The Enlightenment: An Introduction.

Dare to Know. Immanuel Kant

The consent of the people is the sole basis of a government’s authority.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Enlightenment occurred during the “long 18th century”, between the 1690s to the 1810s.  Some historians describe it as the foundation of the modern world.  Others argue that such claims exaggerate the movement’s impact while understating the influence of previous periods such as the Renaissance.  What is the Enlightenment?  How is it distinct from other periods?  What impact did it have on Europe and other parts of the world?  Here we offer a brief overview of the period.  We will discuss various elements of the Enlightenment in other blogs. 

What is the Enlightenment?  Defining the Enlightenment is a formidable challenge.  As Anthony Pagden points out, for all the mass historical industry that has grown up around the Enlightenment, we are still far from certain what all this means.” (16)  Essentially, the Enlightenment was a cultural movement that espoused reason and observation (rather than tradition, superstition and religion) as the means of uncovering the rules of nature and society.  Enlightenment thinkers addressed issues around psychology, government, economics, religions and much more. 

 We should not, however, interpret “a cultural movement” as a coherent one. Enlightenment thinkers came from various nationalities and social classes and often disagreed on critical problems around politics, religion and various social matters.  Accordingly, historians such as J.G.A. Pocock argue for various “Enlightenments” of unique character rather than one broader movement or, as J.M. Roberts writes, “the advance of a united army of the enlightened.” (635). Even with this diversity in mind, we can say that Englightenment thinkers promoted reason and observation as the primary (and sometimes only) means of interpreting and organizing nature and human society. 

 Why this turn to reason and empiricism?  What were the preconditions that encouraged the Enlightenment(s)?  Here, two broad developments come into play – the Scientific Revolution and religious division and conflict of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

The Scientific Revolution.  During the 17th century’s “Scientific Revolution,” breakthroughs from scientists (known as natural philosophers at the time) like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton encouraged the Enlightenment in two ways.  First, their discoveries discredited many of the traditional Christian explanations of natural phenomena.  Secondly, the Scientific Revolution demonstrated how reason, observation, and experiment could reveal the workings of nature.  From this, writes Norman Davies, “grew the conviction that reason could uncover the rules that underlay the apparent chaos of both the human and material world and hence of natural religion, of natural morality, and natural law.” (597).

This exaltation of rational thinking came at a time when various forces undermined Catholicism’s authority. 

Religious Division and Conflict.  “No single thread,” writes Marvin Perry, “had united Western culture more powerfully than Christianity.” (434). The Catholics church stood as the supreme authority on all matters, and this remained true until the Protestant Revolution (1517) undermined Catholic theology and doctrine that offered a unified world vision.  Soon, other sects like Calvinism and Anabaptism arose, offering competing visions and feeding skepticism.  More options appeared as Europeans travelled and mingled with other civilizations’ belief systems such as Confucianism and Buddhism. 

 Incessant sectarian violence during the 16th and 17th centuries, epitomized by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), further undermined confidence in religion as the bedrock of European society.  Not surprisingly, some people embraced alternative options of reason and observation to bring order back to their lives. 

How did Enlightenment ideas spread?  Most Europeans remained illiterate, and those who could read would be hard-pressed to understand the complexities of Galilei’s discoveries or Newtonian theory of falling bodies. These theories had to be translated to non-experts.  Accordingly, many Enlightened thinkers devoted their efforts to popularize the ideas of the Scientific Revolution.  Thinkers like Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) – presented scientific ideas in accessible ways.  In one work, de Fontenelle shows a man explaining Newtonian theories to a woman.  Denis Diderot’s twenty-eight volume Encyclopedia, published between 1751 and 1765, included entries on various topics by luminaries such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Such efforts to spread Enlightenment ideas benefitted from a rapidly growing print culture – books, pamphlets, newspapers –  and a more gradual rise in literacy offered growing opportunities for these ideas to reach more people.  Ideas also spread via social gatherings as people like Parisian Marie-Therese de Geoffrin organized meetings to discuss science and the ideas inspired by these discoveries.   

Pervasive Critique.  Enlightenment thinkers applied reason and observation to all aspects of life – natural philosophy(science), politics, religion and an array of social matters.  Whether through writings or conversation, very few assumptions, traditions, or institutions escaped the critical gaze of Enlightenment thinkers.  Religion and politics certainly attracted the Enlightenment gaze.   

A Critique of Religion.  Religion had always attracted critics.  Desiderius Erasmus, for instance, pointed out the different versions of the Bible that evolved from transcribers.   But as Marvin Perry writes, the Enlightenment “produced the first widely read, and systematic assault on Christianity launched from with the realm of the educated. (Perry, 434) These challenges happened during an era of Christian disunity fomented by the Protestant Revolution (1517) and the subsequent proliferation of Christian sects that, along with the Scientific Revolution, facilitated alternative ways of thinking about the world.     

 Debate continues regarding the extent of this assault.  Isaac Krammick, for instance, identifies religion as the “principal villain of the Enlightenment.” (xii). Indeed, thinkers such as Claude Helveta, Denis Diderot, and Baron d’Holbach adopted atheistic stances and identified religion as an obstacle to knowledge and progress.    Scottish philosopher David Hume dismissed religion as founded on superstition and fear.  Peter Bayle, a Protestant clergyman, suggested that Christian dogma be rejected if not according to rational thinking.

Atheism, however, was the exception as most Enlightenment figures believed in God.  Newton himself wrote on religious matters and described God as a clockmaker who created the world and its natural laws that humans could interpret and observe.  Europeans, in general, remained faithful.  Also, numerous religious revivals occurred during the 18th century along with a missionary zeal that accompanied and, to some extent, inspired European expansionism.  Secularism did not dominate the 18th century, but the Enlightenment did encourage its growth into the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Politics. Enlightenment thinkers devoted much attention to politics, particularly royal absolutism and the checking of monarchial power.   Kingdoms across northern Europe had appealed to the Divine Right of Kings, believing that God granted the monarchy exclusive right to rule and any breach of this as sacrilegious.  Thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau espoused different assumptions about human nature but agreed on the need to curb or even abolish royal absolutism. 

Their ideas encouraged the revolutions of the time.  Many factors played into Britain’s Glorious Revolution (1688), but it is reasonable to say that the political thought of Hobbes, Locke and others encouraged replacing a Divine Right of Kings with a parliamentary-based monarchy.  Inspired by writings such as Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the French Revolution also ended religious-based authority and dissolved the traditional feudal system.  Across the Atlantic, the new nation, the United States, created a constitution in 1776 and Bill of Rights inspired by Enlightenment thinker John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) that called for a limited monarchy with a division of power among an executive, parliament and judiciary.

Conclusion. As difficult as defining the Enlightenment, it is equally challenging to discern the nature and extent of its impact.  Historians nonetheless offer their opinions on the movement’s fallout.  Anthony Pagden argues that the Enlightenment had a “far greater and more lasting impact on the formation of the modern world than any of the intellectual convulsions that preceded it. (Pagden, ix)  “Enlightened thought, contends Marvin Perry,  “culminated a trend begun by Renaissance humanists who attacked medieval otherworldliness and gave value to individual achievement and the worldly life. (Perry, 459) 

Although historical assessment varies, it is reasonable to say the Immanuel Kant’s call for contemporaries to “Dare to know” reflected confidence in the human capacity to understand society and the natural world without deference to traditions or clerical authority.

Selected Bibliography.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press, 1951. 

Davies, Norman.  Europe: A History.  London: Random House, 1997

Dupre, Louis. The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004

Edelstein, Dan.  The Enlightenment: A Genealogy.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Elian-Feldon, Miriam et al., eds.  The Origins of Racism in the West.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Gay Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. New York: Knopf, 1966.

Goodman, Dena and Kathleen Wellman, eds, The Enlightenment. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.

Israel, Jonathan.  Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Jacob, Margaret.  The Enlightenment. A Reader. (1999).

Kramnick, Isaac. ed.  The Portable Enlightenment Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Perry, Marvin et al.  Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. 

Spielvogel, Jackson J.  Western Civilization.  Volume B: 1300-1815.  Boston: Wadsworth, 2012.