Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Enlightenment? Try Four Enlightenments

May, Henry F. The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

May says that before he wrote this book he went exploring. He wanted to find “in the eighteenth century the roots of nineteenth-century American culture.” When he examined the writings of eighteenth century Americans, he saw a mixture of New England Calvinist Protestantism and the European Enlightenment. Moving on to the next century, he noticed that the “unexpressed and implied ideology of nineteenth-century America rested . . . on a series of tacit compromises. Of these the most basic was the compromise between a belief in moral certainties and a belief in the desirability of change and progress” (xi-xii).


Looking at the relevant secondary literature, he saw the hundreds of works that took up some aspect of Calvinist Protestantism in America.Yet hardly anyone had written about the American career of the European Enlightenment, although its principles were everywhere assumed. So, acknowledging that the two parts had to be taken together, he decided to focus on the one that had hardly been treated:


My book . . . does not deal equally with the two main clusters of ideas influential in early America: the Enlightenment and Protestantism, but rather about the Enlightenment, with Protestantism always in the background as matrix, rival, ally, and enemy. It is not about the Enlightenment and religion, but rather about the Enlightenment as religion (xiii).

May’s working definition of the Enlightenment as religion reads: “the Enlightenment consists of all those who believe two propositions: first, that the present age is more enlightened than the past; and second, that we understand nature and man best through the use of our natural faculties” (xiv). But things were never as simple as that because, as May observes, many Americans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would fall somewhere along a spectrum between Protestantism and the Enlightenment. The most revealing question might be, “To what degree would a person assent to the idea that reason, as opposed to revelation, tradition, or illumination, is the best guide?”


The biggest challenge for May was related to the fact that, while scholars had seen and studied the varieties of Protestantism, hardly anyone had sorted out the variety and difference within the Enlightenment (xv-xvi). So May created his own four-part division of the European Enlightenment, an arrangement that follows a more or less chronological order:


1. Moderate.  “This preached balance, order and religious compromise, and was dominant in England from the time of Newton and Locke until about the middle of the eighteenth century” (xvi).

2. Skeptical. Developed in Britain but especially France around 1750, this Enlightenment’s grand master was Voltaire. Among its most significant results were the skepticism of Hume and the materialism of Holbach.

3. Revolutionary. According to this variety, one could construct a new heaven and a new earth by destroying the old. It began with Rousseau and culminated in Paine and Godwin.

4. Didactic. This Enlightenment opposed both skepticism and revolution. From what it saw as the debacle of those Enlightenments, it attempted to save “the intelligible universe, clear and certain moral judgments, and progress.” Its main center was Scotland and began around 1750, but really triumphed, in America in 1800-1825 (xvi).

The Enlightenment in America is a survey of these four types. May concludes that by the time of early nineteenth century, the Skeptical and Revolutionary Enlightenments had died out. The Skeptical had always been much too radical and dismissive of religion, not to mention unintelligible, for most Americans. The Revolutionary had served its purpose in America and had been discredited by the more recent excesses connected with the revolution in France. Too, both of these Enlightenments were overcome by that triumph of Protestantism known as the Second Great Awakening. At the same time, the effects of the Moderate Enlightenment were still present in American politics and religion.  The Didactic Enlightenment was both practical and easy to understand. Above all, it could be mixed with the variety of religion that was popular in America at that time. Thus, the Didactic emerged as the greatest philosophical force in American intellectual culture during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.