book cover imageA conversation with Anthony Gottlieb

Western philosophy is now two and a half millennia old. But a great deal of it arose in just two staccato bursts, lasting 150 years each.

In a book he published in 2000 called The Dream of Reason, Anthony Gottlieb explained the first of these two bursts: tracing the roots of Western philosophy to the ideas of Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Gottlieb has just recently published The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy. It tells the story of Western philosophy in Northern Europe in the wake of Europe’s wars on religion and the rise of Galilean science. The narrative stretches from the 1630s to the eve of the French Revolution. During this brief time, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and Voltaire all made a vital contribution to the history of western thought and culture.

JP O’Malley caught up with theBritish author and scholar, who explained why he doesn’t agree with Rousseau’s politics; why John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government has been so influential for both the French Revolution and the American Constitution; and why the progress of humanity is something worth believing in.

A great deal of Western philosophy came in two big bursts: In ancient Greece, and then northern Europe in the early modern period. Is there a great difference in both of these historical periods of Western philosophy?

There are enormous differences. In fact, I cannot think of anything they had in common except that they were both extremely intellectually stimulating. I’m not saying those were the two most interesting periods of philosophy, and there isn’t much interesting philosophy at any other time.

It’s just that a remarkably high proportion of philosophy that appeals to us today seems to be either from Ancient Greece, or the early modern period of 150 years.

Descartes urged his readers to focus on things that are objects of the intellect alone and totally separate from matter. Can you briefly talk about this?

It’s an ancient idea that’s reflecting the Greeks, and St Augustine too: which said that there is something much higher about what the intellect produced when it’s contemplating ideas and abstract things. Although Descartes was rightly called the father of modern philosophy, he was still very much in that [ancient] camp, despite the fact that he was interested in what we would now call empirical science.

What were Descartes’ ideas on body/mind separation?

In one way he invented our mind-body problem. He was the one who really emphasized the question: how do matter and mind connect? Descartes had a very keen sense that in a human being, mind and body are closely interacting: that there wasn’t this big separation between the two.

Hobbes, you write, unlike Plato, starts by imagining the horrors of a lawless world, in which there is no common power to keep them all in awe. The result was the continual fear and danger of violent death. Does this then mean we should put Hobbes on the right side of the political spectrum?

I don’t think so. It’s a bit hard to take figures from that period and classify them as left or right. But there is quite a case for saying that Hobbes was on the left in respect to egalitarianism.

He didn’t think people should have power just because of their family background. I don’t think his idea on the importance of strong government is intrinsically right wing either. Because, after all, there is no government stronger than totalitarian communist states.

Would it be right to say Hobbes thought the point of government is to protect people?

Absolutely. And this was a very vivid issue for him. Because there had been religious and civil wars during his lifetime. So he had seen people fighting and killing each other, and generally having a terrible time. His diagnosis of what had gone wrong was that there wasn’t a strong enough government to keep these nasty impulses in check. And since he was arguing for a particularly strong form of government—a single undivided powerful sovereignty—he needed to defend it by saying: it is for your protection and your benefit.

Things began to go seriously wrong for mankind—Rousseau suggested—with the first enclosure of land: that is when some ground was taken as private property. Are you in agreement with him here?

I’m not really with Rousseau on this, I’m afraid. He seems to think everything has been in decline for an awful long time. I’m more of an optimist. He saw what many of us would regard as steps forward in civilisation as steps backward. I find very little to agree with there. I do think he is the one of the most remarkable and original thinkers. But there is very little in terms of social and political questions where I think he was right.

Spinoza seems to be the first person to argue comprehensively—you write inthe book—that the word of God is faulty, because it has been relayed to us by human beings. Did this pave the way for a secular Europe where Christianity was replaced by humanism?

I think it did play a role. And Spinoza was one of the first people to come up with this idea that you have to look at the Bible as a literary text produced by humans. And explain them in terms of people’s motivation and limited knowledge. That was a novel idea at the time. I’m not saying he was the first person to absolutely say it. But he was one of the first of those important thinkers to openly express this idea.

John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government has been cited as an inspiration for the French Revolution, the American Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence too. What was so important about it as a piece of political philosophy?

We can bring this out in a contrast with Hobbes, who thought there was no right to rebel against the government, however badly that government behaved. Whereas Locke thought there was a right to rebel if things got bad enough. Because his type of social contract was that you had a deal between the people and the ruler. And if the ruler is oppressing the people that breaks the deal and you are allowed to get another leader. That is the single most important things in Locke’s thought that appealed to would-be revolutionaries.

What does the term ‘the social contract’ mean, and when did it emerge in history?

Well there are different versions of the social contract, some of which go back to the earliest political writings we have.

It’s the idea that historically governments came about because people banded together for protection, realizing they could get more done if they cooperated. And so they arrange to have a deal. That’s been around for along time. It’s there in the Greek myths: in how societies formed and came together. And in then in the early modern period—with Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes and others—it became more explicit. Locke tried to put it together, not just as a purely historical account, but as a way of justifying government.

If you were to sum up one great idea that Locke had, what would it be?

That people ought to think for themselves. This was one of the signature themes of the Enlightenment.

More than a century before Darwin’s Descent of Man—which proposed that there is no fundamental difference between man and higher animals in their mental faculties—David Hume had arrived at a similar conclusion. Why did he believe this?

Hume was free of a fundamentally religious prejudice: which holds that there must be a really important difference between [humans] and animals. In traditional religions, the idea is that humans have souls and animals don’t. There was very little in traditional religion that Hume bought into.

So his scepticism of the Christian world helped him to open his mind to the fact that what animals do and say isn’t so different from us.

Hume’s work was intended to show the extent to which our knowledge is based on limited experience? What did he mean by this?

Hume presented several skeptical problems to illustrate and stress the weakness and limitations of the human mind. And these problems are still much talked about by philosophers today. All we have to depend on—in his view—is experience and material matters.

The Enlightenment—you conclude in the book—has at various times been blamed for numerous negative epochs in history: for the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, the dark sides of fascism and communism; and other madcap utopian schemes. I’m presuming you disagree with this hypothesis?

Well, I do believe in progress. It seems to me very foolish to deny that there are various ways in which human life has got a lot better. Even the simple matter of people living much longer, and far fewer ofthem starving to death. On the discussion of the Enlightenment: it really depends on how you define it, on who you are looking at. To some extent it’s a value judgment on what you see as the real Enlightenment.

So you generally see the Enlightenment as a positive intellectual movement?

I do. But I’m also generally aware that I’m defining it in such a way to make that true. I think one should limit the use of the word Enlightenment to the eighteenth-century French thinkers: they explicitly thought of themselves as living in a new century of light. And of bringing light into darkness.  

JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.

A conversation with British author and scholar Anthony Gottlieb on the rise of the Enlightenment; Rousseau’s politics; the influence of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government on both the French Revolution and the American Constitution; and the progress of humanity.