Several weeks ago, Israeli philosopher and writer Yoram Hazony penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal attacking the Enlightenment on the grounds it’s largely responsible for most of the twentieth century’s horrors. Everything from Napoleon’s conquests to Soviet communism is the fault of reason, rationality and cognition, according to the author. Hazony is promoting his upcoming book “The Virtue of Nationalism” which has already been well received by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.
According to Hazony, tradition, faith and experience inform the best choices for society and humanity. The major Western European philosophers of the late 17th and 18th centuries created the political hysteria that became Robespierre’s France, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Pol-Pot’s Cambodia, Mao’s China, so on and so forth. To make his case, Hazony uses a smear campaign to muddy the conceptual waters and to mislead readers as to how the Enlightenment originated.
First, Hazony claims constitutional government and modern breakthroughs in science and medicine came about between the 15thand 17thcenturies. “Anglo-American constitutionalism” he claims, was inspired by John Fortescue’s “In Praise of the Laws of England” as well as writings from John Selden, Edward Hyde and Matthew Hale. Furthermore, the Scientific Revolution is distinctly part of 16th century Europe—the zenith of the Renaissance.
The author provides little reason to doubt these points, but he is guilty of context dropping. For Hazony, history is causal only when it comes to damning the Enlightenment. He refrains from noting the Renaissance began, according to some scholars, as early as the 14th century. What distinguishes this period from the Dark Ages is the fact reason, not religion, was becoming a societal norm due in large part to a cultural reexamination of Greek philosophy and literature—not the Bible. The Humanist movement that defined the latter portion of the Renaissance pushed Western Civilization into the Enlightenment, bringing about the rule of law, individualism and industrialization.
In addition to this omission, Hazony makes another absurd claim; that Immanuel Kant is a philosopher of the Enlightenment. While Kant was alive and writing during the peak of the American Revolution, to describe Kant as being pro-Enlightenment is either a glaringly novice mistake for a professional academic or a deliberate and nefarious ploy to mislead less-informed readers. Kant, claims Hazony, believed “reason is universal, infallible and a priori”. He goes on to cite Kant’s “apodictic certainty” and the Cartesian influence on his “Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science”. While it is true Kant believed in reason, he was in no way a defender of it and was chiefly responsible for destroying the legitimacy of the concept.
Hazony makes no mention of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and how this text formed the bedrock of modern collectivist, homicidal mania. While Kant acknowledged the world, as perceived by the senses, existed independent of consciousness; this world was ultimately unintelligible due to the inherent limitations of man’s mind. The mind, Kant argued, is an inherently subjective entity, meaning the world is only how we want to see it, not as it actually is. And what was Kant’s ultimate conclusion you might ask? He famously declared, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith”.
Kant’s ideas on epistemology were quickly disparaged and ridiculed by his colleagues, but never done so with serious academic rigor. What followed was the emergence of a serious counter-Enlightenment movement spanning from Hegel to Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Marcuse. The horrors of the twentieth century are not the byproduct of Enlightenment thinking—they occurred precisely because of the irrationalism that followed from Kantian ideas on epistemology.
One of the few things Hazony actually gets right was the role Jean-Jacques Rousseau played in bringing about the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic Wars. But Hazony manages to screw this up by failing to delineate Rousseau’s thought from other, more rational, French and British philosophers of the period. Rousseau thought man was best as a primitive beast in a state of nature and that his advancement, or the use of his rational faculties to improve his material conditions, deprived him of innocence. Rousseau also resented man’s civilizational advancement as this facilitated egoism rather than the altruistic “common good”.
Hazony’s praise of nationalism and his intellectually dishonest attack on the Enlightenment are as indefensible as they are reprehensible. As an Israeli Jew, one should think, or at least hope, this man would know better. Rather than ensuring the Holocaust can “never again” occur, Yoram Hazony is asking the collectivist savages of the world to “hit me baby one more time”.