The need for The Enlightenment had long been after the many long centuries of the dark ages. The 17th century spawned a growing movement1 in a Europe that was learning from its past mistakes: religion was increasingly being seen as positively harmful2 and irrational superstition was being actively sought out and countered, and there was a push for attaining happiness, sense and progress here and now3. The wave of change finally broke in France during the Revolution (1789-1799), where "the total abolition of... everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion" took place4. The era of science, rationalism, freedom and secularism had dawned5: The years from 1740 and 1780 in particular are named "the Age of Reason"6. Key thinkers include Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Spinoza7 and Jeremy Bentham.8. Altogether, The Enlightenment saw the solidification of liberal democracy and human rights. Policies, governance and equality were to be based on universal logic and citizens were to be treated fairly without prejudice based on their religion.7
“The Enlightenment outlook was buoyant, reformist and humanitarian. The archetypal Enlightenment thinker was confident that the world is ultimately both rational and beneficent, that nature, including humanity, is essentially good or at least not innately depraved, and that people have the potential to improve themselves and their environment and to make the world a better place. [...]
From Lisbon to Saint Petersburg and from Edinburgh to Naples... Enlightenment culture spread from one nation to another, defining a pan-European consciousness of tremendous force. Each nation added its own dimension. In France, for example, there was a much greater sense of opposition to the (Catholic) Church than in England, where the religious establishment was perceived to be far less oppressive.”
The Enlightenment's core features are most easily identified as belonging to the 18th Century10, with some academics pinpointing 1750 as its formal beginning11, having the height of its influence in the 1760s to 1770s12. But the swirling of ideas began one hundred years earlier than that: from the 1650s, a growing number of coffee-houses served as meetings spaces for intellectuals, academics, skeptics, researchers, traders and information addicts, discussing all of the same topics that became The Enlightenment's theoretical centre13. So, many scholars admit a portion of the 17th century as well as the 18th14,3.
In Europe, the 'Dark Ages' refers to the barriers to human intellectual and moral development thrown up by a Christianity which sought to control all aspects of morality, justice, education and power; violently ending progressive morality and tolerance wherever it had the power to do so15,16,17,18,19 especially from the 5th century20 to the 15th21. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church stood as the most stable centre of European power and under its dominant influence science and scholarship was all but destroyed, replaced with Church dogma and doctrine, violently enforced22. Philosophical works were burned and lost, medicine and psychology set back hundreds of years16,23,24. In some areas of knowledge, over one thousand years of Human development was lost and education became controlled by the clergy and was often limited to them alone17,25. The entire Middle Ages was subject to Christian superstitions, torture, violence, the loss of education and knowledge and the denial of basic human freedoms, specifically as a result of Christian doctrine25.
During this time, the Arab world carried the torch of knowledge and surpassed Europe in its understanding of philosophy, mathematics, and the sciences in general26,27. Europe slowly emerged from the dark age amidst continued widespread horror at the abuses of the Church, and a gradual trickle of intellectuals and early scientists emerged from the 12th century. Although they were mostly imprisoned and tortured by Christian institutions, they eventually lit the spark of the Reformation in the 16th century, which broke the power of the Catholic Church (after large scale civil wars between competing Christians28,29), and allowed the seeds of the 18th century Enlightenment to be sown22, whereupon religious organisations' power was curbed, worldly knowledge was sought and basic Human rights were proclaimed and valued.
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The Enlightenment focused on the advantages of basing beliefs on empirical knowledge30 - that is, on evidence, on tested theories30 and not merely on received tradition or abstract philosophizing. Propositions must be verifiable, and if they didn't endure methodical testing, then they were 'an error, a fable, an outright lie or simply a hypothesis'30. This rationalist approach popularized the Scientific Method1 and heightened the status of experts and careful thinkers.
“[The Enlightenment] demanded truth be established by rational argument rather than received tradition. It was often equated with a scientific view of the universe.”
Newton (1643-1727), exemplified this way of thinking with his rational and mathematical approach that was purely based on evidence and logic, and he became immensely respected by Enlightenment thinkers who imagined that all reality may turn out to be ordered and sensible31. According to the historian of science Patricia Fara, in Britain The Enlightenment is even called the "Age of Newton"32.
“The Enlightenment consisted, in essence, of the belief that the expansion of knowledge, the application of reason, and dedication to the scientific method would result in the greater progress and happiness of humankind.”
This embrace of science had sprouted from a general and slow revitalization of interest in studies of the natural world by a populace that was learning to explore the world outside of religious doctrine. Early scientific societies were collections of self-educated readers, meeting in coffee shops, communal rooms, theatres, lecture halls, museums and their own homes; they read newspapers, journals and books together and discussed the latest scientific findings1. Out of this came the very first scientific institutions, such as The Royal Society1 founded in 1660. It began to be possible to pursue science as a defined career33 without being a well-off aristocrat with time on hir hands. British Museum opened in 1759, an Enlightenment project, directed by a member of the Royal Society33.
The French Revolution proved that the people, once educated in history, humanities, and science, would no longer put up with enforced or traditional belief systems that haven't undergone modern scrutiny.
The Enlightenment brought to the fore the advantages of basing policies on evidence and a solid intellectual framework30: No longer were the pronouncements of forceful leaders enough; from then on, rulers must prove their case through convincing arguments based on facts and figures. This rationalist approach popularized the Scientific Method1, and the requirement for knowledgeable experts to stand alongside politicians and rulers. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) described Enlightenment demands on government as being "the enthronement of reason in public affairs"12.
As rulers are prone to abuse their position for their own ends, power must be subject to checks and balances8. And to end the cyclic spectre of prejudiced sectarian government and religious division, government must be secular and tolerant - that is - neutral, on the topic of religion34. These threads all merged to form the liberal democracy that has proven itself as the best approach to statecraft we as a species has so far devised.
The French Revolution proved that the people, once educated in history, humanities, and science, would no longer put up with enforced religious superstition or unfounded cultural beliefs received 'by tradition': From then on, human rights and common humanity joined both rulers and subjects - both became citizens, bound by the same laws.
Rousseau argued that governments don't wield absolute power; and even monarchies cannot subdue the collective will of entire nations: people can define their own future and pick the direction for the own leaders to follow, no longer merely 'subjects' of the will of those at the top35. At its best, this concept of the "will of people" defends those rights and duties that all thinking beings share... but at its worst, it descends into mob rule where 'the will' is used to degrade human rights of disliked minorities. Hence, it became apparent that those rights need to be explicitly stated, and constantly defended, without a single base of power being able to dismantle them.
'Montesquieu, in his erudite and influential De l'esprit des lois (On the Spirit of the Laws, 1748), advocated a system of institutional checks and balances, and the separation or balancing of executive (governing) power, legislative (lawmaking) power and judicial power (the power of the judges) in order to counter the unlimited exercise of state power by the executive (the king)"36.
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The political thoughts of the Enlightenment and French Revolution heavily influenced most of the early American presidents who "based their commitments to freedom, democracy, and justice on Enlightenment philosophy"37.
Many simmering cultural changes were brewing across the West, but together were suppressed and oppressed by Christian institutions38, by monarchies, aristocratic family-line powerhouses and other groups who had found it all too easy to keep people dumb, dependent, subservient and ignorant. The Reformation had broken the back of Christian totalitarianism and a stronger social appreciation of basic humanitarian norms became irrepressible. The Enlightenment blew away the final barriers to a more humanitarian future.
“Voltaire was known throughout Europe for his active intervention in humanitarian causes and his incessant attacks on abuses of every kind, particularly abuse of power by the Catholic Church and associated miscarriages of justice. [...] The Enlightenment's concern for humanitarian reform fuelled the ambitions of the generation that came to maturity on the eve of the Revolution. [Voltaire's text in the] Encydopédie popularised notions of equality and natural rights which had become commonplace by 1789.”
Some of the areas that saw rapid development in this era, are:
Concepts of Moral Autonomy and Freedom to Deliberate: Enlightenment thinking strengthened the belief that people can think for themselves outside of enforced frameworks8 - and that the authorities ought to be bound by the same ethical considerations as everyone else. It took this for many to begin to accept that you don't have to conform to a religion in order to be a good person40.
Compassion Based on Accepting a Common Shared Humanity: The Enlightenment "fostered the development of a keen sense of history, and the awareness that people from other cultures and in other ages do not necessarily think and act in the same way as ourselves"14 but that we all share a common core humanity - we have to try to treat others better. Modern movements such as Humanism still have this as their core value.
Resistance to the Slave Trade:: The methods of worldwide Empires were called into question, especially the practice of slavery and their justification on Biblical grounds. Two of the loudest voices of the Enlightenment, Voltaire and Diderot, wrote scathing attacks on the slave trade, rightly finding it an abhorrent affront to human decency, and arguing that we all have a common humanity41.
“Mungo Park followed Hume in demonstrating, on the basis of his own experience as an explorer, that Africans conformed to a universal human nature rather than being fundamentally different from Europeans, as was contended by many of those engaged in the highly lucrative slave trade. Park's exploration of `the dark continent´ achieved much in changing attitudes on this subject.”
And so, the Evangelical Christian William Wilberforce Wilberforce (1759-1833) was moved to campaign against slavery from within the Church, adopting the Enlightenment ethos of making a rational "enquiry" into the matter12.
Gender Fairness: The Enlightenment inspired women such ass Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) to take up the cause of feminism, arguing that women deserved the same rights as men43.
Human Rights: Voltaire's Encyclopedia and Enlightenment thinkers propelled the concept of shared, common rights to the fore of public debate, forever undermining the idea that the rich and powerful had an automatic right to step on the poor."44,39
“Christian ethics came under attack from the Enlightenment crusade against religious dogma. A culture of sexual libertinism developed in Europe, most notably from the 17th century onwards, at first within the aristocratic elites, among whom the use of condoms, made from sheep intestines, and dildos became at the same time more widespread. From the 1850s, rubber condoms became available, although they seem to have been primarily used for protecting men against venereal disease from sex with prostitutes, and remained too expensive for the working classes. Although the subject of Church disapproval, abortion had traditionally been judged acceptable across much of Europe if carried out before the moment of 'quickening', when the woman started to be able to feel the fetus, around the fourth month of pregnancy.”
As the Enlightenment loomed, atheism was visibly popular amongst the educated. Previously, outright atheism was rare in the West. Even long after the Dark Ages, most had learned the hard way to keep any doubts about god or religion to themselves. Censorship laws still made public expression of atheism in lawful in far too many countries - France was particularly stringent42 and skeptics of religion often had to keep quiet, even into The Enlightenment era3. But from the 1700s onwards, history provides a stream of atheist books, politicians, movements and outspoken individuals. There was the group who wrote the first Encyclopedia, led by Denis Diderot (1713-1784). Jean D'Alembert (one of the founders of Positivsm), Baron d'Holbach, the Marquis de Sade (who in 1782 wrote an atheist book), the physician Matthew Turner (another book, in 1782). Some were imprisoned for blasphemy because of their atheism, but from this time onwards largely it has been safe to call yourself an atheist, and the major sciences have since flourished. Not all Enlightenment thinkers gave up on theism - Voltaire in 1764 wrote against atheism, often saying things like "atheists say...", and it is therefore clear that debates between theists and atheists were already common by the Enlightenment46.
“The presence of evil and suffering in the world has even been argued by ... David Hume (1711-76ce) to cast doubt on the existence of God.”
Two Christian Bishops provide testimony to the state of Christianity in the UK in the 18th Century. Bishop Butler in 1736 wrote in his Analogy of Religion that no-one bothered with Christianity, "its fictitious nature being so obvious", and Bishop Watson wrote that "there never was an age [...] in which atheism [is] more generally confessed".
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In most of history, up until the there was no distinction between our religious and secular lives48; that's why politics and religion were intertwined, and an act of conversion could offend the state itself. In Europe from the 18th century, but more slowly in much of the rest of the world, this changed48, finally allowing for freedom of belief, and the concept that the state ought not to be involved in how people chose their religions.
“Building on the foundations laid by ancient philosophers such as the Roman poet Lucretius (c.98-55 BCE) and bolstered by the Enlightenment's commitment to the physical sciences, many eighteenth-century thinkers, including Diderot, pursued the consequences of this philosophy. Materialism was based on the belief that everything we can know or experience has causes and explanations rooted in physical matter. Such ideas were seen as a threat to traditional religion with its belief in an immaterial or non-corporeal, spiritual soul able to survive the body after death.[...]
Materialism was one of many threats to the status of religion. Enlightenment thinkers analysed and criticised religious beliefs in the same way as they subjected to rational scrutiny secular topics such as geological or economic theories. By refusing to treat religion as sacrosanct or the source of its own authority, they threw down a challenge to ecclesiastical institutions, especially in France, where there was a strong alliance of church and state, and the former was seen both as a support and as a beneficiary (for example, through tax exemptions) of an inherently despotic system of government. The perceived corruption and grip on privilege of the Catholic Church, as well as its role in state censorship and its overall hostility to Enlightenment ideas, provoked in the French philosophes much anti-religious and anti-clerical criticism.”
Natural philosophy and practical inventors set about putting science into action, leading to the Industrial Revolution32.
Religious authorities did not take this growing indifference towards religion lightly. A wave of intolerant and aggressive counter-secular movements emerged from within the Roman Catholic Church38 - each of them failing to force people back into their boxes. In 1766 two French nobles were given the death sentence for not removing their hats nor singing during a Catholic procession; but Voltaire himself helped to rescue one of them42. The other was burned at the stake with a copy of Voltaire's Encyclopedia42.
“The Catholic Church in France and the Calvinist Church in Geneva were outraged by [Rousseau's] suggestion that people were naturally good and that an emotional communion with nature was as sound a basis for faith as the formal teachings of the Church [and they publicly burned his books.] The Archbishop of Paris, the Sorbonne and the high court in Paris likewise condemned Entile to be burned. Rousseau fled to asylum in Prussian territory.”
But there was no return to theocratic tyranny and religious power in the West has continually declined51, although, it also adapted. Large monolithic denominations were destabilized, and a number of more agile Christian outfits began a new wave of religiosity, free from traditions. Evangelical Christianity thrived41; in a world torn between dry science and even drier theology, Evangelism was unpredictable, sometimes simply incoherent - but very much alive enough to make some begin to question the entire concept of secularisation.
Careful academics point out that it is too easy to over-state the case for their being a single set of Enlightenment value", and how their thoughts should be translated for today's very different world3. As with all Human endeavours, some thinkers went in one direction, some in another. From the outset there were a few clear divides.
Jonathan Israel's comprehensive analysis of The Enlightenment, spanning three volumes, describes the two divides as being between moderates and radicals. The radical element done well, pursuing their ideals to the maximum that they could, both living, breathing (and writing) their values into history. Their secularism, human rights and liberal democracies still flourish today. Israel derides the moderates thusly:
“The Radicals, inspired by Spinoza, were materialists, atheists and egalitarians. The Moderates, who followed Locke and Newton, were conservative and more at home than the Radicals in the hierarchical and deeply religious world of 18th-century Europe. [and] left an ambiguous and, in the end, harmful legacy. While promoting tolerance, they remained uncomfortable with the idea of universal equality. While advancing reason, they failed to divorce morality from religion and tried to rationalise faith. Mr Israel argues that for as long as historians treat the two wings of the Enlightenment as a single movement, they have misunderstood the phenomenon. Worst still, they supply today's critics with the evidence they need to blacken the movement.”
Two contradictory threads are also attested to in "The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness 1680-1790" by Ritchie Robertson (2020)52. According to him, Steven Pinker says that despite variances, Enlightenment themes were "reason, science, humanism, and progress" whereas philosopher Susan Neiman has it as "happiness, reason, reverence and hope"; reverence referring to the believers in intellectual deism, a rational religion52,34 which was often promoted as a way of escaping the nonsense of the Bible whilst retaining belief in a creator-god53.
Liberal values can be divided into social, political and economic. Historically, as a set of recognizable ideologies, liberalism derives from The Enlightenment54, but it wasn't, and still isn't, an exclusive character trait. An individual may be socially liberal but not an economic liberal; others may be liberal overall, but not when it comes to political structures. Human rights and decency is the output of liberal social work. Democracy is an output of the liberal political project, and, free-market-capitalism is the result of liberal thinking on markets.
Liberal social values are those of fairness and equality54,55,56,57, the virtues of personal freedom and individuality56,57,58,59,60 (with restrictions against harming others56,61), generosity62, The acceptance of Human Rights56,57,63,64, open-mindedness62,65,66, rationality and reason67,68, secularism (giving no religious group special preference)64,69 and the worth of a social security net with guaranteed access to health services and education63.
Liberal political values stem from democratic principles and include a government limited by constitutional boundaries70,71,72 that represents all of its people70 without giving preference to a particular religious, economic, racial or social group, that justice requires that all people are subject to the same rule of law73,74, and that governmental power isn't centralized into individual hands without checks and balances (the separation of powers)71.
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The Enlightenment didn't complete. It made enemies; powerful enemies amongst religious communities for whom the gritty search for truth was already concluded and ought not continue; political enemies amongst those who wanted power at the expense of others' rights, and, was damaged by internal sore spots caused by Enlightenment thinkers who didn't do so well in upholding the values that they themselves became associated with54,76.
The project faltered. By the end of the 18th century, the intellectual world became self-absorbed, introspective, obsessed with identity and individualism"77 and "a growing preoccupation with death and an impulse towards melancholy, immortality, the divine, the unintelligible, the unseen, mystical and supernatural"77. The era of Romanticism was dawning, as people yearned for the tales of wonder and woe - whether they were rational tales, or not.
The less-self-assured element of The Enlightenment - eventually spawning Romanticism - and the subsequent failure to feel the need for basic liberal values, allowed mankind's darker side to recover. "Fascism emerged very much as a revolt against modernity, against the ideas and values of the Enlightenment and the political creeds that it spawned"78. Although fascism caused a revival of interest in the common good, it has since declined.
"From the perspective of postmodernism, the crisis of liberalism is a consequence of the effective collapse of the Enlightenment project, of which liberalism has always been a part"79.
In modern times, populations in the West have forgotten how difficult it was to attain the civil life, based on the rule of law and human rights. People's votes have slid towards a series of demagogues, who lead by force of personality, by attacking others, and whose understanding of the complexities of governance is worryingly shallow: in too many countries, it is again necessary to revisit the textbooks of The Enlightenment and prove the need for compassion and tolerance, for experts, for well-formulated policies based on tested theories, and for maintaining the tone of civil discourse that prevents schisms.