Intellectual courage versus industry of fear

The great paradox of modernity is that everything is very close to its polarity

Leonidas Donskis, Patrik Ouředník, Haris Pašovič and Michal Havran
8 December 2016

MICHAL HAVRAN: Is there any sense in speaking about the project of the ‘new’ Enlightenment today given, first, a history of criticism against the flawed original project, and second, taking into account our contemporary political reality?

Patrik Ouředník: I do not have any problem with the notion of the ‘new Enlightenment’. While the original Enlightenment is accused of being homogenizing or universalistic, the ‘new’ Enlightenment would be questioning and reflexive. However, I would argue that we don’t have to speak about the ‘new’ Enlightenment, since the Enlightenment, as a concept, has not been exhausted. Modern Europe is quite clearly an heir, and a result of the ‘age of lights’. Enlightenment is both a philosophical and a political concept of administrating an area. Kant spoke of the liberation of the human mind. In this perspective, the Enlightenment is a project of liberation from prejudices and conventions, which we of course can achieve up to a degree. Enlightenment opposes orthodoxy and pushes us to think for ourselves. On the other hand, it also allows us to discuss together how to organize our lives in society; how to achieve the most harmonious, or least discordant, society.

Leonidas Donskis: The topic of the Enlightenment appears to be quite relevant for many reasons. The outcomes or the derivatives of this project had deeply permeated the 20th century European though. There is a joke among political philosophers that Communism is the Enlightenment gone astray, a sort of prodigal son. But the same applies to the opposite movement, which was a major philosophical and cultural movement in Europe, Romanticism. Romanticism could be described as having a difficult and murderous child, Nazism; or Nazism could be described as an outcome of the dark side of Romanticism. In the 20th century we witnessed a sort of struggle between those two European moral and political sensibilities. Nevertheless the Enlightenment deeply permeated European political and moral discourses…

MICHAL HAVRAN: But did it really? Even in Central Europe?

Leonidas Donskis: I think it did. It is telling that you addressed the issue saying Central Europe, not Eastern Europe. In Central Europe, even the most sophisticated circles experienced major intellectual movements second-hand. Those great currents — the Enlightenment, Romanticism — did not originate here, but were accepted; in a way, they came late. Things were ever more complicated in Eastern Europe. The Russian thinker Pyotr Chaadayev in his philosophical letters — written in the 1830s — complained that Russia did not have any single major European movement. Whereas in Central Europe, I believe that both the Enlightenment and Romanticism affected us; they were not so much commonplace components of intellectual life as they were in Western Europe. The problem is that we are discussing this topic with contemporary political map of Europe in mind. I think that Central and Eastern European nations emerged as more or less legitimate children of Romanticism. The Nobel Prize winning poet Czesław Miłosz made a joke that Lithuania emerged due to activities of linguists who were playing some linguistic games and derived Lithuania as a project.

MICHAL HAVRAN: How can we talk about the Enlightenment as one, given the geopolitical differences and traditions you mentioned?

Leonidas Donskis: The Enlightenment was not a monolith; there were profound differences between, say, Montesquieu and some of his contemporaries. There were people who represented more or less the technocratic current, for example, Antoine Destutt de Tracy, the author of e Elements of Ideology, a perfect product of the rationalizing reason of L‘École polytechnique. The problem many European thinkers had with the Enlightenment, like Vico in Italy, or Herder in Germany, was that the Enlightenment underrated emotions, feelings. But it is not universally true; Montesquieu and Voltaire did appreciate them. Romanticism derived more from the Enlightenment than it would like to admit, even the concept of a more or less coherent Europe. Of course, there were differences. The Romantics covered the mysticism and emotional component of human life while the Enlightenment, with its focus on reason and civilization in singular, lacked subtlety. Only together did both movements create a new sensibility. And they both spoke of misery, of human pain, in a novel way.

Haris Pašovič: I am very much under the impression of yesterday’s attack in Paris. There is a very strong message coming from Parisians, the one of resistance. They say we are strong. There was a man playing “Imagine” by John Lennon in the streets. There are many examples of the determination of Parisians who do not let terrorism or evil overwhelm their city. I was also there in January 2015 at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and I also saw Parisians, including French Arabs, united. To be Parisian today, is to be part of the ‘new Enlightenment’.

MICHAL HAVRAN: Is the expression of unity, standing together, enough? Shouldn’t they also do something together?

Haris Pašovič: It is not enough, but it is a precondition to treasure humanistic values. This is also what we did during the siege of Sarajevo. For four years we were exposed to barbarism on a daily basis, on live television broadcasts all around the world. What was a spontaneous reaction of survival was to keep multiculturalism alive, not to take revenge against the people of Serbian origin who lived in Sarajevo with us, despite the fact that there were Serbian forces targeting the city; not to destroy Orthodox churches in the city, despite all the calamities. What I see in Paris this year is the same spirit, and I believe we should follow this spirit everywhere in Europe. What happened should not be understood. It is not understandable, because it is evil. In Sarajevo, I often asked myself why is it happening to us. Such events cannot be understood. But they can be confronted. It is very important to focus on confronting the evil instead of trying to understand it, which is a waste of time.

MICHAL HAVRAN: Are we less resistant to terror because the Enlightenment ideas are weaker or less widespread?

Patrik Ouředník: If we speak about the ideas of tolerance and respect for the Other, indeed, these are more and more fragile in today’s Europe. The Enlightenment in French is les Lumières — it is plural, which is very important, because this suggests there is no one truth, and also that there is no truth in singular. A note to what was said before: I do not wholly agree with the demarcation of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, as there was also pre-Romanticism. Moreover, we could also see the line of demarcation geopolitically: as a German reaction to the French cultural domination of the Enlightenment.

Leonidas Donskis: Still, we cannot confine the Enlightenment to France alone, with all due respect. Especially tonight, we are tempted to say nous sommes tous Parisiens, but Immanuel Kant is a cornerstone of the Enlightenment, and he was decidedly not French. It is from his writing that we derive the idea of a great peaceful international European federation. Also, Scottish forces, Adam Fergusson and Adam Smith, were hugely influential. The Enlightenment was a European project of modernity. The French Enlightenment gave us the social sciences, new forms of sensibility, struggles with religious fanaticism and bigotry. While the Scottish Enlightenment of Adam Smith gave us economic modernity. The Enlightenment had many fronts, and it would be unjust to reduce it to one movement. True, ‘civilization’ was meant to oppose ‘barbarism’; but it was also about compassion, justice, and our cherished human rights.

MICHAL HAVRAN: Are human rights really cherished?

Leonidas Donskis: We cherish human rights only when they are at great risk, it is the same with human health. We sometimes make fun of the Enlightenment as the simplistic vision of one superior Western civilization against perceived Eastern barbarism; say Jean Jacques Rousseau trying to write the constitution for Poland without visiting the country. But at the same time the Enlightenment was about the democratization of human sensibility, which gave the foundation for granting rights to all, for the idea of the universal rights of men.

Haris Pašovič: I am curious to know how Enlightenment ideas fare in contemporary discussions about technological development. In 2000, Bill Joy wrote an article, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”, about developments in science. He established the category of the ‘democratization of evil’, which, to put it simply, means that some unassuming person, sitting in a small village somewhere, can be a serious threat to Europe or the United States. We are facing the effects of this democratization of evil now, but we have not yet found the answer for it, except for tightening security measures and increasing surveillance.

Leonidas Donskins: The great paradox of modernity is that everything is very close to its polarity, to its own antidote. For instance, in terms of political existence, I am afraid Europe will become even more securitized and surveilled. But the crucial thing is to defend the humanistic legacy of Europe. First and foremost, our task is not to become paranoid or fear ridden. The challenge for the 21st century is to protect democratic Europe with respect to our humanistic sensibilities, and respect to human rights and civic liberties. This will be quite difficult, but we must stand together for it, especially given the rise of violent political extremism.

Patrik Ouředník: The devotion to reason and the unfettered belief in science and progress lead to scientific racism, eugenics, and eventually Nazism. This is the dark legacy of the Enlightenment. Extremist movements have never ceased to exist in Europe. For quite a long period those tendencies were perceived in much of Western Europe as dormant, which is not the case anymore.

Leonidas Donskis: The other important factor is the industry of fear. For a couple of months after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Baltic states lived in fear, despite NATO’s pledges to article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. My country panicked; I felt it strongly. I tried to counter that fear by writing essays, as people of my profession do, but it was hopeless against the daily activity of the tabloids, which profited from the industry of fear. Fear has become a valuable commodity. I tried to mobilize my best rational self, explaining to my frightened students that Russia won’t invade the Baltics risking a catastrophic war. The industry of fear, whether it’s fuelled by the fear of war, of refugees, or of migrants, is extremely difficult to beat. Kant propagated the motto sapere aude, which translates to ‘dare to know’. Intellectual courage is extremely important in times of social unrest. If intellectuals or artists succumb to hysteria, we are all finished.

MICHAL HAVRAN:Are we close to succumbing to panic?

Leonidas Donskis: The sociologist Zygmunt Baumann said that if you want to be a star in your society you need to invent yourself either as celebrity or as victim. But I think there is also a third way out for the intellectuals, who way too often become fear mongers. This is in my opinion their sin against societies. At the same time, we still have many sober voices resisting this temptation. The principle of intellectual or journalistic work is not to scare or paralyze people. The best thing to do now is to encourage audiences to live their lives without fear, in dignity.

Haris Pašovič: I was also thinking about the selective use of ‘Enlightened’ ideas for political purposes. There is a kind of Enlightenment of convenience, especially salient in politics, where, for example, European leaders are praising some minor reforms concerning women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to close massive economic deals. I’m afraid that when we focus too much on the noble issues and humanistic values, we will miss out on the economic, corporate rendering of the language of human rights, the language we owe to the Enlightenment.

Leonidas Donskis: One of the superstitions of the Enlightenment, the current that vehemently fought superstitions, is that you can negotiate everything. Once you educate people to speak one language, you can discuss matters of universal concern and eventually arrive at proper conclusions. But no, there are unsolvable conflicts and issues, which are not negotiable! For example we cannot negotiate with racists and misogynists, who have only contempt for other people. We cannot permit their languages to be preached. Democratic life is a type of life consisting of dissonances, differences, which are often difficult to deal with. Our task is to strive to deal with them as long as possible, but there is a boundary: terror or violence.

The text is based on a discussion held at the Central European Forum in Bratislava on 14th November 2015.

Leonidas Donskis was a Lithuanian philosopher, political commentator, and former Member of the European Parliament.

Patrik Ouředník is a prominent Czech author and translator. His book ‘Europeana’ was translated into 29 langauges.

Haris Pašovič is a Bosnian theatre and film director, Professor of the Academy of Performing Arts in Sarajevo.

Michal Havran is a Slovak theologian, political commentator, and founder of