Posted: February 13, 2003
n the spring of 1778, Voltaire's final play, Irène, opens at Paris's Comédie française to rave reviews. The aged philosophe, once persecuted and exiled, is now a national hero. Leaving his sickbed at the sumptuous Hôtel de Villete, he musters enough strength to attend a performance. An admiring throng, in a fever-pitch of excitement, surrounds and follows his carriage as it spirits him to the theater; within the hall, the crowd greets him with wild applause: "Long live our Homer!" It is an Enlightenment apotheosis. The French Revolution is little more than a decade away.
Darrin M. McMahon, a talented young historian at New York University's Remarque Institute, opens his first book with a vivid account of Voltaire's final triumph. His real interest, though, is in those French men and women who viewed it, not with joy, but with a sense of impending doom—the "anti-philosophes," as they called themselves. These individuals, many of them Catholic, argued that the rationalism, individualism, and secularism of philosophie "augured regicide, anarchy, and the annihilation of religion." For them, the French Revolution was the culmination of their darkest fears, the violent, monstrous issue of bad ideas.
Constituting a "Counter-Enlightenment," the anti-philosophes were a diverse lot: Catholic clergymen, traditionalist bourgeois, conservative parliamentarians, aristocrats, journalists, and many others. Most accounts of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, McMahon points out, pay "relatively little attention" to these contrarians. True, the British political thinker Isaiah Berlin, who first coined the term "Counter-Enlightenment," wrote intelligently about a few great minds among them—Joseph de Maistre, J. G. A. Hamann, J. G. Herder. But McMahon rejects Berlin's focus on "so-called men of ability." Instead, he seeks to recreate the mental universe of lesser talents—forgotten writers such as Madame de Genlis and Augustin Barruel, who, he claims, belonged to a ferocious French subculture of anti-Enlightenment attitudes and beliefs.
If shining new light on this subculture is McMahon's narrow scholarly purpose, he also has far grander aims. One is to describe the origins of our current culture wars. "Dwelling on the dark underside of modern rationalism, individualism, and materialism," he writes, is the "right-wing vision" of the world. In this vision, as modern as the Enlightenment ideas it opposes, human nature is intrinsically corrupt; religion is essential to maintaining social order, and intellectual and moral license and abstract rights are dangerous social corrosives; family and history are crucial to human flourishing; political sovereignty must remain intact; and throne and alter must forever join together. Two centuries of liberal democracy have left the latter two aspects of the "right-wing vision" politically dead. The rest of it, however, still shows up in the pronouncements of today's conservatives, especially those of the "religious Right." For McMahon, modernity is an ongoing battle between Enlightenment progress and Counter-Enlightenment reaction.
McMahon is a partisan of the enlightenment side in this conflict. He decries the "Manicheanism" of the anti-philosophes, and describes their yearning for wholeness and social unity as romantic utopianism, a quest for a "mythic" golden age. He bloodlessly talks of Robespierre's "excesses," but characterizes Counter-Enlightenment thinkers as "rabid" and "obsessed." Most of the Right's verbal attacks on their enemies, he asserts, were "vastly overstated and grossly unfair"—"a construction, a linguistic creation to a far greater degree than any reflection of social reality."
In fact—and this is another key thesis of the book—the "excesses" of the French Revolution, McMahon holds, were partly the fault of the anti-philosophes themselves. McMahon brushes aside French historian Francois Furet's argument that the revolutionary Jacobins were proto-totalitarians, frenziedly imagining conspiratorial enemies around every corner. "The Revolution did not need to invent its enemies," he says. "They were there from the outset, and their presence exerted a powerful influence on the dynamics of the revolutionary process." The Terror was born from the clash of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary extremes, not from any intrinsic revolutionary logic.
McMahon has performed a great service in bringing to life the lost world of the French Counter-Enlightenment and its international echoes in Italy, Germany, and even North America. He is a good enough scholar to let this world speak for itself, from the pre-Revolutionary period through the Revolution and on to the Napoleonic era, the Restoration, and up to the revolution of 1830, when the Bourbons finally fell. He exhibits an impressive mastery of source material, quoting extensively from obscure rightist journals and moldering counter-revolutionary books and pamphlets, long unread. He is an artful and clear writer. Occasionally, he resorts to academic buzzwords—writing of anti-philosophe literary "production" and "discourse," for example, and lamenting masculine "hegemony"—but these annoying terms crop up rarely, and seem out of place, as if he had to insert them to get past an especially politically correct thesis advisor (the book originated as a doctoral dissertation). To his credit, too, McMahon, like Berlin before him, illumines a dangerous irrationalism that some opponents of the Enlightenment, from de Maistre on the Right to Michel Foucault on the Left, have promoted as an alternative to the Reason of the philosophes.
But whatever his virtues as a scholar and writer, McMahon's broader claims are dubious. Consider his argument that the anti-philosophes presented a wildly exaggerated image of their enemies and of the threat they posed. This is absurd, and undermined by his own evidence. The exemplars of the French Enlightenment were militantly hostile to everything the anti-philosophes held dear, as reading a few pages of Voltaire or Diderot is enough to show.
The philosophes did seek to destroy religion—the "infamous thing"—and revolutionize society, from top to bottom. They did believe that human sinfulness was a myth, propagated by the fanatical and prudish Catholic Church. They celebrated tolerance but were fiercely intolerant—illiberal liberals, nearly to the man.
And once in power, they were ruthless. The trajectory of the French Revolution is one of ever-increasing tyranny. In November 1789, the revolutionaries—explicitly embracing the ideas of the philosophes—nationalized all church property. The next year, they shuttered France's myriad convents and monasteries and passed a law that made all clerics state officials, elected by the laity, including nonbelievers.
Indeed, the revolutionaries sought to de-Christianize France entirely, destroying churches, desecrating altars, and forcing priests and nuns to marry. The Reign of Terror of 1793 and 1794 just upped the ante, unleashing the kind of ideologically motivated slaughter that would set apart the 20th century's totalitarian movements.
McMahon's attempt to pin part of the blame for this "excess" on the machinations of a powerful French Right is laughable. First of all, it is unfair. How should defenders of religion and tradition have responded? Should they have just gone along as the state closed churches and drove priests from the country? Should they have remained silent as the revolutionaries moved Voltaire's remains from his former estate at Ferney to the Church of Sainte-Geneviéve, now renamed the Pantheon? But more to the point, McMahon admits that, at least in the early years of the Revolution, the men and women of the Right were a "relative minority," a "fringe" that posed no "direct military threat to the Revolution and in fact, given their Catholic convictions, were never unanimous in sanctioning armed resistance." These were the guys who provoked the revolutionaries to start lopping off heads and filling mass graves? Only by existing, apparently.
Ultimately, McMahon denies the French Revolution and its intellectual architects their true radicalism. The Revolution, especially during the Terror, was the archetype of what the French political theorist Raymond Aron called "secular religion"—investing man with the faith once reserved to God. Fittingly, Notre Dame Cathedral became the Temple of Reason on November 10, 1793, as blood flowed copiously from every corner of France. Subsequent experiments in secular religion have proven even more lethal. The French reactionaries would say: I told you so.
The implication of McMahon's book is that resistance to the militantly secular Enlightenment is futile, and can only lead to ruin. It is either religious authoritarianism or the New York Times. But the American example suggests otherwise. Here, religion and Enlightenment have not always been hostile forces, but have worked together, lifting the nation on the two wings of faith and reason, as social thinker Michael Novak recently put it.
The American revolutionaries, unlike their French counterparts, had a deep sense of man's imperfections and were no utopians; the reason they embraced was not the hubristic rationalism of the French Revolution but the humble "common sense" of the Scottish Enlightenment: more Adam Smith than Voltaire.
This spirit of reconciliation of religion and reason has been a source of endless strength and renewal for America, though it has come under fire from our cultural elites over the last several decades. McMahon seemingly would have us abandon this spirit outright, and if not celebrate the secular Enlightenment, like the revelers at Voltaire's apotheosis, then at least accept its permanent triumph.