An emerging cultural movement shook the Western world and transformed involved Western societies during the 17th and 18th centuries. Scholars call this turning point in history the Age of Enlightenment. The period saw intellectuals taking the spotlight to promote reasoning and encourage skepticism among the public.
Revolutionary philosophical ideas, socio-political ideologies, scientific thoughts, and discoveries emerged during this time, thus challenging the norms and conventions that were long promoted by the church and several states. Nevertheless, the primary legacy of the Enlightenment centered on the advancement of knowledge. Lasting impacts could be seen in values and norms pervading the contemporary global society.
Legacy of the Age of Enlightenment: Accomplishments and Positive Impacts
Reasoning and Scientific Revolution
Reasoning was at the core of Enlightenment. During the 17th century, intellectuals such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes of England, Rene Descartes of France, and physicist Sir Isaac Newton, among others, had separately focused their attention on their revolutionary works.
For instance, Locked published the “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” in 1689 that specifically discussed the mutability of human nature and the necessity of accumulated experience in acquiring human knowledge. On the other hand, in 1686, Newton published the “Principia Mathematica” that provided novel theories and mathematical models of physics. Thus, due to this work, Enlightenment coincided with the Newton-led Scientific Revolution.
The separate works of Locke and Newton provided the scientific, mathematical, and philosophical foundations critical to the establishment and advancement of the Age of Enlightenment. These works paved the way for the acceptance of reasoning or rational thinking based on cause and effect that, in turn, promoted scientific methodology and reasoning, as well as skepticism toward traditions and faith.
However, it is essential to note that the Enlightenment did not actually start as a cultural movement orchestrated by a small number of individuals. It was during the prevalence of rational thinking that subsequent intellectuals during the 18th century pushed for the promotion of reasoning in all aspects of social life.
Benevolent Despotism and Liberal Ideologies
Apart from driving the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment also revolutionized several socio-political institutions. Some leaders, particularly heads of monarchical regimes, tried applying reforms, including accepting multiple religions, tolerance toward cultural diversity, freedom of speech, and the right to hold private property. The shift in leadership and governance stance has been referred to as Enlightened Absolutism or Benevolent Despotism.
Furthermore, liberal ideologies and discoveries spread around Europe and were fostered by increased literacy due to a departure from solely religious texts. The first general reference book “Encyclopédie” was first published in France between 1751 and 1772. French writer and philosopher Voltaire also helped spread the Enlightenment ideals by writing and publishing the books “Letters on the English” in 1733 and “Dictionnaire Philosophique” in 1764.
At the height of the Age of Enlightenment was an emerging perception that the predisposition toward reasoning and skepticism bordered with radicalism. It was unavoidable. Both reasoning and skepticism challenged the norms and conventions of those times. For instance, in France, supporters of the Enlightenment had attacked the French monarchy, the privileges granted unto the members of the French nobility, and of course, the political power and extensive influence of the Roman Catholic Church. This sparked the French Revolution. and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Note that this revolution was one of the defining moments and long-standing impacts of the Enlightenment.
Criticisms of the Age of Enlightenment: Disapprovals and Drawbacks
Although it cannot be denied that Enlightenment had propelled modernity, particularly by introducing breakthrough ideologies and discoveries, it was met with strong opposition. In the book “Enemies of the Enlightenment,” author Darrin M. McMahon mentioned that the so-called Counter-Enlightenment in France argued that the Enlightenment blinded the people from observing norms and accepting social order.
One of the most passionate critics of the Enlightenment was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his 1750 book “Discourse on the Sciences and Arts,” Rousseau argued that the emphasis on reasoning and the emergence of novel philosophical ideas and scientific thought had corrupted the people.
The criticisms suggested a strong opposition against liberalism. Most of the time, critics blamed liberalism for corrupting the minds of the populace during the 18th century and beyond. Of course, any form of radicalism or deviance would be accompanied by strong opposition, especially from the conservatives.
In France, these conservatives or the Counter-Enlightenment faction argued for preserving the monarchical system, the nobility, and the church. For them, any form of nonconformity from this established social order was a sign of corruption. The Counter-Enlightenment specifically argued that too much reasoning and skepticism had left people devoid of their ability to accept the standards, acknowledge the authority, and appreciate the existing.
The predisposition toward reasoning and skepticism made Enlightenment unacceptable for some. Intellectuals and their supporters blatantly rejected the standards that had been existing for centuries. They were too critical of the norms and conventions that they had become unappreciative of the heritage and historical accomplishments of the social institutions, as well as cultural traditions that they were criticizing.
Critics argued that the Enlightenment had prevented a considerable number of people from noticing the works of art and literature that pervaded during that time. Furthermore, they did not even pay attention to sermons and religious apologetics. Reasoning and skepticism compelled people to distance themselves from these things.
Those who opposed the Age of the Enlightenment believed that too much inclination toward reasoning and skepticism and the entire cultural movement made some ardent supporters subjective and biased.
Nonetheless, the Age of the Enlightenment marked a significant turning point in history in which people, specifically from the Western societies, began embracing a new and radical way of thinking that challenged the norms and the conventions established by those who held power and authority—especially the monarchical regime and the influential church.
It is true that the cultural movement was not a perfect model. However, the depth and extent of its legacy are undeniable. It is impossible to distance modernity and social progress from the impacts or accomplishments of the Age of Enlightenment. After all, it is during this era that the general Western populace demonstrated their resolve against the established social institutions.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Ferrone, V. 2015. The Enlightenment: History of an Idea. Oxford: Princeton University Press. ISBN: 978-0-691-161457
- Golinski, J. 2011. “Science in the Enlightenment, Revisited. History of Science.” 49(2): 217-231. DOI: 1177/007327531104900204
- McMahon, D. M. 2002. Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0195158939
- Pancaldi, G., and Jackson, M. W. 2004. “Volta: Science and Culture in the Age of Enlightenment.” American Journal of Physics. 72(5): 718-719. DOI: 1119/1.1645290