To mount concerted opposition to mankind's inhumanity was one of the central objectives of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement prevalent in Europe and some European colonies for around one hundred years from the late seventeenth century. Progressive ideas of toleration and of civil and human rights such as came to be realized in the American and French revolutions were largely inspired by Enlightenment principles. Religious intolerance, especially in England and France, offered many Enlightenment thinkers their main focus of criticism, as they resisted, in the first case, the efforts of King James II to debar Protestants from the monarchy and public office and defied, in the second, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which in 1685 abruptly terminated the long truce that had followed the ravages of sectarian wars associated with the Reformation and the Counterreformation.
Understood in this way the Enlightenment was committed to humanitarian ideals, cosmopolitan notions of citizenship, and a spirit of toleration. Its principles were to come to fruition in England's so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. On the Continent these principles were mobilized against political and theological institutions that had driven French Huguenots in particular into exile, until a century later, when the ancien régime itself was overthrown. William and Mary's Act of Toleration and John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration, both dating from 1689, as well as many of the chief writings of Spinoza, Bayle, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Diderot, were designed to combat religious bigotry and sectarian violence. Voltaire was perhaps the eighteenth century's preeminent campaigner for toleration, rallying other luminaries of his age around his battlecry, Ecrasez l'infâme. It was in the mid-eighteenth century that the term civilization came to acquire its modern meaning as opposition to barbarism, which, in addition to primitive morals, arbitrary power, and ruthless violence, was now deemed also to embrace religious fundamentalism, such as had plunged Europe into darkness during the time of the Crusades and the Inquisition. From this point of view the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789ne of the principal sources for twentieth-century charters of human rightsay be seen as marking the Enlightenment's triumph, in heralding, at least in principle, a new and secular age of toleration.
Following the rise of totalitarianism and the advent of the Holocaust in the twentieth century, an altogether different image of the Enlightenment has sometimes been proferred, concentrating instead on its commitment to the advancement of science and reason as the main vehicles of human progress. When conceived as providing a philosophical foundation for the scientific revolution through the contributions of Bacon, Descartes, Newton, and French materialists, the Enlightenment's origins are characteristically dated from around sixty or seventy years earlier in the seventeenth century, and critics have sugggested that this intelletual movement did not so much abandon Christianity as turn Christianity inside out, substituting the pursuit of earthly happiness for the unworldly salvation of our souls, replacing one form of absolutism with another, dogmatic reason for dogmatic faith.
Three major implications with respect to the problem of genocide and crimes against humanity have been drawn from that assessment of the Enlightenment, each of which trades on the facts that modern barbarism embraced science rather than rejected it and that the Holocaust was perpetrated through the use of scientifically enlightened practices. The first is that by way of the Enlightenment, Western civilization itself became barbarous, in implementing strategic plans for moral and social reconstruction that encapsulated an Enlightenment faith in the unity of all the sciences. The second is that the Enlightenment's blind devotion to science and reason destroyed the ethical moorings of classical and Christian values alike, replacing them with merely instrumental notions of rationality by virtue of which a program of genocide could be scientifically organized. The third is that the Enlightenment's trust in the idea of scientific progress made it particularly hostile to Judaism as a mystical religion more primitive even than the Christianity it engendered, so that the attainment of cosmopolitan human rights implied the creation of a world without Jews.
Insofar as some Enlightenment thinkers, including Voltaire, showed little interest in preserving Jewish rituals, they in fact subscribed not to the Jews' annihilation but to their assimilation and enjoyment of rights belonging to all citizens. The contention that genocide is characterized by unrestrained rationality turns around ideas of reason peculiar to a German tradition of discourse over the past three hundred years rather than to mainstream English or French contributors to Enlightenment thought. And the truth of the proposition that crimes against humanity are evidence of civilization's own barbarism has been obscured by the religious fundamentalism that inspires much of terrorism today. The survival and current resurgence of crimes against humanity perhaps demonstrate how limited has been the Enlightenment's success in marshalling support for its objectives.
SEE ALSO Philosophy
Arendt, Hannah (1958). The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2nd edition. London: Allen and Unwin.
Wokler, Robert (2000). "The Enlightenment Project on the Eve of the Holocaust." In Enlightenment and Genocide: Contradictions of Modernity, ed. B. Sträth and J. Kaye. Brussels: Presses Universitaires Européennes.
Wokler, Robert (2000). "Multiculturalism and Ethnic Cleansing in the Enlightenment." In Toleration in Enlightenment Europe, ed. O. P. Grell and R. Porter. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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