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Book review / The intellectual origins of modernity

Book review / The intellectual origins of modernity

David Ohana
Routledge, 2019; 248 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-815386-312-5.

By Jane O’Grady

In a celebrated essay of 1784, Immanuel Kant responded to the question “What is Enlightenment?” by saying that it represented “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity”, the sort of immaturity that leads us to get others to think for us. The motto of Enlightenment was “Sapere Aude! Dare to know!” wrote Kant and he condemned any attempt to curtail the expansion of knowledge as “a crime against human nature”.

Modernity is often regarded as an extension of the Enlightenment, a development of its imperative to free-thinking and discovery. Michel Foucault, for example, argued in 1984 that modern philosophy “is attempting to answer the question raised so imprudently two centuries ago: ‘was ist Aufklarung?’” For David Ohana, by contrast, modernity, although a product of the Enlightenment, subverted its ideals of rationality, universality, progress and science into a “will-to-power” that would change, dominate and sully the world and humankind.

Ohana is professor of modern European history at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and The Intellectual Origins of Modernity is concerned more with history and politics than philosophy. It might seem less a book than a haphazard collection of papers — focusing mainly on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Michel Foucault — except that, bestriding it, and giving it a fascinating coherence, is the figure of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and whom Ohana takes to epitomise the spirit of modernity.

A specialist in comparative national mythologies, he begins with a reminder that many Western myths convey “the ambivalence of human knowledge” and the notion that to know is a sin. The Eden myth, which is shared by the three Abrahamic religions, stresses not only Adam and Eve’s disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit and God’s punitive rage, but also the transformation that the fruit effected. Knowledge of good and evil gave them the ineluctable possibility of choice, forever expelling them from oneness with the present moment and with themselves.

Socrates associated knowledge with virtue, as Ohana reminds us, and lack of knowledge with error and evil. But, he also points out, the Greeks had their own myth of a Golden Age in which men lived in harmony until the Titan Prometheus tried to create a new upright-walking man who would resemble the gods, for which hubris he was forever enchained.

One of the many differences between the myths of Prometheus and the Fall is that Prometheus’ sacrilege is not due to weakness of character, like Adam’s, but to courage and altruism. Ohana, who admires as well as regrets such overweening ambition, notes how the Enlightenment contained the seeds of its own destruction. Its thinkers, he says, “replaced the religious concept ‘God’ with the modern concepts ‘nature’ and ‘reason’”, and some followed Rousseau in unfavourably contrasting nature with the artificial and the civilised. But, he adds, they found it as hard to account for how the (pristine, noble) natural became the (corrupted) unnatural as theologians have found it to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful God in effect set up our foreparents to sin.

The book opens with Rousseau, whose equivalent to the Fall is when “someone first enclosed a plot of ground” and persuaded everyone else that it was his. Ohana stresses Rousseau’s proto-Marxism in identifying private property as the source of inequality, and his ambivalent use of “Prometheus’ torch” in Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, which presciently warns of the dangers of science. Not only was he “an intellectual who was contemptuous of intellectuals, who glorified sentiment in the name of reason”, says Ohana, but, in his tract Emile, he advocated an education that promoted “freedom but also servitude, individuality, but, no less, conformity”.

“The main achievement of the Enlightenment,” argues the author, was the “universal concept of humankind”, which overrode arbitrary rankings of status, tradition, nationality and faith. But that left open the question of how far the universalised human was to be regarded (or to regard himself) as an individual to be protected from society, or as integrally part of a class, society or nation.

For Marx, socialism, with its stress on social relations, trumped individualistic liberalism. He took Prometheus as “a model for the liberation of the proletariat and the whole of mankind from the fetters of capital”. But did that justify territorial expansion in the name of universal liberation? Ohana discusses the ambivalence of Marx, and later Lenin, over that very question. Ultimately, he says, “the Soviet Union, which considered itself the spearhead of the international revolution, was actually a disguise for Russian nationalism”. The French Revolution had already “missionised” its message across national boundaries with swords as well as words.

But, as Ohana shows, liberal capitalism, which trumpets permissiveness and choice, also betrays the Enlightenment. In the early 19th century, de Tocqueville called socialism “the new servitude”, but he also discerned in current American society a “tyranny of the majority” that threatened to be more insidiously tyrannous than any flesh-and-blood tyrant in that it infiltrated opinion and will, and pre-empted originality.

The book traverses the “nebulous charm” of late-19th-century decadence and various forms of anarchism, that invariably start from the benign premise that humans are basically good and just need to be liberated from laws to flourish naturally, yet so often end up advocating violence and nihilism. The “inevitable product” of the religion of Prometheus, in which humanity is God, says Ohana, was the conclusion that “present humanity had to be sacrificed for the sake of a future humanity”.

We end with Michel Foucault, who, finding nothing else to unmask, turns on truth, which itself, it seems, is suspect — except in the case of whatever Foucault says about it. He pronounced “the death of man” and asserted that the task of the intellectual is not to tell others what to do.  In one way, plus ça change; in another, as Ohana skilfully shows, the Enlightenment is travestied.

Jane O’Grady is a co-founder of the London School of Philosophy and taught philosophy of psychology at City, University of London.

This book review is an abridged version of what was published on August 22, 2019 at Reprinted with permission.


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