July 04, 2010

Dacre's dividing line

F.A. Hayek argued in his Constitution of Liberty that there were two enlightenments: a virtuous one led by Adam Smith and the Baron de Montesquieu and a vicious one led by Voltaire, Rousseau and Helvetius. Hayek is not alone, many European intellectuals particularly on the right, date back the key divisions that created left and right to the decades before and after the French Revolution. Current discussions of the period suggest there is something to this: whether it is Jonathan Isreal suggesting that there was a moderate as well as a radical enlightenment, or it is John Pocock documenting the revulsion felt by Edward Gibbon for the enlightenment philosophes he encountered in France. Hugh Trevor Roper in his 1963 essay, 'The Historical Philosophy of the Enlightenment' addresses the divide in the enlightenment that Hayek and others have discerned and provides an interesting explanation of why in his view the enlightenment remains united, whilst also having at its heart a division.

Trevor Roper's interest in this essay was the enlightenment historians. Several of the great figures of the enlightenment functioned as historians- Montesquieu, Voltaire, Robertson, Smith, Hume and others all attempted historical works. The division between the sciences was not yet established, so whilst we might think of the Wealth of Nations as a great economic text, however one of Smith's greatest disciples wrote of him that 'the great Montesquieu pointed out the road. He was the Lord Bacon in this branch of study. Dr. Smith is the Newton'. Hume, Smith, Robertson, Gibbon, Voltaire all acknowledged a debt to Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois published in 1748. Hume's own histories were published in the 1750s, as was Gibbon's first essay in the craft. Voltaire's later works were profoundly indebted to Montesquieu. You can see this in their themes: when Voltaire writes of the Roman Empire, according to Trevor Roper, his themes are the same as Gibbon's- the danger of priestcraft and religion, the rise of barbarism. All the philosophic historians believed in the importance of social structure to human history and of progress: Gibbon's famous conclusion that the fall of Rome could not happen again and that the conquests of the enlightenment would be preserved was not a solitary view.

So if the philosophes and the more moderate enlightened figures agreed on ends: what did they disagree on? Trevor Roper follows through the dispute into the 1780s and 1790s and discovers that a gap which was minute widened. By 1790, Burke, a friend of Gibbon, remained an admirer of Montesquieu, whereas Mirabeau an admirer of Voltaire believed the Baron's influence had faded. The reason was not that Montesquieu and Gibbon did not endorse reform but that they believed that it could take place within existing structures. Gibbon endorsed Anglicanism, Robertson was moderator of the Kirk of Scotland. Both were loathed by conservatives in their own countries- Wesley dismissed Robertson as boring, viewed Hume as an ignoramus and the clerical response to the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire echoes yet. But the response of Bruke and Gibbon and Montesquieu and Hume to reform was to suggest that it was both possible and desirable for existing institutions to change quickly, rather than for change to be revolutionary and bloody.

The key point here that Trevor Roper draws out is that these beliefs were linked to historical circumstance. Voltaire operated in the 1770s in France, Gibbon and Hume operated against a very different context. In this sense Trevor Roper's enlightenment distinction is a situational one:: showing that political thought is dependant not upon a priori principles but upon empirical observations. Gibbon from his study and seat in the House of Commons could afford to wait, Voltaire living perilously under the ancien regime could not. Lots has changed about this view of the situation in which both operated: Jonathan Clarke for instance demonstrating that Britain had an ancien regime- but the overall point that Gibbon's context was the gentlemen rulers of the country and Voltaire's the philosophic elite of Paris is one reinforced by Pocock's recent study of Gibbon. The key point here is that situations drove these two enlightenment views to different understandings of time: whether we agree with the history or not, the insight that political attitudes are not only about politics but about history- not just about what should happen but about what should happen when, is accurate.

The history here is that of a pioneer. I think few historians would endorse everyone of Dacre's conclusions about the enlightenment here: a short essay that was designed to provoke has been superceded by larger works by Robertson, Isreal, Pocock and others. What is interesting though is that Trevor Roper, later Lord Dacre, reminds us that politics has more dimensions than simple political objectives. The principles behind his approach- that the situation in which intellectuals function and their attitude to history matter- are useful even if later scholars have refined or even refuted some of the history involved in the essay.


James Higham said...

Voltaire's aims and his backers became apparent and as the French Revolution showed, it was right to be fearful of them.