Sunday, May 30, 2010

Not So Enlightened

I try to like David Brooks. I really do.

Almost alone among the columnists of the New York Times, Brooks makes a consistent effort to incorporate serious scholarship into his pieces, and I value that. Sometimes I learn something from it.

The problem is almost always what Brooks does with the ideas he introduces. This past Tuesday's column is a case in point. Most of the column is a reasonable discussion of two branches of the Enlightenment, the French and Scottish (or British, as Brooks also calls it). Brooks explains that the former was more wedded to the supremacy of reason, while the latter "emphasized its limits." Brooks cites a recent dissertation on the subject which highlights Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke as exemplars of the two views. He even nods to the important (but almost unknown among the American public) historiographical debate over whether the American Revolution was a true "revolution," noting that "Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or British Enlightenment," and that this question was "a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton and it's a bone of contention today."

All of that is interesting and fairly presented. But then comes the final paragraph, which largely undoes whatever good Brooks has achieved: "The Scots were right and the French were wrong." So much for a reasoned discussion, so much for careful considerations of the strengths of each point of view. For Brooks, it has to be a categorical statement of right and wrong. You can check your shades of grey at the door.

Brooks is certainly entitled to prefer Burke to Paine, and Hamilton to Jefferson, and what he calls the Scottish Enlightenment's resulting "style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance." But in his blanket dismissal of Paine and Jefferson (and everyone else associated with the French Enlightenment) as simply "wrong," Brooks undermines his claims to intellectual seriousness.

Let's take a specific case to show the silliness of this binary simplicity. The great intellectual battle fought between Paine and Burke was over the French Revolution. Paine wrote his classic Rights of Man in response to Burke's equally classic Reflections on the Revolution in France. Conservatives credit Burke with anticipating the radical excesses of the Reign of Terror years before they happened, and see in that perceptive insight a vindication of his general conservatism. Fair enough.

But let's look at other conclusions Burke reached from the philosophical precepts Brooks so admires. Burke supported the established Anglican Church (a status quo that denied Catholics the right to vote or hold office until 1829), as well as hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. In defending monarchy, Burke states: "No experience has taught us that in any other course or method than that of an hereditary crown our liberties can be perpetuated and preserved." Paine responds simply: "Would we make any office hereditary that required wisdom and abilities to fill it?" Burke's reliance on tradition blinded him to the possibility that monarchy was not the best or only system for protecting liberty, while Paine's belief that the fact that "something has existed for ages tells us nothing about its value" led him to apply reason and find monarchy wanting. Whatever Burke's virtues, history's verdict gives this one to Paine.

It is worth noting that Hamilton largely agreed with Burke on this point. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton proposed that the president and senators should be elected for life. In private, he wrote that he actually preferred a hereditary monarch: "He ought to be hereditary and to have so much power that it will not be his interest to risk much to acquire more." This side of Hamilton, a product of the philosophy Brooks so admires, is rarely cited by modern conservatives who often act as if Hamilton is the only one of the founders whose political thought is worth studying. In this case, we're lucky there were others like Madison and Jefferson who knew that monarchy had no place in the new American republic.

The point is not that Burke and Hamilton are not worthy of study or even admiration. Both are. But so are Paine and Jefferson. Brooks' blithe dismissal of the latter as simply "wrong" shuts down discussion. The irony is that Brooks is trying in his column to denounce the "polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics." While I agree with Brooks that there is too much demagoguery today, his conclusion that one branch of the Enlightenment is right while the other is wrong has more in common with the "Jacobin style" he derides than the Burkean "modesty" he extols.

The reason "Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or British Enlightenment" is that the answer is not one or the other, but both. If Brooks were truly interested in intellectual inquiry instead of scoring a quick political point, he'd see that the enemy is not so much "abstraction" as the simplistic, binary thinking in which he engages when he dismisses the French Enlightenment as "wrong."

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