HistoryBits: Enlightenment

HistoryBits: Enlightenment

Bits and Pieces of History 


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Enlightenment

To the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the role of philosophy was to change the world, not just discuss it; rationalism was a scientific method that could be applied to everything, including religion and politics. The Enlightenment, with its handmaiden of the Scientific Revolution, formed the Great Divide between the Old World and the New, between East and West, between Faith and Reason, and between mystical societies who revered man’s relationship with nature, and the scientific societies of the West who manipulated it to their material advantage and spiritual detriment. The trick has been to learn from both, as to how to develop our God-given patrimony without destroying ourselves in the bargain. It’s hard to say whether we Americans drew more inspiration from the Enlightenment than the Enlightenment drew from the American Revolution. Many of the ideals of the French Revolution seem closely patterned on the republican ideals that guided our own revolution, but the one thing that the French didn’t pick up on from the Americans was the most revolutionary thing of all: that power could be made to change hands without bloodshed.

Culture/Philosophy/Encyclopedie

The Encyclopedie was a compendium of attacks on religion and state, and its purpose was to “change the general way of thinking”—a modest undertaking! It became a major weapon of the philosophes in their crusade against old French society, as they attacked religious superstition and pressed for social, legal, and political improvements that was more cosmopolitan, more tolerant, more humane, more reasonable. So whose ox was gored on the horns of its premises? Certainly the clergy and all they stood for, and to a lesser extent, traditional male presumptuousness. Despite the preponderant view that women were naturally inferior on account of “natural” biological differences (larger pelvis, smaller craniums—go figure), women began to make some headway with the likes of Mary Astell, who impressed upon women the need to become better educated (always a good idea) and Mary Wollstonecraft, the founder of modern European feminism, who argued for equal rights in education, political life, and business. And lastly, the gentry, whose leisured spot in the sun would soon be clouded by the clamor for equality of opportunity for society’s great unwashed. As for who profited, consider those whose business it is to profit: the bourgeoisie. Prosperity is the handmaiden of social progressivism, and as prosperity spread, it was the bourgeoisie that facilitated the deployment of capital and its rewards, firstly into their own pockets. Remember: the light of knowledge is the gleam of gold.

Culture/Philosophy/Masons

It’s hard to say whether we Americans drew more inspiration from Enlightenment thinkers like the Masons than the Enlightenment drew from the American Revolution; many of the ideals of the French Revolution seem closely patterned on the republican ideals that guided our own revolution, though the one thing that the French didn’t pick up on from the Americans was the most revolutionary thing of all: that power could be made to change hands without bloodshed. The imprint of Freemasonry in our Constitution is found in the doctrine of separation of church and state which, while fine in theory, falls way short in practice with certain politicians who too often invoke the name and blessings of God to lend sanction to the most base, cynically political, and ungodly of causes. If there is anything more presumptuous (and suspect) than a man who purports to speak for God, it’s the government that purports to enact His will.

Culture/Philosophy/Philosophes

The philosophes were France’s intellectuals, though not all of them were French. They were called philosophers, though few were; they included literary people, professors, journalists, economists, political scientists and above all, social reformers. They came from the nobility and the middle class, and a few from the lower realms. What did philosophy mean to them? The role of philosophy was to change the world, not just discuss it. To the philosophes, rationalism did not mean the creation of a grandiose system of thought to explain all things; it was a scientific method that could be applied to everything, including religion and politics. The Enlightenment built over time, and each succeeding generation became more radical as it built on the contributions of the previous one; the avant-gardes of the groundbreaking generation become the conservative critics of the next, and little do they seem to realize that the radicalism of the new generation is merely new fruit on an old tree. Their “scientific method” would become a tool for the purpose of enacting man’s dominion over the earth, and from that time on, nothing would stand in the way of man’s mastery over nature, and it formed the Great Divide between the Old World and the New, between East and West, between Faith and Reason, and between mystical societies who revered man’s relationship with nature, and the scientific societies of the West who manipulated it to their material advantage and spiritual detriment. The trick has been to learn from both, as to how to develop our God-given patrimony without destroying ourselves in the bargain.

Culture/Philosophy/Enlightenment and Romanticism

To the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the role of philosophy was to change the world, not just discuss it; rationalism was a scientific method that could be applied to everything, including religion and politics. The Enlightenment, with its handmaiden of the Scientific Revolution, formed the Great Divide between the Old World and the New, between East and West, between Faith and Reason, and between the scientific societies of the West who manipulated it to their material advantage and spiritual detriment… and the mystical societies who revered man’s relationship with nature… the domain of Romanticism. The trick has been to learn from both, as to how to develop our God-given patrimony without destroying ourselves in the bargain.


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