What was the age of enlightenment? Was it a unified and distinct movement that took place in 18th century Europe or is the story of the Enlightenment much more complicated and multifaceted than that? In this article I’ve decided to zero in on precisely this fascinating topic.
The first important thing to call attention to is that there is no genuine consensus on what the era of Enlightenment actually was among today’s historians and scholars in the era of Enlightenment.
While some scholars claim that it was a unified European intellectual movement, others believe that “the enlightenment” was far too varied to reduce to a single “enlightenment”. To further our understanding of the 18th century and the current scholarly discussion around that era, we will make use of three useful historical perspectives to describe the phenomenon and the epoch of the enlightenment.
Three useful perspectives on ‘the Enlightenment’
- The first perspective is that the enlightenment was primarily a movement consisting of prominent French philosophers and intellectuals, the so-called “philosophes”. These were individuals such as Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau and other French intellectuals, usually encyclopedists. This perspective can rightly be called the French Enlightenment where it was mainly French intellectuals and their dedication to the “encyclopedia” that was the focus. With that said, consequently one can thus also conceptualize of other nation-based “enlightenments” such as the Scottish, German and English enlightenment(s).
- The second perspective, which in many respects is related to the first, is that the enlightenment was a kind of making available and production of new ideas in radically new social contexts around Europe, and not just France. Consequently, the enlightenment was an era where new forums emerged, new ways of discussion and a new way of managing political activities. Examples of coffee houses, lounges, theaters, museums and libraries led these discussions and debates, which in turn led to a kind of homogeneous attitude that was refined in some intellectual circles in Europe. Moreover, a new discipline, that of science, grew and confidence in science became more and more apparent as it kept building on the previous scientific revolution that took place during the 1600s. Thus, a prototypical version of the scientific method became the hallmark for many Enlightenment thinkers.
Notable figures from the scientific revolution such as Copernicus (heliocentrism), Johannes Kepler (laws on the motion of the plates), Galileo (theories of motion and inertia), Tycho Brahe (observations about the stars) and their discoveries were an important foundation for the future thinkers under the Enlightenment. But it Isaac Newton in particular, his discoveries and his method that became the most influential ideal for many Enlightenment thinkers, this in turn led to a significant spread of a secular attitude in certain intellectual circles in Europe. In other words, there developed a ever-more critical attitude towards blind faith. This was a development that can in some regards be seen with considerable irony as Newton himself was a very passionate esoteric thinker, alchemist and spiritual man.
Having said that, the lively debates that took place in the lounges and other forums gradually led to the literary market flourishing, when for the first time writers could support themselves in their intellectual profession without relying on other authorities such as priests, the church and the nobility. It is also during this eventful period that many of the ideologies of our time begin to grow, such as the idea of universal human rights. Thus, it can be said that this second perspective was a kind of uniform intellectual attitude that grew strongly in some circles in Europe.
- A third and final useful perspective is one presented by Dorinda Outram, namely that there was no uniform, homogeneous and monolithic movement called “the enlightenment”. Rather, it is better to speak of “enlightenments” to accurately describe the complex events and streams of thought during this time period. According to Outram the world-views and religious attitudes were too multifaceted and varied to speak of a single enlightenment. Outram also criticizes and challenges some established and modern ideas about the Enlightenment, namely whether there really was a real connection with the French Revolution and whether the Enlightenment was as hostile to religion as it has historically been proclaimed by historians.
Historical Background of the Enlightenment
The 18th century was a time where a global trade economy began to take shape and Western economic development was strong. The colonial actors profited massively on their colonies. Society’s top tier customers could now enjoy coffee, tea, sugar among other things. The Roman Catholic Church criticized these new movements and banned many of the Enlightenment thinkers’ books on a special index, but this didn’t go as planned because the so-called heretics used this profane index to explore books to read instead.
There was also a growing distrust of the current social order under the Enlightenment. The old standing society gained less and less power and influence, and there arose a distinct cultural separation from the bourgeois nobles and their habitat. Many enlightenment thinkers came up with new theories to improve socio-economic conditions in the societies they were part of.. The French Revolution can in some way, be understood as the climax of the social criticism put forward by the so-called “philosophes”, as the revolution was a violent condemnation and intervention against the medieval distribution of power by nobility and feudalism. For the revolutionaries, the revolution was a liberation from the inherited and fixed societal position that one was born into, a world-view that they considered obsolete originating from medieval traditions and conventions.
It would be misleading to say that all religion and spirituality were rejected during the epoch, when in some parts of Europe certain religious movements grew stronger, such as pietism and methodism, but an increasingly common conviction that emerged among the Enlightenment thinkers and scientists alike was the philosophical position of Deism, which in a nutshell posits that there indeed was an creative force (a God) as the first cause of the universe but which then left its own creation to work according to the set natural laws.
- Enlightenment was also characterized by empiricism and individualism as well as an atomistic worldview. Another hallmark idea was the idea of progress, which also in many ways gets its start during the enlightenment.
- Swedish iron was sold and used as tools for slave labor eg. chains and handcuffs.
- Rousseau was critical of the structure and nature of society and he was also highly critical of the notion of private property. His view of civilization was that it was characterized by corruption, people manipulating each other and thus a unnatural state of collective existence. Man has been corrupted. The glorification of the exotic people had a connection to the ancient, they were both far away, one in time the other in space. Rousseau is a good example of how the enlightenment in some respects wasn’t homogeneous, i.e. that all enlightenment thinkers did not agree on everything. They may have shared some beliefs, but everything was not completely harmonious as perhaps some historians have implied.
- Pornography was the genre that sold best in the literary market.
- Immanuel Kant, who was at the end of the era, proclaimed a well-known definition of enlightenment, according to Kant, that man resigns from his self-imposed authority. “Sapere aude, To dare to know!”
- Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Daniel Seeker is a wandering dervish and lifelong student of the past, present and future. He realized that he was made of immaculate and timeless consciousness when meditating in his hermit cave on the island of Gotland. His writings are mostly a reflection of that realizaton. Daniel currently studies history, philosophy, egyptology and western esotericism at Uppsala Universitet. He’s also currently writing his B.A. thesis in history which explores how Buddhist and Hindu texts were first properly translated and introduced to the western world in the late 18th and 19th century.