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Why enlightenment?  Is it still possibility in the world today?  Would there be any benefits?

Most work on the Enlightenment tends to emphasize what intellectuals wrote about what education should be and not about what education actually was during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Enlightenment children were taught to memorize facts through oral and graphic methods that originated during the Renaissance. The predominant educational psychology from the 1750s onward, especially in northern European countries was associationism, the notion that the mind associates or dissociates ideas through repeated routines. In addition to being conducive to Enlightenment ideologies of liberty, self-determination and personal responsibility, it offered a practical theory of the mind that allowed teachers to transform longstanding forms of print and manuscript culture into effective graphic tools of learning for the lower and middle orders of society.

The Debating Societies that rapidly came into existence in 1780 London present an almost perfect example of the public sphere during the Enlightenment.  These societies discussed an extremely wide range of topics. One broad area was women: societies debated over “male and female qualities”, courtship, marriage, and the role of women in the public sphere. Societies also discussed political issues, varying from recent events to “the nature and limits of political authority”, and the nature of suffrage. Debates on religion rounded out the subject matter. It is important to note, however, that the critical subject matter of these debates did not necessarily translate into opposition to the government. In other words, the results of the debate quite frequently upheld the status quo.

From a historical standpoint, one of the most important features of the debating society was their openness to the public; women attended and even participated in almost every debating society, which were likewise open to all classes providing they could pay the entrance fee. Once inside, spectators were able to participate in a largely egalitarian form of sociability that helped spread “Enlightening ideas”.

Scholars have never agreed on a definition of the Enlightenment, or on its chronological or geographical extent. Terms like “les Lumières” (French), “illuminismo” (Italian), and “Aufklärung” (German) referred to partly overlapping movements. Not until the late nineteenth century did English scholars agree they were talking about “the Enlightenment.”

Enlightenment was a desire for human affairs to be guided by rationality rather than by faith, superstition, or revelation; a belief in the power of human reason to change society and liberate the individual from the restraints of custom or arbitrary authority; all backed up by a world view increasingly validated by science rather than by religion or tradition.

Like the French Revolution, the Enlightenment has long been hailed as the foundation of modern Western political and intellectual culture. It has been frequently linked to the French Revolution of 1789.   However, it was perhaps the Revolution that “invented the Enlightenment by attempting to root its legitimacy in a corpus of texts and founding authors reconciled and united … by their preparation of a rupture with the old world”.

Enlightenment era religious commentary was a response to the preceding century of religious conflict in Europe, especially the Thirty Years War Theologians of the Enlightenment wanted to reform their faith to its generally non-confrontational roots and to limit the capacity for religious controversy to spill over into politics and warfare while still maintaining a true faith in God.  .

For moderate Christians, this meant a return to simple Scripture. John Locke abandoned the corpus of theological commentary in favor of an “unprejudiced examination” of the Word of God alone. He determined the essence of Christianity to be a belief in Christ the redeemer and recommended avoiding more detailed debate.

 Enlightenment scholars sought to curtail the political power of organized religion and thereby prevent another age of intolerant religious war.   A good religion based in instinctive morals and a belief in God should not theoretically need force to maintain order in its believers, and both Mendelssohn and Spinoza judged religion on its moral fruits, not the logic of its theology.

 A number of novel religious ideas developed with Enlightened faith, including Deism and talk of atheism.   Deism is the simple belief in God the Creator, with no reference to the Bible or any other miraculous source. Instead, the Deist relies solely on personal reason to guide his creed, which was eminently agreeable to many thinkers of the time.

Atheism was much discussed but there were few proponents.   In fact, very few enlightened intellectuals, even when they were vocal critics of Christianity, were true atheists. Rather, they were critics of orthodox belief, wedded rather to skepticism, deism, vitalism, or perhaps pantheism.     Many like Voltaire held that without belief in a God who punishes evil, the moral order of society was undermined. That is, since atheists gave themselves to no Supreme Authority and no law, and had no fear of eternal consequences, they were far more likely to disrupt society.  In the Enlightenment, a person could generally believe in any non-controversial religion that had an agreeable moral code and professed faith in God, but irreligious behavior was not acceptable.

The public sphere described new venues and modes of communication allowing for rational exchange that appeared in the 18th century.  The public sphere was also thought to be bourgeois, egalitarian, rational, and independent from the state, making it the ideal venue for intellectuals to critically examine contemporary politics and society, away from the interference of established authority.

While the public sphere is generally an integral component of social interpretations of the Enlightenment, numerous historians have brought into question whether the public sphere was bourgeois, oppositional to the state, independent from the state, or egalitarian.

These historiographical developments have done much to open up the study of Enlightenment to a multiplicity of interpretations. In A Social History of Truth (1994), makes the largely sociological argument that, in 17th-century England, the mode of sociability known as civility became the primary discourse of truth; for a statement to have the potential to be considered true, it had to be expressed according to the rules of civil society.

Feminist interpretations have also appeared, with Dena Goodman being one notable example. In The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994), Goodman argues that many women in fact played an essential part in the French Enlightenment, due to the role they played as salonnières in Parisians salons. These salons “became the civil working spaces of the project of Enlightenment” and women, as salonnières, were “the legitimate governors of [the] potentially unruly discourse” that took place within.   On the other hand, Carla Hesse, in The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern (2001), argues that “female participation in the public cultural life of the Old Regime was … relatively marginal”.  It was instead the French Revolution, by destroying the old cultural and economic restraints of patronage and corporatism (guilds) that opened French society to female participation, particularly in the literary sphere.

In the first flush of scientific confidence, the thinkers of the Enlightenment tried to carry over into every human intellectual endeavor the search for first principles which, in Newton’s physics, had been attended with such success. This search brought with it a skeptical attitude towards authority, rejecting everything that had no secure foundation in experience. In history, morals, metaphysics and literature the Enlightenment attitude briefly prevailed, giving rise to the phenomenal ambitions of the French encyclopaedists, and to their materialist, almost clockwork, and vision of the universe. It produced the political theories which motivated the French and American revolutions, and the systematic explorations in chemistry and biology that were to find fruition in nineteenth-century evolutionism. It also brought about the technical achievements which precipitated modern industrialism, and while thus preparing the way for the miseries of revolution and factory labor, it infected the minds of the educated classes with a serenity of outlook, and a trust in human capacities.   This was the Augustan age of English poetry, the age of Johnson and Goldsmith, of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau, of Lessing and Winckelmann. From the point of view of the historian it is perhaps the richest and most exciting of all intellectual eras, not because of the content, but because of the influence, of the ideas that were current in it

 Kathy Kiefer





    Alessandro Sicuro Comunication responded:
    April 8, 2014 at 10:16 am

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