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The intellectual and political legacy of the modern Enlightenment faces serious challenges today. Only twenty years ago some in the West proclaimed a growing worldwide consensus around basic Enlightenment values: free intellectual inquiry, individual rights, toleration and the consent of the governed. Today, the world seems as divided as ever. If we have learned anything in the past two decades, it is that opposition to the Enlightenment is not always inspired by religious conservatism or cultural backwardness; for some, it is an active program for reshaping the world in which we live. After the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre wrote, “the Counter-Revolution will not be against revolution, it will be the opposite of the Revolution.” Similarly, the reactionaries of our time seem eager to establish the opposite of the Enlightenment.

A wit once defined a liberal as someone who refuses to take his own side in an argument. The joke ceases to be funny the moment closed minds are willing to use force to attain their anti-liberal ends. What then? What happens to toleration when those we tolerate are intolerant of others? What happens to the principle of autonomy when cultural groups within a liberal state refuse autonomy to their own members, especially women and young people? What do we say when they try to use their democratic vote to limit the social liberty of others, such as homosexuals? Or when they want to destroy the liberal state? Must we tolerate the intolerant?

Attacks on the European Enlightenment first arose, not in an alien religion or culture, but in Europe itself. Ever since its birth, the modern West has been intellectually and politically divided over its own legitimacy. The history books our children read today celebrate the proponents of modern Enlightenment: scientists, inventors, scholars, social reformers, writers and artists. But hostility to the Enlightenment has shaped modern history as fundamentally as the original movement has. It is necessary to understand both sides of the struggle if we wish to understand either ourselves or our contemporary adversaries.

Isaiah Berlin, a Russian émigré who spent his working life teaching intellectual history in Oxford, was unusually alert to this struggle, and did much to upset received ideas concerning the Enlightenment and its adversaries. Though he was a liberal’s liberal, he did not read the Enlightenment uncritically—quite the contrary. He thought the only way to understand the value of liberalism and shore up its fortunes was to reinterpret it in light of its adversary, which he called the Counter-Enlightenment. Though he did not coin the term, he widened the scope and currency of the concept. Berlin studied Counter-Enlightenment thinkers like Vico and Herder as seriously as others studied Voltaire and Rousseau, and managed to make their obscure and half-forgotten writings seem vital to our times. The more Berlin studied the leading figures of the Enlightenment, the more convinced he became that their ideas paved the way for twentieth-century totalitarianism. And the more he studied the obscure figures of the Counter-Enlightenment, the more he believed their ideas provided a better foundation for defending liberal values.

Berlin’s historical essays were mainly about Counter-Enlightenment thinkers. But the more one reads him, the clearer his views on the Enlightenment also become. He writes about the Counter-Enlightenment with great nuance and sympathy, but when he turns to the Enlightenment his tone becomes that of the prosecutor. However great was his admiration for the Enlightenment’s success in challenging the doctrines of the Middle Ages, he charged its major figures with an intellectual mistake that had enormous repercussions in the modern age. He called the mistake “monism.” What is monism? According to Berlin, it is the dominant outlook of the Western philosophical tradition that began with Plato and turned sinister with the French Enlightenment. Monists take three axioms to be self-evident: first, that all genuine questions have one true answer; second, that those answers are in principle knowable; and, third, that all those answers are fully compatible with each other.

It is not obvious why philosophical monism is mistaken, let alone dangerous. To say that all questions have one true answer seems to follow logically from the concept of truth; while there can be many answers to the question “what is the ratio between the radius and the circumference of a circle,” there can be only a single true one. As for the second axiom—that true answers are in principle knowable—that seems little more than the defensible working assumption of all scientific research; we don’t know our limits until we reach them. The third axiom states that all true answers are compatible with each other. It would be a strange world indeed if a true principle in physics contradicted a true one in chemistry.

Berlin admitted that the axioms of monism might be useful, even necessary, for the natural sciences. His real concern was the application of these standards and methods to the study of human beings and societies. To believe that all human problems have one true solution denies the natural variety of human pursuits and customs. To believe those answers are knowable is hubristic. To believe they can be harmonized is a recipe for tyranny. Berlin drew a line from the philosophy of Plato to the ideologies of Nazism and Communism: in their own way, all three stood for the tyranny of ideas over life.

We may grant that the application of philosophical monism to politics threatens traditionally conceived liberal values. But what does this have to do with the Enlightenment? In Berlin’s view, everything. At bottom, he saw the modern Enlightenment as monism with a monstrous new face, breeding utopian dreams of unifying and rationalizing human existence by political means. In his writing he called the Enlightenment “absolutist,” “deterministic,” “inflexible,” “intolerant,” “unfeeling,” “monotonous,” “homogenizing,” “arrogant” and “blind.” It provided the ideal “for which more human beings have, in our time, sacrificed themselves and others than, perhaps, for any other cause in human history.”

The more closely one examines the major figures of the European Enlightenment, the less plausible Berlin’s charges appear. He calls them intolerant—but surely he’s forgotten Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem and Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, both moving defenses of religious toleration? He calls their ideas arrogant and homogenizing. But those terms hardly apply to Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, which emphasizes the need to adapt political institutions to local circumstances. Or to Voltaire’s Philosophy of History, which locates the birth of civilization in China rather than Europe. Berlin saw the Enlightenment as one vast, monistic “project.” But what sort of project could possibly be built on Buffon’s Natural History, which was meant to expose the wild variety of nature? Or on the French Encyclopedia, which displayed the wide range of human endeavors without setting them into any hierarchy? Look to Saint Thomas’s Summa Theologica, and there you will find a monistic project: a vast web of principles and reasoning that consititutes a comprehensive view of existence from the standpoint of Catholic doctrine and Aristotelian science. Nothing comparable can be found in any major work of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Then what was Berlin talking about? In a word, the present. The question looming over every page he wrote about the Enlightenment was how the Europe that produced Goethe and Kant, Voltaire and Rousseau, Tolstoy and Chekov, also produced the death camps and the Gulag. Why did the optimistic and progressive spirit of eighteenth-century Europe give way to the wicked and destructive politics of the twentieth century? Who was to blame?

To answer those questions, Berlin turned to the great quarrel between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. He recognized that Enlightenment thinkers accomplished much that was good; indeed, modern liberalism would be unthinkable without their critique of cruelty, domination and arbitrary authority. But he was convinced that the Enlightenment’s commitment to philosophical monism was responsible for fantasies of a single, perfect, and universal human good. To his mind, the true heirs of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment were nineteenth-century utopians like Saint-Simon, Fourier, Auguste Comte and Marx. By the twentieth century, new forms of technological and social organization finally provided such madmen the tools they needed to realize their utopian dreams. The path from the Encyclopedia to Auschwitz was direct.

Pluralists believe that human nature is not fixed, but expands to accommodate the achievements of human culture. Pluralists believe that societies should be allowed to adapt their laws and customs to meet their own needs, and not be held to universal political principles. Pluralists believe that when it comes to cultures, we should not judge, for nothing human should be foreign to us.

Pluralism sounds unobjectionable when stated in this way. But there is little of this kind of pluralism to be found in the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers promoted by Berlin. Take, for example, the place of religion in their thought. Whatever their personal beliefs about the divine, Vico, Hamann and Herder all equated social life with religious life. According to them, society could not be conceived apart from the shared religious beliefs of its members. As for social diversity, Vico and Herder certainly saw the human species as a patchwork of different nations and cultures, but they were openly hostile to the idea of cultural diversity within those nations. Both blamed the collapse of Rome on the Empire’s growing cosmopolitanism, which disunited and dispirited a once mighty people.

Indeed, it is impossible to disentangle principles of pluralism from the darker nodes of Counter-Enlightenment thought. Later reactionaries like Joseph de Maistre only drove to their logical conclusion the ideas Berlin attributed approvingly to Vico, Hamann and Herder. Parallels with Vico are particularly striking—the need for authority, the religious foundation of law, hostility toward individualism, suspicion of philosophical curiosity—on these matters, the reactionary critics of the French Revolution were in complete accord with the author of the New Science.

Utopian thinkers of the period echoed these same themes. Berlin thought the schemes of Saint-Simon and Comte were inspired by Enlightenment monism, but in fact they drew heavily on Counter-Enlightenment principles. Saint-Simon taught that history oscillates between healthy “organic” periods dominated by religion, and destructive “critical” periods dominated by skeptical philosophy. Comte thought the invention of a “positive religion” necessary for the continued development of modern society. He even constructed a “positivist calendar” to replace the Catholic liturgical one, renaming all the saints’ days for historical figures who advanced the cause of progress. The seventeenth day of the eleventh month was set aside for the commemoration of Vico and Herder.

Berlin knew all this. Whenever he wrote about his Counter-Enlightenment heroes he was careful to say that much in their writings disturbed him. He admitted that some of them—like Maistre and Hamann—were moved by impulses so dark and alien that they exceeded his understanding. But the pluralism he saw in their works remained an integral part of his critique of Enlightenment monism. Why did Berlin find it necessary to make this distinction between monism and pluralism, and how, as a liberal, could he develop such antipathy for the Enlightenment heritage? The answer has less to do with Berlin himself than with the liberal mindset he shares with many others.

Every important political doctrine brings with it a certain mindset, a way of looking at the world. Liberalism brings with it a characteristic outlook with its own paradoxes. If the democratic mind presumes individualism and equality, the liberal mind values openness above all else. Locke was a democrat but also a liberal who supported religious toleration on the grounds that we cannot look into anyone else’s soul; for all we know, our neighbor’s beliefs might be superior to our own. The editors of the French Encyclopedia were liberals in the sense that they promoted free inquiry into nature and rejected religious and political controls over science. In John Stuart Mill, liberalism received its most coherent exponent. Mill promoted absolute free speech on the grounds that public deliberation offers the best chance of discovering the truth. He also worried about the tyranny of public opinion, which, in his day, made it difficult for people to do the unconventional things required for their own happiness. Liberalism in Mill’s sense means not only the protection of individual rights against religious and political authority, but also a social obligation to be open-minded about how others live their lives, so long as they do not harm anyone else. To speak the language of our time, Mill’s liberalism morally obliges us to accept diverse “lifestyles.”

The contemporary liberal mind, in Europe and in North America, takes these principles to be self-evident. But the liberal mind also tends to assume that everyone shares these values. It is so open-minded that, as a psychological matter, it has trouble recognizing when other minds are closed. And when it does, it has even more trouble deciding how to deal with them. Must liberalism tolerate the intolerant?

This is a classic problem of modern political philosophy. It is also a psychological problem for those committed to liberalism as a worldview. The major thinkers of the Enlightenment were not liberals in the psychological sense. They had no problem condemning religions and social practices that stifled human reason, because they believed that reason, while not our only faculty, was clearly the most precious one. They also believed that human beings could not achieve their natural and reasonable ends without autonomy. Berlin was wrong to think that the Enlightenment’s appeal to nature and reason constituted a single conception of the good life. But he was right to say the Enlightenment was not pluralistic. Toleration does not imply pluralism. An Enlightenment liberal can criticize people who pursue seemingly irrational ends, while still, as a practical matter, tolerating them. But that liberal will not tolerate a community that robs its members of the right to develop their capacities and choose their ends, free from political authority or social pressure. The Enlightenment’s commitment to toleration was based on a non-pluralistic understanding of the conditions necessary for development as a human being. The Enlightenment had a fixed understanding of human nature.

Berlin was uncomfortable with this outlook, and not just on philosophical grounds. Pluralist liberals like him care about the happiness of individuals and societies, but are mute in the face of choices or cultural habits that are obviously self-destructive. Such liberals even find it difficult to recognize, let alone condemn, those who explicitly declare themselves adversaries of liberal toleration. The hardest word for pluralists to pronounce is “no.” To avoid saying “no,” they romanticize their opponents, or turn their attention to the failures of liberalism—as if to say that the shortcomings of liberal societies invalidate the possibility of a liberal critique. In the extreme case, the “liberal” outlook begins to resemble the world of Alice in Wonderland, in which supposedly liberal democracies are condemned as oppressive tyrannies, while anti-liberal cultures and ideologies are celebrated as authentic expressions of diversity. That is what happened in debates over Third World ideologies and dictatorships in the 1960s and 70s; it plays a role in our thinking about multiculturalism today.

Berlin never expressed views remotely like this in his political essays, which were uncompromising in their defense of human liberty. But in his writings on the Counter-Enlightenment he made not only the defensible argument that the Enlightenment, though the original source of many liberal ideas, had been inconsistent or insufficiently liberal, but also the more extreme claim that it had been positively illiberal, tyrannical even, and that it had prepared the way for the twentieth century’s most monstrous political movements. He went even further; he ascribed to the Counter-Enlightenment’s leading thinkers pluralistic ideas they did not hold, and failed to take seriously their deep, illiberal motivations. All this out of love for liberalism.

The liberal character, like all characters, has its characteristic weaknesses. Liberals are susceptible to paralyzing self-doubt and they easily overestimate the goodness of man. But more than that, liberals are prone to turn one of their cardinal virtues—open-mindedness—into a vice. At a time when liberalism faces challenges inside and outside the West, it is worth separating the friends of liberty from its enemies. The legacy of the Enlightenment is fragile; there is no reason to assume that the principles of human autonomy will always be valued, or that the forces of ignorance, cruelty and domination will always be resisted. A contemporary liberal can learn a great deal from Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, but he cannot be their friend. Here open-mindedness reaches its limit. There is no shame in saying that liberalism has such limits, or that it knows how to distinguish friend and foe.

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