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Vol. XI • 1989

Inconsistencies in "Enlightenment" Autonomous Thought
Ellen Myers

Everyone knows that the best defense is a good offense. As we defend the biblical Christian position, we must be alert and prepared to carry the battle into the enemy's camp. We will find that the unresolved and ever recurring internal inconsistencies in all worldly philosophies reasoning not from God but from man are the most vulnerable spots in the unbelievers armor. Let us consider the eighteenth century enlightenment, a formidable enemy of Christianity, as an example.

The enlightenment thinkers idolized human reason and hated biblical revelation. They continued to influence leading scholars through naturalism, positivism and scientism to our own day. Darwinism in its denial of the Creator through affirmation of the world's origin and development by nothing but natural processes is part of enlightenment thought. Indeed, Darwinism in particular and evolutionism in general was anticipated by leading enlightenment philosophers. While we usually think of the classical enlightenment personalities as strict rationalists, a strain of philosophical irrationalism was also present among them. Christians defending the biblical faith once delivered unto the saints today must keep in mind that anti-Christian thought comes as it were two-pronged, in pairs of opposites or dichotomies which have the same root —unregenerate man's desire to "be as God" on his own.

The enlightenment's primary appeal was its presupposition and promise of human autonomy, based upon man's potentially omniscient, infallible reason. Here lay the intoxicating effect of its proclamation of freedom from "revealed religion," a code word for Christianity and the institutional Christian churches. Thus Immanuel Kant defined the enlightenment as "the departure of man out of his self-incurred immaturity, Immaturity is the incapability of his making use of his understanding without the guidance of another."4 What is lurking beneath this talk about immaturity needing the guidance of "another" is the bid of the enlighteners to make themselves the new guides of the "immature" men and women whom they proposed to emancipate from the God of Christianity. We must be alert to this bid for their own power in those who claim that they want to deliver us from the powers that be.

Certainly the "enlightened" monarchs of the eighteenth century, Catherine II of Russia and Frederick II "the Great" of Prussia, both courted Voltaire, Diderot and other stars of the French enlightenment and at the same time practiced strict authoritarian rule where it really mattered in their affairs of state. Thus Frederick II

The dichotomy between theoretical freedom and practical secular authoritarianism was only one of a number of ideological inconsistencies apparently unnoticed by the enlighteners themselves. Thus they could simultaneously believe with Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the natural goodness of "primitive" (uncivilized, non-Christian) man, and also with Julien Offray de La Mettrie (welcomed by Frederick II to his Royal Prussian Academy in 1748) in "Man as a Plant" (L'homme plante) and even "Man as a Machine" (L'homme machine). These views of man are, of course, reductionist notions anticipating modern behaviorism of the B. F. Skinner variety. They are also, of course, totally incompatible with man's supposed "natural goodness." We must also ask, as we did about Kant and his notion of man's "immaturity" who would cultivate men-as-plants or run men-as-machines—the "enlightened" elite?

Denis Diderot, chief editor of the French Encyclopedia, a major vehicle of enlightenment thought, spent some time at the court of Catherine II of Russia. He believed in physiological determinist reductionism like la Mettrie's and Skinners, stating explicitly, like Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, that man's sense of freedom is illusory since all psychological phenomena are reducible to physiological bases. Diderot shows that unregenerate man does not necessarily adhere to the same brand of religion or philosophy all his life. He successively adopted deism, atheism, pantheism, and belief in "natural religion" as underlying all historical religions and potentially uniting all men. He even showed a tendency towards pan-psychism (all things are indwelt and part of one world spirit). This is a tenet of ancient gnosticism and revived today in the "New Age" movement of the 1980s.

Diderot also already adumbrated modern evolutionism, in his case Lamarckism. So did the French natural scientist Georges de Buffon, who over against the great Swedish Christian botanist Carolus Linnaeus rejected the division of natural organisms into fixed classes or species. (Linnaeus's system in its essential features has stood the test of time and still is the standard for taxonomy today.) Buffon speculated about the origin of the world by natural causes rather than biblical creation; he was said by fellow enlighteners to have "scientifically proved" that in the beginning a comet fell upon the sun so pieces of it flow away and became planets. Here is the enlightenment's incipient scientism claiming knowledge and authority to speak in terms of science and proof where true science would modestly speak of tests and theories. The arrogance of scientism has become monstrous in our own generation, and we must attack and expose it wherever we can.

Enlightenment thinkers believe with Rousseau that man is in principle good and only needs the right education, administered without coercion in the utmost possible individual liberty, to make and live in a perfect society. Progress, they believe, is inevitable. The "progressive education" championed by John Dewey in American public schools is an enlightenment product. Its problems, as we now know well by experience, are lack of content and discipline. These, in a nutshell, are the problems of enlightenment thought in general, even of all autonomous human thought. Man wanting to be as God on his own rejects God and His revelation and low. What, then, will he put in place of revelation (content)? How, then, will he live in harmony with himself and others (discipline/law)?

In practice whatever content and discipline exist are fragments of God's revelation and low. "Progress," measured in man's individual liberty and material well-being as the older enlighteners saw it, has been proven very chancy indeed, if not impossible in the long run, by the evil men did to men in the twentieth century (World Wars I and II, Nazism, Communism). Enlighteners, like Catherine II of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia, must therefore admit the use of coercion in practice though paying much lip service to man's freedom, inherent goodness or even divinity. But coercion for what? All the mature enlightenment philosopher Kant could propose in his vastly overrated ethics was his dictum that each of us should "so act as you wish everyone else to act." This is a contentless ethics, telling us neither what to do concretely, nor how to deal with offenders against the public welfare. An ethics so lacking in content and discipline that it cannot in principle declare any human thought or action absolutely evil—or good, for that matter — is useless. Its practical result is a utilitarian "situation ethics," advocated ironically and blasphemously in the name of "love."

Should human society be individualist or collectivist? Enlighteners preoccupied with social reform have been divided over this problem for generations. Yes, there have been individualist "socialists," such as the influential Populists in late nineteenth century Russia, or if you will the adherents of a New Deal-type "mixed economy" in the USA. There have been extreme collectivizers, dating back to Gracchus Baboeuf in the French Revolution and his Communist heirs. Some enlighteners, for example France's most influential socialist novelist of the nineteenth century, George Sand, vacillated between collectivism-communism and political moderation. Some, like Professor Sidney Hook in our own generation, hold fast to the classic enlightenment ideal of full individual liberty while embracing most tenets of collectivist socialism.

What is the lesson for defenders of the Christian faith from all these inconsistencies? First, we should be knowledgeable about these inconsistencies. Our opponents do much thinking, writing and teaching of their beliefs; we should love our God with all our minds, halting them in their tracks. Second, their inconsistencies are legion; we have mentioned only a few. We are well able to expose these inconsistencies and thus make inroads into their ranks, and even more the great numbers of our fellow people who dimly sense something is wrong with the anti-Christian "enlightened" thought. When I thus carried the battle into the enemy's camp in college philosophy classes, I never failed to be thanked by many young fellow students who "knew something was wrong with the professor's arguments, but couldn't say exactly what." All too often, we have let our opponents win by default. Look at the creation/evolution issue: it took a minuscule number of informed Christian debaters to literally "turn the world upside down."

Let us by all means expose our opponents' many inconsistencies, both in their overall world views and their individual thinking. Let us do so honorably and speak the truth in love, remembering that to cast down every imagination and thought exalting itself against God is but the ploughing of the soil of men's souls in preparation for the sowing of the seed of the gospel.


1 Quoted in W. M. Alexander, Johann Georg Hamann: Philosophy and Faith (The Hague Martinus Nijhoff, 1966), p.78.
2 Peter Paret, ed., Frederick the Great, A Profile (New York: Hill & Wang, 1972), p.49.

"Inconsistencies in "Enlightenment" Autonomous Thought"
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