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This essay appears in a special symposium on intellectuals, which is entirely composed of essays by the editors of The Point. Click here to read all of the essays from the symposium.

Politics on both sides of the Atlantic is being played out in the costumes of dead generations. Trump won the White House with a Reagan campaign slogan, pledging to bring back factory jobs and tariff wars. Democrats believe desperately in the existence of Russian conspiracies. British conservatives yearn for the nineteenth century, while academics at Oxford seek an “intelligent Christian ethic of empire.” Jeremy Corbyn has made postwar socialism popular again, with the help of a line from Shelley. Such retromania might not be so surprising—every age of crisis, as Marx famously argued, conjures up the spirits of the past for guidance and inspiration. But it is harder to account for a ghostly presence that provides neither: the public intellectual who wants to fight about the Enlightenment.

Steven Pinker has released a book, Enlightenment Now, which argues that the solutions to all our problems—global warming, inequality, terrorism—lie in the “timeless ideals” of the eighteenth century. Jordan Peterson, recently anointed “the most influential public intellectual in the world right now,” has labeled identity politics an assault on the Enlightenment principle of human rights. David Brooks thinks that a populist Trump, a “Nietzschean Putin” and a “Marxian China” each represent a waning of faith in the Enlightenment project: “a long line of thought,” as Brooks aptly put it, like one you might put on a graph, but from which we’ve deviated. To get back on track we don’t really need to think through our principles, ideals or projects; we just need a sensible reminder of how Old and True and Good they are. Dead writers can do our thinking for us.

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Read more essays like this in our
“What are intellectuals for?” symposium,
such as “Switching Off” by Rachel Wiseman
and“Black Fire” by Jesse McCarthy.

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For Pankaj Mishra, on the other hand, history has not marched in a straight line but come full circle. In the New York Times in 2015, responding to the question “Is It Still Possible to Be a Public Intellectual?” Mishra pointed out that there were such doubts “even during the Enlightenment, when this figure emerged as the designer of rational society and the nemesis of religious prejudice and superstition.” Voltaire was the first technocrat comfortable with power, and Rousseau the alienated intellectual who saw corruption all the way down. Mishra turned this contrast into the set-piece for his 2017 book, The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, which extended the lessons of the Enlightenment to the world of Modi, Brexit, ISIS and Trump. From the eighteenth century we have inherited a litany of Voltaires: cosmopolitans, nation-builders and an out-of-touch, “globally networked elite.” But Rousseau, for Mishra, is no less a child of modernity, a prototype for romantic poets, Russian novelists, Italian futurists, Iranian revolutionaries and Hindu nationalists, so many “uprooted men” in whom society has bred resentment.

Mishra wins no prizes for originality in pointing out that the new forms of social organization and subjectivity that the Enlightenment helped create were as constraining as they were liberating. Nor does he claim them. His book is a polemic designed to jolt the likes of Pinker and Brooks out of their banal certitude. He wants to embrace the possibilities of our present moment, in which history suddenly seems “open-ended, without a guiding telos.” But in making the conformism of Voltaire and the rejection of Rousseau the basic postures of modernity, his argument has the opposite effect. So many smart people—so many intellectuals!—have assumed these roles in the past two hundred years. How could we do otherwise? We are trapped in what Foucault called the blackmail of the Enlightenment: we are either for or against, and we must choose a side.

Enlightenment intellectuals were being blamed for political turmoil well over a century before the election of Donald Trump. Trying to account for the rise to power of a mediocre populist with a famous name, Tocqueville in his Old Regime and the Revolution (1856) traced a French taste for despotism back to the eighteenth century, when “intellectuals became the country’s leading politicians.” The philosophers of the Enlightenment came up with abstract theories of human rights and natural equality because they weren’t allowed to participate in the more mundane affairs of government. The traditional aristocracy too, which the nation had once looked to for moral guidance, had been evacuated of its public responsibility by a state jealous for power. And so it was left to “literary men” to educate the masses, rallying them against a confused, unjust and decrepit regime by convincing them that the ideal world they had imagined was possible to achieve in reality. The spirit of the Revolution begun in 1789—the way it subjected politics and religion, time and space to the demands of reason and equality—was the direct product, Tocqueville argued, of that curious process by which politically ignorant intellectuals became the “chief statesmen of the time.”

Tocqueville’s Old Regime was in a sense a history of his own present, an attempt to understand how the French had tumbled headlong into not only the tragedy of the Terror but also the farce of Napoleon III. In 1848 young radicals inspired by utopian socialism and republicanism had overthrown a constitutional monarchy, only for the country to backslide into a plebiscitary empire. This was the generation of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education: apostates who had learned the hard way the costs of idealism. As with any attempt to write history, Tocqueville’s experiences determined to some extent the past he went looking for. They also provided him with a negative model for the role of the intellectual in public affairs—someone who philosophizes without restraint, without a care for the practical consequences of their ideas—that he retrofitted onto the eighteenth century and that has been sporadically influential ever since. Tony Judt, for instance, riding a wave of end-of-history triumphalism, chastised the French postwar left of Sartre and Beauvoir for, in their support of the Soviet Union, displaying a failure of “intellectual responsibility” and an “absence of a concern with public ethics or political morality.” Judt’s argument was Tocqueville warmed up for the Nineties, and it sustained the cliché of the (usually French) “literary politician” who is desperately and recklessly revolutionary. But this isn’t the only model of the intellectual that has been washed up from the eighteenth century.

In the Cold War West it became common to cast Enlightenment intellectuals in the role of truth-to-power dissidents. The “men of letters” of the eighteenth century were not so much repressed into abstraction by the old regime as they were liberated by their faculties of critical reason. With clear-eyed detachment, philosophes could cast a scrutinizing eye on the whole social order; through rational persuasion, they could incite public opinion against injustice. Wielding power but not corrupted by it, Enlightenment intellectuals provided a model for Karl Mannheim’s influential definition of a “free-floating intelligentsia,” unbound by class interest or dogmatic commitments in its pursuit of progress and secular reason. In the Marxist tradition, this notion of independence had been denounced as a self-serving myth; the true task of the intellectual was precisely to reveal the connections between ideas and social reality. Enlightenment intellectuals were therefore the articulate servants of a rising middle class—and so Mishra can argue that Voltaire believed in rational self-interest and the civilizing effects of commerce because he owned a watch factory. But even Antonio Gramsci, who more than anyone demonstrated how “traditional intellectuals” could be functionaries of power, once argued that it was the Enlightenment philosophes who first taught the European masses their revolutionary potential.

Mishra sees the origins of two types of intellectual in the eighteenth century: the mandarin and the alienated soul. To those we can add Tocqueville’s reckless utopian, as well as the dissident, the ideologue and the revolutionary. It’s no real surprise so many different moments and traditions would produce their own versions of Voltaire and Rousseau—after all, every present has its history. What is curious, though, is why that particular conversation keeps happening. Why, when we’re thinking about intellectuals, are we so eager to talk to the Enlightenment?

Attempts to explain historical phenomena—like national identity, or intellectuals—can suffer from what Marc Bloch called the “Idol of Origins.” The appeal to some far-off foundational event might be suitable for religious dogma, Bloch argued, but it won’t do for historical inquiry. A beginning is not a cause. Brexit might plausibly be traced back to the Magna Carta or Agincourt or Waterloo, but it can’t be explained by them. Anyone who claims otherwise, Bloch would say, is just using the past to make a judgment about the present—by appealing, for instance, to some antique British urge for “independence” that is being stifled by Europe. What we are trying to account for is made venerable, almost timeless, part of the nature of things.

There is a lot to be said for the argument that the modern intellectual originated in eighteenth-century France, at least in the sense that the philosophes were the first “social critics.” Although Tocqueville exaggerated the extent to which French writers were detached from politics, it is true that wealth and influence were less available to them than to their English counterparts. And so instead of writing for power they wrote about society, the product of long processes in which older forms of community—villages, parishes, guilds, universities—were giving way to more complex forms of organization. Thanks to the spread of cities and markets, people were released from the “idiocy of rural life,” as Marx put it—not in the sense that they overcame ignorance but in the sense that their lives were no longer “private.” What people made, bought and believed became publicly relevant. The abstract theories that Tocqueville deplored were attempts to understand these processes, which became understood under the rubric of “society.” Where did it come from? How should it be governed? Did it lead to the progress of knowledge or the corruption of morals? Society was the ultimate frame of reference for eighteenth-century European thought; as one wag argued in the Encyclopédie, that bible of the Enlightenment, for the philosophe society was “a divinity on earth”—a typically iconoclastic claim, because unlike God, it could be understood and, if understood, changed.

Nobody represented this mutually dependent relationship between society and the intellectual better than Diderot. Born in the provincial town of Langres to a cutler who would later disown him, Diderot made a living as a writer of novels and philosophy and as editor of the Encyclopédie, cajoling and curating the contributions of his fellow intellectuals to a project that was part dictionary, part manifesto for the “party of humanity,” the progressive vanguard of the Enlightenment. His career, which culminated in the court of Catherine the Great of Russia, was an achievement of intellectual sociability that was unthinkable before the eighteenth century. Yet it is equally difficult to identify Diderot as a confident pioneer of a tradition—either of a certain type of intellectual or of a certain kind of ideology—that would march triumphantly into posterity. He was too ironic, his arguments too variable. But above all he had the self-awareness to realize that the commercial society he operated in and benefited from had its own vices. He embodied, in other words, the necessarily compromised role of the social critic. As he has one of his characters say: “There is nobody who doesn’t … criticize the existing order of things without realizing that he is thereby denying his own existence.”

The quote comes from Diderot’s masterpiece Rameau’s Nephew, a fictional dialogue between an upstanding “philosopher” and the titular character, an eccentric sycophant who has climbed his way into the salons of the rich. The conversation provides an opportunity to satirize the enemies of the Encyclopédie, the hangers-on and hacks of the forces of reaction. More importantly, though, it allows Diderot to question the philosophes’ own ethical commitments. The nephew’s dishonesty, greed and sexual indulgence are shocking. But unlike the meek appeals to virtue and honor that the philosopher offers in response, they are all consistent with the Enlightenment belief that allowing people to act on their basic passions governed only by self-interest would be socially beneficial in the long run. Since everyone ultimately had the same needs and desires, the inegalitarian, debauched world of the old regime was impossible to condone (“What a bloody awful economy: some men bursting with everything, while others, with stomachs just as clamorous and a hunger just as unremitting, have nothing to get their teeth into”). But the world of Rameau’s nephew, the pantomime of society where everyone was just trying to get ahead, didn’t have much going for it either: “Money, money. Money is all, and the rest, without money, is nothing.” Rameau’s shallowness, his vanity, ambition and deceit, are the logical outcomes of some fundamental Enlightenment beliefs; he is the caricature of a philosophe, a creature of modern society.

Historians have long been trying to undermine the idea that there was anything like an Enlightenment project, the confident pursuit of reason and progress by a small group of forward-thinking modernizers. The eighteenth-century intellectuals that emerged from these studies were philosophically modest and ambivalent about power—a lot, in other words, like Diderot’s doubtful, divided social critic. And just as previous generations sought revolutionaries or dissidents in the Enlightenment, maybe that model is currently appealing. The likes of Pinker and Brooks might worship the philosophes as prophets, their ideas the revealed truth of secular liberalism, but this is the fanaticism of a dying faith that comforts those who would rather ignore the worldly affairs of the past decade (not to mention centuries). As Mishra’s book demonstrates, there is now very little patience for an Enlightenment that is not conscious of the material and spiritual costs of progress, as the commercial society of Diderot’s Paris has spread across the globe. Our Enlightenment, then, is a tragic one; its intellectuals must have what C. L. R. James called, in his own book about the eighteenth century, “a sense of the inability of man in society to overcome the evil which seems inseparable from social and political organization.” Small wonder that Mishra could assert, as long ago as 2006:

There are no public intellectuals really in the real sense of the word, which implies a kind of intellectual and spiritual integrity that is rare in the public sphere. There are opinion-makers, security experts, hacks, ambitious academics and most of them are compromised by their proximity to political power.

From his two-century tour of intellectual history Mishra doesn’t find any resources for overcoming Diderot’s impasse: you either support the rational pursuit of modernity or give voice to emotional and psychological disorders that modernity unleashes. But an awareness of the limits of the Enlightenment, of the necessary compromises made by a social critic, need not lead straight to resignation. After all, for the philosophes doubt and self-scrutiny didn’t preclude commitment. Diderot applied the ideas he was working through in Rameau’s Nephew to bitterly denounce European colonialism, while Rousseau also sought solutions to his critique of modernity in education and politics. And for James, who arrived at his understanding of the imperfection of acting in society through his study of the Haitian Revolution, “a sense of the tragic” did not entail Mishra’s fatalism but the ability “to judge humanity by the degree to which man is able to struggle against this overriding doom.”

In one of the more innovative recent works on the Enlightenment, the anthropologist David Scott has attempted to rescue this liberating aspect of James’s tragic vision. For James, the “paradigmatic intellectual” of the eighteenth century can be found not in some Parisian salon but in the French Caribbean, and particularly in the figure of Toussaint Louverture, the revolutionary leader of Saint-Domingue who was tricked into a miserable death in the Jura mountains by Napoleonic generals trying to reimpose slavery on the colony. Scott’s book, Conscripts of Modernity, shows how in the first edition of James’s The Black Jacobins, published in 1938, Toussaint was a straightforwardly romantic figure: an example for the liberation movements of the mid-twentieth century that saw colonial power as a purely negative force that needed to be overthrown. But the second edition, published in 1963 and the product of what Scott depicts as James’s disillusionment with anti-colonial politics, included material that recast Toussaint as a tragic hero inevitably formed by the colonial forces he was struggling against.

Toussaint was a product of the especially modern conditions of the colonial plantation complex: he had a personal memory of bondage that would not allow for compromise with Napoleon’s attempts to recapture Saint-Domingue, and yet he was also a statesman formed in part by the ideals of the European Enlightenment, and couldn’t envisage his society developing in complete independence from a France that he viewed as “the highest state of civilization.” James did not see this as weakness on Toussaint’s part, or as a willing submission to the stultifying logics of reason and progress. His dilemma was simply borne out of the conditions in which he had to operate. For Scott, Toussaint’s vexed relationship to the Enlightenment is shared in the 21st century by third-world intellectuals, for whom “modernity” is both a blessing and a curse that can neither simply be escaped from nor endorsed.

Both Mishra and Scott frame their books as “histories of the present,” and both base that history on the tangled relationship between the Enlightenment and European colonialism. Although they are written over ten years apart and for different audiences (Scott writes unapologetically for specialists), they both feel urgent and necessary. But whereas Mishra makes our present feel overdetermined, yet another instance of militant disaffection with the illusions of modernity, Scott insists that we can ask new questions of the past to find out things that we don’t already know. Just as James modified his characterization of Toussaint because he thought 1963 demanded a different Enlightenment than 1938, Scott wants to make “an intervention” into a postcolonial world that—he argues—has lost faith in both the promises of modernity and the allure of revolution. And that intervention cannot be produced by an Enlightenment that demands either acquiescence to progress or indulgence in the fantasy of rejection and escape.

Having a conversation with the Enlightenment is infinitely more appealing than having yet another argument about it. It opens up new ways not just of thinking about the past but of thinking in the present, something Scott has explored at greater length in Stuart Hall’s Voice, a celebration of the late cultural theorist’s “way of being an intellectual.” The book is a moving example of how intellectual life can and should take place through dialogue, even with the dead. It takes the form of a series of letters addressed by Scott to his late friend Hall, who was born in Jamaica in 1932 and went on to become a key figure of the British New Left until his death in 2014. The two had much in common—intellectually, ideologically, even biographically. “It is not unimportant,” Scott writes, “that we were shaped respectively by two especially volatile moments in Jamaica’s modern political history: you by the decolonization of the 1940s, me by the socialism of the 1970s.” But these similarities are almost incidental to Scott’s celebration of Hall as an “exemplary intellectual.” What Scott appreciates is not the righteousness of Hall’s arguments but his style of thinking.

In contrast to “the persistent deafness at work in much contemporary critical practice preoccupied as it is with its powers of pronouncement and argument,” Scott applauds Hall’s ability to listen to and learn from others, and to change his mind in the face of new situations—new “conjunctures,” as Hall referred to them—that could not be understood by old ideas alone. In postwar Britain, for instance, changes in industry and in working-class consumption demanded new investigations of “class consciousness.” Likewise, Thatcher’s “authoritarian populism” in the Eighties could not only be understood by recourse to familiar arguments about economic determinism. For Hall these moments were not the mere repetition of history, events predicted by some already articulated theory. The point was to understand what was new and contingent about them. Not that he failed to appreciate how we are deeply conditioned by history—Scott is drawn to him because, like James and Toussaint, Hall appreciated the limits of reason and “the ineluctable ways in which the past lays its claim upon the present.” But that claim is never absolute. As Hall once insisted:

I do not want to say, of course, that the world has no pattern, no structure, no determinate shape, no determinacy. But I do want to say that its future is not already wrapped up in its past, that it is not part of an unfolding teleological narrative, whose end is known and given in its beginning. I do not believe, in that sense, in “the laws of history.” There is no closure yet written into it. And to be absolutely honest, if you do not agree that there is a degree of openness or contingency in every historical conjuncture, you do not believe in politics, because you do not believe that anything can be done about it.

If the present can only be redeemed, as Mishra argues, by “truly transformative thinking, about the self and the world,” then this it seems is a good place to start: a way of thinking that engages with the past without being bound by it. A tragically enlightened world doesn’t need intellectuals who tell us what to think; it needs ones who listen, and who ask good questions.

Art credit: Scott Carter

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This essay appears in the “What are intellectuals for?”
symposium in issue 16 of 
The Point.
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