BY PETER GAY (RE-PUBLISHED 1995 BY W.W. NORTON LTD. ISBN: 978-0-393-31302-4) 555 pages
November 2015 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Peter Gay’s historical magnum opus The Enlightenment: The Rise Of Modern Paganism. This volume discusses not only the eighteenth century and how the Enlightenment changed Western Civilization forever, but also the intellectual development that had occurred in Western Europe prior to that time. Most reviewers have given the book unequivocal praise. However, it is time to re-examine his book from a freethought perspective.
This is actually two books: the first is entitled “The Appeal to Antiquity” and the second “The Tension With Christianity.” The first rightly lays the groundwork for the Enlightenment by discussing the contributions of the ancient Greeks and Romans to intellectual discourse. The second discusses how Christianity stifled intellectual progress for over a thousand years. It is here that the real problems with Gay’s interpretation begin.
The main problem is that Gay wrongly gives credit to Christians as having paved the road for the Enlightenment and its secular agenda. His proofs are singularly strained as he seems to go out of his way to contradict himself on this issue. Consider this quote: “What the philosophes took over from Christian theologians and Christian philosophers were the least distinctively Christian, the least religious, parts of their teachings—they were usually ideas that had come to the church fathers from the Stoics.” (pg. 324) All well and good, but it gives the impression that the philosophes were not real innovators but instead built their theorems on what Christian leaders had already advanced. Gay also notes: “Christianity made a substantial contribution to the philosophes’ education, but of the definition of the Enlightenment it forms no part.” (pg. 323) Which is it? Christianity via the Stoics, or Christian doctrine itself? Moreover, how are we to reconcile the view of the philosophes alleged indebtedness to Christianity with his admission on page 4: “A few (a very few) of the philosophes held tenaciously to vestiges of their Christian schooling, while others ventured into atheism and materialism.”
As with virtually all historians, before and since, Gay gives wrong-headed sops to religion, as evidenced by the following: “Its (the Enlightenment) most glaring and most notorious defect was its unsympathetic, often brutal, estimate of Christianity.” (pg. 37) How any knowledgeable historian, who certainly must be aware of Christianity’s stranglehold on human progress for over a thousand years, can make such a statement is singularly baffling. The only thing that makes it comprehensible is the fact that, for most historians, paying some sort of homage to religion is necessary if they wish to be published . However, when objectively analyzed, there is nothing good to be said about Christianity; from its earliest formulation, it set out to destroy all opposition, all science, and all learning. Making insecure and anxiety-ridden people feel some sort of comfort hardly justifies its historical track record. What did Christianity ever do to advance freedom, science, the arts, or any other significant aspect of civilization? When has the church ever been in the vanguard of human progress? That certain individual Christians have done many things to advance civilization is an irrefutable fact. Nonetheless, there is nothing contained in Christianity’s toxic doctrines to justify anything other than hatred of the mind, and of life itself. “Progressive Christians” is a contradiction in terms; those Christians who did work to help the human race were, whether they recognized it or not, acting out of humanistic impulses, though they would claim otherwise.
Another, unrelated problem is that Gay laments the alleged problems caused by “the treason of the clerks.” He blames this group for numerous ills, and devotes an entire chapter to them, but nowhere does he state just who these people actually are or what their treason is; neither word appears in the chapter mentioned. He therefore is setting up a straw man argument in order to advance his idea that the philosophes were indebted to Christianity and, by doing so, give credence to the Christian leaders of the time. Gay strains to prove this contention throughout the text.
Gay discusses the ancient Greeks and their contribution to philosophy. The point has often been made that atheism is based on Empiricism. This is certainly true, and the corollary fact is that the ancient Greeks were the first thinkers in Western history to expound Empiricism.
Nonetheless, Gay’s understanding of atheism is superficial at best. For example, he says that atheism denies free will. Many atheists do, but not all. If free will is understood to mean that we are beings possessing a volitional consciousness, than denying human free will means nobody is ultimately responsible for anything they do. Few atheists, except perhaps some of the more extreme liberals, would go this far.
In Gay’s defense, he makes very astute observations, such as: “British empiricism transformed French rationalism; French scientific and political propaganda transformed Europe.” (pg. 13) Unfortunately, he then does a complete about face in the second book: “Two centuries of scholarship have exposed the philosophes’ blindness to the beauty, the learning, and the variety of the Christian millennium.” (pg. 209) Where is the “beauty” in an image of a man suffering on a cross? Was the Christian burning of the library at Alexandria an example of Christian higher “learning?” And let us not forget the “variety” of church doctrines which pitted Christian against Christian for hundreds of years and bathed Europe in blood.
To be sure, most religious leaders fought tooth and nail virtually all the doctrines of the Enlightenment. Even at the time of the original publication of this book, ivory towered and tenured history professors were attempting to downplay the significance of the Enlightenment, although time has fortunately not been kind to this view. Referring to the Enlightenment as being “overly optimistic”and “naive,” in addition to pandering to religious sentiments, ignores the fact that we owe virtually every single advancement of the last two hundred years to the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical transformation brought about during this time period not by the religious, but by the freethinkers. A little reason goes a long way.
The Enlightenment is thus a book that should be read with a great deal of caution. Perspicacity and insight is often offset by literary and moral contradictions, misinterpretations, and outright falsehoods. Certainly, each reader is left to draw their own conclusions, but those seeking a consistent and unified description of the Enlightenment and intellectual history should look elsewhere.
Categories: Book Reviews