From the New York Times:
Confronting Philosophy’s Anti-Semitism
Should we continue to teach thinkers like Kant, Voltaire and Hume without mention of the harmful prejudices they helped legitimize?
By Laurie Shrage
Ms. Shrage is a professor of philosophy.
March 18, 2019
… For instance, several of the major Enlightenment philosophers — including Hume, Voltaire and Kant — developed elaborate justifications for anti-Semitic views. One common thread running through the work of these philosophers is an attempt to diminish the influence of Judaism or the Jewish people on European history.
Actually, the Enlightenment’s negative view of Jewish influence on Christianity was related to the Enlightenment’s negative view of Christianity. Hume was skeptical of Christianity and Voltaire was an activist against the power of the Catholic Church: “écrasez l’infâme.”
Interestingly, Medieval Christian philosophy was explicitly multicultural, augmenting purely Christian thinking with respectful references to Greek pagan, ancient Hebrew, medieval Arab, and rabbinical Jewish sources, as well. Catholic philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas had studied in depth both the Hebrew Testament, plus the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides (“the Rabbi” in Aquinas’s commentaries), as well as Arab philosophers who had transmitted and commented upon Aristotle.
So, why were 13th Century Western European thinkers like Aquinas more multicultural than most Enlightenment Western thinkers? A big reason is because in the 1200s, Western Europe’s tradition of thought was still thin and underdeveloped: e.g., Aristotle had largely been lost to Catholic Europe for hundreds of years until recently, when manuscripts of Aristotle were obtained from Orthodox Greece and from Muslims.
In the subsequent half-millennium, however, Western Europe had blossomed intellectually.
By the Enlightenment, intellectuals did not much need to look to other culture for highbrow material, Christian Western Europe had generated a huge amount of its own, far more than other civilizations over those 500 years. Writers like Voltaire and Samuel Johnson tended to make up observer characters from outside the West who satirized the contemporary West, but they didn’t take other cultures all that seriously in part because not much was going on in the rest of the world intellectually, outside of perhaps closed-off Japan.
It’s a curious reality that most of the other major civilizations of the world, with Japan as an exception, stagnated during the rise of the West. One example of this was Jewish culture in Europe. Kant’s friend Moses Mendelssohn observed in the second half of the 18th Century that while European Jews continued to assume they were richer and better educated than gentiles, the gentiles had been making steady progress since the dawning of their Enlightenment several generations before, so it was time for a Jewish Enlightenment.
This is the kind of reality that is practically impossible for 21st Century intellectuals to wrap their heads around because they know who are the Good Guys and who are the Bad Guys and Good Guyness and Bad Guyness is hereditary and forever. Jews were traditionally richer than European Christians, and were smug and bigoted about it? But then the gentiles worked hard and smart and started to pull ahead? So the smartest Jew of his generation taught other smart Jews to stop being so prejudiced against gentiles? Uh … Crimethink.
And undermining Christianity became a major project of many advanced gentile thinkers. One angle of attack was to attack traditional Christianity’s incorporation of Jewish ideas, both in the Old Testament and in the Catholic tradition.
So, anti-Semitism was a form of anti-Christianism upon the part of Enlightenment philosophers. In particular, Voltaire employed a strategy of castigating Judaism (in its pre-Jewish Enlightenment phase) for its backwardness as a safe way of castigating powerful French Catholicism for its own backwardness by way of analogy.