Christmas (we have it on the best authorities) is a time to be jolly. Sure, like being told by your parents that “you shall not only go to your cousins, but enjoy it”, the whole thing can become paradoxically onerous, as Slavoj Žižek used to say. (Why are you telling us we should be happy when we really should, by ourselves, actually be happy …)
On either side of the Atlantic, groups of public intellectuals have issued a call to arms. The besieged citadel in need of defending, they say, is the one that safeguards science, facts and evidence-based policy. These white knights of progress – such as the psychologist Steven Pinker and the neuroscientist Sam Harris – condemn the apparent resurgence of passion, emotion and superstition in politics. The bedrock of modernity, they tell us, is the human capacity to curb disruptive forces with cool-headed reason. What we need is a reboot of the Enlightenment, now.
When Michel de Montaigne retired to his family estate in 1572, aged 38, he tells us that he wanted to write his famous Essays as a distraction for his idle mind. He neither wanted nor expected people beyond his circle of friends to be too interested.