Earlier this year, the Journal of American History published an essay bemoaning the lack of attention Americanists give to the idea of an American Enlightenment. The authors suggested some provocative reasons, like a latent exceptionalism that has made American scholars reluctant to pick up a topic still seen as rooted in Europe. Equally problematic was America’s religious character, which has left Americanists wary of a movement still viewed as secular. Despite noteworthy scholarship on an American Enlightenment being produced “at the margins of university research” (though I hesitate to call scholars like James Delbourgo, one such scholar, “marginal”), I sympathize with the authors’ case. There just isn’t that much good recent scholarship that American historians can readily incorporate into their work.
So, filling in the breach, we have popular history. The JAH focused on Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 2004 The Roads to Modernity, which cast the American Enlightenment as reasonable, moderate, and eminently successful. This stood in marked contrast to the bloody, topsy-turvy radicalism of the French Revolution. Written amid the second war in Iraq, Himmelfarb’s book, the authors’ argued, served as a self-justification of American power.
Earlier this fall, another popular history of the American Enlightenment came out that received far less attention. James MacGregor Burns, a political scientist by training and a former Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning biographer of FDR, released Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013). In a way, it plays the opposite political role Himmelfarb’s book did. Burns calls the Arab Spring the possible beginning of democracy in the Muslim World, their very own Enlightenment. It is less a justification of American power than it is a liberal, paternalistic view of democracy’s—and implicitly the West’s—essential goodness. His message seems to be that the West should sit back and watch as the Enlightenment bears its full flowers—democracy, secularism—in the sands of Syria. American historians should worry if this is what fills the gap as we shrug our shoulders at even the idea of an American Enlightenment.
Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World, attempts to show how the Enlightenment emerged from a dark period in European history when religious superstition and ancient monarchs reigned. The Enlightenment’s alleged virtue—and ours—is implicitly validated in the way societies throughout the world today seem to be taking up its mission. In the Arab Spring, Burns tells us in the introduction, we are watching the Enlightenment’s battles being fought anew.
But what exactly was the Enlightenment? Historians continue to argue over the definition, but that’s no excuse for failing to provide one yourself—and Fire and Light never gives one. So we are left with a sprawling narrative covering three centuries, one that includes such disparate thinkers as Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, as well as Karl Marx. Absent a coherent definition to hold the narrative in place, whether you like Burns’ story largely depends on whether you like his heroes.
Burns focuses on key thinkers in Britain, France and America, beginning his account with Hobbes. In the mid-seventeenth century, a bloody civil war ravaged England, leading Hobbes to articulate the idea of a social contract. Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) became the basis for the idea that government should be premised not in divine sanction but in protecting its subjects. Hobbes was “no democrat,” Burns writes, approving of a king so long as he saved man from his “nasty, brutish” state in nature. Forty years later, Hobbes’ countrymen John Locke gave us a vision of governance that begins to look more recognizable. To be legitimate, a government had to recognize man’s fundamental right to life, liberty and property. Locke essentially told people that government must obey their demands, not only the other way around.
When Burns moves to France in the same period, he finds Rene Descartes. Descartes empowered individuals to rely on their own intellectual faculties. All men shared the ability to think for themselves, and through reason they could shield themselves from blindly accepting religious or civic authority. Though the Enlightenment is often characterized as a battle between religion and reason, many historians now recognize that that dichotomy is more myth than reality. Enlightened thinkers, especially Descartes, often tried to square deep religious convictions with a new faith in reason. Burns shows us Descartes attempting to rationalize his belief in God, but in the end, he simply writes this off as the nagging doubts of an earlier, less enlightened age. Burns cannot accept that God, if occasionally assaulted by radical thinkers like Spinoza, was more often rationalized into existence than refuted by rationality.
By the eighteenth century, Fire and Light crosses the Atlantic. In America, we meet those quintessential enlightened colonials, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Burns includes many wonderful vignettes, like the meeting of two aging lions, Franklin and Voltaire, at the Academy of Sciences in Paris. The American Enlightenment usually gets short shrift, but Burns, a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, attempts to revive its place in the movement’s history. He rightly points out that, for most the century, educated Americans looked to Europe for guidance, and argues that colonial leaders made few contributions to Enlightenment thought. What they did do, he says, is try to put Enlightenment ideas into practice. During the American Revolution, colonials fought for Lockean notions of liberty, even if its Founders ultimately failed to implement them. After the war ended, millions of women, the poor and enslaved ended up exactly where they started: the Revolution’s “huge potential,” Burns writes, “went unrealized.”
Inspired by the Americans, the French tried their own revolution. Burns asks why their revolution was so much bloodier, and so much longer, continuing deep into the nineteenth century. For Burns, a political scientist by training, the central answer he provides is leadership. The Reign of Terror began because radical Jacobin ideologues did not have the leadership qualities of enlightened statesmen like Jefferson and Madison. Unlike them, Robespierre was not a “transactional” leader, a concept Burns coined years ago, which basically means the ability to compromise. Yet compromise had a high price. Many enlightened thinkers rationalized slavery, and in the context of the American Constitution, slavery was bargained off for freedom. Burns points this out, but since his Enlightenment can do no wrong, he cannot acknowledge that these supposed tensions—between slavery and freedom, personal liberty and the common good—were mutually reinforcing strains of Enlightenment thought, not simply “contradictions” that rested uneasily within it.
Every historian struggles with when to end his narrative; Burns is no different. But by including much of the nineteenth century, he sets himself up with a challenge few would bother to take on. Capitalism and industrialization defined the century, and preceding century’s Enlightenment ideas—Adam Smith’s notion of free trade; the scientific method—undeniably set its foundations. But Burns fails to distinguish between what ideas have their roots in the Enlightenment, and what actually constitutes the Enlightenment itself. Lacking any coherent definition, even Karl Marx makes the cut: after all, Burns argues, wasn’t he also optimistic about social progress?, about the promise of education?, that economics could be a science? With abstractions like these, the Enlightenment can mean almost anything.
There is plenty to like in Burns’ tale. He offers illuminating sketches of people less well-known to the general public, like the proto-socialist radicals Robert Owen and Francois Marie Charles Fourier. Anticipating Marx, both men tried to counter the rising tide of individualism and rapacious self-interest that characterized the capitalist ethos. Seeing the masses of impoverished workers alienated from their homes and communities, these radical thinkers, educated on Locke, Hume and Rousseau, tried to re-direct attention back to the Enlightenment’s earlier concern for the collective good.
Despite Burns’ progressive spirit—no clearer than in his frequent attention to the poor—Fire and Light ultimately basks in a certain cultural smugness. Democracy, and all the principles upon which it’s based, are the West’s unique heritage. Anyone fighting against authoritarian regimes, be it capitalism or despotism, are now fighting for our cause. For Burns, the Arab Spring is a case in point. In truth the struggle against oppression is nothing unique to the West, and the battles in Aleppo and Cairo are certainly about much more than democracy. But by Burns’ logic, others can do all the fighting, but the West should get the credit. It is exactly this sense of superiority that the Enlightenment fortified in many of its thinkers that blinded them to their own destructive habits. Burns simply absorbs and perpetuates this attitude, blinded by all the fire and light.