Age of Enlightenment

European cultural movement of the 17th and 18th centuries
For other uses, see Enlightenment.

The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in the late 17th- and 18th-century Europe emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method.

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. ~ Immanuel Kant
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  • The problem of Enlightenment is not merely discovery of the truth but the conflict between the truth and the beliefs of men, which are incorporated into the law. Enlightenment begins from the tension between what men are compelled to believe by city and religion, on the one hand, and the quest for scientific truth on the other. … The innovation of the Enlightenment was the attempt to reduce that tension and to alter the philosopher’s relation to civil society. … The earlier thinkers accepted the tension and lived accordingly. Their knowledge was essentially for themselves, and they had a private life very different from their public life. They were themselves concerned with getting from the darkness to the light. Enlightenment was a daring attempt to shine that light on all men, partly for the sake of all men, partly for the sake of the progress of science. … Enlightenment was not only, or perhaps not even primarily, a scientific project but a political one. It began from the premise that the rulers could be educated, a premise not held by the Enlightenment’s ancient brethren.
  • The Continental Enlightenment was impatient for the perfected state – which led to intellectual dogmatism, political violence and new forms of tyranny. The French Revolution of 1789 and the Reign of Terror that followed it are the archetypal examples. The British Enlightenment, which was evolutionary and cognizant of human fallibility, was impatient for institutions that did not stifle gradual, continuing change. It was also enthusiastic for small improvements, unbounded in the future. (See, for instance, the historian Jenny Uglow’s book Lunar Men.) This is, I believe, the movement that was successful in its pursuit of progress, so in this book when I refer to ‘the’ Enlightenment I mean the ‘British’ one.
    • David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity (2011), Ch. 3 : The Spark
  • Enlightenment rationalism, to the extent that its program is taken seriously, is an engine of perpetual revolution, which brings about the progressive destruction of every inherited institution, yet without ever being able to consolidate a stable consensus around any new ones.
  • Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and Kant never had children. Descartes's only daughter, born outside of marriage, died at the age of five. Rousseau had five children with a mistress but abandoned them all to an orphanage in infancy. In other words, Enlightenment rationalism was the construction of men who had no real experience of family life or what it takes to make it work. Enlightenment liberal political theory, which resolves around the free individual who accepts only those obligations to which he consents, was invented by men who did live in more or less this way. It is a political theory made in the image of unmarried, childless individuals, and the more people repeat its tenets, the more they act like unmarried, childless individuals.
  • A secular, rationalist and progressive individualism dominated 'enlightened' thought. To set the individual free from the shackles which fettered him was its chief object: from the ignorant traditionalism of the Middle Ages, which still threw their shadow across the world, from the superstition of the churches (as distinct from 'natural' or 'rational' religion), from the irrationality which divided men into a hierarchy of higher and lower ranks according to birth or some other irrelevant criterion. Liberty, equality and (it followed) the fraternity of all men were its slogans. In due course they became those of the French Revolution. The reign of individual liberty could not but have the most beneficent consequences. The most extraordinary results could be looked for—could indeed already be observed to follow from—the unfettered exercise of individual talent in a world of reason. The passionate belief in progress of the typical 'enlightened' thinker reflected the visible increases in knowledge and technique, in wealth, welfare and civilization which he could see all round him, and which he ascribed with some justice to the growing advance of his ideas. At the beginning of his century witches were still widely burned; at its end enlightened governments like the Austrian had already abolished not only judicial torture but also slavery. What might not be expected if the remaining obstacles to progress such as the vested interests of feudality and church, were swept away?
    • Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848, p. 21
  • It is not strictly accurate to call the 'enlightenment' a middle class ideology, though there were many enlighteners—and politically they were the decisive ones—who assumed as a matter of course that the free society would be a capitalist society. In theory its object was to set all human beings free. All progressive, rationalist and humanist ideologies are implicit in it, and indeed came out of it. Yet in practice the leaders of the emancipation for which the enlightenment called were likely to be the middle ranks of society, the new, rational men of ability and merit rather than birth, and the social order which would emerge from their activities would be a 'bourgeois' and capitalist one. It is more accurate to call the 'enlightenment' a revolutionary ideology, in spite of the political caution and moderation of many of its continental champions, most of whom—until the 1780s—put their faith in enlightened absolute monarchy. For illuminism implied the abolition of the prevailing social and political order in most of Europe. It was too much to expect the anciens regimes to abolish themselves voluntarily. On the contrary, as we have seen, in some respects they were reinforcing themselves against the advance of the new social and economic forces. And their strongholds (outside Britain, the United Provinces and a few other places where they had already been defeated) were the very monarchies to which moderate enlighteners pinned their faith.
    • Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848, pp. 21-22
  • Ruthless toward itself, the Enlightenment has eradicated the last remnant of its own self-awareness.
  • Die bürgerliche Gesellschaft ist beherrscht vom Äquivalent. Sie macht Ungleichnamiges komparabel, indem sie es auf abstrakte Größen reduziert. Der Aufklärung wird zum Schein, was in Zahlen, zuletzt in der Eins, nicht aufgeht.
  • Human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted. Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. He knows them to the extent that he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things to the extent he can make them. Their “in-itself” becomes “for him.”
  • The arid wisdom which acknowledges nothing new under the sun, because all the pieces in the meaningless game have been played out, all the great thoughts have been thought, all possible discoveries can be construed in advance, and human beings are defined by self-preservation through adaptation—this barren wisdom merely reproduces the fantastic doctrine it rejects: the sanction of fate which, through retribution, incessantly reinstates what always was.
  • Thought is reified as an autonomous, automatic process, aping the machine it has itself produced, so that it can finally be replaced by the machine. Enlightenment pushed aside the classical demand to “think thinking.” … . Mathematical procedure became a kind of ritual of thought.
  • The Modernist reaction to the Enlightenment came in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, whose brutalizing effects revealed that modern life had not become... mathematically perfect...
  • Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit. Unmündigkeit ist das Unvermögen, sich seines Verstandes ohne Leitung eines anderen zu bedienen. Selbstverschuldet ist diese Unmündigkeit, wenn die Ursache derselben nicht am Mangel des Verstandes, sondern der Entschließung und des Mutes liegt, sich seiner ohne Leitung eines andern zu bedienen.
    • Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.
  • Whatever the conceptions of Enlightenment toward God might have been, whether they pictured Him as nonexistent, or as a pale being without personality, sunk in sleep, or at least disinterested toward the fate of the individual, that period took a negative attitude toward the next world. Enlightenment was antimetaphysical and geocentrical. In the framework of such a philosophy, devoid of otherworldliness, the human beings and their existence assumed automatically a different significance. The meaning of life, human happiness, and all the other basic values were projected into this world and that change brought an enormous thirst for "justice," earthly justice, of course, which in turn was nothing else but an initially veiled and finally open demand for absolute equality.
  • The eighteenth century saw its share of wars in Europe, but these were markedly less violent and unrestrained than the wars of the previous century, where the toxic admixture of religion and social revolution had produced slaughter on the battlefields and atrocities against innocent civilians. In the Age of Enlightenment, as superstition and religion appeared to be giving way before science and reason, Europeans had a brief spell of hope that humanity, or at least the European part of it, was getting more peaceable and learning to control its passions. Observers believed that war was getting less cruel; Emeric de Vattel, one of the influential early theorists of international law, remarked that ‘the Nations of Europe almost always carry on war with great forbearance and generosity’. War, or so it was hoped, was becoming civilised, fought between professionals and with proper respect for the rules of war. By contrast with what was to come or had happened during the wars of religion, eighteenth-century wars were ‘cabinet’ ones, undertaken for clear and limited goals, relatively easy to stop and neatly concluded with an agreement or treaty.
  • For centuries, people grew up believing , in essence, that reason was only to be gleaned from the word of a monarch and/or god. Enlightenment philosophy gave voice to the ideas of on-the-ground social struggles and, in percolating through society, gradually shattered such self-abnegation with the increasingly hegemonic understanding that everyone has the ability to think for themselves.
  • There are people whose whole life consists in always saying no. It would be no small accomplishment to be able to say no properly, but whoever can do no more, surely cannot do so properly. The taste of these nay-sayers is like an efficient pair of scissors for pruning the extremities of genius; their enlightenment is like a great candle-snuffer for the flame of enthusiasm and their reason a mild laxative against immoderate pleasure and love.
  • It is the courage to make a clean breast of it in the face of every question that makes the philosopher. He must be like Sophocles’ Oedipus, who, seeking enlightenment concerning his terrible fate, pursues his indefatigable inquiry even though he divines that appalling horror awaits him in the answer. But most of us carry with us the Jocasta in our hearts, who begs Oedipus, for God’s sake, not to inquire further.
  • A mother gave her children Aesop’s fables to read, in the hope of educating and improving their minds; but they very soon brought the book back, and the eldest, wise beyond his years, delivered himself as follows: "This is no book for us; it’s much too childish and stupid. You can’t make us believe that foxes and wolves and ravens are able to talk; we’ve got beyond stories of that kind!" In these young hopefuls you have the enlightened Rationalists of the future.
    • Arthur Schopenhauer, “Similes, Parables and Fables,” Parerga and Paralipomena, vol. 2, § 395.
  • The only loyalty to enlightenment consists in disloyalty.
    • Peter Sloterdijk, in Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), as translated by M. Eldred (1987), p. 6
  • Pietism and methodism reemphasized personal guilt, personal experience, and individual perfection. They were not intended to deviate from ecclesiastical conformity, but unavoidably they did deviate; subjective piety became the bridge of the victorious reappearance of autonomous reason. Pietism was the bridge to Enlightenment. But even Enlightenment did not consider itself individualistic. One believed not in a conformity which is based on biblical revelation but in one which should be based on the power of reason in every individual. The principles of practical and theoretical reason were supposed to be universal among men and able to create, with the help of research and education, a new conformity.
  • The courage to be as oneself within the atmosphere of Enlightenment is the courage to affirm oneself as a bridge from a lower to a higher state of rationality. It is obvious that this kind of courage to be must become conformist the moment its revolutionary attack on that which contradicts reason has ceased, namely in the victorious bourgeoisie.
  • The only gospel we should read is the grand book of nature, written with God’s own hand, and stamped with his own seal.
    • Voltaire, The Important Examination of Long Bolingbroke (1767), p. 60.
  • Every sect, as one knows, is a ground of error; there are no sects of geometers, algebraists, arithmeticians, because all the propositions of geometry, algebra and arithmetic are true. In every other science one may be deceived.
    • Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, “Tolerance”.
  • We have never intended to enlighten shoemakers and servants—this is up to apostles.
    • Voltaire, Letter to d’Alembert, September 2, 1768.

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