What Does the Intellectual Dark Web Know About the Enlightenment?

Jordan Peterson demonstrates how you can make a career out of defending “Enlightenment values”, while showing no interest in the fate of Enlightenment writers, argues Aaron R. Hanlon

Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker and others associated with the “Intellectual Dark Web” have worked to associate their brand of Rationalism with “Enlightenment values”, in opposition to the histrionics of the alleged social justice left. Among the consequences of reducing the complexity of the historical Enlightenment to a general set of “values”—reason, humanism, science—is that it becomes difficult to determine which manifestations of those values are of the Enlightenment and which belong to other projects. A case in point is the overlap between reclamations of “the Enlightenment” and of “Western civilization,” and the tendency of promoters of one or the other to slip between the two, as if they’re interchangeable. While some scientific developments—like smallpox inoculation—were certainly part of the historical Enlightenment, identifying these as “Western” is inaccurate. Locating the origins of scientific projects (like inoculation) that sweep across regions and centuries through different forms of cultural influence and knowledge transfer is equally fraught.

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Pinker’s popular book shows little regard for actual Enlightenment writers

This is to suggest that crediting a general set of values distilled from complex histories of thought, literature, science, technological development, imperial conquest, and social change is a heuristic choice that involves knowledge loss. We gain a slogan for a set of values generally worth promoting, but once we’ve turned something like the Enlightenment into a slogan, it becomes more difficult to follow the breadcrumb path back from the slogan to the actual, historical Enlightenment. Cleaving the slogan from the complex history has the advantage of making the slogan portable, so we can understand new problems of today through an Enlightenment-tinged lens. But the portability of this cluster of “Enlightenment values” also makes it easier to conflate with other cleaved slogans in the same conceptual orbit, like “Western civilization.” The slogan takes on a life of its own.

The slippage between “Enlightenment values” and “Western civilization” produces a curious irony in US (and commonwealth) culture wars over the question of the purpose of English and literary studies in the twenty-first century. The irony is that proponents of “Enlightenment values” have little to say about the study of Enlightenment literature, even when they have much to say about the decline of English for “politicizing” the curriculum or neglecting the likes of Shakespeare. Whether English departments teach Shakespeare has become a crude litmus test for their commitment to teaching the “great Works” of “Western civilization,” and this in turn a measure of English’s fidelity to “Enlightenment values” versus a curriculum “politicized” by “Theory” and “identity politics.” In this way the alleged absence of Shakespeare—Shakespeare’s apparition—becomes an omen for the end of “Enlightenment values” and the descent of literary studies into “postmodernism.”

The false claim that colleges don’t teach Shakespeare—particularly that Shakespeare is being crowded out of curriculums aiming to teach more texts by women and people of color—has long been a common complaint on the political right. Recently “Enlightenment values” proponents like Peterson have joined in. Peterson, for example, laments in a recent video that “It’s now possible to complete an English degree and never encounter Shakespeare.” The question we should put to any proponent of “Enlightenment values,” particularly those worried about a dearth of Shakespeare courses in the literary studies curriculum, is: If you care about “Enlightenment values,” why aren’t you championing literature of the historical Enlightenment?

The Open Syllabus Project, which uses web crawling and scraping software to pull material from publicly posted syllabi, provides a rough guide to how frequently professors assign Shakespeare versus other texts. Of over a million syllabi from across all disciplines in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, Shakespeare texts make up the 10th (Hamlet), 45th (The Tempest), 61st (Henry V), 75th (MacBeth), 77th (Othello), and 100th (King Lear) most assigned texts, with frequency scores ranging from 88 to 98.9 (out of 100, 100 being the highest frequency). The raw counts (number of syllabi on which the text is assigned) for Shakespeare texts in the top 100 most-assigned texts range from 1016 syllabi (King Lear) to 2395 syllabi (Hamlet).

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Mary Wortley Montagu by Jonathan Richardson the Younger

Beyond Shakespeare, however, those interested in the Enlightenment and “Enlightenment values” should also be interested in the writings of Mary Wortley Montagu, an eighteenth-century poet (and renowned beauty) who, stricken with smallpox, observed smallpox inoculation practices during her travels to the Ottoman Empire. Montagu wrote about inoculation in her letters, and brought the knowledge she learned abroad back home, resulting in the first smallpox inoculations in Britain. Among the materials collected by the Open Syllabus Project, Montagu’s most popularly assigned text, the Turkish Embassy Letters (1763), appears on just 57 syllabi, with a frequency score of 7.3.

It’s likewise insufficient to discuss Enlightenment notions of freedom, individualism, and industry without taking account of the life and writing of Olaudah Equiano, who was enslaved before buying his own freedom and going on to publish his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). The Interesting Narrativeis his most frequently assigned text in the Open Syllabus Project database, with a count of 98 and a frequency score of 12.5.

Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man (1733-4) is an indispensible text for understanding Enlightenment notions of reason and nature (443 count, 55 frequency score). Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) offers a fictional overview of the some of the most pressing debates in Enlightenment empiricism and experimental science, including the nature of matter and the extent to which scientific instruments and technologies mediate and distort our contact with the natural world (6 count, 0.8 frequency score). Anna Laetitia Barbauld was a poet and essayist who promoted Enlightenment principles in children’s education. Her Hymns in Prose for Children (1781) appears in the database on just 11 syllabi, with a frequency score of 11.4.

Though not conclusive, the data from the Open Syllabus Project reflects the anecdotal experience of those of us who teach literature of the eighteenth century and Enlightenment. For all the popular resonance of “Enlightenment values” today, Restoration-era and eighteenth-century literatures are marginally represented in the curriculum, particularly in relation to Shakespeare. Yet the texts I cite above are at least as important to the historical Enlightenment, at least in terms of developing our understandings of Enlightenment reason, science, humanism, and skepticism.

My point here is not to suggest that eighteenth-century and Enlightenment literature necessarily deserves more representation than it already has, particularly as the literatures in English canon persists with all kinds of pressing exclusions. My point, rather, is that the specious conflation of “Enlightenment values” and “Western civilization” has obscured the extent to which Enlightenment literature is actually pretty marginal within the literary studies curriculum, while support for literature of “Western civilization” remains strong. At the same time this conflation exposes the extent to which the Shakespeare Cause becomes low-hanging fruit for identifying with “Western civilization”—I’m tempted to call it virtue signaling—while ignoring less-studied literature that was instrumental to the historical Enlightenment. Instead of bashing English departments for abandoning Shakespeare—a false accusation in any case—why don’t our champions of reason, humanism, and science stand up for the study of eighteenth-century and Enlightenment literature?


Aaron R. Hanlon is Assistant Professor of English at Colby College and serves on the Advisory Board for the program in Science, Technology, and Society. His book, A World of Disorderly Notions: Quixote and the Logic of Exceptionalism is out in May.

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