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Chapter 16 - Age of Enlightenment


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One of the most remarkable inventions of the last three to four hundred years was the notion of continual progress, the optimistic assumption that by reason, education, logic and the scientific method, humans can build a better tomorrow, that the future will boast superior knowledge, material goods, scientific advances, technology, medical practices, justice, etc. A historian in 1920 famously called progress “the animating and controlling idea of western civilization.” This unit explores the 18th century political, social, economic and philosophical roots of “The Enlightenment,” the fertile ground on which the idea of progress first took root.

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Chapter 16 - Age of Enlightenment

  1. 1. Key Question: Ideas of Progress• Enlightenment thinkers were eager to separate themselves from what had gone before and to emphasize a firm commitment to the improvement of the human condition, without reference to religious injunctions.• They believed that enhancement of human life was possible through the application of scientific principles.• Did their work succeed? Were they misguided in their approach to ‘progress’?
  2. 2. Critiquing the Traditional Way of Life• The general impoverishment of the peasant majority of Europe had never been of particular concern to the political elite.• It was generally believed impossible—or at least ill-advised— to improve the physical well-being of those who were lower in the social order.• By contrast, a small minority shared the opposite attitude, i.e. that progress was both possible and desirable, through the application of human reason to a variety of fields.• By utilizing an established core of knowledge, they could, they believed, exceed the accomplishments of all previous ages.
  3. 3. The Philosophes• The philosophes believed that, by thinking for themselves, questioning and reflecting, they could understand the world according to their own rational lights.• Extending the belief in natural laws that lay at the core of the Scientific Revolution to the realm of human affairs, they also claimed that progress was itself a general natural law.• Seeing themselves as citizens of the world, rather than of their particular nations, they used exotic traveler’s tales to illustrate what outsiders might think of (rather absurd) Western practices and notions.• Anti-clerical in tone and sympathetic to non-Christian traditions, these books also demonstrate an awareness of the larger world.
  4. 4. The Project of Systematizing Knowledge… and its Enemy?• Efforts to classify, systematize, demonstrate, and disseminate new knowledge became a central goal of the Enlightenment.• The Encyclopedia (with its first volume appearing in 1751) was, according to its editors, designed to ‘contribute to the certitude and progress of human reason.’• Aristocratic ‘salons’, or discussion circles, held in private homes and provincial literary academies, were also key to the dissemination of knowledge.• However, the philosophes believed that religious authorities wished to suppress and impede human discovery.
  5. 5. The Philosophes vs. Organized Religion• One of the most bitterly contested issues during the 18th century was the status of revealed religion and the power of the church to regulate people’s lives.• The philosophes equated such power and control with bigotry and decried intolerance as the root cause of human divisions.• ‘Deists’, or ‘Theists’ (as Voltaire defined them), believed in a God, but one who does not intervene in the daily affairs of individual believers.• Spinoza seemed to approach a pantheistic identification of God with all of nature, and the Baron d’Holbach concluded that the entire idea of God was a mere superstition.
  6. 6. Applications of Enlightenment Philosophy to Civil Society• In Adam Smith’s estimation, society is best served when individuals are permitted to hold onto their private gains with a minimum of state interference.• Removing the heavy hand of government from economic affairs, he was also convinced, would improve workers’ ability to negotiate.• Cesare Beccaria called for the reform of irrational legal systems and focused on the need to rehabilitate criminals.• Law codes, in his estimation, should result in ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, and not just the private vengeance of one ruler.
  7. 7. Key Question Revisited• With their suspicion of emotion and intuition, desire for efficient and orderly government, willingness to subject every traditional belief to rational examination, and insistence on disseminating information outside centers of learning, Enlightened thinkers hoped to contribute to human progress.• By applying reason to the many facets of daily life, people could make significant progress in the real world.• How did they translate belief into action?• Were all of their attempts successful or even desirable?