Counter-Enlightenment traits are a group of beliefs and attitudes that run counter to the values that made possible the modern world. We can list 5 such beliefs. These are mysticism, idealism, totalitarianism /anti-individualism (or communalism and/or communism), anti-republicanism and the rule of whims ( as against rule of law).

Modern world is characterized by increasing ability of large group of people to achieve consensus among them. Ability to arrive at consensus without physical conflicts is the cardinal feature of the modern world. This ability was not achieved in 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. Not one thinker or a group of thinkers anticipated these values in one stroke. There is a process of long iteration by which these values evolved through multiple hits and misses. Most commentators who comment on Enlightenment values misses this process and trace the origin of the values to single or a group of thinkers. The Age of Enlightenment is significant in that it is a singular period in the history of mankind when multiple thinkers thought in a same direction creating a ‘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. Rather,  the ‘core of science’ is the methods of the science-the consensus forming ‘technology’ of science. Facts of science are found in bits and pieces throughout the dawn of human civilization. What constitute, as modern science is the community of knowledge and knowledge making technology. It’s the sociology of ‘science’ that is important. The sociology of science is characterized by three elements- empiricism, skepticism, consensus-making methods using the former two elements. These are the bedrocks of what forms the body of knowledge of science. If you take way these two items, science vanishes, so do the ‘gifts’ of science.

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

While every mystics of every era have talked about obscure things that could only known through individual experience, science has over a period of last few centuries clarified more obscure things than any other methods had. Thus, the mystical experience of unknown deaths and plagues caused by then ‘mystery’ agents are no longer mystical but readily understood using equipment that complements human sensory perceptions ( eg bacteria, viruses, prions and genes).  Similarly the uncovering of microscopic and molecular world (including the script of the genomic world) would appear a ‘mystical world’ for the third-person observers unless it is know that these canvas is drawn of decades and centuries of millions of observations using empirical and skeptical observations. Many areas that mystics 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 come to common opinion on these topics. People do not know that this is a dangerous attitude, and runs counter to the very basis of highly successful social model of the modernity

Idealism is an uncharacterized ‘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 an evidence that there is 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 they just germinated them. Enlightenment values have an auto- piloted evolution after their laborious  delivery in the 18th century.

While mysticism and idealism cuts at the spirit of enquiry that characterize the greatest enterprise of mankind, the other three anti-enlightenment values, totalitarianism, anti-republicanism and the rule of whim cuts at the most enduring social model of governance that characterize modernity- that of liberal democracy

To list them one by one


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

Ideologically totalitarian regimens consider individuals as ‘dispensable’ elements compared to the ‘greater goal’ of the community. They consider that it is okay to sacrifice the individuals for the sake of the society. Totalitarian regimens do not care of 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 state like Saudi Arabia. Totalitarian regimes keep a watch on the 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.


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 defacto republics. States like Britain is de facto-republic 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 of state when the other components of the Enlightenment values are addressed. 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 became as worse as a totalitarian state.

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

The root cause of most of the secessionist activities is the perceived sense of asymmetrical carriage of justice. This sense of injustice wills depends on to how you review history. As a general rule the victims as an exaggerated sense of victimhood, and victors have a general amnesia of the tracts of 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 characterize western and westernized societies is the degree to which the rule of law is maintained.

It can be seen that the development of nations are directly related to the implementation of the Enlightenment values. Full expressions of Enlightenment values have accelerated effect on the progress of nations. Very few nations have achieved this so far. But partial implementations also have salutatory effect. Counter-enlightenment values have opposite effect.

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