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The advancements and restructuring that dominated the renaissance or age of enlightenment

Europe, 1450 to 1789: The term " Enlightenment " refers to a loosely organized intellectual movement, secular, rationalist, liberal, and egalitarian in outlook and values, which flourished in the middle decades of the eighteenth century.

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The cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment was genuine, however. It was a German admirer of d'Alembert and Diderot, Immanuel Kantwho produced the most enduring definition of the movement. In a famous essay of 1784, Kant defined enlightenment as "emancipation from self-incurred tutelage" and declared that its motto should be sapere aude —"dare to know. But the common aspiration defined by Kant—knowledge as liberation—is what permits us to see a unified movement amid much diversity.

ORIGINS In a long-term perspective, the Enlightenment can be regarded as the third and last phase of the cumulative process by which European thought and intellectual life was "modernized" in the course of the early modern period.

Its relation to the two earlier stages in this process— Renaissance and Reformation—was paradoxical. In a sense, the Enlightenment represented both the advancements and restructuring that dominated the renaissance or age of enlightenment fulfillment and their cancellation. As the neoclassical architecture and republican politics of the late eighteenth century remind us, respect and admiration for classical antiquity persisted throughout the period.

Yet the Enlightenment was clearly the moment at which the spell of the Renaissance—the conviction of the absolute superiority of ancient over modern civilization—was broken once and for all in the West. The Enlightenment revolt against the intellectual and cultural authority of Christianity was even more dramatic.

In effect, the Protestant critique of the Catholic church—condemned for exploitation of its charges by means of ideological delusion—was extended to Christianity, even religion itself. At the deepest level, this is what Kant meant by "emancipation from self-incurred tutelage": What made this intellectual liberation possible? The major thinkers of the Enlightenment were in fact very clear about the proximate origins of their own ideas, which they almost invariably traced to the works of a set of pioneers or founders from the mid-seventeenth century.

First and foremost among these were figures now associated with the "scientific revolution"—above all, the English physicist Isaac Newtonwho became the object of a great cult of veneration in the eighteenth century.

Similarly honored were the founders of modern " natural rights " theory in political thought— Hugo GrotiusHobbes, Locke, and Samuel Pufendorf. What they did share, however, was the sheer novelty of their ideas—the willingness to depart from tradition in one domain of thought after another. Nor is it an accident that this roster is dominated by Dutch and English names or careers.

For the United Provinces and England were the two major states in which divine-right absolutism had been successfully defeated or overthrown in Europe. If the ideological idiom of the Dutch Revolt 1568—1648 and the English Revolutions 1640—1660, 1688 remained primarily religious, their success made possible a degree of freedom of thought and expression enjoyed nowhere else in Europe.

The result was to lay the intellectual foundations for the Enlightenment, which can be defined as the process by which the most advanced thought of the seventeenth century was popularized and disseminated in the course of the eighteenth.

What these countries did provide, however, was the indispensable staging ground for the central practical business of the movement, the publication of books. For most of the century, Amsterdam and London—together with the city-states of another zone of relative freedom, Switzerland—were home to the chief publishers of the Enlightenment, many of whom specialized in the printing of books for clandestine circulation in France. For France was the leading producer and consumer of "enlightened" literature in the eighteenth century, occupying a dominant position in the movement comparable to that of Italy in the Renaissance or Germany in the Reformation.

The reasons for this centrality lie in the unique position of France within the larger set of European nations at the end of the seventeenth century. At the end of the long reign of Louis XIV in 1715, Catholic France remained by far the most powerful absolute monarchy in Europe—yet one whose geopolitical ambitions had clearly been thwarted by the rise of two smaller, post-absolutist Protestant states, the United Provinces and Great Britain.

The remote origins of the French Enlightenment can be traced precisely to the moment that the sense of having been overtaken by Dutch and English rivals became palpable. The key transitional work, the French Protestant Pierre Bayle 's Dictionnaire historique et critique Critical and historical dictionarywas published from Dutch exile in 1697.

As the Enlightenment unfolded in France, the promptings of international rivalry remained central. The major texts of its early phase, Charles-Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu's Lettres persanes 1721; Persian letters and Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques 1734; Philosophical letters both held up a critical mirror to what was now theorized as "despotism" in France—an imaginary Muslim one in the case of the first, a very real English mirror in the second.

The last years of the French Enlightenment saw the emergence of a distinctive school of political the advancements and restructuring that dominated the renaissance or age of enlightenment, whose conscious purpose was to find means of restoring the economic and political fortunes of France, in the face of British competition. By this point, the example of the French Enlightenment had long since inspired or provoked a sequence of other national "enlightenments," according to a similar dynamic of international rivalry and influence.

Second only to France in terms of its contribution to the Enlightenment was its perennial ally in political and cultural contention with England: Scotland —which, in fact, had been absorbed into political union with England in 1707. The first major thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment was David Humewhose precocious Treatise of Human Nature was published in 1740. Hume's subsequent turn to history and politics paved the way for the works of Adam SmithAdam Fergusonand John Millar in the 1760s and 1770s, which gave birth to modern economics and historical sociology—and whose common focus was precisely the issue of economic and social development across time.

Italy, not surprisingly, as another zone of French influence, produced not a "national" but a great flowering of local "enlightenments," the most important being the Milanese and the Neapolitan, both specializing in juridical thought and reform.

Beyond this western European core, the Enlightenment spread, in the second half of the century, to the western and eastern peripheries of European civilization. French and Scottish ideas were enthusiastically embraced in the English colonies of North Americaand, with a slight lag, in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the South.

As in France and Scotland, this was largely a spontaneous process, the work of an independent intelligentsia—even if some of the key figures of colonial "enlightenments" soon became statesmen themselves. In eastern Europe, by contrast, where the major absolute monarchies now reached their maturity, the Enlightenment tended to arrive with royal sponsorship: Frederick the Great 's engagement of the services of Voltaire and Catherine the Great 's of Diderot—or, for that matter, the Polish nobility's solicitation of advice from Jean-Jacques Rousseau—are the most famous gestures of what came to be known as "enlightened despotism.

The Enlightenment never presented itself as a single theoretical system or unitary ideological doctrine—if nothing else, the necessities of adaptation to different national contexts made unity of that kind unlikely.

But the variety of its ideas was not infinite. The best way to approach them is perhaps in terms of a sequence of domains of thought or "problem-areas," in which a certain general consensus—often negative—can be discerned, together with a significant spectrum of differences of opinion. No idea is more commonly associated with the Enlightenment than hostility toward established forms of religion—indeed, at least one major interpreter has characterized the movement in terms of "the rise of modern paganism" Gay, 1966.

It is certainly the case that the majority of adherents to the Enlightenment shared an intellectual aversion to theism in its inherited forms: At the same time, most Enlightenment thinkers regarded traditional churches, Catholic and Protestant, as engines of institutional exploitation and oppression.

Hostility toward theism and a general anticlericalism did not, however, preclude an enormous variety of attitudes toward the supernatural and the "sacred" among followers of the Enlightenment. Forthright atheism did indeed make its public debut in Europe during the eighteenth century, in the works of figures such as Hume, Julien Offroy de La Mettrie, and Paul Thiry, baron d'Holbach. But this was a minority position.

The bulk of Enlightened opinion opted for the compromise of "deism" or "natural religion," which had the stamp of approval of Newton himself and which continued to attract a good deal of sincere devotion, in a wide variety of forms.


It is a commonplace that the demotion of religion by the Enlightenment went hand in hand with the promotion of science—indeed, the very notion of a generic "science," as a sphere of cognition distinct from religious "belief," was undoubtedly a gift of the eighteenth century.

The Enlightenment discovery or construction of science, in this sense, owed everything to the idea of a heroic age of scientific achievement just behind it, in the development of modern astronomy and physics from Nicolaus Copernicus to Newton. For all of the prestige that now attached to science, however, it would be a mistake to exaggerate agreement during the Enlightenment with regard to either its methods or findings. The philosophical heritage from the seventeenth century was far too various for that.

Looking back at the eighteenth century, the last great philosopher of the Enlightenment, Kant, described an anarchic battlefield, divided ontologically between materialism and idealism and epistemologically between rationalism and empiricism.

  • Some poetry became infused with scientific metaphor and imagery, while other poems were written directly about scientific topics;
  • Both Rousseau and Locke's social contract theories rest on the presupposition of natural rights , which are not a result of law or custom, but are things that all men have in pre-political societies and are therefore universal and inalienable.

Moreover, there was also profound disagreement as to the social consequences of scientific advance, however defined. For every Condorcet, celebrating the beneficent effects of cognitive "progress" for liberty and prosperity, there was a Rousseau, decrying the contribution that science made to technological violence and social inequality.

The seventeenth century had seen a profound revolution in political thought, with the emergence of the modern " natural rights " tradition of Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, and Pufendorf. One of the major achievements of the early Enlightenment was to popularize and disseminate this tradition, via an endless array of translations, summaries, and commentaries.

The path toward the vindication of "inalienable natural rights" in the founding documents of the American and French Revolutions lay open. Still, beyond this basic agreement about legitimacy, the practical substance of Enlightenment political thought was extraordinarily various.

Only one major thinker, Rousseau, actually produced a theory of republican legitimacy—but in a form so radically democratic as to preclude its widespread acceptance prior to the era of the French Revolution. In terms of practical politics, the majority of Enlightenment thinkers accepted a pragmatic accommodation with monarchy—overwhelmingly still the dominant state-form in Europe—and instead pursued what might be termed a program of "proto-liberalism," concentrating on securing civil liberties of one kind or another—freedoms of religion, self-expression, and trade.

Meanwhile, the most influential work of political theory of the Enlightenment turned its back on natural rights theory altogether. In De l'esprit des lois 1748; The spirit of the lawsMontesquieu set forth a global taxonomy of state-forms, dividing the world into a West that had seen a transition from the martial republics of antiquity to the commercial monarchies of modern Europe, and an East dominated by unchanging "despotism.

One was the genre of "conjectural" or "stadial" history, which traced the historical development of societies through specific socioeconomic stages—huntergatherer, nomadic, agricultural, and commercial in the most famous of these, known retrospectively as the "four stages" theory. The other direction was toward an entirely new social sciencethat of economics or "political economy"—probably the most important single intellectual innovation of the Enlightenment.

Age of Enlightenment

Within the ranks of "conjectural" historians and political economists, however, there was significant disagreement about the political and moral upshot of their findings. Thinkers as close in outlook as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson could disagree profoundly about the effects of economic progress on political life. The field of political economy itself was sharply divided between two quite different theoretical schools, French Physiocracy and the "system of liberty" set forth in Smith's Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations 1776.

Finally, more conventional narrative historiography, which underwent a great flowering in the Enlightenment in the work of practitioners such as Voltaire, Hume, and Edward Gibbonshowed a not dissimilar variety.

In the advancements and restructuring that dominated the renaissance or age of enlightenment face of every legend about the shallow optimism of the Enlightenment, it is worth noting that its historiographical masterpiece, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 1776—1788recounted a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions: From the start, poetry, fiction, and plays provided natural vehicles for the expression of Enlightenment ideas.

Here, above all, the watchword is variety. It is very striking that the two most enduring works of imaginative literature of the French Enlightenment should be so dark in outlook. Its earliest work, Montesquieu's Persian Letters, is a stark parable about the lethal dangers of the pursuit of knowledge and freedom. Voltaire's philosophical novella Candide 1759 —doubtless the most widely read eighteenth-century work today—is a caustic satire on the "optimism" of philosophical rationalism.

In fact, The Marriage of Figaro can be regarded as an emblem of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism—the incendiary play on which it is based the work of a French Protestant admirer of the American Revolutionits libretto furnished by an Italian Jew, its composer an Austrian Freemason. However, recent scholarship has devoted a steadily increasing amount of attention to what might be termed the "social history" of the Enlightenment—the form in which its ideas were expressed, the institutions by means of which they circulated, and the identities of the people who produced and consumed them.

Habermas's analysis laid special stress on the socioeconomic developments in the early modern period that made the "public sphere" in this sense possible. The most crucial development of all, he suggested, was a revolution in reading and writing in the eighteenth century to match the original "print revolution" of the sixteenth. The suggestion has been amply confirmed by subsequent scholarship, which has focused on three specific changes in the "print culture" of the Enlightenment.

One is simply a tremendous leap forward not just in literacy rates, but in the very meaning of literacy, as "reading" itself deepened and widened and as large numbers of women joined the ranks of the literate for the first time.

Secondly, the Enlightenment saw a vast expansion not just in the volume of printed matter in Europe, but also in its variety: Finally, authorship itself finally started to be modernized during the Enlightenment, as first the idea and then the reality of literary property began to take hold—traceable in the careers of such major writers as Voltaire, Hume, and Rousseau.

  • Similarly honored were the founders of modern " natural rights " theory in political thought— Hugo Grotius , Hobbes, Locke, and Samuel Pufendorf;
  • Scotland —which, in fact, had been absorbed into political union with England in 1707;
  • What was the role of women in the Enlightenment?

Beyond this transformation of the literate "public," Habermas also suggested that the eighteenth-century "public sphere" depended on certain characteristic social institutions, which shared a kind of family resemblance as sites for the expression of a specifically Enlightenment "sociability.

The salons of eighteenth-century Paris are the most famous, but those of London, Berlinor Vienna contributed no less to the local circulation of Enlightened ideas. Secondly, there was a set of slightly more "public," and certainly more masculine, establishments, part of whose allure depended on the consumption of intoxicants of one kind or another—the tavern, wine shop, and coffeehouse, pioneered in the United Provinces and Britain in the late seventeenth century and then widely imitated across Europe in the eighteenth.

Finally, the propagation of Enlightenment ideas was a special concern of the network of Masonic lodges, again deriving from British origins, which then proliferated across the continent in the eighteenth century—the first secular, voluntary associations in modern Europe. What was the social profile of those who attended Enlightenment salons, frequented eighteenth-century coffee shops, and joined Masonic lodges? In line with his MarxismHabermas himself stressed the "bourgeois" or even capitalist origins and character of the "public sphere" of the Enlightenment.

In fact, at its upper reaches, the movement was thoroughly mixed in social terms: Below this level, however, there is no doubt about the fundamentally bourgeois character of the Enlightenment, in the broadest sense of the term.

In fact, one of the most important achievements of scholarship over the past thirty years has been the patient reconstruction of what the historian Robert Darnton called the "business of Enlightenment"—the commodification of Enlightenment ideas, in the book trade above all. Darnton has also been a pioneer in uncovering the diffusion of Enlightenment ideas down the social scale, far below the cosmopolitan elite of famous names, to what he termed the " Grub Street " journalism of an emergent popular culture Darnton, 1979 and 1982.