Having concluded a series of posts on the history of the concept of counter-Enlightenment, I’d planned to move on to other things. But, in the immortal words of Michael Corleone, “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.”
In my case, “they” are the series of spiffy new editions of Isaiah Berlin’s writings that Princeton University Press has been publishing, which arrive decked out with new introductions and intriguing additional materials. Their appearance presents me with the same temptation that the reissues (first on Rycodisc, then on Rhino) of the Elvis Costello oeuvre used to present. I would tell myself that I didn’t really need another copy of Get Happy! (though I think everybody ought to own at least one). But — unable to resist the prospect of an alternative version of “I Stand Accused” — I would eventually break down and buy one. Since I already owned Vico and Herder and Magus of the North, I took a pass on Three Critics of the Enlightenment the first time around, but the most recent edition looks quite tempting and when Princeton offered the opportunity to look at an online examination copy, I took it.
The new version includes a December 1993 letter from Berlin to Mark Lilla, who reviewed Magus of the North for the New York Review of Books and had some reservations about Berlin’s affection for the various unsavory characters who populated the counter-Enlightenment. In response, Berlin offered an explanation of his general approach:
… by temperament I am liable not to write about thinkers I approve of — I take those for granted — I find it not very interesting to praise thinkers for what I agree with, but prefer their enemies, who, however vicious and destructive at times, as they certainly were, discovered chinks in the armour of the Enlightened, important chinks, which do make valid points against them — and which cause one at any rate to think, to realise that one can’t swallow them whole, that some of the results of their teachings did lead to deplorable results (496-497).
This is followed by a paragraph in which Berlin emphasizes that “of course” Diderot and Lessing (“two of my favorite thinkers in the eighteenth century”)
did not in any way lead to the horror of uniformity, and in the end the Gulag (497).
With that out of the way, Berlin goes on to offer an extended critique of Lilla’s review.
Lilla responded with a letter that closes with a postscript that reminds us of how little was known about the history of concepts like “Counter-Enlightenment” back in those dark ages when the only way to find out about the history of concepts was to read lots of books or ask someone else:
I have been unable to track down the history of the term ‘Counter-Enlightenment’.’ I find it first in English in your essay and, simultaneously, in Lewis White Beck’s history of German philosophy (1968). I had assumed that it was a simple translation of the German Gegenaufklärung, which had its own history, but I have been unable to uncover it. There is no entry on the term in German dictionaries, Philosophical Wörterbucher, or even the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe I have even asked Reinhardt Kosellek about it, but he had no idea of its provenance. Do you, by any chance? (505).
This sparked yet another long letter from Berlin, which closed with the following:
Finally, the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’: I have no idea who used it first. It has been attributed to me, and I should like to think that to be true, but I cannot tell. Before I read your letter I had no idea there was such a word as Gegenaufklärung – so it is certainly not a translation of it by me. I modelled it on the word counter-Renaissance, which is the title of a book. More than that I do not know: I should like to think that I invented this useful word (511).
The claim that he term “modelled” the term on “counter-Renaissance,” is a somewhat more emphatic version of the account of the origins of the term that Berlin had given two years earlier in his interview with Ramin Jahanbegloo, which also alluded to Hiram Haydn’s book as an inspiration. 1 Berlin had previously cited the book in his 1972 essay on “The Originality of Machiavelli” and it turned up again in the “Bibliography” that was appended to his Dictionary of the History of Ideas article on Counter-Enlightenment.2
But what may be of greater interest here is his claim that he “had no idea there was such a word as Gegenaufklärung.” I suspect that time and memory could have been playing tricks on him: as I’ve discussed in an earlier post, the term became rather common in German accounts of Romanticism and it is difficult to believe that, however fleetingly, Berlin would not have come across it here. Confirming that suspicion would require checking the text of those German works cited by Berlin in his discussions of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century thinkers, would pull me back in even further.
- Isaiah Berlin and Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (New York: Scribners, 1991) 69-70 ↩
- The Machiavelli essay originated as a 1953 lecture. There is a copy of “a lightly edited transcript” of what would seem to be a somewhat later lecture on Machiavelli available from the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library, but it does not contain a reference to Haydn or, indeed, anyone else: it has no footnotes. ↩