intellect.gif (9933 bytes)

Lecture 9

Écrasez l'infâme!:The Triumph of Science and the
Heavenly City of the 18th Century Philosophe


If one looks at all closely at the middle of our own century, the events that occupy us, our customs, our achievements and even our topics of conversation, it is difficult not to see that a very remarkable change in several respects has come into our ideas; a change which, by its rapidity, seems to us to foreshadow another still greater. Time alone will tell the aim, the nature and limits of this revolution, whose inconveniences and advantages our posterity will recognize better than we can.

---Jean le Rond d'Alembert

In terms of the intellectual history of the West, what usually distinguishes one age from another is the reflection and inspiration that it provides for succeeding ages. The Enlightenment is no exception -- what it represents for the 20th century has been the idea of a systematic study of the problems of Nature, Man and Society. After all, what we today call the social sciences, were developed in the 18th century.

As we have already seen, the label Renaissance is problematic (see Lecture 4). The expression was given to an age by those thinkers who lived through it. The Renaissance then, was not background -- it was the lived experience of scholars, artists and other elites. And it was not a simple experience of which we speak -- it was the experience of breaking free from the confines of the medieval synthesis and in this respect, a Petrarch, or a Machiavelli or an Erasmus, or yes, even a Luther, were more than aware of their special destiny. They were individuals who were making their own history -- they were creating an identity. So special did these thinkers believe their insights to be that they had the intellectual gall to name their own age -- "like a golden age" as Ficino put it. Like the Renaissance, the Enlightenment falls into the same predicament. It is abundantly clear that the 18th century gave itself a name: Italian -- illuminati; French -- lumiere; German -- Äufklarung; and in English -- Enlightenment. In 1784, the 60 year old Immanual Kant (1724-1804) published a brief essay in the Berlinische Monatsschrift, the official mouthpiece of the German Enlightenment. Kant's essay was called, Was ist Äufklarung? Kant began the essay in the following way:

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's mind without another's guidance. Sapere Aude! Dare to Know! Have the courage to use your own understanding is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment

For Kant, enlightenment signified knowledge, specifically self-knowledge. Knowledge implied an understanding of human nature as well as the uses to which that knowledge can be put.

The 18th century witnessed an outpouring of human knowledge in almost every field of human endeavor -- an ENLIGHTENMENT. Knowledge would, it was hoped, conquer fear, superstition, enthusiasm and prejudice and in the case of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), death itself. Heady optimism to be sure. But even the careful Kant, a man for whom the city of Königsberg is said to have kept time by his daily walks, did not let this optimism go to his head. Kant asked: "Are we now living in an enlightened age?" His answer was an emphatic "No!" But, he was careful to add, "we live in an age of enlightenment." So, even as the period drew to a close, soon to be swept up in the French Revolution and Romantic anti-Enlightenment ideas, even Kant knew an immense amount of work was necessary. What was needed was criticism and what was criticized was the whole social and political system of the West -- collectively, the ancien regime. The old order -- things as they are -- was characterized by a semi-feudal economy, a division of the population into orders and estates, religious intolerance, enthusiasm, fanaticism and superstition, royal absolutism and government corruption.

With this in mind, some general comments are in order. Insofar as the thinkers of the Enlightenment can be said to have had a common goal, that goal was specifically social reform. They saw themselves as the social engineers of a New Europe. Their plans for social reform were a reflection of the world of abundance in which they lived. Western Europe was advancing away from an agrarian economy; trade and commerce were growing, especially among the British, French and Dutch and the Industrial Revolution seemed imminent (see Lecture 17). With wealth, thinkers began to turn from a Europe of want, depravity and need to a Europe characterized by abundance -- and with abundance, new possibilities were about to become reality. More time was devoted to the pleasures of life. This, of course, had all been set in motion by the Renaissance.

As a result, a new optimism pervaded the age. This optimism had the ultimate effect of changing man's opinions about human history. Instead of viewing human history as the story of the steady decline from the Garden of Eden, men now began to view life as full of promise and hope. In characteristic 18th century language, the dawn of the New Jerusalem seemed to be just around the corner. However, this would be a Jerusalem of this world, not postponed until some life after death. The French economist and statesman, Jacques Turgot (1727-1781) put it this way:

We see societies establishing themselves, nations forming themselves, which in turn dominate over other nations or become subject to them. Empires rise and fall; laws, forms of government, one succeeding another; the arts, the sciences, are discovered and are cultivated; sometimes retarded and sometimes accelerated in their progress, they pass from one region to another. Self-interest, ambition, vainglory, perpetually change the scene of the world, inundate the earth with blood. Yet in the midst of their ravages manners are gradually softened, the human mind takes enlightenment, separate nations draw nearer to each other, commerce and policy connect at last all parts of the globe, and the total mass of the human race, by the alternations of calm and agitation, of good conditions and of bad, marches always, although slowly, towards still higher perfection. . .

And then there was the English chemist and Presbyterian minister, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), who in a letter to Edmund Burke (1729-1797) wrote:

How glorious, then, is the prospect, the reverse of all the past, which is now opening upon us, and upon the world. Government, we may now expect to see, not only in theory and in books but in actual practice, calculated for the general good, and taking no more upon it than the general good requires, leaving all men the enjoyment of as many of their natural rights as possible, and no more interfering with matters of religion, with men's notions concerning God, and a future state, than with philosophy, or medicine.

And John Adams (1735-1826), second president of the United States once remarked that:

The arts and sciences, in general, during the three or four last centuries, have had a regular course of progressive improvement. The inventions in mechanic arts, the discoveries in natural philosophy, navigation and commerce, and the advancement of civilization and humanity, have occasioned changes in the condition of the world and the human character which would have astonished the most refined nations of antiquity. A continuation of similar exertions is everyday rendering Europe more and more like one community, or single family.

Facing the Enlightenment was the past -- and in terms of its intellectual history, the Enlightenment had to abandon ("reverse") its past. One of the first things to go was metaphysics, a branch of philosophy that deals with questions of being and non-being. Metaphysics was an Aristotelian concern and as such, of deep concern to medieval Scholastic thinkers. It had to go -- it was medieval. In its place, came epistemology, the study of knowledge. What is knowledge? how do we know? what does it mean to know something? This was the prime concern of the scientific revolutionaries. If the medieval matrix had collapsed then something had to take its place. Human knowledge was to serve man but first man had to verify his knowledge.

By the 18th century, it was clear that the entire history of western thought from Plato and Aristotle down to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) and René Descartes (see Lecture 8) was obsessed with metaphysical questions. The Enlightenment did not really find metaphysics meaningless. Rather, metaphysics often degenerated into endless and somewhat mindless disputes of the "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" variety. Of course, we have already seen how Erasmus, Galileo and Newton dealt with such questions. Metaphysics transcends the phenomena of Nature and therefore cannot be verified by observation. Discarding metaphysics also meant discarding a theory of knowledge perpetuated between the years of Plato and Descartes. Another way of putting this is that 2000 years of philosophic thought was about to be abandoned.

For Plato and for Descartes, although for different reasons, man has innate ideas -- that is, man has ideas present in his mind at birth. It was the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) who was most responsible for providing an alternative view -- the empirical point of view (see Lecture 8). Together with his fellow countryman Newton, it was Locke who provided the 18th century with its epistemological Bible. In his two volume Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690, Locke postulated experience as the foundation of all knowledge. Here's how Locke put the case:

Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas:--How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety. Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation employed either, about external sensible objects or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected upon by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the materials of thinking. These two are the fountains of all knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring.

So, for Locke, the human mind was a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which experience records itself as human knowledge. The effects of such a pronouncement were as revolutionary on human consciousness as were the discoveries of Isaac Newton. Again, and as we shall soon see, it was Locke and Newton who graced the 18th century with its epistemological foundations.

The Enlightenment saw no problem with knowledge. That is, there was no problem of how knowledge of the world is possible. One had to only open their eyes -- knowledge was all around -- NATURE! Nature is reasonable -- Nature can be understood. Nature is rational. Man is part of Nature, therefore, man can be understood. Without a doubt Nature and Reason became the most heavily used and abused words in the 18th century vocabulary.

If it can be said that the aim of the Enlightenment was social reform, how was social reform to be achieved? The answer was more than clear -- by man. By the 18th century, man believed himself to be master of Nature, no longer its victim. The first question, then, was what is man? No doubt this was a difficult question to answer. The 18th century came to no consensus over this question. What the Enlightenment thinkers did agree upon was that theology held no answers. Man was not a sinful creature who could only be saved by self-denial while patiently awaiting death and ultimately salvation.

The Enlightenment attacked history. It attacked its past. It attacked its childhood. It attacked Christianity. Christianity was not in accordance with Human Reason. How does Reason explain miracles? Christianity was not reasonable. Was Christianity necessary? As information about the natives of Pacific Islands was brought back to Europe, it was soon realized that even savages who had never heard of the Pope, the Inquisition, Notre Dame, Jesus and transubstantiation, still had a morality, still had definitive concepts of right and wrong, good and evil. What this realization accomplished was nothing less than doubt and skepticism about the universal nature of Christianity. Were all men who were not Christians then pagans? Well, we know what Dante would have said. Aquinas too. We know the Catholic Church's position on this as well. The Enlightenment, in general, thought otherwise.

It is possible for society to exist and in fact thrive without religious supervision -- however, not necessarily without religion. For proof, the Enlightenment turned to that civilization whose greatness was not built upon religious supervision -- that civilization was republican Rome. No Enlightenment thinker from Charles de Secondat Montesquieu (1689-1755) to Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) could neglect the legacy of Rome during its republican days. Thinkers as diverse as Locke, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), Kant, Jefferson, Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) all made their appeals to the Genius Populi Romani. I trust you've recognized something here. The Enlightenment did look to its past as it was at the same time trying to forge its new identity by abandoning its past. While foregoing a discussion of the kind of identity crisis this was sure to produce, note that the Enlightenment did not revere classical Greece. Nor did they have much good to say about Rome under the Empire. Instead, their vision was of republican Rome -- it lived in their minds as an ideal of the past. Republican Rome served as the model of the new United States of America -- not a democracy but a democratic republic. And when the French decided to embark upon their Revolution at the end of the 18th century, their ideals, in both reality and imagery, were manifest in the Roman Republic.

In general, the Enlightenment needed a positive scientific method by which human society could be remade. The new science was the science of man. As David Hume (1711-1776) and Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) discovered, this new science incorporated the study of how man learns, human motivation, social relationships and the foundation of political and economic institutions. It was to be a science of man in all his plenitude, in his totality. The proposed science of man is the key to an understanding of the Enlightenment mission and the method was borrowed from science. It was the Newtonian system of natural laws that served as the justification for a science of man. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), of course, had already made this argument in the early 17th century. The scientific study of Nature implied that man and society could also be the object of scientific study. And so, Bacon quite naturally became one of the patron saints of the Enlightenment. Newton, of course, was another deity. And John Locke's epistemology, his essays on toleration and education, and his two treatises on government secured his reputation as the third patron saint of the 18th century.

Up to this point I have been discussing the Enlightenment as if it were some sort of monolithic structure -- a monolithic structure with a careful plan all laid out and justified by the Triple Alliance -- Bacon, Newton and Locke. Although nearly all Enlightenment thinkers were agreed that human society could and must be reformed few of them would have ever agreed on a specific program of action. In fact, like all intellectual episodes, we can identify the Enlightenment as much by its manifold differences as we can its similarities.

The expression Enlightenment, as used by cultural and intellectual historians, refers to that period of history which falls between, say, 1687 and 1789. This period of history has also been called the Age of Reason. Some historians are willing to grant that the Enlightenment is an episode within the larger framework of this Age of Reason. So they would perhaps argue that the Enlightenment can be dated from the 1720s -- the works of Montesquieu -- to 1789, the French Revolution.

Dates aside, who made up the Enlightenment? If we can say that the Renaissance was made by humanists of various flavors, then who can we say made the Enlightenment a reality? The word philosophe should immediately come to mind. Voltaire (1694-1778) was a philosophe, so too was Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, David Hume and Kant. But John Locke was a philosopher. So too were Vico and Descartes. The philosophe -- an expression coined by the French -- signified a new kind of philosopher: he was cosmopolitan, humanist, man of letters, a persuasive and lucid writer and not associated either with the Church or the university. The culminating achievement of the Enlightenment thought, Denis Diderot's (1713-1784) multi-volume Encyclopedia, included an essay entitled "Philosophe." Its anonymous author described the philosophe as one who:

trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself, to go back and search for the clearest general principles, to admit nothing except on the testimony of his experience and his reason.

The philosophes were preachers not just of reason but reasonableness. They preached the gospel of humanity and secularism. Critical reason was their surgeon's scalpel. The religious overtones are deliberate -- reason was the new faith of men dissatisfied with the prophets of old.

The philosophes were indeed cosmopolitan. Voltaire (1694-1778), Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) were great French philosophes. From Great Britain came Adam Smith (1723-1790), David Hume (1711-1776) and Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). Germany contributed Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) and Kant (1724-1804) and from Italy came Giambattista Vico (1688-1744) and Cesare Beccaria (c.1735-1794). And the Americans contributed the genius of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and James Madison (1751-1836). All these men were inundated with Enlightenment ideas -- all of them were philosophes. Taken as a whole, the philosophes set no national boundaries to Reason -- they believed themselves to be part of a vast international movement. They were an international family. As Peter Gay has aptly remarked, considered collectively, the philosophes composed the "party of humanity." Like most families, the philosophes quarreled incessantly and, like most families, they pulled together in times of emergency. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), strange Genevan enigma that he was, was perhaps the stormiest of the bunch. For instance, in 1749, we find Rousseau walking toward Paris to visit his friend Diderot who had been imprisoned. On the way, he came across an announcement of the Academy of Dijon, advertising a prize for the best essay on the question: "Has the progress of the arts and sciences corrupted or improved mankind?" At first glance, we would expect Rousseau to pen a treatise full of optimistic flourish extolling the virtues of modern man. Rousseau claimed to have been struck by God and his answer appeared to him in a flash. God has made man good, but man has wasted his talent by constructing an evil society. Rousseau's essay (Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, or the First Discourse), won first prize and its general theory Rousseau later incorporated into his greatest work, The Social Contract. There we find the curious statement, "man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." Rousseau was a black sheep. Nonetheless, he remained a member of the party of humanity. For the most part, relations between the philosophes were less stormy and more amiable. Rousseau was the odd ball -- repudiated by both Voltaire and Diderot. As the story goes, after having read Rousseau's First Discourse, Voltaire wrote to him: "one feels like crawling on all fours after reading your work."

Despite the uneasy relations between Rousseau and the rest of the philosophes, amiability and sociability adequately describe the party of humanity. For instance, the materialist Paul d'Holbach (1723-1789) and Diderot were best of friends. Voltaire was respected by all as the educator of humanity. The Scottish Enlightenment was a small cohesive group of thinkers including Hume, Smith and the historian Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). France, however, was a different story -- here we see a larger collection of friends, a coterie, a microcosm of the Enlightenment in its totality. When David Hume traveled to France he was welcomed by the family or philosophes -- his epistemology might have been at odds with theirs, but they were all united on the general hatred of enthusiasm, fanaticism, prejudice and superstition.

When the philosophes did not know one another, they learned from one another as writers. The germ of this is clear in the 17th century itself. For instance, Kant was a disciple of Newton, an Englishman, Hume, a Scot, and Rousseau, a Genevan. The Scottish Enlightenment owed much of its drive to the early French philosophe, Montesquieu. Beccaria, an Italian jurist, owed his ideas to an amalgamation of Scottish and French thinkers. And, the intellectual traffic did not run in one direction only. Beccaria's Of Crimes and Punishments (1764) had as much an influence on French philosophes they had on him. And Adam Smith would have never been prompted to write The Wealth of Nations (1776) had it not been for his familiarity with the French Physiocrats. The philosophes -- all of them -- embraced a cosmopolitan ideal without questions and, incidentally, without much effort. It was a natural mode of thinking for nearly all of them. The reason should be clear: the Enlightenment was a cultural movement among European urban intellectuals. The philosophes were concerned, as one German philosophe put it: "that only the true cosmopolitan can be a good citizen; he alone can do the great work to which we have been called: to cultivate, to enlighten, and to ennoble the human race."

To define the Enlightenment is difficult but an initial step can be made if we perhaps accept the following axiom: The Enlightenment was an informal and congenial movement of literary men and women -- a movement of philosophers, critics, playwrights, essayists, storytellers and editors. All of them felt "called" upon to do their work, to achieve their holy task. Not all of them felt this mission with the same burning zeal, however. The passion of a Voltaire, who wrote millions of words on the victims of legal injustice, the Lisbon earthquake, cruelty, war and superstition appears in sharp contrast to the philosophic calm of a David Hume. Hume was glad to persuade but lost no sleep over a world in which stupidity was master. In the final analysis, the philosophes differed widely. To speak of them as a movement is to label them a school of thought. However, what united them all was their common experience of shedding their inherited Christian beliefs with the aid of classical thinkers, specifically Roman, and for the sake of modern philosophy. They were agreed that Christianity was a supernatural religion. It was wrong. It was unreasonable. It was the infamous. Écrasez l'infâme! shouted Voltaire. "Wipe it out! Wipe out the infamous!" Only science, with its predictable results was the way to truth, moral improvement and happiness.

And what would unite the philosophes as philosophes was their utmost confidence in the power of Criticism. Criticism is the core of 18th century Enlightenment thought. All the philosophes, regardless of their particular point of view, were absolutely clear in their single-minded praise of criticism. Criticism was the scalpel cutting away the cancer of superstition, prejudice and ignorance. The metaphor should be obvious -- a beam of light would penetrate the gloom of accepted nonsense and the grim citadel of unreason would be razed to the ground. Kant himself defended the age against the charge of shallow thinking and pointed to its accomplishments in natural science and in mathematics. For Kant, all this knowledge -- all this Reason -- all this criticism would serve as a great cleansing agent. The century, he would proudly exclaim, was "the very age of criticism." No doubt, criticism implied an act of aggression. The medieval synthesis, the medieval matrix, had erected walls around the most important areas of human activity, notably religion, politics and sexual morality. Now, it was up to rational criticism to criticize everything. Whatever did not stand the test of reason was unreasonable. Or, as Diderot put it, "Everything must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection." Although clearly carrying the torch of aggression, criticism was not undisciplined. Men did not merely condemn the out-of-date or doubtful. They systematically inquired into the faculty of criticism itself. They were ultimately interested in relating criticism to the activity of philosophy itself. Philosophy, then, was criticism.

The philosophe's passion for criticism has led historians to charge them with a passion for destruction. The philosophes would have found such a charge incomprehensible. However, the philosophes were destructive because they thought that one must first clear the ground before one could rebuild. The world that the Church had shaped had become enfeebled by fanaticism, superstition and prejudice -- what else could one do with l'infâme but to eradicate it?

Criticism had a positive function as well -- it allowed the philosophes to concentrate their energies. "All that men have once been," wrote the historian Edward Gibbon, "all that genius has created, all that reason has weighed, all that labor has gathered up-all this is the business of criticism. Intellectual precision, ingenuity, penetration, are all necessary to exercise it properly." The philosophes enjoyed the knowledge that criticism tended to reveal. They enjoyed this knowledge for its own sake. But they also sought knowledge for its utility. It was for this reason that they set about the establish the sciences of man. The Age of Criticism was also was also an Age of Philosophy, and by philosophy, the philosophes meant an activity that would change the world for the better. They believed that there was something better -- that moral and intellectual perfection was an attainable goal.

The definition we have provided is still elusive and this is perhaps deliberate for the philosophes, despite the commonalities I have suggested, were also quite different from one another. Throughout the 18th century and across the European Continent, from Russia to England and across the Atlantic to the American colonies, their political, religious and social ideas ranged across a large spectrum. Contrary to popular images, the philosophes did not completely embrace the concept of "enlightened despotism," although a faith in such a despotism has always been associated with them. The expression "enlightened despotism" is essentially meaningless. Joseph II of Austria, Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia are usually dragged in as prototypes of the enlightened despot. And if we include Charles III of Spain, the issue becomes totally confused. That these individuals were despots is only partially true. But the image that must be abandoned is one of Rousseau, Diderot or Voltaire sitting elbow to elbow talking philosophy, Newton and the Cartesian cogito with these great European monarchs. "Enlightened despotism" was perhaps little more than some passing fancy of some philosophes -- it certainly was never a deliberate policy. In the words of Peter Gay, "enlightened despotism is a 19th century cliché we would do well to discard."

If enlightened despotism was a passing fancy, it must also be admitted that not all the philosophes agreed with the virtues of political liberalism either. In terms of religion, only some philosophes were atheists -- most were deists and a handful clutched the security blanket of what the 18th century called "reasonable Christianity." Others professed skepticism, reluctant to accept either atheist dogma or Christian revelation.

It is impossible to describe the philosophes as a group or as a school. The metaphor of the family is a much more descriptive expression of reality. Relations between members were informal, often tense and their debates were certainly high-spirited. They were all devotees of criticism. They believed in decency, humanitarianism, freedom from censorship and in general, a relaxation or loosening up of the moral code. Their world was, in a positive sense, disenchanted. They were willing to believe almost anything but a miracle.

When we attempt to seek out the roots of the Enlightenment we are faced with once again, having to dig deep into the past. The philosophes of the Enlightenment were clearly the heirs of all that had gone before them but more direct influences can be located. We have seen the influence Newton had on the 18th century and in general, it was the New Science which Newton seemed to embody that permeated intellectual endeavors in the 18th century. But we can also locate an older influence -- republican Rome. The philosophes can be said to have appreciated the ancient Greeks but it was the Romans of the Republican age that gave them their models. There in ancient Rome they found virtue, republicanism and a society without repression, or so they thought. And of course, like the Renaissance humanists, the philosophes held that same prejudice toward the middle ages. Their prejudice, however, came not just from the idea that it may have been dark, but the cause of that darkness. And that cause was the Church, the infamous. Wipe it out!

This much said, the Enlightenment was not the last act of the Renaissance. It was not some sort of culmination of the Renaissance nor was it the culmination of the scientifically brilliant generations of the Scientific Revolution. But, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution were decisive for the growth of and new faith in Human Reason. The precursors of the Enlightenment -- the fathers if you will -- were Bacon, Locke and Newton. Furthermore, the Enlightenment proper was a collaborative product of three closely linked generations. The towering figures of the first generation were Montesquieu, who was born in 1690 and Voltaire who was born four years later. Their ideas and their ideals -- their very presence -- loomed over the second generation of philosophes, all of whom reached their maturity before mid-century.

This new or second generation of philosophes, men of letters, philosophers, essayists and other fellow travelers, were too talented, and too independent to remain forever in the shadows of Montesquieu or Voltaire, no matter how large or influential their shadows may have been. They began to strike out in new directions -- untried directions. They extended and assimilated the ideas of their masters for new and somewhat larger purposes. The mere catalog of names of this second generation is a reminder that this generation could not simply be considered a loose coalition of disciples. Ben Franklin, scientist, publicist, statesman and wretch, was born in 1706. The Comte de Buffon, a man who was called the Newton of the natural sciences was born in 1707 and two years later came Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751), a materialist philosopher, a scandalous figure and perhaps the most amusing of all the philosophes. David Hume was born in 1711, Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1712, Denis Diderot in 1713, Étienne Condillac in 1714 and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert in 1717.

By mid-century these writers had made their mark with numerous philosophical, psychological, ethical and scientific polemics, discourses and treatises. However, they left the third generation of philosophes much more work to do. Paul d'Holbach, born in 1723 and Kant born the following year, worked out the implications of the scientific thought. D'Holbach moved into materialism in his book, The Science of Nature (1770).

Man is a work of nature: he exists in nature: he is submitted to her laws: he cannot deliver himself from them: it is vain that his mind would spring forward beyond the bounds of the visible world-he is always necessitated to return to nature.

And it was left to Kant to synthesize 2000 years of philosophic thought -- under the direct influence of Hume and Rousseau -- to work out his own complex critical philosophy.

Other thinkers of the third generation included Turgot, born in 1727, a man who became a statesman among philosophes, a man who was idealized by others for his ability to join thought with action. And then there was Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn, both born in 1729. Both men did as much as possible to spread the benefits of the Enlightenment to a small but increasingly receptive German public. This third generation, the younger generation, rejected some of the work of their masters. But the profits from the master's work was clearly enormous.

The light-hearted social criticism implicit in Montesquieu's Persian Letters or Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels or the brilliant, wry, impudent religious satire of Voltaire's Candide, gave way in the third generation, to a more direct frontal assault on every aspect of traditional dogma. It was Voltaire who said, "If God did not exist then it would necessary to invent him." It was Voltaire who also wrote, "I made but one prayer to God. 'Oh Lord, please make my enemies look ridiculous.' And God granted it." By the 1760s and more extensively in the 1770s, there were philosophes who were preaching naturalism, democracy, sexual reform and yes, even socialism and anarchism. The later philosophes may have been able to see further, but only because they stood on the shoulders of giants. We are not, then, talking about rebellious youths -- rebelling against their intellectual ancestors just for the sake of rebellion. No. The third generation proudly and publicly acknowledged their intellectual debts.

The internal history of the Enlightenment is a history of radicalization and the spreading of ideas to new quarters. This diffusion and diversity is especially evident in the field of political thought. The philosophes were, for the most part, practical men. They were practical enough to realize that political programs in one country were perhaps unrealistic when applied to another country. Their relativism in political matters was indeed extensive. They were not utopians. They did not devise political programs for all Europe, for all time. Their relativism was produced by their own historical experience.

Voltaire, for instance, thought the rise of the House of Commons in England was a glorious event and so deserved praise. In the Dutch Republic he commended the democratic ideology of the ruling elite. In France, faced with a choice between a powerful monarchy and a powerful nobility, Voltaire chose monarchy. Voltaire's choice was not because he was an avowed monarchist -- instead, he detested the French nobility as petty, self-seeking and consistently reactionary. In the German republic, which he came to know by his residence in Switzerland, he observed local politics and shifted his allegiance twice. In Prussia, which he knew well, and in Russia, which he knew only through his correspondence with Catherine, he did not hesitate to applaud royal absolutism. In a peasant population, to advocate semi-democratic politics was nothing short of madness.

For Voltaire, a state must be humane -- a state may deceive its people but only if it were part of a larger plan of social happiness. Calls for a gradual widening of public education, a practical political thinker like Voltaire was not prepared to go. Few of the philosophes were prepared to go further. Voltaire did not stand alone in either his practicality or relativism. In fact, the further east Voltaire's mind moved, the more he came to support absolutism. In France, England, the American colonies and the Dutch Republic, one could hope for an enlightened citizenry and even perhaps manhood suffrage. But in the German State, the Hapsburg and Russian Empires, there were no popular political institutions and so politics was not the subject of an open debate. The east, as Voltaire found it, was riddled with ignorance and initiative was stifled by censorship and repression.

In general, the Enlightenment taught the individual how to take control of their own life. In the east, it mainly sought ways of lightening the burdens of most people through benevolent and efficient intervention from above. The charge of utopianism, often cast in a derogatory fashion in the face of the philosophe, would have been justified only if they had thought in some other way.

The philosophes of the Enlightenment were intimately involved in the life of their own age. Life held possibilities and problems and the philosophes responded to both. Their ideas, far from being simple generalizations by coffeehouse gossips or abstract notions of solitary academics, reflect reality. Again, the philosophes have been charged as utopians and shallow optimists. The notorious theory -- the idea of progress -- which holds that life must improve, is not a general characteristic of the Enlightenment. True, some of the philosophes like Turgot, Kant and Condorcet developed genuine theories of history which had progress as their fundamental principle. However, if we look at their theories in more detail, it becomes clear that even their optimism is tinged with moderation. The philosophes believed that improvement was more possible than it had ever been before. But they also realized that improvement was neither inescapable not permanent. Most were convinced that civilizations rose, grew, declined and then fell. The model is therefore cyclical. "No advantages in this world," wrote Hume, "are pure and unmixed." As usual, Hume spoke for most of the philosophes.

No doubt, the philosophes were men of hope. The age lent itself to hope. And of course, in their own professional lives as writers, they saw their status improve, their income increases and their freedom grow. At the same time, the philosophe ridiculed superstition, deplored fanaticism and enthusiasm, extolled the virtues of humanitarianism and deeply respected science. The point is this -- the philosophes were in no way alienated from their culture. This is true no matter where we might find them. They shared many of the preoccupations of their own culture and enjoyed the unwitting support of many otherwise respectable people. It is for this reason that the name "Enlightenment" stands ultimately for something broader than merely a great movement in intellectual thought. The word Enlightenment is more appropriately, perhaps, the name for an age.

| Table of Contents |

| The History Guide |

copyright © 2017 Steven Kreis
Last Revised -- March 3, 2017
 Conditions of Use