Ian Buruma: Racism & Enlightenment

Great thinkers of the past are today dismissed for bigotry. But their lesson was to cherish wisdom, not to elevate “whiteness.”

The Enlightenment can mean many things: a collection of disparate mostly 18th-century thinkers who challenged religious dogma by replacing it with reasoned philosophy; or a more or less coherent set of values loosely based on secularism and intellectual liberty. Critics of everything associated with the Enlightenment have usually come from the right, ranging from the French reactionary thinker Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) to, let us say, William Barr. They fear that the loss of religious authority will create moral turpitude and social disorder.

In our own time, the legacies of the Enlightenment are being bashed from the left as well. Critics seek to associate both the Enlightenment and education in Greek and Roman classics with racism. Such claims were repeated in a recent New York Times article about Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Princeton historian of Ancient Rome and a black critic of classics education. He believes that classics helped to create white racism. Or as the author of the article, Rachel Poser, put it: “Enlightenment thinkers created a hierarchy with Greece and Rome coded as white, on top, and everything else below.” To include other “marginalized” voices, and combat white supremacy, so the argument goes, we need to rethink these intellectual traditions, and if necessary, abolish them.

Rethinking is never a bad thing. And it is certainly true that a fetish has often been made of the classical world, as well as of the Enlightenment, to promote all kinds of projects, including European imperialism, Western cultural supremacy, and indeed the founding of the United States (just look at the neoclassical architecture in Washington, D.C.). These things were often done in the name of liberalism, a creed that emerged from the Enlightenment.

The question is whether racializing the problem is truly enlightening. Critics who see liberalism as a fig leaf for colonialism and racism like to point out that Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire held views on Africans that are now rightly considered to be reprehensible. It is quite likely that Voltaire’s belief in the intellectual inferiority of Africans would have been shared by most of his peers in 18th-century Europe. But to project race, or “whiteness,” onto the age of Voltaire is to misunderstand a vital part of the Enlightenment, namely its intellectual curiosity. Interest in other, especially non-Western cultures, was as important, as were the challenges to the sacred truths disseminated by priests. The first European translation of the Sanskrit Bhagavad Gita came out in 1785. This kind of work was not done in a spirit of exoticism, but of serious scholarship.

Voltaire may have disparaged Africans, but he was an avid reader of the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi. So were other Enlightenment writers, such as Diderot. Voltaire also over-praised China, which he regarded as a superior civilization governed by secular philosophers—superior, that is, to the France of his time, which was still ruled by the Church and a tyrannical king supposedly chosen by God. Voltaire was one in a long line of European intellectuals, going all the way up to the Parisian Maoists of the 1960s, who applauded faraway cultures to criticize their own.


The problem with the Enlightenment, or at least with the way its tradition has been used, was not so much “whiteness” as its claim to universality. This was part of the cosmopolitan ideal: Human reason was not confined to a particular culture or race. The two Western democracies established from revolutions based on liberty and reason were France and the United States. People of both countries like to claim the universality of their values. The founders of both countries were very much children of the Enlightenment. And leaders of both countries, from Napoleon to George W. Bush, believed that their nations had a mission to spread universal liberty to less-enlightened peoples.

This has led to many reckless wars, whose consequences are felt to this day. But the universal claim did not have only negative results. Whereas it was difficult for British or Dutch empire-builders to believe that an Asian, or an African, could be as fully versed in European cultures as they were in their own, the French had no problem accepting Léopold Senghor, a Senegalese writer, as an esteemed member of the Académie Française. French civilization was, after all, held to be universal. In theory, anyone—black, brown or white—could join.

This could create difficulties for Africans who wrote in French. They were sometimes regarded by their own people as cultural traitors who sold out to the colonial power. And France’s record of racial tolerance is hardly without blemish. But in theory, the French idea of civilization is inclusive. There was no German civilization, or indeed an English one. They have cultures. The United States, on the other hand, is more like France. The idea that Americans will accept an immigrant as a fellow American is a cliché, and not always true. But it is truer of the United States than of any European nation.

The bad consequence of claims to universality are equally clear. People do not like more powerful nations imposing their beliefs or values on them, especially if this is done by force. Napoleon had no right to subjugate other nations by extolling the superior virtues of liberty, fraternity and equality. American efforts to invade countries in the name of democracy have been equally misguided. The notion of universality imposed by force is never a good idea.


In 19th-century Germany, the Napoleonic conquests led to a cultural defensiveness associated with Romanticism. Instead of universal values, and French rationalism, people chose to value the German “spirit”—the beauty of the native soil, the soul of the German language, and so on. It was quite deliberately a provincial reaction to a global conceit. This produced a lot of lovely poetry, and some sublime paintings of nature. It also produced nativism of a more dangerous kind: the exclusion of all those not deemed to spring from common blood and soil. The idea of civilization has no place in this, and culture comes to mean race.

I believe that much of what we now call “identity politics” is rooted in a similar conflict, particularly in the United States. More and more people feel that a set of values—a civilization, if you like—is being imposed on them, a civilization loosely based on the Enlightenment, on liberalism, on the classics, and, above all, on “whiteness.” The claim that these values are universal is as obnoxious to many Americans who feel excluded from them as they were to Germans under Napoleonic rule. The old ideal of the “melting pot” is increasingly seen as forced assimilation into one white pot. Blacks, Asian-Americans, Latinos and others would like to assert their own cultures, their own values, their own representations, their own “souls.”

The main problem is the confusion of race, ethnicity and culture. In what way does a concept like “Asian-Americans” make sense? In racial terms, a person of Indian background has nothing in common with someone from a Korean or Thai family. But there is no common culture either. The only communality is sociological—the experience of being excluded, of being “othered,” or not being seen or heard in the white world at all.

The question then is how to make non-white people in a Western nation feel culturally included? If the classical tradition, or the legacies of the Enlightenment, are defined as “white,” what is the cultural tradition of Asian-Americans, or Latinos, for that matter: Spanish, Chinese, Aztec, Indonesian? Any of these might apply to some Asian-Americans or Latinos, but never to all of them. And a shared set of grievances does not add up to a culture. What we are in danger of losing in the reaction to what is regarded as “white culture” is the best of the Enlightenment tradition: its profound interest, not in different ethnic groups or races, but in high cultures that can be shared.


There is a huge amount of writing in the liberal media about the political views and artistic expressions of minorities living in the West, but much less about the cultures from which they come. Education in foreign languages and literature is waning at universities. The arts pages of mainstream newspapers, such as still exist, devote far more space to efforts to diversify American cultural institutions than they do to non-Western, or even non-American cultures. There are many reasons for this, some perhaps justified. But the concentration on ethnic background and skin color at the expense of culture has a lot to do with it. 

The best argument for continuing to read Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare or Jane Austen is not to teach people to think like whites. Quite the contrary, the whiteness of these writers is their least interesting facet. We should read them because they express a common humanity. The same is true of Du Fu, the 8th-century Chinese poet, or the best of Persian and Arab poetry, or The Tale of Genji, or indeed Léopold Senghor or James Baldwin. These are important not because they represent voices from different “communities,” but because all people can recognize something of themselves in them.

To make a fetish of identity, whether of race, class, or nation, is always an impoverishment, a provincial narrowing of perspective. Great civilizations come from mixing, not from exclusive representation. Perhaps this is the best lesson to learn from the Enlightenment thinkers. They may have had all kinds of “blindspots” that we now recognize in our incomparable wisdom, but they were never content to stick to what they happened to be born into. They tried to find their answers everywhere, and the world is still the richer for it.

Ian Buruma, former editor of The New York Review of Books, is a professor at Bard College. His latest book is The Churchill Complex.


See also: The #DisruptTexts movement is pushing teachers to ditch the classics.