enlightening todorov


There is a sect of rationalists who never cease harping on the childishness of religion, and it has to be admitted that there is sometimes something to their complaint. One of the symptoms of a childish mentality – a condition that afflicts adults, not children – is the conviction that things must be either good or bad. Evil can never come from good, it is believed, for the essential nature of good is to be simple and pure. The essence of the Christian religion, for example, is love. In that case, how could Christianity have anything to do with religious warfare or persecution? Such blemishes can only be the result of a perversion of Christian teaching, which in its original purity contained nothing hateful. No doubt much that is odious has been done in its name, but Christianity – the essence or spirit of the religion – is innocent of all evil. This is childish reasoning, if only because it fails to understand that like every religion Christianity is made up from a variety of sources, not all of them wholly benign. Pure Christianity is a figment of fundamentalism, a way of thinking that is typical of the childish mind. But fundamentalism is by no means confined to those who call themselves fundamentalists, or to religious believers. Nowadays it is defenders of the Enlightenment who provide some of the best examples of fundamentalist thinking, and Tzvetan Todorov is a case in point. In this stiff and leaden volume he seeks to rescue the Enlightenment from distortions. He does so in the faith that once it has been properly understood no one – no one who is not fanatical, deluded or ill-willing, at any rate – can fail to accept the Enlightenment’s essential message.

more from John Gray at Literary Review here.