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Useful Notes / The Enlightenment

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Frontispiece of L'Encyclopédie, drawn by Charles-Nicolas Cochin and engraved by Bonaventure-Louis Prévost.note 

"Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's intelligence without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another. Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own intelligence! is therefore the motto of the enlightenment."
Immanuel Kant, Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?, 1784

Variously called The Age of Reason (after Thomas Paine's book) or if you are French, Le Siècle des Lumièresnote , the term entered English usage in the late 19th Century but was already widely utilized in France and German philosophy to describe the period roughly starting from 1700 to the end of the 18th Century, though there is of course overlap between the old and new centuries.

See also Romanticism Versus Enlightenment.

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The Enlightenment can best be understood as the Even Better Sequel to The Renaissance. The cultural movement in Italy, sparked by the rediscovery of classical texts and culture, developed a dynamic middle-class in city-states and the mix of art and science was by and large restricted to a small minority. Its achievements however were considerable. It managed to revitalize the aristocracy and royal courts and eroded Church power. First, the reformist movement that led to Protestantism, the Anglican Church, and consequently the birth of nascent capitalism. The Counter-Reformation may have kept the Church alive in some countries, but even there, the rulers and royalty managed to regain considerable secular power. Protestant Nations eroded Church power and made use of the development of the Printing Press to encourage mass literacy, initially to print The Bible in vernacular languages for instruction. These nations gradually developed the use of the press for printing and keeping books, which naturally allowed for the exchange of ideas on a wider, more comprehensive scale. Literacy gradually led to improved education and a reading public which was receptive to ideas. As time went on, the Protestant Church became nearly as rigid in doctrine. Since they were supported by royalty more directly, it brought into greater relief the problems of statecraft.

Ironically, on a cultural level, The Protestant Reformation was initially more conservative than the Church, since Martin Luther opposed the Church for its corruption and looseness in doctrine, the very factors which made the Renaissance possible. The Church in an effort to clamp down began to move towards a slightly more reactionary direction and this had an effect on culture and society. Niccolò Machiavelli, a major inspiration for the Enlightenment philosophers, had dreamed of a republic only for the Medici, with the Pope's blessing, to return to Florence, hoist him up on a strappado and banish him outside the city where he wrote his final works, including The Prince about how politics really worked with a stinging pain in his hands.

The other big incident of course is the case of Galileo Galilei, where the Church despite encouraging science at least fitfully, forced one of history's greatest physicists to recant his theory.note  The Church won for the short term, but these memories lingered in Europe and the moral for budding philosophers, political theorists, artists and scientists was that true freedom could only be achieved with the separation of Church and State,note  and building a government and society that promoted free exchange of ideas and safeguarded the freedom of speech. Henceforth, no more would scientists, philosophers and artists, intellectuals or poets dream of reconciling their ideas with a hoped for tolerant and open-minded Church, they would either go to secular authority, be it royal or otherwise, or dream of creating a world where there would be true freedom.

If the Renaissance looked to an idealized Roman Republic to revitalize its culture and society, the Enlightenment looked ahead and kept attacking the problem on how to make such ideas work in practice for the benefit of the whole of society, in a changing world. Thus sparked the debate of Romanticism Versus Enlightenment which is often superficial since it assumes that thinking about practical matters, workable government and privileging intellect somehow doesn't require significant capacities of imagination and intuition. Also, unlike the Renaissance, the Enlightenment succeeded, even triumphed, in becoming a mass movement.

The Enlightenment is the source of the three great revolutions - The American Revolution, The French Revolution and Industrial Revolution. The American founding fathers and the French Revolutionaries drew on ideas developed in the 18th Century by thinkers such as John Locke who developed the school of empiricism and classical liberalism, Montesquieu who wrote down a treatise for representative government with separation of powers, Voltaire who argued tirelessly for freedom of speech and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued for the social contract, individualism and children's education. Science or natural philosophy as it was still called in its early years, found its modern origins in the figure of the great Isaac Newton who, along with Leibniz in Germany, sparked an intellectual revolution across Europe in the fields of mathematics and physics. It was also an age of revolution in philosophy and ethics where the likes of Spinoza, Kant and Hume were trying to formulate a philosophy that despite not being atheistic in any general sense was certainly drifting towards secularism, atheism and later Deism, which denied a personal God in favor of a distant Supreme Being and insistence on the primacy of the natural world.

Politically, the Enlightenment was initially the mainspring and purview of the aristocrats and also the rising middle-classes taking advantage of opportunities for education. Enlightenment theorists differed on what their ideal government was. Many European rulers such as Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great came to be called "The Great" because they would fund, patronize and promote the ideas of intellectuals who felt creatively stifled in their home countries. This led to what came to be called the "Enlightened Monarch" and the belief that ideas could convince the powerful to gradually reform its authority and change society from above. Realpolitik however stifled any real sincerity such rulers may or may not have had. Frederick the Great may have written a critique of Machiavelli's ideas of a despotic amoral Prince, but in practice his authority rested on traditional Divine Right of Kings. When the revolutions broke out in America and France, a backlash quickly developed towards the Enlightenment. It was driven both by the fact that the long hoped for radical social changes anticipated by the philosophers, would, *gasp* become real in the lifetimes of nobles and kings, and people of different stripes who weren't comfortable with their way of living being radically changed. It was also based on the excesses of revolution, especially in France where the Reign of Terror challenged the idea that rationalism would lead to peace, when it could easily lead to a belief that Utopia Justifies the Means and/or Intellectually Supported Tyranny. The fact that it ultimately led to the rise of Napoléon Bonaparte also soured people's dreams.


The Enlightenment suffered from many unresolved contradictions.

It was a period where slavery in the New World, and the abolition of the same, became a major issue providing contradictory outcomes. Towards the end of the 1700s the modern abolitionist movement found footing in both France and England, and the practice was widely criticized by several intellectuals and political figures of the Enlightenment, including Mirabeau, Lafayette, Condorcet, Denis Diderot, Robespierre, Danton and Abbe Gregoire. In 1794, at the height of the Reign of Terror, France became the first nation to abolish slavery in an act of law, inspired by the Haitian Revolution which broke out in 1791. This was reversed by Napoleon Bonaparte however. In England, the abolitionist movement eventually led to the Parliament ending the slave trade in 1807 and deploying the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy to patrol the Atlantic Ocean to capture and free any slave ships. However, slavery continued in the New World colonies, be it England or France, and in the case of England would end in 1833, while France would abolish slavery again in 1848, and some slave trading and slave-ownning empires like the Dutch only abolished slavery in 1862 (around the time of The American Civil War). The American Founding Fathers, including such devotees of the Enlightenment such as Thomas Jefferson, condoned slavery in America although the Northern States would gradually abolish slavery in the first three decades of the Republic while letting the South persist, and Jefferson ended America's involvement in the international slave trade.

Modern feminism traces its roots to the end of the century when Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and in France Olympe de Gouges criticized the Declaration of the Rights of Men for making no mention whatsoever of women's rights to vote and own property.note  Even the most pro-women revolutionaries such as the highly enlightened Marquis de Condorcet refrained to put the vote for women in the Girondin Constitution of 1792 (which was chaired by Thomas Paine). The few prominent pro-women's rights reforms of the Revolution (no-fault divorce, the right to inherit property, access to primary education) would be abrogated by Napoleon whose famous Napoleonic Code, while codifying many revolutionary and enlightened reforms, strengthened men's rights over women. In England and the United States, the social situation of women would persist in the same manner for quite some time and where aristocratic women in England had more freedom in the 1700s-early 1800s, the situation would reverse itself in the Long 19th Century.

Enlightenment was also the period where colonialism and imperialism developed its engine and the rise of capitalism and industrial revolution led to economic exploitation of other nations, though even there thinkers like Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations was arguing against colonialist exploitation. The Industrial Revolution created a demand for a global market for English goods and much raw material, which coupled with the expansionist hegemony of the East India Company, as well as the high demand and scarcity for Chinese goods in England led to the rise of The British Empire which after surviving Napoleon's continental blockade was without rival and peer for another hundred years. Also the rise of nationalism and popular sovereignty was initially seen by many Enlightenment writers as a progressive and powerfully motivating idea but this later led to xenophobia and an attack of the spirit of cosmopolitanism that was the dominant aspect of the 18th Century's Republic of Letters.

Romanticism initially developed alongside Enlightened sentiments, and found its roots in many figures of this time, namely Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Romanticism can be partially understood as an expression of the contradictions of the Enlightenment, and it has multiple aspects. On the one hand it found expression in outright reaction and rejection of the enlightenment and a longing for the Ancien Regime, but on the other hand the likes of Beethoven, Percy Shelley and others remained animated by the utopian yearnings of the 1700s. The development of nationalism originated in the context of developing a secular political culture separate from church and crown, and in Romanticism this led to writers conducting research on folklore, developing an appreciation for Medievalism (i.e. imagined medievalism rather than real historical research) and later the attempt to reclaim "heritage", which again had both positive and negative consequences.

The spirit of the Enlightenment remains strongest in the natural and social sciences, albeit moving and correcting itself from several of the unquestioned assumptions of its forebears. The rationalist underpinnings of the Enlightenment, grounded as it was in Newtonian physics, were replaced by Einsteinian physics which presented a view of nature that was far more random and uncertain than they had assumed. Later philosophers and thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud cast a decidedly dim view of the triumph of human rationality when so much of humanity is driven by neuroses, phobias and conformity. The late 20th-early 21st Century still sees a lot of debates on the legacy and importance of the Enlightenment. There's also the debate, mostly parochial, on the differences between the skeptical Enlightenment rooted in Analytic philosophy (British) and the continental Enlightenment rooted in arguments on first principles (mostly French), with the likes of Bertrand Russell being especially critical of the latter. More positive thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin stress the importance of its ideals but argue that later centuries went wrong somewhere, while others believe that the real lesson of the Enlightenment is that despite having the greatest minds in a single generation and amazing advancement in science and political rights, Humans Are Flawed.

Basically the era started with either the end of the Thirty Years' War or The Glorious Revolution — at least in Britain — and ended somewhat with The French Revolution. Or this might be a continuation or an extension to The Renaissance whether you sum up this era as the Early Modern Era that would be prelude to the Industrial Revolution, or whether a condensation to the era whenever you play Civilization or Europa Universalis.


  • In England, literary criticism under Samuel Johnson was waking up to the importance of Shakespeare in the English canon. The emerging reading public witnessed the spread of the newspaper industry and advertising and the Novel was slowly becoming the established prose narrative genre. English literary culture and its debates, as reflected and preserved in Boswell's Life of Johnson first took root here.
  • The 18th Century was perhaps the golden age of satire with the likes of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne, and in France, Voltaire creating dazzling new forms of literature that castigated stupidity, naivete, received ideas about society and religion.
  • Classical Economics traces its roots to the end of the decade, and by the early 19th Century became a distinct discipline, grounded in mathematics, social research and journalism. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations followed in turns by David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and several others initiated analysis on what we would now call Capitalism.
  • People's ideas of history were also being challenged. Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, pioneered use of primary sources and archival references to present a radically new idea of the past. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's polemical arguments on the structures of society and speculation on primitive societies and downsides of civilization (incorrectly flanderized by Voltaire as a Noble Savage) would later be identified by Claude-Levi Strauss as a foundational event in anthropology. While philosophers Giambattista Vico and the later G. W. F. Hegel would create new theories on history, with Hegel's idea of history as dialectic becoming a vital tool (perhaps misused) for Karl Marx's formulation of historical materialism. This, coupled with other works by Alexis de Tocqueville (a political liberal moderate), led to the development of the social sciences.
  • In France, the famous Encyclopedists, led by philosopher Denis Diderot, the mathematician d'Alembert with contributions from Rousseau and others, published perhaps the first real Wiki, a highly informed and entertaining history of ideas and concepts for the general readers which directly challenged church censorship and to this day is regarded as a landmark for freedom of speech and expression.
  • American thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine managed to absorb the cosmopolitan sharing of ideas in Europe with, what was perceived as, down-to-earth American simplicity that made them endearing to Europe and made these ideas accessible to Americans. Thomas Paine in particular was famous for making complex arguments about government and biblical criticism accessible to the general reader by speaking in unaffected down to earth prose.
  • In recent years, scholars such as Robert Darnton in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime have demonstrated that the Enlightenment was not merely a bunch of aristocrats in salons reading the works on the Vatican Index for private amusement. In addition to what can be called an "Englightenment from Above", there was an "Enlightenment from Below" which proliferated in the form of pirated editions of works by several prominent Enlightenment philosophes, as well as critical works that cunningly escaped the censorship by passing themselves off as cheap mass-market pornography (sometimes with actual porn) written by individuals as illustrious as Comte de Mirabeau himself. The content of the pornography itself featured tropes that criticized the reigning order, including sexy nuns and Marie Antoinette's caprices. The end result of this was the fact that by the time the French Revolution broke out, Paris and other prominent urban centers had a near completely literate male population.

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