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The Age of Enlightenment

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The Age of Enlightenment (or The Enlightenment for short) was an intellectual movement in 18th-century Europe. The goal of the Enlightenment was to establish an authoritative ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge based on an "enlightened" rationality. The movement's leaders viewed themselves as a courageous, elite body of intellectuals who were leading the world toward progress, out of a long period of irrationality, superstition, and tyranny which began during a historical period they called the Dark Ages. This movement provided a framework for the American and French Revolutions, as well as the rise of capitalism and the birth of socialism. It is matched by the high baroque era in music, and the neo-classical period in the arts.


Short history of Enlightenment philosophy

The boundaries of the Enlightenment are often thought to cover much of the 17th century as well, though others term the previous era "The Age of Reason". For the present purposes, these two eras are split, however, it is equally acceptable to think of them conjoined together as one long period.

Through the 1500s and half of the 1600s, Europe was wracked by religious wars. When the political situation stabilized, after the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the English Civil War, there was a sharp turn away from the mysticism and belief in individual revelation that was perceived to have driven instability. Instead, according to those that split the two periods, the Age of Reason sought axiomatic philosophy and absolutism as its foundations of knowledge and stability. Epistemology, in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and René Descartes, was based on extreme skepticism, and a quest for the nature of "knowing". The Age of Reason's quest for knowing from axioms would reach its height in pure philosophy with Benedictus de Spinoza and his Ethics, which expounded, a monistic view of the universe where God and Nature were one. This idea would become central to the Enlightenment from Newton through Jefferson.

The Enlightenment was, in many ways, a successor to the ideas of Pascal, Leibniz, Galileo and other philosophers of the previous period. There was a wave of change across European thinking which was exemplified by the natural philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton, mathematical genius and brilliant physicist. The ideas of Newton, his ability to fuse axiomatic proof with physical observation into a coherent system which was easily able to make useful predictions set the tone for much of what would follow in the century after the publication of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

But Newton was not alone in the "systematic revolution" in thinking, merely the most visible and famous example. The idea of uniform laws for natural phenomenona mirrored the greater systematization in a variety of studies. If the previous era was the age of reasoning from first principles, the Enlightenment saw itself as looking into the mind of God by studying creation and adducing the basic truths of the world. This view seems over-reaching to the present, where truth is seen as more provisional, but in its time it was a powerful assertion, which turned on its head the basic notions of the sources of legitimacy.

For those that divide the "Age of Reason" from the "Enlightenment", the precipitating figure of Newton offers a specific example of the importance of the difference, because he took empirically observed and codified facts, such as Kepler's planetary motion, and the "opticks" which had explained lenses, and began to create an underlying theory of how they functioned. This shift unified the pure empiricism of such Renaissance figures as Sir Francis Bacon with the axiomatic approach of Descartes. The belief in a comprehensible world, under an orderly Christian God, was to provide much of the impetus for philosophical inquiry. On one hand, religious philosophy focused on the importance of piety, and the majesty and mystery of God's ultimate nature; on the other hand, ideas such as Deism stressed that the world was amenable to human reason, and that the "laws" which governed its behavior were understandable. The analogy of a "clockwork god" or "god the watchmaker" became prevalent, as many in the time period analogized the increasing sophistication of their ability to craft precision machines which kept order, and the universe which seemed to run in an orderly fashion. That navigation and exploration brought a wider variety of circumstances to European notice, and encouraged the search for underlying rules which could be applied to them, is part of the intellectual process at work.

This focus on law, on the separation of rule from the particulars of behavior, was also essential to the rise of a philosophy which had a much stronger concept of the individual, his rights as being based on other than ancient usage, or tenure, and instead on an intrinsic quality of a person. John Locke wrote his Two Treatises on Government to argue that property was not a family right by tenure, but an individual right brought on by mixing labor with the object in question, and securing it from other use. This focus on process and procedure would be honored, at times, in the breach, as England's own "Star Chamber" court would attest to. However, once the concept was established, that there were "natural" rights, as there were "natural" laws - it became the basis for the exploration of what we would now call economics, and political philosophy.

In his famous 1784 essay "What Is Enlightenment?", Immanuel Kant defined it as follows:

"Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity . Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence!"

The Enlightenment began then, from the belief in a rational, orderly and comprehensible universe - and proceeded, in stages, to demand a rational and orderly organization of knowledge and the state, such as found in the idea of Deism. This began from the assertion that law governed both heavenly and human affairs, and that law gave the king his power, rather than the king's power giving force to law. The conception of law as a relationship between individuals, rather than families, came to the fore, and with it the increasing focus on individual liberty as a fundamental reality, given by "Nature and Nature's God", which, in the ideal state, would be as expansive as possible. The Enlightenment created then, the ideas, of liberty, property and rationality which are still recognizable as the basis for most political philosophy even to the present era: that is, of a free individual being most free within the context of a state which provides stability of the laws.

The "long" Enlightenment is seen as beginning out of the Renaissance drive for humanism and empiricism. Building on the natural philosophy that was growing with the application of algebra to the study of nature, and the discoveries brought about by the invention of the microscope and the telescope. There is also an increasingly complex philosophy of the role of the state and its relationship to the individual. The turbulence of religious wars had brought about a desire for balance, order, and unity.

A good paradigm for understanding why there are those that split the Age of Reason from the Enlightenment is the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes, a product of the age of reason, systematically pursues and categorizes human emotion, and creates the need for a rigid system to hold back the chaos in his work Leviathan. While John Locke is clearly an intellectual descendant, for him the state of nature is the source of all rights and unity, and the protection of the state is to protect, and not hold back, the state of nature. This fundamental shift, from a rather chaotic and dark view of nature, to a fundamentally orderly view, is an important aspect of the Enlightenment.

A second wave of Enlightenment thinking begins in France with the Encyclopædists, the founders of the sort of project of which Wikipedia is an example. Their ideal was that there is a moral architecture to knowledge. Mixing personal comment with the attempt to codify knowledge, Diderot and D'Alembert sought liberation for the mind in the ability to grasp knowledge.

The Enlightenment was suffused with two competing strains, on one hand there is an intense spirituality, and faith in religion and the church. On the other hand, there is a growing streak of anti-clericalism which mocked the distance between the supposed ideals of the church, and the practice of priests. For Voltaire "Écrasez l'infâme!" would be a battle cry for the ideal of a triumphant, rational, society.

By mid-Century the pinnacle of purely Enlightenment thinking was being reached with Voltaire - whose combination of wit, insight, and anger made him the most hailed man of letters since Erasmus. Born Francois Marie Arouet in 1694, he was exiled to England between 1726 and 1729, and there he studied Locke, Newton, and the English Monarchy. Voltaire's ethos was that "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities" - that if people believed in what is unreasonable, they will do what is unreasonable.

This point is, perhaps, the central point of contention over the Enlightenment: whether the construction of reason and credibility creates, inherently, as many problems as it deals with. From the perspective of the Enlightenment, credible reports, viewed through the lens of reason annealed knowledge, and knowledge should be compiled into a source which stood as the authoritative one. The countervailing view, held with increasing force by the Romantic movement and its adherents, is that this process is, inherently, corrupted by social convention, and bars "truth" which is unique, individual and immament from being spelt or spoken.

The Enlightenment balanced then, on the call for "natural" freedom which was good, without "license" which would, in their view, degenerate. Thus the Age of Enlightenment sought reform of Monarchy by laws which were in the best interest of the subjects, and the "enlightened" ordering of society. The idea of enlightened ordering was reflected in the sciences by, for example, Linnaeus' categorization of biology.

These ideas became volatile at the point where the idea that natural freedom was more self-ordering than hierarchy, since hierarchy was the social reality. As that social reality repeatedly disappointed the fundamentally optimistic ideal that reform could end disasters, there became a progressively more strident naturalism which would, eventually, lead to the Romantic movement.

Thinkers of the last wave of the Enlightenment - Jean Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant as well as Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson and the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe adopted the increasingly biological metaphor of self-organization and evolutionary forces. This represented the impending end of the Enlightenment: which believed that nature, while basically good, was not basically self-ordering - see Voltaire's Candide for an example of why not - but instead had to be ordered by reasoning and maturity. The impending Romantic saw the universe as self-ordering, and that chaos was, in a real sense, the result of an excess of rational imposition on an organic world.

This boundary would produce political results: with increasing force in the 1750s there would be attempts in England, Austria, Prussia and France to "rationalize" the Monarchical system and its laws. When this failed to end wars, there was an increasing drive for revolution or dramatic alteration. The Enlightenment idea of rationality as government found its way to the heart of the American Declaration of Independence, and the Jacobin program of the French Revolution, as well as the American Constitution of 1787.

The French Revolution, in particular, represents the Enlightenment philosophy through a violent and messianic lens, particularly during the brief period of Jacobin dictatorship. The desire for rationality in government lead to the attempt to end the Catholic Church, and indeed Christianity, in France, change the calendar, clock, measuring system, monetary system and legal system along lines suggested by what was seen as an orderly rationality. It also took the ideas of social and economic equality further than any other state.

But it would be with Napoleon that the Enlightenment and its style would breathe its last, and longest. Napoleon reorganized France into departments, and would fund a host of projects. One example of the Enlightenment idea at work in Revolutionary and Imperial France was the metric system. In a uniform system of weights and measures, based on axiomatic units - the radius of the earth, the weight and thermodynamic properties of water - prices would float based on measurable quantities, rather than price being fixed. It was thought that this would liberate industry from the tyranny of old production laws, and hence from Medieval structure.

Key conflicts within Enlightenment-period philosophy

As with most periods, the individuals present within the Enlightenment were more aware of their differences than their similarities, within the period there were schools of thought which saw themselves as widely divergent, even as later perspective has come to consider them similar.

One key conflict is on the role of theology - during the previous period, there had been the splintering of the Catholic Church, not, as with previous schisms, largely along political control of the papacy, but along doctrinal lines between Catholic and Protestant theologies. This meant that theology itself had become a source of partisan debate, with different schools attempting to create rationales for their viewpoints, which then, in turn, became generally used. Thus philosophers such as Spinoza searched for a metaphysics of ethics, and this trend would influence pietism and eventually transcendental searches such as those by Immanuel Kant.

Religion was linked to another feature which produced a great deal of Enlightenment thought, namely the rise of the Nation-State . In medieval and Renaissance periods, the state was restricted by the need to work through a host of intermediaries. This had been a response to poor communication, where localism thrived in return for loyalty to some central organization. With the improvements in transportation, organization, navigation and finally the influx of gold and silver from trade and conquest, the state began to assume more and more authority and power. The response against this was a series of theories on the purpose of, and limits of state power. The Enlightenment saw both the cementing of absolutism and counter-reaction of limitation advocated by a string of philosophers from John Locke forward, who influenced both Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

At the same time, the integration of algebraic thinking, acquired from the Islamic world over the previous two centuries, and geometric thinking which had dominated Western mathematics and philosophy since at least Eudoxus, created a scientific and mathematical revolution. Sir Isaac Newton's greatest claim to prominence came from a systematic application of algebra to geometry, and synthesizing a workable calculus which was applicable to scientific problems. The Enlightenment can be aptly thought of as the time where the solar system was truly "discovered": with the accurate calculation of orbits, such as Halley's comet, the discovery of the first planet since antiquity, Uranus by William Herschel, and the calculation of the mass of the Sun using Newton's theory of universal gravitation. The effect that this series of discoveries had on both pragmatic commerce and philosophy cannot be overstated. The excitement of creating a new and orderly vision of the world, as well as the need for a philosophy of science which could encompass the new discoveries would show its fundamental influence in both religious and secular ideas. If Newton could order the cosmos with "natural philosophy", so, it was argued by many, could political philosophy order the body politic.

Within the Enlightment there were two main theories contending to be the basis of that ordering: "divine right" and "natural law". It might seem that divine right would yield absolutist ideas, and that natural law would lead to theories of liberty. The writing of Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) would set the paradigm for the divine right: the universe was ordered by a reasonable God, and therefore his representative on earth had the powers of that God. The orderliness of the cosmos was seen as proof of God, and therefore as proof of the power of monarchy. Natural law, began, not as a reaction against divinity, but instead, as an abstraction: God did not rule arbitrarily, but through natural laws that he enacted on earth. Thomas Hobbes, though an absolutist in government, drew this argument in Leviathan. Once the concept of natural law was invoked, however, it took on a life of its own. If natural law could be used to bolster the position of the monarchy, it could also be used to assert the rights of subjects of that monarch, that if there were natural laws, then there were natural rights associated with them, just as there are rights under man made laws.

What both theories had in common, however, was the need for orderly and comprehensible function of government. The "Enlightened Despotism" of, for example, Catherine the Great of Russia is not based on mystical appeals to authority, but on the pragmatic invocation of state power as necessary to hold back chaotic and anarchic warfare and rebellion. Regularization and standardization were seen as goods, because they allowed the state to reach its power outwards over the entirety of its domain, but also because the liberated people from being entangled in endless local custom, and expanded the sphere of economic and social activity.

Thus rationalization, standardization and the search for fundamental unities would occupy much of the Enlightenment and its arguments over proper methodology and nature of understanding. The culminating efforts of the Enlightenment: for example the economics of Adam Smith, the physical chemistry of Antoine Lavoisier, the idea of evolution pursued by Goethe, the declaration by Jefferson of "inalienable" rights, would, in the end overshadow the idea of "divine right" and direct alteration of the world by the hand of God. It would also be the basis for an overthrow of the idea of completely rational and comprehensible universe, and lead, in turn, to the metaphysics of Hegel and the search for an emotional truth of Romanticism.

Role of the Enlightenment in later philosophy

The Enlightenment, an sich occupies a central role in the justification for the movement known as modernism. Modernism saw itself as being a period of rationality which was overturning foolishly established traditions, and therefore analogized itself to the Encyclopediasts and other philosophes. A variety of 20th century movements, including liberalism and neo-classicism traced their intellectual heritage back to the "reasonable" past, and away from the "emotionalism" of the 19th century. Geometric order, rigor and reductionism were seen as virtues of the Enlightenment. The modern movement points to reductionism and rationality as crucial aspects of Enlightenment thinking which it is the inheritor of, as opposted to irrationality and emotionalism.

With the end of the Second World War and the rise of post-modernity, these same features came to be regarded as liabilities - excessive specialization, failure to heed traditional wisdom or unintended consequences, and the "romanticization" of Enlightenment figures - such as the Founding Fathers of the United States, prompted a backlash against both "Science" and Enlightenment based dogma in general. Philosophers such as Michel Foucault argued that the "age of reason" had to construct a vision of "unreason" as being demonic and subhuman, and therefore evil and befouling, whence by analogy to argue that rationalism in the modern period is, likewise, a construction. On the opposite side of the coin, the Enlightenment was used as a powerful symbol to argue for the supremacy of rationism and rationalization, and therefore any attack on it is connected to despotism and madness, for example in the writings of Gertrude Himmelfarb and Robert Nozick.

This is not to be confused with the role of specific philosophers or individuals from the Enlightenment, but the use of the term in a broad sense by polemicists of varying points of view.

Precursors of the Enlightenment

Important figures of the Enlightenment era

See also

External links

  • Dictionary of the History of Ideas: The Enlightenment
  • Dictionary of the History of Ideas: The Counter-Enlightenment


  • Censored page. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996

Last updated: 02-07-2005 21:24:54
Last updated: 03-05-2005 20:08:33