Wednesday, January 31, 2007

That Dang Old Enlightenment Again

Dr. David Bell, of Johns Hopkins, in a recent article here posits that we have over-reacted to the tragedy of 9/11. He makes a convincing case--one well worth reading--but what really interested me was his theory that this behavior is rooted in Enlightenment thought (I know, I know--we Orthodox blame the Enlightenment for everything.) He writes:

Seeing international conflict in apocalyptic terms — viewing every threat as existential — is hardly a uniquely American habit. To a certain degree, it is a universal human one. But it is also, more specifically, a Western one, which paradoxically has its origins in one of the most optimistic periods of human history: the 18th century Enlightenment.

Until this period, most people in the West took warfare for granted as an utterly unavoidable part of the social order. Western states fought constantly and devoted most of their disposable resources to this purpose; during the 1700s, no more than six or seven years passed without at least one major European power at war.

The Enlightenment, however, popularized the notion that war was a barbaric relic of mankind's infancy, an anachronism that should soon vanish from the Earth. Human societies, wrote the influential thinkers of the time, followed a common path of historical evolution from savage beginnings toward ever-greater levels of peaceful civilization, politeness and commercial exchange.

The unexpected consequence of this change was that those who considered themselves "enlightened," but who still thought they needed to go to war, found it hard to justify war as anything other than an apocalyptic struggle for survival against an irredeemably evil enemy. In such struggles, of course, there could be no reason to practice restraint or to treat the enemy as an honorable opponent.

Ever since, the enlightened dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare of modern total war have been bound closely to each other in the West. Precisely when the Enlightenment hopes glowed most brightly, wars often took on an especially hideous character.

Bell concludes:

Yet as the comparison with the Soviet experience should remind us, the war against terrorism has not yet been much of a war at all, let alone a war to end all wars. It is a messy, difficult, long-term struggle against exceptionally dangerous criminals who actually like nothing better than being put on the same level of historical importance as Hitler — can you imagine a better recruiting tool? To fight them effectively, we need coolness, resolve and stamina. But we also need to overcome long habit and remind ourselves that not every enemy is in fact a threat to our existence.


Hilarius said...

John -

a bit of a comment on this and the Manifest Destiny post earlier.

When I read the sources of antiquity (such as Procopius the secretary to Byzantine General Belesarius, or Josephus, or Xenophon), or even those of Medieval Europe (such as Froissart), I see very little of this angst about policy and war. Perhaps that is because it is the soldier/statesmen types that recorded the history.

But perhaps it is bound up, as noted in the lengthy quote about the Enlightenment, in a fundamental social change itself, this "popularized . . . notion that war was a barbaric relic of mankind's infancy, an anachronism that should soon vanish from the Earth," as the writer suggests.

I don't suppose that Emperor Justinian, or Emperor Heraclius, or even their subjects much worried about whether it was right or wrong to attempt to reinstitute imperial power over distant lands in Armenia, and Greater Syria, or to even question the concept of 'empire' and 'imperialism' over other people.

We know that St. John Chrysostom made a distinction between 'defensive wars' and offensive wars where there was unjustifiable invasion into aother country in one of his sermons, although it's hard to tell whether he would have viewed the reclamation of former imperial territories as an invasion of foreign lands. So there was some thinking about this in the Christian ethics arena, and obviously St. Augustine wrote about this as well. It seems (perhaps I am wrong) that there is a qualitative difference between the type of angst exhibited, however.

I wonder whether the difference is located in the changed notions of identity in the West as the Renaissance and Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution ushered modernity onto the stage. Here I think of Bernard Lewis' discussion of identity in 'The Multiple Identities of the Middle East' which seems more consistent with the ideas of late antiquity - of religion, of nation (in the old sense), of country (in the old sense), of tribe and of family. Perhaps one cannot have these worries about imperialism or these tendencies cannot fully exist without a firmly rooted concept of the nation-state and a strong sense of personal identity being tied primarily to one's citizenship in it rather than ideas of nation [old sense] or ethnos, tribe or country [old sense], religion?

Ill-formed thoughts, I confess, and no criticism of those who ask hard questions about 'what is our role, if any, in the world as a nation-state?' These are important questions.

I wonder whether part of the angst is

Steve Hayes said...

Very interesting, and I've blogged it. I've many been interested in Enlightenment attitudes to witchcraft, but this seems to have some interesting parallels.

JOR said...

The pre-Christian Romans were pretty given to genocidal mania in their wars (look at their utter destruction of Carthage, Jerusalem, and other cities) and didn't have anything like the Enlightenment view of war. Oriental empires were similarly destructive. Modern total war is a bubble bath compared to the scale on which the ancients sought to kill each other.