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History: European -- The Two Wings of the Enlightenment

Gary North
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The two wings of the Enlightenment can best be summarized in terms of European geography: France and Scotland.

The French version offered a theory of top-down, centralized society. I call it the left-wing Enlightenment. The Scottish version offered a theory of bottom-up, decentralized society. I call it the right-wing Enlightenment.

If you want to identify the systems by their intellectual spokesmen, choose Jean Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith. Politically, they were Robespierre and George Washington.


Both systems proclaimed faith in human reason, but they had different theories regarding how reason should extend into society. The French version regarded elite central planners as reliable designers of a good society, and also reliable implementers -- by force. The Scottish version regarded reason as possessed by individuals, and therefore inherently decentralized, with ideas and plans proving their value in free-market competition without private force and with very little governmental force.

Both versions appealed to supposedly rational men. But when rational men refused to listen, left-wing Enlightenment thinkers went looking for politicians to impose force. Right-wing Enlightenment thinkers waited for self-interested, profit-seeking people to implement their ideas in the marketplace.

The French Revolution was the implementation of left-wing Enlightenment thought. The American Revolution was the implementation of right-wing Enlightenment thought. Both versions led to a violent revolution. This was a major problem with both versions.

We need a detailed study which shows that neither wing of the Enlightenment could persuade the other about the logically and morally mandatory implications of Enlightenment faith even though both appealed to the autonomous reason of man. Edmund Burke (Reflections on the Revolution in France) did not persuade Thomas Paine (The Rights of Man).

Neither wing could resolve the ancient political problem of the one and the many, unity and diversity, holism and individualism. The Enlightenment state, based on autonomous reason, was supposed to extend liberty. Instead, it has suppressed liberty.

The French Revolution produced Napoleon and massive French bureaucracy. It led to a series of bloody revolutions in Europe, including the Russian Revolution. It led to two world wars in the 20th century, high taxes, greater bureaucracy, and the European Union.

The American Revolution led to a conspiratorial coup in Philadelphia in 1787, which centralized the government, followed by the Civil War, the New Deal, and two world wars. After 1913, it led to massive bureaucracy and taxes at levels only marginally less than Europe's taxation: over 40% of production. It also produced an American military empire.

Both systems are financed by a monopolistic central bank, but the right-wing Enlightenment invented the original model: the Bank of England (1694).

Both systems invoked the sovereignty of autonomous man as a species. Neither turned to biblical religion as the definitive standard.

Ever since 1700, Christian social thought has relied on one of the two Enlightenment versions for support. Christianity has been subsumed under the Enlightenment. This carried down to the 1980's, when Roman Catholic radicals proclaimed Marxist revolution: "liberation theology." In response, Christian conservatives proclaimed democratic capitalism. In both cases, Christians have been riding in the back of the Enlightenment's bus. They prefer one driver to the other, but they have paid for the bus and the gasoline. They do not get to select the map or take the steering wheel.


There needs to be a history of the Enlightenment which traces its origins back to its religious roots. We can identify these roots: John Calvin and Ignatius Loyola. They were both students at the tiny College of Montagu at the University of Paris in the 1520's. Loyola entered a year after Calvin departed. Another famous figure, Erasmus, had studied there three decades earlier.

Calvin developed an ecclesiology that was bottom-up. The local congregation possesses initiating authority. It provides a local court. Unresolved decisions are passed on to a higher court. This is Presbyterianism. Loyola created the Jesuit order. It was top-down. The Pope had absolute authority over the order, but it answered only to the Pope: no intervening institutional authorities (bishops or cardinals).

The Scottish Enlightenment was pioneered by liberal and apostate (e.g., Hume) Presbyterians. The French Enlightenment was pioneered by apostates who were reacting against their Catholic educations. The Enlightenment was a secularized version of a pair of rival Western Christian movements.

The study should also consider the irrational side of the Continental Enlightenment: the mystical-monist Enlightenment. It is rarely discussed by historians. This was a secularization of the "spirituals," a medieval heretical and sometimes revolutionary Christian movement.

It should trace the Enlightenment through the two branches of Freemasonry: British freemasonry and Grant Orient freemasonry. The English branch was preceded by the "invisible college" prior to the restoration of Charles II. After Charles was restored to the throne in 1660, he chartered the Philosophical Society, which has pre-Enlightenment and pre-Freemasonry figures in it. The key figure was Isaac Newton. His disciple James Anderson was instrumental of launching the new "speculative" masonry in 1717. Anderson's Constitutions (1723) was a key document in this revival.

The study should deal with the central philosophical and practical issue: how to create and maintain a balance between the one and the many. How can individual freedom exist within the unitary framework of the state? Rousseau made the General Will sovereign. But who has the ability and the right to interpret the General Will in any situation? On what basis? He never said. Adam Smith made the free market sovereign, though not quite. How can men be sure that what the free market allows -- pornography, prostitution, divorce, abortion, drugs -- will not destroy society? Who is to say, if all people are equally sovereign, yet do not agree? Who decides? On what moral and legal basis?


On the ancient philosophical and political issue of the one and the many, see Rousas J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many (1971).

Indispensable is the little-known book by Louis I. Bredvold, Brave New World of the Enlightenment (1961).

On the Scottish Enlightenment, see F. A. Hayek's essay, "The Results of Human Action but not of Human Design" (1967), in his book, Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (1967).

On the Continental Enlightenment, the standard study is Peter Gay's two-volume book, The Enlightenment (1969). One volumne is titled The Rise of Modern Paganism. The other is called The Science of Freedom. He also compiled a collection of documents, The Enlightenment: A Comprehensive Anthology (1973). He was pro-Enlightenment, as most authors are. An exception is Lester G. Crocker, a specialist in the French Enlightenment. Books: Age of Crises (1959), Nature and Culture (1963), and his biographies of Rousseau and Diderot.

On the underground, mystical Enlightenment, read the works of Margaret C. Jacob, who has mastered this literature. The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (1981); The World of the Enlightenment (1991); The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts and Fictions (2005).

On the precursors of the mystical Enlightenment, the mystical "spirituals" of the Middle Ages, see Frederick [Friedrich] Heer, The Medieval World (1962).

On the immediate roots of the French Revolution and what followed, James Billington's Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (1980) is indispensable. Billington today heads the Library of Congress.

On the mid-17th-century and early 18th-century rationalist origins of the Enlightenment in Great Britain, see the neglected and crucial book by Henning Graf Reventlow, The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World (1984).

On the 17th-century "invisible college" in England, see Frances A. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972).

On the American Enlightenment, see Adrienne Koch's book, Power, Morals and the Founding Fathers (1961), and the collection of documents, The American Enlightenment (1965). Also see Henry Steele Commager, The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (1977).

On Freemasonry's influence in early America, see Steven C. Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 (1996).

My book on the Constitution (free, on-line) goes into the right-wing Enlightenment and Freemasonry: Conspiracy in Philadelphia: Origins of the United States Constitution (2004). This is an update of Part 3 of my book, Political Polytheism (1989).

Search terms: AGhistory, AGpolitics

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