Against Enlightenment

E D Hirsch is an indispensable writer for anyone who is waging a battle with the destructive dogmas of progressivism. Intellectual heavyweight and champion of core knowledge, he has continued to fight the good fight with inspiring vigour ever since he published his groundbreaking Cultural Literacy in 1987. Those who are familiar with his work will have noticed how strong his influence is on many of the posts I write.

I don’t agree with everything he says, though. He has a particular agenda with reference to American culture which grates against my more universalist traditionalism.


Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

In his wonderful critique of the naturalistic Romantic ideas which have done so much damage to education, The Schools We Need (1996), Hirsch contrasts the Romantic strain of American culture, the world of Emerson and Whitman, with the Enlightenment thinking of the founding fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson. The founders had a deep scepticism about human nature, which was why they created a constitution designed to prevent anyone from having too much power. Unlike the government created by the more idealistic French Enlightenment, theirs has proven to be remarkably durable.

This scepticism also has a bearing on attitudes towards education. It means that the necessity for forming children in a certain way is recognised. There is no danger of placing the child on a pedestal, as do the Romantics and their progressivist descendants.

But scepticism about human nature, and the consequent understanding that children must be trained in good habits, not left to go their own sweet way, is not an Enlightenment idea. It is simply a traditional idea, which can be found in Plato, Aristotle and St Augustine. Hirsch does acknowledge this early in The Schools We Need, but for the majority of the remaining chapters he continues to refer to Jefferson and the Enlightenment view of education and culture. I suspect it is because he wants to demonstrate that the sceptical views about human nature held by the founding fathers are even more American than the idealistic ones which came later. He may be attempting to defuse American exceptionalism, and the consequent reluctance to accept an idea unless it can be labelled as purely American. And of course an idea cannot be purely American if it originated before the eighteenth century!

However, the Enlightenment is not a good place to go for illumination on human nature and education. To the extent that Jefferson and the other founding fathers accepted the idea that human nature was weak and in need of training and guidance, they were simply following traditional ideas which belong to human culture generally, as C S Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man.

Far from promoting healthy scepticism about human nature, the Enlightenment actually undermined it, by exalting human liberty and denying any external, objective authority over it. Thus it prepared the ground for Romanticism, as well as all of the horrifying modern examples of humanistic tyranny, from the French Terror in the eighteenth century, to Nazism and Communism in the twentieth.

To the extent that the American founding fathers were wise about education and culture, they were actually departing from the radical views of Enlightenment thinkers, and simply defending traditional ideas. There is a clear intellectual path which runs from Voltaire to Rousseau to Wordsworth and Whitman, and from them to all of the wrongheaded experiments that have been performed on our children in the last fifty years (or a hundred years in the US).

We need to go deeper into the common roots of human civilisation to find sources for renewal. It was because the American founding fathers had not yet pulled up these roots that they had worthwhile things to say about education. But for a description of the ultimate sources of this wisdom, we need to look to thinkers like C S Lewis or Roger Scruton, who take us beyond the parochial concerns of our peculiar times, and open up far broader vistas. We must not give the credit to Thomas Jefferson for ideas which are ancient and universal elements of human civilisation, ideas which no one had thought to question until our radical modern experiment in individual liberty.


16 thoughts on “Against Enlightenment

  1. This is really interesting. Two quick points. 1. Would you class Burke as an Enlightenment thinker, or not? Is modern conservatism as exemplified by Burke not in some ways a product of the Enlightenment as much as Voltaire, Rousseau, etc? 2. How do you feel more generally about people who argue for knowledge / authority on the basis of reason and science, not tradition/morality? (A paradox I know, but the latest research seems to show that when you work it out from first principles, turns out you can’t work out everything from first principles!) I know people who broadly agree with Hirsch who critique him on the grounds that one should make the argument for knowledge from morality and tradition, not from reason and science. IE, even if it were not cognitively valuable to study Shakespeare, he should be studied anyway because of his cultural importance. Ironically a lot of Hirsch’s critics on the left think he is making the argument from tradition, when in actual fact he largely makes the argument from science.


    • I think we can draw a distinction between Burke’s conservatism and the traditional wisdom of the American founding fathers. Burke’s conservatism is based on what he considers to be the ‘naturally’ emerging forces in a state as it evolves over time. According to Burke’s analysis in ‘Reflections on the French Revolution’ the checks and balances in the English constitution have developed according to a natural interplay of opposing forces over the centuries. Thus his political theory is not too distant from Blake’s marriage of heaven and hell, or the dialectical materialism of Marx. Burke and Marx alike see historical conflict as an inevitable evolutionary process which ultimately brings forth a mature political system.

      In contrast, the American founding fathers could not appeal to any common law inheritance of freedom developed over centuries. They had to construct a constitution, and when they did so, they constructed it according to a skepticism about human nature which has deep roots in Western civilisation, and is in direct opposition to the Whig belief in natural progress.

      There is a pious refusal in Burke to insist on any universal truth and to appeal instead to the very specific history of the development of English law and government. One senses the English empiricist’s disdain for the high flown language of the continental idealist. Nevertheless, Burke must appeal to some kind of standard outside the specific events of British history. This standard tends to be what he claims to be ‘natural’. But this just begs the question. There are many things in nature. By what external standard should we select, for example, between the natural desire for personal revenge and the legal insistence that criminals must only be punished by the civil authorities? We cannot form a judgement about conflicting natural impulses from nature itself, any more than a piano can decide which notes it should play.

      Ironically enough, I would argue that Burke, by his refusal to countenance any objective standard of measurement and his insistence on the goodness of supposedly natural processes, is in the line of those who destroy tradition, not those who defend it. His very methods for defending tradition help to pave the way for its destruction.

      Of course there is much that is admirable in Burke, but just as with Jefferson, what is admirable is precisely what he has inherited from tradition, not what he adds by ‘enlightened’ innovation.


  2. Thanks for the comment Daisy. It’s provoked some deep thought. I’ll have to get back to you on Burke once I’ve considered a little more. As for the tension between science and tradition, I’ve decided to devote a blog post to it, because there’s so much to say!


  3. Pingback: Tradition Is Reasonable | The Traditional Teacher

    • It depends whether you define it simply as an historical era or by a particular current of thought which tends towards radical individualism. These differing definitions lead to confusion. But it is more informative to look at defining ideas, otherwise there is too much conceptual breadth for it to be possible to have a discussion at all. There’s a rather unhelpful tendency nowadays to point to all of the people who thought differently at the time, as though that proves there was no general trend.


    • But the link you send does fit in with my definition, as it is written by someone who loudly applauds what C S Lewis calls the attack of the branches on the trunk: the claim that humane morality has been invented by the rational thinkers of Western modernity who have attacked tradition, whereas before all was benighted ignorance. It’s a preposterous and arrogant claim that could only be made by those who are in fact ignorant of the far more ancient human traditions of rational morality, be they Confucian or Judeo-Christian.


  4. While I agree with much of what you say, Nazism would seem to me to be a child of the Romantic movement as opposed to the Enlightenment. I’m not too sure about the French Terror and Communism either. This is an interesting and provocative post. I am genuinely surprised that you would put C. S. Lewis in the league of great thinkers.

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    • You’re certainly right that Nazism is the child of Romanticism. My point here is that Romanticism is part of a Western trend towards the destruction of tradition, to which the Enlightenment also belongs. C S Lewis bravely defended the ancient moral traditions against modern thinkers who dismissed them, mostly because if their almost total ignorance of them.


  5. Broadly speaking, I’m with Cicero: “Time obliterates the fictions of opinion, and confirms the decisions of nature.” Many traditions are indeed accretions of wisdom deposited by patient centuries of trial and error. But not all. Some traditions outlive their usefulness. I think the best way of judging whether a tradition is useful or not is to put it to the test of empirical evidence, reason and rationality. Some will pass with flying colours, some will not. I am also uncertain as to the usefulness of appealing to an external authority — ultimately, it seems to me, that will leave us impaled on the horns of Euthyphro’s dilemma.

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  6. Pingback: Being Liberal | The Traditional Teacher

  7. Thank you for this important post. I tend to agree. Have you looked at Gadamer? He argues for the vital role of tradition in the generation and renewal of knowledge, and, yes, even its critique. He points to the collateral damage occurring as a result of the Enlightenment’s attack on tradition. He argues that we need to understand the ‘play’ of tradition as it works on us, through time.
    He once sparred with Hirsch on related issues, yet his fundamental premises are entirely Hirschian – especially re background knowledge allowing us to make sense of anything at all.
    I plan to blog on this at some point.
    Thanks again for this post, and your brilliant blog!


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