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Thursday, March 30, 2006

defending the enlightenment from its defenders

Madeleine Bunting is a columnist for the Guardian who is against the war (yeah!) but is also soft on religion – so that she often goes after people who are against the war, like Richard Dawkins (not so yeah!). LI has been pretty amused, however, by the reaction to her recent thumbsucking piece about the Enlightenment. The piece goes in a rather predictable way for someone who wants to combine a general leftward leaningness with spirituality – Bunting is generally not happy with the Enlightenment. This has caused various pro-war people (here ) and anti-religious people (here ) to the projecting of thunderous batteries of spitballs at her.

Actually, Bunting’s column comes at the enlightenment from a refreshingly unique angle, at least for a newspaper columnist:

“Then I began bumping into the subject with Muslim intellectuals who were acutely aware of how this legacy was being used (implicitly or explicitly) against Islam. It was as if the debate had shifted from the Reformation - why hasn't Islam had one? (it dawned on such questioners that a)the Christian Reformation led to several centuries of appalling bloodshed and b)there's a good argument that Wahabi Islam is precisely Islam's reformation) - to another tack: why hasn't Islam had an Enlightenment?)

These Muslims then argue that the Enlightenment was a process of European definition in the face of the Ottoman Empire; it was shaped in opposition to Islam and hence has an inbuilt anti-Islamic bias. Montesquieu's 'Persian Letters' is a good example of this.”

However, it is here that one wonders about her own acquaintanceship with Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters.” In fact, a writer much more involved with the creation of the colonialist mindset, Johnny Mill’s father, James Mill, had, in 1810, a much different idea of Montesquieu. He complains that Montesquieu (among other 18th century writers) romanticized Moslem culture, and Asian culture in general. In fact, I’d buy Mill’s version over Madeleine’s – that is, I’d say that far from being anti-Muslim, Montesquieu’s work, along with William Jones’ work on Sanskrit antiquities, was the beginning of an attitude of cultural relativism that Bunting can simply assume today, so much has it rooted in the conventional wisdom.

Here’s what Mill wrote about William Jones – a pretty pure product of the philosophe culture:

“Sir W. finds proofs of a pure theism as easily among the Persians as among the Arabs. "The primeval religion of Iran," he says, "if we rely on the authorities adduced by Mohsani Fani, was that which Newton calls the oldest (and it may be justly called the noblest) of all religions: A firm belief that one supreme God made the world by his power, and continually governed it by his providence; a pious fear, love, and adoration of him; a due reverence for parents and aged persons; a fraternal affection for the whole human race, and a compassionate tenderness even for the brute creation."

I could quote endlessly from Mill’s entertaining Chapter X, Book 2, an attack on the European softheadedness of according the Asians, Persians and Hindoos the least color of civilization.

In fact, that kind of praise for Islam – which, shed of the scandalous worship of a magician, Jesus, seemed, to those who were admittedly not experts in Islam, a religion much closer to their own deism than Christianity – is not uncommon in the Enlightenment. Montesquieu, in the Spirit of the Laws, did take oriental despotism (which Voltaire criticized as a fiction) as a model with which to obliquely criticize the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV. But your average Enlightenment figure, from Leibniz up to Diderot, was much more apt to view the Other as distinctly embodying a history and a corpus of tradition that was not automatically subordinate to the West. True, the Oriental other was fictionalized to provide a model against which to criticize or praise features of French or British, or in general Christian civilization. Still, Bunting’s idea of the relation between the Orient and Europe (not that she should be held to some high scholarly standard -- she is merely writing an ephemeral piece) seriously misjudges the Enlightenment’s disposition. Plus, of course, the idea that the Enlightenment sprang up solely in response to the threat of the Ottoman empire is entirely too reductive. After all, the French allied with the Ottomans, and in the nineteenth century the British and the French often found themselves on the Ottoman side – but who would say that this was evidence of pro-Islamic feeling? The whole issue of the Arabic reception of early modern science and the perception, among both the Ottomans and the North African Arabic polities, that the European powers were gaining advantage – is not so simple.

But … this brings us to the subject of ghosts. LI is just using the Bunting piece as a bridge to commenting on “Sensible Proof of Spirits”: Ghost Belief during the Later Seventeenth Century by Jo Bath and John Newton in the April issue of Folklore. Which will be tomorrow’s post.

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