Counter-Enlightenment traits are a group of beliefs and attitudes that run counter to the values that made the modern world possible. We can list five such beliefs: mysticism, idealism, totalitarianism /anti-individualism (or communalism and/or communism), anti-republicanism and the rule of whim (as opposed to the rule of law).

The modern world is characterised by the increasing ability of large groups of people to achieve consensus amongst themselves. The ability to arrive at a consensus without physical conflicts is the cardinal feature of the modern world. This ability was not achieved in a few years, but through decades and centuries of conflicts and turmoil. But its essential features are found in the works of thinkers of 17-18th century Europe belonging to the Age of Enlightenment. These values were not imagined by one thinker or a group of thinkers in one stroke. There is a long iterative process of multiple hits and misses through which these values evolved. Most commentators who comment on Enlightenment values miss this process and trace the origin of the values to a single or group of thinkers.

The Age of Enlightenment is significant as it was that singular period in the history of mankind when multiple thinkers thought along the same direction, creating the momentum that evolved into the development of the modern world.

Skepticism and the Agency of Science

Science is the greatest, largest and most successful enterprise of the global consensus-forming “technology”. The body of the “facts of science” is not the core of science. The core is the methods of the consensus-forming technology of science. Facts of science are found in bits and pieces throughout the dawn of human civilisation. What constitutes modern science is the community of knowledge and knowledge-making technology. The sociology of science is important. It is characterised by three elements – empiricism, skepticism, and consensus-making methods using the former two elements. These elements form the bedrock of the body of scientific knowledge. If you take away these elements, science vanishes, along with the “gifts” of science.

The opposite of empiricism and skepticism is mysticism and idealism. Mysticism involves stating that one cannot know by consensus, only by experience. Idealism involves stating that there are ideal, omnipotent, omnipresent entities that run the universe through mystical means (which you cannot know through reason, but by individual experience).

While every mystic of every era has talked about obscure things that can only be known through individual experience, science has, over the period of the last few centuries, clarified more obscure things than any other method has. Thus, the mystical experience of unknown deaths and plagues caused by what was known back then as “mystery agents” are no longer mystical but readily understood using equipment that complements human sensory perceptions ( e.g. bacteria, viruses, prions and genes). Similarly the uncovering of the microscopic and molecular world (including the script of the genomic world) might seem like a mystical world for a third-person unless it is known that this canvas is drawn after decades and centuries of observations using empirical data and skepticism. Many areas that mystics have claimed in the yesteryears are no longer their provinces. The instruments of science are invading and obliterating more and more areas of obscurantism.

Thus, two counter-enlightenment traits that run counter to the fundamental principles of science are mysticism and idealism.

Mysticism and Idealism

Mysticism is the claim that certain things cannot be “known” through consensual perception. In other words, it claims that “common”‘sense organs cannot perceive what it knows, and that people cannot arrive at a common opinion on these topics. People do not know that this is a dangerous attitude, and runs counter to the very basis of the highly successful social model of modernity.

Idealism is an uncharacterised mystical opinion that there is something underlying all things. The something is presumed to be there dogmatically without any empirical proof. It’s an “a priori” statement. This presumption also runs counter to the epistemological principle of science. There can be many unknown things, but that is not evidence of there being an underlying thing that controls everything. It is true that many early Enlightenment thinkers believed in “deism”, which is similar to idealism. It underlies that fact that Enlightenment values are not wholly developed by the Enlightenment-era thinkers. Rather it was just germinated by them. Enlightenment values had an auto-piloted evolution after their laborious delivery in the 18th century.

While mysticism and idealism makes a cut at the very spirit of enquiry that characterise the greatest enterprise of mankind, the other three anti-enlightenment values (totalitarianism, anti-republicanism and the rule of whim), makes a cut at the most enduring social model of governance that characterises modernity – that of liberal democracy


Totalitarianism is an attempt to totally control the individuals in a society. Most totalitarian societies consider the community or the rulers a higher entity than the individuals who constitute the society.

Ideologically totalitarian regimes consider individuals dispensable compared to the “greater goal” of the community. They believe that it is okay to sacrifice the individuals for the sake of the society. Totalitarian regimes do not care for individual liberty and rights. Examples of modern totalitarian regimes include Nazi Germany, Stalinist Soviet Union, Mao’s China, North Korea, Sadam Hussein’s Iraq and religious states like Saudi Arabia. Totalitarian regimes keep a watch on individuals and monitor whether they are complying to the ideology of the state. Many nations have gone through temporary totalitarian periods – the United States under McCarthyism, India during Indira Gandhi’s “Internal Emergency” are examples.


A republic is the constitution of the state for and by the public. A contrary state is the constitution of the state for the ‘head of the state’ which many times would be considered the alter ego of “God” himself. Modern republicanism emerged from the overthrow of the monarchy in the French revolution. Most of the modern western states are republics or de facto republics. States like Britain are de facto-republics in that although the state is a monarchy, the monarchy has very little powers and is largely ornamental. Anti-republicanism is when small cartels take over the state and run the state in their own interests. We see such states in many African and South American nations.

Rule of Whim

Rule of law is a critical component of the stability in the state. In a state where individual liberty is ensured by law, the most important component of its sustenance is the respect for rule of law. If the constitution ensures individual liberty, but rule of law is not followed, it becomes as bad as a totalitarian state.

Rule of law ensures justice is provided to each and every person in, irrespective of their financial or social stature. It’s a critical element that ensures the seamless dispersal of justice in society.This symmetrical dispersal of justice in society is important to ensure internal peace and tranquility in the society.

The root cause of most secessionist activities is the perceived sense of an asymmetrical carriage of justice. This sense of injustice will depend on how you review history. As a general rule, the victims experience an exaggerated sense of victimhood, and the victors develop a general amnesia of the atrocities they have committed. Asymmetrical carriage of justice is the principal cause of most intractable conflicts. Rule of law is important to prevent judicial arbitrariness. One of the essential components that characterise western and westernised societies is the degree to which the rule of law is maintained.

It can be seen that the development of nations is directly related to the implementation of the Enlightenment values. Full expressions of Enlightenment values have an accelerated effect on the progress of nations. Very few nations have achieved this so far. But partial implementations have also had a salutary effect. On the other hand, counter-enlightenment values have had the opposite effect.

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