The Enlightenment Chapter 3

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					                             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.

                       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
   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


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

                       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


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.


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