Meet Maurice Strong: Globalist, Oiligarch, ‘Environmentalist’

Meet Maurice Strong: Globalist, Oiligarch, ‘Environmentalist’

James Corbett

Disgraced kleptocrat Maurice Strong died late last year at the age of 86. He was shunned from polite society and forced into a life of exile in Beijing after his decades of business intrigues, crimes against humanity, and environmental destruction unraveled. His savagery culminated with an attempt to profit off of the death of starving Iraqi children. His funeral was a quiet affair, attended only by those few family members who could not find it in their heart to shun him completely. Former friends and business associates like Paul Martin, James Wolfensohn, Kofi Annan, Conrad Black, and Al Gore all avoided calls for comments on their disgraced friend’s passing.

…is how Maurice Strong’s legacy would have been remembered in any reasonable world. Instead we get this:

On Wednesday, hundreds will gather across from Parliament Hill for an extraordinary commemoration. The Governor General, the Prime Minister, the Minister of the Environment, the former president of the World Bank – among other dignitaries, in and out of office – will pay homage to one of the great Canadians of his generation. They will celebrate the life of Maurice Frederick Strong, who died on November 27. His passing brought the obligatory obituaries and personal tributes. But in a country that often hides its light under a barn, Maurice Strong – and the feverish, consequential life he led at home and abroad – should not go uncelebrated.

And the accolades just keep pouring in.

From Canadian PM Justin Trudeau: “Maurice Strong was a pioneer of sustainable development who left our country and our world a better place.”

From the co-founder of the World Economic Forum at Davos: “He was a great visionary, always ahead of our times in his thinking.”

From author and philosopher John Ralston Saul: “He changed the world.”

In fact, a whole gaggle of globalists showed up to pay tribute to the memory of Strong earlier this week in Ottawa, from former World Bank president James Wolfensohn to under-secretary general of the UN Achim Steiner to Martin Lees, the former secretary-general of the Club of Rome. Written condolences poured in from other prominent globalists including Mikhail Gorbachev, Gro Harlem Bruntland and Kofi Annan.

So why exactly was Maurice Strong so beloved by the globalist jet set?

Oh, that’s right:

INTERVIEWER: “Maurice Strong doesn’t have any ambition for the United Nations to become the world’s government?”

STRONG: “No, and it’s not necessary, it’s not feasible, and certainly we are a long way from any such thing. But we do need–if we are going to have a more peaceful world, a more secure world–we need a more effective system of cooperation, which is what I call ‘system of governance.’ And the United Nations, with all its difficulties, is the best game in town.” (Interview)

President of Power Corp. President of the Canadian International Development Agency. Chair of Petro Canada. Chair of Ontario Hydro. Head of the United Nations Environmental Program. Founding member of the World Economic Forum at Davos. Father of the IPCC. Committed globalist.

No, it is not difficult to see why globalists love arch-globalist Maurice Strong. But how did this man, a dirt poor high school dropout from Oak Lake, Manitoba, rise to become an international wheeler-dealer who is responsible for shaping our modern day globalist institutions? The story is as unlikely as it is instructive, and it leads us from the heart of the oil patch to the formation of the IPCC.

Given Strong’s remarkable ascent through the ranks of political power to become a globalist kingpin, it won’t be surprising to hear that he had political connections in his family. But it may be surprising to hear where those connections were placed. His aunt, Anna Louise Strong, was a committed communist who befriended Lenin and Trotsky (who asked her to teach him English) before she ultimately settled in China, where she was on familiar terms with Mao Zedong. She became close with Zhou Enlai, who wept openly when she was buried with full honors in Beijing’s Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery.

Unfortunately for humanity, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree with young Maurice. Born in rural Manitoba in 1929 and suffering through the worst of the Great Depression, Maurice Strong drops out of school at age 14 to look for work. He works his way around as a deck hand on ships and then, at age 16, as a fur buyer for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada’s North. There he meets “Wild” Bill Richardson, whose wife, Mary McColl, hails from the family behind McColl-Frontenac, one of Canada’s largest petroleum companies.

Through Richardson, Strong makes contacts that propel him into his unlikely career. As Wikipedia cryptically explains:

“Strong first met with a leading UN official in 1947 who arranged for him to have a temporary low-level appointment, to serve as a junior security officer at the UN headquarters in Lake Success, New York. He soon returned to Canada, and with the support of Lester B. Pearson, directed the founding of the Canadian International Development Agency in 1968”.

As far as massive narrative gaps and cryptic cover-ups of detail go, that paragraph is a masterpiece. The truth is even weirder. That “UN official” referred to by Wiki? That was none other than the Treasurer of the UN himself, Noah Monod. In fact, Monod doesn’t just get him a job, he gives him a place to live; the two room together during Strong’s time in the Big Apple. But most importantly, Monod gives him an introduction to the man who more than any other will be behind his meteoric rise to international superstardom: David Rockefeller.

Maurice Strong liked to relate the story that he had been confrontational with Rockefeller at the start. According to Strong, some of his first words to David were “I’m deeply prejudiced against you and all your family stands for.” Oddly, David doesn’t remember the meeting that way, saying instead that the two had “a strong working relationship.”

Either way, from that moment on Strong was a made man. And from that moment on, wherever Strong went Rockefeller and his associates were there somewhere in the background.

Alberta-OilIt was a Standard Oil veteran, Jack Gallagher, who gave Strong his big break in the Alberta oil patch when he quit his UN security job to return to Canada. Gallagher had been hired to create a new oil and gas exploration company by Henrie Brunie, a close friend of Rockefeller associate John J. McCloy. Strong signed on as Gallagher’s assistant.

When Maurice Strong suddenly decided to quit his job, sell his house, and travel to Africa, he found a job with Rockefeller’s CalTex in Nairobi.

When he quit that job in 1954 and started his own company back in Canada, he hired Brunie to manage it and appointed two Standard Oil of New Jersey reps to its board. By this point he was in his late 20s and already a multi-millionaire.

After considerable networking with Canada’s political elite, Strong was appointed head of Power Corporation, the baby of the powerful “Canadian Rockefellers,” the Desmarais family. Power Corp is a political kingmaker in Canadian politics and under Strong’s stewardship it continued to function in that role. One of his appointees: a fresh-faced Harvard MBA named James Wolfensohn, future president of the World Bank. Another hand pick: Paul Martin, future CEO of Canada Steamship Lines and Prime Minister of Canada.

Strong left Power Corp to head up Canada’s External Aid program. He oversaw the creation of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). As journalist Elaine Dewar, who interviewed Strong for her ground breaking book Cloak of Green, explains:

“IDRC had a clause in its enabling legislation allowing it to give money directly to individuals as well as to governments and private organizations. It was set up as a corporation, reporting to Parliament through the minister of external affairs. Its board of governors was designed to include private and even foreign persons.[…]Since IDRC was not created as an agent of the Crown (as CIDA is) , it was able to receive charitable donations from corporations and individuals as well as government funds”.

Those “corporations and individuals” generously “donating” their money to IDRC naturally included Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation itself. Strong admitted to Dewar that the IDRC was able to peddle political influence in the third world under its quasi-governmental guise.

His quasi-business/quasi-governmental/quasi-“philanthropic” career reached a new level in 1969, however. That’s when the Swedish ambassador to the UN called Strong up to see if he wanted to head the forthcoming United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, due to take place in 1972. He got the call not out of any supposed love for the environment, but because even by that time Strong was renowned as a human Rolodex of political, business and financial connections across the developed and developing world.

Naturally, he was duly appointed a Trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation, which then funded his office for the Stockholm summit and supplied Carnegie Fellow Barbara Ward and Rockefeller ecologist Rene Dubos for his team. Strong commissioned them to write Only One Earth, a foundational text in the sustainable development arena that is heavily touted by globalists as a key for promoting the global management of resources.

The 1972 Stockholm summit is still hailed as a landmark moment in the history of the modern environmental movement, leading not only to the first governmentally-administered environmental action plans in Europe but the creation of an entirely new UN bureaucracy: the United Nations Environment Program. UNEP’s founding director: Maurice Strong. As Dewar explains:

“Like so many of the organizations Strong has made, this one too had multiple uses. In 1974, UNEP rose out of the undeveloped soil of Nairobi, Kenya, Strong’s old stomping ground. Placing UNEP in Africa was explained as a sop to the developing countries, who had been suspicious of Western intentions. But it was also useful for the big powers to have another international organization in Nairobi. After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Nairobi became the key spy capital of Africa”.

The Yom Kippur War and resulting OPEC oil embargo (magically foretold by the Bilderberg Conference in Sweden earlier that year and arranged by David Rockefeller’s agent, Henry Kissinger) had another spin-off effect that ended up benefiting Strong. The embargo hit eastern Canada hard, prompting Prime Minister Trudeau to create a publicly-run national oil company. The result: Petro-Canada was born in 1975 and Trudeau naturally appointed Strong, by now the single most powerful member of the global(ist) environmental movement, as its first president.

David Rockefeller was there with Strong in Colorado in 1987 for the ‘Fourth World Wilderness Congress,’ a meeting of world-historical importance that almost no one had even heard of. Attended by the likes of Rockefeller, Strong, James Baker and Edmund de Rothschild himself, the conference ultimately revolved around the question of financing for the burgeoning environmental movement that Strong had shaped from the ground up through his work at the United Nations Environment Program.

It was at that conference (recordings of which are available online thanks to whistleblower George Hunt) that Rothschild called for a World Conservation Bank, which he envisioned as the funding mechanism for a ‘second Marshall Plan’ that would be used for third world ‘debt relief’ and that favourite globalist dog whistle ‘sustainable development.’

Rothschild’s dream came true when Strong presided over another high-level UN environment summit: the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit.” Although perhaps best known as the conference that birthed Agenda 21, much less well known is that it was the Earth Summit that allowed the World Conservation Bank to become a reality.

Started on the eve of the Rio Earth Summit as a $1 billion World Bank pilot program, the bank, now known as the “Global Environment Facility” (GEF) is the largest public funder of global environmental projects, having made over $14.5 billion in grants and cofinanced a further $75.4 billion. The bank is the financial mechanism for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the organizing convention directing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

With Agenda 21 under his belt, Rothschild’s GEF dream bank in the can and the IPCC already twinkling in his eye, Strong’s remarkable career showed no signs of stopping. After wrapping up the Rio Summit he took on a series of appointments so bewildering it almost defies credulity. From his official website comes the following list:

“After the Earth Summit, Strong continued to take a leading role in implementing the results of Rio through establishment of the Earth Council, the Earth Charter movement, his Chairmanship of the World Resources Institute, Membership on the Board of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Stockholm Environment Institute, the African-American Institute, the Institute of Ecology in Indonesia, the Beijer Institute of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and others. Strong was a long-time Foundation Director of the World Economic Forum, a Senior Advisor to the President of the World Bank, a Member of the International Advisory of Toyota Motor Corporation, the Advisory Council for the Center for International Development of Harvard University, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the World Wildlife Fund, Resources for the Future, and the Eisenhower Fellowships”.

There is no doubt that Strong led a charmed life. And given the persistent presence of Rockefeller interests in that life from his earliest years, there is no doubt why doors seemed to open for him wherever in the world he went.

But still, one has to ask how and why a high school dropout who made it big in the oil patch thanks to his big oil connections would go on to become the single most important figure in the international environmental movement. Was he genuinely interested in protecting the environment?

Consider Strong’s acquisition of the Arizona Colorado Land & Cattle Company from Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi in 1978. As part of that acquisition, Strong gained control over a ranch in the San Luis Valley in Colorado called the Baca Grande. As Henry Lamb explains in a 1997 article:

“The ranch, called Baca Grande, sat on the continent’s largest fresh water aquifer. Strong intended to pipe the water to the desert Southwest, but environmental organizations protested and the plan was abandoned. Strong ended up with a $1.2 million settlement from the water company, an annual grant of $100,000 from Laurance Rockefeller, and still retained the rights to the water”.

No, Strong’s interest in the site had nothing to do with preserving the pristine environment of the San Luis Valley. His interest was altogether stranger. As Quadrant Online notes:

“Maurice Strong had been told by a mystic that:

The Baca would become the centre for a new planetary order which would evolve from the economic collapse and environmental catastrophes that would sweep the globe in the years to come.

As a result of these revelations Strong created the Manitou Foundation, a New Age[1] institution located at the Baca ranch — above the sacred waters that Strong had been denied permission to pump out. This hocus-pocus continued with the foundation of The Conservation Fund (with financial help of Laurance Rockefeller) to study the mystical properties of the Manitou Mountain. At the Baca ranch there is a circular temple devoted to the world’s mystical and religious movements”.

Indeed, Strong’s missionary zeal for spreading his environmental message of doom and destruction for so many decades can be more easily explained as a quasi-religious zeal for preparing the way for the “New World Order” that this environmental doom supposedly foretells.

Further insight into Strong’s own mystic, New Age beliefs are found in what he considered to be his most important achievement: the creation of the Earth Charter. The Earth Charter was an outgrowth of Strong’s Earth Council Institute which he founded in 1992 with the help of Mikhail Gorbachev, David Rockefeller (of course), Al Gore, Shimon Peres, and a bevvy of Strong’s globalist friends.

Strong’s own website has described the Earth Charter as “a widely recognized, global consensus statement on ethics and values for a sustainable future,” but Strong himself has framed the document in religious terms, saying he hopes it will be treated like a new Ten Commandments.

So what does the Earth Charter say? Other than the predictable mealy-mouthed platitudes one would expect about “social and economic justice” and other political buzzwords, the document ends up as a love letter to world government:

“In order to build a sustainable global community, the nations of the world must renew their commitment to the United Nations, fulfil their obligations under existing international agreements, and support the implementation of Earth Charter principles with an international legally binding instrument on environment and development”.

The Earth Charter itself rests in the “Ark of Hope,” a literal ark that was constructed specifically to house the original document in an obvious reference to the ark of the covenant. The ark was unveiled on September 9, 2001, and then carried 350 miles to the United Nations in the wake of 9/11. The Earth Charter Commission member who presided over the unveiling just happened to be none other than Steven C. Rockefeller.

While this quasi-religious quest for global government is always wrapped in feel-good language about strengthening communities and preserving the planet, the underlying reality is about a much more Machiavellian agenda. As Dewar notes of the Rio Summit in “Cloak of Green”:

“Advertised as the World’s Greatest Summit, Rio was publicly described as a global negotiation to reconcile the need for environmental protection with the need for economic growth. The cognoscenti understood that there were other, deeper goals. These involved the shift of national regulatory powers to vast regional authorities; the opening of all remaining closed national economies to multinational interests; the strengthening of decision-making structures far above and far below the grasp of newly minted national democracies; and, above all, the integration of the Soviet and Chinese empires into the global market system. There was no name for this very grand agenda that I had heard anyone use, so later I named it myself–the Global Governance Agenda”.

Strong himself gave some insight into what this agenda actually entailed for the average man or woman in a 1972 BBC interview prior to the start of the Stockholm summit. Discussing the “overpopulation problem” then en vogue as the environmental cause du jour, Strong admitted to his musings on the potential for reproductive licenses:

“Licenses to have babies incidentally is something that I got in trouble for some years ago for suggesting even in Canada that this might be necessary at some point, at least some restriction on the right to have a child. I’m not proposing this, I was simply predicting this as one of the possible courses that society would have to seriously consider should we get ourselves into this kind of situation”.

That Strong was so successful in promoting his ‘global governance’ agenda for so many decades is a testament not to his own visionary leadership, as so many globalists profess, but to the incredible resources of the Rockefellers and Rothschilds and others who are funding this agenda into existence and pushing it along at every step.

It is some measure of good fortune, then, that Strong’s decades of deceit finally came to an end (more or less) in 2005, when, as Quadrant Online notes, he was finally caught ‘with his hand in the till’:

“Investigations into the UN’s Oil-for-Food-Program found that Strong had endorsed a cheque for $988,885 made out to M. Strong — issued by a Jordanian bank. The man who gave the cheque, South Korean business man Tongsun Park was convicted in 2006 in a US Federal court of conspiring to bribe UN officials. Strong resigned and fled to Canada and thence to China where he has been living ever since”.

Although still making appearances at various events around the world, Strong led a much more low key existence for the past decade, likely slowed by the ravages of advancing age. But now that he has finally passed away, we are left to be subjected to yet more nauseatingly lavish praise for this man and the many globalist institutions that comprise his legacy.

No, it is not difficult to understand why Maurice Strong was so beloved of the globalist jet set. Just don’t expect any of the members of that jet set to tell you this story in any detail.

Illustrations of the original post:

  1. Photo of Maurice Strong over a background of a parched landscape and a seal of the UN.
  2. Photo of Anna Louise Strong, aunt of  Maurice Strong, next to Mao Zedong and other Chinese dignitaries. Anna Strong was a committed communist who befriended Lenin and Trotsky.
  3. Picture of the Alberta oil patch, where Maurice Strong worked after he heft his job with the United Nations.
  4. Photo of young Maurice Stong in front of the Chairman desk in a UN conference.
  5. Photo of George Bush, the President of the United States, addressing the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
  6. Picture of the outdoor plaque of the Baca Grande ranch in the San Luis Valley in Colorado, that Maurice Strong acquired, which became the site of the Manitou Foundation, a New Age institution. He also created The Conservation Fund, with financial help from the philantropist Laurance Rockefeller, to study the mystical properties of the Manitou Mountain.
  7. Photo of Maurice Strong speaking during a conference where he announced the creation of the Earth Charter.
  8. Photo of a cheque for $988,885 made out to M. Strong, issued by a Jordanian bank, endorsed with Maurice Srong’s signature.

Published originally in, on 31 January 2016

[1] New Age is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary online as “a way of life and thinking that developed in the late 1980s, based on ideas that existed before modern scientific and economic theories.” This definition puts the movement within the postmodernist doctrine.

The most dangerous thing about the Amazon fires is the apocalyptic rhetoric

The most dangerous thing about the Amazon fires is the apocalyptic rhetoric

Moralising on social media from footballers, actors and politicians is doing harm

Matt Ridley

Cristiano Ronaldo is a Portuguese expert on forests who also plays football, so when he shared a picture online of a recent forest fire in the Amazon, it went viral. Perhaps he was in a rush that day to get out of the laboratory to football training, because it later transpired that the photograph was actually taken in 2013, not this year, and in southern Brazil, nowhere near the Amazon.

But at least his picture was only six years old. Emmanuel Macron, another forest ecologist who moonlights as president of France, claimed that ‘the Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produce 20 per cent of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire!’ alongside a picture that was 20 years old. A third bioscientist, who goes under the name of Madonna and sings, capped both their achievements by sharing a 30-year-old picture.

Now imagine if some celebrity — Donald Trump, say, or Nigel Lawson — had shared a picture of a pristine tropical forest with the caption ‘Amazon rainforest’s doing fine!’ and it had turned out to be decades old or from the wrong area. The BBC’s ‘fact-checkers’ would have been all over it, seizing the opportunity to mock, censor and ostracise.

In fact, ‘Amazon rainforest’s doing fine’ is a lot closer to the truth than ‘Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produce 20 per cent of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire!’. The forest is not on fire. The vast majority of this year’s fires are on farmland or already cleared areas, and the claim that the Amazon forest produces 20 per cent of the oxygen in the air is either nonsensical or wrong depending on how you interpret it (in any case, lungs don’t produce oxygen). The Amazon, like every ecosystem, consumes about as much oxygen through respiration as it produces through photosynthesis so there is no net contribution; and even on a gross basis, the Amazon comprises less than 6 per cent of oxygen production, most of which happens in the ocean.

But it is the outdated nature of the pictures shared by celebs that is most revealing, because the number of fires in Brazil this year is more than last year, but about the same as in 2016 and less than in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2012. For most of those years, Brazil’s president was a socialist, not a right-wing populist, so in BBC-world those fires did not count. More significantly, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon basin is down by 70 per cent since 2004.

It is probably true that President Jair Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has encouraged those who want to resume logging and clearing forest and contributed to this year’s uptick in fires in the country. But was it really necessary to claim global catastrophe to make this point, and was it counterproductive? ‘Macron’s tweet had the same impact on Bolsonaro’s base as Hillary calling Trump’s base deplorable,’ says one Brazilian commentator.

I sometimes wonder if the line wrongly attributed to Mark Twain, ‘a lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on’, is now taken as an instruction by environmental pressure groups. They operate in a viciously competitive market for media attention and donations, and those who scream loudest do best, even if it later turns out they were telling fibs.

Around the world, wild fires are generally declining, according to Nasa. Deforestation, too, is happening less and less. The United Nations’ ‘state of the world’s forests’report concluded last year that ‘the net loss of forest area continues to slow, from 0.18 per cent [a year] in the 1990s to 0.08 per cent over the last five-year period’. A study in Nature last year by scientists from the University of Maryland concluded that even this is too pessimistic: ‘We show that — contrary to the prevailing view that forest area has declined globally — tree cover has increased by 2.24 million km2 (+7.1 per cent relative to the 1982 level).’

This net increase is driven by rapid reforestation in cool, rich countries outweighing slower net deforestation in warm, poor countries. But more and more nations are now reaching the sort of income levels at which they stop deforesting and start reforesting. Bangladesh, for example, has been increasing its forest cover for several years. Costa Rica has doubled its tree cover in 40 years. Brazil is poised to join the reforesters soon.

Possibly the biggest driver of this encouraging trend is the rising productivity of agriculture. The more yields increase, the less land we need to steal from nature to feed ourselves. Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University has calculated that the world needs only 35 per cent as much land to produce a given quantity of food as 50 years ago. That has spared wild land on a massive scale.

Likewise, getting people on to fossil fuels and away from burning wood for fuel spares trees. It is in the poorest countries, mainly in Africa, that men and women still gather firewood for cooking and bushmeat for food, instead of using electricity or gas and farmed meat.

The trouble with the apocalyptic rhetoric is that it can seem to justify drastic but dangerous solutions. The obsession with climate change has slowed the decline of deforestation. An estimated 700,000 hectares of forest has been felled in South-East Asia to grow palm oil to add to supposedly green ‘bio-diesel’ fuel in Europe, while the world is feeding 5 per cent of its grain crop to motor cars rather than people, which means 5 per cent of cultivated land that could be released for forest. Britain imports timber from wild forests in the Americas to burn for electricity at Drax in North Yorkshire, depriving beetles and woodpeckers of their lunch.

The temptation to moralise on social media is so strong among footballers, actors and politicians alike that it is actually doing harm. Get the economic incentives right and the world will save its forests. Preach and preen and prevaricate, and you’ll probably end up inadvertently depriving more toucans and tapirs of their rainforest habitat.

Note. Taken from The Spectator, digital edition, 31 August 2019. Translated by Jo Pires-O’Brien, editor of PortVitoria.

Matt Ridley (1958-) is a British journalist, businessman and author of several provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards. He is also known as the 5th Viscount Ridley DL FRSL FmedSci, a member of the House of Lords.

The Enlightenment: a summary

Jo Pires-O`Brien

My interest on the Enlightenment stretches back to my student days in Brazil, in the 1960s.  My history teacher enunciated well the phrase ‘enlightened despots’[1] and barely muttered the word ‘Enlightenment’, thus imprinting on me her negative view of this period. Although I loved history and wanted to learn more about the Enlightenment, I couldn’t at the time. Much later in life I decided to indulge my curiosity about the Enlightenment, and the result is this essay, which deals with the Enlightenment as a historical period in Western civilization, from 1687 to 1815[2].

The word ‘enlightenment’ comes from the verb ‘to enlighten’ which  means ‘to bring light’, and the term was created as a translation of the German word Aufklärung. Here is how the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes Enlightenment:

Enlightenment, French siècle des Lumières (literally “century of the Enlightened”), German Aufklärung, a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide assent in the West and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and celebration of reason, the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition. The goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.

The Enlightenment is normally placed in the ‘long’ eighteen century, for, in reality, it stretches from the late seventeen to early nineteen century. Such a long stretch of time is bound to have important differences in terms of who or what segments of society attained enlightenment. This allows the Enlightenment to be subdivided into two phases. On the first phase, from 1687 to approximately 1755, enlightenment was a prerogative of learned men,  while on the second phase, from 1755 to approximately 1815, enlightenment became a possible to ordinary people.

The Enlightenment is sometimes called the Age of Reason, but this name is not as effective for the ancient Greeks discovered reason, and although the works of the Greek philosophers disappeared from the West for a few centuries, they were recovered from Arabic translations during the Renaissance. Bernard de Fontenelle coined the term “the Age of Academies” to describe the 18th century.

In order to understand why the Enlightenment is recognized as one of the ‘ages’ of history, it is useful to ask the question: ‘In what ways its thinkers were different from those of the Renaissance?’ The Renaissance thinkers opted to follow Plato or Aristotle, who had different views about knowledge of the world. While Plato viewed knowledge as pure thought, as exemplified by mathematics, Aristotle viewed nature itself as a source of knowledge, as shown by his method of ‘per genus et per differencia’ (through type and difference) to gather knowledge about nature. The Enlightenment thinkers of the sixteenth century, scholars such as Galileu Galilei (1564-1642), Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and John Locke (1632-1704), took one step further than their Renaissance counterparts by combining mathematical pure thought with observations of nature. The markers of the start of the Enlightenment are Newton’s  Principia Mathematica (1686), which detonated modern science, and Locke’s  ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ (1689), which started the trend to challenge revealed religion and religious authority.

As I mentioned above, the first time I heard about the Enlightenment was also the first time I heard a negative criticism of it. It was only when I decided to read about the Enlightenment that I encountered positive accounts of it, such as that famous essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ that Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)) published in December1784. I will come back to Kant’s essay in the next section. My point here is that few historical ages has attracted more discord than the Enlightenment. Was the Enlightenment too Eurocentric? Did the Enlightenment have a blind spot for other cultures? If so, do those mistakes justify banning the Enlightenment to the trash bin of history?

The first phase of the Enlightenment

The first phase of the Enlightenment, or early Enlightenment, covers the period from 1687, the year when the first volume of Newton’s Principia was published, and 1755, the year of the Lisbon earthquake, the first major disaster which was explained to the general public by its natural causes rather than by the will of the Divine Providence.

The philosophers of the first phase of the Enlightenment were present not just in England but in various countries of Europe, as shown in Table 1. They introduced the core values of the Enlightenment such as the aspiration for intellectual progress, and the belief in the power of such progress to improve human society and individual lives.

Table1. Notable philosophers of the first phase of the Enlightenment

Name Place of Birth Specialties
René Descartes (1596-1650) La-Haye, France Philosopher and mathematician
John Locke (1632-1704) Wrington, England Empiricist philosopher.
Benedict de Spinoza (1632-77) Amsterdam, Netherlands Philosopher and theologian
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) Wollsthorpe, England Scientist and mathematician. Discovered gravitation theory.
Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) Leipzig, Germany Philosopher and mathematician
Piere Bayle (1647-1706) Carlat, France Philosopher and critic.
Thomas Hobbes (1788-1679) Malmesbury, England Political philosopher.
Baron Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755) Bordeaux, France Political philosopher

 The second phase of the Enlightenment

The second phase of the Enlightenment, or late Enlightenment, covers the period from 1755 until approximately 1815. The Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755, was the time in history when a major catastrophe was explained to the general public through science rather than the will of the Divine Providence[3] or fate[4]. At the time of the earthquake, Lisbon was the fourth largest city in Europe, and some 70 thousand people were thought to have died as a result of the earthquake. The Lisbon earthquake also triggered a quarrel in the religious and philosophical circles whether the existence of evil on Earth was compatible with the omnipotence, infinite goodness and omniscience of God.

The two philosophers at the centre of this quarrel were Voltaire (1694–1778), considered by many as the central figure in the Enlightenment, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78). It all started when Voltaire, wrote a poem on the Lisbon earthquake, criticizing the conventional optimistic view about the world. He was referring to the view of Leibniz, who in 1710, had argued that faith was consistent with reason and that the world is the best of all possible worlds since it was chosen by an all wise and all good Creator. Rousseau, who was a follower of Leibniz, wrote to Voltaire to criticize his poem. Voltaire found Rousseau’s arguments so ridiculous that he decided to write a satirical book to show his views. The result was Candide (1762), which is sometimes translated as Candide: Optimism. The main character is Candide, who grows up in the home of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, in the German province of Westphalia. Another character is Dr. Pangloss, Candide’s tutor, who teaches him that their world is the best of all possible worlds, and everything that transpires in this world is for the best. Candide accepts Dr. Pangloss’s teachings as absolute truth. Candide admires the Baron’s beautiful daughter, Cunégonde, and they share an innocent kiss after dinner one evening. Cunégonde’s father sees the young lovers kiss and immediately banishes Candide from his home. Now both Candide and Dr. Pangloss have to live in the real world, where they experience a series of misfortunes. Life is terrible for them until they decide to settle in a small property where they spend their days doing hard work.

During the first phase of the Enlightenment, the scholars communicated their ideas only with one another. Now in the second phase, the scholars began to write for the general public, as exemplified by Voltaire’s Candide.

Table 2 is a list of the thinkers of the second phase of the Enlightenment. They were the public intellectuals of their day, for they strove to educate the public and to form public opinion. The list includes not only the French philosophers who contributed to the project of the Encyclopaedia, but also philosophers from other countries. Further in this essay I included a section dedicated to the Enlightenment in Spain and Portugal, and another dedicated to the Jewish Enlightenment.

The dissemination of knowledge is another characteristic of the second phase of the Enlightenment. One of the things that facilitated such dissemination was the proliferation of informal groups of discussion and places for people to meet. Two examples of such groups are the project of the Encyclopaedia in France and the Lunar Society of Birmingham, in England, discussed further.

Table1. Notable philosophers of the second phase of the Enlightenment

Name Place of Birth Specialties
Voltaire (1694–1778) Paris, France Play writer, writer of treaties in science, politics and philosophy, novelist, poet and horologist.
Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) Boston, USA Industrialist, diplomat, statesman, inventor, printer, newspaper editor.
David Hume (1711–76) Edinburgh, Scotland Philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) Geneva, Switzerland Music composer, essayist, thinker, encyclopaedist.
Denis Diderot (1713–84) Langres, France Encyclopaedist, essayist, political philosopher.
Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715–71) Paris, France Empiricist, thinker, essayist and philanthropist
Jean Lerond d’Alembert (1717–1783) Paris, France Mathematician, encyclopaedist, physicist, political philosopher.
Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-80) Grenoble, France Thinker, encyclopaedist, essayist.
Paul-Henri Thiery, Baron d’Holbach (1723-89) Edesheim, Germany (moved to France as a child) Thinker, essayist, writer, translator, essayist and social host.
Adam Smith (1723-1790) Edinburgh, Scotland Social philosopher and political economist.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) Königsberg, Germany (now Kaliningrad, Russia) Philosopher who worked on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics.
Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria (1738-94) Milan, Italy Jurist and philosopher
Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marchis of Condorcet (1743-94) Ribemont, France Mathematician, politician, philosopher encyclopaedist. He participated in the French revolution, sided with the Girondins.
Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (1767-1830) Lausanne, Switzerland Novelist, essayist who wrote on politics and religion.

 The Encyclopaedia

The project to produce an Encyclopaedia containing a summary of the existing knowledge about the world started in France. This is unsurprising for France had a culture of academies and learned societies devoted to the arts and the sciences. The Académie française had been established in 1635, and the Académie des sciences in 1666, are the oldest of their kind in Europe. It can also be argued that the culture of academies in France would have boasted the publishing industry by promoting reading. France was the place where the project of the  Encyclopaedia was most likely to succeed. Here is how Cassirer described the contents of the Encyclopaedia in his Élements de Philosophie (1759):

From the principles of the secular sciences to the foundations of religious revelation, from metaphysics to matters of taste, from music to morals, from the scholastic disputes of theologians to matters of trade, from the laws of princes to those of peoples, from natural law to the arbitrary law of nations… everything has been discussed and analysed, or at least mentioned. Cassirer, Élements de Philosophie (The Philosophy of the Enlightenment; 1759)

The history of the French Encyclopaedia can be traced to the translation of the Cyclopaedia, or a Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728) of Ephraim Chambers (c.1680-1740) into French. Two non-native French speakers completed the translation, John Mills and Gottfried Sellius, and the final text was corrected by an unknown person, who appears to have been Denis Diderot (1713–1784). One unhappy thread of this story is that the publisher of the Chambers Cyclopaedia, André le Breton, cheated Mills of the subscription money, claiming that his translation had been inadequate. Le Breton appointed the mathematician Jean Paul de Gua, baron of Malves (1713-1785) as the new editor, who, in turn, hired Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-80) plus Jean Lerond d’Alembert (1717–1783). Malves was subsequently fired by Le Breton, who put Diderot in charge of the project and he chose D’Alembert as his assistant editor.

The Encyclopaedia is tightly intertwined with the Enlightenment. It gave publishing opportunity to many of the Enlightenment’s philosophes, from Denis Diderot (1713-84) and D’Alembert themselves to Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu (1689-1755). However, the most prolific contributor, Louis de Jaucourt (1704-99), who wrote 17,266 articles between 1759 and 1765, was the least known of the philosophes, perhaps because his writing was not openly political as that of the other contributors. The Encyclopaedia was the first encyclopaedia to include contributions from many named contributors, and it was the first general encyclopaedia to describe the mechanical arts. It also became a common ground for the contributors to share their ideas and interests with each other.

Under Diderot, the Encyclopaedia expanded to incorporate all the world’s knowledge, and the full name of the Encyclopaedia was changed accordingly. The first volume appeared on 28 June 1751 and it was received with great optimism. Its preface, Discours preliminaire, was written by D’Alembert in the form of an essay which summarized the objective of the Encyclopaedia and the philosophical position behind it. It is considered the first account of the Age of Enlightenment.

The Encyclopaedia was a project of love and determination. Its most staunch enemy was the clergy, especially the Jesuits. The later promoted many press campaigns against the Encyclopaedia which included the attempt to associate it to the attempt on the life of Louis XV in January 1757.

D’Alembert left his editorial post in 1758 due to the increased pressures linked to the financial troubles of the publishers due to withdrawal of government support for the project, although he agreed to continued to work on it as a contributor. An additional reason for D’Alembert’s resignation was the deterioration of his friendship with Diderot, due to intrigues and clashes of ego. Diderot remained in charge as editor for the next twenty-five years, seeing the Encyclopaedia through to its completion. In spite of the lack of government support the project continued in secret, under private patronage. This is the reason why volumes 1 through 7 claimed Paris as the location of the publication, while the remaining, volumes 8 through 17, show Neufchastel, Switzerland, as the place of publication. The complete Encyclopaedia had a total of 35 volumes, and it was a great publishing success, selling over 25 thousand copies.

The Lunar Society of Birmingham

It can be argued that the Lunar Society of Birmingham, so called because their meeting always took place during the full moon, when it was safer to travel, was the British equivalent of the Encyclopaedia project in France.

The Lunar Society of Birmingham, was a dinner club established around 1760 by the industrialist Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), a venue for intellectuals, scientists, engineers and industrialists to discuss the topics of the time Its members referred to themselves as ‘lunatics’, a pun on ‘lunatics’. The lunar man included Erasmus Darwin; doctor, inventor, poet and precursor of the theory of evolution; Matthew Boulton, chief of the great ‘manufactory ‘at Soho, outside Birmingham; James Watt (1736-1819), the Scottish engineer who invented the first locomotive (by improved the steam engine invented in 1698, namely through the introduction of a crankshaft (virabrequim) that allowed circular motion); Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), a polymath, an inventor and a chemist, better known for his discovery of oxygen. Another distinguished member was Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), printer, publisher and inventor, who later became one of the founding fathers of the United States. Franklin invented several things including the lightening rod and the bifocal spectacles; in 1753 he was elected member of the Royal Society of London, which awarded with the Copley Medal for his work in electricity.

To many historians the Lunar Society, which functioned until 1813, kick-started the industrial revolution, which was not a typical revolution but a gradual development of machines and systems of production. In her book The Lunnar Men (2002) Jenny Uglow wrote “This small group of friends really was at the leading edge of almost every movement of its time in science, in industry and in the arts, even in agriculture”.

Spain and Portugal during the Enlightenment

Whenever the historians separate the Enlightenment by countries, Spain and Portugal are usually absent. Did the ideas of the Enlightenment reached these countries? In what circumstances?

French diplomates and expatriates living in Spain and Portugal brought with them the enlightened mind-set of France. Carlos (Charles) III (1716-88) of Spain and José (Joseph) I (1714-1777) of Portugal absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment as did many Spanish and Portuguese scientists and man of letters. Following the trend in France, England, Germany, and other countries, the monarchs of Spain and Portugal created learned academies and universities.

Carlos III, king of Spain from 1759 to 1788) promoted a significant cultural and economic revival in Spain. Although he was highly conscious of his royal authority, he had a great ability to select effective ministers and the best able men to serve the State, such as exemplified by the count of Aranda and the count of Floridablanca. He had the habit of conferring with them regularly but given them sufficient freedom of action.

José I, was the king of Portugal at the time of the Lisbon earthquake, on 1st November 1775. Like Carlos III, he chose effective ministers, especially the Marchis of Pombal, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, his Secretary of State. Pombal had been an ambassador to Great Britain from 1738 to 1745, where he got the wind of the ideas of the Enlightenment. He took a series of important measures in the aftermath of the earthquake and administered well the reconstruction of Lisbon. He is also known for having abolished slavery in continental Portugal (although not in Brazil and other territories), and for putting an end to the Inquisition.

Although the ideas of the Enlightenment reached Portugal and Spain, they remained in the confines of the monarchs and the elites. Both Carlos III of Spain and José I of Portugal are referred as ‘enlightened despots’ by some historians. However, ordinary Spanish and Portuguese were greatly suspicious of anyone they thought had absorbed foreign ideas, who they called ‘estrangeirados’ in Portuguese and ‘estrangerados’ in Spanish.

The Enlightenment mind-set.

As the philosophers of the first phase of the Enlightenment explained how the Earth fitted in the solar system and the solar system in the cosmos, how gravity prevented objects from flying into space, and why man should quit the state of nature and adjust to civil society, all explanations contained in religious revelation were called into question.

The European monarchs of referred to as ‘enlightened despots’ were receptive to the new scientific discoveries. Through their initiative, the first academies and learned societies were created in Austria, France, England, Russia, Prussia (Germany), Spanish and Portugal. Those ‘despots’ had the habit of surrounding themselves with competent advisers and administrators. As already shown, Portugal’s monarch D. José I chose the Marquis of Pombal (Sebastião de Carvalho e Melo) as his First Minister because of his competence, and Pombal did a tremendous job in the rebuilding of Lisbon following the earthquake of 1755.

Also receptive to the new scientific discoveries were the better educated members of society who created organizations dedicated to knowledge and the betterment of society, such as the aforementioned Lunar Society of Birmingham, and the Order of the Illuminati. Existing organizations such as Freemasonry and the Rosicrucian Order were revived for that same purpose.

The proliferation of academies and organizations created a tremendous network of like-minded individuals. One could say that this network created the Enlightenment mind-set (Table 3).

Table 3. Main values or ideas of the Enlightenment mind-set.

  For Against
1 Secularism – separation of church and state; Interference of the church on the state;
2 Naturalism – the idea that all that exist is the natural world; Religious revelations, dogmas and superstitions;
3 Induction as a scientific method; Deduction as a scientific method;
4 Religious tolerance; Religious intolerance;
5 Atheism – the belief that there is no God and deism – the belief in a God who is unattached to religion; Theism – the traditional God of the Judaeo-Christian religion of God;
6 Constitutionalism; Absolute monarchy;
7 Clear separation of powers in government; Unclear separation of powers in government;
8 Human rights; Slavery;
9 The understanding of nature by itself and without supernatural explanations; The mingling of the natural and the supernatural;
10 Use of rational thought and objective truth to improve society; The waste of resources in the pursuit of salvation in an inexistent afterlife;
11 The advances in science and philosophy which could lead to peace and progress; The view that calamities and wars were punishments for sins and atheism;

Of all the above values or ideas of the Enlightenment mind-set, the most significant one is secularism, which literally means ‘to make society secular’, that is, a society (the State) governed by itself without the interference of religion. The definition of secularism also implies that the pursuit of knowledge should also be independent from religion. To the enlightened mind, ‘nature’ means the natural world, and includes every physical thing, from the galaxies and black holes to thoughts and many abstract things. Religion should still be respected but is realm is constricted to the non-physical world.

The existence of an Enlightenment mind-set does not preclude disagreements between thinkers. In addition to the disagreement regarding God, they also disagreed on many other things. Diderot, the Encyclopaedia’s chief editor, disagreed with D’Alambert, his assistant editor, regarding the systematic system of knowledge.  D’Alambert preferred the tree of knowledge proposed by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his general philosophy (prima Philosophia), which he placed ‘natural history’ as ‘the mother of all sciences’. Although D’Alambert himself acknowledged that his tree of knowledge was arbitrary in many respects, Diderot criticised it for not being a deductive system. Diderot, on the other hand, preferred the system of Buffon (1707-88), France’s distinguished natural historian. Diderot’s book Pensées sur l’interpretation de la nature (1746; Philosophic Thoughts) contrapose the ideas that D’Alambert presented in his Discours preliminaire. Following Bacon’s call for the democracy of learning, Diderot believed in utility in order to make philosophy more accessible to ordinary people. His criticism of the obscure language of the ‘grand savants’ and their intellectual snobbism pointed to a statement made by D’Allembert regarding the value of abstract and general notions.

Scientists who failed to embrace secularism: The examples of Linnaeus and Cuvier

The separation of church and state, otherwise known as secularism, is one of the most important ideas of the Enlightenment. In scientific research, secularism means seeking the knowledge of nature in nature itself, without the interference of religious revelation. However, secularism in science is very difficult to attain due to the compelling magnetism of religion.

Attempts to combine science with religion are bound to lead to the path of error. Two scientists who did  just that are Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), the Swedish botanist who is also the father of taxonomy, and Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), the French zoologist who is known for his study of fossils.

When Linnaeus set himself the task of classifying the flora of the world, with the help of an army of plant collectors around the globe, he thought he was completing the job of the biblical Adam. When he inspected the plants in his garden, which had been planted according to perceived kinship relations, he expected to see clear cut separations between species, but instead, he saw gradations. He had evidence of evolution under his eyes but didn’t recognize it.

Something similar happened to Cuvier. He failed to discover evolution in spite of having a huge collection of animal specimens to study, representing living and extinct animals. His bias creationism took him to his theory of natural catastrophes caused by the will of Providence.

Atheism in the age of Enlightenment

Even in the age of Enlightenment, atheism was still confined to the closet, just as homosexualism was until very recently. There was still a price to pay in declaring oneself atheist, or even suggesting to be one. Most colleges and universities tended to shun individuals who held unorthodox positions regarding religion due to their links with Catholic or Protestant churches, and their masters. David Hume (1711-76) was twice overlooked for a lectureship in philosophy at the University of Saint Andrews, in Scotland, on the account of his unorthodox views on religion. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) gained his first post at the University of Konigsberg, when he was a theist but when at a later point in his career he disclosed his unorthodox views on religion he was denounced by his own colleagues and was reprimanded in writing.

The majority of the Enlightened philosophers talked about the belief in God with ambivalence, and with good reason. Given the power of Christian orthodoxy on the academic world, only the rich who did not need to scrunch for a job at a university could afford to declare themselves atheists. Out of the philosophes listed on Table 2, only Voltaire and Baron d’Holbach were open atheists, while Diderot came out of the closet later in his life. Although the majority of the thinkers of the Enlightenment affirmed to believe in God, their God was impersonal and non-interfering, and had no resemblance to the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, also known as the Divine Providence. The believers in such impersonal and non-interfering god were labelled ‘deists’. The word ‘agnostic’, used to designate people who preferred not to pronounce one way or another regarding the existence of God did not exist during the Age of Enlightenment, as it was coined at the end of the 19th century.

Kant and the Enlightenment. One foot in and one out.

In his famous essay ‘Answering the Question: What is the Enlightenment?’, 1784, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) defined Enlightenment as an age where enlightenment was attainable, and whose motto was  ‘Sapere Aude!’– ‘Dare to know!’, which can be also rendered as ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’ Having the courage to swim against the current and use one’s own understanding was the condition to gain enlightenment. By gaining enlightenment, “man delivered himself from the state of immaturity in which he was by his own fault” (Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit). This view of the Enlightenment is fits the notion that the Enlightenment is characterized by a mind-set that favoured rationality over superstition.

Kant was a rationalist and an empiricist at the same time. He stated that all of our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. He worked out the types of knowledge that was possible, showing that truth could be discovered not only through pure reason or logical thinking, but also through experimentation. Although natural laws only applied to some subjects, the remaining could gain objectivity through the technique of contrasting one thing against one or more alternatives like ‘facts’ versus ‘values’ and ‘realities’ versus ‘ideologies’. He wrote:

The generalised principles of science are necessary because they are ultimately thought that are involved and presupposed in every experience, past, present and to come. Science is absolute, and truth is everlasting.

Kant had a second view of the Enlightenment that was his alone, one which he discussed in another essay called ‘Perpetual Peace’, published in 1795, which is known as Universalism. Kant’s Universalism is a unified idea with all the characteristics of an ideology, and for that reason, is an anomaly within the Enlightenment.

Kant’s Universalism describes not only a presumed universal moral and will but also how its political organization should be. A crucial idea in this essay is that morals must come not from authority or tradition, and not from religious commands, but from reason. In Kant’s view, all rational beings in the world shared an universal moral and will, which would

bind every lawgiver to make his laws in such a way that they could have sprung from the united will of an entire people, and to regard every subject, in so far as he wishes to be a citizen, on the basis of whether he has conformed to that will.

The political organization he proposed is a federation of free states with an overseeing law, in which the rights of men, as citizens of the world, shall be limited to the conditions of universal hospitality.

Many of the ideas that Kant introduced in the essay ‘Perpetual Peace’ reappeared in his  book The Metaphysics of Morals (German: Die Metaphysik der Sitten; 1797), a work of political and moral philosophy where he detailed his deontological moral system.

In it, Kant introduced his principle of  ‘categorical imperatives’ regarding people’s universal rational duties towards one another. They are:

(1) Act only by that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’.

(2) Act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end in itself, never as a means only.

Kant’s Universalism, which includes his philosophy of morals, was used by the 20th century philosopher John Rawls (1980) as an example of ‘normative constructivism’, the view that the moral principles we ought to accept are the ones that agents would agree to or endorse were they to engage in a hypothetical or idealized process of rational deliberation.

Constructivism is basically the process of creating abstractions – constructs – through rhetoric. The concept of constructivism, alongside deconstructivism, belongs to  postmodernist thought, or Postmodernism[5], even though the term was firstly employed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980), to describe how children create a mental model of the world. Although postmoderns seem to like the connection with Piaget, Piagetian constructivism is positive, while postmodern constructivism is negative. Piagetian constructivism states that knowledge is something built by the individual on the basis of their interactions with the physical world and the social world. The constructivism of postmodern thought claims that knowledge is something socially constructed.

In his book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Stephen Hicks, a Canadian-American philosopher, in his book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (2014). In it, Hicks explains that Kant’s view of the mind as constitutive mechanism implies that reality conforms to reason, what is contrary to the Enlightenment’s notion that reason conforms to reality. To Hicks, Kant’s Universalism represent a decisive break with the Enlightenment and the first major step towards postmodernism.

Postmodernism is an ambiguous and difficult to define ideology, except for its goal of destroying modernity and replacing it with Marxist postmodernity. As Hicks explains,

Postmodernism rejects the entire Enlightenment project. It holds that the modernist premises of the Enlightenment were untenable from the beginning and that their cultural manifestations have now reached nadir. While the modern world continues to speak of reason, freedom, and progress its pathologies tell another story.

Postmodernism rejects the Enlightenment project in the most  fundamental way possible – by attacking its essential philosophical themes. Postmodernism rejects the reason and the individualism that the entire Enlightenment world depends upon. And so it ends up attacking all of the consequences of the Enlightenment philosophy, from capitalism and liberal forms of government to science and technology.

Was the Enlightenment responsible for the Reign of Terror?

The French Revolution started with the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July 1789 and finished with the overthrow of King Louis XVI in 1791, in a wave of violence that continued into the new republic. The adoption of the guillotine as the official method of execution in 1792, suited well the regime of the Committee of Public Safety (Comité De Salut Public) formed in September 1793, leaded by Maxililien de Robespierre (1758-1794). They implemented a Reign of Terror that only ended in July 1794 when Robespierre was overthrown and guillotined.

The Enlightenment was blamed for the Reign of Terror in post-revolutionary France, but this accusation lacks solid evidence. On the first place, the thinkers of the second phase of the Enlightenment were more concerned with their writing and what went on in academies and learned circles, and did not mingle with the politics of the Third Estate or the Estates-General. On the second place, none of these thinkers could be described as firebrands.

There are to facts that suggest that the Enlightenment was partly responsible for the French Revolution. The first is that many ideas of the Enlightenment caught the interest of the French revolutionaries. The second is that the Enlightenment had ideas that had no been thought through to the point of being watertight to abuse. The example that comes to mind is Rousseau’s idea that communities were most justly governed by the ‘general will’ (volónté generale). The reason this idea is open for abuse is that the general will looks always to the welfare of the whole and not to the will of the individual, allowing violations of human rights to occur under the sanction of government. A point that must be made is that the new criticism of Rousseau’s ideas has shown that they are usually contrary to the Enlightenment mind-set. Although Rousseau rubbed shoulders with the philosophes associated with the Enlightenment, he was a revolutionary, a romantic, an obscurantist and the prophet of socialist utopia.

Although the French revolutionaries absorbed many ideas from the 18th century thinkers (philosophes) associated with the Enlightenment, they also absorbed many ideas from 17t century thinkers not associated with the Enlightenment, like the theologian François Fénelon (1651-1715), from whose work they took the motto ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. The French revolutionaries did not absorb any ideas from John Locke (1632-1704), the 17t century philosopher who was one of the geniuses that kick-started the Enlightenment. As a reminder, in 1690 Locke wrote that man had natural ‘human rights’, which include the right to life, health, liberty and property, and that the recognition of such rights are a precondition for the presumed social contract through which man would leave behind his natural state in order to participate in a community.

What was the impact of the Enlightenment?

As already pointed out, the Enlightenment was a special period of history characterized by a mind-set of ideas and values concerning philosophical, economic and political issues. The Enlightenment’s ideas influenced many legal codes and governmental structures that are still in place today, a most notorious being the American Constitution. The Enlightenment is also considered to be the originator of the Industrial Revolution, one of the major turning points of history, when society became industrial and urban thanks to the invention and improvement of the steam engine and steam propelled machines, eventually expanding to technologies in public health and medicine.

In the 20st century, the postmodernists (or poststructuralists) stated that the Enlightenment was a conspiracy of the West for social domination, and their attacks on the Enlightenment continued into the 21st century.

John Gray (1948 -), a British philosopher, academic, criticised the Enlightenment and its idea of modernity and progress in his book The Silence of the Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013). He wrote:

Scientific fundamentalists claim that science is the disinterested pursuit of truth. But representing science in this way is to disregard the human needs science serves. Among us, science serves two needs: for hope and censorship. Today, only science supports the myth of progress. If people cling to the hope of progress, it is not so much from genuine belief as from fear of what may come if they give it up. The political projects of the twentieth century have failed, or achieved much less than they promised. At the same time, progress in science is a daily experience, confirmed whenever we buy a new electronic gadget, or take a new drug. Science gives us a sense of progress that ethical and political life cannot.

The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge — not even in the long run.

There are now three important replicas to the postmodern attack on the Enlightenment and to the attack on progress.

The first is by Stephen Hicks, a Canadian-American philosopher, with his book Explaining Postmodernism: Scepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (2014).

The second is by Johan Norberg (1973 -), a Swedish thinker, journalist and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, with his book  Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (2016).

The third is by Stephen Pinker (1954 – ), a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, Professor at Harvard, and prolific author, with his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress (2018). In it, Pinker makes the case that today’s progress resulted from the application of reason and the scientific method, which appeared during the Enlightenment. Although he used a massive amount of evidence to support this case, Enlightenment Now has received various types of attacks, such as that the scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment are also used to harm mankind and the environment.

The Counter Enlightenment

The term Counter-Enlightenment denotes the doctrines or philosophies that countervail the Enlightenment. It was introduced in the English language by Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-97), a Latvian-born British thinker and historian, during the 1960s. According to Berlin himself, when he created the term he was unaware of the existence of a German equivalent, Gegenaufklärung. There are suggestions that Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) used the term Gegenaufklärung in reference to Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860).

Just like the Enlightenment, the Counter-Enlightenment was not a unified doctrine or philosophy. This begs the question of how to ascertain that a certain doctrine or philosophy belongs to the Counter-Enlightenment rather than the Enlightenment? The answer is by identifying statements that are the opposite of secularism and naturalism, the Enlightenment’s core values, such as invocation of a Divine Providence, and by certain prioritizing: the ideal over the real, emotion over reason, etc.

Although the Counter-Enlightenment did not wage any cultural war against the Enlightenment, the Christian establishments did, as we describe below.

The Enlightenment and the Christian church

There is a vast literature about the conflict between religion and the enlightenment. One example is the book The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875), by William Draper, a professor at the University of New York, which I obtained through Internet Archive. Another example is Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France (1998) in two volumes (Volume 1. The clerical establishment and its social ramifications; Volume 2: the religion of the people and the politics of religion) by John McManners (1916-2006), a British clergyman and historian of religion, who was also a professor at the University of Oxford, which I obtained through Oxford Scholarship Online. Both Draper and McManners highlighted the role of the Jesuits in the conflict between religion and the enlightenment. The Jesuits were at some point recognised as great teachers, but eventually their order became the harbour of  the pious and fanatics. In Prussia they became embroiled in conflicts with the government. In France they became a disaffect of powerful civilians as well as with Catholic Jansenists[6]. Both Prussia and France banned them and Portugal and Spain followed suit.

Traditionally, it was believed that the knowledge about the world was contained in the Bible, and as the Bible was only available in Latin and Greek, only those who knew such languages could access knowledge. The translation of the Bible into modern European languages was thought to extend knowledge to everyone. The translated bible started a thirst for Bible studies and even launched the field of Bible archaeology. This happened at the same time when the great scholars had already shun the Bible in their search for knowledge, and were already seeking knowledge about the world in the world itself, a trend that became known as secularism. Secularism gave naturalism, the doctrine stating that everything is natural and fall under the ‘laws of Nature’ which can be uncovered through scientific investigation. Although these ideas defied the authority of the Church, for ordinary people continued as usual, and  religion still played an important part in the age of Enlightenment. As I stated in an earlier section, many Enlightenment scholars had good reasons to remain as closet atheists.

The secularism of age of Enlightenment was only partial, for the monarchies of Europe continued to be linked to the Catholic Church through the Holy Roman Empire (Sacrum Romanum Imperium in Latin) created by an agreement between Pope Leo III () and Charlemagne (747-814), the Frankish king. The enlightened despots of Europe were no longer worried about finding salvation in the next life and began to aspire political secularism, that is, a total separation between the State and the Church. As McManners stated in his Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France (v. 1), “The balance of advantage in cooperation between church and state was shifting inexorably towards the secular power”. The catholic clerics in France wanted none of that, and tried to secure their place as in the States-General (États généraux in French), composed by the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. However, one could say that the enlightened despots the first conflict between religion and the enlightenment was between the enlightened despots and the Catholic Church.

The conflict between the Catholic Church and the enlightened despots usually occurred backstage, when it did not escalate to war. Prussia and other Germanic states opted to side with the Protestant Reform, and the Prusso-Austrian War had been in the hope to restore Roman Catholicism in Prussia. The conflict was brought into the public arena in the aftermath of the earthquake of 1 November 1755 in Lisbon. The Jesuit priests had told the survivors that that the earthquake was God’s punishment for their wickedness. While they were in a state of dejection, government officials working under the Marchis of Pombal, asked their help to bury the dead and to put down the fires, explaining to them that the earthquake had been a natural event.

The Protestant Evangelical Alliance and the Catholic Church waged a war against the ideas that were commonly disseminated during the Enlightenment, targeting materialism, mechanism and naturalism[7], as well the idea that the world was created according with a divine plan. It is fair to say that in France, England and many other places there were many catholic clerics who accepted that it was possible to conciliate religion and science. The popes, however, had a different view, which they tried to explain in letters or ‘encyclicals’.

Pope Pius VI (1717-99), a Jesuit who was elected in 15 February 1775, issued an encyclical called Inscrutable (1775), about the problems of the Pontificate, which was followed by 26 others. Those encyclicals appear to have created more problems than solved existing ones. Pius VI even had a disagreement with Joseph II, of Austria, who was the Holy Roman Emperor over his policies known as ‘Josephism’, in which he asserted the right of the state to regulate ecclesiastical affairs and place limits on the powers of the papacy, including the need of temporal consent for the publication of any papal document in Austria.

Pius VII (1742-1823), a Benedictine, was elected on 14 March 1800. In his Encyclical Ecclesiam a Jesu Christo (1821) he condemned the Carbonari, an anti-clerical movement, and Freemasonry, stating that participants of either were to be excommunicated.

Leo XII (1760-1829), who was elected in 1823, condemned the Bible societies in his Encyclical Quod divina sapientia (1824).

Pius VIII (1761-1830), who was elected in 1829, in that same year issued the encyclical Traditi Humilitati, which was directed against the Enlightenment’s critique of traditional religion. In it, the pope lamented the spread of godless philosophy and the privileging of natural reason.  “All things which concern religion”, he wrote, “are relegated to the fables of old women and the superstitions of priests”.  He condemned religious pluralism and anti-Catholic publications. These are the writings of a man who was clearly fighting a rear-guard action. Pius VIII was the last Pope to get away with condemning modern thought for being against the Church’s teachings. All his successors had to deal with dissent both inside and outside the Church, the crisis of Catholicism being the result of such dissent.

Gregory XVI (1765-1846), who was elected in 1831, wrote in his encyclical Mirari vos, that it is “false and absurd, or rather mad, that we must secure and guarantee to each one liberty of conscience.”

Pius IX (1792-1878) was elected in 1846 and is the longest-reigning pope in the history of the Catholic church. Here is what Draper wrote of his policies:

He insists that in all cases the temporal must subordinate itself to the spiritual power; all laws inconsistent with the interests of the Church must be repealed. They are not binding on the faithful.

Most importantly, Pius IX  reintroduced the idea of the pope’s infallibility and commissioned a compilation of the teachings of the Church on a wide range of moral and theological topics, to be used to teach seminarians. The result was a book called The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by Heinrich Denzinger (1819-1883).

It is fair to say that when the matter of the papal infallibility was discussed during the council Vatican I, it was rejected by many bishops in Europe and the United States rejected. Under the pseudonym ‘Justinus Febronius, Johann von Hontheim (1701-1790), Suffragan Bishop of Trier, published the book De Statu Ecclesiae et Legitima Potestate Romani Pontificis (Concerning the State of the Church and the Legitimate Power of the Roman Pope), asking for the limitation of papal power and its subjection to the bishops (considered the pope’s equals) and to general councils. In spite of the fierce opposition by the bishops, the Catholic church insisted that its clergy should comply with ‘the Denzinger’, as the book The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma became known. In addition, it stood firm in its claim of the pope’s infallibility.

Many catholic thinkers believe that the crisis in the Catholic Church resulted from the philosophical legacy of Kant, especially his acceptance of Descartes’ divorce between objective reality and our minds. As already stated, there were clerics who were anxious to reconcile Catholicism with science and philosophy (the Jansenists) as well as clerics who just wanted reassurement from the Church’s authorities. These were two reasons behind Pius IX’s decision to convene the First Vatican Council (1869-70), which opened on 8 December 1869, in Rome, with some two hundred bishops. It had two constitutions which were voted, De Filius, about faith and reason, and Pastor Aeternus, on the primacy and

The greatest critic of Pius IX in the 19th century was the French philologist, historian and thinker Joseph Ernest Renan (1823-92), who deemed his pretension of infallibility as untenable. Renan also criticised the concordat of 1855, between the Vatican and the Spanish government, was the greatest concession that Rome obtained after the revolution. It stated that the Roman Catholic religion was to continue as the only religion of the Spanish nation, and it was to be maintained, so far as his Catholic majesty has the power, “in all the rights and prerogatives which it should enjoy according to the law of God and canonical sanction.” The concordat changed the boundaries of dioceses, regulated the affairs of territories dependent on military orders, ecclesiastical jurisdiction, chapters, benefices. The right of presentation to certain of the latter was reserved to the pope; others were left to the queen.

Leo XIII (1810-1903), who was elected in 1878, wrote the well known encyclical is Rerum novarum (1891) stated the rights of workers to a fair wage, safe working conditions, and the formation of labour unions. Another encyclical was Libertas () which dwelled on the nature of human liberty: “Man, indeed, is free to obey his reason, to seek moral good, and to strive unswervingly after his last end. Yet he is free also to turn aside to all other things; and, in pursuing the empty semblance of good, to disturb rightful order and to fall headlong into the destruction which he has voluntarily chosen.”

Pius X (1835-1914), who was elected on 1903, wrote the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis (1907) cantered on the doctrines of the ‘modernists’. It consisted of a syllabus of 65 propositions of things condemned like atheism, agnosticism, and the idea of knowables and unknowables. He wrote:

The poisonous doctrines taught by the enemies of the Church, and lost to all sense of modesty, vaunt themselves as reformers of the Church; and, forming more boldly into line of attack, assail all that is most sacred in the work of Christ, not sparing even the person of the Divine Redeemer, whom, with sacrilegious daring, they reduce to a simple, mere man.

…There are many Catholics, yes, and priests too, who say these things openly; and they boast that they are going to reform the Church by these ravings!

…In all episcopal Curias, therefore, let censors be appointed for the revision of works intended for publication, and let the censors be chosen from both ranks of the clergy – secular and regular – men of age, knowledge and prudence who will know how to follow the golden mean in their judgments.

Many catholic thinkers took on the defence of the Church and its authority as embodied by the Pope, and many popes wrote encyclical against the Enlightenment. An example of the orthodox catholic thinkers is Joseph-Marie, count of Maistre (1753-1821), a Savoyard philosopher, writer, lawyer and diplomat. He is considered by Masseau and Didier as a key figure of what they termed as the Counter-Enlightenment. Maistre saw monarchy both as a divinely sanctioned institution and as the only stable form of government who appealed to the pope’s authority. Another orthodox catholic thinker is Désiré Joseph Mercier (1851-1926), a Belgian Catholic theologian and a Thomist, insisted in laying claim on genuine knowledge beyond the realm of phenomena. He stated that Kant’s denial of any objective or scientific knowledge of immaterial beings was the source of all modern immanentism, subjectivism and fideism.

The Protestant Evangelical Alliance, which represented various Protestant denominations, expressed criticism over science, but inner factions did not go along with such criticism. As Draper wrote:

The Alliance failed to perceive that, modern science is the legitimate sister – indeed, it is the twin-sister  – of the Reformation. They were begotten together and were born together. It failed to perceive that, though there is an impossibility of bring into coalition the many conflicting sects, they may all find in science a point of connection; and that, not a distrustful attitude toward it, but a cordial union with it, is their true policy. (p. 354)

The Jewish Enlightenment

The Jewish Enlightenment, known as Haskala, refers to a late 18th century intellectual movement among the Jews of central and eastern Europe towards a better integration of Jewish people with society through the provision of supplemental secular and cultural education in addition to the traditional Talmudic studies . The term haskala derives from old Hebrew sekhel, which translates as ‘reason’, or ‘intellect. The Jewish Enlightenment is thought to have lasted throughout the 19th century. The Haskala started by a small group of mobile Jews, mainly merchants, who had contact with the Western European Enlightenment and wished to spread its ideas to other Jewish communities across Europe.

The Jewish Enlightenment was not a movement within the religion Judaism but a movement within the Jewish culture. Orthodox Jews saw the Haskala as a threat the traditional Jewish way of life. They feared that it  would undermine the traditional authority of the rabies.


My former history teacher defined the Enlightenment as the era of the ‘enlightened despots’. She was referring to the monarchs of France, England, Russia, Prussia, Spain and Portugal who were known for seeking advice from scientists and philosophers and by creating schools and academies of learning. This labelling begs the question of ‘who had an interest in damaging the reputation of the monarch?’ The answer points to the clergy, who lost their court status to scientists and philosophers. It is worth mentioning that this is an example of the trend of judging historical figures according to the ethics of a posterior era, since the belief on the divine rights of kings was still common in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Age of Enlightenment spanned roughly from 1687 until 1815 is defined by a mind-set of scientific naturalism, secularism, curiosity, inventiveness and toleration. At first, only the most educated individuals had an inkling of what the scientists and philosophers were producing, but after 1755, their ideas started to be ventilated in public sphere, and enlightenment became possible for ordinary individuals. While in the first phase of the Enlightenment Spinoza showed that the Bible was the work of men and introduced the idea that God and nature were the same thing, on the second phase, various philosophers tackled the conundrums of the alleged proofs of the existence of God and other supra-natural things.

The Enlightenment was not without faults. The human mind is not a blank slate as Locke originally thought, and people are not born equal but with different cognitive capacities.  Most Enlightenment philosophers did not recognized the fact that there are many ways to perceive the world, and there is no consensus on what the best life consists of, or on what is society’s ultimate goal. The Industrial Revolution that sprung from the Enlightenment often abused its labour force. However, even when these and other faults are taken into consideration, the balance sheet of the Enlightenment is highly positive. The inquisitive minds of the Enlightenment created the technologies that created wealth. Such wealth eventually cascaded down into society, in the form of food security, better sanitation, higher life expectancy, more literacy, appreciation for the environment, and greater freedom and equality.


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[1] Enlightenment despotism is a pejorative term for the Enlightenment, which is portrayed as the historical period when the absolute monarchs of Austria, France, Russia, Prussia (Germany), Spanish and Portugal created academies and other learned societies. The fact that the members of those societies were called to court to advised the sovereign on matters of science and technology resulted in great improvements for society but also opened the way for jealousy on the part of the clergy and the socialist leaders.

[2] I recognize that Eastern Civilization had its own type of Enlightenment through the teachings of Gautama Buddha (c. 563 – c. 483 BCE) and Jain Tirthankara (c. 599 – c. 527 BCE).

[3] Divine Providence or ‘will of god’ is the idea or doctrine that everything that happens in the universe happens due to god’s will. The doctrine of divine providence asserts that God is in complete control of all things. He is sovereign over the universe as a whole (Psalm 103:19), the physical world (Matthew 5:45), the affairs of nations (Psalm 66:7), human destiny (Galatians 1:15), human successes and failures (Luke 1:52), and the protection of His people (Psalm 4:8).

[4] Fate is the believe in the ‘inexorable’ or ‘inevitable’ for the outcome of a situation for someone or something is predetermined. The concept of fate is present in Greek mythology in the three goddesses called ‘moirae’: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos (also called Aisa), who would spin the thread of human destiny. Clotho, whose name means ‘spinner’, spun the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle. Lachesis, whose name mean ‘allotter’ or ‘drawer of lots’, measured the thread of life allotted to each person with her measuring rod. Atropos, whose name mean literally ‘unturning’, was the cutter of the thread of life, deciding the date someone would die. Her Roman equivalent was Morta (‘Death’).

[5] Postmodernism is an ambiguous and difficult to define ideology, except for its goal of destroying modernity and replacing it with Marxist postmodernity.

[6] The jansenist quarrel as summareized by John McManners: “Outlines the seventeenth‐century origins of the Jansenist controversy and the difficulties faced by the historian in arriving at a viable definition of Jansenism. The grim theology of Cornelius Jansen had given rise obliquely to a movement of great spirituality that posed questions about the nature of truth and the limits of secular and ecclesiastical authority. All the various aspects of Jansenism, including predestinarian theology, the questioning of papal authority, and reform of the Church involving a greater role for the laity in general and women in particular, came together in hostility to the Jesuits. In the eighteenth century it would involve the war of the parlements against the crown, the rising discontent of the lower clergy, and the convulsionist movement.”

[7] Materialism refers to the view that all facts are caused by physical processes alone and can be reduced to them. Mechanism is a form of materialism that holds that natural phenomena can only be explained by reference to matter and motion and their laws; naturalism states that everything is natural and fall under the ‘laws of Nature’, which can be uncovered through scientific investigation.

Jo Pires-O`Brien is the founder-editor of PortVitoria

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The Wrath of Cultures

Jo Pires-O’Brien

Having witnessed the polemic around the two cultures as a student in the United States, the topic remained on the back of my mind for many years. Due to great changes in my life and my circumstances, I recently decided to revisit the topic to see if I could improve my understanding of it.

When C P Snow (1905-1980) delivered his 1959 lecture of the two cultures in Cambridge criticizing the dual stratification of the educated elites into a culture of science and another of literary intellectuals, and bemoaning the relegation of science in society, he could not have envisaged the extent that this polemic was about to take. The theme itself was explosive. Due to the specific meaning of ‘culture’ to the social sciences, Snow’s use of the word ‘culture’ raised eyebrows among its academics. Many were offended by the suggestion that ‘the arts’ – the humanities or social sciences–, were not proper science.  In the ten years that followed the 1959 Rede lecture, Snow rebuked his critics and re-ascertained some of his ideas. However, in spite of that, two cultures became a polemic that spread from the core of the West to its fringe, lasting for nearly half a century.

Snow was an example of the individual whose mind was cultivated both in the sciences and in the arts. Born in a family whose opportunities had come from the Industrial Revolution, he had in his father, grandfather and great grandfather great role models of self-made engineers. After his training in chemistry and physics at the Leicester University College, he received an MSc from London University and a PhD from Christ’s College, Cambridge. He worked as a research scientist and a civil servant before he began to write novels and plays, and his success in the latter turned him into become a public figure. Snow not only viewed science as a social equalizer that could match the snobbery of the literary intellectuals, but he also believed that science and technology could be used to improve the world. Snow’s opinion on the role of science and technology contrasted with the pessimist vision or the other social critics of his time who saw only the evils of the industrial development.  What is curious of these two visions is that both are underlined by different kinds of socialism. While the opposite view was based on a Post-Modern Marxist view of the world, Snow’s socialism was that of the planned and technocratic state, like that expressed in the fiction of H G Wells and Aldous Huxley.

If Snow was so wrong, how come the two cultures metaphor did not simply die out? Although many denied the two cultures, the different reactions that it exerted in the arts and the sciences suggested otherwise. The first was outraged by it while the second took no notice of it. On top of that, the two cultures metaphor fit like hand and glove to depict the existing divide between the humanities and the traditional sciences. Higher education specialists in the UK and the United States began to link the metaphor of the two cultures to the problem of the misalignment between of the arts and the sciences in the academic environment. They also began to ask some pertinent questions. What happened to the unified knowledge that forms the ethos of liberal education? What unforeseen consequences can this misalignment have to the West?

The great divide separating the humanities from the sciences started in the 19th century when the French academia introduced a separate human kingdom, in addition to the existing animal and plant kingdoms. The argument for the human kingdom was that the study of man was based on cultural traits which were  thought to be learned rather than inherited. In The Descent of Man, published in 1882, Darwin argued against the assumption that man’s superior mental power justified the creation of a separate human kingdom, stating that the difference in mental power between man and his closest primate relatives was much less pronounced than the difference in mental power between, say, an scale insect and an ant, two animals classified in the same class. But the French academics chose to ignore Darwin. They coined the word humanities to designate the disciplines of the human kingdom. Although this terminology was adopted by the countries where the modern Romance languages are spoken, in the English speaking countries the humanities are normally called social sciences.

From the end of the 19th century anthropologists and sociologists decided to turn their backs to Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory. The situation remained unchanged throughout most of the 20th century. Although the evidence for it uncovered by the discovery of the laws of inheritance led to the synergy of botany, zoology, biology, genetics, geology, paleontology and biochemistry, it cut no ice with the social sciences. Little by little, the gap separating the humanities and the sciences became an abyss.

Outside the mainstream of the social sciences, a few independent thinkers attempted to develop a social theory encompassing Darwin’s evolutionary theory. However, what they did was to force the evolutionary principles and the theory of natural selection to justify the controversial movement for social improvement. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) a renaissance man in Victorian England, and the man who popularized evolution coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ in his book The Principles of Biology, published in 1865, which he applied to human society, races and the state. Darwin liked the phrase and used it in latter editions of On the Origin to refer to the way natural selection acts, preserving the favoured races of species of animals and plants in the struggle for life. Although Spencer’s philosophy was largely rejected, many of his ideas on psychology, sociology and history left a lasting mark. Francis Galton (1822-1911), Darwin’s cousin and son-in-law, combined some ideas of natural selection with the idea of ‘degeneration’ to create Eugenics, a new science aimed to promote social improvement by preventing the reproduction of carriers of certain diseases and deformities.

The idea behind the movement for social improvement was that society should be controlled by a rational elite, which would arrest degeneration and evolutionary regressions.  This movement for social improvement became known as ‘Social Darwinism’. It differed greatly from Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory for being based not on natural selection but on an artificial selection for the creation or suppression competitive traits thought to be needed to stave genetic degeneration and to promote genetic improvement. Social Darwinism and Eugenics tainted Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory even though they were gross distortions of it.  The main problem of Social Darwinism is the fact that it motivated the theories of racial improvement that flourished in late nineteenth century, especially in Europe and in the United States. In 1905, in Berlin, the Racial Hygiene Society was founded, where these ideas were combined with the Teutonic myth described by Tacitus and the mistaken belief that the Germanic peoples were a pure race of the first European descendants of the Aryans, from Northern India. Needless to say Social Darwinism became the scourge of the social sciences and was used to justify the separation from Biology.

In the last part of the 20th century the social sciences re-ascertained their decision to remain separated from biology. However, they only reinforced a separation that was decided in the late 19th century. Their biological denial was still what they thought as man’s most important trait: culture. In a nutshell, here are the three tenets of the social theory: (i) Culture is the key factor that separates man from the other animals; (ii) culture is not subject to inheritance laws; therefore (iii) culture cannot be under the influence of natural selection.

The biologist Edward O Wilson, a professor of zoology at Harvard specialized in insect societies had a huge role in the reunification of the two cultures that took place at the close of the 20th century. A Moses-like character, Wilson opened the road of reunification but others got the credit for it. All that Wilson got was a lot of flack and aggravation. His book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, published in1975, exposed the biological aspects of culture and explained how the mental process behind all social behavior, in man or beast, is always controlled by the brain, which in turn, is a product of n organized protests against it were natural selection. The social sciences reacted strongly to Sociobiology. Wilson became a frequent victim of personal attacks and his seminars were often boycotted. He suffered many indignities such as to be called a Nazi and a racist and a pitcher of water was poured once over his head during a debate organised by the American Society for the Advancement of Science in 1978.

Although this left wing activism was more rampant in the social sciences departments, Wilson’s most fierce attackers were two of his own colleagues from Harvard: the population geneticist Richard Lewontin (19-) and the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002). Lewontin and Gould disliked the neo-Darwinist stand that they saw in Wilson’s Sociobiology, especially in his emphasis of the evolutionary advantage of adaptive traits.  Gould wrote extensively on the subject and his theory known as ‘punctuated equilibrium’ emphasized that most traits were incidental and evolved in a haphazardly manner. Gould’s criticism had some valid points, but was heavy-handed, making no allowances for the loss of precision that comes with a work of interdisciplinary synthesis. His attacks on Wilson did more damage to science than to Wilson himself, since they were exploited by the promoters of the creationist theory of Intelligent Design.

In my attempt to unravel the polemic of the two cultures, I discovered underneath what appeared to be a simple turf war between the humanities and science was a deeper ideological fissure caused by the Post-Modern ideology adopted by the New Left. The post-modern academics had a great contempt for the hierarchical organization of biology and accused it of reductionism. Those who didn’t reject science altogether insisted that science had a role to play in promoting socialism. No wonder the gap of the two cultures turned into an abyss.

PS. This article was written without the benefit of an English editor and may contain some mistakes

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