldliness of German philosophy, which deeply influenced German historical thinking, and many of the assumptions of which remain remain implicit, though usually unacknowledged, in historical methods today.
The British intellectual tradition, by comparison, has tended to define itself somewhat ambivalently toward the Enlightenment. Many of its luminaries were British (Locke, Newton, Hume) whose ideas were imported to France (largely by Voltaire), which meant that the British were in a sense its co-authors. But Britain was an implacable foe of Revolutionary France, and in consequence British intellectuals had strong reasons to distance themselves from what they regarded as the overly-theoretical and recklessly ideological aspects of the Revolution. Respect for tradition and organic, gradual development, they began to insist, was what made British government successful. They therefore tended to occupy a kind of middle ground between French and American universalism on the one hand, and German particularism on the other. Much in it is familiar to the American outlook, but the British habit of appealing to Britishness as a self-validating principle usually seems a bit odd to Americans, who, like the French, tend to think that Reason is the sole legitimate court of appeal.
Some of the ideas we will discuss in the rest of the series will seem strange indeed, and we may be tempted to wonder how anyone could have ever believed such nonsense. But if we keep these national traditions in mind, and the way they each grow out of a unique national experience of Enlightenment and Revolution, we will perhaps be able to see how these ideas might have made sense at the time – or how they might have even become the common sense of our own time and place, if things had been just a little different…
Part of a Series on the Enlightenment
Part of a Series on Philosophy of History (XIII of XXXV)