Are the political ideas of the Enlightenment reactionary?

In our collective representations, the philosophy of the Enlightenment very often evokes the break with the traditional structures of the Old Regime, a revolution in politics as in mores, led by brilliant and intractable minds like Voltaire or Diderot.

Nevertheless, since the case of the Creil scarf in 1989 – which provoked very lively debates on the place of “ostentatious religious signs” in schools, the ideas of the Enlightenment are called into question, amended or rejected, to the chagrin of fervent defenders of republican universalism.

Thought up about three centuries ago, isn't it natural to take a step back from their content, perhaps ill-suited to the debates of our time? Conversely, do we not risk breaking the tenuous ties that unite French citizens, by deeming the few principles that underpin and organize common life to be outdated? The most recent social debates question the particular status occupied by the political ideas of the Enlightenment in contemporary France: fundamentally critical in spirit as in practice, they are nevertheless consecrated as immovable pillars of national culture.

Enlightenment outdated?

Le September 20, the Minister of National Education Pap Ndiaye castigated the indifference of the French State to skin color, a "beautiful idea" which would not make it possible to effectively tackle the "discrimination and different forms of racism" that exist in France. This statement is indicative of the gulf between attitudes towards racial issues in France and the United States, where the minister was invited to speak.

In a country so marked by slavery and racial discrimination (nearly 20% of African Americans live below the poverty line, versus 8% for non-Hispanic whites), it would undoubtedly be inappropriate to imagine a State blind to differences, insofar as their recognition is perceived as a prerequisite for taking their specific difficulties into account. As French society diversifies and encounters similar problems, the American model, already influential in terms of mass culture, is finding a particular echo.

Secularism is another example. Despite countless attempts by political entrepreneurs to establish a precise definition, there is no no consensus in the scientific literature. Different models of secularism Indeed, disputes over the legitimacy of organizing relations between the State, religions and society. Among them, the French model (qualified as “republican secularism”) articulates freedom of conscience with the neutrality of republican institutions including, in particular, schools. However, the influence of the Anglo-Saxon model (qualified as “open secularism”) contests the need to neutralize the public space, and favors the expression of individual freedoms.

Investigation carried out by the IFOP and the Jean Jaurès Foundation highlighted the differences observed between young teachers and their older colleagues regarding the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols. In the context of a globalization largely influenced by Anglo-American culture, the younger generations are increasingly questioning the validity of a model deemed dated and somewhat isolated on the international level. Secularism seems indeed French above all, or at least of French inspiration.

The feminist school case

A similar clash opposed the so-called “universalist” feminists, opposed to the law on parity in politics, with those who were in favor of it. The universalist camp affirmed that we could not recognize women as a specific social category, if not by breaking with the universality of the human family. Merit should take precedence, with reference to the6 article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, according to which citizens can accede to "all dignities, places and public employments, according to their capacity, and without any other distinction than that of their virtues and their talents. »

La law of June 6, 2000 meant the defeat of the Universalists, who are sometimes seen as reactionary elements of the fight against discrimination, like the defenders of a secularism described as "closed" or "strict".

According to researchers Pascal Durand and Sarah Sindaco, reactionary thought can be interpreted as “old-fashioned orthodoxy”. They believe that the "neo-reactionaries" intend to vigorously defend the existing order on the grounds that the conditions for its reproduction would no longer be assured.

Safeguarding the ideas of the Enlightenment could thus constitute a surprisingly reactionary act. Would the Enlightenment be overtaken by the most recent social transformations?

Principles at the heart of the Republic

France draws a large part of its fundamental rights from a symbolic declaration proclaimed under the patronage of these philosophers 233 years ago.

The ideal of the Enlightenment is the radical criticism of religions by Voltaire ou Meslier, the neutrality of the State by Condorcet ou Clermont-Tonnerre, the wish that the individual gain autonomy over superstitions and communities; the love of the general interest and not the addition of particular interests by Rousseau ; the equal dignity of all human beings Father Gregory ou Olympe de Gouges, and finally, above all, the vital fight for reason, and the hope that the truth will eventually impose itself: all this still inflames the French republican spirit.

Was Voltaire anti-Semitic ? racist Montesquieu ? Sexist Rousseau ? The seriousness of the accusations sometimes intends to extinguish any explanation, regarded as untenable justifications. The literature teacher Laurent Dubreuil, a critic, summarizes the phenomenon thus:

 The statement of suffering must put an end to all debate and, on the spot, silence anyone who does not share its conformation. »

In the same vein, the resurgence of magical thinking and pseudoscience pits a simple and wonderful narrative against the cold forces of rationalism, as the Covid-19 pandemic has unfortunately illustrated.

What to do with Lights?

Yesterday radical, the political ideas of the Enlightenment today participate in a certain order of things, and are as such criticized and criticized.

But by guaranteeing freedom of expression and the conditions for a rational and peaceful debate, they are paradoxically the condition for the emergence of new ideas. Matrices of our freedoms, the Enlightenment will deserve a special status as long as their values ​​constitute an ideal to be achieved.

It should be remembered, however, that they cannot be reduced to interpretations often interested two centuries of the French Republic. The Enlightenment is indeed far from composing a homogeneous whole. Anticipating contemporary criticism, the “Radical” lights already considered the "moderate" Enlightenment too timorous, far from having the democratic and egalitarian sentiments, or the revolutionary spirit that we almost always wrongly attribute to them. Most of the Enlightenment thus condemned atheism, contrary to Diderot or Baron d'Holbach.

It can sometimes be embarrassing to take the Enlightenment as examples, because their ideas carry the deficiencies of the time. But the ideas of the Enlightenment could be the breeding ground for a renewed French model, an independent observer of neighboring societies. The social contract is a fragile institution; following the Montesquieu's formula, "one should only touch it with a trembling hand".

Thibaut Dauphin, Doctor of political science, University of Bordeaux

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Creative Commons / Wikimedia/ Statue Voltaire tagged, square Honoré-Champion, Paris 6th

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