The intellectual and political legacy of the modern Enlightenment faces serious challenges today. Only twenty years ago some in the West proclaimed a growing worldwide consensus around basic Enlightenment values: free intellectual inquiry, individual rights, toleration and the consent of the governed. Today, the world seems as divided as ever. If we have learned anything in the past two decades, it is that opposition to the Enlightenment is not always inspired by religious conservatism or cultural backwardness; for some, it is an active program for reshaping the world in which we live. After the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre wrote, “the Counter-Revolution will not be against revolution, it will be the opposite of the Revolution.” Similarly, the reactionaries of our time seem eager to establish the opposite of the Enlightenment.
A wit once defined a liberal as someone who refuses to take his own side in an argument. The joke ceases to be funny the moment closed minds are willing to use force to attain their anti-liberal ends. What then? What happens to toleration when those we tolerate are intolerant of others? What happens to the principle of autonomy when cultural groups within a liberal state refuse autonomy to their own members, especially women and young people? What do we say when they try to use their democratic vote to limit the social liberty of others, such as homosexuals? Or when they want to destroy the liberal state? Must we tolerate the intolerant?
Attacks on the European Enlightenment first arose, not in an alien religion or culture, but in Europe itself. Ever since its birth, the modern West has been intellectually and politically divided over its own legitimacy. The history books our children read today celebrate the proponents of modern Enlightenment:
scientists, inventors, scholars, social reformers, writers and artists. But hostility to the Enlightenment has shaped modern history as fundamentally as the original movement has. It is necessary to understand both sides of the struggle if we wish to understand either ourselves or our contemporary adversaries.