What was the Enlightenment? You might remember it from your history courses as something having to do with philosophy or science, something buried centuries in the past orchestrated by wig-wearing aristocrats, which has ceased to mean much to you as you’ve grown up and carried on with more relevant business. The Enlightenment… just another anthology of dead men and dates, right?
Well, ask yourself some questions: Do you think democracy is better than dictatorship? Do you think people who believe in a god that you do not should be spared torture and execution? Do you think that men and women deserve equal opportunity? Do you think that basic education – knowing how to read and write – is an advantage to individuals and to your society as a whole? Do you think that war is destructive and something to be avoided? Do you think that you have rights? The right to your life, for example, or your liberty, your pursuit of happiness?
If you answer yes to these questions, then you are a citizen of The Enlightenment. You are the living legacy of those wig wearing aristocrats.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement centered in northern Europe during the late 1600s and 1700s that is largely responsible for establishing our modern convictions concerning the virtues of representative government, religious toleration, and human rights. Following on the heels of the Scientific Revolution that occurred in the 1600s, when new methods of rational inquiry led to an explosion in knowledge about astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology, a new generation of philosophers in the 1700s grew convinced that if we turned that same lens of rational inquiry upon ourselves we could enjoy a comparable revolution in our understanding of human nature, morality, economics, and politics, and armed with such knowledge, we could build better social, economic, and political systems. Better than what, you might ask? As a starting point, better than a world in which women could be officially charged with witchcraft and burned alive. But more generally, better than the prevailing institutional systems of Europe that kept 90 percent of the population in extreme poverty by design, or that persecuted, often to death, anyone who publically criticized religious or royal authority, or that kept Europe mired in religious wars for decades at a time at the cost of tens of millions of lives… the list of atrocities goes on and on. It’s hard for us, luxuriating in our relatively minor squabbles of the 21st century, to appreciate just how monotonous, closeminded, repressive, and violent Europe really was for so many centuries leading up to the 1700s; a long phase of history when most people were uncomfortable most of the time, when at least half of all children died of disease, and when everyone thought that was just the way things were supposed to be given humanity’s original sin. This brutal ignorance flowed from a system of beliefs about the world and humanity’s place within it that was rooted in religion and myth and the authority of kings instead of reason and experiment and the authority of evidence. The Enlightenment represented an ultimate rebellion against this medieval mindset. The goals of its leaders were not to create some farfetched utopia of perfect rationality, but to use the power of rational inquiry to discover social, economic, and political systems that better aligned human nature with human flourishing. They assumed this would be a practically unending project; Immanuel Kant, one of the most famous Enlightenment philosophers, thought it might take over a thousand years. But, they also knew it was worth trying. For, in the world they inhabited, most people would have would answered no to those questions you asked yourself at the outset.
The Enlightenment is fundamental to the history of the modern world because it inaugurated the very idea that humanity could learn how to make the world a better a place. We take that idea for granted; we hope, if not assume, our children will be better off that we are. But, in a historical context in which most people did not imagine such progress, what motivated these philosophers of the 1700s to undertake this project? Who was involved, and how did they proceed? And, why is it that, centuries later, their legacy is still so important to the maintenance of human flourishing?
I give you The Enlightenment, and how it began.