Enemies of the Enlightenment
September 22, 2023  |  Philosophy  ·  Enlightenment

What is Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment is a pretty vague concept, but here are some core ideas:

  • Happiness of an individual is the ultimate goal
  • Science and reason are foundations of human progress
  • The power of a sovereign should be limited by a constitution
  • Church and state should be separated

That sounds pretty reasonable, but there were quite a few contemporary thinkers who opposed that movement, so let’s examine some prominent examples and see why did they oppose the Enlightenment.

Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821)

His life was unremarkable until the Great French Revolution, which he initially welcomed. He quickly changed his mind though, when the chaos started to spread outside France. Joseph de Maistre had a pretty combative personality, which could be one of the reasons why he was sent to work in Russia.

The Great French Revolution promised liberty and equality, but Maistre didn’t feel that the people became happier after the revolution. The Enlightenment promotes the view that people are rational, and they seek happiness. According to Maistre, nature is hostile and there is a constant struggle. There is nothing rational in that. Humans are natural killers, and all aspects of our lives depend on killing other species, and even our own. He was obsessed with death. He also thought that marriage is irrational, and monarchy is no different. Despite being irrational, heritable monarchy worked pretty well, while more “enlightened” countries such as Poland were a mess.

Maistre believed that people value stability and reason is the worst foundation for a stable society. Reason means argument, and it leads to polarisation. Societies are based on myths and irrationality and should be forbidden to examine those foundations, since it would destroy the society. The good example is religion with its tendency to punish anyone questioning the origin stories.

According to Maistre, custom and irrationality are foundations of our lives. We are told to be born to freedom, but why are people “in chains” everywhere? The last thing people desire is freedom. They need security, stability and obedience. How long did democracies last and how much did we pay for them?

Peter the Great sent thousands of people for a sure death, and they died like sheep, with no mutiny. They had no idea why are they marching, where are they marching, and why do they need to kill. They had no hostility to their enemies. People aren’t interested in cooperation and mutual self-help. What people really want is collective self-emulation. Wars are good examples of such tendencies.

What must be done is to govern people in a way which prevents them from tearing each other in pieces. That’s clearly a hyper-Hobbesian view of human nature! Maistre thought that French Revolution is a great punishment sent by God. Power must be respected because it stops societies from falling apart. Self-control is impossible, all the limits should be enforced from the outside.

Maistre believed that strong government given in some irrational fashion is necessary. Religion and serfdom are foundations of stable society. He thought that Europe was able to abolish serfdom only because it had independent church, but Russian church was weak, so abolishing serfdom would be a huge mistake. People didn’t respect clerics and despised the bureaucrats, so strong government was the only foundation of that society.

According to Maistre, scientists are the ones who analyse, disintegrate and destroy. I guess it’s partly true, so anti-science view seems less absurd when you learn about the reasons why are those people oppose an unbounded scientific push.

Maistre also thought that no man exists without society and no society exists without sovereignty. All sovereignty implies infallibility, and infallibility rests with God. That’s a clever attempt to insert and justify religion, I guess.

Maistre even goes as far as saying that all power is to be worshiped. I think it’s pretty clear that he’s a proto-fascist.

Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788)

Hamann was much more moderate than Maistre, and some people don’t really see him as a Counter-Enlightenment thinker. Although he believed that feelings are superior to dry rationality, and all the universal rules are oppressive as they constrain human potential, he wasn’t really opposed to most scientific endeavors. He noted that science is prone to over-generalization, abstracting away important details and exceptions, which are essential but are often lost in translation.

Speaking of translation, Hamann believed that it’s impossible to fully translate texts from one language to another. Since the languages are shared by people and people are unique, languages capture their unique experience which can’t be expressed in any other language. He was generally interested in words and symbols, and he believed that reason and language is basically the same thing. To Hamann, it explained why languages aren’t that coherent and logical, they just mirror the human nature, after all.

Politically, Hamann was more of a conservative. He believed that our ancestors knew that they were doing, and anything old, anything ancient, exists for a reason and must be preserved. He also suspected that the goal of the Enlightenment is to organize an enlightened despotism. In technical terms, he didn’t like the idea of imposing a unified schema on a global scale. It’s easy to write down a bunch of rules, but it doesn’t mean those rules can be actually lived and followed. He much preferred natural law, and he believed that any amends imposed by the Enlightenment might be harmful and contradictory to human nature. Natural law is basically anything which any reasonable being perceives to be true, which doesn’t leave much space for a big government and any far-reaching top-down reforms.

Hamann doesn’t strike me as an enemy of rationality, he was only cautious about going too far with abstracting away the reality. He believed that all states are rational and are founded on natural law and social contract. Keeping your promises is also kind of natural, so it can be reduced to a natural law alone. If we accept that every state is rational, it would be hard to deny that any state which suppresses rationality is simply self-destructive. That line of thinking leads to a strong anti-censorship position, which Hamann indeed shared with many Enlightenment thinkers. He was a devout Christian, but he believed that all religions are rational, and forcing religious unity is wrong and dangerous.

Like Maistre, Hamann wasn’t a fan of trying to justify and rationalize the existence of the state. He thought that justifying the state is as weird as justifying birds, they don’t need justification to exist since they’re just a part of natural world.

Some people view Hamann as proto-fascist, but I have an impression that he’s more of an anarchist. He clearly doesn’t like overreaching entities which can concentrate power and use it to force their will on others. He also criticized the idea of specialization, which can alienate people from nature and make them fully dependent on centralized power structures.


I believe it’s important to constantly doubt and test any idea, and the Enlightenment is no exception. Nothing good is beyond criticism, and both of the thinkers listed above formulated a good set of arguments. I don’t really buy most of those arguments though, but it’s hard to deny that they were extremely influential, and they contributed to the rise of both fascism and anarchism.


  • Enemies of the Enlightenment (Lecture by Isaiah Berlin, 1965)
  • Wikipedia