Why the Enlightenment Didn’t Go Very Far
"We are all self-righteous hypocrites."
Future of Jewish is the ultimate newsletter by and for people passionate about Judaism and Israel. Subscribe to better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world.
Please consider supporting our mission to help everyone better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world. A gift of any amount helps keep our platform free and zero-advertising for all.
“Humanity lived in darkness — until He came. In the beginning only a few rallied to his cause. It was too enigmatic to arouse much popular support, and political opposition forced its champions underground. But a coterie of apostles resolved to spread a simplified version of his good news against stiff-necked enemies who often made martyrs of them. Then something remarkable happened. Thanks to a collection of gospels about his morality, the zealous devotion of followers and, of course, the obvious truth of his good news, his call for emancipation spread far beyond his native land and eventually set the world on fire.”1
This is how British historian Jonathan Israel described the message and story of a renegade Jew: Baruch Spinoza, of Portuguese descent, born in Amsterdam, and one of the foremost thinkers regarding the Age of Reason, modern biblical criticism, and 17th-century Rationalism.
The ideology that Spinoza defended was the Enlightenment, with its devotion to reason, not faith, and its vision of secular liberation leading to the establishment of a society based on the collective good, rather than the authority of kings and the traditions of priests.
What was the Enlightenment, and what is its relevance today? For Jonathan Israel, the answers are simple: “democracy, racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state.” As such, the Enlightenment’s relevance today is simply protecting these principles.
The conventional practice has been to cast the Enlightenment not only as a movement, but also as one both less diverse and more unified than high school history books are willing to admit. Some observers emphasized that each country had its own Enlightenment, while others have suggested that there were attempts by the religious to make faith and reason compatible. Rabbis and Jewish scholars, both past and present, are among them.
One of the most well-known definitions of “enlightenment” comes from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. His 1784 essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” argued that enlightenment was “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.” He then defined “immaturity” as “the inability to use one’s understanding without another’s guidance.”
In today’s pop culture, amid the rise of deep fakes and post-truth, and as artificial intelligence skyrockets, we might use a different word to describe Kant’s definition of immaturity — “inauthenticity.”
Within the realm of existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which a person’s actions are congruent with their values and desires, despite external pressures to social conformity. Among psychologists, authenticity identifies a person living in accordance with their true self and personal values, rather than according to the external demands of society, such as social conventions, kinship, and duty.
Yet, authenticity has been under attack for quite some time now, due to a variety of factors, namely: globalization, the 24/7 news cycle, the unlimited accessibilities and capabilities of mobile devices, social media, the politicization of every problem, and an undying effort towards the one-size-fits-all “virtue” of universality.
Notwithstanding, one trend aiding and abetting each of these factors is the propensity and intoxication of identity politics: the tendency for people to form mutually exclusive political alliances based on who they perceive themselves to be, a move away from traditional broad-based party politics.
There is nothing wrong with being deeply passionate about certain political parties or movements, wherever they are on the spectrum. Instead, the problem with identity politics is when people agree with a particular political alliance on certain issues, and therefore adopt all of the political alliance’s positions across the board. “If I agree with X political alliance on Y issue, I must agree with them on all issues,” the thinking errantly goes.
When we behave in this way, we relinquish our authenticity — our “maturity” — in deciding why and how we think about different issues, irrespective of our political allegiances. When we behave in this way, we terminate our individuality for the sake of a group, which is precisely how cults work.
Hence why, for example, many Jews around the world have a hard time grappling with their Jewish pride on one hand, and how Israel is portrayed as an oppressive regime within left-leaning circles on the other. “Maturity,” Kant would tell them, is the ability to do one’s own homework about Israel without the guidance of socio-political forces. After all, you can’t love Judaism and being Jewish if you despise half of the world’s Jews.
But cognitive dissonance is nothing new to human beings. Just as we are today, Enlightenment philosophers of past centuries were complex individuals. The work they produced was often loftier in aim than their practical realities were capable of matching.
At its core, the Enlightenment movement contained a paradox: Ideas of human freedom and individual rights took root in nations that enslaved others and went on to exterminate native populations. Colonial domination and expropriation marched hand-in-hand with the spread of “liberty,” and liberalism arose alongside our modern notions of race and racism.
Race as we understand it today — a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination — is a product of the Enlightenment. It developed as an attempt to resolve the fundamental contradiction between professing liberty and upholding slavery.
This doesn’t mean that humans never had slaves or otherwise classified each other prior to the Enlightenment, but it took the scientific thought of this movement to create an enduring racial taxonomy. This paradox between Enlightenment liberalism and racial domination was well-recognized from the beginning. One English critic told Benjamin Franklin in 1764:
“You Americans make a great Clamour upon every little imaginary infringement of what you take to be your Liberties; and yet there are no People upon Earth such Enemies to Liberty, such absolute Tyrants, where you have the Opportunity, as you yourselves are.”
The Enlightenment also turned out to be a recipe for terrible wrongs. For example, the Jacobins, a radical group formed in the wake of the French Revolution, had some of the most progressive and egalitarian aims of any political movement — yet they ended up orchestrating a reign of terror by treating their foes as enemies of humanity and legitimate victims.
Maybe I am paranoid, but this sounds an awful lot like today’s progressives, who defend the virtue of free speech to normalize hate speech, or shut down legitimate responses to it, and manipulate the notion of “peaceful protest” into disguising micro-aggressions, bullying, intimidation, and gaslighting.
However, to say that the Enlightenment was a movement of progressive politics against conservative tribalism is to be seriously mistaken. If anything, it was a failed attempt at trying to convince humans that we are much less emotionally driven, and thus much more rational, than we actually are.
The reality is that the human condition is one of incessant suffering, fear dominates our psyche, tribalism (the feeling of togetherness) still makes us feel safer, and — in the words of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt — “we are all self-righteous hypocrites.”2
If you believe that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you will be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas — to justify our own actions and to defend the groups we belong to and associate with — then things will make a lot more sense.
Indeed, our actions and behaviors are often based on “moral dumbfounding,” in which people have strong moral reactions, but fail to establish any kind of rational principle to explain them.
How do we know this to be true? Consider the following:
In a poll which asked which religion — Judaism or Islam — threatens American values more, 71 percent of participants said Judaism.3 Perhaps these people have never heard of John Adams, the second president of the United States and one of its founding fathers, who said:
“I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. Fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations.”
Many Muslims believe that Israel is only 75 years old, yet the word Israel is mentioned 43 times in the Koran. And, ironically, the Arabic word for Jew is “yahud” because Jews are the ancient people of Yahuda (Judea), presently called Israel.
People now seem afraid that Gaza will be occupied by Israel. Those same people were already saying that Gaza was occupied by Israel.
If Hitler was alive today, he would support the Palestinians’ virulent, institutionalized antisemitism. For those who do not support Israel, they are in good company.
There are American hostages, British hostages, French hostages, Thai hostages, Russian hostages — and people are demonstrating, not in support of the hostages, but in support of the hostage-takers.
Certain politicians across the world are using the Israel-Hamas war to bolster their humanitarian profiles. One politician said she met with families of the hostages, then bragged about it on Twitter to “promote a ceasefire” that would likely result in the death of most or all of the hostages. What great humanitarian work.
Some of the most worst state-sponsors of terrorism and violators of human rights (e.g. Qatar, Russia, Turkey) have found the wherewithal to take the “moral high-ground” during this Israel-Hamas war.
People who have been “living on stolen land” their entire life are purporting that Israelis are “living on stolen land.”
UN Women and other “feminist” organizations, which have automatically accepted all women’s claims against physical and sexual abuse worldwide, fail to say anything about the women who were so obviously and barbarically exploited during the Palestinian attacks in Israel on October 7th.
China herds innocent Uyghurs into internment camps, Syria drops sarin gas on its own people, Iran hangs homosexuals, and Qatar practices modern-day slavery. Yet only the existence of Israel is up for debate.
The head of the United Nations recently warned that he expects “public order to completely break down soon” in Gaza — but the UN had nothing to say when, years ago, Hamas members threw political opponents off the tops of buildings, and when Hamas used Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest hospital and military complex in Gaza, to interrogate, torture, and kill Palestinian dissidents in an operation known as “Strangling Necks.”
Progressives, who have an obsessive preoccupation with their and other people’s pronouns, are so intoxicated by the “pro-Palestinian” hoopla, they’ve become blinded to the reality that, for the vast majority of them, their pronouns in the Palestinian territories would be “was” and “were.”
The few nefarious governments which support Hamas are Russia, Iran, Qatar, North Korea, and South Africa — but few succeed in identifying the pattern here.
People are telling Israeli Jews to go back to Europe, even though more than half of Israeli Jews are of Middle Eastern and North African descent, because nearly one million Jews were implicitly or explicitly expelled from their homes across the Middle East and North Africa, leading up to and after Israel declared its independence in 1948.
South Africa decided to bring a genocide lawsuit against Israel in the World Court. Mind you, a person is assaulted every two minutes, a woman is raped every 12 minutes, and a person is murdered every 19 minutes in South Africa. As a matter of fact, five of the 20 most dangerous cities across the world are in South Africa.
The same people who advocate for “decolonization” quite readily overlook the Arabs’ colonization of the Levant — and don’t want to admit that Israel is, in fact, the greatest decolonization project on planet Earth.
“Palestine” is the only country in the world that never existed before its so-called occupation. Therefore, the Palestinians have the weakest case among all the world’s conflicts. Yet, because their opponents are the world’s villains — the Jews — the Palestinians have a distinct advantage over every other conflict in the world.
A festival in Virginia canceled a Chanukah celebration — which has nothing to do with Israel — because they were concerned it would send a message that the festival was “supporting the killing/bombing of thousands of men, women, and children.”
People seem to think they know more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that those who have been living in it for decades.
The Palestinians haven’t been permanently displaced from their homes since 1967, when there was around a million Palestinian refugees. Today, there are some seven million Palestinian refugees. Math has never been my forte, but something feels off here.
People calling for a return to the “1967 borders” seem to misremember that there were no “1967 borders” between Israel and the Palestinians. Jordan reigned over East Jerusalem and the West Bank, while Gaza was a part of Egypt, yet today, neither Jordan nor Egypt want to have anything to do with these territories.
The Enlightenment has, therefore, failed to enlighten us. After gaining some notable traction during revolutions in the late 1700s and early 1800s, it has morphed into populism, perhaps because politicians and other so-called leaders realized that they could not rise to power through the Enlightenment’s ideals.
“Social facts” are far more interesting to the average person than are “factual truths.” One of my friends calls it “vibes voting” — in which people elect a candidate based on feelings, not facts. Feelings are something you can share and bond over with others; facts are boring and conversation non-starters. Just look at the disproportionate amount of sentences that start with “I feel” as opposed to “I think.”
Even places that are supposed to uphold the Enlightenment’s ideals, like our universities and other institutions of education, have become nests of anti-intellectualism and “group think.”
People who have no real education, like Greta Thunberg and Selena Gomez and LeBron James, are routinely asked to give their opinions about convoluted world matters. Nerds and introverts only became “cool” when they started making a ton of money for venture capitalists. Professors are scolded and even fired for rehashing mainstream traditional views, but revered when they openly side with the “victims” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In other words, the Enlightenment didn’t go very far.
Israel, Jonathan. “Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750.” Oxford University Press, 2002.
Haidt, Jonathan. “The Righteous Mind.” Penguin Books, 2013.
Isabella Moody on X