Enlightenment & the Intellectual Foundations
of Modern Culture

by Louis Dupré.
Yale University Press (New Haven, Connecticut), 397 pp.,
$25.00 paper, 2004.

book cover imageOne
of the more promising cultural developments in these waning
days of the West is the growing tendency of the younger generation
to look askance at the promises of the Enlightenment. The
very word often carries a negative connotation, and its heralds,
the philosophes of the Eighteenth Century, are now
rarely invoked with reverence, when they are read at all.
It is to combat this trend that Louis Dupré, the T.
L. Riggs Professor Emeritus of Philosophy of Religion at
Yale University, has written this lengthy “intellectual
portrait” of the age of lights. “The Enlightenment,” he
attests, “has given us some of our most important ideas:
an expressive conception of art, a nonauthoritarian view
of morality, political theories that build freedom and democracy
within the very structures of society,” and, perhaps
most importantly in his eyes, “the separation between
cult and public life.” These “rational insights” of
the Eighteenth Century “have become an essential part
of what we are.” We are at home in modernity, and comfortable

The picture painted by Professor Dupré, accordingly,
depicts the triumphal progress of reason. After an initial
chapter in which the Enlightenment is defined according to
the critical use of reason and self-consciousness, he devotes
chapters to cosmology, the philosophy of man, art, moral
theory, political theory, and historiography, before bringing
the volume to a close with three chapters on religion. The
portrait, however, is no Delacroix. We do not see a bare-breasted
Lady Philosophy trampling upon l’infâme while
holding aloft the torch of reason. It is, rather, one in
the style of Poussin, with “bucolic Arcadias with Roman
ruins” that warmly evoke the discarded past as a picturesque
background to the heroic present. Fénelon shares a
corner of the canvas with Voltaire; Burke and Malebranche
are painted as respectfully and accurately as Hume. The portrait’s
conception is indebted to Hegel, who “first grasped
a crucial feature of the Enlightenment . . . namely, that
it was a dialectical movement.” The Diderots and d’Alemberts
were always in conversation, or perhaps a “productive
struggle,” with “anti-rationalist thinkers.” The
Christian religion was always present, its appeal to faith
sharpening and being sharpened by the Enlightenment’s
use of reason like stone against stone.“In the end,” concludes
Professor Dupré, even “religion benefitted” from
the Enlightenment, as it shucked off an unwanted reliance
upon ancient cosmology and sought “the proper domain
of religion in symbols of transcendence.” The portrait,
then, is a modern School of Athens. Walking amidst
the ruins of the University of Paris we see Descartes and
Kant surrounded by a rich cast of fellow students, from Locke
to Vico, Leibniz to Lessing. The ruins lie amidst verdure
and under a dappled sky. The Enlightenment was a peaceful
and disinterested amble, or it should have been.

If the Enlightenment had progressed according to Professor
Dupré’s plan, it would not have been so quick
to have discarded the order of nature and nature’s
God in its search for self-consciousness and the independence
of the human mind from the blind acceptance of habit and
custom. Can one not be thoroughly modern in one’s philosophical
orientation and yet remain respectful of the numinous? Condorcet,
Turgot, Fontenelle and all the others who asserted mankind’s
rational adulthood during the Eighteenth Century were not
so much wrong as they were premature. Kant was more circumspect,
but more accurate, in his appraisal: the age was not enlightened,
it was an age of Enlightenment. The Age of Lights, then,
was mankind’s adolescence, and the French Revolution
was a regrettable but necessary coming of age. In the Romantic
era, anti-rationalist thinkers “helped to restore the
spiritual content” of the human subject, wrongly cast
off by the impetuous atheists of the preceding age. Where,
then, are we now? Are we adults who, having lost faith in
the fairytales of childhood and outgrown the passions of
youth, wish to live content and secure in our twilight years?
So it would seem. We are not iconoclastic revolutionaries,
we are conservatives: “If today we feel that the undesirable
conditions in which many humans have to live impose a universal
obligation on the conscience of the more fortunate ones,
we may find it hard to justify that insight, but we nevertheless know it
to be true.” We are all Burkeans now, only the prejudices
we defend are those of the New York Times editorial
page, and the Revolution we inveigh against is the recrudescence
of unexamined belief: “Stunned by the attacks on September
11, 2001, I wondered if there was any purpose in writing
about the Enlightenment at a time that so brutally seemed
to announce the end of its values and ideals.” What
makes the West superior to Islam, what justifies our self-defense
and our comfort, is the Enlightenment: “Islam never
had to go through a prolonged period of critically examining
the validity of its spiritual vision.” It is “the
need to question” that has “advantageously distinguished
our culture from others.”

And so, as Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, the critical
impulse of the Enlightenment has become a traditionalism
all its own. Professor Dupré’s Enlightenment responds
to Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by embodying
MacIntyre’s very point. The resulting portrait is in
many ways an engaging one. To portray the Enlightenment as
broadly as he does, and to include not only the Germans and
Scots, but also Molière and Racine is to paint on
a generous canvas. An Enlightenment withVoltaire pushed
to the periphery and with a calm, diffuse light shed over
a century and more of thinkers standing in decorous contraposto
is almost attractive. As portraiture, alas, it is as much
an idealization as were Poussin’s landscapes. The Enlightenment
as it really was, and as it remains, was a less ambiguous
phenomenon, its quest for autonomy less easily harnessed
to the order of nature and to nature’s God. Nor was
the Romantic grafting back of religiosity onto the new Enlightenment
root particularly innocent. Giuseppe Mazzini, unquestionably
Enlightened, equally unquestionably religious, was the Western
analogue of Muhammed. He was but one of the Enlightenment’s
many armed prophets. Locke, running guns for the Whigs in
the 1680s, was another. No, the Age of Lights is not best
painted in classical equilibrium. Delacroix’s Liberty
Leading the People
was a more truthful, if less flattering,

Christopher O. Blum is an associate professor in the Department
of History at Christendom College. He is the editor of Critics
of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary
(ISI Books, 2004).