We are now in the period of the 100th anniversary of the launch of the “Great War,” the “War to End All Wars,” which became known as World War I only when a follow-on world war ensued. As I’ve said before, the distinction between the world wars was very blurred back then, and for very good reason. The period between the wars, somewhere between 20 and two dozen years, was called “The Long Weekend” once hostilities inevitably broke out again in the late 1930s.
This is a thesis I intend to revisit in this column space over the coming months: We are still, 100 years later, living in the shadow cast by the Great War. Just as the Treaty of Versailles did not end the conflict but actually contributed to the horrors of its eventual re-flaring, so did the end of World War II not signal an end to the kind of world that the Great War spawned.
It is important to begin by stepping back. It can be argued that the 120-year period between 1680 and 1800 constituted in human history a singular era called the “Enlightenment,” the era that near its close produced the American Revolution and the founding of the world’s first muscular Constitutionally-based democracy.
The inspired professor at Princeton University, Jonathan Israel, in the third of his heavy tombs on Enlightenment, entitled Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution and Human Rights, 1750-1790, (Oxford University Press, 2011), wrote, “The Enlightenment era runs from around 1680 to around 1800,” its purpose being “to restore the centrality of philosophy rather than other things as the primary agent of betterment, to reflect the close linkage of Enlightenment with fundamental transformation, challenging accepted values, and revolution, and, finally, to accommodate the quest for universality.”
When one reflects on the overarching values and objectives of the Enlightenment era, it does not take a lot to realize how unlike all that the last 100 years have been in our history. It could be asked, “How can we further advance the betterment of mankind at this stage in our history without the benefit of any of the dominant themes that characterized the Enlightenment being prevalent in our culture today?”
Well, that is a darned good question, especially for anyone aspiring to that kind of sweeping human betterment these days.
In the introduction to his latest volume, Israel cuts right to the heart of what’s wrong today compared to back then. He jumps right into the face of the post-World War II rise of the insidious philosophy of Postmodernism. He writes, “Postmodernist thinkers have argued that (the Enlightenment’s) abstract universalism was was ultimately destructive, that the relentless rationalism, concern with perfecting humanity, and universalism of what they often dispaagingly called ‘the Enlightenment project’ was responsible for the organized mass violence of the later French Revolution and the still greater horrors perpetrated by imperialism, Communism, Fascism and Nazism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”
Much of Israel’s work is focused on thoroughly debunking that view, which to degrees we’re not even aware of today has poisoned what passes for rational thought in our current culture.
In particular, Israel goes after the Postmodernist thinker Michel Foucault, a primary target of my own book, Extraordinary Hearts (2013). He attacks Foucault’s “overarching and powerful claim that the Enlightenment’s insistence on the primacy of reason was ultimately just a mask for the exercise of power … the Enlightenment was not just about liberation, but even more about new forms of constraint.” Foucault claimed that any quest for universal moral and political foundations should be cast out in favor of a value-free embrace of different cultural efforts “to determine their own priorities and goals without our discriminating politically or morally between them.”
But, again, Israel attributes the American Revolution and the notion of the inalienable rights of man to the Enlightenment. “It was,” he wrote, “the most important and profound intellectual, social, and cultural transformation of the Western world … concerned with the central place of reason and experience and experiment in understanding and improving human society,” and rejecting everything “blindly accepted from habit and custom.”