Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 4.20.18
Just Outside Washington



Recently, a friend gave me Yoram Hazony's piece, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, from the Wall Street Journal (April 6, 2018). Hazony referenced Steven Pinkers book, Enlightenment Now, [which I did not read] and David Brooks', The Enlightenment Project, from the New York Times (February 28, 2017), [which I did read]

I don't care for Brooks' use of The Enlightenment Project because the term has been kicked around academia as a negative. However, Brooks makes some valid points about applying Enlightenment thinking to governance. Hazony, on the other hand, is grinding an axe. However, he does make a few valid points.

Many of the ideas and accomplishments attributed to the Enlightenment were developed prior to the period we call the Enlightenment. Contributions were made during the Renaissance and within organizations throughout Europe, including the church. Human beings have worked on governance throughout history, and what we have is a continuum. As far as we know, because we rely on the written word, it started with the Greeks: Pythagoras, Plato, etc.

Hazony uses Pinker as a foil to point out where he thinks Pinker is wrong. Also, Hazony is critical of Immanuel Kant, who I quote in his own defense: "Enlightenment is man's release from his self-inflicted immaturity ... ‘Have courage to use your own reason!' -- that is the motto of enlightenment." Without the benefit of reading Pinker's book or all of Kant, I have outlined some points where I think Hazony has gone astray:

    1. Hazony defines the Enlightenment too narrowly both in time and content. Also, while Kant was important, he was not the only thinker relying on reason. He carves out the Scots, David Hume, et al, as anti-Enlightenment. Not true, even though they criticized other Enlightenment thinkers, they were of it and contributed.

    2. There is no English Constitution, as such. There is a body of law, including Common Law, which has changed wildly over time in its application and interpretation.

    3. In lauding the English Constitution, he completely forgot the Glorious Revolution, which the U.S. founders did not. Much of what they were trying to accomplish was to prevent an Oliver Cromwell.

    4. Enlightenment thought was a major part of the French Revolution, and it was built on what came before: the Seven Years war, French bankruptcy, inequality, and the American Revolution. American men of the Enlightenment -- Franklin, Jefferson and Adams -- were in Paris at the time. The revolution soon abandoned rational thought and democratic government -- think Robespierre and the Jacobins.

    5. The problem with revolutions, even ones based on Enlightenment thinking, is stopping the revolution. The American Revolution stopped; the French Revolution did not.

    6. During the French Revolution, Austria threatened France from two sides joined by Prussia, and egged on by the ex-pat French nobility that pushed France into war and hence Napoleon. War is always an excellent way of consolidating power.

    7. Hazony asserts it is a myth that free people make choices based on reason, which contradicts much of economic theory about rational choices in the marketplace. Of course, Daniel Kahneman points out that we have an irrational part of the brain, which acts instinctively. The big problem is to move the decisions to the rational part except for fight or flight issues.

    8. Hazony implies that we do not choose moral obligations such as those in families; when we are young, certainly not. But at some point, we attain the age of reason, at which point we choose. We may choose based upon emotion, history, social pressure, or inability to see alternatives; but we choose. It is not the kind of rational choice Kant advocated but choice none the less. Hazony also attributes the breakdown of the family to the Enlightenment and the idea of rational choice, but fails to support his assertion.

At the end of the article, Hazony is noted as the author of The Virtue of Nationalism. [I have not read it and do not have the time]. Nationalism gave Europe Italian Fascists, German Nazis, and Japanese militarism. The resulting death toll is estimated at 60 million people. Nationalism, assisted by religious and cultural bias, also broke Yugoslavia apart and caused the Balkan War. Nationalism is putting severe strains on the EU and is part of Russia's antagonism to the west, which has roots going back to the czars.

The world is made up of sovereign nation states with an overlay of globalism; most of the globalism by choice. I think that national identity, culture, and traditions are positive forces as we try to manage world order. This management requires institutions and decisions based on rational thinking.

Nationalism, to my mind, always devolves to extremism because no matter what the shared characteristics such as culture, language, race, religion, political goals, common ancestry, or beliefs that are used to define the Nation; there is always a minority. Also, there are always the outsiders -- those beyond the border. When the unexpected happens -- and it always does -- the Nation cannot be at fault; therefore, it must be the Other (the minority or across the border).

In this world, a person of the Enlightenment and the institutions stemming from the Enlightenment will sooner or later be faced with the unexpected. The challenge, using Kahneman's brain model, is to acknowledge the emotional response and then develop a rational solution. For example, after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the emotional response was to invade Afghanistan and Iraq; a rational decision would have been ???