The Enlightenment was the most important and profound intellectual, social, and cultural transformation of the Western world since the Middle Ages
and the most formative in shaping modernity. It evolved on both sides of theAtlantic and began in the second half of the seventeenth century. The product of
a particular era, it has profoundly affected every aspect of modernity.
an era that pursued with greater consistency than any other the notion that things ought to be justified rather than ‘blindly accepted from habit and custom’.
Enlightenment: a response to the dilemmas of a society standing at the congruence of the static, the traditional norms, with the rapid changes, fluidity, and pluralism so typical of modernity, or a sense of the ideologically and politically embattled status of the Enlightenment, its being besieged by powerful forces from without while also being continually ravaged by disputes within.
Any workable definition of Enlightenment must focus on betterment in this world and get away from social practice and common values to stress especially new principles, concepts, and constitutional arrangements being introduced that are conceived to be transforming society for the better.
concept of distinct ‘national’ enlightenments seems altogether invalid first
because in most countries, including
predominantly foreign—mostly French, British, or German, though before 1720 the Dutch factor was also crucial. Secondly, while there was never any basic unity
to the local enlightenment in any given country, including
drawing inspiration from different sources both national and international, the rifts were characterized less by plurality than duality. Nowhere did these divisions point to
a high level of fragmentation.
“The movement was an international network bent on far-reaching reform philosophically, socially, ethically and politically…which by the 1660s was achieving a high degree of intellectual cohesion.” (Israel, 2006, Radical Enlightenment, p.22)
New Info networks need opportunities or gaps in the existing fabric
Factors of destabilization undermining long-accepted scientific, theological, and philosophical premises. An obvious strand here was Copernicus’ heliocentrism and the researches of Galileo rejecting all previously accepted notions about the relationship of the earth to the sun and other planets and changing the ways nature itself was conceived and science pursued.
the Renaissance’s rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, especially the rediscovery of ancient scepticism which eventually introduced systematic doubt in every area of argument and belief, generating intense and long-lasting unease persisting well into the eighteenth century.
During the century and half prior to the Enlightenment proper, was the rise of a literary movement known as libertinage erudit, a tendency hinting at religiously and
morally subversive ideas that operated in a hidden, veiled manner, especially by quoting disturbing and disorienting comments drawn from classical literature and
encouraging readers to read between the lines. This trend helped generate what from the late seventeenth century evolved into an underground literature of clandestine
manuscripts rejecting all the most basic and sacred suppositions of existing authority and religion
social-cultural and political causes of the Enlightenment the most
crucial was the stalemate that ended the Wars of Religion and untidy
compromises embodied in the Peace of
The psychological shock of such a result
was tremendous, and the problems associated with organizing the many compromises that had to be hammered out forced a whole new culture of de facto toleration
and acceptance of religious plurality which then had to be theorized and legitimized in complex ways. This unavoidable pressure to accommodate religious plurality
peacefully had to be faced not just in
At the deepest level the dilemmas de facto toleration generated in a deeply traditional cultural world precipitated a weakening of theology’s power to fix
social norms and policy that arguably became noticeable in some areas of government policy earlier than in intellectual life. A prime example were the late seventeenth century monarchies’ willingness to give more emphasis to economic, and less to theological and legal, criteria than had been usual earlier, in widening de facto toleration and accommodating Christian dissenters and Jews.
Another social factor was the unprecedented expansion of the urban context especially in a few great capitals such as London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and Petersburg but also in the closely bunched Dutch towns, creating a new sphere of cultural cosmopolitanism fed by imported products and sometimes people from Asia, Africa, and the Americas and social and sexual fluidity and vagueness blurring traditional class distinctions.
Leading representatives of Enlightenment thought came from aristocratic, bourgeois, and artisan backgrounds and the Enlightenment movement itself always remained socially heterogeneous and non-class specific, in terms of its spokesmen, objectives, and socio-economic consequences.
Networks of ideas does not suggest that agents were all of one mind.
Wherever segments of governments, churches, universities, academies, and other learned bodies were pro-Enlightenment, prior to 1789, they invariably rejected radical
ideas and preferred one or other variant of what is here termed ‘moderate Enlightenment’.
Even though all Enlightenment writers and thinkers, by definition, considered the philosophical and scientific assumptions of the past to be broadly wrong, in
renewing science, thought, and culture, and introducing toleration and the legal, educational, and social reforms, many felt that reason is not and should not be the only guide and that a balanced compromise between reason and tradition, or reason and religious authority, is necessary.
Proponents of moderate enlightenment such as Voltaire and Hume were anxious to restrict the scope of reason and retain tradition and ecclesiastical authority, duly clipped, as the primary guides for most people. There was a marked tendency for the moderate Enlightenment to shy away from the idea that the whole of society needs enlightening, and some of its foremost practitioners insisted on not attempting to enlighten the great majority, seeing any such plan as ill advised and dangerous.
‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ enlightenment, whether in
Enlightenment as something revolutionary in the sense of being a process wholly transforming our understanding of the human condition, effecting large changes in
institutions and political life, and in the relationship of ideas to reality even if their field of specification was limited.
For Radical Enlightenment, truth ascertained by ‘philosophy’ (i.e. what today we would call science and philosophy) and the supposed ‘truths’ of theology and tradition stand in direct antithesis, theology being viewed by these thinkers as imposture, the mainstream subordinated human affairs, morality, marriage, and society generally to what was deemed the divinely created and revealed physical and moral order.
The Common People: according to Jonathan Israel:
The common people’s role, hence, was not just highly unstable and sporadic but also basically secondary, if not in providing the muscle that actually toppled the
ancien regime then certainly in formulating the laws and forging the institutions that replaced it.
the people had to be taught to think about themselves and their connections with others and involve themselves in politics. But at the same time late eighteenth-century radical philosophes understood that the common people could not be the main agent of change. A dialectic was involved here of ideas and people that could only be driven by better laws and more enlightened government however this was achieved.
But if so, then what price the idea of a Public sphere in the later Enlightenment?
But the elites fear of the wider ‘common’ pubic knowing about doubt and reason????
Keith Thomas in his celebrated religion and the decline of magic argues that
“The triumph of the mechanical philosophy meant the end of the animistic conception of the universe which had constituted the basic rationale or magical thinking.”
Whereas Seckendorff in his Christen-Staat (1685) remarked that there was “a growing tend among the common people to mock Holy Scripture, reject Heaven and Hell, doubt the immortality of the soul, and the question the existence of Satan, demons and spirits”
Johannes Muller in his ‘Atheismus Devictus’ (1672) observed: “country folk and artisans were least likely to b affected by he new criticism and ideas but the real menace was “the one outlook of persons – courtiers, diplomats, soldiers, and ‘men of the world’ – who travel widely, continually mixing in different cultural and religious contexts, particularly if they frequent lands such as France, England and Holland where libertine thinking was rife.”
Baron Hohendorf (d 1719)– collector of suspect books including the erotic, and knew the East
Dufresnoy (c.1720s +) dealer in rare books and again erotic material, deist, and intriguer
Eugene of Savoy, major book collector especially of radical literature, important general with Marlborough, served in Holland, Turkey, Austria, close to Hohendforf.
Diffusion of ideas via importation of book throughout
the demand for book news and reviews within emergent periodicals.
‘Nouvelles de la republique des letters (1684)
Bibliotheque Universelle 1686
Thomasius’s Monatgesprache 1688
Nova literaria Helvetica,
By 1718 at least 50 such literary journals were being published.
Some French journals were published in
The major role of these journals was focus attention away from established authorities and towards new ideas underpinned with a commitment to learning, freedom of thought and challenging old ideas.
This gave the literate public the idea that any consensus ion European ideas was in reality fragmenting,thus upsetting the verities held by kings, parliaments and churches.