Back when David Brooks was in college, the Enlightenment did not mean what it means today:

In those days, when people spoke of the Enlightenment, they usually meant the French Enlightenment — thinkers like Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire and Condorcet.

These were philosophers who confronted a world of superstition and feudalism and sought to expose it to the clarifying light of reason. Inspired by the scientific revolution, they had great faith in the power of individual reason to detect error and logically arrive at universal truth.

Their great model was Descartes. He aimed to begin human understanding anew. He’d discard the accumulated prejudices of the past and build from the ground up, erecting one logical certainty upon another.
[…] But there wasn’t just one Enlightenment, headquartered in France. There was another, headquartered in Scotland and Britain and led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. As Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in her 2004 book, “The Roads to Modernity,” if the members of the French Enlightenment focused on the power of reason, members of the British Enlightenment emphasized its limits.
[…] These two views of human nature produced different attitudes toward political change, articulated most brilliantly by Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Their views are the subject of a superb dissertation by Yuval Levin at the University of Chicago called “The Great Law of Change.”

Paine equals radical change; i.e., the Democrats. Burke equals retreating backward toward the past; i.e., the Republicans. If you know your David Brooks, you know what comes next:

We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one.

Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems. You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.

The children of the British Enlightenment are in retreat. Yet there is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong. And out of that truth grows a style of change, a style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance.

It’s so easy when you use Lestoil.

I admit it, I am not an expert on the Enlightenment. But I do know laugh out loud funny when I read it:

1. There weren’t no “British Enlightenment.” There was a Scottish Enlightenment, led by Hume and Adam Smith.

2. Descartes misses being an Enlightenment thinker by a century and change. The French Enlightenment thinkers admired Descartes, but his rationalism had nothing to do with politics.

3. Burke wasn’t an Enlightenment thinker at all, except chronologically. The ideas Douthat Brooks attributes to Burke – a kind of cautious moving-forward, paying due respect both to the need for adaptation and to the limits of pure reason in figuring out the consequences of social change – are really those of Oakeshott. Burke was an advocate of mystification.

Yes, I know Douthat Brooks had to go to Harvard the University of Chicago rather than to someplace first-rate such as UCLA. But really, there’s no excuse.

I also know superbly, brilliantly funny — hilarious, even:

So I took Tuesday’s David Brooks column and ran it through my PRI.

Imagine my surprise at the results:

When I was in college…

.Enlightenment
..Descartes
…Rousseau
….Voltaire
…..Condorcet
……Descartes
……Descartes
…….French Revolution
…….France
……Scotland
…..Britain
……David Hume
……Adam Smith
………Edmund Burke
…..Gertrude Himmelfarb
…….French Enlightenment
……….British Enlightenment
………natural desires
……..moral emotions
…..self-love
….tribalism
…….Thomas Paine
………….Edmund Burke
……….Yuval Levin
………..University of Chicago
………Paine
………Paine
…….American and French Revolutions
……universal truths
………….Burke
………British Enlightenment
…….age-old institutions
…………..Burke
…….horrified
…………..Burke
…………..Burke
……..Paine
…….Americans
…….Americans
…..French
….British Enlightenment
..Jefferson
…Hamilton

My, my, my.

Where in the world do you suppose this turgid, meandering assload of bourgeois undergrad namedropping could possibly be heading?

Where else:

“You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.”

No matter where in the whole, wide Universe he begins a column, somehow, since the Great Fraud of Modern Conservatism collapsed in blood and lies and bankruptcy, all of Bobo’s roads always invariably lead to Centerville: that imaginary kingdom of the morally-conjoined fraternal twins — “self-confident Democratic technocrats” and “self-described conservative radicals” — who are always somehow perfectly equally and oppositely responsible for every evil, every ill and every excess.

So I have to hand it to Brooks: Albeit indirectly, he brightened my day.

Kathy Kattenburg
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