Now I’ve taken a look at one of Mark Anthony Jones’ essays on his new “China Discourse” site, titled, “Chinese Governance and Society”.
I won’t parse and fisk the entire article line by line. I do agree with many of Mark’s observations, even if not with his general approach to the topic. But my main criticism is, “Mark, I think you – along with some whom you criticize in this article –overstate the equation of “The West” (especially the Anglosphere, including America) with the Enlightenment. How much does the Enlightenment REALLY inform the civic, popular and political cultures of the West, or of the Anglosphere, or even more specifically of America?”
Very little, I think, and the American case is one of the most complex, and not quite what it seems on the surface. And as I (even as an Australian bandit) have considerable personal experience and expertise in American culture and history, I’d like to focus on that detail and “enlighten” Mark a bit:
Mark, you wrote:
Without (certain kinds of counterbalances), Reason itself simply becomes a question of power: the object of Enlightenment knowledge simply subjects the Other to itself. When, for example, English farmers occupied Native American lands upon arrival at Plymouth, they stripped away from Nature its aura of mystery, the sacredness with which Native Americans invested in it – values which we today could benefit greatly from, as many of today’s environmental scientists now argue.
1. First you need to learn, or to acknowledge, that most of America’s first colonial settlers from England (and later from Scotland and Ulster in the 1700s) were not Puritans. The Puritans settled mostly in the far Northeast, collectively called “New England” – today those are all the states northeast of New York. (New York is not part of it.) The Puritans left a profound cultural stamp upon New England, but NOT upon the other two thirds of the original 13 English-American colonies. The first English settlement in America was in Virginia in 1607, and THEY were ANTI-Puritan! The nickname for Virginia (named after Queen Elizabeth, the so-called “Virgin” Queen) is “Old Dominion”, because Virginia was a haven for Royalists/Cavaliers during the English Civil War. The same is true of North and South Carolina (both founded in 1661), both Royalist, mostly Anglican and ANTI-Puritan settlers!
So, most of America’s “Old South” was settled by ANTI-Puritans. Thus, the American Civil War was, in many ways, a reprise of the English Civil War, fought between heirs of the Puritans (literally “the Yankees”) and the Cavaliers (the South).
But then we have the colonies in between. These were New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. They’re more complex. They weren’t settled so much by Cavaliers, but none of them were Puritan.
Let’s take them from North to South. New York was not settled by English, but by the Dutch. It used to be called “New Amsterdam” until England took it from Holland (and the local Dutch settlers preferred English rule!) Thus, the founding culture of New York was Dutch, VERY commercial, and yes Calvinist but NOT Puritan. And as New York was (and remains) America’s commercial centre, it is perhaps the most –perhaps the ONLY – truly “Enlightenment” culture in America. NOT New England –because (see below) the Puritans were ANTI-Enlightenment!
New Jersey was a marginal, sparsely settled colony/state until relatively recently. It was never Puritan. It made little impact upon American culture, except as a virtual “suburb” of other settlements of New York and Pennsylvania. So let’s look at Pennsylvania:
Pennsylvania was founded by a QUAKER named William Penn. He barely escaped being arrested on the high seas by the Governor of Puritan Massachusetts – because the Puritans called the Quakers “heretics”. The Governor of Massachusetts wanted to sell Penn and his Quaker settlers into slavery in Barbados. And there was very little “Enlightenment” about Penn; he was the son of a Cavalier, and a romantic who revered nature, and he made the one and only HONEST, peaceful deal with the local Indians, in all American history. In sum, the Quaker influence upon Pennsylvania (and adjacent Delware) made it a profoundly anti-Puritan AND considerably anti-Enlightenment colony.
And then Maryland was founded as a haven for English Catholics; it was named after the Catholic Saint Mary. Not Puritan at all, to say the least.
So, Mark, the only American colonies which were founded on anything like “Enlightenment” principles were New York and, to a lesser extent, Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania because of the great intellectual and religious tolerance of Quakers. But even then, it’s a bit anachronistic to say they were founded by believers in “the Enlightenment”, because the Enlightenment began long after those colonies were founded. But those two colonies, New York and Pennsylvania, were the most hospitable to the Enlightenment – as New England and the South were not.
2. Your mention of America’s first Puritan settlers (Massachusetts, 1620) is in context of reference to the Enlightenment. But the Puritan settlers of New England had little or nothing to do with the Enlightenment. Remember the Salem Witch Trials of 1692? The people of New England were still hanging “witches” in 1692.The English-American Puritans, AND the Cavaliers of the Old South, were (and in the South, many still are) holdovers from the Middle Ages. Most people in the world (including most Americans) do not understand that America’s English settlement began at the very end (the end cusp) of the Middle Ages. The 1600s remained very medieval in many ways – remember the trial of Galileo. Most of America’s first settlers thought in very medieval ways – as most Americans still do today (even though they don’t realize it!)
Now, yes, the LEADERS of America’s “revolution” (as Americans call it, otherwise called the War of Independence) WERE informed by the Enlightenment, and so was America’s Constitution (1787). But that was over 150 years after the English settlement of America began at the end of the Middle Ages. Consequently, America is a hybrid of superficially Enlightenment Age FORMS of politics, superficially overlaying a culture which remains, in many ways, a fossil of the Middle Ages.
And to restate my point simply: America’s first English settlers were mostly antipathetic – and later their heirs were, and remain, hostile – to the Enlightenment, even though their Constitution is informed by the Enlightenment.
And one more detail, about your assumption that the Native Americans revered nature in ways the English settlers did not: That’s VERY contestable. (And before I go on, please remember that Catherine and I are both passionate environmentalists.) The stupid eco-fantasy movie, “Dances With Wolves” (1990) is bullshit. When the Indians of the Great Plains hunted buffalo, they were as ecologically destructive as Dick Cheney, insofar as their technology enabled them to be. They would drive a whole herd of buffalo over a cliff, then take one or two buffalo for food, and leave the rest to rot. And most of the “Native American” civilizations which perished BEFORE any Whites arrived, perished because they destroyed their own environments.
Yes, many American Indians (which they prefer to be called, by the way, as “Native American” literally includes native Whites and Blacks etc!) did revere nature. Many did, and many others didn’t. The same goes for the English settlers and their descendants – because Human Nature really is universal, don’t you agree? 😉
But that’s not my main point. My main point is that the Enlightenment is only one small aspect of America, a very superficial one which informs its Constitution considerably, but informs its culture very little.
And one more thing: As Marx was a representative PAR EXCELLENCE of the Enlightenment, isn’t the Enlightenment already part and parcel of China’s political and cultural condition, both for good and ill? And hasn’t the Enlightenment already done a lot of harm to China? I vastly prefer the Romantic Age over the Enlightenment, and I think China would be better off finding its own path through its own kind of “romantic counterrevolution” against the Enlightenment, instead of trying even harder to emulate Western Enlightenment ideas which have done so much harm to the West, and to China.
Let China find its own path, not just “out of” the mess of China’s troubled past, but also TOWARD a renewal of China’s ancient heritage, China’s romance, China’s heart. Because, you know (and I forget who said this – maybe it was Kierkegaard?), “the heart has reasons which Reason cannot tell.”