When one talks about 'the Enlightenment', 'les Lumières, or 'die Aufklärung', one is thinking of a period of European cultural change which lies between the early seventeenth century and the first French Revolution, and doing so from the point of view of a series of radical thinkers—thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Beccaria, Hume and Lessing—for whom intellectual experiment was to be valued rather than resisted. The Tridentine form of Roman Catholic theology and the world-views which went with it had reached a natural limit of usefulness by the mid-seventeenth century, although the system as a whole was still heavily backed by state power; ecclesiastical Protestantism, despite its divisions, was no less dogmatic in intention and often socially repressive. The gradual revolt of a section of Europe's cultural elites against the hegemony of Christian world-views was not so much a sinful function of human pride, whose errors would be clearly revealed in the fate of the so-called 'Enlightenment-project', as a natural development as the late-medieval world-order, already weakened in the sixteenth century, fell apart.
The conviction, which spread through the educated elites of Europe in the course of the eighteenth century, that one had a new, superior, rational and historical insight into what had happened in the past and into what was happening in the present (which is the basic meaning of 'being enlightened' and so 'a member of this enlightened age') did not in itself necessarily lead on to specific intellectual, social or religious radicalism. It had many roots, for the social chaos, the constant warfare, the religious persecution which had characterized the period between 1500 and 1714, together with the expanding contact of Europeans with other societies and religions, especially in the Far East, all produced their own reactions. There was also an educated elite which resented its exclusion from politics by baroque absolutism.
Arguably, what many eighteenth-century radicals wanted was a culture which was less dogmatically Christian, less superstitious (in the straightforward sense of burning women on the ground that they were witches), certainly less clerical, but without being less religious. Professor Stephen Toulmin has suggested as the opening gambit of 'modern' philosophy Montaigne's (1533-92) restatement of classical scepticism in the Apology of Raimond Sebond 'Unless some one thing is found of which we are completely certain, we can be certain about nothing' (Toulmin 1990:42). No such final certainty could be found, even in Descartes' treatment of the individual's mental activity as the only indubitable fact of experience, and as Christian systematic theology lost its hold, Newtonian science, which described the universe as subject to immutable natural laws, seemed to offer greater certainty. Politically, the nation-state extended its grip on society, and would soon seek to establish its own cult and its own ethic.
One of the difficulties of understanding this transformation from a theological point of view has been that almost as soon as the eighteenth-century French Revolution began, conservative religious thinkers, including Roman Catholics like de Maistre and Montalembert, began to interpret eighteenth-century radicalism as a disastrous process which had inevitably produced Jacobin politics and Kantian philosophy, the roots of a godless totalitarianism. 'The Enlightenment' became a codeword for everything in modern European history which had militated against the intellectual, social and political authority of Christianity, and in this rebellion, as it was felt to have been, more recent writers have discovered the origins of the sad record of the twentieth century. A dismissal of alleged 'Enlightenment-attitudes' is not uncommon among present-day theologians as well as among some of the most distinguished modern conservative political thinkers, such as the American scholar, Leo Strauss, and the British conservative, Michael Oakeshott.
It is also true, however, that writers like Beccaria, Hume, Kant, Lessing and Voltaire criticized superstition and religious intolerance; they hoped that a rational analysis of problems would advance human happiness, and they protested against the habit of judicial cruelty which still characterized Western culture. They supported freedom of thought and publication against the preference of governments as well as Churches for censorship. They valued social order, but not necessarily the baroque politico-religious order which had been set up since the sixteenth century, and which was still liable to carry out religious cleansing, as when the Protestant minority was expelled from Salzburg by the Catholic Archbishop in 1731/2. Yet their expectations of political change were modest: they were not Jacobins before the event. Although they rejected the theological politics which based absolute power on a religious foundation, whether Catholic or Protestant, they were tempted by the possibilities of authoritarian government should it also be 'enlightened'.
Was this article helpful?