The Enlightenment

The enlightenment was in many respects a continuation of a process which was begun by the Scientific Revolution. A new world view had developed and with it new ways of thinking not only about science and religion but about human nature as well. Enlightenment thinkers wanted their ideas to reach the general reading public, although not necessarily the masses at large.

The Enlightenment can be divided into three stages: (1) The early Enlightenment, during the first half of the eighteenth century which showed the influence of the Scientific Revolution, (2) the high Enlightenment which began with the publication of The Spirit of the Laws mentioned below, and ends with the death of Voltaire and Rousseau, and(3) the Late Enlightenment in which there is an emphasis away from human reason to preoccupation with emotions and passions.

Three important concepts are at the core of Enlightenment thinking:

Methods of natural science should be used to examine and understand life in all its many aspects. Enlightenment thinkers referred to this as reason, often called ration. This became the by-word of Enlightenment thinkers. Everything was to be examined in the "cold light of reason," in which nothing was to be accepted on faith alone.

The laws of human society could be discovered by application of the scientific method, much like the laws of nature. The end result was the birth of "social science." (Psychology, History, Sociology, etc. are members of the Social Sciences).

Progress. Enlightenment thinkers believed that it was possible to improve humans and human society. This was in marked contrast to Medieval thinking in which human beings were considered corrupt, sinful, and of little value. The influence of humanism is readily apparent. However, Humanist thinkers had looked backward to the ancients and classical sources rather than forward to rational thinking based on logic and reason. The humanists believed it might be possible to match the accomplishments of the ancient scholars, but did not expect to surpass them.

The Enlightenment was in many respects the logical conclusion of the Renaissance. It was by its very nature profoundly secular. Only those explanations which were "reasonable" and worldly were considered valid. Even so, Enlightenment ideas had little effect on the poor and common folk; in fact they resented its attack on their customs and traditions, many of which were closely tied to religious observances. They were too involved with their daily struggle to survive to concern themselves with philosophical word games.

Origins of Enlightenment Thought: Enlightenment thought was born from a crisis in thinking at the end of the Scientific Revolution, partly because of the Scientific Revolution. A number of scientific uncertainties and dissatisfaction with traditional explanations arose, primarily from the discrediting of Aristotle’s theories which had been sacrosanct for centuries.

Another factor was the entire question of religious truth. The Thirty Years War had visited a virtual holocaust on Europeans and had been fought in the name of religion. The idea of religious freedom was unthinkable. Both Catholics and Protestants believed that truth was absolute, they were right and the other side wrong, and participants on both sides were willing to die for the cause. Both religious groups also believed that religious unity was necessary for the preservation of the state. Yet Louis XIV’s attempts to impose a uniform religion on France by expelling the Huguenots made many wonder if religious unity was all that necessary. Some thinkers went so far as to question whether religious truth could ever be known with absolute certainty.

A third factor was the exposure of Europeans to travel in other parts of the world, and exposure to those cultures. They learned that the people of China, India, Africa, and the Americas all had their own cultures, quite different from European. For example: Europeans shaved their beards and let their hair grow long; Turks shaved their heads and let their beards grow long. In Europe, a man would bow to a woman he encountered on the street as a sign of respect. In Siam, a man would turn his back on a woman approaching him because it was considered disrespectful to look upon her. As Europeans learned more and more about other cultures, they began to look at truth and morality in relative rather than absolute terms. Who was to say what was right or wrong?

The first thinkers who gave rise to Enlightenment thought came of age between the publication of Newton’s Principia (1687) and the death of Louis XIV (1715). The most famous of the early thinkers was Bernard de Fontenelle, (1657 – 1757) who used a witty and entertaining style of writing to explain Science to a non-scientific audience. It was sort of a seventeenth century "Science for Dummies." His most famous work was Conversation on the Plurality of the Worlds in which he portrays two people, a sophisticated woman and a gentleman, possibly her lover, walking through a park, and engage in a passionate discussion about science. It is almost satirical. At one point, the gentleman remarks to the lady, that each star may be a different world," after which he gently explains:

There came on the scene…one Copernicus, who made short work of all those various circles, all those solid skies, which the ancients had pictures in themselves….Fired with the noble zeal of a true astronomer, he took the earth and spun it very far away from the center of the universe, where it had been installed, and in that center he put the sun, which had a far better title to the honor.

Fontenelle, as did other Enlightenment thinkers, believed that progress in intellectual matters, certainly science and mathematics, was possible. This thinking brought them into direct conflict with religion. This was a direct contrast to earlier thinkers, who believed their work glorified God. Sir Isaac Newton, the foremost thinker of the Scientific Revolution, was a devout Christian. Fontenelle did not believe there was any such animal as absolute truth. His ideas about religion were cynical at best. Writing such as this would not be tolerated in the France of Louis XIV, the staunch defender of Catholicism, so Fontenelle made his point subtly, making his writing appear to be solely for entertainment rather than for edification.

A second thinker and perhaps the most famous skeptic of the absolutist religious thought was Pierre Bayle, a French Huguenot who hated Louis XIV, and hid from him in the Netherlands. He was a teacher by training and also a crusading journalist who took advantage of the toleration practiced in the Netherlands. His famous work was his Historical and Critical Dictionary published in the Netherlands in French in which he concluded that nothing could even be known beyond doubt. Open minded toleration was, he said, the only hope of mankind in matters of religion or of philosophy. His book was soon a success, and reprinted in English. It was found in the libraries of more French homes than any other work.

John Locke, the famous author of Two Treatises on Civil Government, further muddied the water of European thinking about absolutes and concepts of right and wrong. In his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding, (1690), he rejected Descartes’ thinking that all humans are born with certain ideas and ways of thinking. Rather, argued Locke, all ideas are the result of experience. He also rejected the idea of humans born with the stain of original sin. All humans are born with a mind which is a blank slate, the famous tabula rasa, on which the individual’s understandings and beliefs are written by his experiences and environment. Social institutions and education (basically "experience") are responsible for all that human beings learn, be it good or bad. Locke’s Essay became a leading work of the period, alongside Newton’s Principia.

The Philosophes Changing ideas in Europe after the death of Louis XIV in 1715 were largely the work of a group of influential writers and intellectuals known as philosophes (French for "Philosopher" It was they who claimed to bring the light of knowledge to their ignorant fellow creatures, hence the term, "Enlightenment."

The Enlightenment reached its highest level of development in France. There were three reasons why:

French was the international language of the educated classes of Europe in the eighteenth century. Since education of the rich and powerful often lay in the hands of French tutors who embraced Enlightenment ideas; Frances’ leadership was immersed in those ideas. France’s position as the wealthiest and most populous country in Europe was also a factor.

After the death of Louis XIV, French absolutism waned, although it did not disappear completely. Although books were still banned and authors sometimes jailed or exiled, they were no longer tortured or burned at the stake. Absent the strict restraints that they would have faced in Eastern Europe, the proponents of enlightenment ideas were emboldened. Still, they were not free to express their ideas as they please. They rather wrote dictionaries, encyclopedias, plays, novels, etc which were dripping with satire and double entendre.

The French philosophes were not content with debating abstract philosophical issues about the meaning of life and of God, etc. They wanted to influence all of French society, and create an enlightened public. Even so, the public they wished to reach were not the masses, classified by one writer as the "blind and noisy multitude." The philosophes believed that the common masses were doomed to superstition and confusion because they did not have the means or time to look beyond their struggle for survival.

Among the more notable philosophes:

The Baron de Montesquieu: who wrote a social satire entitled The Persian Letters in 1721. It consisted of a series of letters, often amusing, which were supposedly written by Persian travelers to Europe, and who commented on all they saw. The work illustrates the increasing contact between the Islamic East and Christian West. Beneath the satire of the Letters, Montesquieu argued that natures there are natural and universal standards of justice that apply to all people at all times; in Persia as well as in Christian Europe. The Persian Letters also contain the first critical examination of slavery, which Montesquieu rejected, stating that it was "against the natural law by which all men are born free and independent," and "the liberty of each citizen is part of public liberty." He argued that slavery, compromised "the general good of men [and] that of particular societies."

Montesquieu later wrote The Spirit of the Laws (1748) in which he compared republics, monarchies, and despotism. He argued that the power of the king came from the people, not from God, thus rejecting the theory of Divine Right, and further argued that all forms of government were shaped by history, geography, and custom. He maintained that the best government was that in which political power was divided and shared by a variety of classes holding unequal rights and privileges. Said Montesquieu, "it is necessary that by the arrangement of things, power checks power." He believed that the thirteen high courts of France, known as the Parlements, should defend the liberties of the people against the excesses of royalty. His idea of a "separation of powers" had a great impact on the French elite, and also was instrumental in the framing of the American Constitution of 1789 and the French constitution of 1791.

François-Marie Arouet, (Voltaire), was by far the most famous of the French philosophes. During his early career, he was imprisoned for insulting the French regent, but was released on condition that he leave the country. He lived in England for three years, and then returned to France where he espoused Montesquieu’s ideas. He was threatened with exile again, but had the good fortune to meet Madame du Châtelet, who invited him to live in her country home, and made him her companion, a fact which did not seem to disturb her husband. This remarkable woman could have been very influential in enlightenment circles were it not for her sex, which precluded her from serious consideration. She once wrote that if she ruled France, "I would reform an abuse which cuts off, so to speak, half the human race. I would make women participate in all the rights of humankind, and above all in those of the intellect."

While living at Madame du Châtelet’s mansion in Cirey, Voltaire wrote a number of works praising the works of English scientists. He was a reformer, not a revolutionary, and soon became in demand in higher circles. He was royal historian in 1745, and later moved to Berlin at the invitation of Frederick the Great. He often engaged in philosophical discussions with Frederick until the two men quarreled, and Voltaire was forced to leave.

Voltaire like Montesquieu, admired the English system of government, writing that :The English are the only people on earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them, and who by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government, where the Prince is all powerful to do good and at the same time is restrained from committing evil. He disagreed with Montesquieu in that he considered human beings incapable of governing themselves. He did not believe in equality, stating that the idea of making servants "absurd and impossible." To him, the best government was a good monarch.

On religious matters, he often challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. He often wrote in describing Church doctrine, "Ecrasez l’inflâme!" ("Crush the horrible thing!") He once criticized Catholic monks by stating that "they sing, they eat, they digest." Often his attacks were in bitter satire; in a description of the Chinese, he wrote that they "have an admirable religion free from superstition and the rage to prosecute,’ implying that the opposite was true in Europe. Voltaire did believe in God however, once writing that "if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, and I think that I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often."" However, Voltaire was a Deist; his God was the great clockmaker who build an orderly universe, then stepped aside and let it run. In Candide, he writes of the contradiction between the goodness of God and the evil of the world. In the story, Candide is an optimistic young man who encounters one disaster and misfortune after another.

Denis Diderot: Diderot together with Jean le Rond d’Alembert, edited the Encyclopedia: the Rational Dictionary of the Sciences, commonly known by its French title, the Encyclopedie. It was a seventeen volume work designed to teach people to think critically and objectively about all matters. Diderot said he wanted to "change the general way of thinking."

The Encyclopedie aroused opposition from the outset. Its first volume, published in 1751, dealt with topics such as atheism, the soul, and blind people (all words beginning with "a" in French. As a result, the government banned publication and the pope placed it on the Index of Forbidden books. He threatened to excommunicate all who bought or read it. The publisher of the work watered down later volumes without the consent of the writers in an attempt to stay out of trouble. The Encyclopedie exalted knowledge, questioned religion and immortality (Diderot was a proclaimed atheist), and criticized legal injustices and intolerance. Diderot championed the cause of women, writing that laws which limited the rights of women were counter to nature. The work was widely read and published in Switzerland, but was extremely popular in France. Copies reached America where it was read by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. It was completely banned in Spain as were other enlightenment works by order of church authorities.

Most of the philosophes considered religion to be a social phenomenon, born from faith, not from reason. They often attacked religious institutions, and the idea that concepts should be accepted without question. Montesquieu once asked, "Is it possible for those who understand nature and have a reasonable idea of God to believe that matter and created things are only 6,000 years old?" Even so, most believed in some concept of God, Diderot being the exception. They did often criticize the way humans practiced their religion. Voltaire once commented that in the beginning, God made man in his own image; but since that time, man had attempted to return the complement.