Chapter 3 The Enlightenment The most radical intellectual challenge to received ideas since the rise of class society occurred in the aftermath of the Dutch and English revolutions. The more intellectually aware sections of the middle, and even the upper, classes elsewhere in Europe began to feel that their societies were defective, and sought to bring change by changing ideas. This led to a much more far-reaching attack on prejudice and superstition than had occurred in the Renaissance and Reformation. The result was a current of ideas known as the Enlightenment. This catch-all category included a range of thinkers and writers— natural scientists, philosophers, satirists, economists, historians, es- sayists, novelists, political theorists and even musicians like Mozart. They did not all hold the same set of views. Some had diametrically opposed opinions on major issues.18 What they shared was a belief in the power of rational under- standing based on empirical knowledge. This had to be applied to the world, even if it meant challenging existing myths and established be- liefs. Such an approach represented a challenge to many of the in- stitutions and much of the ideology of existing European societies. One inﬂuence was that of the philosophers Descartes in France, Spinoza in Holland and Leibniz in south western Germany. They were convinced a complete understanding of the world could be de- duced from a few unchallengeable principles of reason—a convic- tion which grew in the 18th century on the basis of Newton’s success in establishing basic laws for physics.19 These ‘rationalist’ philoso- phers were not necessarily political radicals. Leibniz famously de- clared that the universe ran according to a prearranged harmony, that ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’—a view car- icatured brilliantly in Voltaire’s Candide. But the rationalist approach could become an almost revolutionary weapon in other hands, since it implied that every institution or practice not deducible from ﬁrst principles should be rejected. 242 THE ENLIGHTENMENT Another inﬂuence was the rather different tradition begun by John Locke in England. He insisted that knowledge came not from the ‘innate ideas’ of the rationalists but from empirical observation of what already existed. Locke was just as politically conservative as Leibniz. He reﬂected the attitude of English gentlemen landowners and merchants. Their aims had been achieved once English kings agreed to govern through an upper class parliament. Yet as the 18th century wore on, increasingly radical conclusions were drawn in France and Germany from the English empiricist approach. So Voltaire and Montesquieu in France were great admirers of Locke, drawing from his writings the conclusion that the countries of con- tinental Europe should be reformed along English lines. A conserv- ative doctrine in England could be a subversive one across the Channel. The Enlightenment thinkers were not revolutionaries. They were dissident intellectuals who looked to members of the upper class for sponsorship. They placed their hopes not in the overthrow of soci- ety but in its reform, which would be achieved by winning the battle of ideas. Diderot saw no contradiction in visiting the Russian em- press Catherine the Great, nor did Voltaire in collaborating with the Prussian king Frederick the Great. Their milieu is demonstrated by those regularly in attendance at the twice weekly ‘salons’ organised by d’Holbach’s wife, where thinkers like Diderot, Hume, Rousseau, the future American leader Benjamin Franklin and the radical chemist Joseph Priestley mixed with the ambassador of Naples, Lord Shel- bourne, the future French royal minister Necker and the Prince of Brunswick.20 Voltaire insisted, ‘It is not the labourers one should ed- ucate, but the good bourgeois, the tradesmen.’ Even the French en- cyclopedists, who were zealous propagandists of the new thinking, concentrated their efforts on books which were way beyond the ﬁ- nancial reach of the bulk of the population (the early editions of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, in 17 volumes, sold only 4,000 copies), through the salons of friendly aristocrats or participation in Masonic Societies whose secret semi-religious rites brought together the ‘Enlightened’ elite of the upper and middle classes. There were also limits to how far most of the Enlightenment thinkers were prepared to take their critiques of existing institutions and ideas, at least in public. So Voltaire could rage against the su- perstition of religion (‘écrasez l’infame’—‘Crush the infamy’—was his 243 A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE WORLD slogan) and subject biblical accounts of miracles to devastating cri- tiques, but he was very upset when d’Holbach published (under a pseudonym) a thoroughly atheistic work, The System of Nature. ‘This book has made philosophy execrable in the eyes of the king and the whole of the courts,’ he wrote.21 Gibbon, in England, could write a pi- oneering history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was scathing in its attack on the inﬂuence of the Christian church. But it was not intended to shake the faith of the masses. The Scot David Hume did not publish his own savage attacks on religion during his lifetime. Voltaire objected to what he saw as Rousseau’s negative attitude to existing social institutions in The Social Contract, while Rousseau objected to Voltaire’s ‘negative’ attitude towards religion. But however reluctant they were to take a radical stance, the thinkers of the Enlightenment challenged some of the basic props of the societies in which they lived. These were not open to easy reform, and powerful interests saw any questioning as deeply subversive. Many of the thinkers suffered as a result. Voltaire was beaten up by the hired thugs of an aristocrat, endured a spell of imprisonment in the Bastille and then felt compelled to live away from Paris for many years. Diderot was incarcerated for a period in the fortress of Vin- cennes, near Paris. Rousseau spent the latter part of his life out of reach of the French authorities across the Swiss border, and the plays of Beaumarchais (whose Marriage of Figaro laid the basis for Mozart’s opera) were banned in several countries for suggesting that a servant could thwart the intentions of his master. The church could be especially hostile to any questioning of es- tablished ideas. In southern Europe the counter-Reformation stamped viciously on all opposition until the second half of the 18th century. In Spain there were 700 cases of auto da fé (the burning alive of ‘heretics’) between 1700 and 1746.22 In France, Protestants could still be sentenced to slavery in the galleys and two Protestants were broken on the wheel before being hanged in Toulouse in 1761 and Abbéville in 1766.23 By challenging such things, the thinkers raised fundamental ques- tions about how society was organised, even if they shied away from providing complete answers. Voltaire’s Candide suggested that no state in Europe could fulﬁl people’s needs. Rousseau began his Social Con- tract with the revolutionary idea, ‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains,’ even though he seems to have put little faith in the 244 THE ENLIGHTENMENT masses himself. The philosophers d’Holbach and Helvetius attempted thoroughgoing materialist analyses of nature and society which re- jected any notion of god.24 The naturalist Buffon put forward an almost evolutionist theory of animal species (and insisted on the unity of the human species, ascribing differences between ‘races’ to climatic con- ditions).25 The Scots Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith saw human so- ciety as progressing through stages, of hunting, pastoralism and agriculture, and so laid the basis for a materialist understanding of social development. Between them, the Enlightenment intellectuals went further than anyone ever before in trying to make sense of human beings and human institutions. There is a sense in which their ideas became ‘hegemonic’, in that they dominated intellectual discussion right across Europe, every- where throwing apologists for other views on the defensive. They re- ceived a hearing from all those, even at the very top, who wanted the kind of ‘modern’, economically successful society they saw in England, as opposed to the ‘antiquated’, economically stagnant societies of continental Europe. At various points, governments in Austria, Russia, Portugal and Poland tried to push through certain reforms associated with En- lightenment thought (and so are sometimes called ‘enlightened despots’ by historians). Between 1759 and 1765 the rulers of Portu- gal, France, Spain, Naples and Parma threw out the Jesuits—and, under pressure from the Catholic monarchs, the pope disbanded the order in Europe.26 In France, Turgot, one of the most prominent ‘phys- iocrat’ Enlightenment economists, became a minister of Louis XVI in 1774. But in each case the reforms from above were eventually aban- doned. Even ‘enlightened’ monarchs were unable to implement them in the face of resistance from ruling classes whose wealth depended on residual forms of feudal exploitation. Diderot wrote in the Encyclopédie that its aim was ‘to change the general way of thinking’.27 The Enlightenment thinkers did make a highly successful challenge to the ideas of intellectuals, including ruling class intellectuals, and it was a more far-reaching challenge than that of the Reformation two centuries before. By the 1780s the works of Voltaire and Rousseau ‘did speak to an enormous public’,28 and cheap (often pirated) versions of the Encyclopédie sold far more copies than Diderot himself ever intended. ‘It spread through the bourgeoisie of the ancien regime’ and ‘a progressive ideology…inﬁltrated the most 245 A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE WORLD archaic and eroded segments of the social structure’.29 Yet the En- lightenment thinkers were hardly effective in achieving their goal of reforming society. Voltaire, apparently, was dispirited when he died in 1778.30 Kant noted six years later that, although ‘he was living in the Age of Enlightenment…the age itself was not enlightened’.31 Changing ideas was not the same as changing society. It would re- quire another cycle of revolutions and civil wars to bring that about. 246
"The Enlightenment Chapter 3"