Enlightenment And Society The Idea Of Progress

A different, more widespread element in 'enlightened' attitudes was a belief that visible progress in civilization was possible. This was progress in a limited sense, relatively uninfluenced by utopianism (which had its own marginal revival in the eighteenth century), but it involved faith in the possibility of human happiness. This attitude emerged as both a religious and a political alternative to the social theories of mainstream Christianity, Protestant as well as Catholic, in which society was still analysed in terms of the revealed doctrine of the Fall of man. The 'fourth kingdom' and man's fallen state remained as a theological backcloth but they had less and less influence on what was happening centre-stage in the eighteenth century. There was a turning away in many quarters from the ascetic Christian denial of the world as a proper form of human behaviour, and a fresh attachment to human happiness in this world. One important aspect of 'enlightenment' was a feeling that Christian piety put too much stress on self-negation, not just in its view of human nature, but also in its method of pursuing holiness. One could now abandon this whole attitude and technique, rise from one's knees and study the passions, the affections, reason, the moral sense and so on, learning to seek one's own and the general good in a different, more secular sense, with confidence that the deity supported virtue rather than vice. The position was sound to the extent that it concentrated on the aim of doing what was both individually and socially possible and useful: it was not so much a matter of complacently ignoring sin and misery as of assuming that the relevant reaction to life was practical, that one should do what one could, and rather more perhaps than cultivating one's garden. This new optimism was often expressed in terms of 'improvement', including, in England (for example), the improvement of industry, commerce and agriculture.

It was at the level of daily life that the hegemony of the Churches suffered most from the new mood. One consequence was that the exclusion of the Church from political power became a steadily more important aim of the radicals, especially in France: in the Encyclopédie, for example, the important article 'Législateur' (1765) by Saint-Lambert (1716-1803), asserted that the state should not make use of religion as a principal part of the machinery of government, because this only encouraged religious fanaticism and politically ambitious priests. This contradicted the universal view of European rulers that atheism, not religion, was the enemy of social harmony. The characteristic note of the Encyclopédie's articles on religion was a demand for religious toleration. As recently as 1746 Diderot had been imprisoned for publishing his Pensées philosophiques, in which he cast doubt on the idea of resurrection. It is not surprising that it was now increasingly asserted that a properly 'enlightened' attitude required that state and Church discontinue the centuries-old policy of restricting freedom of religious publication to what was allegedly neither heretical nor blasphemous. It is significant that one of the sources of French Deism, and therefore of the break with traditional religious thinking, seems to have been a revulsion against Louis XlV's religious persecution of the French Protestants: the 'Militaire Philosophie', who wrote against Christianity in about 1710, had taken part in the Dragonnades and had clearly never forgiven himself for doing so. By the later eighteenth century opinion shifted far enough for the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II to try to enforce toleration in his dominions.

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