The American Revolution and the Enlightenment Project

4 July 2017


In several posts I have argued that the structure of civilization consists of an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project, and that, moreover, the civilization extant today consists of an industrial economic infrastructure joined to a technical intellectual superstructure by the central project that we know as the Enlightenment project. Contemporary civilization as so defined dates back only to the 18th century, when the Enlightenment project emerged as a reaction to the carnage of the religious wars in Europe. The three pillars of modernity — the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and political revolutions — all burst the bounds of traditional feudal societies, and ever since the world has been trying to master the forces unleashed by these revolutions.

The American revolution was the first and the most successful of the political revolutions that swept aside traditionalism, feudalism, and aristocracy. (Sometimes I think of the American revolution as being, in this sense, like Augustus, who was the first of the Roman emperors, and arguably the best of the lot. After that, it was all downhill.) The unique confluence of circumstances that made the American revolution successful, both militarily and politically, included unlikely revolutionaries who were property owners, the pillars of colonial society, and also well-read, as Enlightenment gentlemen were expected to be.

There was nothing democratic about the mostly aristocratic founding fathers, other than their desire to found a new kind of political order drawing upon the best of ancient Greece (democracy) and the best of ancient Rome (republicanism). The founding of a new political order required a revolutionary war to separate the United States from the British Empire, but it also involved a profound intellectual challenge to conceptualize a new political order, and this challenge had already begun in Europe, where the Enlightenment originated.

The Enlightenment produced a large number of top-notch philosophers whom we still read today, and with profit: their insights have not yet been exhausted. Also, these Enlightenment philosophers were highly diverse. They disagreed sharply with one another, which is the western way. We disagree and we debate in order to analyze an idea, much as an alibi is dissected in a courtroom.

William Blake, who represents the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, wrote a poem criticizing Voltaire and Rousseau in the same breath:

MOCK on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Never mind that Voltaire and Rousseau quarreled and represented polar opposite ends of the Enlightenment. When Voltaire received a copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, he responded in a letter to Rousseau: “I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it.” But perhaps this was Blake’s intention to invoke opposite spirits of the Enlightenment, given his appreciation of antitheses as expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — both Voltaire and Rousseau were to be condemned for their mockery of tradition.

If these quarreling Enlightenment thinkers were alive today, feuding bitterly with each other, the popular press would say that the Enlightenment was obviously burnt out and was now “tearing itself apart.” Soon, the pundits would presumably say, we could go back to the comforts of monarchy and a universal church as though nothing had happened, the whole episode of the Enlightenment having been something like the social equivalent of a bad dream.

Strangely enough, we find a view much like this on both the far left and the far right today. The far left, as represented by the philosophers of the Frankfurt school (the dread prophets of “cultural Marxism”), rejected the Enlightenment (cf. Theory from the ruins: The Frankfurt school argued that reason is dangerous, mass culture deadening, and the Enlightenment a disaster. Were they right? by Stuart Walton), just as neoreactionaries reject the Enlightenment by contrasting the 18th century Enlightenment with the “Dark Enlightenment,” the latter growing organically out of the counter-Enlightenment of J. G. Hamann, Joseph de Maistre, and others.

Like Blake’s dual condemnation of Voltaire and Rousseau, the dual condemnation of the Enlightenment by both left and right is a condemnation of two distinct faces of the Enlightenment. Partly this is a result of the ongoing debate over the proper scope and application of reason, but I think that the deeper issue is the failure of western civilization to overcome the chasm separating its twin ideals of freedom and equality, which are two faces of Enlightenment morality.

Naïvely we want these two ideals to be fully realized together within democratic institutions; when we grow out of our naïveté we usually see these ideals in conflict, and assume that any attempt to mediate between the two must ultimately take the form of a compromise in which we lose some freedom in exchange for equality or we lose some equality in exchange for freedom. But the nineteenth century, which produced the counter-Enlightenment, also produced Hegel, and Hegel would have pointed out that a dialectic, such as the dialectic between freedom and equality, will only be resolved when we transcend the antithesis by a synthesis that is more comprehensive than either ideal in isolation.

When we consider the absolutizing tendency of political rhetoric we would not be at all surprised to see Hegelian formulations like, “The absolute is freedom,” later to be countered by, “The absolute is equality.” Even if such things are not stated so explicitly, it is clear from the behavior of many who set themselves up as the arbiters of American values that they typically take the one or the other as an absolute ideal, and absolutization of one or the other prevents us from seeing the more comprehensive synthesis in which freedom and equality can not only coexist, but in which each can extend the other.

The problem of freedom and equality is the equivalent for social thought of the problem of general relativity and quantum theory for physics. Some are certain that the solution to their integration lies on one side or the other of the divide — there must be quantum gravity because all of physics is now formulated in quantum terms — but the truth is that, at our present stage of intellectual development, the solution eludes us because we have not yet achieved the intuitive breakthrough that will allow us to see the world as one and whole.

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Happy 4th of July!

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11 Responses to “The American Revolution and the Enlightenment Project”

  1. zoobeefoo said

    On the equality/liberty wholeness, I always thought that Sir Isaiah Berlin made a decent synthesis of some of the best ideologies that could become norms: liberty is protection for the least among us. When the least among us are protected enough to also be free and at liberty, then we are all free.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Where does Berlin make that argument? In his Four Essays on Liberty? I wonder how he defined, “the least among us.” Intuitively that makes sense, but actually defining a sector of society would be difficult. And who are their counterparts? The greatest among us? Are we to conclude that the greatest among us are at the greatest liberty, and are not in need of protections?

      Best wishes,


  2. xcalibur said

    I agree, two major principles of the Enlightenment are Freedom and Equality, and there is inherent tension between them. I also agree that this conflict is playing itself out in present-day politics. The leftist mutation known as Social Justice advocates Equality (to the point of absurdity), while the Alt-Right is firmly on the side of Freedom. Understanding the tension between these two ideals goes a long way in explaining all the current political turbulence.

    It’s difficult to resolve this tension and/or create a synthesis without in-depth political philosophy that takes many possibilities into account. It’s safe to say that the near future will be dominated by the conflict between the neoliberal status quo vs the populist uprising, with Social Justice and the Alt-right fanning the flames. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I think that libertarians would be a better representative of “freedom” than than the Alt-Right, but the libertarians have lost their mojo. The nascent successful movements of our time — social justice and the Alt-Right — are both identity politics movements. It is virtually impossible to start an identity politics movement on the basis of libertarianism or, more generally, a commitment to freedom. People don’t gather into tribal groups on the basis of their common human freedom, but rather on the basis of some other commonality that is not shared by other human beings. In other words, there needs to be both an in group and an out group for a group to be socially successful.

      For me, the ideal would be a society in which liberty extends equality and equality extends liberty, in contrast to the compromises we accept in which less liberty is tolerated in exchange for more equality, or less equality is tolerated in exchange for more liberty. However, I am not even suggesting that any such social system can exist. Nevertheless, the prevalence of tit-for-tat in human experience — one might even say that it is a cognitive bias to accept tit-for-tat solutions — influences our likelihood of accepting trade-offs like the liberty/equality trade-off, rather than doing the hard work of formulating a counter-intuitive alternative.

      Best wishes,


      • xcalibur said

        You’re right, the real representatives of Freedom are libertarians. And yes, I ignored them because Libertarianism is lacking in vitality. While alt-right is identity politics, I still believe that it is more in line with Freedom compared to other movements. From what I’ve seen, they emphasize individual expression and questioning of the status quo, and less orthodoxy. Of course, defining the alt-right is challenging as it is in its early phases, but that is my observation for now.

        I agree, ideally Freedom and Equality should complement each other, but it is not easy to conceive of this. Even if I could, I would have to take many eventualities into account. An ideal solution for current society may not be applicable to a future society. For example, I think the Constitution is a brilliant document that has held up very well over American history. However, it dates back to the early modern era, and the world has changed drastically since. If the Founding Fathers could have predicted the influence of the mainstream media and its political collusion, would they have addressed this more directly? If they had known about the rise of information technology, would they have focused directly on privacy rights, instead of just a vague implied right? My point is that with large-scale changes in civilization, it is difficult to formulate a universal political theory.

      • geopolicraticus said

        I’ve just written a new post — The Politics of Identity in Industrialized Society — in which I go into more detail on how I see the polarization of left and right in our time.

        In light of what I say in the above about far left and far right embodying, respectively, voluntaristic identitarianism and biological identitarianism, the next step would be to analyze these varieties of identitarianism from the point of view of the interaction of identity with freedom and with equality. However, in saying this I understand that the far right that rejects the Enlightenment project will also reject both freedom and equality.

        I’ve been thinking a lot lately as to whether there can be any universal political theory once civilization exceeds a certain size. Mass societies may ultimately prove to be a dead end.

        Best wishes,


  3. Is there something like collective and individual enlightenment?

    • geopolicraticus said

      It would be worthwhile to develop a distinction between collective and individual enlightenment. Certainly that period of western history that we denote as “the Enlightenment” is intended to refer to a collective enlightenment across many sectors of society. The extent to which individual instances of enlightenment contribute to the growth of the enlightenment of a social collective would be a complex process. I would suggest that Montaigne was an enlightened individual who lived in relatively dark times, so that, in this example, the work of one man is usually not sufficient as a threshold for social enlightenment, but one individual could serve as a symbol or even as a trigger for a process culminating in social enlightenment.

      Best wishes,


      • Wow! Thanks a lot for the eloquent elucidation. You are truly awake if you such clarity if mind and wisdom.

        Then, if we the few ones become or are, awake, what can we do to make a conscious contribution to the larger wakefulness of the society.
        Is there any token that can permeate from our inner flowering?

      • geopolicraticus said

        Thanks for your kind words.

        The only way I know to make a difference is to go to work on something that you are passionate about and do what is within your power to do. My power to influence others is very limited, but I write blog posts and speak when I get the chance, and I try to get people to think about the big picture of humanity and civilization. My friend Mike Mongo, who calls himself an astronaut teacher, says that he gives children the permission to dream that they can be an astronaut. I would like to think that, in my own small way, I give people permission to think about the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities that confront humanity today.

        The argument could be made that, if one wants to have a salutary influence, that one ought to go through the ordinary channels of seeking social prestige and approval, in order to give one’s message the greatest reach and impact. There is some truth to this, but the power of one’s message is tied to the authenticity of one’s engagement. If one can be completely authentic by going through the ordinary channels, than that’s great. But some people just don’t have it in them to do this (they don’t fit in), and so they take a variety of alternative paths. But that was probably necessary in order for them to express the fullness of their personality.

        People will sense it if one speaks from the heart, even if they aren’t ultimately in agreement. But one doesn’t need the agreement or approval of others to go to work. Even if one works in isolation, one can keep expanding and refining the vision of a better world. One does what one can, presents as compelling a vision of the world as one can, and tries to get it to the appropriate audience. The example I used previously, that of Montaigne, is again instructive: people still read Montaigne; he may have written alone in the tower of his family home, but his words eventually found an audience.

        Best wishes,


      • Thanks for the detailed and compassionate exposition of the nature of spreading light.
        You have inspired me to go forth with unshakable devotion.

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