Charlie Hebdo and the Enlightenment

Charlie hebdoLooking though a copy of Charlie Hebdo, after the appalling murders of its editor and contributors in January 2015, I was struck, as many commentators have been, by how French it was with regard to one salient Western ‘value’ : the Enlightenment. The terrible event that called for and largely awoke the solidarity of a world that wants to be individualistic and free immediately made me think of the eighteenth century’s struggle to see reason prevail over superstition. A mood of enthusiasm for social and scientific progress on rational principles took hold in Britain and France, Holland and Italy, and elsewhere. It was a popularization of what had already gripped scientists and philosophers a century before, with coffee houses and popular prints furthering the ideas. The Charlie Hebdo tragedy however disproves  the claim that these Enlightenments didn’t have particular national characteristics. I’m thinking here of Jonathan Israel’s thesis in Radical Enlightenment (2001) and subjsequent volumes. Israel claimed that from the late seventeenth century in Europe there was one big mind mind-shift that varied in degree from moderate to radical. So let me say, courtesy of issue No 1178 Charlie, 14 January 2015, not only that I don’t agree but that the differences of national approach to freedom, free speech, reason and progress are still very much with us now.

It turns out that Voltaire didn’t ever say ‘I may disagree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’. But an English biographer of his wasn’t wrong to paraphrase his position this way, and thus to underscore a particlar principle. Free speech for Voltaire was rooted in a struggle to undo the all-pervasive influence of the Roman Catholic Church on French culture, prior to the Revolution. We’ve seen how strong the French commitment to a secular state is, in its bold treatment over issues of muslim dress for women, in recent years. Not all French writers and thinkers associated with the Enlightenment – what became the standard English translation of  ‘le siecle des lumieres’ – were foes of religion, and Protestantism was easier to accommodate. Rousseau always had a soft spot for a Calvinism that had virtually adopted him in his early Geneva years of social non-belonging. His pre-romantic championing of the natural man unspoilt by urban civilization has a non-rational ring to it. But progress through the spread of scientific awareness meant so much to the French Encyclopedists let by Diderot and d’Alembert that the superstitions encouraged by faith could only be seen to get in the way. When the Revolution drove out the abbes from France, and confiscated their property, it turned this intellectual attitude into a political programme. Most of us would find this too extreme a turn to warrant the name ‘politics’, and we can see how extreme an ideological move it was was from how it impacted on Russia. Reactionary tsarist Russia immediately seized on the flight of the French clergy to state that it would become the new home of this chased-out conservatism. So in his turn Lenin when he put paid to three hundreds years of the Romanov dynasty was quick to persecute the priests who were a symbol of reaction. Not to stray too far from the Enlightenment and Charlie Hebdo, but what one can see is how central it was for any modern vision of progress to stop the church interfering in politics and dictating the social and knowledge agendas. It was at the heart of the revolution that made modern France.

David Hume 1711-1776

David Hume 1711-1776

In Britain the church, mainly Protestant, was far less of an opponent for Enlightenment thinking. Or rather, the less than all-pervasive influence on society of the Anglican Church allowed much more scope for nuance. The philosopher David Hume was certainly an atheist, a fact which frightened the otherwise intelligent James Boswell so much he thought God might strike him down for attending Hume’s funeral. But in his thoughts about the social fabric Hume emphasized the importance of tradition. We learn what’s right from our forebears, and what we do best is a refinement of centuries of good practice. Hume strikes me as a kind of model anglo-saxon anti-intellectual, one who preferred vital impressions to the relative dullness of ideas which were merely the residue of past experience. That kind of attitude to the inventions of the mind must incline a whole population to gradual reform rather than explosive change in pursuit of some newly invented utopian concept. At the same time, one might say the real focus of the British Enlightenment lay in the hands of another Scot, Adam Smith. Smith made that pioneering connection between free speech and free trade that is still with us now. In her book Economic Sentiments (2001) Emma Rothschild spelt out what the main political division of the British Enlightenment, in the decade before the French Revolution, looked like. It pitted the Church, the Monarchy and the economic protectionists against the secular-minded free-traders. The ideal of ‘free exchange’ was the tool that simultaneously challenged religious censorship of free expression and national restriction of trade. Here we have that terribly strong link between business and freedom that drives moore than half the anglo-saxon inspired world now. Here in the British Enlightenment is the model for what someone like me wants to say ‘yes but’ to capitalism.

(Not however the ‘yes but’, the ‘oui, je suis Charlie, mais…’ that characterized some responses to the massacre of January 7; and was the gist of the Pope’s comment. You see how the characteristic positions of the churches more than two hundred years ago still apply? For me January 7, 2015 called for absolute solidarity. It was a political moment in the genuine sense of the word. Thoughtful nuances could wait. But then I had a vaguely Protestant education.)

Personally I think the German Enlightenment was very good at incorporating that ‘yes but’ into its vision of rational progress, die Auflklärung, which is why, when I want to defend the Enlightenment, which is often, I end up there, with Lessing and Kant and Hegel. For the Germans of the eighteenth century the enemy wasn’t the church, unlike in neighbouring France, because Luther’s Reformation in the early sixteenth century had long ago done its work freeing individual conscience from papal diktat. What Lessing helped import from France was non-denominational tolerance (a vital move that secured the emancipation of the Jews in that Germany that would so wretchedly betray them 200 years later). A few decades later what Kant famously made the cornerstone of Enlightement was critical intellect. He had in mind our human capacity to sort things out for ourselves, without divine intervention.

It’s true that on a closer look what you find in Kant and Hegel, right up to the last German Enlightenment figures Ernst Cassirer and Edmund Husserl in the 1930s, is a kind of metaphysical faith in Man, with a capital ‘M’, or Humanity with a capital ‘H’. This might seem to today’s critics neither rationally provable nor historically persuasive, given all the terrible ways in which humanity has betrayed itself. If you’re feeling particularly anti-Western you might say Man and Humanity were Western ideals all along, just waiting to be imposed on other parts of the world. But what I like about the German Enlightenment is the space it creates for a certain high-minded hope: the very possibility that human beings are of such potential brilliance and complexity that they can sort out a sensitive and morally refined way to live, and make the art that will encourage it.

It’s the feminist in me, no doubt, that likes the cartoon on the inside of Charlie Hebdo No 1178: we shouldn’t attack Charlie Hebdo says one terrorist to the other, because if they go to heaven as martyrs they’ll nab all the virgins.

It’s the enlightened person in me, British and German by education, who, by contrast, doesn’t see the fun in obscene jokes about nuns.

It’s the historian in me that wants to memorialize and quote Charlie’s post-attack editorial:  ‘A week ago, Charlie, an atheist publication, pulled off more miracles than all the saints and prophets together. What we are most proud of is that you have in your hands a magazine that we have kept producing, in the company of those who have always produced it. What made us laugh above all was that the bells of Notre-Dame sounded in our honour…This last week Charlie has acquired many new friends. Anonymous and famous across the planet, humble and affluent, miscreants, religious dignitaries, sincere people and jesuits, those that we will keep for the rest of our lives and those who will only be very briefly around…We are not fools…We thank from the bottom of our hearts those, in their millions, whether they are simple citizens or they instantiate institutions, who are really on our side and who sincerely and profoundly ‘are Charlie’, and who make that known. And we shit on the rest…’

That last bit of obscenity belongs to the French Enlightenment. It belongs like business to the British mentality and metaphysical ethics to the German. These traits all have their faults by contemporary postmodern standards. But where would we be as a ‘we’ without their combined heritage?  Je suis européene.

In chapter 2 'The Truth in Labour, Imagined in a Museum of Work' I talk more about the German Enlightenment heritage and how Marxism was one of its outgrowths

In chapter 2 ‘The Truth in Labour, Imagined in a Museum of Work’ I talk more about the German Enlightenment heritage and how Marxism was one of its outgrowths

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