- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press (August 23, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195136853
- ISBN-13: 978-0195136852
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,467,023 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity
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From Publishers Weekly
History has often overlooked the men and women who resisted the triumphal progress of Western society toward Reason: spiritual Luddites, it seems at first glance, hoping to smash the ideological machinery of atheism and democracy. But in this sophisticated deconstruction of conservative opposition to the Enlightenment, McMahon, a fellow in history at NYU, re-envisions intellectual history from 1750 to 1830 as an ideological dialectic foreshadowing the culture wars of our own time and helping to define modernity. As McMahon shows, many Catholics saw Voltaire and his ilk as harbingers of degenerate hedonism, a diabolical menace to church, state and family. These anti-philosophes accused their enemies of practicing the very intolerance they condemned, and were convinced that danger lurked in philosophic fanaticism. Their horrified voices, audible from the mid-18th century on, became louder as the Enlightenment gathered momentum. Unable to stop the French Revolution, their protests seemed prophetic to many when idealism turned to terror. The ghost of Counter-Enlightenment ideology has been conspicuous in more recent times in Spain, Italy and Latin America, just as the specter of leftist violence has been repeatedly invoked. McMahon's argument is deeply versed in recent scholarship; his prose is polished, and the book is illustrated with compelling examples of visual propaganda (notably, Voltaire caught in flagrante delicto). While this title lacks the mass appeal of Simon Schama's Citizens or other narrative-oriented histories of the revolution, its relevance to conservative-liberal tensions in the U.S. make it worthy of broad intellectual discussion.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
"A well-written study...of an early culture war that will not be unfamiliar to us today -- a war of mutual simplification and caricature spiraling downward into suspicion and hate....Presents a useful genealogy of a brand of conservatism that remained influential through the mid-20th century, and, more pressingly, a rough template for a host of counter-Enlightenment ideas that are with us still today, from Cambridge to Kabul."--Wall Street Journal
"Remarkably well written...it will force revisions both of established views of, and new challenges to, the French and European Enlightenment."--Times Literary Supplement
"[I]n this sophisticated deconstruction of conservative opposition to the Enlightenment, McMahon...reenvisions intellectual history from 1750 to 1830 as an ideological dialectic foreshadowing the culture wars of our own time and helping to define modernity."--Publishers Weekly
"This well-researched and beautifully written study applies insights of recent Enlightenment historiography to the heretofore neglected area of the anti-philosophes." --Choice
"Beyond its chronological breadth and the relative novelty of its subject, this book has much to recommend it. Well-written and deeply researched, it takes up important historiographical questions. McMahons's work answers Roger Chartier's question about whether the existence of the Enlightenment was merely a fragment of the revolutionaries' imagination."--Journal of Social History
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Top Customer Reviews
Rick Perlstein theorizes in his recent book "Before the Storm" that the Sixties were as much about the rise of the American Right as they were about the New Left. McMahon makes the same point about the liberalism of the Revolutionary era. The conservative movement defined both itself and the left in reaction to the influx of new ideas. This book is an excellent study of this phenomenon.
McMahon starts off with a chapter on pre-revolutionary Counter-Enlightenment which concentrates on Catholic and Royalist objections to the Enlightenment. He points out that many of them cited Rousseau against the deists and atheists, though later Rousseau would join Voltaire and Diderot as the anti-christ of the Enlightenment. In contrast to Furet he notes how conspiracy theories proliferated on the Counter-Enlightenment before the fall of the Bastille and as the years went on, fears of philosophe and Protestant conspiracies proliferated in the counter-revolutionary press. A particular virtue of McMahon's account is how well-documented it is. Too much revisionist history concentrates on only a few intellectuals, and concentrating on their exegesis. This is true of Keith Michael Baker's Inventing the French Revolution and for scholars such as Mona Ozouf who look at Robespierre and Saint Just, but not Barere or Carnot. McMahon is also useful on how this ideology formed a Counter-Enlightenment international, that spread its influence most in Catholic countries (though Edmund Burke did give Barruel a warm and most undeserved endorsement). Contra Joan Landes he reminds us of the obvious fact the leading supporters of female subordination were on the Counter-Enlightenment Right. He is useful in citing Timothy Tackett on the rise of conspiracy theory paranoia in revolutionary France, as well as Sheryl Kroen's work on the Restoration Regime.
There are some reservations to be made about the book. There is a tendency to over-emphasize the similarities between left and right (especially in these days when the similarities in America between right and center are all too evident). While it is true that the fears of both extremes fed the other, McMahon does not explain why the center failed to hold if its opponents were so patently paranoid. (My answer: arguably they weren't). Nor is McMahon as clear as he could be on the "modernity" of the Counter-Enlightenment. To some extent, describing something as modern is almost tautological. After all the World Trade Center was attacked with airplanes, not torches. How could one live and have an effect on the modern world without sharing some of its modernity? In pointing out that the Counter-Enlightenment wanted a revived Catholicism that was utopian to demand, McMahon does not sufficiently probe whether any political movement could survive without an appeal to something beyond the actually existing. McMahon also spends surprisingly little time discussing Joseph De Maistre, certainly the most important of these intellectuals. Nor is he entirely fair to Adorno and Horkheimer's The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which does explicitly state that Enlightenment is essential to any hope for a better society. Adorno explictly stated that the only cure for the dilemmas of reason were more reason. McMahon cites Robert Darnton's critique. But Darnton fails to mention Adorno's defence of reason, and he makes his cases by citing the "good guys" of the Enlightenment. It is true, and important to remember, that Diderot admired Tahitian society and that Condorcet was open-minded and pluralistic. But it is also true that Hume and Kant indulged slavery and white supremacy and that Bentham was notoriously unimaginative and dogmatic. The scientism of a Teller or a Galton or a Heisenberg may be a heresy, but it is not a minor or incidental one. Notwithstanding these criticisms, however, this is an important book.
Perhaps the most helpful perspective the author brings to the subject is that neither party could exist without the other and that the French Revolution and its "Terror" was "the clash of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary extremes, not of either force in isolation" (p. 14). The counterrevolution (or Counter-Enlightenment) was a response that created a movement that was not necessarily reactionary, but in its own way new and idealistic (which the author makes credible even if it seems counterintuitive).
In order to make his case, McMahon pursues in-depth the writings of prominent counterrevolutionaries, both their arguments and their dire predictions. In the process it becomes clear that the revolutionaries and their ideological counter-parts share much in common … a Manichean perception of the world ("we're" good and "they're" evil), a paranoid sense of conspiracy on the part of the other ("our" conspiracy theories are well founded, "theirs" are hysteric), and the formation of factions that fostered heated rhetoric and, too often, violence. In essence, both share traits all too common to human nature.
Because the focus of the book is on the counterrevolutionaries and the Counter-Enlightenment movement, the overall tone of the book seems a little one-sided, skewed more favorably toward the radical left (or 'progressive') point of view. This impression may just be my own sympathy with the importance of some traditions and a skepticism that "progress" is capable of achieving a "new man" and a near utopia. However, by posturing the Counter-Enlightenment as every bit idealistic as the radical left, the author serves to remind us that, perhaps, the way forward is the path in the middle. The book quotes Julien-Louis Geoffroy (1743-1814), "Indefinite perfectibility is nothing but a brilliant chimera … a nation has its days of obscurity and its days of glory ... Between the [excess of ignorance and the excess of reason] lies the road of wisdom and truth" (p. 140). "Wisdom and truth" might be restated as "prudence and judgement" … too often these qualities are in short supply.
It is nearly impossible to credibly argue against the vast improvement that scientific and medical improvements have made to our modern lives. And it is just as impossible to argue against the general tide toward greater equality and human rights that has occurred over centuries. But … and there is almost always a 'but' … the Enlightenment's fostering of "radical individualism" (p. 29) has had its unintended consequences, too. A book that helps frame this consideration in the present is Pierre Manent's Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge (five stars). In a different fashion it brings McMahon's studies forward to 2017. The two books complement one another by creating an understanding of the French Revolution's role in creating our world today and, perhaps, provide important considerations for how we should move forward.
If you already have an appreciation for Eighteenth Century France and the French Revolution, as well as an interest in exploring the historical dialectic of the radical right and the radical left (or, for that matter, conservatives and progressives), this book is a worthwhile read. On a deeper level it is very much about the use and the abuse of history, as well as the nature of history itself. Or one might say its about "wisdom and truth" as best we can understand it.