Review of

PragerU Video: What Was the Enlightenment?

Our summary of Yoram Hazony's argument: Yoram Hazony explains why Enlightenment thinking is dangerous, leading to a dogma that there can be only one correct answer to every question in science, morality and politics. Its concept of universal reason led to scientific race theories and to the deaths of tens of millions of people in the 20th century. Today, elites declare socialism, feminism, and environmentalism to be universal certainties. Credit for the U.S. Constitution is given to the Enlightenment rather than to the more deserving predecessors who nearly all held conservative religious and political beliefs.

Mischaracterizing Enlightenment thought

Adam Tomasi Boston, MA Published 01 Jan 2020

Yoram Hazony in “What Is The Enlightenment?” critiques socialism, feminism, and environmentalism for being indebted to the era of “the Enlightenment,” where philosophers of the eighteenth century rejected religious superstitions and old traditions (such as monarchy) in favor of reason and independent thinking.

Reason and free thought sound pretty great, yet this video argues that “crazy ideas,” even violence, are produced by reasoning that is “rootless.” Hazony argues that the world should return to conservative political and religious traditions in order to set us on a path to progress. He is primarily responding to Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who in the book Enlightenment Now argues that Enlightenment-era thinking is the root of all progress for centuries hence.

Hazony’s logic is fallacious in three ways.

First, he never explains why socialism, feminism, or environmentalism are actually bad things. He claims that “custom, history, and tradition” should be the standards we adopt, yet he fails to see how progressive ideals can be inspired by the past, even by religion.

Second, the video relies on a straw-person of the Enlightenment. He defines the Enlightenment as an era where people believed that human knowledge was perfect, and traces all the horrors of history to people who believed they were absolutely right, even “scientific.” Yet the scientific method is truly based upon doubt that inspires new knowledge. We care about reason because we know our knowledge is limited, and so we end up with healthy skepticism without rejecting valid studies (unlike climate deniers). People misuse science for harmful purposes, but that’s not a reason to put religion above reason.

Third and finally, Hazony believes that tradition is the real path to progress, yet he can’t adopt the very concept of progress without being indebted to Enlightenment thinking. Philosophers defending tradition believe that the status quo is best as it is, and has no need to progress (as a verb). If God, or custom, created the world as it’s supposed to be, the idea of it being improved by human beings is a non-starter. Yet the world has in fact improved so much, only because thinkers believed that through reason we can figure out how the world can do better, and then devise solutions to that end.
 

Adam Tomasi is a doctoral student in History at Northeastern University.

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