Published on
28 March 2007

Enlightenment Values and their Social and Political Implications over Two Centuries

By: Philip Trower


Philip Trower is a journalist and author of Turmoil and Truth and The Catholic Church and the Counter-Faith Ancla Seminar on Wednesday 28 March 2007

I’m sure we are all more or less in agreement about what we mean when we spell the word Enlightenment with a capital ‘E’.

We are talking about the movement of ideas which came to dominate men’s minds during the 18th century, reaching an explosive climax in the French Revolution. But that as we know was not the end of the business. Under different forms and names, the same ideas remained very much alive after the Revolution and have exercised an ever growing influence right down to our own day until they have completely transformed the way most western men and women think about and understand themselves and their existence.

I will classify them as belief in perpetual progress towards some ideal state of natural happiness; belief in liberty, equality and brotherliness as the primary and indispensable ingredients of that happiness; belief in democracy as the infallible means of securing it; belief in the power of unaided human reason to resolve all human problems and ensure that the rights and dignity of all are respected. Evil is chiefly due to ignorance and can therefore effectively be overcome by the right kind of education.

While not subscribing to them in a strictly dogmatic sense, many of us are now so deeply embued with them that we tend to accept them as more or less self-evident truths without history or mystery behind them, like two and two equalling four.

But are they, either in whole or in part? And if only in part, how far do they need qualifying or re-fashioning?

The purpose of my talk tonight is to try and throw some light for you on these questions which I believe are of crucial importance for understanding the present situation of the world. I shall be talking about ideas, people and events that every educated audience, like the company here tonight, is familiar with, so please don’t expect any astonishing revelations. But I want to bring out certain aspects or features of the subject which it seems to me are not noticed enough or get insufficient attention.


To begin with then, there are two facts about the Enlightenment which I believe it is essential to grasp if we are to understand its true historical significance. The first is that, regardless of how it began, the Enlightenment became far more than just another movement in the history of ideas like the romantic movement. What happened in the drawing-rooms, libraries and coffee houses of 18th-century Europe resembled in at least one crucial respect what happened in the deserts of Arabia in the 7th century A.D. A new world religion was born.

Clearly there were and are great differences. Islam had one, and only one founder. The Enlightenment, on the other hand, as a coherent body of dynamic ideas, was the work of a succession of men of letters, and its first converts were nobles and sophisticated city-dwellers. Islam’s first converts were in the main desert tribesmen.

Nevertheless, the title ‘religion’ can, I believe, be justified in so far as the teachings we are considering provide their own particular explanation of the meaning and purpose of human life and our final destiny as a race; in so far as they present those teachings as the sole path to salvation and as being universally valid for all peoples; and in so far as they are spread by a high proportion of their adherents with missionary zeal.

All this was recognised by Pope Paul VI in his closing speech in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council. ‘At the Council,’ he said , ‘the religion of God made man’ had encountered ‘the religion of man aspiring to be God’. There was an implicit recognition on the part of the Council that the cult of ‘man aspiring to be God’, as Pope Paul put it, is now the Church’s main intellectual and spiritual rival, beside which Islam pales into insignificance.

When we use words like liberalism, secularism, secular-humanism, socialism, or communism we are merely designating the new faith’s main denominations (with freemasonry as a survival of the original 18th-century form). The adherents of these different denominations may disagree about how the final goal is to be reached. But they are at one about the new message of salvation itself. Paradise in this world brought about mainly or entirely by human effort.

Although this new ‘faith’ was not initially regarded as incompatible with belief in God, and in the eyes of many people is still seen in that light, for a core of committed believers man rapidly replaced God, if not as an object of worship, at least as worthy of a quasi-religious veneration. There may no longer be a God whom one can offend by sin, but there exists an abstraction called Humanity against which it is possible to commit crimes.

We are now, I think, so used to atheism as a socially acceptable profession of belief, that it is difficult to realise what a unique phenomenon modern atheism is. There have no doubt been atheists or groups of atheists since the beginning of history. But never before has the world known committed groups of atheists believing they have the one true solution for all the sorrows and problems of mankind, and bent on converting the great mass of humanity to their viewpoint by reason, persuasion, or, if necessary, force.

Stepping back a minute then and surveying our new world religion as a whole, we can see it as made up of two components; what I will call the humanist or humanistic project, which within limits we can all bless, onto which has been grafted a missionary atheism bent on side-lining or completely eliminating religion.

By the humanist project I mean the idea of bettering human life in this world in every possible way and developing as many of nature’s potentialities as possible. Rightly understood this is not incompatible with Christian and Catholic belief. Indeed it is part of it. What is in conflict with Christian belief, as well I believe as with reason and common sense, is the idea that all this can be achieved without God’s help and that a state of perfection – which would involve the disappearance of sin – can be overcome this side of the last day.

The second of the two facts which I said it is necessary to grasp if we are to understand the full historical significance of the Enlightenment is that in its deepest roots and many of its practical objectives, this new ‘world religion’ is a Christian heresy.

Taken individually its teachings either have their origins in Christianity, like the idea of the raising up of the poor and lowly, or have always had a prominent place in the Christian scheme of things, like the notion human brotherhood. Collectively, they are the product of 2000 years of a Christian way of looking at the world. It is impossible to imagine them occurring in the form they do in any civilisation or culture so far known to history other than a Judaeo-Christian one. Nor have they in fact done so. They can be accurately described as ‘secularised Christianity’.

Consider for example the doctrine of perpetual progress. In all other civilisations, or those sufficiently advanced to have a philosophy of time and history, time and history have been seen as following a cyclical course. Whatever has happened once will, after the passage of enough time, happen again, and these recurring cycles will repeat themselves ad infinitum. Only in the Jewish-Christian scheme of things have time and history been presented as one-directional and culminating in a state of perfection.

We can find other examples in the political and social fields where the emphasis on constitutional government and the rights of man and his dignity promoted by the Enlightenment represent a recovery of topics and themes well known to the middle ages but swamped by the late Renaissance cult of fame, glory and princely absolutism.

The Habeas Corpus Act of 1769, for instance, originated in medieval England, and Benjamin Franklin tells us that his contributions to the United States constitution were influenced by his conversations with the Paris Benedictines. We can even see at the roots of Marxism a distorted attempt to realise the principle which the Church in its social teaching now calls ‘the universal destination of earthly goods’, i.e., the earth’s goods are meant for everybody – not just privileged minorities; they are to be equitably if not equally shared.

This is what makes the whole Enlightenment ‘package’ so singularly difficult for most of us to handle. It is not something totally alien as paganism was. As a result, we tend to assume that, except about God and Christ and the 6th and 9th commandments, our liberal or secularist neighbours are on the same wave-length in regard to more or less everything else.

What we often fail to notice is that, when wrenched from their Christian context and raised to the status of absolutes, notions like liberty and equality, no matter how good in themselves, can receive a quite different significance and even become appallingly destructive. Outside the context of a world designed by a Creator for a purpose, it is impossible to make a harmonious whole of them.

If, for example, maximum individual liberty is presented as the highest good, how can it fail to endanger social cohesion or consideration for others which, together with self-control, I would say are the two essential prerequisites for anything that can be called civilisation. On the other hand, we know from experience that attempts to establish absolute equality threaten even legitimate liberties. In fact, of course, liberty and equality are not the highest goods. The highest goods are truth and goodness.

As for fraternity, an impulse of the heart, it may be genuine or phoney. But only the phoney kind can be imposed by legislation.

This is why Chesterton and Bernanos could speak of the modern world being full of Christian virtues (or ideas) gone mad, and why the Catholic Church’s attempts to recapture these Christian runaways and relocate them in their proper context is proving so taxing.

One could say that as guides to human living and human endeavour, the Enlightenment project and creed, are defective in two ways: they are defective because of what they exclude, and they are defective in giving first place to secondary goods.

So much for the first two ways in which I have been suggesting we should now look at the Enlightenment: its values or doctrines have become a major new world religion; and secondly, to be properly understood, that religion has to be seen as a Christian heresy.

A third characteristic is more generally recognised. Right from the start, the ideas we are considering have been embodied in two contrasting forms: a strongly dogmatic French or European form, and a milder, looser and more pragmatic Anglo -Saxon or Anglo/North-American form. While atheism and its promotion have always been high on the agenda of the dogmatic form, or even item No.1, the Anglo-Saxon form has never been regarded as irreconcilable with belief in God or Christianity. There have always, of course, been plenty of adherents of the European form, like John Stuart Mill, in Anglo -Saxon countries, and followers of the Anglo-Saxon form, like Chateaubriand or De Tocqueville, in Europe and elsewhere. Nevertheless the distinction remains valid and is of the first importance for understanding the history of the last two centuries and the entanglements in which it has involved men.

With these generalisations in mind, I will now look briefly at the way the ideas we are considering have developed and interacted over the last 300 years.


To simplify things a bit I will take as my starting point the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 rather than certain aspects of Renaissance humanism which can be seen as series of rehearsals for what was to come later. After 1648, with the religious wars having come to an end, we are immediately aware of being in a new spiritual climate. It is like the stillness after a storm. People have time to reflect and there is a weariness about religious issues.

Through improved communications the mood spreads across Europe to Russia in the East and across the Atlantic to the New World in the West.

I am talking of course about the thinking, reading and writing classes. The great bulk of men and women were as yet untouched by this change. But for men and women of the type I am speaking of, thinking, reading and writing are their life’s blood.

In Catholic Europe, Pierre Bayle with his literary journal, News of the Republic of Letters, and his Historical and Critical Dictionary helps to turn what had hitherto been a mood into a movement and to give it international cohesion. Nor was he alone. The proliferation of periodicals and books of this kind in the last quarter of the 17th century had in miniature an effect not unlike that of the Internet today.

As a result, the sense of lassitude rapidly dissolved and was replaced by growing confidence. The achievements in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and physics of men like Descartes, Galileo, Boyle and Newton, had at last begun to reverse the backward-looking mentality of the Renaissance. They had finally taught European man to see himself as superior to the Greeks and Romans rather than as their perpetual pupil, and therefore to direct his thoughts towards a future full of new possibilities instead of towards a past which might be rivalled but never surpassed. The idea of building a perfect world, which Thomas More and the Italian Dominican Campanella had played with a century and a half earlier, seemed increasingly to be a possibility.

By now we have reached the turn of the century. So far the flow of ideas has been changing men’s way of thinking by a sort of osmosis, with England and Holland providing most of the input. It has given them new view-points, new expectations, new enthusiasms. However, there is no directing or driving force behind these ideas until the advent of the French philosophes, who turn what had hitherto been a movement into a cause.

For the philosophes the ideas that had been taking shape were not to be left to make their way haphazardly on their own. They were to be actively promoted, a goal which was achieved above all, as we well know, through the plays, tales and poems of Voltaire, and Diderot’s Encyclopedia. Soon there will scarcely be a gentleman’s library between St. Petersburg and Lisbon whose shelves those masterpieces of propaganda will not be adorning. For the European gentry and upper middle-classes they became what the volumes of the Church Fathers had hitherto been for the monks in their still undespoiled monasteries.

This first phase in the development and spread of Enlightenment doctrines in their dogmatic French form was, you will remember, optimistic and relatively a-political. There was admiration for the English constitution and later for the American colonies in their War of Independence. There was also, not without reason, criticism of the existing French social set-up. But the philosophes – as was so often pointed out to us at school and university – were not averse to absolute monarchs provided those monarchs had the right ideas and carried out reforms of which the philosophes approved. Confidence was momentarily shaken by the Lisbon earthquake of 1751 – how can a beneficent nature let her children down so badly? – but was soon recovered and lasted to the eve of the Revolution.

However, before we reach the Revolution, we enter a new phase with the arrival in 1741 of the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Paris. Just how momentous and extraordinary the influence of this immensely gifted vagabond became – just how bizarre is the disparity between the kind of person he was and the society he mesmerised into drawing up its own death warrant – all this is, through familiarity, no longer easy to appreciate. It is as though a 1960s hippy had wandered into a meeting of the Royal Society and been unanimously elected President. However, I only want to make one point about him here. It is Rousseau who first politicises the Enlightenment project, turning it from a cause into a campaign with a quasi-religious dynamism. After the publication of his Social Contract, politics, including if necessary revolution, rather than education, came to be seen as the necessary highway to the earthly paradise.

As for the Revolution itself and the Napoleonic period we can see their role in the dissemination of Enlightenment values as chiefly experimental and missionary. Paris under the revolution becomes a kind of laboratory for testing what happens when people try to apply Rousseau’s ideas to ordinary fallen and fallible human beings, while at the same time the revolutionary and later the Napoleonic armies are carrying the notions of liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy with missionary zeal far and wide across Europe to men and women of al social strata. The temptation to compare it to an Islamic jihad is irresistible.

The other point I would like you to notice about the Revolution is that when it is over Enlightenment doctrines or values emerge in two conflicting forms: a libertarian form favoured by the new politically and economically dominant middle-classes and an egalitarian collectivist form appealing to the new industrial underdogs. We should always remember that 19th– and 20th-century socialism and communism are as much products of the Enlightenment as the various libertarian or liberal currents of thought.

So the Enlightenment is now divided against itself, even at war with itself, at least on the political level. It is at war, chiefly about whether liberty or equality is to have first place, and whether paradise is to be reached by limiting or enhancing the powers of central governments.

Meanwhile within the libertarian or liberal stream the difference between the dogmatic or French Enlightenment and the looser, more pragmatic, Anglo-American Enlightenment is becoming more pronounced. The latter has been consolidating itself and extending its influence, partly as a result of America’s success in its War of Independence, partly as a result of England’s victory at Waterloo, her prestige as leader of the industrial revolution, and the riches flowing into her from her expanding empire.

So the original Enlightenment creed now exists in three different forms, giving birth to three different denominations: one egalitarian and two libertarian. And as if this were not enough, the representatives of the two libertarian denominations, the European and the Anglo-American, both, in spite of their different priorities, start calling themselves ‘liberals’ – a development which has not made life easier for historians, teachers and schoolchildren.

We could call the next 100 years from 1815 to 1914 the first great liberal age. In both its dogmatic and pragmatic forms, liberalism appears as the force with a future, while nearly everywhere conservatism and tradition are on the defensive. Culturally it competes with the clergy for spiritual leadership. In the name of liberty and democracy things good and bad are swept away, and others good and bad are introduced to replace them. Inevitably interests and aspirations sometimes clash. ‘Free trade’, a panacea for some is anathema for others. Likewise free love. There is much championing of the rights of minorities and subject-groups. In foreign affairs, energy is directed towards undermining long-established empires by encouraging national liberation movements. At the same time, not all liberal regimes will be averse to the acquiring of colonial possessions outside Europe.

Then with World War I, and the Russian revolution, classical 19th-century liberalism meets its Gotterdammerung. Its cultural influence and intellectual prestige pass to collectivist theories of government and social life and collectivist political parties, which for the best part of a century have been living a largely underground life, erupting from time to time in revolutionary outbursts that are quickly suppressed. After the Russian Revolution, however, they can live openly in the daylight with Marxism rapidly occupying first place.

From the late 1920s on, the reaction of many western liberals to this new situation and this newly empowered rival is not unlike that of moths to a flame or rabbits to a cobra. Some are attracted, others repelled. But the common roots and underlying unity of purpose linking all the off-shoots of the original Enlightenment corpus of ideas produces that curious notion, ‘No enemy to the left,’ – the left is always right and the right is always wrong – and that even more curious phenomenon, people who call themselves ‘liberals’ admiring or making excuses for perhaps the longest-lasting, and socially and psychologically most devastating, tyranny known to history. However, the successes of the Soviet Union in World War II and the more worker-friendly social and economic policies introduced in most of Western Europe in the wake of the War help to keep the intellectual prestige of Marxism at a relatively high level up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Meanwhile, outside the Marxist spheres of influence, as western economies start to revive during the late 1950s, we see the beginnings of what looks like a new or second great liberal age.

But of what kind?

At first, the student revolts of the 1960s and the opening phases of the sexual revolution left some of us thinking that the ghost of Bakhunin, father of anarchism, had temporarily taken charge. However, when things settled down and a significant part of the next half-generation decided that money-making was more enjoyable than lounging about, smoking drugs, and cocking snooks at authority, it began to look as if a revived Anglo-American or common-sense liberalism was going to be the directing or guiding force of the coming age. And to some extent it has been, above all in the United States. However, for the last two decades in England and the European Union, things have clearly been moving in a different direction.

Since the late 1980s, dogmatic liberalism or secularism, as I believe it is more convenient and accurate to call this brand of liberalism, has increasingly been supplanting the Anglo-Saxon kind. With its antipathy to religious belief and determination to impose its own code of what it considers right and wrong, regardless of its once stridently proclaimed devotion to freedom of speech and expression, all the evidence suggests that it is heading towards the establishment of increasingly centralised states with illiberal powers of coercion and with atheism as its state religion. This I believe is the most significant development of the last 20 years. Political correctness is simply dogmatic liberalism, or liberal fundamentalism, endeavouring to turn its precepts or predilections into an officially enforced national creed.

Where it succeeds we can talk of the death of classical liberalism, as was pointed out in the Daily Mail recently by a woman journalist called Melanie Phillips two days after the Prime Minister announced that there would be no opt-out for Catholic adoption agencies from the preposterous Sexual Orientation Regulations of the Equality Act. ‘Two days ago,’ she wrote, ’a momentous change occurred in the character of our nation. Quite simply Britain stopped being a liberal society.’

Perhaps I can best illustrate the crucial difference between genuine liberalism and dogmatic liberalism or secularism by looking briefly at their approach to that basic liberal principle, the separation of Church and State.

For the American Founding Fathers it meant allowing everyone to give private and public expression to their religious beliefs without the state giving preference to one over the others. The Founding Fathers did not regard references to God or the Creator in the Constitution and other state documents as violating this principle, because most of them regarded God’s existence and the natural moral law as self-evident truths open to all men through reason alone. Atheism most of them would have seen as an aberration, an act of unreason. Nevertheless atheists should also be allowed to express their disbelief like other people their beliefs, but not to use the state to impose that disbelief on everybody. And this I would say has been the prevailing view of common sense liberalism down to today.

The secularist approach, on the other hand, which made its first fully-fledged public appearance with the anti-clerical governments of the French Third Republic after 1870, tries to make separation of Church and State an instrument not only for side-lining religion and its influence, but for completely excluding it from public life. Perhaps the most noticeable example of this trend at the moment is the opposition to religious symbols in public places of one kind or another on the grounds that the sight of religious symbols – no matter how small – is offensive to atheists. One is tempted to ask why, if devout atheists have a right not to be offended by seeing religious symbols in public places, devout believers should not have an equal right not to be offended by their exclusion. But no. In the secularist state atheism is to have the privileged position which the principle of separation of Church and State was initially introduced to prevent.

‘Are genuine Enlightenment values under siege then? And if so, who are the barbarians at the gates?’ This question was recently put to me in an interview with an Australian journalist.

‘By barbarians at the gates,’ I replied, ‘I’m not sure who you mean. Are you talking about post-modernists, new-agers, Islamic fundamentalists? Whoever it is, in my opinion the chief danger is not from barbarians outside the gates but from traitors within within the walls’.

A few days after making this remark I was consoled to find that Alasdair MacIntyre had already made an almost identical comment in After Virtue. ‘This time,’ he writes, ‘the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontier, they have already been governing us for some time’.

Of course, if we think of barbarians purely in terms of rough manners, smelly clothes, and disorderly behaviour, this will seem an inappropriate way of describing respectable members of our cultural and political elites who happen to have embraced the cause of secularism. But we also associate the word barbarism with the destruction of cultural treasures, and in this respect I think the epithet is beginning to look not so undeserved. It is the only term that adequately, in my view, expresses the gravity of what secularists are beginning to do to some of the most precious political and social treasures of our cultural tradition. Take the objectionable elements in the Equality Act for example. Although no doubt introduced in the name of justice and peace, what better instruments could there be for sowing injustice and discord? And why has there been no public outcry at this assault on the right of freedom of association? There is an Enlightenment value in imminent danger of death all right.

However, I do not want to end on too pessimistic a note. Although committed secularists are increasingly influential throughout the West and are able to sway public policy and public opinion in a way that should not be underrated, they are still a minority, even, I believe, a small minority. Of the millions of western or westernised men and women subscribing more or less consciously to Enlightenment values and aims, by far the greater number are in practice liberals of the un-dogmatic Anglo-Saxon sort, whether they live in England¸ North America, France, Spain or anywhere else.

Liberals of this kind, no matter how mixed up philosophically, have always been strong on works of philanthropy. They are par excellence the ‘men of good will’ referred to so often in recent documents of the Catholic Church’s magisterium. Their main weakness, as I see it, has from the start been a defective or inadequate anthropology or philosophy of man, which leads them repeatedly to underestimate the obstacles to be overcome in the attainment of their goals provided by human nature itself. One could say that a good liberal of this kind wakes every morning in a state of frustration and disappointment on finding that the world is still a very long way from perfection. But they do really value being able to say what they honestly think, and with them discussion has always been possible, leaving aside the fact that they have always included large numbers of Christians.

So the best hope for the immediate future, I believe, is that classical liberals, like the Melanie Phillips I just mentioned, will start to rebel as they see the rule of their one-time dogmatic or secularist allies becoming more and more oppressive under a polished surface of ‘good intentions’ and ‘caring concern’; as they watch them struggling, like their forbears in the French Revolution, to make godless populations absolutely free, indistinguishably equal and enforcedly fraternal.


May I end, as I do in my book, with a parable or story to illustrate how I understand the relationship between the Church and the Enlightenment today.

I hope I’m not trespassing beyond what is allowable, but it is in actually an adaptation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In this version the younger brother is the Enlightenment and the older brother is the Church.

There was once, as in the original story, a man who had two sons and the younger said to his father ‘give me my share of the inheritance’. Then, having received it, he went off to a far country taking all his newly acquired wealth with him. However, instead of wasting it on riotous living, he used it to start a lot of highly profitable businesses. Within a short time he had become a billionaire, and returning to his country of origin began buying up large tracts of his father’s property, which the elder brother was managing while the father was away on a world tour.

To begin with the elder brother tried to fight off the younger brother’s incursions. But he lacked his brother’s financial astuteness. Each time he was outwitted. What was he to do? He had to admit that his brother’s businesses were well run. They benefited the employees as well as the customers and shareholders. He also had instructions from the father to stay on good terms with his younger brother in so far as that was possible. At first, he thought of suggesting that he and his brother go into partnership and run the two inheritances as one. However, on reflection he saw that, short of a radical change of heart on the younger brother’s part, this would be impossible because not all the younger brother’s businesses were of the kind, or run in a way, the father would have approved. Recently, for instance, he had been financing an international chain of high-class brothels. He had also been telling people that there was no need to worry about what the father thought since the father was dead. His agents had even been spreading rumours among the younger customers and employees that the father had never actually existed. His existence was an invention of the older brother. In the past people didn’t have fathers. The earth generated them spontaneously.

Will the older brother be able to bring the younger brother to a better frame of mind? When the Father returns will he find his two sons running the estate together in fraternal harmony according to the principles which he, the Father, had laid down? Or will he discover that his elder son has had to take refuge in a far country while the younger son lords it on his own, and according to his own lights, over the ancestral patrimony?

Except for the rare man or woman endowed with the gift of prophecy, which I am not, these are things that it is not given us to know. But in so far as thinking about them can help us act wisely in the present, I suggest they are worth pondering on.