The idea of enlightenment entails liberty, equality, rationalism, secularism, and the connection between knowledge and human well being. In spite of the setbacks of revolutionary violence, political mass murder, and two world wars, the spread of enlightenment values has become the yardstick by which moral, political, and even scientific advances are measured. Indeed, most critiques of the enlightenment ideal point to failure in implementation rather than principle. By contrast, David Stove, in On Enlightenment, attacks the intellectual roots of enlightenment thought, to define the limitations of its successes and the areas of its likely failures. Stove is not insensitive to the many valuable aspects of enlightenment thought. He champions the use of reason and rationality, and recognizes the falsity of religious claims as well as the importance of individual liberty. What he rejects is the enlightenment's uncritical optimism regarding social progress and its willingness to embrace revolutionary change. What evidence is there that the elimination of superstition will lead to happiness? Or that it is possible to accept Darwinism without Social Darwinism? Or that the enlightenment's liberal, rationalistic outlook will ever lead to the kind of social progress envisioned by its advocates.
Despite their best intentions, social reformers who attempt to improve the world as a whole inevitably make things worse. He advocates a conservative "go slow" approach to change, pointing out that today's social structures are so large and complex that any widespread social reform will have innumerable unforeseen consequences. For example, the welfare state may diminish individual initiative, the use of pesticides may increase the food supply while polluting the water supply, the popularizing of university education may lead to a decline in academic standards. Since government has a virtual monopoly on large-scale change, it follows, in Stove's view, that its powers must be limited in order to prevent large-scale damage. Instead, he argues that reforms, when they are to be made at all, must be realistic, local, necessary and never coercive. Writing in the conservative tradition of Edmund Burke with the same passion for clarity and intellectual honesty as George Orwell, David Stove was one of the most precise, articulate, and insightful philosophers of his day.