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Prince Charles and The Enlightenment

May 15, 2014


Sometimes I’m asked how I feel about the term “Enlightenment”.  And then I remember.  Prince Charles is “against it”.


I was accused once of being the enemy of the Enlightenment… I felt rather proud. I thought hang on a moment, the Enlightenment started over 200 years ago.

‘It might be time to think again and review it and question whether it is really effective in today’s conditions, faced as we are with huge challenges all over the world.

‘We cannot go on like this, just imagining that the principles of Enlightenment laid down in the 18th century still apply. I do not think that they do but if you challenge people who hold the Enlightenment as the ultimate answer to everything you really upset them.


The truth is, of course, that there is a not a single person on earth in possession of  slightest historical sense of what the “Enlightenment” represented  – who would have claim that “it” is “the ultimate answer to everything”.  Not one.  Charles has constructed an Enlightenment ideologue out of straw and is kicking it. 

The Enlightenment was not a “thing” that “started”.  “It” had no manifesto and no mailing list.  As a term, it is used to describe people who cordially hated one another and who could not have remained in the same room with one another.  Rousseau and Voltaire had virtually nothing in common with one another until they were excavated by French revolutionaries and placed in a pantheon of “worthies”.  Some “Enlightenment” thinkers wanted to destabilise monarchies, and others wanted to flatter them.  Some would flatter and destabilise monarchies at different points in their lives or at different times of day.

Eighteenth-centuryists are divided as to the value of the term.  Some are worried about the naively progressivist aspects of “Enlightenment” and some are politically concerned that it has served Eurocentric ethnocentric interests and even various imperialistic visions of a “New World Order”.  Some talk of various hyphenated enlightenments that belong to particular nations or society at particular times.  No Eighteenth-centuryist would denounce “The Enlightenment” as a whole any more than they would champion “The Enlightenment” as a whole because there is no “whole” to speak of. 

There are, however, certain exciting intellectual currents which converge on the eighteenth century which share certain characteristics.  To be an “Enlightenment” thinker means reaching for first principles.  It means being sceptical of traditional authorities and giving each generation the freedom to think for itself.  To be an “Enlightenment” thinker means denying the self-validating authority of tradition.  Things are not true just because they’ve been assumed for many generations.  “Custom” is often the encrustation of error around a false initial premise. 

To be an “Enlightenment” thinker (such as Rousseau or Wollstonecraft) is to declare that education has massive influence for good or ill.  If societies can reform their education systems, then the human capacity to live happier, more exciting, more generous and productive lives is almost infinite.  Allied to this belief is a denial of the totalising and deterministic impact of Original Sin.  To be “Enlightenment” is (generally speaking) to accept a Lockean rejection of innate ideas with with this Lockean premise, the American and French revolutions are conceived.

Any hereditary monarch, or heir to a hereditary monarchy, has of course a vested interest in over-simplifying and denouncing the legacy of “The Enlightenment”.  No monarch wants to encourage free inquiry into the origins and legitimacy of authority.  Monarchy is predicated on the idea that custom and tradition validate themselves and have a (Burkeian) claim on our allegiance that reason dare not interrogate.

The idea of “Enlightenment Principles” being dogmatically applied is of course oxymoronic.  Since the Enlightenment is defined at its core by the freedom to ask questions and to challenge authority then Charles’ anti-Enlightenment views are, paradoxically, unthinkable without the intellectual freedoms won during the Enlightenment period.  Charles does not know or does not want to know about the intellectual achievements he so ignorantly dismisses.


One of the saddest things about Prince Charles’ life is that nobody looks him straight in the eye and tells him how wrong he is.  He gets to read critical editorials from time to time, but when he gives a speech the floor is never opened up for questions and applause is guaranteed from the moment he steps to the podium.  Any undergraduate student making a Prince Charles speech about The Enlightenment would be subject to detailed feedback and factual correction and would then be presented with a suitable reading list.  This is how we (most of us) learn.  To be told how wrong you are is a very great privilege, and one from which royals are sadly excluded.    

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  1. jkh permalink

    Maybe Charles was making a subtle Foucauldian critique of the myriad power relations of modernity that stem from the Enlightenment. Perhaps in his spare time, Charles shaves his head, puts on wire-rimmed glasses, visits S&M bars, and pontificates on governmentality, and how he’d like to wield it one day.

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