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Fable for High Table

Political philosopher Steven Lukes has chosen an obscure literary form to defend human rights. He tells Simon Targett why.

It is 200 years since the French aristocrat Condorcet wrote the Enlightenment's most optimistic work. His Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind spoke of some contemplative refuge, a philosopher's Elysium "where, living in thought with human beings restored to their rights and the dignity of their nature, he forgets human beings as they are, tormented and corrupted by greed, fear and envy". Some might say that the central human rights Condorcet dreamed of - individual liberty, freedom of speech - are here today and here to stay. But not Steven Lukes.

Lukes, a former Balliol don currently based at the European University Institute in Florence, thinks the Enlightenment "needs defending". Partly, this is for a simple practical reason, that human rights are not yet enjoyed by everyone. Partly also, this is for an intellectual reason, that "the idea that the Enlightenment project is somehow finished or could never succeed is now widely voiced". For him, post-modernism is "the central culprit", with its emphasis on fragmentation rather than uninterrupted domino progression. But the craze for fundamentalist cults - and the triumph of religion over reason this suggests - also disturbs him.

These are deep anxieties, especially for someone who sees his own strong left-wing convictions as the cherished legacy of the great Enlightenment writers, and they have moved him to write The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat: a novelistics fable based on his 1993 Amnesty International Lecture "Five Fables About Human Rights". It might seem odd for a modern political philosopher to choose so obscure a literary form, especially for expounding some principled arguments.

After all, why not the scholarly monograph or academic essay? In this century, George Orwell's Animal Farm is one of the few examples of political fable, although popular politico-philosophical fiction would seem to be re-emerging with the publication of Norwegian Jostein Gaarder's international bestseller, Sophie's World.

Susan Hurley, Warwick University's professor of political and ethical theory, confirms that the choice of the fable form "might raise some rather stuffy eyebrows". But much of Lukes's message is in the medium. The great Enlightenment writers adored fables, Voltaire writing Candide and Montesquieu writing Lettres Persanes. Conscious of the politics of form, Lukes further advances the cause of the Enlightenment by naming the hero of the novel after the man he calls "the finest and noblest philosopher of the Enlightenment" - the Marquis de Condorcet, whose untitled name was the aristocratically elongated Jean-Marie-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat.

Yet the central defence of the Enlightenment takes place in the narrative, which recounts the story of Nicholas Caritat, a scholar of the Enlightenment who goes in search of "the best of all possible worlds". Caritat goes on a mission, travelling from Militaria, a South American-type dictatorship. He passes through various countries: Utilitaria, a calculator-ruled Benthamite world where happiness is simply "want-satisfaction"; Communitaria, where the idea of absolute truth is unheard of; Proletaria, where rights are dispensed with because there is no conflict of interests between individuals; and Libertaria, where freedom is defined as being left alone.

Lukes calls them "thought worlds", but they are not exclusively abstract, and there are many observations on the modern world. Some are funny and satirical, as befits a novel subtitled "a comedy of ideas" and authored by an anthologer of political jokes. There are no prizes for guessing the identity of Hilda Juggernaut, the prime minister of Utilitaria who wears "a steel blue suit", whose "peach-dyed hair was in perfect trim", who says the welfare state "will be safe with us", who claims someone as "one of us", and who refuses to let anyone get a word in edgeways. But many observations are made with a more chilling exaggeration. For instance, in Utilitaria, the handicapped do not receive medical care because they do not serve any useful purpose.

The context for Lukes's fable, for his defence of the Enlightenment, is the here and now. But some political scientists question whether the Enlightenment has any relevance at all to modern times. "It is a diversion of intellectual effort either plangently to side with the Enlightenment or to kick it around," according to John Dunn, professor of political theory at King's College Cambridge. He thinks the Enlightenment was "a particular historical passage of European experience which evolved during a very different social, political and economic world".

Yet the assumption that the Enlightenment is relevant to the modern world is critical for Lukes. It is of course the assumption which prompted, and gives life to, his fable. But it is also a pointer to the fact that Lukes is a social scientist with a passion for real politics. He reveals that an out-and-out political career was never his objective. "I never had a penchant for it," he says. Yet as a young lecturer in the 1960s, he campaigned against the Vietnam war, organising the famous Oxford teach-in with a vociferous Tariq Ali.

In the 1970s, he was the prime mover behind the flow of British academics to secret politics seminars in Prague. A Czech academic, Julius Tomin, had written to four universities in the West, including Oxford and Harvard. He was establishing some university-style seminars for dissidents, akin to the then-renowned Polish "Flying University", and wanted some foreign voices. Only Lukes responded, and within a few months, Prague was the preferred destination for many scholars, including top All Souls professor Charles Taylor. Tom Stoppard immortalised the seminars in his television play Professional Foul.

Oddly, this political activity is not something which wins universal approval. An Oxbridge don wonders whether the Prague seminars "had much to do with bringing about anything in the real world". Speaking more broadly, a leading professor says: "A lot of people who do political theory in an academic setting and yet who consider themselves fighting the good fight are not actually thinking about politics as it really is in the real world and, in that sense, they are engaging in a narcissistic activity."

But it would be ludicrous to label Lukes as a head-in-the-clouds academic as someone like Professor Caritat who is initially "obsessed with the study of past ideas about the future to the exclusion of a close interest in the present". He may betray some of the outward signs of being a paid-up member of the chattering left-wing class: he has a home in Hampstead, he talks jazz with Eric Hobsbawm, and so on. But actually Lukes is something of a pragmatist and, in that sense, he is quite unlike his perfectionist Enlightenment hero, Condorcet.

This is highlighted at the end of his book. There, he reveals that Professor Caritat never reaches Egalitaria, never reaches the best of all worlds. But to ensure this is not interpreted as the mark of striving utopianism, Lukes tells the story of the peasants who, although failing to find some promised treasure in the garden, succeed in improving the soil and thereby securing their well-being. As the light fades in his London home, Lukes puts it another way: "The search for a more egalitarian society is itself a way of creating it."

The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat by Steven Lukes, Verso, November 3, Pounds 12.95.

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