Great Courses: The Birth Of The Modern Mind: The Intellectual History Of The 17th And 18th Centuries: Part II, taught by Professor Alan Charles Kors
Considering that I actually liked the first part of this course, I have to admit that I was very much disappointed by this one. I have to admit, though, that this was an instructive kind of disappointing, in that the professor’s love of the enlightenment finally wore me down to the point where I had to despise just about everything he was trying to praise. In many respects, this course is poorly designed for someone whose feelings about the so-called Enlightenment range from mixed to deeply negative, and the course ends on the wrong foot for someone who is as devoted to religion as I am. In many ways I think the professor of this class was assuming that he was speaking to a friendly audience that liked the thinking of the French Enlightenment as well as other skeptical thinkers or at least was open to them, and that isn’t the case as far as I am concerned at all. The professor also tends to conflate the literati who have always been fond of the fads of Western thinking with the sort of people whose opinions we should care about.
This part of the course consists of six hours of lectures mostly about eighteenth century Enlightenment thought. We begin with a discussion on the so-called moderns of the period between 1680 and 1715 (13), after which the professor introduces the listener to the belief system of deism (14). After that the professor looks at the conflict between deism and Christianity, where my own loyalties are pretty obvious (15), and then moves on to discuss Montesquieu and the problem of relativism (16). A discussion of Voltaire’s role in bringing English thought to France (17) and then one on Bishop Joseph Butler’s view of divine providence follows (18). The professor discusses Hume’s skeptical challenge to humanism while not endorsing Hume (19), and Hume was one of the more sympathetic figures here, before returning to Voltaire’s own late-career attack on philosophical optimism in his Candide (20). The professor then looks at the triumph of the French enlightenment philosophes (21), discusses Beccaria and enlightened reform of prisons (22), and then closes the lecture proper with Rousseau’s dissent to various streams of enlightenment thought, not that they are any better (23), before closing with a look at the materialism and naturalism that were at the outer boundary of Enlightenment thought (24).
Ultimately, your view of this part of the course will be greatly dependent on how willing you are to crawl inside the mind of a deist or atheist Enlightenment thinker. My tolerance for such things is very limited, and certainly not for six hours worth of imagination trying to pretend that I am a skeptical intellectual who believes in the natural goodness of humanity or in the possibility of intellectuals to create heaven on earth with no recognition of the problems of original sin or the blindness that we all have. This course could have been much better, but it would have required someone who was more interested in faith than infidelity, and in the illusory moral progress of humanity during this period and not someone who was intoxicated with the bloviation of intellectuals whose failed ideas have set the West up for centuries of violence in search of utopian solutions like Marxism. Someone who finds a lot to critique about the mainstream thinking of the West is going to have a lot to critique about this course, and is going to be rather bothered by the professor’s refusal to address evangelical and traditionalist thinking.