“Turn up the Lights” exclaims Michel Onfray in his book on the enlightenment: “Les Ultras des Lumières”. He shows that the enlightenment contained many figures that were not very radical despite their rhetoric. He points out that many enlightenment figures were not atheists at all but deists who find religion useful for maintaining the people in their place. He distinguishes the pale Enlightenment figures who defend deism, distrust the people, and accomodate to the official power from the more radical figures (the “ultras”) who defend a thoroughgoing immanence (that Onfray further specifies in terms of atheism, materialism, hedonism and communism) and who defend the free exercise of reason by everyone and in all domains :
“This is why all these deists, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot … and d’Alembert are indefatigable in their critiques of materialist thought: La Mettrie comes under fire from all that clique, which further does not hesitate to attack Meslier and Helvetius, d’Holbach and Sade. For what motive? Their atheism, their materialism, their critique of the Church, their refusal of religions – so many radical condemnations that the pale Enlightenment find distasteful”. (p24, my translation)
Onfray contrasts Voltaire who denies that an atheist can be moral and Bayle who declares that this is perfectly possible. He ties this to the pale Enlightenment that makes its peace with religion as a form of social control, even if it criticises historical Christianity. Further there s the difference between those (the pale, the dull) who think that the free exercise of reason must be limited to the élite and their “salons”, and the others (the bright, the intense) who believe that the free exercise of reason is for everyone and for all of life, not just in special contexts. That being said, in a time of persecution only a fool would cry from the rooftops his unbelief. But the excuse of prudence and dissimulation cannot cover all the deviations we discover from the myth surrounding certain figures. Galileo was right to renounce, Descartes was probably right not to publish his Treatise on Light, but Voltaire was wrong to justify the death penalty for atheists.
So I think that Levi Bryant’s idea that Enlightenment is immanence is a useful rule of thumb for sorting out those tendencies that really are enlightening (as Enlightenment in this sense is a process), from those that are half-measures and compromises, shining with only the pallid light of their continued submission to transcendence. The problem comes from not enough enlightenment, not enough immanence.
Onfray’s criteria for characterising the radical Enlightenment come quite close to Levi’s: he speaks explicitly in terms of immanence and of the free and democratic use of reason (which corresponds to Levi’s epistemological immanence). He spells these two criteria out in his four subcriteria of atheism and materialism (which correspond to Levi’s refusal of a hierarchy of being, his « flat ontology »), communism (a politics of immanence), and hedonism (an ethics of immanence). So the two accounts are quite close.
One should never forget that Onfray is a nominalist and so does not think in terms of unitary essences but rather in terms of assemblages and of processes in and operations on assemblages. For example, for him there is no essence of Europe, rather « Europe » is the name for an assemblage of juxtaposed elements in continual variation and whose relations and interactions themselves are variable. So the only unity comes from a political and ideological process of unification that Onfray calls « christianisation ». This process was of course always incomplete and succeeded only in creating a majoritarian fact constantly worked over by its own marginalised minorities and whose fragile unity was always threatened from within by these same minorities. Other processes of unification have always coexisted with the process of Christianisation, for example the radical Enlightenment with its values of immanence, the free and democratic exercise of reason. In the next part of the interview I am summarizing he claims that Camus gave a possible solution to the « death of Europe » by proposing a blueprint for a a completely different political construction on totally different principles than those implemented in the construction of the European Union. So no essence is implied, nor intrinsic destiny. As to « religion » Onfray says that liberalism itself is a religion, and he does not restrict the word exclusively to those based on transcendence. An immanent religion is possible. In fact in one of his books « Contre-histoire de la philosophie 3: Les libertins baroques » he devotes a chapter to Spinoza and declares
« to put an end to all the transcendences and the hinterworlds consubstantial with religion, Spinoza proposes an immanent religion, even more a religion of immanence » (p253, my translation).
It would be conceivable, but probably not desirable, to qualify the Enlightened libertarian immanentist sensibility that Onfray finds in Camus a « religion of immanence » that could if widely adopted give new life to the European process. But this new European civilisation would imply a new cartography. For example « Europe » would include Maghreb.