by Sam Buntz
In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin slyly noted the advantages of being reasonable. He wrote, “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”
This quote is particularly relevant to the ongoing and intense debate about the Enlightenment, which was kick-started by Jamelle Bouie’s piece in Slate. Bouie argued that, while the Enlightenment gave birth to admirable concepts like human rights and the balance of powers in government, important Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant and John Locke also held reprehensible racial views. They endorsed systems of racial classification that, by abusing Enlightenment notions of science and reason, placed white people at top of a racial hierarchy and black people on the bottom.
Fortunately, there was another force at work in the world in the 18th Century, in addition to the Enlightenment’s scientific rationalism. This force was distinctly Christian, and it helped add human feeling to the Enlightenment’s powerful but occasionally cold set of ideas. But before we get to that, we need to discuss the Enlightenment’s strengths and weaknesses.
Bouie is basically accurate in his assessment of how these forms of racial classification developed, just as his opponents are correct in crediting the Enlightenment for generating ideas used to fight racism and in disputing the notion that the Enlightenment “invented” racism. We need look no farther than “all men are created equal.”
But consider Ben Franklin’s quote again. Depending on the hidden assumptions of Enlightenment thinkers, on the motives they entertained in their innermost hearts, they could use reason to reach any desired goal. That goal could be the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of human beings… Or, it could be a crudely racist hierarchy…
These conflicting attitudes could exist in the same person, paradoxically. Just think about Thomas Jefferson: he attacked the slave trade in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence (which other founding fathers cut from the draft), and also proposed plans to gradually abolish slavery. At the same time, of course, he owned slaves, and we are all familiar with the fact that he almost certainly was the father of his slave Sally Hemings’ children. He expressed noxious views still used by racist proponents of eugenics today, arguing that black people were innately worse than white people at reading, writing, and mathematics (but, Jefferson said, better at music).
When he was challenged by Benjamin Banneker, a free black astronomer and author of almanacs, Jefferson wrote back, “no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America…” Jefferson then sent a copy of Banneker’s almanac to a French abolitionist, the Marquis de Condorcet, citing it as an example that he hoped would prove the equality of all races.
Clearly, Jefferson, like many of the rationalists involved in the Enlightenment, sensed that the full equality of all human beings was the right principle. But major blindnesses prevented him from actually affirming that principle in its full meaning. This was left to later generations. Nevertheless, we find in Jefferson, as a figure who embodied Enlightenment, an expression of both its best qualities and its flaws and hypocrisies. He was unable to reconcile the conflict between his ideals and his prejudices, which dueled within his own being.
We see, then, that reason is usually the servant of the heart. It is like the “sorcerer’s apprentice” in the Disney classic, Fantasia. When left to its own devices, without enlightened human feeling to guide it, it starts flooding the basement with a hoard of marching broomsticks. As Franklin observed, it can serve any motive. It needs higher values to supervise it, values that have been cultivated inside the heart. Otherwise, it becomes destructive or lends its support to injustice. It morphs into an amoral bureaucrat of sorts, mindlessly serving power and human selfishness.
We can see this in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Under the pretense of creating a rational society, its leaders authorized the “Reign of Terror.” Their real motives were not actually “rational” but were driven by dark instincts, lusts, and resentment. They should have been more suspicious of themselves.
All this goes to show that Bouie makes some legitimate points. Enlightenment thinkers often used reason for selfish ends and to justify their own positions of power and privilege. That is all undeniably true. But it leaves open a question of enormous import: how did some members of the Enlightenment manage to cultivate their hearts so that reason was able to act as a benevolent servant instead of as a power-serving bureaucrat?
After all, the Enlightenment is full of examples of true-blue abolitionists, from Thomas Paine to the Marquis de Lafayette to John Adams. They clearly were doing more than playing a mere power game. Paine, for instance, took a stand against executing Louis XVI, even though Paine had supported the French Revolution. If he had been motivated solely by power, he should have personally volunteered to operate the guillotine. Evidently, he was motivated by forces other than power-grasping and vengeance.
An answer to this question is evident if we look at how the first abolitionists in the American colonies and Great Britain began to attack slavery as an institution. While living during the Enlightenment and imbibing its influence, these early abolitionists had one thing in common: they were often highly religious. In fact, they were Quakers. Later, other Christians would follow the Quakers’ lead in opposing slavery, but Quakerism was nevertheless the major groundspring of the abolitionist cause.
For thousands of years, people in the West had typically thought that slaves were born and not made. Aristotle argued that particular people were meant to be used as property, as a part of Nature’s law. They could not help being slaves. Later Christian thinkers qualified this idea and chiseled away it, but it did not face a stiff challenge until after the English Civil War. (This argument applies to the Protestant-majority part of the world. Slavery ended in the Catholic world for another set of reasons, fascinating in themselves, but beyond the scope of this article).
Unlike many of the radical Protestant groups that arose during that time, the Quakers managed to keep their heads on their shoulders. While other sects dissolved into debauchery in the wreckage of their Utopian dreams, the Quakers maintained two critical principles: they believed that human beings had a direct connection to the Holy Spirit, who could speak to or influence anyone, while also believing that the tendency to commit sin was always present.
The Quakers did not think humans were utterly evil, nor did they state that they could easily become totally perfect. They worked diligently towards improving themselves, while questioning their sinful tendencies and keeping them in check. In the past, many societies had largely emphasized the sinfulness of human beings at the expense of their direct connection to the Holy Spirit, which made it easier to tolerate something like slavery. In a sinful world, you could only be so good; your standards were lowered accordingly. But the Quakers maintained a humble yet firm commitment to strive towards the Ideal.
Initially, the Quakers became tangled up in slavery. As they colonized Pennsylvania and other parts of America, they purchased and owned slaves. They fell into the habitual practices of their times. But they were not comfortable with this state of affairs. Unlike numerous other slave-owning societies, a large number of Quaker communities felt tension between their behavior in the world and their guiding ideals. Many Quakers came to realize that holding slaves was not part of Nature’s law – it was something they were choosing to do.
As they saw it, they were guided to this intuition by opening themselves to the Holy Spirit. Instead of blindly continuing to follow convention, they looked inside, analyzed their motives, and reformed their hearts. Quaker denunciations of slavery quickly became widespread.
As David Brion Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning study The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture shows, this was a critical development. Christian opposition spread rapidly to other denominations. Even a staunch Anglican monarchist, the great literary critic Samuel Johnson, was able to express his hatred of slavery, allegedly toasting success to the next slave revolt in the Caribbean. From William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist who successfully led the crusade to abolish slavery in the British Empire, to John Brown, who made the Civil War virtually inevitable, the Christian factor in defeating slavery and fighting racism cannot be underrated. It is of the first importance, and would continue to manifest itself throughout American history, particularly in figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth.
From all of this information, it should be clear that the “Age of Reason” was about more than just reason. It was also about the heart, and, as Blaise Pascal wrote, “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” The goal of the most enlightened figures of the Enlightenment – like Thomas Paine, who came from a Quaker background – was to harmonize the heart and the head, to make thought and feeling work together. They sought to make our most spiritually-illuminated feelings, as opposed to our violent passions, the guide to our use of reason.
Instead of using reason to justify wielding power over others, these thinkers often attempted to reform society under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Dissident Protestant artists like William Blake and Josiah Wedgwood (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) used their art to appeal directly to the feeling of brotherly love, in order to support abolition.
Other Enlightenment figures, like Jefferson, demonstrate what David Brion Davis calls, “the ambivalence of rationalism.” They recognized that slavery was a grotesque insult to humanity and an utterly irrational institution, but they could not extend their hearts beyond what they erroneously imagined to be the limits of reason and advocate immediate abolition. The Marquis de Condorcet, to whom Jefferson sent Banneker’s almanac, expressed disappointment with this ambivalence. He wrote, “Only a few ‘philosophes’ have from time to time dared to raise a cry in favor of humanity, a cry which the Establishment has not heeded, and which a superficial society has soon forgotten.”
Condorcet, a fearless champion of the equality of all races and of the sexes, who epitomized the true spirit of the Enlightenment, was later imprisoned and murdered during the Reign of Terror. There are revolutionaries with hearts… and revolutionaries without hearts.
We should learn from this example, balancing the “Age of Reason” with the outpouring of spiritual feeling and imagination exemplified by the Quakers, William Blake, Condorcet, Josiah Wedgwood, and many more. While Jamelle Bouie is right to note that Enlightenment ideas were sometimes used to justify wielding power over others, it lends proportion to his perspective to consider major historical figures who were not motivated by power. The word for what motivated them – which we have avoided mentioning until this point – is love.
Everyone who ascribes to academic, postmodern philosophies, which claim that all of history is just a power-based contest in which competing identities try to exert their wills against each other, should take this to heart. True, there is a spirit that seeks to create order purely in order to serve its own craving for power. This spirit seems to be dominant throughout much of history. In fact, the Bible calls it “the Prince of this World.” But there is another spirit at work, exemplified by these Quaker abolitionists and by heroic figures of the Enlightenment like Condorcet.
This spirit creates order through love.