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New Left Review 44, March-April 2007


Christopher Brooke on Mark Goldie and Robert Wokler, eds, The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought. Enlightenment thinking in France, Germany, England, Scotland and America, as seen by the heirs of Pocock and Skinner.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKE

LIGHT FROM THE FENS?

A scan of the archives suggests that the incidence of the phrase ‘Enlightenment values’ in what was once the British broadsheet press has roughly quadrupled in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 2001. The term appears most frequently in articles discussing the challenge posed to Western societies by varieties of Islamic fundamentalism. On the whole, it is the more muscular liberals who are most keen on this particular political language, with its connotations of sturdy opposition to religious fanaticism. Such writers—broadly sympathetic to the hawkish foreign policy of the ‘global war on terror’—might do well to combine their commitment to militant secularism with another, similarly authentic, ‘Enlightenment value’. This is that sharp scepticism, widely shared among the philosophes, towards ‘projectors’ and their ‘projects’, grand schemes that possess a beguiling simplicity of design but which, as the Encyclopédie remarked, had been shown by the experience of centuries to be chimerical. The kind of ‘project’ that Montesquieu was keen to criticize included Louis xiv’s aspiration towards universal monarchy; it is apt that in the pursuit of their disastrous quest to bring democracy to the Middle East by force of arms so many of the neoconservatives have organized themselves into the Project for the New American Century.

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