HS-102 Readings

The Enlightenment


The Enlightenment, an intellectual movement in 18th century Europe, was stimulated by the scientific revolution.

    Stunning successes in understanding the physical world through processes of logic and observation encouraged the belief that similar progress might be made in the area of political economy and social

     Like the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment involved an application of the natural, humanistic attitudes typical of theRenaissance.

     The Enlightenment or the Age of Reason are names given to the predominant intellectual movement of the eighteenth century. It was an intellectual movement among the upper and middle class elites. It
involved a new world view which explained the world and looked for answers in terms of reason rather than faith, and in terms of an optimistic,  natural, humanistic approach rather than a fatalistic,
supernatural one.

     These are characteristics which it shared with the earlier intellectual movement known as the Renaissance. Indeed, the Enlightenment may be understood as a logical continuation of the Renaissance. There is, however, an important difference. While the Renaissance was closely
related to a search for the accumulation of past knowledge, the Enlightenment clearly involved a conscious effort to break with the past.

This statement must, however, be qualified by saying that the period of the High Renaissance also broke new ground, , in particular, in art and literature. It must also be said that, in spite of the optimistic, future-oriented view of the Enlightenment, the rejection of the value of the past is selective.
The comparatively recent medieval past was thoroughly condemned, but the classical past of the ancient Greeks and Romans was venerated.

     A major cause for the Enlightenment was the Scientific Revolution which, because of  its many achievements in science, gave rise to the expectation that similar breakthroughs might be achieved in the social and political arena if only the same methods were applied.

     Among the new political philosophies associated with the Enlightenment was that of the Englishman, John Locke, who expressed the contract theory of government. He said that there existed a contract between the people and the government; that the people were ultimately sovereign and had created government in order to meet certain political needs. So long as the government served those needs, it deserved the support of the people. However, when and if the government ceased to fulfill its part of the bargain, then the people were no longer obligated to support the government, indeed, the people should then replace that government with a better one. Locke expressed these ideas following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The philosophy appears to be a justification for those political actions.

     Similarly, political circumstances in France motivated Montesquieu to write the "Spirit of the Laws" in which he advocated a separation of powers as a means of preventing the abuse of power. Montesquieu was an aristocrat who saw the power exercised by the regional parlements as a
means of limiting the power of the monarchy.

     The most outstanding of all the representatives of the Enlightenment was the French aristocrat Voltaire. His political philosophy was in support of the absolute monarchy, although he wrote in favor of an "enlightened' version of  absolutism. He was also recognized for his advocacy of tolerance for different groups of people and for dissident ideas. He was a strong advocate of religious freedom and freedom of expression.

     Voltaire, however, is only the most famous spokesman of new ideas which gained quite a widespread following among the elite groups. A group of intellectuals, led by Diderot, produced the first encyclopaedia of knowledge.

The dissemination of ideas was encouraged in salons which were usually the homes of wealthy aristocrats, hosted by women of the aristocracy.

     In the later stages of the Enlightenment, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, different views emerged to challenge the consensus. David Hume's skepticism went so far as to question the Enlightenment faith in reason as the means to progress, rather suggesting that people were too driven by their needs and desires to be able to exercise reason.

     The most radical departure from the "enlightened" point of view was that made by Jean Jacques Rousseau, who viewed civilization as essentially corrupting. This is a direct contradiction to the optimism of the Enlightenment and introduces a challenge to the very foundations of the movement. It is for this reason that Rousseau is often considered the harbinger of the next philosophical ethic, known as Romanticism.

Rousseau's political idea of the "general will" is an example of an
amorphous, vaguely-defined concept which defies the "enlightened" effort to define and produce order in nature. The "general
will" of the people was not developed in a reasonable, planned way; rather it was an outgrowth of the historical experiences and traditions of the people. This denied one of the basic concepts of the Enlightenment, which rejected tradition in favor of the Cartesian idea that all preconceived ideas and practices should be discarded and society organized from the beginning through a rational process.

What began, therefore, as an attempt to extend the Scientific Revolution and its methodology to the solution of political and social questions, concluded with skepticism and differences of opinion.

The circumstances of the forthcoming political revolutions and the development of the industrial revolution disillusioned a generation of the privileged elite of Europe, and stimulated a reversal of many of the ideas of the Enlightenment.