Sunday, 1 November 2009

Were there common ideas and principles behind the Enlightenment?

Although the exact date for the enlightenment is a matter of conjecture it usually refers to the period from 1710-1780. I would argue that it should be conceived as a broad increase in the intellectual capacities of mankind and that it was animated by common ideas and principles.
That is not to say that within in it lay very disparate men and women who expounded enlightened ideas within different philosophical and scientific disciplines.

It was certainly profoundly connected with the massive leap in scientific knowledge, which in a matter of decades had seen the dissolution of the medieval world view to be replaced by one based on reason backed by science. The previous worldview had given mankind a strictly limited understanding of his world. Isaac Newton’s work especially rejecting the Copernican Geostatic view propounded by Aristotle and then the holy bible.

This medieval worldview up until the 17th century was still based on a belief in the Old Testament. With the works of Galileo, Keppler for example there grew liberation from medieval superstition. Discoveries in astronomy began to change the way men saw their world. Religion began to encounter disrespect, which according to Voltaire it deserved. In the past man had been led to believe that misery was the product of the fall of man. But with the escalation of scientific views, the Book of Genesis was being radically undermined.

Fran├žois-Marie Arouet (November 21, 1694 – May 30, 1778), better known as Voltaire. He was a significant figure of the enlightenment. While never pertaining to be an atheist his attack on Christianity was somewhat marred by his anti-Semitism, blaming every Jew for Christianity. He mocked Christian superstitions but did not break entirely with religion where it served the purpose of furthering mankind’s development. He was a conscious advocate of religious toleration.

Isaac Newton born in 1642 was no atheist and believed that although god had created the universe he could not have done so without complex mathematics. The laws of nature were not unfathomable and could be understood. The key to understanding the universe lay not in religion but in Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

Newton’s work was described by Alexander Pope who said “nature and natures law lay hid in night- god said let Newton be and all was light. The poet William Wordsworth was also struck by Newton’s genius “Newton with his prism and silent face mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought alone”. This was the age which people started to believe that there was no innate evil and that man could begin to change his world.

It was this view that animated the enlightenment that man had the growing power to work things out through force of human reason. This belief was universally believed among enlightened thinkers regardless of place of origin.

Norman Hampson, who is one of the foremost authorities on the enlightenment said that it was “less a body of doctrines than a shared premises from which men from different temperaments placed in different situations drew quite radically different conclusions.

The list below is a general outline of principles that guided the enlightenment. It would be wrong to say that every thinker and writer of the time embodied the whole list, Autonomy of reason, Perfectibility and progress, Confidence in the ability to discover causality, Principles governing nature, men and society, Assault on authority, Cosmopolitan solidarity of enlightened intellectuals, Disgust of nationalism and Counter-Enlightenment

Giovanni Battista (Giambattista) Vice or Virgo (23 June 1668 – 23 January 1744) Vice contention was “that historical epoch maybe so different that their values cannot be recaptured without tremendous effort of imagination. Herder’s claim that different cultures may honor goods that cannot be combined and which are sometimes incommensurable. Pascal’s distinction between spirit de geometry and le esprit de finesse and its corollary that truth cannot be contained within the confines of any system or discovered by applying any one method- such ideas are alien to the humanist spirit of the enlightenment. They limit too narrowly what can be known by human beings and what can reasonably be hoped for them to be acceptable to any enlightened thinker”.

When a reaction arose against Voltaire’s ideas among counter – enlightenment figures such as J G Herder(who dismissed Voltaire in terms that William Blake would not have found strange) as a “Senile child”. It was Voltaire’s assumption that civilization was one and the same for all human beings, whatever their histories and cultures, that was the chief target of their attack.

Herder questioned the certainty, which Voltaire took from Christianity and from the central traditions of Greek philosophy, that there is a good life proper to all human beings, however seemingly diverse their cultures or natures. In modern times, from the late 19th century to the present day, that questioning has found an issue in fascist and nationalistic movements also in postmodernist, fundamentalist, and multicultural movements.

It can be no accident that the motto of the enlightenment as Kant (1724-1804) was “Sapere aude” dare to know”. Enlightened thinkers believed that mankind should be governed by a series of inalienable rights, which had been identified by the philosopher Joh Locke as the right to life, liberty, and property.

The themes of virtue and justice run through the period, one of the writings of Montesquieu (1689-1755) tells a tale of an imaginary people the troglodytes, despising justice, their activities are guided by the motto “I will live happy” the outcome of their unrestrained greed and selfishness is the complete collapse of their society.

I believe that they “shared a common language but spoke with different accents”, in this respect it is important to examine two countries, which led the enlightenment.


While it would be correct to say that British enlightenment figures were not as radical as their European counterparts, this can be explained by Britain’s quite exceptional historical development, one factor being that it had already carried through its revolution in the 1640s and had achieved social and political reforms that were still to be achieved in countries such as France. The British enlightenment thinking could be perhaps best summed up as a more pragmatic approach summed up by Locke who said “our business here is not to know all things, but those, which concern our conduct.

It would, however, be a mistake to believe that enlightened thinkers in Britain where unlike their counter parts, it has been argued that the enlightenment “baby’s first words were spoken in English”.

Britain had a profound effect on thinking around the world. Voltaire wrote, “without the English reason and philosophy we would still be in the most despicable infancy in France”. Diderot translated into French the works of people such as Shaftesbury, and the idea of the Encyclopedia came from a scheme to translate Ephrins chamber Encyclopaedia.

This was not all one-way traffic there was a tremendous exchange of ideas, Adam Smith’ the economist learned from the physiocrats during his visit to France between 1764-66 Jeremy Bentham derived his utilitarianism partly from a study of Helvetius.

The American declaration of independence was heavily influenced by the thinking of Locke whose idea that there were no innate principles in the mind underpinned many of the writings of the enlightenment. Perhaps Diderot could sum the universal friendship fostered by enlightened thinkers when he said of David Hume “my dear David you belong to all nations and you will never ask an unhappy man for his passport”.


It can be said that there was an especially close relationship between the French and English enlightenment figures, Voltaire himself spent two years in Britain and popularized the works of Newton in France but one major difference was the political, social and economic situation in France was radically different to that of England.

Many of the English figures were to some extent part of the establishment, in France figures like Voltaire and Diderot were seen as troublemakers and oppositionists to the monarchy. France’s continuing war footing and its losing commercial ground against its rivals such as the Dutch led to a growing frustration among highly educated people who made up the enlightenment. They were frustrated with their class position, which prevented them from proceeding further in society. While they dominated the economic world their status was low and saw those in power as a band of ignorant idlers and fops. Voltaire especially in his book Candide railed against the law courts and nobility as “those assassins in red robes and erminie”.

It could be said that they were more radical than their British counterparts. Voltaire himself offered no solution to their problem. It was left to Rousseau who issued a blueprint for a new democratic system of the state which later was to be the manifesto of the French revolution.

Perhaps the most important contribution made by the French which perhaps typified the thinking and principles that animated the enlightenment was the Encyclopaedia, whose editors Diderot (1713-84) - philosopher and Jean Rand Dr. Alembent Mathematician (1717-83) who emphasised that the works of the Encyclopaedia should be for a bringing together of all knowledge, including science, technology, the ideas of Newton were particularly important to them. It welcomed anyone who was “trampling on prejudice, tradition and universal consent, authority, in a word all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself”.

They also encouraged a healthy skepticism in religion, for these people the role pf reason was to be higher than that of religion in understanding the world” nothing is more necessary than a revealed religion that may instruct us concerning so many diverse objects”

The encyclopedia ran to seventeen volumes and had a subscription of 4000 but was read far and wide. Some historians somewhat mechanically see enlightenment thinkers as nothing more than expressing narrow class interests but this misses the point. I believe they prepared the way for the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries and spoke in the name of all humanity invoking universal themes of human solidarity and emancipation beyond the limits of their own class.

End Notes

A full biography can be found at

Science and Religion A McGrath.

Wordsworth and the Reweaving of the Rainbow by Lori Burton .

Norman Hampton Enlightenment

Other sources used

John Locke Concerning Human Understanding

Robin Briggs The Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century.
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