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The Complacent Enlightenment:

Religion and Politics in Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws

Lecture by Annelien de Dijn, organized by the Department of the History of Philosophy

Since the 1980s, many Enlightenment historians have been claiming that there is not one Enlightenment but many different Enlightenments, or, a ‘spectrum’ of Enlightenments. In this paper, I would like to add to this debate by making the case for the existence of a ‘complacent’ Enlightenment. With this term, I refer to a distinct strand within Enlightened thinking about religion that uses the tools of Enlightenment – that is reason; thinking about religion as a human artifact rather than something God-given; generalization based on factual observation – to defend the superiority of Christianity rather than to criticize it, more particularly by comparing Christianity favorably with other forms of religious belief. So the strand of thought I want to discuss is ‘enlightened’ because it employs an enlightened approach to issues of religion, treating religions as social systems rather than wondering about their truth. But in doing so, I would argue, this strand of thought leads to complacency rather than to a desire for change, because it encourages the conclusion that Christianity is the best possible religion, not because it is true but because it promotes good political and social behavior. And the thinker who best exemplifies this complacent Enlightenment, as I will also show, is Montesquieu.

Adding this term to the debate, I would argue, helps to make sense of the Enlightenment. First, I would argue that it allows us to pinpoint a distinct strand of Enlightenment thinking that is not captured by the radical/moderate/religious E. distinction. More specifically, by labelling this distinct brand of Enlightenment thought, I hope to draw attention to an argument about religion made by enlightened thinkers that has escaped attention so far. Second, I think it is important to do so, because, as I would argue, we today are the heirs of that ‘complacent’ Enlightenment far more than we are the heirs of a radical, moderate or religious Enlightenment.

Annelien de Dijn

Annelien de Dijn is the author of French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville: Liberty in a Levelled Society (Cambridge University Press, 2008, paperback edition October 2011). She currently holds the position of Assistant Professor in Political Theory at the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the history of political thought in Europe and in the United States from 1700 to the present.  She has a particular interest in the fraught and contested history of freedom and in Enlightenment political thought.

Dr. de Dijn has held visiting appointments at Columbia University, Cambridge University, the Remarque Institute at NYU, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of California at Berkeley. A past recipient of Fulbright and B.A.E.F. fellowships, she was educated at the University of Leuven in Belgium and at Columbia University.

When & where?

Wednesday, 27 January 2016, 3.00 pm
Faculty of Philosophy, room Omega

Last modified:21 January 2016 11.00 a.m.