Lebenskünstler

“…passion as the basis of a life well lived.” – The last curator strangled with the guts of the last gallerist? – Against the moderate Enlightenment

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/12/2013

A Dangerous Man in the Pantheon – Philipp Blom

But things aren’t quite as easy. First of all, Diderot has been denied this honour multiple times, most recently in 1913. He was, still is, thought of as an intellectual troublemaker, someone all too fond of Eros and erotic passion, an implacable enemy of the Church, an incorrigible skeptic when it comes to power and the right of individuals to decide over others. These difficulties could perhaps be overcome in our tolerant and republican age. After all Voltaire, who has preceded him in the sacred site of French national memory, was also not a friend of the Church.

Condemned by the Church and hated by the Court, d’Holbach and Diderot were beacons of free thinking and directly inspired the America’s Founding Fathers. Franklin is likely to have participated at the dinners and ensuing discussions; Jefferson, whose personal library still testifies to his interests, read and admired Diderot, d’Holbach, Helvétius, and Raynal, as well as their intellectual predecessors. For the Declaration of Independence, he transformed the Lockean formulation for the pursuit of life, health, liberty, and property into the more properly Epicurean and Diderotean “pursuit of Happiness.”

Diderot saw the truest and the highest goal of human nature not in reason, but in lust. Humanity’s existence is driven by Eros, by the search for pleasure. This sensualist approach had an important metaphysical consequence: in a world without sin, a world in which no wrathful God has condemned all lust and demands suffering from his creatures on this earth in order to soften the blow of eternal punishment, the goal of life becomes the best possible realization of pleasure, the education of desire in accordance with natural laws. In a society without transcendental interference, this chance, the chance of the pursuit of happiness, must be given to all.

These views were anathema to just about everyone who sought to maintain or gain power, from the aristocracy to Revolutionary dictators such as Maximilien de Robespierre and Napoleon, all the way up to the Catholic Restoration that followed. “Men will not be free until the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest,” wrote Diderot—not the kind of message to appeal to the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. Laissez-faire capitalism allowed a self-proclaimed Christian middle class to profit from the misery of the working poor, at home and in the colonies. They could not argue for their position with Diderot, who became ever more scathing about the justification of power, privilege, slavery, and colonial expansion. It was Voltaire’s moderate Enlightenment that offered them the necessary vocabulary and allowed them to see themselves as the guardians of civilization, Enlightenment and religious values, put above the ignorant masses by divine providence.

The radical Enlighteners had understood and condemned this emergent power structure, as a ‘conspiracy of priests and magistrates’. Their thought was evolutionist long before Charles Darwin; they defended the rights of slaves before William Wilberforce and of women before Mary Wollstonecraft. They wanted to see individual fulfillment in a morality built around lust and social justice in a society built on pleasure and free choice, not on pain and oppression. Their potent ideas were unsurprisingly intoxicating discoveries for latter-day revolutionaries; among d’Holbach and Diderot’s ardent readers were Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.

The grand narrative of a rationalist Enlightenment that freed humanity from superstition only to subjugate it once again, this time to the dictates of reason and rationalization, suited the interests and self-image of an economy driven by entrepreneurship and fuelled by a cult of efficiency and cheap labor. Our own time dominated by the fiction of the market that needs to be obeyed and placated like an ancient deity and a society optimized for maximum consumption are a direct consequence of the Enlightenment cult of reason without the Diderotian emphasis on empathy. We have inherited the truncated history and repeated it to one another, tacitly encouraging a narrowness of thought that bears little resemblance to one of the freewheeling exchanges over candlelight at d’Holbach’s salon. The existence of a second, more radical Enlightenment tradition is not denied completely, but two centuries of historical bias have done their work, slowly but surely.

But while his role in this magnificent mammoth work was important for the eighteenth century, it is Diderot the philosopher who can still speak to us today. His advocacy of a passionate life, of social solidarity and empathy as the foundations of morality, his interest in science as the basis of all knowledge and in art and Eros as ways of creating meaning have lost nothing of their freshness, or their necessity. The real potential of the Enlightenment, he says time and again, is not the absolute rule of reason, but the rehabilitation of passion as the basis of a life well lived.

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