The Age of the Enlightenment describes a time and a movement rare in history because of the fact that the movement’s thinkers actually gave the title to their own period of time. Roughly, the Enlightenment covers the period from 1750 CE to 1800 CE. Enlightenment thought emanated from Europe, especially France, but its consequences spread throughout the world and, pertinently at the time, to the colonies of North America that were to become the United States of America. The changes wrought by the Enlightenment include a rejection of traditional religious and metaphysical ideas, as well as the insistence upon the virtues of freedom, equality, moral dignity, science, and reason. Tied in with these Enlightenment values, however, was a particular conception of time as a continually unfurling process by which progress was made. Thus, time was of crucial importance to Enlightenment philosophers because the passage of time would bring progressively superior ideas about religion and metaphysics as well as greater freedom, equality, moral consciousness, ethical action, and understanding of the universe.
To understand the Enlightenment one must first acknowledge its antecedents. The Enlightenment could not have occurred if not for the historical foundation that buttressed it. This historical foundation includes the accomplishments of reason and logic dating back to ancient Greece. It was in ancient Greece that logic had been used to turn traditional beliefs upside down, and the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought the same outcome in Europe.
Most emblematic of the Enlightenment is the appreciation of reason. Thus, the roots of the Enlightenment in Europe can be traced back as far as Saint Thomas Aquinas, who reinvigorated the ancient Greek logic of Aristotle, attempting to demonstrate harmony between reason and faith. It was at this point in the 13th century that reason began to vie for center stage in European thought, rivaling the religious faith that had been venerated since the fall of Rome and throughout the Dark Ages. The conflict may be seen not just in the philosophy of Aquinas but in literature as well, particularly in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
From the 13th century on, reason vied to sway the European mind, as can be seen by the unfolding of European history afterward. The 14th and 15th centuries saw the rise of the Renaissance and particularly the humanist thinkers who fueled this movement. The humanists defied traditional power structures not just by championing reason but by taking a new attitude toward God, humanity, and the universe. Instead of gloomily dwelling on original sin, they took a more positive and cheerful attitude, arguing that to worship God one must worship his creation, the most beautiful of which was humanity. In fact, the new humanist paradigm envisioned humans as being like God not only in literal image but also in his image in the sense that they too had creative powers. Thus, the outpouring of intellectual and artistic achievement during the Renaissance was rooted in the idea that such works were not sinful but were means of worshipping God.
Also demonstrating a new appreciation of humanity were the changes that came during the Reformation, which followed the Renaissance. The primary change was the appreciation and acceptance of human interpretation of the Bible. This new insistence upon human powers to create and interpret formed the foundation upon which the Enlightenment could unfurl. Furthermore, the emphasis on worshipping God through worship and appreciation of his creation evidences the roots of deism, which was the religion embodied by the Enlightenment.
Finally, the third major social transformation that allowed for the Enlightenment after the Renaissance and the Reformation was the Scientific Revolution. The Scientific Revolution marked a new method of thought, aptly named the scientific method. It was the method advocated by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). It involved observing, questioning, hypothesizing, and experimenting. The Scientific Revolution’s impact was felt first in the realm of physics. Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei successfully changed the way that humans thought about the earth and about their relationship to God. No longer was the earth at the center of the universe as had been taught throughout the Dark Ages. It merely revolved around the sun, which was situated in the center. These first scientists who established the heliocentric model as humanity’s universal paradigm were followed by Isaac Newton, who made yet another grand leap for science, uncovering natural laws that governed the universe, the most important of which was gravity. Once Newton established the existence of natural laws determining the movements of the universe, humans reasoned that natural laws might govern not only celestial bodies but human populations as well. Thus, the search was on for natural laws that could guide the development and progress of human society.
The Value of Reason
The stage was set for the Enlightenment over a number of centuries that preceded it. New values were championed, such as appreciation of the individual and human power to create, choose, interpret, and act freely. It was only a matter of time before these changes inspired a large and organized movement for social reform. Optimism about the human condition and the grand undertaking to discover natural laws that ordered and directed the progress of society are what would come to characterize the Enlightenment.
Thus, the Enlightenment was an optimistic period marked by the belief in reason, secularism, and progress. The Enlightenment was characterized by the belief that there was a logically deducible reason for everything and that humans could unravel the mysteries of the universe by using the faculties of their own minds. It was believed that with time, the accomplishments of humankind in science and morality would be limitless. Through the use of reason, humans could learn how to manipulate the universe to their every advantage and thereby make the world the most optimal place for human existence. It was believed that through the employment of reason, humans could perfect society and could subsequently perfect themselves as individuals as well. According to Enlightenment thought, human potential was limitless, and in the world there was a correct answer for everything; it was only a matter of time before the answer was found. Thus, a belief in the inevitable fulfillment of people’s potential to govern themselves and the world characterized the Enlightenment.
With the Enlightenment came the embrace of subjectivity and freedom as well. Attached to these came a decline in the power of traditional religion and monarchical state authorities. After the Reformation, modern individuals could stand alone in the world, independent and self-reliant, in the sense that they could directly mediate their own relationship to God, bypassing the previous mediator that had existed in the Catholic Church. The Enlightenment marked a leap even grander than this, as many began to abandon Christianity completely in favor of more rebellious ideas such as those of deism, or even naturalism, in which assumptions of divine intervention and guidance are laid to rest. In addition to the religious shift came an economic shift as well, as people during the Enlightenment stood to gain greater economic freedom. Rational theories of self-interest guiding the economy, such as Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand, worked to erode mercantilism and justify capitalism. Thus, people came to be free and self-directed not only in their religious beliefs but in economic adventures as well.
In many ways, the thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that they were involved in an act of creation: the creation of a new and better world order, based upon reason and the study of individuals and societies. As with any act of creation, this of course necessitated destruction. In the case of the Enlightenment, this meant the destruction of the church and the destruction of the monarchical state. Thus, the philosophers relentlessly scrutinized and criticized the dogmatic theology that buttressed both. Instead, they championed open inquiry and new forms of government. Some, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), believed enlightened despotism to be the ideal means of government. Much like Plato, Voltaire felt that only philosophers could rule in the most rational way, and thus the king ought to be informed by philosophers such as himself. Symbolizing his distaste for democracy, Voltaire is often cited as saying that he would rather obey 1 lion than 200 rats of his own species. In other words, one enlightened despot is better than a whole democratized country of uninformed fools. Thus, it was through a monarchy directed by philosophical reason that Voltaire thought progress and change would occur.
To understand the Enlightenment, one must understand the governmental models that its thinkers found ideal. Enlightened despotism, also known as benevolent despotism or enlightened absolutism, was championed by Voltaire, and its enactment was catalyzed by Voltaire’s close contact with several monarchs of the time. Enlightened rulers identified themselves as such and differed from traditional rules in their emphasis upon rationality as a means to better government and their espousal of modern notions such as religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, and the right to hold private property. Subsequently, these rulers often cultivated learning in their lands more than traditional rulers had.
Determining the enlightened despot from the mere despot is not a matter of black and white, however. Both tended to believe that their right to rule was granted by birth and thus were not apt to make unwarranted compromises such as the allowance of constitutions or the proliferation of legislative bodies that would serve to check monarchical power. Determining whether or not a ruler was enlightened depended in large part upon the judgment of the historian and upon a broad examination of a ruler’s reign. For instance, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II embraced the social contract, whereas Catherine II of Russia rejected the concept but demonstrated her enlightenment by sponsoring the arts and encouraging a committee revising Russian law to incorporate the ideas of Montesquieu. The two differed in the ways in which they showed themselves to be enlightened, yet both are regarded as such by historians.
Essentially, enlightened monarchs wished to improve the plight of their peoples without relinquishing their own hold on authority. It is no coincidence that serfdom was abolished during the Enlightenment. Emperor Joseph II encapsulated the ideology behind enlightened despotism by saying, “Everything for the people, nothing by the people.”
While enlightened despotism was the preferred form of government for most Enlightenment thinkers, some, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, expressed a different opinion. Rousseau argued for something closer to democratic revolution. Unlike Voltaire, who took inequalities among men for granted, Rousseau believed all men ought to be equal under the law, obviously an underpinning of the democratic governments that followed the Enlightenment. Particularly, this type of thought materialized into the United States of America and the French Revolution.
Metaphysics and Ethics
Government was just one of the realms in which thought changed during the Enlightenment. Another realm was metaphysics and ethics. It was during the Enlightenment that some of Europe’s first materialist atheists gained prominence and fame. One of these enlightened thinkers was Julien Offray de La Mettrie. He was the earliest materialist thinker of the Enlightenment and is credited with being the founder of cognitive science. He observed that bodily circulation was hastened upon thought, which led him to theorize that physical phenomena were caused by organic changes in the brain and nervous system in his books Histoire naturelle de l’âme (Natural History of the Soul), L’Homme machine (The Human Machine), and L’Homme plant (The Human Plant). In the ethics he derived from this, which he detailed in Discours sur le bon- heur, La Volupte (Discourse on Happiness, Exquisite Delight) and L’Art de jouir (The Art of Joy), he concluded that the purpose of life was pleasure of the senses and thus that self-love was virtuous. He believed that the theologians had deceived humanity into believing in a fictitious soul and that humans ought to reject this metaphysics, instead opting for atheism and a morality based in hedonism. His earth-centered metaphysics and ethics exemplify the new paradigms espoused by many of the revolutionary thinkers of the Enlightenment.
Another thinker whose ideas closely mirrored those of La Mettrie was Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach. He was also a materialist and an atheist, and his morality would be described by most as hedonism, as he argued that if virtue made a person unhappy, then that person should love vice. In 1761 he wrote Christianisme devoile (Christianity Unveiled), in which he charged Christianity with being counterproductive to man’s moral development. This was followed by an even more famous and controversial book, Le Systeme de la nature (The System of Nature). Unlike other Enlightenment thinkers, however, he did not call for revolution but rather warned the educated classes against it, arguing that reform was necessary to prevent mob rule.
While the Enlightenment marked changes in realms of thought such as government, metaphysics, and ethics, it also marked new achievements in academic production. Perhaps the greatest achievement of academic production was by Denis Diderot, editor of the world’s first encyclopedia. The project began as something meager. Bookseller and printer Andre le Breton solicited Diderot to translate Ephraim Chambers’s Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Diderot accepted the project, but after undertaking it, persuaded le Breton to allow him to undertake an original work, which was to be a compendium of all active writers, new ideas, and new knowledge of the day. Soon Jean le Rond d’Alembert joined Diderot as a colleague. The project was announced to the world in 1750, right at the commencement of the Enlightenment. By 1751 the first volume was published, and by 1765 the last was completed, although it was not until 1772 that subscribers received the final volumes of the Encyclopedie, ou dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers (Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences).
The encyclopedia was more than a mere academic work. The significance of the encyclopedia reverberated in social and political realms as well, which cost Diderot numerous friends. The supporters of the church opposed the encyclopedia, as it championed the very Enlightenment values that challenged ecclesiastical authority. The aristocracy opposed the project as well because it took for granted modern notions of justice such as religious tolerance, freedom of thought, and the value of science and industry. Furthermore, it asserted the democratic doctrine that the state existed to serve the people, not vice versa. Diderot’s subscribers grew to 4,000 by 1757 and continued in the same direction afterward, a trend that offended and frightened the enfranchised classes of Europe. Resultantly, rumors were spread that the encyclopedia was the work of conspirators against society, and in 1759 the encyclopedia was formally suppressed, but by that time Diderot’s mind was set to keep the project moving, although at a slower pace due to the complications of working in secrecy. Unfortunately, d’Alembert withdrew from the enterprise and other knowledgeable colleagues such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune, declined to contribute further to a book that had developed a bad reputation. Stalwartly, Diderot completed the project himself, writing hundreds of articles and editing hundreds of others. In a final act of misfortune, the bookseller, in fear of the government, eliminated the passages he considered too dangerous, thus mitigating the uproar sparked by the encyclopedia, but also (in the mind of Diderot) defacing the masterpiece. Nevertheless, the publication of the work, even in mutilated form, marked an appreciation and treasuring of knowledge that was to characterize the Age of the Enlightenment.
The great academic production that characterized the Enlightenment was matched with striving for social reform. No description of the Enlightenment could be complete without discussion of one of the period’s most ambitious reformers, Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. After being appointed inspector general of the Monnaie de Paris in 1774, he defended human rights, particularly those of women and blacks. In fact, he was an abolitionist, active in the Society of the Friends of Blacks. He supported the ideals embodied by the United States and proposed projects of reform in France. In the realm of politics, he is famous for Condorcet’s paradox, which describes one of the problems of democracy. This problem is that it is possible for a majority to prefer A over B, B over C, and C over A simultaneously.
The culmination of the Enlightenment was the French Revolution, in which Condorcet took a leading role. He championed many liberal causes and hoped the revolution would lead to a transformation and reconstruction of society. In 1791, he was elected as the Paris representative in the Legislative Assembly and then became secretary of the assembly. In this position he was able to advance enlightened ideas for a better France. These ideas included a state education system and a Bourbon Constitution for the new France. He also advocated women’s suffrage in France.
Condorcet’s defense of human rights could be seen by his opposition to the death penalty for King Louis XVI during the public vote at the convention. It is this that would lead to his own untimely death. As the parties advocating the king’s execution gained power, Condorcet was branded a traitor and a warrant was put out for his arrest. Subsequently, he went into hiding and wrote Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progres de l’esprit humain (Sketch for a Historical Picture of Progress of the Human Mind). The text outlines the enlightened paradigm with regard to time and history. In it, the history of civilization is described as the progress of the sciences, intimately tied to the growth and proliferation of human rights and justice. Furthermore, like the work of many Enlightenment thinkers, it outlines an optimistic view for future society crafted upon scientific knowledge and rationalist principles.
In fact, Condorcet’s conception of time was sufficiently rigorous that he outlined nine great stages of universal history. The first stage he defined as the time when hordes of hunters and fishers united in tribes. The second stage was that of pastoral peoples. The third stage included the development of agriculture up to the invention of the alphabet. The fourth stage he described as the progress of the human mind in Greece up to the division of the sciences. The fifth stage he then described as the progress of these sciences until their eventual decline, followed by a sixth period, roughly the Dark Ages in which intellectual life stagnated. The seventh stage he saw as the reawakening of science and the innovation of printing in Europe. The eighth stage he characterized as the time when science and philosophy diverge from the auspices of traditional religious and monarchical authority, and finally the ninth stage he saw as the time spanning from Descartes until the emergence of the French Republic.
Having described these nine stages, his tenth stage is what is most emblematic of characteristic Enlightenment thought. This was the future stage of equality and freedom, which would be achieved by means of scientific achievement leading to, and/ or partnered with, social reform. In this stage Condorcet foresaw a holistic perfection of humankind in physical, intellectual, and moral aspects, resulting in the eradication of war, prejudice, superstition, and disease. In fact, his faith in the scientific perfectibility of medicine led him to believe that humans would become virtually immortal, saying that death would be due only to extraordinary accidents and that the time between birth and death would have no assignable value.
Also working for social reform was Claude Adrien Helvetius. He is among the privileged writers whose work, De l’esprit (On the Mind), was deemed so heretical by the church and state that it was burned. Like Condorcet, he was interested in advancing human rights and increasing the general welfare of France. He made a fortune quickly at a young age as farmer-general (a tax-collecting office), but when his wealth was sufficient, he retired and employed his capital in the relief of the poor, as well as the development of agriculture and industry. The controversy surrounding his book actually helped to popularize it, and it was quickly translated and disseminated throughout Europe. Historians have divided his book into separate discussions, all of which present well-known and agreed-upon Enlightenment principles. First, all human faculties may be reduced to physical sensation. Second, self-interest, inspired by the love of pleasure and fear of pain, is the motivating factor for all decisions and action. Any case in which this appears not to be so is only a case in which there is an unseen pleasure or pain motivating the actor. Consequently, there is no such thing as good and evil, as they are classically defined. Third, all intellects are equal, and subsequently all people are born of equal ability. Inequalities actually spring from the passions, which motivate people unequally to receive instruction. These ideas, put forth by Helvetius in his controversial work can thus be summed up as utilitarian and democratic, both of which were currents of thought that ran strongly through the Enlightenment.
While La Mettrie, Diderot, Condorcet, and Helvetius all made important contributions to the paradigm embodied by the Enlightenment, perhaps none of their contributions was as great as that made by Voltaire, who is thought by many scholars to singularly embody the Enlightenment better than any other thinker. His thought was crucial to the Enlightenment in France and throughout Europe. In Paris, the year 1694 CE, he was born François-Marie Arouet to a noble family from the Poitou province. Later, he took up the pen name Voltaire, which was a good idea, given the controversy his work stirred up. He defended civil liberties and human rights, insisting upon the importance of religious freedom and, in matters of state, the right to a fair trial. He stood for freedom of speech, as was evidenced by his frequent disregard for French censorship laws. He often criticized the Christian Church and the dogma it proliferated. Most generally, he worked for social reform. Voltaire’s energy toward the reformation of France caused him to end up on the wrong side of those in power more than a few times. He was repeatedly imprisoned and exiled. During one such period he spent 11 months in the Bastille for writing satire about France’s aristocracy.
Voltaire symbolized the Enlightenment not only because of his personal efforts to reform society but also because of the compendious nature of his work. His work was perhaps more varied than that of any other scholar during the Enlightenment. He wrote poetry as well as a number of plays that attacked the church, monarchy, or aristocracy. Furthermore, he wrote what may be considered ethnography. Voltaire spent 3 years in London and condensed his experiences into a work titled Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais (Philosophical Letters on the English). In this work he was very critical of French society while extolling the virtues of constitutional monarchy and human rights that he experienced in England. As could be expected, the French aristocracy found his work distasteful to the point that copies of it were burned and he was forced to leave Paris.
His expulsion from Paris only led to a greater diversity in his work. He traveled to the Chateau de Cirey on the borders of Champagne, Alsace, and Lorraine. Here he performed many scientific experiments, including one to determine the properties of fire. He was particularly interested in Sir Isaac Newton, to whom he had been exposed during his exile in England. Voltaire was especially curious about optics and gravity. He was impressed by Newton’s discovery that white light is comprised of every color in the spectrum, and he was inspired to perform several of his own experiments on the topic. Voltaire ended up writing a book on Newton’s philosophies: Elements de la philosophie de Newton (Elements of Newton’s Philosophy).
Demonstrating the compendious nature of Voltaire’s studies, he additionally examined history and, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, paid particular heed to concentrating on past people who had contributed to the growth and development of civilization. He wrote an essay titled Essay Upon the Civil Wars in France and a biographical essay on King Charles XII, in which he began to reject religion, expressing a fundamental tenet of the Enlightenment that human life is not destined to be controlled by any beings greater than humans, but by humans themselves. Voltaire continued to do work relevant to religion, analyzing the Bible, and philosophizing on metaphysics. He advocated separation of church and state, a staple of the Enlightenment, which lives on today, and went so far as to claim, “One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible [on] the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker.” This irreverence for tradition and grand vision of a very different future is characteristic of the paradigm.
This criticism of religion was a theme common in much of Voltaire’s work. He personally identified himself as a deist, as did many other philosophers and scholars of the time. The deist believed in God and found it reasonable to do so by virtue of creation. Therefore, the deist felt that faith was not necessary. Deists felt that the beauty of creation suggested some sort of supreme designer. However, they denied the phenomenon of divine intervention. The deist envisioned a world that ran like clockwork, according to laws designed by the Creator but not subject to whimsical change by him. Thus, deists did not believe in any traditional book of authority, because God did not need to reveal himself through such a book when he revealed himself through the beauty and workings of nature.
While Voltaire singularly embodies the Enlightenment better than does any other individual, the culmination and aspirations of the Enlightenment can be seen outside of France in the work of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant stated that the Enlightenment was humanity’s exit from a self-incurred minority. By this Kant means that the Enlightenment is people’s exit from the fear or lack of determination to employ their own intelligence. Hence, Kant said the motto of the time was, “Have the courage to use your own intelligence!” Kant proclaims that it is time for Europeans to stop letting others, such as the propagators of religion and monarchical rulers, to direct their thoughts and actions. Kant reasoned that it was essentially laziness that kept other Europeans from thinking and directing themselves, and Kant encouraged them to use their reason to be self-determining. This, Kant said, necessitated open inquiry and discussion in the public sphere. Exemplifying what he meant, Kant said that a military officer has a duty to obey the commands of his superior officers, but he also had a duty to the public to express it if he felt his superior officer had blundered, thereby submitting judgment to the public. Likewise, a good citizen pays his taxes but is obliged to publicly utter thoughts about the undesirability or injustice of a tax if it is so. Finally, a clergyman teaches the faith to his congregants, but has a duty to criticize errant beliefs or practices of the religion in his own writing. Thus, it can be seen that to Kant, Enlightenment meant, in addition to free use of individual reason, free presentation of reasonable thought in the public sphere.
Furthermore, in addition to the free use of reason by the people, Kant defines the Enlightenment as an age in which people are ensured the right to do this by protection from the government. Kant said that the monarch’s only concern is to prevent one subject from hindering another by force, to work according to each subject’s best ability to determine and to promote his salvation. Kant added that it detracts from the monarch’s power if he interferes in the matters of his constituents, and subjects to governmental supervision the writings by which the monarch’s subjects seek to clarify their ideas, especially those concerning religion. Thus, it can be seen that according to Kant, enlightenment also consists of a government that will allow citizens to use their reason freely, both privately and in public discourse.
Since the Enlightenment, we have seen that reason and freedom are not the simple panacea that the thinkers of the Enlightenment envisioned. Two world wars and the failures of numerous democratic governments prove this to be true. In fact, tyrannical regimes have often existed in the name of freedom and have bent reason and logic to justify their own existence. Thus, interpretations of and responses to the Enlightenment have been varied. Counter-Enlightenment movements and particularly Romanticism as inspired by Jean- Jacques Rousseau followed the Enlightenment. Friedrich Nietzsche, in particular, questioned the values of the Enlightenment and criticized its lofty ideals.
Thus, the legacy of the Enlightenment is multifaceted. However, for the most part the Enlightenment is seen as a positive historical trend that forms the roots of modern democratic government and our modern appreciation of science and education. The underpinning axioms of democracy were postulated and put forth during the Enlightenment, and the importance of education was firmly advocated. This emphasis on education led to the growth and development of educational systems in Western society. Although society is still far from being perfect, most would argue that we have made steps toward better societies. Particularly we have moved away from totalitarian monarchical governmental systems toward republican and democratic ones in which the people have more power. Moreover, the separation of church and state that we esteem in the U.S. today, along with the values of free inquiry, education, reason, and knowledge, all have their roots in the Enlightenment.
Finally, and quite pertinently, conceptions of process as progress remain with us today. Despite the tragedies that have befallen humanity since the Enlightenment, such as the two world wars, much of humanity still has an optimistic attitude about the future. The idea that science will resolve the problems humanity faces remains with us. In fact it is an implicit truth to many in the modern world that life continues to improve as scientific and governmental advances occur. It is this tacit approval of science and the notion of a continually bettering world that has its roots in those conceptions of time and history born in the Enlightenment.
See also Farber, Marvin; Kant, Immanuel; Materialism;
Nietzsche, Friedrich; Postmodernism; Values and Time
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