The Origins of Anti-Intellectualism

The anti-democratic political tradition that opposed Enlightenment thinking advanced the catastrophic campaigns of Nazi Germany and haunts us still.

Edmund Burke
Painting of Edmund Burke by the studio of Joshua Reynolds.

National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons

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Adapted from The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition by Zeev Sternhell. Published by Yale University Press.

While the 18th century is commonly perceived as the quintessential age of rationalist modernity, it was also the cradle of a second and strikingly different movement. In fact, at the very moment when rationalist thought seemed to have reached its peak, a comprehensive revolt against the Enlightenment’s fundamental views erupted in European intellectual life. From the second half of the 18th century to the age of the Cold War and today, the confrontation between these two modernities has formed one of the most prominent and enduring features of our world.

The Enlightenment wished to liberate the individual from the constraints of history, from the yoke of traditional unproven beliefs. This was the motivation of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Kant’s Reply to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?, and Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: three extraordinary pamphlets that proclaimed the liberation of man. It was against the liberation of the individual by reason that this new “Anti-Enlightenment” movement launched its attack, and its campaign was infinitely more sophisticated and subtle than that of the classical, undisguisedly authoritarian enemies of the Enlightenment. This anti-Enlightenment movement constituted not a counterrevolution but a different revolution. It revolted against rationalism, the autonomy of the individual, and all that unites people: their condition as rational beings with natural rights.

This second modernity was based on all that differentiates and divides people—a political culture that denied reason either the capacity or the right to mold people’s lives, saw religion as an essential foundation of society, and did not hesitate to call on the state to regulate social relationships or to intervene in the economy. Importantly, it did this in the name of a certain liberalism—advocating for a pluralism of values. In making its objective the destruction of the Enlightenment’s atomistic view of society, this attack announced the birth of a nationalistic communitarianism, in which the individual is determined by his ethnic origins, history, language, and culture.

A liberalism opposed to the Enlightenment made sense up until to the second half of the 19th  century. But when a new society emerged as a result of the rapid industrialization of the European continent and the rise of nationalism among the masses, anti-Enlightenment liberalism—often deceptively attractive because its dangerousness was not always obvious—threatened the very possibility of the survival of democracy.

It was at the end of the decade in 1789 when the Old Regime collapsed in France, and the split between these two branches of modernity became a historical reality. And when the thought of the Franco-Kantian and British Enlightenments was translated into concrete terms by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, the British political theorist Edmund Burke put out his Reflections on the Revolution in France.

From the start of his political and intellectual activity, Burke defined the Enlightenment as the guiding spirit of a movement of intellectual conspiracy whose aim was the destruction of Christian civilization and the political order it had created. According to Burke, the essence of the Enlightenment was to accept the verdict of reason as the sole criterion of legitimacy for any human institution. Neither history, nor tradition, nor custom, nor experience could ever fill the role of reason. Burke added that a society’s capacity to assure its members a decent life would not be acceptable for the men of the Enlightenment. They are not content with a decent life: they demand happiness, or, in other words, utopia.

Burke denied reason the right to question the existing order. He contended that the existing order is consecrated by experience, by collective wisdom, and has a raison d’être that may not be obvious to each individual at all times but is the product of the divine will present in history. A society only exists through its veneration for history and its respect for the established church and the elites. Replacing the elites with other people and destroying the power of the church may be compared to the conquest of a civilized country by barbarians. The defense of privileges is thus the defense of civilization itself. That is why force has to be used to assure the survival of what exists. In other words, all means were justified to crush the revolution in France.

A true pioneer of ideological warfare, Burke invented the concept of ‘‘containment,’’ if not the word itself. Though it became famous during the Cold War, Burke first tried the tactic on America. He had been concerned with containing the pretensions of the colonists who were breaking away from the mother country and translating their natural rights into limited political terms, because he had hoped to confine the danger to a distant land and prevent it from spreading to Europe. When this same revolution of the Enlightenment took place in France, however, a policy of containment was no longer appropriate. When it was at the very gates of England, at the heart of Western civilization, one could only respond with all-out war.

Thus, this great British parliamentarian was the founder of the school of thought known today as neoconservatism. Authentic liberal conservatives like Tocqueville in France and Lord Acton in England, or, closer to our time, Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott, and Raymond Aron, feared the corrupting effect of power. They were the heirs of Montesquieu and Locke, and their great objective was to protect liberty through a division of power and by developing the capacity of the individual to stand up to the authorities. Against this, the representatives of neoconservatism are fascinated by the power of the state. Unlike the classical liberals, they aim not at limiting its intervention in the economy or in society but, on the contrary, at molding society and government in their image.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the historical importance, both in his own time and in the long term, of Edmund Burke and his fellow Anti-Enlightenment revolutionaries. Indeed, the 20th  century was only truly born when rejection of the Enlightenment suddenly became a mass phenomenon. It was in a world that was changing at a previously unthinkable pace, when new ways of life, techniques, and technologies appeared all at once, and economic development, the democratization of political life, and compulsory education became living realities that were only dreams for the previous generation, that Burke’s legacy gained popular support. Democracy, political liberty, and universal suffrage—all recently acquired—appeared to an important part of the urban masses to be a danger to the nation and to modern civilization.

The year 1936 would seem to be a somewhat unfortunate time to wage war against the Enlightenment. But this was precisely the moment when the German historian and Nazi sympathizer Friedrich Meinecke gave his definition of “historism,” which demolished the concept of a common human nature, of a universal reason that gives rise to a universal natural law, regarding this way of thinking as empty and abstract. The direct consequence of this concept was a more or less radical general relativism: Meinecke was convinced that German historism was ‘‘the highest stage thus far reached in the understanding of human affairs.’’

There was also an attraction of the historist attack on the Enlightenment for the generation of the Cold War in the 1950s. It was at that time that the totalitarian school came into being and one of its chief representatives, Isaiah Berlin, following in the footsteps of Meinecke and in the face of a Europe dominated by a left-wing and often communistic intelligentsia, took up the case against the rationalist Enlightenment. Hypnotized by the Cold War, he launched his attack on Rousseau and then on the idea of ‘‘positive’’ liberty, and in the name of liberal pluralism wrote a fulsome panegyric to ‘‘negative’’ liberty.

In his series of essays in Against the Current, Berlin made clear that he considered the principles of the French Enlightenment to be fundamentally opposed to those of a good society. Moreover, his interpretation of the Enlightenment repeats the principal clichés handed down from one generation to the next from Burke onward. These clichés have made a strong reappearance in our time.

For all these thinkers, rationalism was the source of the evil: it led to ‘‘materialism,’’ to utopias, to the supremely pernicious idea that man is able to change things. It killed instinct and vital forces; it destroyed the almost carnal connection between the members of an ethnic community and made one live in an unreal world. The existing social order, though it may not be perfect, made it possible to live a decent, civilized life. The permanence of Western civilization—the great Christian civilization—could only be ensured if its reality was not touched in its essence.

These scorners of the Enlightenment, were not turned toward the past generally. Their nostalgia was for a highly selective historical landscape. Historians of ideas and cultural critics who considered themselves philosophers as well, they saw the nation as the supreme framework of social organization. The kind of solidarity provided by the nation seemed to them greater than that provided by any other form of social cohesion. It is no accident that Burke can be regarded as one of the originators of nationalism.

For Berlin, as for Meinecke, there seemed to be no relationship of cause and effect between the war against rationalism, universalism, and natural rights and the war against democracy and its fall in the 20th century. These people did not believe that blocking and neutralizing the revolutionary potential in society meant abandoning the new social classes created by industrialization to the free play of economic forces, which inevitably gives rise to poverty and hence to revolts and revolutions. And as they advanced into the 19th century, the role assigned by these thinkers to the state was to control democratic tendencies, viewed as a threat to the natural order of things—as demagogic illusions.

The inevitable process of democratization, the progressive access of the male population to universal suffrage, did not reconcile these liberals opposed to the Enlightenment to the principles of democracy. Instead it caused them to accept the disagreeable and, as they saw it, dangerous realities of political democratic rule. Some became conscious of the role a state could play in intervening in the economy in order to curb and canalize democracy. Some resisted democracy until they died.

It was also no accident if, as a result of seeing themselves as the defenders of a minority point of view, all these nonconformists ended up creating a new kind of conformism in promoting concepts that very soon became commonplace.

The most common reproach that the Anti-Enlightenment thinkers continually made to the people of the Enlightenment was that of having never left their study or the realm of abstractions, and as a result, being ignorant of the realities of the world as it was. It was Burke, one of the best parliamentary orators of his age, who originated this idea, but in fact it was only a myth.

Beyond all that divided the founders of the United States from the men of the French Revolution, the heritage of Locke and the Glorious Revolution of 1689 from Rousseau and Voltaire, or James Madison and Alexander Hamilton from Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Condorcet, and Saint-Just, there were certain convictions that were common to both parties. They were all convinced that they were working in a specific context to change or create a given situation and at the same time enunciating principles of universal significance. They were working on behalf of their own time, they wanted to change a world that was theirs and only theirs, but at the same time they had an acute awareness that they were initiating actions that would affect posterity without any possibility of return.

The most cogent example of the dual nature of their work was the fate of the most important piece of political philosophy ever produced in the United States. The Federalist, a simple collection of electoral pamphlets written during the campaign in New York State for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, had a clear and well-defined primary objective: to convince the population of this pivotal state that both liberty and property would be preserved and protected in a federal state with a strong central authority. Invoking the authority of Montesquieu and the Enlightenment, it also sought to show that liberty did not depend on the size of a country but on good institutions.

All while waging an excellent electoral campaign, The Federalist’s writers, Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay, were perfectly conscious of the universal significance of their writings and actions. The Constitution dealt with the concrete problems that the Americans of the end of the 18th century had to confront, and it was voted in because it corresponded to their needs and hopes, but it formulated general principles that the founders thought to be just and good and consequently valid for all men in all times and places. This opinion was never disproved in the course of the next two centuries.

It is true that this is an almost perfect example: men called at a critical juncture in the history of their community to provide solutions to concrete political problems in a country on the margins of civilization gave answers of universal value and produced a classic of political thought. And in fact, the same can be said about Burke. It is likely that if the revolution was merely a reaction to a crisis of regime, a palliative to deal with bread riots or financial bankruptcy, an accident en route or the product of some machination, Burke would not have risen to the level of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man or The Federalist, and his pamphlet, simply intended to fill a breach through which he saw the flood pouring in, would not have become, for more than two centuries, the intellectual manifesto of revolutionary conservatism.

All these writers wrote with the immediate application of their ideas in mind, but at the same time posed fundamental questions about human nature and the role of man in society. They gave an idea of what they thought a ‘‘good’’ society should be. They all tried to transcend the immediate context in which they lived and felt that they were stating ‘‘eternal principles’’ and essential truths. All the thinkers of the Anti-Enlightenment reflected on the rise and fall of civilizations and did not hesitate to position themselves within a perspective of 25 centuries when they engaged in dialogue with Plato and the principles of Athenian democracy.

The contentious coexistence of the Enlightenment and Anti-Enlightenment movements is one of the great invariables of the two centuries between our world and that of the end of the 18th century. But this is a point that generally escapes the attention of historians and critics of culture: If the enlightened modernity was that of liberalism which led to democracy, the anti-enlightened modernity—coming down into the street at the turn of the 20th century—took the form of an intellectual and political movement that was revolutionary, nationalistic, communitarian, and a sworn enemy of universal values. Whether it is a matter of ‘‘reactionary modernism’’ or the ‘‘conservative revolution,’’ one is always confronted with the same phenomenon: the content and function of this movement remained the same. Its pet aversions remain Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire, and the philosophes of the Enlightenment—the founders of the principles on which the democracies of the 19th and 20th centuries were founded.

Adapted from The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition by Zeev Sternhell; translated by David Maisel. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.