"Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils" by William Blake (1825)
Our idea of modernity is in many ways defined by that extraordinary flowering of scientific and philosophical ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries known as the Enlightenment. Yet current attitudes to the Enlightenment are ambivalent. Many still see it as unequivocally a good thing: mankind's coming of age, learning to think freely and independently and throwing off the shackles of obedience to received authority. But there is a dissenting view that has gained new momentum in recent years — that far from heralding a new and glorious dawn, the Enlightenment was born of an overweening arrogance, grossly overestimating the power of human reason and technology to solve our ills and inaugurating a crass materialistic era that has destroyed our reverence for the world and eroded our sense of the sacred.
Susan Neiman's latest book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists (The Bodley Head, £20), offers a distinctive reading of the Enlightenment that attempts to recover its authentic ideals and rescue it from some of the caricatures advanced both by its defenders and its critics. An American moral philosopher who has taught at Yale and Tel Aviv and now works in Germany, Neiman is committed to promoting a broadly liberal political agenda and, as a writer, to making philosophical ideas accessible to a wide reading public. The latter aim is one in which she largely succeeds in the present book, even if at times she seems to work almost too hard to keep the reader's attention. A vast and colourful tapestry of texts and events, stretching from the 18th century back to Homer's Odyssey and the Book of Job and forwards to 9/11 and Abu Ghraib prison, certainly offers plenty to think about, but does not always make the thread of the argument as easy to follow as it might have been in a shorter presentation.
For any philosopher, the two towering geniuses of the Enlightenment are unquestionably Hume and Kant. Hume was certainly no overweening apostle for the power of reason. On the contrary, he famously declared that reason is the slave of the passions and "can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them". And Kant was concerned above all to argue for the limits of reason: once it leaves the "island of truth" that is the observable world, and ventures out on the "foggy ocean" of speculative metaphysics, it is bound to get lost.
Given that both philosophers confine human knowledge to the natural world, do they rule out the sacred? Hume, though himself hostile to religion, and often portrayed as a proto-verificationist, was in fact more like a modern agnostic: there might, he hints, be some "ultimate springs and principles of nature" but they must remain "shut up from human curiosity and inquiry." And Kant, although he ruled out knowledge of a transcendent domain, did so, as he put it, in order to "make room for faith".
Neiman seems right, then, in her basic claim that Enlightenment philosophy was not after all trying to confine us to the material world, but allowed at least some space for the human spirit's yearning for the transcendent. Her own attitude to religion, however, is harder to decipher. On the one hand, she asserts, "To be human is to have needs for transcendence over the brute and shiny objects of experience, needs that both religion and morality at their best fulfil." But she insists throughout the book on the Humean radical distinction between "is" and "ought" (a distinction, incidentally, that is increasingly challenged by many contemporary philosophers) and she wants (with Kant, as standardly interpreted) to make morality a wholly autonomous domain that need have no recourse to the divine. Taken together, these views mean that her liberal moral agenda and hopes for a more just world remain something of a wish list about the way things should be, but unsupported by any trust in the benign nature of ultimate reality, such as religious belief has traditionally offered.