Friday, December 3, 2021

Ruth Scurr on the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Cancel Culture

From her interview with Tyler Cowen:

COWEN: A very broad question, but if we look at the Enlightenment as a whole and not just the French Enlightenment, but what is the underlying principle that gives it a unified flavor? What is enlightenment, to paraphrase Kant?

SCURR: For me, it’s liberty. It’s the evaluation of liberty above all else. I see this most in Tocqueville, because he is, obviously, the first generation who has no personal memories of the Revolution. But when he looks back on the Revolution and he tries to explain what has happened and, in fact, to explain not just the beginnings of democracy in France but also, of course, in America, he sees a fundamental conflict between liberty and equality. And he is always prioritizing, if he can, liberty while expecting that equality will win out as the stronger value.

COWEN: Was Hayek correct that the French Enlightenment theorists were too rationalistic, assigned too strong a power to human reason, and thus inevitably were led down a kind of slippery slope where their liberty was self-undercutting — and that the British empiricist tradition is far superior? Agree or disagree?

SCURR: I disagree with that, actually. I don’t think you can be too rational. In that regard, I’m a real signed-up Enlightenment person. . . .

COWEN: Are the origins of today’s woke and cancel culture found in the French Revolution?

SCURR: I don’t think the origins of it are. I think there are resonances, and I think that’s a very important difference. I think you can definitely look at the revolutionary rhetoric, the prescription of certain views, and the radical attempt in the French Revolution to cancel the past. This was absolutely explicit, right down to changing the calendar. They said, “We do not want to continue with this oppressive framework that we have inherited from the church, and therefore, we are going to have a new calendar based upon the natural world, etc.” That’s just one example of the determined attempt to cancel what was, by the revolutionaries, perceived as an inextricably oppressive past.

Of course, it’s very interesting to use the Revolution as a prism. You can look at it, you can see what happened as a result of that. You can think about the resonances. But I don’t think what we see today is directly related or in any sense caused by that.

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