The High Enlightenment


Early Enlightenment thinkers had maintained a certain harmonious understanding between themselves, a virtual mutual admiration society. After 1750, this unity broke down, as the new world view was increasingly accepted by the educated public, and some thinkers began to exaggerate enlightenment ideas to the extreme. They were often rigid and dogmatic in their opinions.

Among these was the German born, French educated Baron Paul díHolbach, who wrote The System of Nature, and took the extremist position that human beings were merely machines whose actions were completely dominated by outside forces. To him, free will, God and the immortality of the soul were naÔve myths. His extreme ideas were offensive to other enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire. As Deists, they accepted the existence of God, but opposed the intolerance and abuses they had witnessed in the established church. They were repelled by Holbachís atheism, and saw in his extreme views the very intolerance they had argued against.

Among those influenced by Holbach was the British philosopher, David Hume. Hume built on Lockeís teachings on learning, and argued that the human mind was nothing more than a bundle of impressions which originated only in experience; one could know nothing which he had not learned from experience. Reason could not answer questions that couldnít be verified by sense experience. This included the origin of the universe and knowledge of God. His arguments undermined the Enlightenmentís faith in the power of reason alone.

Hume considered reason as subject to the appetites and passions of human nature. "Ration [reason]," he argued, "is the slave of passion." Although he argued vociferously that the existence of God could not be proven by logic alone, Hume was not an atheist; rather he insisted that religion was a matter of faith alone.

A third thinker, Marie-Jean Caritat, the marquis de Condorcet, took a utopian view of human progress. In his Progress of the Human Mind, written during the French Revolution, he postulated that there were nine stages of human progress that had already occurred, and the tenth would bring perfection. It is ironic that Condorcet wrote these fanciful ideas while fleeing for his life. He was caught and sentenced to die on the guillotine, but committed suicide before he could be executed. His ideas of progress were apparently not shared by his fellow human beings.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Rousseau 1712 Ė 1778) was the most famous of the Enlightenment thinkers who attacked faith in reason, progress, and moderation. He was born in Geneva, but traveled to France, where he was influenced by Diderot and Voltaire. He was neurotic and suspicious by nature, and came to believe that his friends were plotting against him. He broke with them in themed 1750ís, and lived as an outsider with his uneducated common law wife.

Rousseau was passionately committed to the concept of individual freedom, as had been the other Enlightenment thinkers. However, he found reason (rationalism) and civilization to be destructive, rather than civilizing influences. To Rousseau, emotion, instinct and spontaneity were essential parts of human nature. He felt the basic goodness of the individual and the unspoiled child had to be protected from the cruel refinements of civilization. Rousseauís thinking had a tremendous influence on the Romantic Movement which rebelled against eighteenth century Enlightenment culture, and was an important influence in the development of child psychology.

In Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1762), Rousseau argued that civilization had corrupted the natural goodness of man, which he called the "fundamental principle" of political thought. Manís quest for private property had disrupted the harmonious relationship he had previously enjoyed, as it had created a hierarchy of wealth. He expressed his opinions on the vices of civilization in Emile, (1762) which began with the words, "Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of nature; but everything degenerates in the hands of man." He describes in the novel the ideal natural, secular education of a young man named Emile, who is exposed to nature during walks to explore brooks and mills. He believes in the novel that Emile possesses a certain "primitive virtue" that must be preserved against the vices of culture.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau commented on political theory, arguing in favor of general will and popular sovereignty. He maintained that the general will was sacred and absolute, reflecting the common interests of all people; that they displaced the monarch as the holder of sovereign power. This "general will" was not necessarily the will of the majority, however; it could be the authentic, long term needs of the people as interpreted by a minority, who were wiser and more farsighted than the general masses. He summed up his thinking with the assertion that "men are born free, yet everywhere, they are in chains." Under the Social Contract, individuals would surrender their natural rights to the "general will" to preserve order and security. Rousseauís thinking was influential in the French Revolution, and has been used by many dictators, who have claimed that they, not the majority of the voters, represent the general will, and thus the true interests of the masses.

Diffusion of Enlightenment Ideas: With the popularity of Enlightenment ideas, the European market for books saw a tremendous increase in the eighteenth century. In Germany, the number of new titles published grew from roughly 600 in 1700 to eleven hundred in 1764. France also saw an explosive growth in book consumption, and a modest increase in literacy. Subject to heavy censorship, many of these books were published outside France and smuggled back in. A large number of these were scandalous works, often pornographic. They often described moral and sexual depravity at the French court. A favorite theme was the beautiful but immoral French noblewoman who used sexual charms to gain power over weak rulers, and thereby corrupted the process of government.

Artistic taste also changed with the enlightenment and a new style of art known as rococo developed. Its style reflected a definite feminine influence. Rococo, often called Louis XV style, began in France. Like baroque, it featured flowing curves, suggesting rocks and shells. The name derives from the French words for rocks (rocailles) and shells (coquilles). It stressed smallness of scale, reducing baroque forms to elegant, decorative style, as in gilded molding for theaters and bedrooms. It often incorporated wood, metal, stucco, glass, and porcelain (recently imported from China) and reflected increasingly Asian influences, as European interest in Asia grew. It often incorporates elements of nature, such as birds and flowers as decorative objects rather than religious objects. Rococo style often included soft pastels, sentimental portraits, and frequently portrayed starry eyed lovers protected by hovering cupids. The wallpaper on this page is typical of rococo art.

Rococo influence was most prominent in Britain, and the most popular Rococo artist of the day was William Hogarth. He portrayed everyday life in Britain with a combination of affection and satire. His paintings often portray Englishmen dining on large pieces of beef, dishonest lawyers, a clergyman looking for a better post while ignoring his duties, and working people drowning their sorrows in cheap gin

The Enlightenment had a direct influence on the growing popularity of History as a discipline. The philosophes were largely responsible for creating it as a modern discipline as they had a keen interest in understanding human experience. Previously, there had been little interest in studying history. The church fathers had espoused the primacy of theology and viewed this world as a vale of tears which was little more than preparation for the next life. When all of human experience, including non-Western cultures emerged as suitable for inquiry, the discipline was born. The renewed interest in past human experience led Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) to write his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire following a visit to the Coliseum of Rome. Gibbonís work is a massive three volume tome completed over twelve years, and is one of the most definitive works of Roman history. Exhibiting the typical enlightenment intolerance for organized religion, Gibbon blamed the fall of the empire on its embracing Christianity, which he said, "corrupted the Roman mind and soul."

Religious practice in Great Britain increased among all social classes during the time of the Enlightenment, despite the deism or atheism of the philosophes. The most notable change was the birth of Methodism as a result of the preaching of John Wesley (1703-1791). Wesley was an Anglican trained in theology at Oxford, but believed it was his mission to infuse ordinary people (often ignored by the established Anglican Church) with religious enthusiasm. Wesley never formally left the Anglican Church, and never claimed to be setting up a new denomination, but such was the effect of his ministry among those whom he spoke of as "the people called Methodists." He preached in open fields and highways to common people, and published religious tracts aimed at the working folk. He attracted over 100,000 followers.

Wesley and Methodismís suggestion that all people were equal in the eyes of God offended some members of the upper class, largely because the Methodist had a tendency to publicly confess sins which the upper classes thought were best unmentioned. A noblewoman once commented that she hated the Methodists because "it is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting, and at variance with high rank and good breeding."

Wesley emphasized hard work, abstinence from dancing and drinking, gambling, even wearing jewelry. He was opposed to popular protest, and his influence may largely have prevented the kind of peasant revolt which Karl Marx envisioned occurring in Great Britain.

Even with the influence of Wesley and others, religious interest elsewhere on the continent waned by the middle of the eighteenth century. Fewer wills provided for the reciting of Masses to release the deceased from Purgatory, and in France, popular dislike of the exemption of the clergy from paying taxes increased. Many of the readers of enlightenment literature seem to have lost interest in organized religion.

Classical Music became popular for the masses as opposed to being reserved for the wealthy chosen few. Franz Joseph Haydn originally only wrote music for which he had been commissioned, but by the 1790ís was performing symphonies in public concerts. George Frideric Handel performed operas and concerts in rented theaters and attracted large crowds. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart also wrote and performed opera and symphonic works for the general populace. A genius who had few social skills, a contemporary once said of Mozart, "I would wish for his fortune that he had half as much talent and twice as much tact." Mozart played public concerts and organized a series of subscription concerts on his own, but they were not immediately successful, as his music was too complicated and innovative for the general populace. Mozart spent his money as fast as he made it and died a pauper at age thirty five. He was buried in an unmarked common grave. To this day, the site of his grave is unknown.

Greater rights and expanded education for women was championed by a number of philosophes. Many argued that the position and treatment of women was the best indicators of a societyís level of civilization and decency. They did not, however, advocate equal rights for women, just "more" rights than they had at the time. Women often participated in salons (meetings in private homes of people to discuss ideas) in which enlightenment ideas were exchanged. They often functioned as informal schools where established hostesses bonded with younger women and passed on to them social skills and graces.

A visitor to the salon of Madame Geoffrin in Paris, who hosted artists on Monday and men of letters on Wednesday, commented once, "I well remember seeing all Europe standing three deep around her chair." Her husband sat silently at the other end of the table while his wife pus the philosophes through their paces. When a regular guest noted on one occasion that the chair where the quiet husband usually sat was empty, and asked about his whereabouts, Mme. Geoffrin responded, "He was my husband, and heís dead."

Not all ideas discussed at salons were of equal merit. In the 1780ís, a German scientist, Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) proclaimed the healing properties of electromagnetic treatments, a process known as "Mesmerism," which attracted considerable interest. He described a "universal fluid" which linked the human body to the universe. Hence the phrase that one captivated by certain ideas is "mesmerized."

The Enlightenment also saw the proliferation of Masonic Lodges. They had begun as early as the sixteenth century as stonemasonís guilds, but during the enlightenment brought together those who opposed the influence of the established churches in public life. Members took vows of secrecy although their membership lists and meeting places were not secret. Members of the Masonic lodges maintained a general faith in progress, toleration, and a critical attitude toward organized religion.

Limitations on Enlightenment Ideas: Although the Enlightenment was readily received in affluent circles, its impact on the "masses" is more problematical. Books and pamphlets distributing enlightenment ideas were expensive. Censorship was a problem in many areas, particularly in Catholic France, when all books and pamphlets published or sold had to be approved by the censorship office. Censored books were burned, and those who published them could be sentenced to death, although more frequently their shops were closed. Even the Dutch, typically tolerant of religious dissent, banned Diderotís Philosophic Thoughts, as it was considered an attack on religion. In France, the monarchy controlled what was published through the licensing of printers, booksellers and peddlers.