The Enlightenment Explained
Although the intellectual movement called "The Enlightenment" is usually associated with the 18th century, its roots in fact go back much further. But before we explore those roots, we need to define the term. This is one of those rare historical movements which in fact named itself. Certain thinkers and writers, primarily in London and Paris, believed that they were more enlightened than their compatriots and set out to enlighten them.
They believed that human reason could be used to combat ignorance, superstition, and tyranny and to build a better world. Their principal targets were religion (embodied in France in the Catholic Church) and the domination of society by a hereditary aristocracy.
Background in Antiquity
To understand why this movement
became so influential in the 18th century, it is important to
go back in time. We could choose almost any starting point, but
let us begin with the recovery of Aristotelian logic by Thomas
Aquinas in the 13th century. In his hands the logical procedures
so carefully laid out by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle
were used to defend the dogmas of Christianity; and for the next
couple of centuries, other thinkers pursued these goals to shore
up every aspect of faith with logic. These thinkers were sometimes
called "schoolmen" (more formally, "scholastics,")
and Voltaire frequently refers to them as "doctors,"
by which he means "doctors of theology."
Unfortunately for the Catholic Church,
the tools of logic could not be confined to the uses it preferred.
After all, they had been developed in Athens, in a pagan culture
which had turned them on its own traditional beliefs. It was only
a matter of time before later Europeans would do the same.
The Renaissance Humanists
In the 14th and 15th century there
emerged in Italy and France a group of thinkers known as the "humanists."
The term did not then have the anti-religious associations it
has in contemporary political debate. Almost all of them were
practicing Catholics. They argued that the proper worship of God
involved admiration of his creation, and in particular of that
crown of creation: humanity. By celebrating the human race and
its capacities they argued they were worshipping God more appropriately
than gloomy priests and monks who harped on original sin and continuously
called upon people to confess and humble themselves before the
Almighty. Indeed, some of them claimed that humans were like God,
created not only in his image, but with a share of his creative
power. The painter, the architect, the musician, and the scholar,
by exercising their intellectual powers, were fulfilling divine
This celebration of human capacity,
though it was mixed in the Renaissance with elements of gloom
and superstition (witchcraft trials flourished in this period
as they never had during the Middle Ages), was to bestow a powerful
legacy on Europeans. The goal of Renaissance humanists was to
recapture some of the pride, breadth of spirit, and creativity
of the ancient Greeks and Romans, to replicate their successes
and go beyond them. Europeans developed the belief that tradition
could and should be used to promote change. By cleaning and sharpening
the tools of antiquity, they could reshape their own time.
Galileo Galilei, for instance, was
to use the same sort of logic the schoolmen had used--reinforced
with observation--to argue in 1632 for the Copernican notion that
the earth rotates on its axis beneath the unmoving sun. The Church,
and most particularly the Holy Inquisition, objected that the
Bible clearly stated that the sun moved through the sky and denounced
Galileo's teachings, forcing him to recant (take back)
what he had written and preventing him from teaching further.
The Church's triumph was a pyrrhic victory, for though it could
silence Galileo, it could not prevent the advance of science (though
most of those advances would take place in Protestant northern
Europe, out of the reach of the pope and his Inquisition).
But before Galileo's time, in the
16th century, various humanists had begun to ask dangerous questions.
François Rabelais, a French monk and physician influenced
by Protestantism, but spurred on by his own rebelliousness, challenged
the Church's authority in his Gargantua and Pantagruel, ridiculing
many religious doctrines as absurd.
Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne, in a much more
quiet and modest but ultimately more subversive way, asked a single
question over and over again in his Essays: "What
do I know?" By this he meant that we have no right to impose
on others dogmas which rest on cultural habit rather than absolute
truth. Powerfully influenced by the discovery of thriving non-Christian
cultures in places as far off as Brazil, he argued that morals
may be to some degree relative. Who are Europeans to insist that
Brazilian cannibals who merely consume dead human flesh instead
of wasting it are morally inferior to Europeans who persecute
and oppress those of whom they disapprove?
This shift toward cultural relativism,
though it was based on scant understanding of the newly discovered
peoples, was to continue to have a profound effect on European
thought to the present day. Indeed, it is one of the hallmarks
of the Enlightenment. Just as their predecessors had used the
tools of antiquity to gain unprecedented freedom of inquiry, the
Enlightenment thinkers used the examples of other cultures to
gain the freedom to reshape not only their philosophies, but their
societies. It was becoming clear that there was nothing inevitable
about the European patterns of thought and living: there were
many possible ways of being human, and doubtless new ones could
The other contribution of Montaigne
to the Enlightenment stemmed from another aspect of his famous
question: "What do I know?" If we cannot be certain
that our values are God-given, then we have no right to impose
them by force on others. Inquisitors, popes, and kings alike had
no business enforcing adherence to particular religious or philosophical
It is one of the great paradoxes
of history that radical doubt was necessary for the new sort of
certainty called "scientific." The good scientist is
the one is willing to test all assumptions, to challenge all traditional
opinion, to get closer to the truth. If ultimate truth, such as
was claimed by religious thinkers, was unattainable by scientists,
so much the better. In a sense, the strength of science at its
best is that it is always aware of its limits, aware that knowledge
is always growing, always subject to change, never absolute. Because
knowledge depends on evidence and reason, arbitrary authority
can only be its enemy.
The 17th Century
René Descartes, in the 17th
century, attempted to use reason as the schoolmen had, to shore
up his faith; but much more rigorously than had been attempted
before. He tried to begin with a blank slate, with the bare minimum
of knowledge: the knowledge of his own existence ("I think,
therefore I am"). From there he attempted to reason his way to
a complete defense of Christianity, but to do so he committed
so many logical faults that his successors over the centuries
were to slowly disintegrate his gains, even finally challenging
the notion of selfhood with which he had begun. The history of
philosophy from his time to the early 20th century is partly the
story of more and more ingenious logic proving less and less,
until Ludwig Wittgenstein succeeded in undermining the very bases
of philosophy itself.
But that is a story for a different
course. Here we are concerned with early stages in the process
in which it seemed that logic could be a powerful avenue to truth.
To be sure, logic alone could be used to defend all sorts of absurd
notions; and Enlightenment thinkers insisted on combining it with
something they called "reason" which consisted of common
sense, observation, and their own unacknowledged prejudices in
favor of skepticism and freedom.
We have been focusing closely on
a thin trickle of thought which traveled through an era otherwise
dominated by dogma and fanaticism. The 17th century was torn by
witch-hunts and wars of religion and imperial conquest. Protestants
and Catholics denounced each other as followers of Satan, and
people could be imprisoned for attending the wrong church, or
for not attending any. All publications, whether pamphlets or
scholarly volumes, were subject to prior censorship by both church
and state, often working hand in hand. Slavery was widely practiced,
especially in the colonial plantations of the Western Hemisphere,
and its cruelties frequently defended by leading religious figures.
The despotism of monarchs exercising far greater powers than any
medieval king was supported by the doctrine of the "divine
right of kings," and scripture quoted to show that revolution
was detested by God. Speakers of sedition or blasphemy quickly
found themselves imprisoned, or even executed. Organizations which
tried to challenge the twin authorities of church and state were
banned. There had been plenty of intolerance and dogma to go around
in the Middle Ages, but the emergence of the modern state made
its tyranny much more efficient and powerful.
It was inevitable that sooner or
later many Europeans would begin to weary of the repression and
warfare carried out in the name of absolute truth. In addition,
though Protestants had begun by making powerful critiques of Catholicism,
they quickly turned their guns on each other, producing a bewildering
array of churches each claiming the exclusive path to salvation.
It was natural for people tossed from one demanding faith to another
to wonder whether any of the churches deserved the authority they
claimed, and to begin to prize the skepticism of Montaigne over
the certainty of Luther or Calvin.
Meanwhile, there were other powerful
forces at work in Europe: economic ones which were to interact
profoundly with these intellectual trends.
The Political and Economic Background
During the late Middle Ages, peasants
had begun to move from rural estates to the towns in search of
increased freedom and prosperity. As trade and communication improved
during the Renaissance, the ordinary town-dweller began to realize
that things need not always go on as they had for centuries. New
charters could be written, new governments formed, new laws passed,
new businesses begun. Although each changed institution quickly
tried to stabilize its power by claiming the support of tradition,
the pressure for change continued to mount. It was not only contact
with alien cultural patterns which influenced Europeans, it was
the wealth brought back from Asia and the Americas which catapulted
a new class of merchants into prominence, partially displacing
the old aristocracy whose power had been rooted in the ownership
of land. These merchants had their own ideas about the sort of
world they wanted to inhabit, and they became major agents of
change, in the arts, in government, and in the economy.
They were naturally convinced that
their earnings were the result of their individual merit and hard
work, unlike the inherited wealth of traditional aristocrats.
Whereas individualism had been chiefly emphasized in the Renaissance
by artists, especially visual artists, it now became a core value.
The ability of individual effort to transform the world became
a European dogma, lasting to this day.
But the chief obstacles to the reshaping
of Europe by the merchant class were the same as those faced by
the rationalist philosophers: absolutist kings and dogmatic churches.
The struggle was complex and many-sided, with each participant
absorbing many of the others' values; but the general trend is
clear: individualism, freedom and change replaced community, authority,
and tradition as core European values. Religion survived, but
weakened and often transformed almost beyond recognition;
the monarchy was to dwindle over the course of the hundred years beginning
in the mid-18th century to a pale shadow of its former self.
This is the background of the 18th-century
Enlightenment. Europeans were changing, but Europe's institutions
were not keeping pace with that change. The Church insisted that
it was the only source of truth, that all who lived outside its
bounds were damned, while it was apparent to any reasonably sophisticated
person that most human beings on earth were not and had never
been Christians--yet they had built great and inspiring civilizations.
Writers and speakers grew restive at the omnipresent censorship
and sought whatever means they could to evade or even denounce
Most important, the middle classes--the
bourgeoisie--were painfully aware that they were paying
taxes to support a fabulously expensive aristocracy which contributed
nothing of value to society (beyond, perhaps, its patronage of
the arts, which the burghers of Holland had shown could be equally
well exercised by themselves), and that those useless aristocrats
were unwilling to share power with those who actually managed
and--to their way of thinking,--created the national wealth. They
were to find ready allies in France among the impoverished masses
who may have lived and thought much like their ancestors, but
who were all too aware that with each passing year they were paying
higher and higher taxes to support a few thousand at Versailles
in idle dissipation.
The Role of the Aristocrats
Interestingly, it was among those
very idle aristocrats that the French Enlightenment philosophers
were to find some of their earliest and most enthusiastic followers.
Despite the fact that the Church and State were more often than
not allied with each other, they were keenly aware of their differences.
Even kings could on occasion be attracted by arguments which seemed
to undermine the authority of the Church. The fact that the aristocrats
were utterly unaware of the precariousness of their position also
made them overconfident, interested in dabbling in the new ideas
partly simply because they were new and exciting.
Voltaire moved easily in these aristocratic
circles, dining at their tables, taking a titled mistress, corresponding
with monarchs. He opposed tyranny and dogma, but he had no notion
of reinventing that discredited Athenian folly, democracy. He
had far too little faith in the ordinary person for that. What
he did think was that educated and sophisticated persons could
be brought to see through the exercise of their reason that the
world could and should be greatly improved.
Rousseau vs. Voltaire
Not all Enlightenment thinkers were
like Voltaire in this. His chief adversary was Jean-Jacques Rousseau,
who distrusted the aristocrats not out of a thirst for change
but because he believed they were betraying decent traditional
values. He opposed the theater which was Voltaire's lifeblood,
shunned the aristocracy which Voltaire courted, and argued for
something dangerously like democratic revolution. Whereas Voltaire
argued that equality was impossible, Rousseau argued that inequality
was not only unnatural, but that--when taken too far--it made
decent government impossible. Whereas Voltaire charmed with his
wit, Rousseau ponderously insisted on his correctness, even while
contradicting himself. Whereas Voltaire insisted on the supremacy
of the intellect, Rousseau emphasized the emotions, becoming a
contributor to both the Enlightenment and its successor, romanticism.
And whereas Voltaire endlessly repeated the same handful of core
Enlightenment notions, Rousseau sparked off original thoughts
in all directions: ideas about education, the family, government,
the arts, and whatever else attracted his attention.
For all their personal differences,
the two shared more values than they liked to acknowledge. They
viewed absolute monarchy as dangerous and evil and rejected orthodox
Christianity. Though Rousseau often struggled to seem more devout,
he was almost as much a skeptic as Voltaire: the minimalist faith
both shared was called "deism," and it was eventually
to transform European religion and have powerful influences on
other aspects of society as well.
Across the border in Holland, the
merchants, who exercised most political power, there made a successful
industry out of publishing books that could not be printed in
countries like France. Dissenting religious groups mounted radical
attacks on Christian orthodoxy.
The Enlightenment in England
Meanwhile Great Britain had developed
its own Enlightenment, fostered by thinkers like the English thinker John Locke, the Scot David
Hume, and many others. England had anticipated the rest of Europe
by deposing and decapitating its king back in the 17th century.
Although the monarchy had eventually been restored, this experience
created a certain openness toward change in many places that could
not be entirely extinguished. English Protestantism struggled
to express itself in ways that widened the limits of freedom of
speech and press. Radical Quakers and Unitarians broke open old
dogmas in ways that Voltaire was to find highly congenial when
he found himself there in exile. The English and French Enlightenments
exchanged influences through many channels, Voltaire not least
Because England had gotten its revolution
out of the way early, it was able to proceed more smoothly and
gradually down the road to democracy; but English liberty was
dynamite when transported to France, where resistance by church
and state was fierce to the last possible moment. The result was
ironically that while Britain remained saturated with class privilege
and relatively pious, France was to become after its own revolution
the most egalitarian and anticlerical state in Europe--at least
in its ideals. The power of religion and the aristocracy diminished
gradually in England; in France they were violently uprooted.
The Enlightenment in America
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic,
many of the intellectual leaders of the American colonies were
drawn to the Enlightenment. The colonies may have been founded
by leaders of various dogmatic religious persuasions, but when
it became necessary to unite against England, it was apparent
that no one of them could prevail over the others, and that the
most desirable course was to agree to disagree. Nothing more powerfully
impelled the movement toward the separation of church and state
than the realization that no one church could dominate this new
Many of the most distinguished leaders
of the American revolution--Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Paine--were
powerfully influenced by English and--to a lesser extent--French
Enlightenment thought. The God who underwrites the concept of
equality in the Declaration of Independence is the same deist
God Rousseau worshipped, not that venerated in the traditional
churches which still supported and defended monarchies all over
Europe. Jefferson and Franklin both spent time in France--a natural
ally because it was a traditional enemy of England--absorbing
the influence of the French Enlightenment. The language of natural
law, of inherent freedoms, of self-determination which seeped
so deeply into the American grain was the language of the Enlightenment,
though often coated with a light glaze of traditional religion,
what has been called our "civil religion."
This is one reason that Americans
should study the Enlightenment. It is in their bones. It has defined
part of what they have dreamed of, what they aim to become. Separated
geographically from most of the aristocrats against whom they
were rebelling, their revolution was to be far less corrosive--and
at first less influential--than that in France.
The Struggle in Europe
But we need to return to the beginning
of the story, to Voltaire and his allies in France, struggling
to assert the values of freedom and tolerance in a culture where
the twin fortresses of monarchy and Church opposed almost everything
they stood for. To oppose the monarchy openly would be fatal;
the Church was an easier target. Protestantism had made religious
controversy familiar. Voltaire could skillfully cite one Christian
against another to make his arguments. One way to undermine the
power of the Church was to undermine its credibility, and thus
Voltaire devoted a great deal of his time to attacking the fundamentals
of Christian belief: the inspiration of the Bible, the incarnation
of God in Jesus Christ, the damnation of unbelievers. No doubt
he relished this battle partly for its own sake, but he never
lost sight of his central goal: the toppling of Church power to
increase the freedom available to Europeans.
Voltaire was joined by a band of
rebellious thinkers known as the philosophes: Charles
de Montesquieu, Pierre Bayle, Jean d'Alembert, and many lesser lights. Although
"philosophe" literally means "philosopher"
we use the French word in English to designate this particular
group of French 18th-century thinkers. Because Denis Diderot commissioned
many of them to write for his influential Encyclopedia,
they are also known as "the Encyclopedists."
The Heritage of the Enlightenment
Today the Enlightenment is often
viewed as a historical anomaly, a brief moment when a number of
thinkers infatuated with reason vainly supposed that the perfect
society could be built on common sense and tolerance, a fantasy
which collapsed amid the Terror of the French Revolution and the
triumphal sweep of Romanticism. Religious thinkers repeatedly
proclaim the Enlightenment dead, Marxists denounce it for promoting
the ideals and power of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the
working classes, postcolonial critics reject its idealization
of specifically European notions as universal truths, and postructuralists
reject its entire concept of rational thought.
Yet in many ways, the Enlightenment
has never been more alive. The notions of human rights it developed
are powerfully attractive to oppressed peoples everywhere, who
appeal to the same notion of natural law that so inspired Voltaire
and Jefferson. Wherever religious conflicts erupt, mutual religious
tolerance is counseled as a solution. Rousseau's notions of self-rule
are ideals so universal that the worst tyrant has to disguise
his tyrannies by claiming to be acting on their behalf. European
these ideas may be, but they have also become global. Whatever
their limits, they have formed the consensus of international
ideals by which modern states are judged.
If our world seems little closer
to perfection than that of 18th-century France, that is partly
due to our failure to appreciate gains we take for granted. But
it is also the case that many of the enemies of the Enlightenment
are demolishing a straw man: it was never as simple-mindedly optimistic
as it has often been portrayed. Certainly Voltaire was no facile
optimist. He distrusted utopianism, instead trying to cajole Europeans
out of their more harmful stupidities. Whether we acknowledge
his influence or not, we still think today more like him than
like his enemies.
Further useful link:
Richard Hooker's detailed history of the European Enlightenment
Created by Paul Brians March 11, 1998. Last revised May 18, 2000.
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