John Morley, whose first term as Secretary of State for India began two months after the partition of Bengal took effect in October 1905, seems to have quickly perceived that the partition sounded a death knell for the British Raj. “Reforms may not save the Raj,” he told the viceroy, “but if they don’t, nothing else will.” The Earl of Minto, whose great-grandpa had served as Governor-General of India a century before, was naturally dismissive of such unpatriotic sentiments. “The Raj will not disappear in India as long as the British race remains what it is,” he retorted.
Minto died in March 1914, with his notions of the superiority of the British race and the permanence of the Raj intact. He never knew that the man who made the Raj disappear would return to India the following January, but Morley lived long enough to see Gandhi successfully establish the non-cooperation movement he had launched in South Africa, and perhaps when he died in 1923 he had an inkling that the Raj would soon be consigned to history. But for all his perspicacity about India, Morley made an error of judgment about Diderot, about whom he knew much more (having written a book called Diderot and the Encyclopædists).
The French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot (1713–1784) is best known for co-founding and serving as chief editor of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. The encyclopedia, published in France between 1751 and 1772, is significant not only as a work of reference but especially because it embodied Enlightenment thought. In an article of the same name, Diderot said that the aim of the Encyclopédie was to “change the way people think.” Which, for Enlightenment philosophers, primarily meant replacing religion with reason.
I won’t apologize for saying that I think enlightenment is the wrong word for the Age of Reason. Like everyone else, I have a set of beliefs and experiences and personality traits through which I respond to the world, and my cultural heritage is also part of the mix. I am from India, where enlightenment refers to spiritual revelation, not the acquisition of knowledge by reason and logic. And if you think I should then be speaking an Indian language, please take the matter up with whoever came to India for tea and left three hundred and forty-seven years later, leaving behind a language that has such disparate words as reason and enlightenment.
Wrong religious practices needed to be reformed in the eighteenth century, as they must be reformed today – in established religion and especially in our individual lives –but doing away with traditional religion and replacing it with reason cannot be called enlightenment. Dismissing as irrelevant something that had been held as true by so many for so long, something so many had been willing to become martyrs for, shows a blindness about an important dimension of human existence. In fact, the spiritual is the most important dimension of human existence, because it deals with the apprehension of truth. Knowledge is temporal – what was “the latest technology” a decade ago is now obsolete, and la dernière in the Age of Reason might well have belonged to the Dark Ages where we’re concerned – but truth is eternal. To seek to rid humanity of that which endures forever is both arrogance and folly.
The Encyclopédie, being an encyclopedia, aimed to cover all branches of knowledge, and therefore the Encyclopedists should have done away with all traditional knowledge and started from scratch in every field, not just religion. But they didn’t. They picked and chose as they pleased. Religion was chosen to be unchosen because they had a reason for wanting to reject it. But what if we did away with all traditional knowledge? If we in the 21st century decided to take Enlightenment philosophy to its logical conclusion by rejecting all that is traditional, we would have to discard their views on everything, including their views on religion! Enlightenment philosophy is ultimately self-defeating. So much for Reason.
Morley’s error about Diderot has spawned so many thoughts on art and life that it deserves a post of its own on Collected Thoughts. And I think it is fitting to conclude this post with photos of Diderot statues in the places where he was born (Langres) and died (Paris). In both he is shown in his dressing gown, made famous by the whimsical essay, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune.” In the old garment he says he was “picturesque and handsome;” its long lines announced the litterateur, the man who worked. The starchy new robe, by contrast, lent him “the air of a rich good for nothing,” and it made everything in his study look humble, so he replaced each item at considerable expense. The cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken has based his theory of upward mobility, the Diderot effect, on this essay.
The traffic cone and wineglass in the hand of the Paris statue are obviously the work of pranksters, but the ribbon on the Langres statue might be a coded message between gangsters or perhaps clandestine lovers. Or it might be an allusion to the dressing gown, which Diderot had described in his essay as “the scarlet intruder.” But the ribbon was not the first thing I noticed in this picture. What first drew my attention was the chimney in the background, which brought to mind a couple couplets from the dirge in Cymbeline: