The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat is a sort of… Gulliver’s Travels of ideology and philosophy. The main character, Professor Caritat, lives in a repressive military state and is arrested because – as a Professor teaching the history of the Enlightenment – he is seen as a security risk.
Broken out of captivity by the resistance, with whom his children are associated, he escapes into the wider world with a mission – if people were to flee his nation (Militaria) – where could they go for a better life? Which world is the best of all possible worlds? Which philosophy, which ideology, produces the best society?
Caritat travels through many lands on his journey and the benefits and drawbacks of each are explored.
He travels through:
- Militaria – Which embodies safety and security.
- Utilitaria – Which conducts itself on the principle of value, utility and cost.
- Communitaria – Which considers identity and culture to be at the pinnacle of importance.
- A dream vision of a Communist utopia.
- Libertaria – An anarcho-capitalist country of total ‘freedom to’.
- Egalitaria – A mythical land he never quite reaches.
It is well written and for any ardent rationalist or admirer of The Enlightenment it is an amusing romp which highlights many of the issues one might see in the current philosophies and ideologies one sees thrown about.
Coming in for particular skewering is identity politics, which is addressed in one of the professor’s letters home:
Communitarians live lives (which they call ‘identities’) that are shaped externally and collectively, not individually and separately; and if they were to try to step outside them they would have no place to stand…
…Nor does it seem possible to pass from one identity to another, or to live several together, or to reject one without having to acquire another…
…At least the Utilitarians believe that every question has an answer that can in principle be calculated. For Communitarians every question-and-answer comes with a point of view and no point of view can be judged superior to any other, since there is no further point of view from which this can be done (though, oddly, they seem to have a point of view from which this, in turn, can be known to be true).
The conclusion is never in too much question, which is – of course – a reassertion of the values of The Enlightenment.
Whenever we pursue one ideal it is disastrous to lose sight of all the others. Doing that is fanaticism. All the countries I have so far visited are run by fanatics with tunnel vision, fanatics obsessed with a single, overriding, all-consuming conception of what gives value to life.
I’ve long suggested that we need a muscular reassertion of Enlightenment values of reason, freedom (both ‘to’ and ‘from’), tolerance and the constant attempt to improve. Identity politics and it’s twin, postmodernism, seem to me to be a huge threat to many of these values and that seems to be being shown true more and more every day.
It’s a good – but imperfect – book. The Professor spends too much time in Utilitaria and too little time in the other nations and other ideologies and philosophies are not examined, still it’s a fine book and a good read.