The Enlightenment And The Constitution

Among a number of depressing discoveries I made during two-plus decades of university teaching was the fact that most of my students had never heard of the Enlightenment.

I know, I know–that was just one of many deficiencies students brought to a class on law and public policy…so why do I consider that particular deficit to be especially depressing? Because–as I have repeatedly explained on this site– Enlightenment philosophy caused a significant shift in human understanding. Its philosophers introduced what has become the prevalent–although certainly not universal–worldview of modern  civilization. The Enlightenment introduced western civilizations to science and empirical inquiry, posited the existence of human rights and challenged/toppled belief in the divine right of kings, among many other things.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of MAGA Republicanism is its wholesale rejection of that Enlightenment worldview. There are several theories about the appeal of MAGA partisanship (I can’t dignify MAGA by suggesting it’s a philosophy–it isn’t. It’s a visceral, tribal scream…)–certainly, racism is a huge factor. But so is a primal fear of modernity, a rejection of the secular civilization that grew out of the Enlightenment.

As I’ve recently written, I tend to see much of today’s political turmoil as a fight between Puritan fundamentalism and Enlightenment modernity, so I was interested in a New York Times book review by Emily Bazelon some months back titled “Speaking Truth to Both Right and Left.” The review focused on two books, one of which–Jonathan Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge— I’d read. (The other, by George Packer, remains on my “eventual” list…)

Packer and Rauch are here to defend the liberalism of the Enlightenment — equality and scientific rationality in an unapologetically Western-tradition sense. They see this belief system as the country’s great and unifying strength, and they’re worried about its future.

I worry alongside them. A lot.

Packer expresses his deep fear that Americans have lost the “art” of self-government.

He means, with credit to Alexis de Tocqueville, “not just rights, laws and institutions, but what free people do together, the habits and skills that enable us to run our own affairs.” Self-government depends on trust, “which we’ve lost.”

The review notes that Packer’s lens is economic.

He ties his thesis about Americans’ loss of the art of self-government to the inequality that he has covered extensively and intimately in his career as a journalist. “If I had to put it in a single sentence,” he writes, “I would say: Inequality undermined the common faith that Americans need to create a successful multi-everything democracy.” He recognizes that “racism is in our marrow, and enough Americans either celebrate or tolerate this evil that it came within a whisker of gaining a lasting hold on power.” (He’s talking about Trump, though he would recognize that racism has in fact gained such a hold in other ways and times.)

Bazelon outlines what she calls Packer’s “biting” critique of the Left, and ties it to abandonment of the Enlightenment framework and the Left’s focus on subjectivity and “psychological trauma caused by speech and texts.”

Rauch addresses the Enlightenment basis of America’s Constitution more directly.

Rauch’s subject, in “The Constitution of Knowledge,” is the building of human understanding. He takes us on a historical tour of how a range of thinkers (Socrates, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montaigne, Locke, Mill, Hume, Popper) sought truth, came to embrace uncertainty, learned to test hypotheses and created scientific communities. He is astute about the institutional support and gatekeeping that sustains “the reality-based community of science and journalism.” Social media platforms are bad at this because their profits are built on stoking users’ existing rage and spreading lies faster than truth. This is not a new critique, but it’s nice to see Rauch weave it into his larger project.

Rauch describes the danger posed by Rightwing trolling and disinformation, but–like Packer–he also recognizes and criticizes the excesses of the left.

He blames it for cancel culture, defined as firing or ostracizing people for stray comments or social-media posts (some awful, some awkward, some expressing mainstream-until-yesterday views). He writes at helpful length about the difference between criticizing and canceling. “Criticism seeks to engage in conversations and identify error; canceling seeks to stigmatize conversations and punish the errant. Criticism cares whether statements are true; canceling cares about their social effects.”

Bazelon ended her review with a question I find increasingly pertinent: why do so many of today’s Americans reject the Enlightenment values of individual liberty and civic equality? She wanted both Rauch and Packer to “consider why the Enlightenment figures and values they love don’t speak to everyone.”

it’s a very important question.


  1. I remember virtually nothing I learned about government and/or the Constitution in high school. It has been since watching closely what is going on in government in recent decades regarding the Constitution that prompted me to learn how it applies to the present. I have become self-educated by researching on the many sites on the Internet and reading my copy of the Constitution and other sources of information. Maybe if teachers in high school (I can’t speak to college professors) tied in government structure and the Constitution as it is happening in the daily news and how it relates to them today. The Constitution to me has always seemed open to interpretation; this would allow for changing futures through time. The Trump MAGA, White Nationalist, Freedom Caucus have bastardized the basics of the 1st and 2nd Amendments and armed their followers with sticks-and-stones and words that do hurt others and legalized violence as a means to protect their “rights”.

  2. Cancel culture is worse than having a difference of opinion. But today, if a conservative tries to make points in the PublicSquare, he is immediately called a racist, or a bigot, and most young liberals when you try to approach them with any kind of logic to an argument, they immediately if you seen any of the YouTube videos of most of them, just say they hate you or they, think you’re angry white male. The problem with it is there are plenty of minorities that are conservatives. Many of them are waking up to the walk cancel culture of today and like Bill Maher who is saying the left is just plain goofy and it’s dangerous to see the country be taken over by People who mainly just want to dismantle the foundations of our country and the foundations of family women’s sports and attack young children with transgender ideologies in our schools. Yes, I agree with this man’s assertion that cancel culture is not only a problem, but my view it is the main problem , I’ve listened to Mark Levin over the years and he would scream about the budget. He would scream about the corruption and yeah, a lot of people didn’t like listening to him because he did scream a lot, but the point he made is he didn’t care what kind of government we had just as long as we could run the government financially . But he’s been screaming for decades and no one has listened and now we have a $1 trillion payment that must be paid every year.
    We really need to look at the budget. We really need to look at cancel culture.
    We also need to look at the founders that they were very religious and Benjamin Franklin actually in his youth, even though he agreed with the ism said it was worthless. That’s in his autobiography. Maybe we should really read it and understand it instead of just try to apply it to her own viewpoint.
    No, I don’t agree with everything that Mike Johnson says and/or believes that the way he’s being attacked as being a person who wants the theocracy in this government is totally wrong. I even read that James Carville he was from the Jim Crow era call his area overpopulated by primates it is funny to hear Carville speak, but the rhetoric causes polarization in the cancel culture is dangerous

  3. Franklin said deism and its arguments were worthless, that the christian viewpoint had meaning. He also noted that it wasn’t necessary to discuss certain principles by noting where it was discussed within the Bible he stated that most people at that time were deep in biblical principles, and didn’t need to give a citation. And of course, none of those people were interested in a theocracy, even though all of them were very religious and understood biblical principles, but the left demonize is everybody that has a conservative ideal. There are no conservatives left in the Democrat party, unfortunately

  4. Your essential question was posed to Bard, which replied:

    “There are a variety of reasons why so many Americans may reject the Enlightenment values of individual liberty and civic equality. Here are a few of the most common explanations:

    1. The rise of populism. Populist movements are often characterized by their distrust of elites, their emphasis on traditional values, and their suspicion of outsiders. These values can clash with the Enlightenment ideal of individual liberty, which is often seen as a tool of the elite to impose their own values on society.

    2. The decline of trust in institutions. The Enlightenment ideal of civic equality is based on the belief that all members of society are equal under the law and that they should have equal access to opportunities. However, recent decades have seen a decline in trust in many institutions, including the government, the media, and the education system. This decline in trust can make it more difficult for people to believe in the possibility of achieving civic equality.

    3. The increasing influence of money in politics. The Enlightenment ideal of individual liberty is often seen as a check on the power of money in politics. However, the increasing influence of money in politics can make it more difficult for people to believe that they have a truly equal voice in the political process.

    4. The fear of change. The Enlightenment ideal of individual liberty can also be seen as a threat to traditional values and norms. Some people may fear that too much liberty will lead to a breakdown of societal order and a decline in morality.

    5. The perception of inequality. The United States has become a more unequal society in recent decades. This inequality can make it more difficult for people to believe in the possibility of achieving civic equality.”

    All topics we discuss frequently…

  5. Well, count me as one that had never heard of this theory as “The Enlightenment”. Only from this blog have I ever been introduced with it and I appreciate the education. Unfortunately, it makes me mad too that I missed out on things in school or during my working life. I found your blog a long time ago, I don’t remember which year, but it was after I got married in 07, quit my job and moved to Europe. Until then, I didn’t have time to study politics and had to learn everything one by one over the years. We would watch Jon Stewart and I had to google the people he was talking about because I had no clue who the speaker was or any of the primary congress members.

    What I see now is complete dysfunction and a DO NOTHING Congress. Chip Roy from TX said the following on the house floor this week:

    “One thing: I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing—one—that I can go campaign on and say we did. One!” He then asked Republicans to come down to the floor and “explain to me one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done besides, well, ‘I guess it’s not as bad as the Democrats.'”

    I can’t disagree. I’ve been asking that for several years now. They gave the tax breaks and now complain about the debt. Please…

  6. Bazelon wonders “why do so many of today’s Americans reject the Enlightenment values of individual liberty and civic equality? ”

    The radicalized far right Americans don’t reject these values for themselves – they only reject them for people of color, LGBTQ and those who reject the radicals’ demand for a theocracy. Their demand is rules for thee but not for me.

  7. I’ve been reading this blog and daily comments for several years and always find it thoughtful and engaging but this is my first post. Does anyone know if House members receive pay cuts when they are sent home well in advance of scheduled holidays or breaks? That happens more and more often and doesn’t seem “fair” at all. Silly question, I realize yet why should they be paid when they’re not even attempting to do the work of the people?

  8. Cathleen -No, they do not receive pay cuts. Also, when they have shut down the government in prior years they still get paid, unlike many other federal employees who are expected to continue working without being paid. It would be wonderful if we American citizens had the power to demand that their pay also be suspended during a shutdown.

  9. JoAnn made a great suggestion about high school civics teachers tying their lessons about government structure and the Constitution to how their current governing activities affect the students’ lives.

    My favorite class as a senior in high school was titled Values and Issues. It was a trial elective class that centered on critical thinking about the current affairs in the news. A new topic was chosen each week and we students spent the class time discussing our thoughts and viewpoints. We weren’t required to agree on anything – only to read about the topic and bring our thoughts to class.

  10. I was gobsmacked to read that your students had not heard of the Enlightenment, but realize that I do not recall when I was first introduced to it. Your students were recently out of H.S., as I understand it, and it is possible that I had not encountered it by then, either, though while I doubt that, I really do not recall, these many decades later.
    Enlightenment ideas paved the way to our constitution, and its opposition to a blending, to any extent, of church and state…regardless of what Liberty U., and other bastions of backwardness profess!
    But values and ideas do not hold the same emotional punch as cravings for power, status, tribal identity and faith-based beliefs…which demagogues are quick to exploit.
    The brain’s amygdala is quick to respond to perceived threats, and reason and empiricism do not have a home there.

  11. “It’s the culture…” All too busy with MY wants and needs, my tribes, my podcasts, my streaming services. And when I get low, I “enlighten” with legal weed, sports, celebrities, gambling, gaming…

    You intellectuals are overthinking life – have fun!

  12. I just came across this somewhat related portion of HCR’s latest posting, regarding the man who attacked Mr. pelosi: “DePape told jurors he had come to conspiracy theories through Gamergate, a 2014–2015 misogynistic online campaign of harassment against women in the video game industry, which turned into attacks on feminism, diversity, and progressive ideas. Trump ally Steve Bannon talked of pulling together the Gamergate participants behind Trump and his politics.”
    So, here we have a real time, live example of how some men’s sense of threat posed by the opposite sex can motivate intense, “visceral,” idiotic, reflexive, craziness, and behavior. Enlightenment thinking be damned!

  13. I was not introduced to the Enlightenment during high school but took courses in philosophy as electives in my quest for a degree in economics with a minor in political science, all before going to law school, where I learned the nuts and bolts of self-government, one of the areas well-addressed by the Florentine revolt from religious imagination to scientific reality and individual freedom.

    Trouble is, today such gifts of the Enlightenment have fallen on hard times via the hard right’s employment of racism and greed and who employ distrust of government and misinformation to achieve their ends of economic and political dictatorship as well as other anti-democratic objectives laid out in Todd’s effort today. I just yesterday noted in my Swedish story in this blog about how Swedes don’t mind paying high taxes because they rightly trust their government to do the right thing with such revenues, whereas in this country the right is poisoning the polity to distrust government and engaging in destruction of our democratic institutions by their ringleader Trump and his fascist mob who have resorted to 1/6 violence with a view to ending our American experiment in the Enlightenment values of human freedom and self government in favor of strongman rule.

    Their efforts have led to fascist capture of a major political party by such as Gaetz, Trump, and dozens of congressional election deniers, who have the audacity to call themselves “Republicans.” Truth be told, these election deniers are by their vote DEMOCRACY DENIERS, and are thus subject to my long held observation that “Our democracy is the most precious asset we hold in common, and is one of the last few things left worth dying for.”

  14. I think the answer to Sheila’s question at the end of her post is fairly simple. People don’t know anything about Enlightenment principles. That is why they can reject what should be the foundational principles of our government. Few if any of them have ever read the Constitution, so they have no idea about how the government changed in the 1780s from the (what amounted to a) banana republic, to a functioning democracy (ignoring, or course the complication of slavery).

  15. I had a terrific world history class (thanks Mrs. Larson) in my lower-class high school, where by “world” one mostly meant European as opposed to American. She took us through a set of intellectual eras, like the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, etc. It was a wonderful structure to have and I loved it and wanted to tell everybody I knew about it, and of course they were puzzled by my interest. I ended up studying philosophy and history in college. I am CERTAIN that if you asked the other students in that class now they’d tell you that nobody every taught them about the Enlightenment. If something doesn’t capture your imagination or get built upon by later material, it just isn’t that memorable. But it was definitely covered in some detail (Rousseau, Voltaire, etc.)

  16. Lester,

    I believe you hit the nail on the head, there is no compassion and empathy, just self indulgence or overindulgence! Over indulging in alcohol or weed as you say or making sex the prime driver in an individual’s existence!

    Sheila is absolutely correct when she mentions that he art of trust is gone, and it’s because of those self aggrandized hypocrites seeking power and notoriety, wanting to be Legends in their own time and legends in their own mind. Look at the type of individuals that are involved in governmental policies and oversight?!?! George Santos is just a microcosm. How much can you bleed the system for your own personal gain, whatever that gain may be!

    There has to be a certain amount of logic to become an intellectual entity. Unfortunately, throughout history, not just in this country and its beginnings, but as you go farther back, civilizations devolved into anarchy. The Greek empire split up into four separate entities, the same with Rome. And you can go further back, the Medes & Persians, even Egypt and Babylon became cesspools of debauchery, greed and selfishness. The Romans needed the Visgoths, Romans were not procreating, so they used them as their military arm. But the Romans hated the Goths, They refuse to make them citizens. And what happened? They sacked Rome.

    You can see examples of this everywhere. Countries that move ahead and advance, the populations start to shrink because no one’s having babies. Only babies being born are those who are not native to that particular country. That’s what’s happening here, it’s going to be happening in China, it’s happening in Japan, the population is getting older and there’s no replacements. This leads to resentment, and the feeling of losing status. And absolutely that leads to hateful propagandizing huge swaths of the population.

    Those populations that are procreating are looked at as being undesirable for the most part. It’s always been that way. They’re looked down upon as breeders, not really human. But these populations still hold on to certain values, such as family values, property values, educational values, health and welfare, compassion and empathy, and love of neighbor. Our advanced civilization loses the ideal of compassion and empathy. In this country, there is absolutely marriage and friendship amongst people of different ethnicities and nationalities. But there is enough hatred and selfishness to skew a civil population that’s a hodgepodge of all nations, creeds, and ethnicities.

    It’s easy to blame the person next door for your failures, or your problems! It’s easy to blame their cultural practices or religious beliefs. But it isn’t easy to self-reflect. To see that enemy in the mirror. To maybe think that you might be the Ne’er-do-well, the self-centered, the hypocrite.

    We can apply philosophical reasoning, laws, rules, regulations, and religious beliefs, to others, but, fail to see how to apply it to ourselves. So, the lawlessness increases, it’s easy to incarcerate. The Romans used gladiator combat to reduce their prison populations. Bread and circuses! We do the same here, people are gunned down in the streets, people are enthralled with the stories, and eventually they become the story. At that point history shows us, civilization collapses. The powerful don’t go out with a bang, they go out with an ignorance empowered whimper!

    Anarchy anyone? I believe we’re already at that point.

  17. I’m no scholar but I think a lot of the founders of the US constitution & Bill of Rights knew a lot of what great minds had offered before and were able to synthesize and together they formed our government for an attempt to promote and protect the lives of all its citizens from tyranny. Protecting the minority from the majority is a constant vigilant task for all of us. These days it seems there is false majority looming in the Maga movement through vigilante propaganda fed by who knows dark money.
    Through reading some works of Joseph Campbell and the study of myths(religion) over all cultures and years humans have an innate drive toward enlightenment or self-actualization. We’re not all in the same stage or club, but our founders made a way for that. Campbell stated that “there’s no conflict between science and mysticism, but there is a conflict between science of 2000 bc and the science of 2000 ad. Here we have the freedom to realize that and do our part to protect our democracy for ourselves.

  18. I am glad for the criticism of the “left”, but we should remember that cancel culture had its heyday during the McCarthy era. Then, cancel didn’t mean banned from Facebook or lecturing, it mean loss of a job and housing (‘we don’t rent to Commies’).

    As for the reason, I have mentioned this before. The number one reason isn’t “the Me generation”. People have been complaining about the “selfishness” of younger people from time immemorial. Sadly, there is and has been excessive selfishness in the world.

    The number one reason is fear, and as society, and the world, becomes more complex, it gets worse.

    I am glad that I live in a society with printed prices rather than bartering for everything. Two hundred years ago, you could know the value of a reasonable number of items and be able to barter with knowledge. Now, the number of items is astronomical. I would rather comparison shop than become an expert on everything that I buy.

    So it is with the political realm. Too many people are scared and overwhelmed.

    “There are too many choices and I can’t stand the uncertainty. Science always can change with new evidence and when it does give an answer, it is usually ‘within these parameters’.
    I want simple, immutable answers. I don’t want to make decisions where I could be wrong, and if the answers make be feel more significant in this huge universe than I seem now, the better I like that simple answer.”

    The part about not making decisions was told to me by one of the smartest women that I know, a JD and MSW. She was explaining why she became very religious. No issues, the answers were all provided for her. She was freed from freedom.

    This is the silent shout of the anti-enlightenment crew: Free me from freedom!

  19. Hey, John, why does your “tribe” feel the need to impose your views on the rest of us? I am completely willing for you to follow your narrow-minded, etc. etc. viewpoint, but leave me the hell alone!!
    I have come to the belief that all the MAGA, neo-Nazi, white Christian nationalism, evangelicalism, etc. is about CONTROL of other people and is based in FEAR. People who fear change want to CONTROL and impose their will on others. The world, physically, and humanity, are constantly CHANGING and it’s FEAR of that the drives the need to CONTROL. If people can begin to accept that change is inevitable and use whatever belief system they have to bring them comfort and acceptance, it will be for the best. All the so-called rules (based on religion and/or tribalism) are just ways to keep us all from changing and that’s inherently doomed to failure.
    So, John, get with the program and go with the flow. “Don’t worry, be happy!” – Meher Baba

  20. I re-read my earlier comment and sound naiver than I am. Saying that the founders of US wrote US constitution and bill of rights that was for all citizens was how it was presented to me in grade school. In reality it’s the idea they envisioned for themselves and peers. Slaves and women, children foreigners etc. were not considered/included. Through blood sweat and tears, some Americans from all walks have pushed for equal rights for themselves and others. It’s a continuing work especially under attack these days. We have a pathway if we can keep it.
    Kathy M. Women have been kept down deprived of adequate education, not recognized and paid for the work we do, and religion was used to keep us in our “place” I’m glad we can speak out about those injustices and make our own decisions in our lives. I don’t get the impression that John is a Maga type. He seems to know a lot of history and the hx. of religion and is working his way in Democracy.

  21. Rose — not sure how my comments produced yours about women’s rights. I am in total support of the women’s, minorities and LGBTQ’s rights. I even believe in the redistribution of wealth.
    And read John S.’s comments again –whenever I read “biblical principles” in reference to governance in the US, my skin crawls. He also uses several “what-about-isms” – a typical deflection tactic from core issue – CONTROL!

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