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Michel de Montaigne (1533 - 1592)
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The Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment

Christian Thorne

(Harvard University Press; US: Jan 2010)

Academic books are generally allowed to possess certain virtues but not others. Logical rigor, intellectual depth, historical scope, even an eloquent prose style are all accepted, but a rapier wit and gift for farce are not. So what do you do with a book like Christian Thorne’s The Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment? 


Take just a couple of examples.


First, commenting on sonnet cycles by Sir Philip Sidney, Thorne writes:


“They are… palpably deranged, perhaps the most unhinged writings in the canon not to include the word opium in their titles, verse after verse after verse in which sleepless stalker-poets talk to the furniture and threaten to strangle their girlfriends’ pets.”


Elsewhere, writing about some followers of Thomas Hobbes:


“There are two things you can count on a Hobbsean not to like: they are European civilization and space aliens; and we will have understood something important about Hobbes’s political thought if we can figure out what the one has to do with the other.


Academic writing is not supposed to be so out and out funny. I defy anyone to find such a fun-filled sentence in Habermas or Derrida (though with perhaps with Derrida one should add the qualifier “intentionally”). What serves as the icing on the cake is that these delightful sentences occur in an important work of criticism that makes crucial points about skepticism (which can be construed as a lack of belief in the possibility of universal rational agreement) and its ties to regressive politics. 


And he does indeed show why Hobbeseans don’t care for space aliens.


The book is in part a polemic against the stance of Critical Theory, in particular its leading proponents Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, whose classic work Dialectic of Enlightenment inspires Thorne’s counter-title. The fundamental thesis of Horkheimer and Adorno’s work was that the Enlightenment established a form of instrumental reason that led, via capitalism, to the economic and ideological ensnarement of people in consumer culture, with its attendant values and logic.


Thorne would not dispute all of Horkheimer and Adorno’s arguments and certainly shares many of their inclinations; he is not a critic of the Left from the Right. What he challenges is their denouncement of the Enlightenment project in its entirety (though he does not specify what precisely in the Enlightenment he wishes to preserve); he does not accept that (unavoidably instrumental) reason is the culprit in shoring up right wing thought. In fact, he believes a different narrative has been completely overlooked by Horkheimer and Adorno and those that they have influenced, one that undermines many of their key assumptions.


What Thorne wants to call attention to is a neglected tradition, one that passionately rejected Enlightenment values in order to maintain what might later be called a conservative, or even reactionary politics, a group of thinkers who were terrified of the breakdown of a society that privileged the few at the top.I use “top” advisedly, because their conception of society certainly was vertical; in fact, above all they wanted to preserve a way of viewing all people in terms of verticality rather than horizontally. He chronicles a series of thinkers who used a skeptical rejection of rationality as a means of defending the status quo, which meant politically espousing the privileges of monarchy and an empowered elite.


His story begins with the Hellenistic period, where Sextus Empiricus in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism laid down a means of universally doubting the validity of any statement. While many have regarded skepticism or Pyrrhonism as inherently revolutionary, in fact, as Thorne shows here, a series of thinkers has utilized this skepticism as a means of disempowering any critiques of entrenched political power. Instead of being revolutionary, it is counterrevolutionary. Once you use skepticism to destroy any attempt to critique the powers that be, you are left with nothing but raw authority; by rejecting the intellectual justification of change, you safeguard a culture based on tradition from delegitimizing critique. No matter what argument you offer against the powers that be, Sextus Empiricus provided methods by which to counter “philosophy”.


The balance of Thorne’s book consists of a survey of representative thinkers who employed Pyrrhonism to defend the status quo and the traditional political and social arrangements from radical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, the period which is viewed as the time during which the Enlightenment arose. The most brilliant section of the book comprises an inspired discussion of Montaigne. Many celebrate Montaigne as a proto-pluralist, as someone who espouses a degree of toleration unusual for his time.  In fact, as Thorne shows, such a position was so unusual that not even Montaigne held such a view, or at least did not hold a kind of tolerance that would approve of multiculturalism. 


In fact, Montaigne tolerated only one culture; to a people he was a monoculturalist. While he was comfortable with residents of the New World holding non-Catholic views or those in Istanbul believing in Islam, he possessed no such tolerance for Europeans. Thorne shows that Montaigne, like Sextus Empiricus, strives to disarm “philosophy” by rejecting any universal claims to knowledge, which left Europeans, like the Hellenistic rulers, reliant on local custom. Since local custom held that Montaigne’s culture was Catholic, the status quo must hold, which justified the killing of the Huguenots, the French Protestants who threatened the foundations of French society. 


Thorne provides dozens of examples of Montaigne’s unsystematic but comprehensive dismantling of any attempt at establishing any universal idea. If no thesis can be universally valid, then the Crown cannot be undermined, since no one can demonstrate that anything is better or that the existing monarchy is illegitimate. Montaigne seems so modern when he read him because we don’t grasp either his historical context or his agenda in dismantling the claims of the so-called philosophers (which referred to anyone attempting to establish secular rules of rationality transcending the authoritarian demands of theology, which provided the basis for the most Christian kings of Montaigne’s France).


Thorne details the purposes underlying the writing of such anti-egalitarians as Thomas Hobbes, Joseph Glanvill, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Laurence Sterne, while also critiquing the historical theses of various members of the Frankfurt School and post-structuralists, from Horkheimer and Adorno to Jürgen Habermas.  There is even a delightful though unexpected section on Utopianism in which he interjects Twentieth-Century SF writers Stanislaw Lem (specifically Solaris) and John Brunner (specifically his response to Solaris, entitled Total Eclipse). 


My one complaint with Thorne’s book – and I believe this is a significant one – is that while he clearly wants to rely upon Enlightenment thought, and defend it from its cultured despisers, he not only does not give any defense for it in the face of such widespread contemporary disbelief (of the recent thinkers he mentions, the only one would clearly believes in something akin to universal rational thought is Habermas) but does not even give any hints as to what form such a defense would take. His goal is far more limited. 


Thorne merely wants to show that anti-Enlightenment thinkers were even more resistant to progressive political change than anyone embracing Enlightenment ideals. Implicitly, he accuses Horkheimer and Adorno of justifiably being concerned with the defense of the status quo by capitalists (who were defenders of the Enlightenment project; Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was an enthusiastic reader of Rousseau and Adam Smith), but mistaken in identifying those who were most engaged in such a defense. Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope resisted social change while both Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham were comfortable with it.


This is an important discussion of pre-Enlightenment opponents of enlightenment, of those who wanted to stand pat all in the defense of standing pat with the king or tyrant we know (whether devil or not), rather than either following the demands of philosophy or embracing egalitarianism. 


And it is flat out entertaining, to boot.

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