City Journal Spring 2014

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Joel Mokyr
Enlightened and Enriched « Back to Story

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cheap and get big save suprisely
Joaquina Pires-O'Brien January 13, 2011 at 10:07 AM
I was thrilled with the positive messages containd in this article. I ask permission to the editor to reprint it in Portuguese, in our magazine:
I already contacted the author and he agreed provided that it is okay with City Journal.
Joaquina Pires-O'Brien, editor of
john dale dunn md jd August 30, 2010 at 8:43 PM
your essay was measured and insightful, properly balanced, and then bang, at the end you preach about hydrocarbons and the fragile earth--

You are a professor of history and you have no concept of how silly saying fragile earth is except that you have been a professor at a big city u too long.

hydrocarbons? they are the stuff that we use to make energy and they are quite good.

there is a kuznet's curve of environmental contamination that is directly related to what you speak of so well in most of your essay--modern industrial activity went through a period of pollution and now by choice society and others have refined the advances to improve human conditions.

however, even at it polluting worst modern industrial society was providing a better and longer life.

you should read some julian simon and a little less malthus, ehrlich or club of rome. your perspective on history and economics is very good--your concern about fragile earth is the product of too much political correctness.

small particles, air pollution, warming, are projects to energize agency funding and authority. keep your skeptical eye on the ball, Dr. Mokyr, you understand history and the real play of events very well, a closer look at fragile earth and the conditions of the environment will restore your optimism.

a lot of academics making a living off of enviro scares. u no it, don't you, i no u do.

thanks for your very nice essay, i am putting in the back of my Barzun book on 500 hundred years.

hope you have read paul johnson, who makes sense like you do. i recently read his bio of churchill and his book on intellectuals--you write like he does--straight forward, insightful and no pretense. nice.

I do some work for the Heartland Inst of Chicago, and, given your stature and insight, I hope you will do some writing for the Heartland some day like you have for Manhattan.
I think the idea of modern prosperity as a result of Enlightenment ideas rather than solely economic factors is a very interesting concept. Without the Baconian program and so many knowledge-seeking individuals, our society would undoubtably not have progressed nearly as far intellectually or technologically. It seems safe to claim that the Enlightenment can take a good deal of credit for the quality of our lives today in terms of our materialistic interests. However, I think that one affect of the Enlightenment was that it did clash with many traditional values that had been upheld for so long and caused an uneasy feeling among many who felt that human beings were beginning to rely too heavily upon the worldly interests rather than upon God and family. This worldly reliance may have led many to begin to lean towards more Romantic tendencies and beliefs.
That is a marvelous essay. Intellectual curiousity of the scientist, combined with a motivation to assist his fellow man, has transformed human life. Creature comforts abound as a result of studying and manipulating the natural world, apart from man himself. Innovations will continue, particularly in applied digital technology. The science of the creature himself is very recent, dating to biological breakthroughs of the mid twentieth century. It is tempting to speculate how a knowledge of today's emerging genetic knowledge might have influenced civic motives of that handfull of great Enlightenment thinkers.
"Today, we enjoy material comforts, access to information and entertainment, better health, seeing practically all our children reach adulthood . . ."

Who is the "we" you are speaking for? This is garbage intellectualism at its finest promoting a free market ideology. Please go back to your history books and draw out the nuances of this "progress" of which you speak. Also, read more in depth into this recent financial crisis and analyze your free market ideas there. Which think thanks are paying you to write this garbage? So much for scholarship . . . How did you end up as a professor at Northwestern?
It was afacinating article...
Thank you
I think the author has conflated two things in his eulogy of free trade after 1815.

When we talk about free trade we mean trade was no longer one of the bases to national revenue. Formerly trade paid either Customs or Excise duties. These heads of revenue were greatly reduced once the British ministry came under the influence of a merchant, Robert Peel.

The reductions were made possible because a very productive war tax on incomes had been introduced by Pitt at the demand of national creditors to improve the security on which he raised loans to fight the French.

This was always said to be a war tax until the banks became aware of the profit implications of free trade (their financing of it) and wished to have government make the Income Tax permanent so their returns would be increased.

It is one of the great disasters of the west that historians seldom take any interest in economic matters. Had they done so it would have been apparent long ago that we British did not escape serfdom in the 19th century but merely exchanged one master for another - our land-owning barons for bankers.

Btw, the French Revolution was hardly a bloodbath. Something like 30,000 people submitted to the Terror and the Guillotine.

If you are referring to the million plus murders in La Vendee, they were entirely attributable to British financing of silly schemes of the Bourbons and the Catholic Bishops. We forced civil war on France as one of the many means we employed to defeat democracy and reinstate monarchy.

Otherwise, this article has some interesting points to make. Thank you.
Too long... but it's a very good essay. It can be shorten up.
An elegantly written article. It reminded me of why I appreciate having gone to college and graduate school in a time when 'Liberal Arts' also meant 'Arts and Sciences' and one became educated, as it were, by bumping up against fields of study outside of your 'comfort zone' and being challenged to both integrate them into your world view, but also, in the best of situations, participate in a continuing synthesis.
This account of the Enlightenment is needlessly Anglocentric. Much of the intellectual work was already done between 1650 and 1750 in Holland and brought to Britain with the Dutch invasion which brought about the Glorious Revolution. Please read Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment and Enlightenment Contested.
Progress in science and technology were all well and good. However, philosophy took a serious hit with Rousseau's (for example) deification of nature. It was an understandable and yet misguided reaction against the stultifying conventions of the ancien regime.

Darwin got it right in the 19th century. If today's conservatives were more enlightened they would see that he provided religion with a scientific reason for being.
Ah, the command-and-control "progressives" have shown up to whine about the evils of capitalism and Western Civilization. I won't waste my breath arguing with proponents of an ideology that long ago decided to insulate itself from criticism by claiming that anyone who didn't recognize it's superiority was a brainwashed fool suffering under the weight of a "false consciousness". Instead, I'll simply let the facts speak for themselves by taking a look at some of the rankings from the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom.

Here's a few from the EVILY oppressive capitalist pig camp:

1. Hong Kong

3. Australia

4. New Zealand

5. Ireland

6. Switzerland

7. Canada

8. United States

9. Denmark

11. UK

And here are a few from the power-to-the-people redistributive beacons of light:

140. China

154. Angola

174. Venezuela

177. Cuba

178. Zimbabwe

179. North Korea

As the saying goes, "'Nuff said".
By the 'we' benefiting from 'prosperity', you of course mean the middle class, white, 'we'. Which was rather the point.
"So the Enlightenment, sadly, did not end barbarism and violence. But it did end poverty in much of the world that embraced it." (sic)

In my opinion, the only thing Enlightenment has achieved after a mere of 350 years - in case of Italy the Enlightenment even started in the 14th century - is a system which, enslaved to economic growth in favor of the happy few, is falsely presented by the latter as democratic, politically correct, prosperous and based on the moral values of freedom, brotherhood and equality. On the contrary a series of enlightened despots created a hideous and apathetic environment characterized by the - utopian - adagio of ratio, efficiency and perfection.
Therefor "a fairly small community of intellectuals" assented poverty instead of sharing an equivalent of the (financial) benefits. Justifiable - hate rather than envy is there for much of the rest of humanity. Those intellectuals have indeed proven one thing: "for all organisms only virusses and humans destruct their environment". Enlightened they call(ed) it desirability of progress !
An interesting article; but almost as interesting are the comments, many of wwhich illustrate people's ability to ignore any material wwhich fails to support their own 'true beliefs'.
Yes, and the rise of industrialism spawned liberalism, the 19th century attempt to ameliorate the grotesque inhumanity of working conditions in the new factories. Think John Stuart Mill.

So this article is missing half the battle. Deliberately, of course.
Very pleasing article: historically correct, optimistic and realistic. I am even willing to overlook the ritual nod to the Warmists,even if the author seems to think that the process of burning coal produces "hydrocarbons". A less obvious point: it is universally assumed that "technology follows science" and while this is very much the case, science also gains from technology - think of the Voltaic pile, lens-grinding, spectrometers, lasers and above all computers.
This was a great article, until the last paragraph. 'Growing concern with the environment', and 'burned coal without concern, unaware of the impact of hydrocarbons' - these are poor lessons and I would pretty much guarantee Ben Franklin would not agree. Our environment is far more resiliant than people like to think, and burning coal was more of a problem for the major cities and the quality of life there than any impact it ever had on our environment. As a matter of fact, as I recall, during the age of coal, the earth was rather cold and people were often freezing. I'm glad they burned so much coal, or perhaps the nations of the west would have been much smaller and less advanced than they are. I really wish such nods to the religions of evironmentalism and climatism were not such standard ending fare in otherwise good articles. Perhaps someday soon professors will cease bowing to the current church that declares skeptical scientists to be heretics of 'science'.
WW1 and WW2 were not the product of enlightenment ideas. Voltaire and John Locke were individualist. It was the collectivist backlash that could justify the neccesary "sacrifice" of individualism for the collective which was needed in order to create the 20th century slavery known as conscription.

The nationalist socialist, the Bolsheviks and the US's "progressive" movement were all collectivist ideas brought to action. In the US, the massive growth in government that went along with conscription, the income tax, prohibition, the federal reserve bank ...both world wars were all made with the idea that pwoer needed to be centralized and taken away from the individual. You can't place the massive death at the foot of Adam Smith, John Lock and Voltaire...these people were cynics of increased government is easy to see why.
"The age of Enlightenment burned coal without concern, unaware of the impact of hydrocarbons on the atmosphere."

And you think we ARE aware of the impact of hydrocarbons on the atmosphere? Nice plug for AGW -- because, after all, that's the way to get funding. But the claim is utter hubris.
So many worryworts amongs these commenters. What a lovely article - underpinned by a belief in human ingenuity and an understanding that, despite the horrific uses some people may make of this knowledge, the multitude of contributions to our material strength will outlast these horrors in the end. Despite history's backwashes, the tide moves on.
The only objection I would make to your argument is that some of what you identify as Enlightenment was in fact post-Enlightenment. I would include in that the thought of Rousseau and Marx, and the French Revolution (and the revolutions it inspired). Of course, after the French Revolution, France returned to Enlightenment ideals, as you recognize, but it was a movement back to the Enlightenment.
The American Revolution "codified" slavery? In an otherwise thoughtful and enlightened article, this bit of falsehood detracts. Slavery had been codified with the colonies. There is some argument the Revolution was for slavery.
Ah, the Enlightenment! It accomplished in a very short time what religion has NOT yet accomplished in milenia. Improvement of the human condition.
Firstly, the notion of THE Enlightenment is misleading. There were distinct "Enlightenments" occuring at the same time, which can be generalized as the British Enlightenment and the French Enlightenment. And it is through these prisms that the American Revolution should be viewed in contrast to the French Revolution.

Again, very generally, the British Enlightenment was centered around the notion that INDIVIDUAL effort and virtue ultimately leads to the betterment of all humanity, whereas the French Enlightenment advocated COLLECTIVE action as the path to the "regeneration" of mankind. And while both played SOME part in the two revolutions, it is clear that the American Revolution - and the subsequent 200 years of American/Anglosphere history - are rooted in the ideas of the British Enlightenment: namely, individual rights, secure property rights, rule of law, etc. By contrast, the French Revolution was anchored in French Enlightenment thinking, with notions of liberation from traditional (i.e. religious) restraints, "social economy", a romanticized - yet, disdainful - view of "le peuple", and "egalite".

Most people make the mistake of thinking that since the British and the US have been the dominant Western nations of the past 300 years, that Western Civilization AS A WHOLE has emulated British Enlightenment values; however, this is isn't the case. Most of Western Civilization (i.e., Continental Europe) has ALWAYS embraced French Enlightenment values over those of the British Enlightenment; hence, the reason we are still plagued by the collectivist ideologies (Marxism, socialism, progressivism, etc.) that can be directly traced to the French Enlightenment.
While it is clear that, in part, the Enlightenment consisted of an implicit rejection
of the authority of the church, it was largely engendered by a Christian world view; the belief that a rational, uncapricious God created a stable universe which could be known and explored was the context of this era. The printing press (also a direct consequence of the same world view, viz Gutenberg's Bible) lead to the interchange and exponential growth of knowledge and ideas (matched only by our own era), without which the Enlightenment would never have penetrated all strata of society as it eventually did.

Gee...Karl Marx doesn't show up as one of the stalwarts moving things forward...

Maybe someone should clue in Mr. Obama.
A very interesting article which I will put into my archive of interesting articles and also send to my friends. But why does the author write 'to critique' rather than 'to criticize'? It sounds awful to me...
Here is a curriculum outline for an early high school course that might perhaps underpin a refreshing of the intellectual life of western societies, so battered at the moment.
Pray tell, what is the impact of hydrocarbons on the earth's atmosphere?

And what makes our planet so delicate? It has been bombarded by natural happenings such as volcanos, earthquakes,floods, forest fires and hurricanes. It has been blasted by millions of tons of traditional and nuclear bombs. It's been plowed, burned, dug, crashed into and drilled. Our planet is not fragile, delicate or diaphanous. It's tough and flexible and will survive long after man is gone!

Ah! But that same Enlightenment gave us Atomic bombs--which almost certainly WILL be used--and a medicine which will almost surely so over-populate the planet that either Global Warming or some ghastly Pandemic (bacteria mutate so fast that we are told no more kinds of anti-biotics are available), will do its work.