This will be no revelation for old hands, yet we might as well say it: the Enlightenment was a negative development in human history—this period, a period that ran roughly from 1689 to 1789, was superintended by a class called “the philosophes”. Here is what Horace Walpole, judged by the historian Peter Gay to be a fair observer, said about the philosophes: “The philosophes, save for Buffon, are solemn, arrogant, disagreeable, dictatorial coxcombs—I need not say superlatively disagreeable.” A penny-ante playwright at the time produced a satire on the philosophes that skewered Duclos, Diderot, Rousseau, and Helvétius as an unprincipled gang of hypocrites who exploited idle, gullible society ladies with pretentious schemes. Walpole further added, when he met the philosophes in Paris: “The philosophes are insupportable, superficial, overbearing, and fanatic…they preach incessantly.”
Well, you know what this sounds like well enough: it sounds like the woke today. As I have noted elsewhere, the woke are drawn from that intermediate strata that is neither scholarship nor journalism but feeds the media with ideas and also partially inhabits the university world—along with what is known as “the arts”, the theatre and so on. Basically, “intellectuals”—itself a very French concept, so that “philosophe” is an accurate designation. Noam Chomsky is a fine example: a man who worked from a secure university base, but whose name was really made by his political books, activism, and polemics.
Even better, take Christopher Hitchens—a man who worshipped the Enlightenment and the philosophes. Hitchens fits the bill perfectly: he was not just a jobbing journalist but a man with “ideas”, a man who produced pseudo-philosophical books about God that are actually not very sophisticated when you really know the territory but which were put forward in a “solemn, arrogant, disagreeable, superficial, overbearing, and fanatical” way—Walpole would have pinned Christopher Hitchens in a moment as what Hitchens in fact proclaimed himself to be, an heir to Voltaire and his unsavoury crew.
Hitchens also had his own “pretentious scheme” to exploit idle and gullible society ladies; his great “war for liberal democracy” and “war against Islamofascism”—the Iraq War. You have to have lived through the 2001-2008 period to truly grasp quite how pervasive this pseudo-intellectual outlook—what Hitchens would solemnly declare to be “the continuation of the anti-fascist struggle”—was in media world; especially among those people who pompously declared themselves to be “the decent left” (i.e. for the Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan)—a group ably summed up by a 2009 book title by the Trotskyist Richard Seymour, “the liberal defence of murder”.
Notably, those who opposed the philosophes often found themselves—as with conservatives today—bewildered and surrounded; the philosophes cropped up in, as Gay puts it, “strategic positions”: salons, publishers’ offices, government posts, university chairs, near Royal persons, and even in the Académie française—indeed, Voltaire was an official court historian. They formed a definite network and covered for each other with appointments and positive reviews.
Gay notes that the moment when the philosophes became most radical in their program, in the 1770s and 1780s, was also the moment they had found a respectable place in society. The parallel between the woke and the philosophes is very clear here: the woke are where the philosophes were circa 1770-1789—they are respectable administrators bumped up from campus revolutionaries. What happens next? The French Revolution, the blood pools—the noyades of Nance. Will some 21st-century American de Maistre write that few alive in 2050 can comprehend the glory and majesty that was to live in America in the 1990s?