Trump the “Anti-Enlightenment Man” Revisited

By | 2017-03-16T14:39:46+00:00 March 16th, 2017|
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Immanuel Kant, philosopher of the counter-Enlightenment.

I suppose we must prepare ourselves for more pseudo-intellectual drivel about the Enlightenment from people who oppose Donald Trump.

David Brooks of the New York Times appears to have gotten the ball rolling with “The Enlightenment Project.” Now Andrew Small has joined in with “The Counter-Enlightenment and the Great Powers.” In his opinion piece, Brooks identified globalist institutions with the Enlightenment in order to claim that Trump is “an anti-Enlightenment man.”

Small quotes Brooks as an authority on the Enlightenment, and makes his argument based on Brooks’ identification of globalist institutions with the Enlightenment. According to Small, “the political DNA for the figures who have most effectively channeled the president’s instincts is not just illiberal but explicitly counter-Enlightenment in nature.” Brook writes “anti-Enlightenment,” while Small prefers “counter-Enlightenment,” but either way the message is the same.

In my recent critique of the Brooks column, I noted that addressing all its confusions might require an entire semester. As much as you and I do not want to spend months untangling the mess Brooks made, perhaps we do need to return to it one more time in order to prepare for what is apparently headed our way.

Let’s start with this statement by Brooks: “The Enlightenment included thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority for how to live.”

There is so much wrong with this sentence! I’ll try to keep this simple.

The best place to start is with this fact: Kant is a counter-Enlightenment thinker. In fact, Kant is the most significant thinker of the counter-Enlightenment. As Rockford University philosopher Stephen R. C. Hicks writes in his outstanding book Explaining Postmodernism, Kant’s “attack on Enlightenment reason more than anyone else’s opened the door to the nineteenth century irrationalists…” My copy of the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment has this to say about Kant and the Enlightenment: “even his contemporaries, such as Moses Mendelssohn, recognized that he [Kant] came to the Enlightenment as a destroyer.”

If Brooks is allowed to get away with defining “Enlightenment thinkers” so as to include the main thinker of the counter-Enlightenment, then all bets are off.

Labels aside, let’s address the “authority” portion of that remarkable sentence Brooks has provided us by taking a look at Kant the political thinker. Kant wrote that humankind “requires a master who will break his self-will and force him to obey a universally valid will” [Italics in original]. I believe you will agree that this does not sound at all like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, though it may remind you of a certain German political leader who tried to impose a world political order by means of a world war. Kant, too, by the way, envisioned a future international order which, he wrote, could only be achieved by war.

David Horowitz tells us that “inside every progressive is a totalitarian.” Our American progressives are not the intellectual descendants of Locke or Jefferson, actual Enlightenment thinkers, but of Kant by way of G. W. F. Hegel. The modern progressive drive to subordinate Americans to the state and to subordinate America to an ever-expanding collection of international institutions has its roots in the counter-Enlightenment.

Trump certainly does seek to prevent America from being submerged in a globalist world order that would extinguish everything that makes America the exceptional country it is. But championing our exceptional America, which we have by way of the American Enlightenment, does not make Trump an anti-Enlightenment man with “explicitly counter-Enlightenment political DNA.”

The president is quite simply pro-American. Trying to define him as an anti-Enlightenment figure is playing fast and loose with the truth.

About the Author:

Robert Curry
Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books. You can preview the book at: http://www.amazon.com/Common-Sense-Nation-Unlocking-Forgotten/dp/1594038252
  • Severn

    “The Enlightenment included thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority for how to live.”

    In that case the real “Counter-Enlightenment” would be the modern Left, which displays a fanatical zeal for telling other people how to live their lives which makes the medieval Christian church seem like a gang of minarchist libertarians by comparison.

  • Derek Pandamonium

    I imagine Brooks would have disparaged our Founding Fathers for wanting to “exit” the global hegemony of Great Britain.

    The globalists are the running dog lackeys of the plutocracy. The plutocracy wants to eliminate nation states because it makes it easier for them to control and profit from the new world order. They’re so intent on making this happen, they don’t realize they’re authoring their own doom.

    President Trump, his administration, and supporters are in a Civil war. The dems, GOPe, media poodles, and administrative state want to overturn the election results, just as they did in 1861. We are fortunate to have the party of Trump on our side and he is the only hope for the survival of America.

  • QET

    The irony runs deeper than that. Critics of the Enlightenment are as varied as de Maistre and the Frankfurt School, with the latter representing the strain of criticism that has informed the modern Left. To call a Marxist anti-Enlightenment is a compliment, but to call someone nominally of the Right such is to disparage him? The only thing that gives Brooks any claim to think of himself as an intellectual is that he is employed as one of the NYT’s useful idiots, writing weekly op-eds on current affairs, dearly loving the amusement park that is NYT for the 1% and hostile to anyone who suggests it is built and maintained on the basis of a despotic state. Whatever knowledge and ideas he has of political theory and philosophy have long since congealed into a miasma whose strands he can no longer separate and think out.

    As for Kant, I really disagree that he was anti-Enlightenment. Kant was not a political theorist and so his “political writings” justly remain unknown to all but his most completist readers. Kant in fact was the philosophical culmination of the Enlightenment, against which Hegel and the rest were a reaction. Kant arrived at the logical endpoint of the individual-freed-from-social-institutions that was the philosophical movement of the Enlightenment. Here is the “standard view” of Kant as related by the Philosophical Establishment (this from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

    Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is the central figure in modern philosophy. He synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism, set the terms for much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, and continues to exercise a significant influence today in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and other fields. The fundamental idea of Kant’s “critical philosophy” — especially in his three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) — is human autonomy. He argues that the human understanding is the source of the general laws of nature that structure all our experience; and that human reason gives itself the moral law, which is our basis for belief in God, freedom, and immortality. Therefore, scientific knowledge, morality, and religious belief are mutually consistent and secure because they all rest on the same foundation of human autonomy, which is also the final end of nature according to the teleological worldview of reflecting judgment that Kant introduces to unify the theoretical and practical parts of his philosophical system.

    Brooks confuses the Enlightenment with the progressive theology of Reinhold Niebuhr.

    And it bears repeating that this newfound concern of both hard liberals and soft liberals like Brooks with “authority” is just that: newfound. We heard precisely the opposite during the Obama Administration, where the Left’s categorical imperative was that we must defer to the authority of Obama’s enlightened self.

    • Robert Curry

      Dear QET,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment.
      We are in agreement certainly about the “value” of Brooks’ deep thinking, and we are no doubt also in agreement about the NY Times in general. In fact, I believe we are in fierce agreement over everything in your 1st paragraph.
      And thank you for your quote from the Stanford E of P. I searched it in vain, however, for support of your claim that Kant was ” the philosophical culmination of the Enlightenment”–by which I take it you mean an Enlightenment thinker.
      Also, I admit that I am baffled by “the individual-freed-from-social-institutions that was the philosophical movement of the Enlightenment”, but never mind.
      In any case, the author of this sentence–“Critics of the Enlightenment are as varied as de Maistre and the Frankfurt School, with the latter representing the strain of criticism that has informed the modern Left’–is a person worth listening to.
      With all best wishes

      • QET

        Thanks Robert.
        What was the Enlightenment except the emancipation of human reason from the constraints of religious institutions? From the limitations of Aristotelian physics and metaphysics as integrated with Christian theology? The individual was freed to reason for himself; in fact he was commanded to do so. Kant said in What is Enlightenment “Sapere aude! Dare to be wise! Have the courage to use your own understanding.” And his famous categorical imperative to the individual: act so that you could will your maxim to become universal law. Kant urged moral autonomy, the giving of laws by oneself to oneself. And what was to be the source of the laws the individual was to give himself? Reason. Not St. Paul. Not Aristotle. At least not as unreflected reflex. Kant allowed there were questions reason–pure reason–could not answer–the big questions (does God exist?, e.g.). But in matters moral, and presumably in natural science as well, Kant’s philosophy elevated individual rational autonomy to the highest place. And this was precisely the direction of the Enlightenment as represented by the French philosophes, or so I understand it to have been. Kant gave the idea of individual autonomy guided by reason–a/k/a Enlightenment–its highest philosophical expression. That’s how I understand him. No doubt I have oversimplified.

        • Robert Curry

          Dear QET,
          Huuuge matters here, of course.
          May I recommend a book? It does a surprisingly good job of addressing the most important of these matters in the context of what America is all about:

          https://www.amazon.com/Common-Sense-Nation-Unlocking-Forgotten/dp/1594038252

          When I am asked how its author managed to do such a good job, I always reply “it’s a mystery.”

  • Just as President Trump has shown us the way how to successfully define and deflate the “fake media,” so American Greatness is unmasking “fake intellectuals.” Brooks is as fake as the come.

    • Robert Curry

      Hear! Hear!

  • Mark Twain

    I agree with QET. Kant stands between the enlightenment thinkers like Descartes and the Empiricists and Hegel. So Kant can be put in either camp. So in a short column Brooks isn’t clear. This column then takes that small issue and bases the whole column on why Trump is pro-Englightenment? Science and reason are hallmarks of the Enlightenment, something this admin doesn’t seem to believe in. I’m actually glad you was elected though. This approach needs to have its chance and fail. For full disclosure, I’m a liberal who has been vary of globalization for a long time. Good luck to you guys.

  • Hollif50

    This author calling the Left’s agenda and narrative “enlightenment” makes me want to hurl chunks..