The Counter-Enlightenment was a term that some 20th-century commentators have used to describe multiple strains of thought that arose in the late-18th and early-19th centuries in opposition to the 18th-century Enlightenment. The term is usually associated with Isaiah Berlin, who is often credited with coining it, though there are several earlier uses of the term, including one by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote of Gegenaufklärung at the end of the 19th century. The first known use of the term in English was in 1908, but Berlin may have re-invented it. Berlin published widely about the Enlightenment and its enemies and did much to popularise the concept of a Counter-Enlightenment movement that he characterised as relativist, anti-rationalist, vitalist, and organic, and which he associated most closely with German Romanticism.

Common ideas
Despite the obvious diversity and contradictions of against-Enlightenment, Sternhell sees, like the Enlightenment, an intellectual tradition harboring the same consistency and the same logic:

“It is against this new vision of man, history and society, against the new theories of knowledge that all the variants of the anti-Enlightenment rise up. ”

Denying to reason the capacity and the right to shape the lives of men, opponents of the Enlightenment share a social and political project based on socio-cultural determinism and “on the cult of all that distinguishes and separates men: the history, culture, language (…) “. The spiritual harmony that characterized the medieval world having been destroyed by the Renaissance, or the Reformation according to the authors, this disappearance has engendered the fragmentation of human existence, and, as a result, modern decadence:

“[They regret] the time when the individual, directed until his last sigh by religion (…) existed only as a cog in an infinitely complex machine whose destiny he did not know. Thus, bent on the soil without asking questions, he fulfilled his function in the course of human civilization. [It is for them] the day when (…) the man became individual possessing natural rights [that] is born the modern evil (…) and [their] objective remains the restoration of this unit lost. ”
– Sternhell, The anti-Enlightenment

But it is not “reason” as a timeless phenomenon that the counter-revolutionaries oppose, but rather the philosophical foundations taken up by the theoreticians of the Revolution. If, for example, Joseph de Maistre exalted the “prejudices” against the “autonomous reason” 9, he also proclaimed, in the Pauline tradition, the possible conciliation between reasoning and faith:

“As soon as you separate faith from reason, revelation can no longer be proved, proves nothing; thus one should always return to the well-known axiom of Saint Paul: “Let the law be justified by reason. ”

– Joseph de Maistre, Examination of the philosophy of Bacon (where one deals with various questions of rational philosophy)

This Christian presupposition is also found in the thought of Louis de Bonald, who does not oppose a religious obscurantism to the rational principles of philosophy, but seeks to reconcile the “faith” of the believer with his “reason”:

“We want to constantly bring us back to pure reason; it is for the sole reason that I address myself: we reject the authority of theology and the certainty of faith; I invoke only the authority of history and the testimony of our senses: and reason also leads man to faith. ”
– Louis de Bonald, Theory of political and religious power

Johann Georg Hamann
According to Isaiah Berlin, the mystic philosopher Johann Georg Hamann was in the 18th century “the most consistent enemy, the most extreme and the most implacable of the Enlightenment and, in particular, all forms of rationalism of his time”. He is the first great author to uncompromisingly oppose Enlightenment philosophy and what he considers to be his ” cult of Reason.” His attacks are more inflexible and sharper than those of later critics, and he appears as the true founder of a polemical anti-nationalist tradition that continues with Johann Herder.

According to Hamann, revelation is the only path to true understanding of existence. Prayer, meditation, the Christian life and the “spirit of innocence” are necessary for him to maintain the health of the soul. He conceives of nature as a whole in which, in immense and luminous letters, those who can read can read the whole history of the world and of man. All things make sense in a large hieroglyphic script that requires only a key provided by the only word of God, to reveal nature, the destiny of man and his relationship with the world and with God.

Hamann will exert an influence both directly and indirectly on the romantic revolt of Sturm und Drang, and on the critique of universalism and the scientific method as it will be expressed in the West during the next century.

Johann Gottfried Herder
The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder is among the first thinkers of the alternative modernity of the anti-Enlightenment. In 1774, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Autre philosophie de l’histoire in which he defended a “communitarian modernism, historicist, nationalist, a modernity for which the individual is determined and limited by his ethnic origins, by history, by his language and by its culture “, against the vision of the rationalist modernity carried by Voltaire, Montesquieu or Rousseau, that” carrier of universal values, of the greatness and autonomy of the individual, master of his destiny”.

For Herder, man is what his ancestors did, the “glebe” (Erdscholle) where they are buried and where he himself came into the world. The policy, as it is external to man, not shapes and it is the culture that constitutes its essence.

Edmund Burke
For Edmund Burke, the essence of Enlightenment is to accept for one and only verdict that of reason. It then becomes the only criterion of legitimacy for all human institutions, forgetting at the same time history, tradition, customs or experience. Denying to reason the power to question the existing order, he adds that, in any case, the ability of a society to ensure its members a decent life can not find satisfaction in the eyes of Enlightenment men and to found the legitimacy of their society. A decent life is not enough to them, they demand happiness, ie the utopia.

In other words, in Burkinese thought everything that exists has been consecrated by experience and collective wisdom, and has a raison d’être that may not be clear at all times for each individual, but which is the fruit of the divine will, naturally omnipresent in history. A company therefore can exist only by respect for the Church and its elites, is Enlightenment want to replace it with a new elite to serve their own ideas.

Joseph de Maistre
For Joseph de Maistre, the big fight of the xix th century opposes the “philosophizing” and “Christianity”:

“The present generation is witness to one of the greatest spectacles that has ever occupied the human being: it is the excessive fight of Christianity and philosophism”
– Writings on the Revolution, Paris, Quadrige / PUF, 1989, “Considerations on France” (1797), p. 137

Given the belief in the natural evidence of the right of men to freedom, he said that slavery “anchor company” has been in antiquity, of a universal moral approval. Faced with the idea of the sovereignty of the people, he noted that even in democracy, power still belongs to the small number.

In the dream of a perpetual peace, he recalls that “the whole earth is [always] soaked with blood” and the horror of the war seems to him a proof of his divinity: he holds the executioner for sacred and denies all right resistance to political authority. Affirming the need to intolerance, he praised the Inquisition, he presents as an institution “good and sweet”. He also refuses the idea of a universal and uprooted Man, but believes in the particularity of each people and of each nation:

“There is no man in the world. I have seen in my life Frenchmen, Italians, Russians; I know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be Persian; but as for the man, I declare that he has not met him in my life; if it exists it is well without my knowledge. ”
– Writings on the Revolution, Paris, Quadrige / PUF, 1989, “Considerations on France” (1797)

If the philosophy of “rational” of 18th century is condemned without appeal by Joseph de Maistre, it does not designate under the term “Enlightenment”. The condemnation is actually about a state of mind that has diverted philosophy from religion, and not about a current of thought whose doctrinal coherence is the fruit of the intellectual constructions of the Enlightenment:

“What I want especially to those French who have abandoned, forgotten, outraged even the Christian Plato born among them (…) to give the scepter of rational philosophy to this idol work of their hands, this false god of 18th century, who knows nothing, who says nothing, who can do nothing, and they raised the pedestal in front of the face of the Lord on the strength of a few fanatics even worse philosophers. ”
– Writings on the Revolution, Paris, Quadrige / PUF, 1989, “Considerations on France” (1797), p. 365-366


In the totalitarianisms of the 20th century (Isaiah Berlin)
The historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin is the first to produce an important study on romantic counterrevolutionary authors. In a political context marked by the Cold War, where attention is focused on the connections between Marxist thought and the Stalinist regime, Berlin’s intellectual project consists in seeking in the opposition to the Enlightenment the warning signs of the doctrines. totalitarian the 20th century, as well as warnings against the paradoxes of the democratic-capitalist regimes that use universal values advocated by the Enlightenment to homogenize mentalities. Liberal and anti-communistBerlin itself denounces some of the Enlightenment’s thinking, notably to Rousseau’s “positive” freedom 1, which he accuses of having betrayed the cause he defended and of being “one of the most more sinister and dreadful of freedom. ”

Isaiah Berlin first defines the philosophers of the Enlightenment, despite their doctrinal differences, by a movement that believes that it is possible to build a coherent system of laws and universal goals common to all humanity, likely to replace the dogmas, the superstitions and prejudices held by those who governed the individuals:

“Enlightenment thinkers certainly did not agree on the nature of these laws, how to discover them, or who would be best qualified to expose them. But that these laws were very real, and knowable with certainty, or at least in a probable manner, did not make any doubt for anyone; it was the central dogma of all Enlightenment philosophy. ”

Berlin then builds its reflection on the “counter-Enlightenment” and traces the diversity of attacks against rationalism, mobilizing thinkers such as Giambattista Vico, for his theory of the cyclical development of civilizations, Johann Hamann, for his apology of the faith against the reason or Johann von Herder, for his remarks about the singularity of existences. Despite the heterogeneity of the refusal of the theories of the Enlightenment, these authors reject all universal principles and accessibility for all individuals to the laws of reason 16. The doctrines of the “counter-Enlightenment”, according to Berlin, can “take a conservative or liberal turn, reactionary or revolutionary, according to the order of the realities to which they attacked. “For him, one of prefigurations fascist doctrines is particularly marked by the ideas of the philosopher Joseph de Maistre. He believes that Maistre’s “dark theories” would inspire the monarchist movement, then the nationalist movement, and “finally, they would incarnate, in their most violent and pathological form, in these fascist and totalitarian theories of twentieth century”:

“Maistre thought that men were bad animals by nature, inclined to self-destruction, full of contradictory impulses (…) and the only way to ensure their survival and their salvation is to subject them to constant control and a rigorous discipline. (…) Reasoning, analysis, criticism, shake the foundations of society and destroy its substance (…). The source of authority must be absolute, and so terrifying, that the slightest attempt to question it immediately entails formidable sanctions. Only then will men learn to obey. (…) The supreme power, and especially the Church, must never seek to explain or justify itself in rational terms: for what one man can demonstrate, another can refute it. ”

Resuming, without naming it, Carl Schmitt’s concept that “politics” is characterized by the distinction between “friend” and “enemy,” Isaiah Berlin insists that Maistrian thought fought and pointed to a “Enemy”, and it is from this criterion that he sees a relation between this one and fascism:

“[The appointed masters of men] must fulfill the duty entrusted to them by their creator (who has made nature a hierarchical order) by the pitiless imposition of the rules… and an equally ruthless extermination of the enemy. And who is the enemy? All those who throw powder in the eyes of the people or seek to subvert the established order. (…) It brings together, for the first time and accurately, the list of enemies of the great counter-revolutionary movement that culminated in fascism. ”

Darrin MacMahon has addressed a number of criticisms of Isaiah Berlin’s “counter-enlightenment” texts. According to him, it would be ridiculous to look in thought against revolutionary theocratic prefigurations disaster of modernity, by talking a writer of what he did not speak his mind and bringing issues that were not hers.

In Neoconservatism (Z. Sternhell)
In his book The anti-Enlightenment, the historian of ideas Zeev Sternhell believes that doctrinal oppositions since the end of 18th century are based on the confrontation between the heirs of the Enlightenment, progressive and universalist; and those of anti-Enlightenment, conservatives, neoconservatives and reactionaries:

“If enlightened modernity is that of liberalism that leads to democracy, the other modernity (…) takes on the street the contours of the revolutionary right, nationalist communitarian (…), sworn enemy of universal values. ”

After the first generation of thinkers against-Enlightenment embodied by Johann Gottfried Herder and Edmund Burke, a new wave appears throughout the xix th century England and France, and grows facing the democratization of political life and the political events of the time as the spring of peoples or the Paris Commune. Worn by Thomas Carlyle, Ernest Renan or Hippolyte Tainethis thought theorizes the long fall of a Western civilization community and impregnated with the fear of God, victim of democratic decadence and the grip of materialism. For Sternhell, these broad ideological lines will seal the critique of rationalist modernity for a century and a half. Their solution is to uproot the idea of the omnipotence of the individual, replenish organic communities and end the universal suffrage and equality 1.

At the beginning of the 20th century, when the democratization of political life and compulsory education a reality for a new generation, the third wave appears before “wash over Europe Entre two wars “and” prepare the European disaster that will follow “. Inquiries about civilizational decadence, the horror of mass culture and democracy, and the cult of the “popular soul” often resumed, at least in part, the conclusions and assumptions of Burke’s Herder or even Renan 1.

This confrontation is not so Manichean nature, or a simple artificial extension of the quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns. Sternhell rather tries to demonstrate that there existed, and still exists, two antagonistic ways of conceiving modernity: one that uses as arguments, depending on the time, the search for individual happiness, freedom, the promise of progress, the secularization of spirits, etc.; and another that defends civilizational values, particularisms or communities.

Counter-Enlightenment movement vs Enlightenment thinkers
Although the term ‘the Counter-Enlightenment’ was first used in English (in passing) by William Barrett in a 1949 article (“Art, Aristocracy and Reason”) in Partisan Review, it was Isaiah Berlin who established its place in the history of ideas. He used the term to refer to a movement that arose primarily in late 18th- and early 19th-century Germany against the rationalism, universalism and empiricism commonly associated with the Enlightenment. Berlin’s widely read essay “The Counter-Enlightenment” was first published in 1973, and later reprinted in a popular collection of his essays, Against the Current, in 1981. The term has had wide currency since.

Berlin argues that, while there were enemies of the Enlightenment outside of Germany (e.g. Joseph de Maistre) and before the 1770s (e.g. Giambattista Vico), Counter-Enlightenment thought did not really ‘take off’ until the Germans ‘rebelled against the dead hand of France in the realms of culture, art and philosophy, and avenged themselves by launching the great counter-attack against the Enlightenment.’ This reaction was led by the Königsberg philosopher J. G. Hamann, ‘the most passionate, consistent, extreme and implacable enemy of the Enlightenment’, according to Berlin. This German reaction to the imperialistic universalism of the French Enlightenment and Revolution, which had been forced on them first by the francophile Frederick II of Prussia, then by the armies of Revolutionary France, and finally by Napoleon, was crucial to the epochal shift of consciousness that occurred in Europe at this time, leading eventually to Romanticism. According to Berlin, the surprising and unintended consequence of this revolt against the Enlightenment has been pluralism, which owes more to the Enlightenment’s enemies than it does to its proponents, some of whom were monists, whose political, intellectual and ideological offspring have been terreur and totalitarianism.

In his book Enemies of the Enlightenment (2001), historian Darrin McMahon extends the Counter-Enlightenment both back to pre-Revolutionary France and down to the level of ‘Grub Street,’ thereby marking a major advance on Berlin’s intellectual and Germanocentric view. McMahon focuses on the early enemies of the Enlightenment in France, unearthing a long-forgotten ‘Grub Street’ literature in the late-18th and early 19th centuries aimed at the philosophes. He delves into the obscure and at times unseemly world of the ‘low Counter-Enlightenment’ that attacked the encyclopédistes and fought an often dirty battle to prevent the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas in the second half of the century. A great many of these early opponents of the Enlightenment attacked it for undermining religion and the social and political order. This later became a major theme of conservative criticism of the Enlightenment after the French Revolution appeared to vindicate the warnings of the anti-philosophes in the decades prior to 1789.

Cardiff University professor Graeme Garrard suggests that historian William R. Everdell was the first to situate Rousseau as the “founder of the Counter-Enlightenment” in his 1987 book, Christian Apologetics in France, 1730–1790: The Roots of Romantic Religion, and earlier in his 1971 dissertation. In his 1996 article in the American Political Science Review (Vol. 90, No. 2), Arthur M. Melzer corroborates Everdell’s view in placing the origin of the Counter-Enlightenment in the religious writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, further showing Rousseau as the man who fired the first shot in the war between the Enlightenment and its enemies. Graeme Garrard follows Melzer in his “Rousseau’s Counter-Enlightenment” (2003). This contradicts Berlin’s depiction of Rousseau as a philosophe (albeit an erratic one) who shared the basic beliefs of his Enlightenment contemporaries. Also, like McMahon, it traces the beginning of Counter-Enlightenment thought back to France and prior to the German Sturm und Drang movement of the 1770s. Garrard’s book Counter-Enlightenments (2006) broadens the term even further, arguing against Berlin that there was no single ‘movement’ called ‘The Counter-Enlightenment’. Rather, there have been many Counter-Enlightenments, from the middle of the 18th century through to 20th-century Enlightenment critics among critical theorists, postmodernists and feminists. The Enlightenment has enemies on all points of the ideological compass, from the far left to the far right, and all points in between. Each of the Enlightenment’s enemies depicted it as they saw it or wanted others to see it, resulting in a vast range of portraits, many of which are not only different but incompatible.

This argument has been taken a step further by some, like intellectual historian James Schmidt, who questioned the idea of the ‘Enlightenment’ and therefore of the existence of a movement opposing it. As our conception of the ‘Enlightenment’ has become more complex and difficult to maintain, so too has the idea of the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’. Advances in Enlightenment scholarship in the last quarter-century have challenged the stereotypical view of the 18th century as an ‘Age of Reason’, leading Schmidt to speculate on whether the Enlightenment might not actually be a creation of its enemies, rather than the other way round. The fact that the term ‘Enlightenment’ was first used in 1894 in English to refer to a historical period lends support to the argument that it was a late construction projected back onto the 18th century.

Counter-Enlightenment and Counter-Revolution
Although serious doubts were raised about the Enlightenment prior to the 1790s (e.g. in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France and J.G. Hamann in Germany in particular), the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution fueled a major reaction against the Enlightenment, which many writers blamed for undermining traditional beliefs that sustained the ancien regime, thereby fomenting revolution. Counter-revolutionary writings like those of Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre and Augustin Barruel all asserted a close link between the Enlightenment and the Revolution, as did many of the revolutionary leaders themselves, so that the Enlightenment became increasingly discredited as the Revolution became increasingly bloody. That is why the French Revolution and its aftermath was also a major phase in the development of Counter-Enlightenment thought. For example, while Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) contains no systematic account of the connection between the Enlightenment and the Revolution, it is heavily spiced with hostile references to the French revolutionaries as merely politicised philosophes. Barruel argues in Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797) — one of the most widely read books of its period — that the Revolution was the consequence of a conspiracy of philosophes and freemasons. In Considerations on France (1797), Maistre interprets the Revolution as divine punishment for the sins of the Enlightenment.

Romantic revolt against the eighteenth century
Many early Romantic writers such as Chateaubriand, Novalis and Samuel Taylor Coleridge inherited this Counter-Revolutionary antipathy towards the philosophes. All three directly blamed the philosophes in France and the Aufklärer in Germany for devaluing beauty, spirit and history in favour of a view of man as a soulless machine and a view of the universe as a meaningless, disenchanted void lacking richness and beauty. Of particular concern to early Romantic writers was the allegedly anti-religious nature of the Enlightenment since the philosophes and Aufklarer were generally deists, opposed to revealed religion. Some historians nevertheless contend that this view of the Enlightenment as an age hostile to religion is common ground between these Romantic writers and many of their conservative Counter-Revolutionary predecessors. Chateaubriand, Novalis, and Coleridge, however, are exceptions here: few Romantic writers had much to say for or against the Enlightenment and the term itself did not exist at the time. For the most part, they ignored it.

The philosopher Jacques Barzun argues that Romanticism had its roots in the Enlightenment. It was not anti-rational, but rather it balanced rationality against the competing claims of intuition and the sense of justice. This view is expressed in Goya’s Sleep of Reason (left), in which the nightmarish owl offers the dozing social critic of Los Caprichos a piece of drawing chalk. Even the rational critic is inspired by irrational dream-content under the gaze of the sharp-eyed lynx. Marshall Brown makes much the same argument as Barzun in Romanticism and Enlightenment, questioning the stark opposition between these two periods.

By the middle of the 19th century, the memory of the French Revolution was fading and Romanticism had more or less run its course. In this optimistic age of science and industry, there were few critics of the Enlightenment, and few explicit defenders. Friedrich Nietzsche is a notable and highly influential exception. After an initial defence of the Enlightenment in his so-called ‘middle period’ (late-1870s to early 1880s), Nietzsche turned vehemently against it.

Enlightened totalitarianism
It was not until after World War II that ‘the Enlightenment’ re-emerged as a key organising concept in social and political thought and the history of ideas. Shadowing it has been a resurgent Counter-Enlightenment literature blaming the 18th-century trust in reason for 20th-century totalitarianism. The locus classicus of this view is Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), which traces the degeneration of the general concept of enlightenment from ancient Greece (epitomised by the cunning ‘bourgeois’ hero Odysseus) to 20th-century fascism. (They say little about Soviet communism, referring to it as a regressive totalitarianism that “clung all too desperately to the heritage of bourgeois philosophy”).

The authors take ‘enlightenment’ as their target including its 18th-century form – which we now call ‘The Enlightenment’. They claim it is epitomized by the Marquis de Sade. However, at least one philosopher has rejected Adorno and Horkheimer’s claim that Sade’s moral skepticism is actually coherent, or that it reflects Enlightenment thought.

Many postmodern writers and some feminists (e.g. Jane Flax) have made similar arguments, likewise seeing the Enlightenment conception of reason as totalitarian, and as not having been enlightened enough since, for Adorno and Horkheimer, though it banishes myth it falls back into a further myth, that of individualism and formal (or mythic) equality under instrumental reason.

Michel Foucault, for example, argued that attitudes towards the “insane” during the late-18th and early 19th centuries show that supposedly enlightened notions of humane treatment were not universally adhered to, but instead, that the Age of Reason had to construct an image of “Unreason” against which to take an opposing stand. Berlin himself, although no postmodernist, argues that the Enlightenment’s legacy in the 20th century has been monism (which he claims favours political authoritarianism), whereas the legacy of the Counter-Enlightenment has been pluralism (something he associates with liberalism). These are two of the ‘strange reversals’ of modern intellectual history.

Enlightenment’s “perversion of reason”
What seems to unite all of the Enlightenment’s disparate critics (from 18th-century religious opponents, counter-revolutionaries and Romantics to 20th-century conservatives, feminists, critical theorists and environmentalists) is a rejection of what they consider to be the Enlightenment’s perversion of reason: the distorted conceptions of reason of the kind each associates with the Enlightenment in favour of a more restricted view of the nature, scope and limits of human rationality.

Very few of the enemies of the Enlightenment, however, have abandoned reason entirely. The battle has been over the scope, meaning and application of reason, not over whether it is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, essential or inessential per se. The conflict between the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment is not a conflict between friends and enemies of reason, any more than it is between friends and enemies of the notion of enlightenment.

Although objections have consistently been raised against what has been taken as the typical Enlightenment view of reason by its opponents (on all points of the ideological spectrum, left, right, and centre), this has almost never been generalised to reason as such by Counter-Enlightenment thinkers. Some charge that the Enlightenment inflated the power and scope of reason, while others claim that it narrowed it.

Source from Wikipedia