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Old notes on the Enlightenment

An Enlightenment-era painting

In Margaret Jacob's The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents (2001), the selections from Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education make it clear that all the obsessive writing in the past century about how to raise children has been largely unnecessary. Locke’s thoughts are, on the whole, sufficient. Raising a child is mostly a matter of common sense anyway; but since most people seem to lack common sense, they should read Locke’s advice. Most of it is fantastic. A humane and wise man, Locke was (though far from perfect, as in his support of slavery).

Let’s try out a few ideas on the Enlightenment. What caused it? What was its meaning? This founding “event” of the modern world: how should we interpret it? I see it as sort of a continuation, in some respects, of the Renaissance and the Reformation: a reaction against hierarchy, authoritarianism, the dead weight of tradition, the submersion of the individual in the disfranchised mass -- a fundamentally anti-feudal phenomenon, as I'd say the other two events were. Society was becoming more individualized and, so to speak, atomized (a process that has continued to this day); social and individual self-consciousness was being progressively sharpened. Over centuries, people were becoming more aware of themselves as individuals (in opposition to institutional hierarchies), as well as of their society vis-à-vis others. Doubtless the Renaissance and Reformation were opposed in many respects, but they were both, to a large extent, expressions of the “individuality” principle. As was the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, republicanism, rights, democracy, opposition to illegitimate authority, etc. That’s what the modern age, from the 1400s or so, is all about: the slow progress of self-consciousness, individuation, historical consciousness, differentiation between self and other (and ultimately, therefore, between the self and itself). [Of course our age is “about” other things too, but you know what I meant.]

As for what caused the Enlightenment, Jacob spells it out succinctly. Obviously England’s scientific revolution of the 17th century did much to inspire thinkers on the Continent (and in England itself) -- Isaac Newton was worshiped by all enlightened thinkers, and the spirit of empiricism undermined Catholicism. But there were also political origins. “The political roots of the European Enlightenment grew out of a profound revulsion against new political abuses that arose in the 1680s on both sides of the English Channel. Two nearly simultaneous events precipitated the crisis: In 1685, the English Catholic James II came to the throne, and in France Louis XIV revoked the limited toleration that French Protestants, known as Huguenots, had enjoyed for nearly a hundred years.” That is, he revoked the Edict of Nantes. As a result, many Protestants fled to Geneva, Berlin, the Dutch republic, England, and America, making connections with each other and other intellectuals. Opposition movements to Catholic authoritarianism developed in both England and (more secretively) France. By means of printing presses, an international propaganda campaign among diverse Protestants and deists sprang up. James II was overthrown, a revolution that had positive repercussions for civil liberties in Britain and initiated a period of intellectual and cultural ferment. Intellectuals on the Continent were stimulated by developments in England, establishing, for example, secret Masonic lodges (which originated in England) where secular, oppositional ideas could be promulgated and discussed in safety. A “public sphere” began to emerge. Things took off from there.

I won’t discuss economic factors, but you can imagine what they were. (The advance of commercial capitalism undermining tradition, international trade bringing modern ideologies and practices to relatively backward cultures, greater prosperity and the diffusion of scientific knowledge across the West, etc.)

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