Some of the intelligentsia of The Enlightenment hoped to refashion the governing class in their own image; but for the governing class to hold one world-view, while its underlings hold another, is scarcely conducive to political stability. It is imprudent for the rulers to worship Reason while the masses pay homage to the Virgin Mary. There were those then, who thought it desirable to enlighten the masses as well. The problem with this, however, was that the common people were widely considered to be impervious to Reason,. The more radical Aufklarer like Paine and Godwin held to the possibility of general enlightenment, but this faith was conspicuously lacking among their more conservative colleagues, some of whom accordingly settled for what has been called the ‘double truth’ thesis.
According to this doctrine, the skepticism of the educated must learn not to unsettle the superstition of the populace. It must be sequestered from the common folk, for fear of the political unrest it might incite. There can be no common ground between the more rational and more barbarous species of religious faith. This was thought true of the relations between eighteenth-century gentlemen and the pagan hordes of antiquity, as it was between these men and their less privileged contemporaries. Others took a less jaundiced view of the past, seeing prelapsarian Adam and Eve as essentially eighteenth-century rationalists without clothes. Even so, they had spawned down the ages a monstrous progeny of idolaters, crafty clerics, brutal zealots and crazed mystics.
John Toland, despite being portrayed in Irish legend as the bastard offspring of a priest and a prostitute, takes a dim view of the common people in his Pantheisticon, urging the need to keep the truths of Reason and the doxa of the mob rigorously distinct. There must be one God for the rich and one for the poor. There is the genteel religion of love, justice and the adoration of the Supreme Being, and then there is the benighted, bloodthirsty cult of the priests. Orthodox religion is a matter of primitive terror and a priestly lust for power.
Hume is another who insists on the gulf between the reasons for religious faith advanced by the learned and those offered by the ignorant. Even so, the two camps must learn to live cheek by jowl, neither interfering with the other, if the truths of Reason are to be protected from the myths of the populace, and the piety of the people preserved from the subversive truths of Reason. As Charles Taylor observes, ‘ for the common people, a little superstition could be a good thing, satisfying their religious impulses without inculcating rebellion.” Thomas Jefferson considered that there could be no Republican virtue among the masses without a belief in God, a belief he signally failed to hold himself. One may contrast this divided vision with the republican views of Baruch Spinoza, who held that the common folk labor in delusion but wished to illuminate them. Spinoza believed that people were educable, that their desires were malleable enough to be remolded, and that this, rather than the fostering of consoling lies and politically convenient fictions, was the task of the philosopher.
For Toland, by contrast, truth, which in rationalist style is plain and lucid, must darken if it is to preserve itself from the grubby paws of the unlettered. This is one reason among several why Toland’s writings are such an extraordinary mélange of rationalism and escotericism – why the author whose most renown work is entitled Christianity Not Mysterious also produced a History of the Druids and probably belonged to a secret Dutch society known as the Knights of Jubilation. It is a mixture of the hermetic and excoteric which can also be found in Freemasonry. Only a coterie of cognoscenti can be entrusted with the most momentous truths. The free-thinker, a title which Toland is said to have invented, thus enjoys something of the privilege of the very clerics he detests.
Condorcet abhorred this intellectual double dealing, though he located it in the benighted past rather than the enlightened present. ‘What morally can really be expected,’ he asked, ‘from a system one of whose principles was that the morality of the people must be founded on false opinions, that enlightened men were right to deceive others provided that they supply them with useful error, and they may justifiably keep them in chains that they themselves knew how to break?’ In his view, it was both inevitable and desirable that progressive principles should gradually penetrate ‘even unto the hovels of . . . slaves, and inspire them with that smouldering indignation which not even constant humiliation and fear can smother in the soul of the oppressed. This, one might add, is the voice of a movement decried by some postmodern thinkers as a lamentable outbreak of authoritarianism.
Not all of Condorcet’s confreres endorsed his views. A.O. Lovejoy remarks that ‘since the Deists had joined ranks in a war against credulity, they were often involved in a war against the people.’ Schiller, who was rattled by the prospect of popular sovereignty, was also deeply pessimistic about the prospect of Bildung or spiritual education for the masses. He reacted with skepticism to the outbreak of the French Revolution, and doubted that the populace in their current state were capable of the civic virtue required for a republic. As one commentator astutely remarks, Schiller ‘intended his aesthetic education not only to stabilize revolution but to replace it.’ Voltaire held that the multitude would always be benighted. It would be impossible to civilize them without subverting the state. Indeed, he doubted whether they were worthy of such a favor in the first placed. Swift held much the same opinion.
There was, then a clear dilemma. You could opt for a politically docile populace, whose backward religious views implicitly question your own faith in the universality of Reason, or you could plump for a rationally-minded citizenry who might confirm your own faith in the scope of Reason, but only at the cost of potential political disaffection. Were the savants to see themselves as the vanguard, safeguarding truths which in time would become available to all, or as an elite, shielding such doctrines from the common herd?
‘They courageously discussed atheism,’ Carle Becker comments tartly of some Enlightenment thinkers, ‘but not before the servants.’; Voltaire was notoriously nervous of the effects of his own heterodoxy on his domestic staff. Religion, for him as for many of his colleagues, was a useful device for preserving morality, and to that extent social harmony. The Enlightenment yearned for universal illumination, yet desired nothing of the kind. Diderot, who probably ended up as an atheist, wrote scurrilously that if Jesus had fondled the breasts of the bridesmaids at Cana and caressed the buttocks of St John, Christianity might have spread a spirit of delight instead of a pall of gloom. Yet he supported natural religion on account of its socially unifying effects. Montesquieu, similarly, did not believe in God himself, but considered it prudent that others should do so.
Perhaps the dangers of mass infidelity were exaggerated. Hume considered that religion had much less of an everyday influence than was commonly assumed. He was not prepared to settle for a rational version of Christianity, trusting as he did neither in reason nor in Christianity. In fact, he regarded almost all religion as actively inimical to political virtue, a view also taken by Shaftsbury in his Inquiry Concerning Virtue. Virtue must be autonomous, not strategic. Religion corrupted morality by fostering self-interest (fear of punishment, the desire for immortality), as well as by eroding the natural sources of our passion for justice and sense of benevolence. For one commentator, religion in Hume’s estimate posed a grave danger to society. Yet he also seems to have held that a moderate, non-superstitious version of it is an aid to political stability. As with many an Enlightenment sage, religion is judged in terms of its utility. It is acceptable only if it promotes the kind of morality one could still endorse without it. This, for Hume, was ‘true’ religion, which could only ever be that of a cultured minority, as opposed to what he derided as the sick dreams of the masses. Hume’s social conservatism trumped his intellectual skepticism. Indeed, he himself acted out a version of the double truth thesis in his everyday life, famously setting aside his subversive anti-foundationalism for the sake of social convention.
Holbach concurred with Hume’s low opinion of religion’s value as political ideology, observing that it was the hangman rather than the priest who underpins the social order. In any case, he scornfully inquired, who reads the philosophers? Joseph de Maistre also maintained that public order depended in the end on a single figure: the executioner. His Holy Trinity was said to consist of Pope, King and Hangman. Since he held that human beings were evil, aggressive, self-destructive, savagely irrational creatures in need of being terrified into craven submission by an absolute sovereignty, the public executioner played no mean role in his political imagination. He even had a sneaking admiration for the Jacobin’s guillotine, believing as he did that all power was divine. With his lauding of instinct, prejudice, war, mystery, absolutism, inequality and superstition, de Maistre is a graphic example of everything the Enlightenment set out to eliminate.
Perhaps society had need of a civic religion, though Gibbon thought Islam might fill the bill more effectively than Christianity. He, too, considered religion largely in the light of social utility, as a celebrated sentence from his work suggests: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in Roman times, were all considered by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrates as equally useful." The more radical of the philosophes, by contrast, insisted on a complete divorce of religion and morality, maintaining that an atheistic society might prove more morally admirable than a Christian one. Perhaps a group of atheists could consort more amicably together than a bunch of stiff-necked believers. In the long run, the Enlightenments fear of a domino effect – that the collapse of religion would topple morality as well, which in turn would fatally undermine political cohesion – was to prove groundless. Belief, whether religious or otherwise, is not what welds liberal capitalist societies together. As Marx points out, the dull compulsion to labor is generally sufficient for that. Religious faith survived into later modernity, and continued to flourish among sectors of the common people. Politically speaking, however, it was reduced often enough to a spot of window dressing for secular governance - just as the long-dreamed of marriage of art and life, which for the revolutionary avant-garde was consummated in political murals and agitprop theater, is now found in fashion and design, the media and public relations, advertising agencies and recording studios - more façade than foundation.
True to its Baconian bent, the Enlightenment can still lay claim to some formidable practical achievements. Quite apart from its incalculable influence on the course of modern civilization, it had a hand in a range of political revolutions, played a role in the abolition of serfdom and slavery, help- to unseat colonial powers and through the political economists of the Scottish Enlightenment left an enduring mark on British polity. Jeremy Benthham’s Utilitarianism was to become a cornerstone of the ruling ideology of nineteenth-century England. Enlightened thinking also transformed the public sensibility and filtered down into everyday life. Pub wisdom such as ‘Everyone is entitled to their own opinion’, ‘It’d be a funny world if we all thought the same’ or ‘It takes all kinds to make a world’ (a motto which Ludwig Wittgenstein considered ‘a most beautiful and kindly saying’) are informal testimony to its influence.
Thomas Paine’s best-selling The Rights of Man gives lie to the assumption that the Enlightenment was the monopoly of scholars and noblemen. It also served to discredit the prejudice that the common people are able to grasp ideas only if they are first converted into iconic or mythological terms.
We have seen that reluctant atheism has a long history. Machiavelli thought that religious ideas, however vacuous, were a useful means of terrifying and pacifying the mob. Voltaire feared infecting his own domestic servants with impiety. Toland clung to a ‘rational’ Christian belief himself, but thought that the rabble should stay with their superstitions. Gibbon considered that the religious doctrines he despised could nonetheless proved socially useful. So did Montesquieu and Hume. So in our own tine does Jurgen Habermas. Mathew Arnold sought to counter the creeping godlessness of the working class with a poeticized version of the Christian doctrine he himself spurned. Auguste Comte, an out-and-out materialist, brought this dubious lineage to the acme of absurdity with his plans for a secular priesthood. Durkheim had no truck with the deity himself, but thought that religion could be a precious source of edifying sentiment. The philosopher Leo Strauss, father of American neo-conservatism believed that political rulers must deceive the common people for their own good, keeping from their ears the subversive truth that the moral values by which they live have no unimpeachable basis. They must conceal this lack of foundation from the credulous gaze of the masses, drawing a veil over it as over some unspeakable indecency. Religious faith was essential for social order, though he did not for a moment credit it himself.
There is something unpleasantly disingenuous about this entire legacy. ‘I don’t happen to believe myself, but it is politically expedient that you should’ is the catch phrase of thinkers supposedly devoted to the integrity of the intellect. One can imagine how they might react to being informed that their own most cherished convictions –civil rights, freedom of speech, democratic government and the like – were, of course, all nonsense, but politically convenient nonsense and so not to be scrapped. It took the barefaced audacity of Friedrich Nietzsche to point out that the problem was less the death of God than the bad faith of Man, who in an astonishing act of cognitive dissonance had murdered his Maker but continued to protest that he was still alive. It was thus that men and women failed to see in the divine obsequies an opportunity to remake themselves.
If religious faith were to be released from the burden of furnishing social orders with a set of rationales for their existence. It might be free to discover its true purpose as a critique of all such politics. In this sense, its superfluity might prove its salvation. The New Testament has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship. It is not a ‘civilized’ document at all. It shows no enthusiasm for social consensus. Since it holds that such values are imminently to pass away, it is not greatly taken with standards of civic excellence or codes of good conduct. What it adds to common-or-garden morality is not some supernatural support, but the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities. The sign of that dissolution is a solidarity with the poor and the powerless. It is here that a new configuration of faith, culture and politics might be born.