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The Enlightenment

We have thinkers today who are hostile to the Enlightenment, their hostility speaking partially to what the Enlightenment was, and perhaps I can say is, although some say we are living in a post-Enlightenment age.

The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 1700s, described as beginning in Britain in the late 1600s and a questioning said to have been found in the English Civil War. French historians describe the Enlightenment as beginning in 1715, the year that Louis XIV died. And we have the American Enlightenment: intellectual ferment in the thirteen colonies beginning in 1714, out of which came the American Revolution and a republic. Some historians describe Europe's Enlightenment as beginning in the 1620s with Galileo (1564-1642) and the rise of modern science.

In addition to a new respect for scientific inquiry, the Enlightenment included questioning religious orthodoxy and questioning the god-given authority of monarchs – the powers of church and state. It included a new respect for human freedom. In France, social criticism went from complaints about corruptions produced by ambition and greed as aberrations to antagonisms toward social norms.

"What is the Enlightenment?"is the title of an essay in 1784 by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He wrote of the courage to use one's own intelligence. "Dare to know," he wrote. "Have the courage to use your own understanding." Stop being a child. Grow up! Liberate your thinking from deference to some authority figure. For Kant, the Enlightenment was a greater freedom for people, and believing in freedom from monarchical authoritarianism he became a supporter of the American and then French revolutions.

In France, the prolific writer Voltaire (1694-1778) was a satirical polemicist who put himself at risk criticizing religious dogma and the French institutions of his day, despite the strict censorship laws of the time. In Britain another Enlightenment thinker was Adam Smith (1723-90), a Scot. His belief in freedom extended to trade and anti-slavery. He disliked the compulsory labor he found in France (the corvée). Regarding slavery, he pointed out that labor coerced by the threat of violence was not as productive or efficient as labor by choice.

Associating with Smith and other Enlightenment luminaries was the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76). He recognized the difference between matters of fact and matters of value. Moral judgments, he held, were matters of value because they were about sentiments and passions. He saw humanity as too inclined toward emotion rather than reason. He didn't support conclusions about the world not known through the senses.

The Americans Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson arrived in Europe contributed to the scientific and political debate, and the ideals of the Enlightenment were incorporated into the United States Declaration of Independence and their country's legal foundation, the Constitution.

So what all was there to dislike about the Enlightenment?

The French Revolution happened, beginning in 1789. Drawing from the Enlightenment, some of the revolutionaries extolled Reason as a means toward Truth and Liberty. The revolution involved the intense passions of war, including a war with France's neighbors. There was wartime of accusations of treason and one faction of revolutionaries against a rival not-so-fervent faction. Revolutionaries executed revolutionaries (as they would during the Bolshevik Revolution in the early 1900s). It is called the Reign of Terror, and those who disliked the Enlightenment blamed the terror – irrational as it was – on the Enlightenment's advocacy of Reason.

Enlightenment thinkers of the 1700s have been criticized for being excessive in their belief in reason, in the good in human nature. Writes Herbert J Muller (1905-80) in Uses of the Past,

Even Hume, the thoroughgoing skeptic, generalized freely about an immutable human nature, which he identified with the nature of an eighteenth-century Englishman... They neglected, the deep irrational impulses or drives the sources of irrational behavior. (p 281)

Viewing the irrationalities of the French Revolution, conservatives found advocacy of rationality by Enlightenment thinkers itself at fault – a connection between the philosophers and the impulses of the revolutionaries. It was an accusation that the naiveté of the philosophers gave the revolutionaries license – a dubious proposition.

Conservatives were putting faith in God and his powers over humanity's attempts to direct itself. Among them was Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821). He described "man" as more brutal than the wolf and in need of being tamed by the awe of Christian devotion.

Muller writes of pre-Enlightenment thinkers in the Middle Ages having,

... an even purer faith in reason, believing that by deductive reason alone they could know all that was to be known. (p 278)

According to Muller (in Freedom in the Modern World), in wake of the horrors of the French Revolution, anti-Enlightenment thinkers oversimplified the Middle Ages. It now became the Age of Faith, all piety and chivalry, purged of its barbarities and its tyrannies – a view still popular in literary circles today.

Well into the 1900s, some conservatives were blaming the Enlightenment for the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. Here again, as with the French Revolution, fault was found in revolutionaries seeking to advance humankind. There were false allegations that the Enlightenment itself was totalitarian.

Meanwhile, the rationalities of moderation, acting and making corrections, combined with the Enlightenment's belief in questioning and rejecting the status quo, had been producing in France and some other countries, societies that were models of tolerance, functioning democracy and progress.

The Enlightenment and Post-Modernism

There has been talk about a post-modern objection to the Enlightenment. I am not a part of it. The objection includes contemporary philosophers describe as the "naive realism" of eighteenth-century thinkers. Rather than a naive materialist, I too an agnostic on the nature of nature question, (as is my hero, the philosopher John Searle). But still I appreciated those like Hume who didn't buy the opinion of his day that the essence of that reality is idea or spirit. Their rejection was, I believe, a move in the right direction.

Another move in the right direction is rejecting the faulty connection between the reason we have to apply to all the impressions we receive in our brains and reasoning that we can label as faulty. The faulty part should not damn reasoning as a whole. That is not logical. We have to continue to think. To think, we have to question – the Enlightenment anew.


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The French Revolution: 5 May to 26 August 1789

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.