John Gray on Enlightenment

Throughout his career, John Gray has argued ‘against’ the Enlightenment.

To put it less charitably, he has been writing and re-writing the same book for several years.  Each book features a ‘contrarian’ take on some powerful or once-powerful figure (Thatcher, Blair, Bush etc.), followed by a bleak and pessimistic conclusion.  Each time, he seems to wind up his arguments with a denunciation of Enlightenment for its supposed optimism and ‘faith in progress.’ 

Though I appreciate Gray’s choice of rhetorical targets (globalization, Blair, Bush, neo-cons etc. etc.), I find myself increasingly skeptical about his assertions regarding the Enlightenment (whatever that is, when named as a single, substantive noun).  Can we truly blame the historical Enlightenment for every shitty thing politicians say and do in the present?  Perhaps it’s the repetition that’s ruined this argument for me, or perhaps my impatience with Gray’s inability to move away from what seems to me a Cold-war liberalism.

This set pattern of blaming Enlightenment for the shittiness of the present holds true, I think, for Gray’s latest book, Black Mass (atheists and secularists are nothing but evangelists in disguise!), but I keep finding the same conclusion over and over again in the earlier writings, too.  Here he is in 2004, for example:

As an intellectual movement, the Enlightenment has always had a distinctly seamy side. In its political incarnation, it was one of the factors that shaped modern-day terror. Right-thinking French philosophes campaigned for the prohibition of torture, but their ideas also gave birth to the Jacobin Terror that followed the French revolution. Later, Enlightenment ideas animated some of the most repressive and murderous regimes of the 20th century. Contrary to views often voiced on the left, state terror in the Soviet Union and Maoist China was not produced by national traditions of despotism. It resulted from the utopian character of communism itself. The tens of millions who starved or were killed under communism perished for the sake of an Enlightenment ideal.

I have enjoyed Gray’s essays for some time, but I cannot take accounts like this–either of Enlightenment or contemporary politics–seriously anymore.  It feels like a rehash of Burke’s reading of the Jacobins, applied willy-nilly to Stalin and Mao and the Khmer Rouge blah blah blah, and then onwards and upwards to Bush and Blair and their equally ‘fanatical’ enemies. 

 To me, all this feels like a deeply ahistorical and reductive treatment of religion, politics, and war, with no respect for the distinctive causes and histories of any of these issues.  Ultimately, these arguments embody a liberalism (however qualified) that keeps searching for its ideal-typical Other–the Fanatic–for an excuse to launch its thoroughly conventional (and by now, ineffectual) attacks.  But how much do these kinds of arguments about Enlightenment and secularization help us to understand Bush, Al Quaeda, or even Robespierre?,,2126493,00.html



4 responses to “John Gray on Enlightenment

  1. So Gray should cast new pearls and publish new ideas on a regular basis just to keep his material fresh and his readers gagging for it? Perhaps he should form a rock band do a world tour of massive shows at large sports arenas as well?

  2. dave mazella

    Yes to both questions.

  3. hmmmm, haven’t read the book but the comments are quite handy for my paper on enlightement and its influence on present day politics. any suggestions on further readings:)?

  4. I can’t do your homework for you, but since the question is about Enlightenment, after all, why don’t you start with Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” then move on to Foucault’s essay? Even better, why not try James Schmidt’s excellent anthology of responses, past and present to this question?

    Or Wendy Brown’s Politics out of History ?

    Happy reading,