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What was the Enlightenment?

Updated on April 20, 2018
Its easy to see the tropes of the Enlightenment in this picture - the focus on open and public discourse, the written word, the centrality of the enlightened figure who spreads his knowledge freely to others...
Its easy to see the tropes of the Enlightenment in this picture - the focus on open and public discourse, the written word, the centrality of the enlightened figure who spreads his knowledge freely to others...

The Enlightenment is a time period which fundamentally altered the way in which we approach education, states, law, nations, reason, human rights, and even the way in which our political discourse happens. Not all of these ideas were originally - indeed, many weren't, but instead were melded and unified into a project by the Enlightenment philosophers themselves. Perhaps because of this, and in light of the vast number of disputes and arguments that they harbored, it can be a foggy term to understand, either drawn down to being a simple phrase - that it represented a movement for freedom as opposed to tyranny (true in a sense, but what does that mean in detail?) or to complexities that make it difficult to understand and grasp. What was the essential project that the philosophers of the Enlightenment put forth, their vision and blueprint for society?

The first modern encyclopedia, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers by Diderot and d'Alembert.
The first modern encyclopedia, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers by Diderot and d'Alembert.

Education and Information

Key in the Enlightenment's ideal for society was the idea of education being a way to liberate and cultivate the individual, and for the necessity for information to be free and accessible to all. From this stemmed the promotion of schools, universities, journals, and most innovative, encyclopedias - organizations of all knowledge in existence, which would be accessible to everyone. During the period, Enlightenment philosophers created networks of information spanning from nation to nation, the so called "Republic of Letters", promoting their ideas, and attempting to encourage the actions of the "Enlightened despots" - kings or emperors promoting an Enlightenment style project of reform but in an absolutist monarchy. The economy was similar in the focus on the removal of its restrictions, to enable the free circulation of goods instead of the corporatized economy of the ancien régime. Throughout all of this, the effort is placed on the individual, (and his connections that he forms to the rest of society, which enlighten him and give him culture) who is the wellspring of value instead of old inheritances or hierarchies.

Reason and logic / Raison et logique

By far the most important single aspect of the Enlightenment and its heritage is the focus upon the self-discovery and examination of facts ourselves, as compared to that being taught to us. The ability to question, to examine, to doubt knowledge secure merely in its age, were critical. From this, nothing in society and humanity is inherently sacred, as previously when kings and society were divinely ordered, and hence impossible of being truly and legitimately questioned. This focus on the divine nature and tradition from which knowledge, institutions, and actions derived their authority is something which the Enlightenment philosophers were fanatically opposed to, believing that at the heart of all of the problems of rigid and unchanging knowledge there stood the malignant influence of organized religion. Tradition too as a source of legitimacy in of its own right was itself as well a target in their sights.

It is reason, as Diderot said, which separates man from animals. His fellow philsophers of the Enlightenment would doubtless have agreed.

La déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen - a superb expression of the Enlightenment ideal of natural rights.
La déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen - a superb expression of the Enlightenment ideal of natural rights.

Natural Law and the Rights of Man / Loi naturelle et les droits de l'homme

Human rights are a relatively recent invention, and they owe their birth to the Enlightenment concept of "natural law", that there are certain rights common to all peoples. Natural rights imply an equality for all people, something inherently opposed to the French aristocratic-monarchical order of the 18th century, which had separate rankings for the common people, to kings, aristocrats, with social privilege accruing to those higher. Kings in particular claimed their rights to govern from God himself, and while this imposed certain restrictions on them - such as in France where the King bore the requirement to keep his oath, to not covet his subject's property, and to be of the Catholic faith - it was a fundamentally different version of limitations than is placed upon governments by the idea that it is their subjects themselves who have unalienable rights. It represented a humanistic ideal, focusing on man and his actions on Earth, instead of calling appeal to the heavens. And it is furthermore a universal one, one which could be applied everywhere, in its logical conception.

This was, to put it mildly, a radical idea. If the social boundaries of Enlightenment society were initially quite narrow, in time, women, the poor, slaves, colonized peoples, social outcasts and marginalized of all types, would come to adopt the idea and carry it forwards. The right to the security of one's body against oppression by the state - that individuals have security of their person against torture or infringement - meant that in time torture would (mostly) fade from the arsenals of state power, when in the 18th century it was an oft-utilized tool.

In time the efforts of the Enlightenment philosophers gave rise to the idea of the sovereignty of the people, stemming from the belief that ultimately power rested in the hands of the general will of humanity. But this came near the end of the enlightenment, and for much of its period it was dominated by enlightened monarchs who sought to rule in an enlightened despotism spreading the ideas of reason and progress, while still preserving their domination over their subjects.

This is an allegorical painting of the separation of Church and State in France after the 1905 law on religion and education : it fits perfectly into the views of Enlightenment philosophers on the Church.
This is an allegorical painting of the separation of Church and State in France after the 1905 law on religion and education : it fits perfectly into the views of Enlightenment philosophers on the Church.

Freedom of Religion / Laïcité

During the Medieval Ages, the collusion between the authority of the Church and of the State was close. The two fought often, that much is true, as both the Church and the State tried to impose their authority over each other, but nevertheless the order of kings and society was divinely ordained (later the society aspect began to fall apart, but the divine right of kings was a harder beast to kill), while the Church was responsible for much of the education, and simultaneously the State ensured the protection and the defense of the Church. Enlightenment philosophers were universally opposed to this influence of organized religion over men's mind, instead promoting reason which would be the counter to faith.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment were not, as a rule, atheists. Instead, their principal convictions fell to Deism, a belief in a natural religion, without doctrine and the domination of clergy. As but one quotation from among many, the following from Rousseau to Voltaire : "I am outraged, like you, that every person is not free to practice their faith in the most perfect liberty, and that man dares to control the interior of consciences where he wouldn't know how to examine." (Je suis indigné, comme vous, que la foi de chacun ne soit pas dans la plus parfaite liberté, et que l'homme ose contrôler l'intérieur des consciences où il ne saurait pénétrer). Instead, they were determined to separate religion from politics. If at first this started with kings who were denied their rights as divine rulers, it also included the separation of secular and religious law. Secular law deals with crimes, religious law with sins. In the collusion of these two the Enlightenment philosophers saw a tool which repressed the individual, as the three spheres of society they identified - the private; the public, and the legal sphere - were witness to the invasion of the individual sphere by the power of the church-state.

Sources

L’esprit des Lumières, by Tzvetan Todorov

The French Revolution and Human Rights by Lynn Hunt

© 2018 Ryan Thomas

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