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What  Enlightenment, Exactly?

How Lucky we are to be Free of Obscurantism!

The term “Enlightenment” is an ideological term with no utility in studying the structures of reality. But it has great utility in shutting off debate and preventing inquiry into questions about “progress” or the roles and limitations of the natural sciences. It purports to describe that era when western civilization freed itself from the “dark ages.”

Dr. Richard Bishirjian, President of Yorktown University, has pointed out that the inversion of “enlightenment,” the term “dark ages” first appears in Petrarch. Indeed. And Voegelin made the same reference in The Ecumenic Age where he writes:

“The potentialities of the new type of expectations became apparent in the fourteenth century, when Petrarca (1304-1374) symbolized the age that began with Christ as the tenebrae, as the dark age, that now would be followed by a renewal of the lux of pagan antiquity. The monk as the figure promising a new age was succeeded by the humanist intellectual” (O & H IV, CW 17, 335-36).

I started to think about “the dark ages” and looked up its definition in the Oxford English Dictionary (unabridged):

dark ages, a term sometimes applied to the period of the Middle Ages to mark the intellectual darkness characteristic of the time.

The Random House 2nd Unabridged gives three definitions:

1. the period in European history from about AD 476 [when the Goths pushed out the last western Roman emperor from Rome] to about 1000,

2. the whole of the middle ages from about AD 476 to the Renaissance,

3. a period or stage marked by repressiveness, a lack of enlightenment or advanced knowledge, etc (1720-1730).

The third definition especially, as well as the OED definition, appear to be enlightenment evocations designed to make people comfortable with these three proscriptions:

1. There is no need to study the dark ages; nothing important happened; the seeker after wisdom and knowledge may safely pass from Graeco-Roman civilization to the Renaissance in Italy without wasting time on this dead period (The periodization of history by Gnostics to protect a current dispensation is shown often enough by Voegelin).

2. Anyone who invests himself in the dark ages is not to be taken seriously; such a person is an eccentric and responsible people will distance themselves from him; scarce faculty resources should not be allocated.

3. If the present dispensation, particularly our wondrous gift of modern science, is not protected from attacks by rightists, authoritarian religious types, etc., civilization could easily slip back down into a new dark age. Be warned. Be vigilant, lest “The jaws of darkness do devour it up” (Midsummer Night’s Dream).

The emotive power of the threat of a new dark age is suggested to me by Lord Byron’s lines:

The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

The Moon, their Mistress, had expired before;

The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,

And the clouds perish’d; darkness had no need

Of aid from them—she was the Universe.

(Concluding lines from “Darkness”)

Of course Voegelin makes frequent references to taboos against inquiry, including such devices as “the fallacy of the authoritative present,” and he is always making remarks such as when he noted that the political scientists looked for Western-style constitutionalism in the middle ages and couldn’t find any and therefore concluded that there was no political science there to be studied! His essay on the “Oxford Political Philosophers” is a delight in this respect (CW Vol 11).

Related to this:

A number of years ago I came up with a parallel discovery when someone quite innocently warned me against falling into “obscurantism” when undertaking a paper. The term “obscurantism” troubled me, so I looked it up and came up with a range of expressions, which, mutatis mutandis, are close to “dark ages.” This is what I found:

According to the OED, the following is given (in part) for “Obscurantism”:

Opposition to inquiry or enlightenment.

Usages: 1834 THOMPSON: When the clergy complain…of the little influence they possess…the hereditary obscurantism of their caste is… at once the reason and the defence.

1860 MARSH: Continental liberty is threatened …now by Muscovite barbarism, and now by pontifical obscurantism.

1883 AMERICAN VII: A victory of obscurantism and ignorance over enlightenment and progress.

And its Definition of “Obscurantist”:

One who opposes the progress of intellectual enlightenment.

Usage: 1884. G. SMITH 19TH CENT: A priesthood as absolute and as obscurantist as the druids.

It is a French word originally so I looked it up in its French form too:

Hachet gives the following:

obscurantisme n. m. Hostilité systématique au progrès de la civilisation, des “lumières.”

“Lumières” is given as:

Les lumières: la connaissance rationnelle (par oppos. À l’obscurantisme). || Le siècle des Lumières: le XVIIIe s., entre 1715 et 1789, marqué en France par l’Encyclopédie*, et qui se caractérise par le rejet de l’autorité et du fanatisme, au nom du progrès et de la raison.

A search on the Web of the French form, “obscurantisme,” produced many definitions such as:


Hostilité systématique au progrès de la civilisation. Opposition systématique et refus d’étudier de nouvelles evidences susceptibles de remettre en cause les théories dominantes.

I don’t translate the French because the English cognates are clear.

This whole area is dealt with at length and repeatedly in the History of Political Ideas, particularly the last three volumes, so it would be a mistake to single out any one volume and say you will find what you want in this one. One can perhaps say that the original purpose of the History of Political Ideas was to restore the losses brought about by the “lumières” and their successors, but Voegelin gave it up as a project—in part because he felt that competent scholarship was now resurgent so his work would be redundant and eventually fragile.

All of this is hardly merely a matter of mere historical curiosity. Not so long ago the Wall Street Journal devoted a long piece of reportage, analytically feeble but anecdotally rich, on how “intelligent design” is trying to make inroads into the university campus, funded by the dark power of the Templeton Fund, and bravely resisted by administrators and faculty committees everywhere (Not that I endorse current formulations of “intelligent design”).

So we must always silently ask:

Quid tenebras timetis?

(What is the darkness that you fear? – Ovid)

Fritz Wagner

Frederick (“Fritz”) J. Wagner graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1962 with a B.A. in English Literature where in the Fall of 1960 he took the political science course by Eric Voegelin. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1968 and worked for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and then entered private practice. He founded the evForum listserve in 1999 and started publishing and editing VoegelinView in 2009-13. His personal website at

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