The European Enlightenment

The Philosophes


   Properly speaking, the Enlightenment indicates in particular an energetic group of French thinkers who thrived in the middle of the eighteenth century: the philosophes . This group was a heterogenous mix of people who pursued a variety of intellectual interests: scientific, mechanical, literary, philosophical, and sociological. They were united by a few common themes: an unwavering doubt in the perfectibility of human beings, a fierce desire to dispel erroneous systems of thought, such as religion, and a dedication to systematizing the various intellectual disciplines.


Enlightenment Glossary
Progress
   The rallying cry for the philosophes was the concept of progress. Through mastering both natural sciences and human sciences, humanity could harness the natural world for its own benefit and learn to live peacefully with one another. This was the ultimate goal, for the philosophes , of rational and intentional progress.


   The central ideas of the philosophe movement were:
Progress: Human history is largely a history of the improvement of humanity in two respects: a.) knowledge of the natural world and ability to manipulate the world through technology; b.) overcoming ignorance bred of superstitions and religions; c.) overcoming human cruelty and violence through social improvements and government structures.

Deism: Deism is a term coined in the philosophe movement and applies to two related ideas: a.) religion should be reasonable and should result in the highest moral behavior of its adherents; b.) the knowledge of the natural world and the human world has nothing to do whatsoever with religion and should be approached completely free from religious ideas or convictions.

Tolerance: The greatest human crimes, as far as the philosophes were concerned, have been perpetrated in the name of religion and the name of God. A fair, just, and productive society absolutely depends on religious tolerance. This means not merely tolerance of varying Christian sects, but tolerance of non-Christian religions as well (for some philosophes ).


   The miracle years for the philosophes occurred between 1748 and 1751: all the outstanding works of the philosophes saw the light of day during these intellectually exciting years: Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws (1748), Rousseau's Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1750), and, finally, the great capstone of the French philosophes movement, the first edition of Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie in 1751.

   None of the philosophes engaged in speculative philosophy or abstract thinking (very much); they were primarily concerned in the betterment of society and human beings so their focus was overwhelmingly practical. This concern was focussed on reforming individual human beings and on outdated human institutions and belief systems.


Voltaire    Besides Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the most influential of the French philosophes was François Marie Arouet or, as he signed his books, Voltaire. Voltaire concentrated on two specific philosophical projects. First, he untiringly worked to introduce empiricism, as it was practiced by the English, into French intellectual life. Second, he persisted on proselytizing for religious tolerance; in fact, most of the works that we still read today had as their theme religious tolerance.


Ancient Greece
Aristotle

World Cultures Glossary

Empiricism
   Empiricism: Empirical philosophy, which was first systematized by Aristotle in the fourth century BC, was reintroduced into Western culture with a vengeance by English scientists in the seventeenth century. Like Descartes, English philosophers such as Isaac Newton begin by doubting everything. Unlike Descartes, who develops a non-empirical philosophy to answer that doubt, Newton and his crew based all human certainty on empirical verification through the senses. Voltaire spat all over the French rationalist tradition and worked tirelessly to develop a French philosophy based on empiricism. Although the French solidly remained rooted in rationalism, much of French empirical science owes its origins to the works of Voltaire.


Enlightenment Reader

A Treatise on Tolerance
   A Treatise on Tolerance : Voltaire had written most of his life on religious tolerance and had gained a large audience. In 1762, however, he was fired into action by the execution of an innocent Protestant in Toulouse. This man, Jean Calas, was accused of murdering his son before that son could convert to Catholicism. Like the OJ Simpson trial, this murder created a sensation all throughout largely Catholic France. Calas was inhumanly tortured and eventually strangled, but he never confessed to the crime. When Voltaire heard about this gross miscarriage of justice, he made Jean Calas's case his cause and in 1763 he published A Treatise on Tolerance that focussed entirely on this case. The argument was very simple: the most inhuman crimes perpetrated by humanity throughout its enitre history have been perpetrated in the name of religion. Mass extermination, torture, infanticide, regicide: behind just about every abominable human crime lay some religious zealotry or passionate religious commitment. The most vicious crimes, though, are those perpetrated by Christians against other Christians because they belong to a different sect or church. Since religion does not admit of certainty, and since so many sects and religions have so many things in common, the Treatise argues that people should be allowed to practice whatever religion they see fit, particularly if it's a Christian religion. Individual governments should not impose religious systems on an entire state. The ultimate argument of the book is that secular values should take precedence over religious values; until that happens, human history will be marked by viciousness and inhumanity.


   Candide : Voltaire's most famous book, however, is Candide , a novel which he published in 1759. Although Voltaire is the most representative philosophe of his time, Candide is a strange book in that it attacks many of the assumptions of the philosophe movement. In particular, the novel makes fun of those who think that human beings can endlessly improve themselves and their environment. The main character of the novel, Candide, is set adrift on a hostile world and futilely tries to hold on to his optimistic belief that this "is the best of all possible worlds." as his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, keeps insisting. He travels throughout Europe, South America, and the Middle East, and on the way he encounters terrible natural disasters and even more terrible disasters perpetrated by human beings on their fellow human beings. He learns in the end that the only solution is productive work that benefits those around you.


Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert    The great manifesto of the philosophe movement was no small document; by the late 1740's, everyone understood that the sum total and the entire spirit of the movement was contained in the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, known simply as Diderot's Encyclopedia .

   The Encyclopedia was the collective effort of over one hundred French thinkers. The central purpose of the work was to secularize learning and, above all other things, to refute what the authors felt were dangerous carry-overs from the Middle Ages. For the Encyclopedists, human improvement was not a religious issue, but simply a matter of mastering the natural world through science and technology and mastering human passions through an understanding of how individuals and societies work.

   Diderot was a prolific writer who wrote on just about every topic and in just about every format. He wrote on philosophy, science, music, and art, and wrote novels, essays, and dramatic pieces. D'Alembert was a mathematician and scientist; he was responsible for the Encyclopedia 's "Preface." This preface is a vitally important document in explaining the philosophe attitude towards knowledge. In it, d'Alembert explains that the Encyclopedia has been organized around the categories of human knowledge. This, ultimately, is an Aristotelean principle, and it became the standard working principle of the Encyclopedia . This division of knowledge in the Encyclopdia was ultimately responsible for the division of human sciences we see today: the division between human and natural sciences, as well as the division between natural and mechanical sciences all owe their origin to the Encyclopedia and d'Alembert's theoretical preface.


Montesquieu

Montesquieu
   The baron de Montesquieu concerned himself entirely with political theory. His Spirit of the Laws (1748) sought to explain how different groups of people end up with different and varying forms of government. He argued that climate, terrain, and agricultural conditions largely predetermined both human behavior and various forms of authority. However, Montesquieu also believed that there was a single, best form of government andthat humans could overcome any and all geographical and climactic conditions. For Montesquieu, the best form of human governmnt was embodied in the English constitution after the Glorious Revolution. In particular, the English constitution divided state powers into three independent branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. Since no one person or group was in charge, the maximum amount of political and economic freedom was made available to the general population. He called this equal distribution of power "checks and balances," and his theories of government would be the single most powerful influence over the formation of American government at the end of the century.


English philosophes    The philosophes movement was not confined to France, but soon spilled over into other European countries. In England, the movement was championed by David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edward Gibbon. It was natural that the English would take to the new ideas, since the French philosophes were so heavily influenced by English thought: Voltaire by English empiricism and Montesquieu by English government.


General Glossary

Skepticism
   David Hume (1711-1776) is perhaps the most important English philosopher of the eighteenth century. He was a radical skeptic and his most influential work, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding argued that human beings can know nothing whatsoever with certainty. Even more influential were his ideas on ethics; he argued for a moral relativism. Since no-one can know anything for certain, that means that you can not pass judgement on alternative moral systems.


Enlightenment Reader

The Wealth of Nations, Chapter One
   Adam Smith (1723-1790) is one of the most important theorists of the eighteenth century period. His book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), was the first book to systematically theorize capitalism and stands as the book that pretty much invented economics in the Western world.


   Smith has one and only one concern in the book: to explain how nations as a collective grow wealthier. While other eighteenth century thinkers were concerned about improvements in knowledge and society, Smith believed that human progress largely consisted in the steady improvement of human life through the increasing wealth of a nation as a whole. The Wealth of Nations is a systematic attempt to explain the processes whereby the collective wealth of a nation grows.

   Smith identifies several characteristics of growing economies. The first and most foremost is division of labor. The revolution in labor in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which productive tasks were divided among a number of workers each doing a single task, produced a revolution in production in which output was increased a hundredfold. Smith's foundational argument is that all meaning and value in human life is to be found in productive labor; the exponential increase of production, then, not only resulted in more wealth for the nation, but greater meaning and value for human life. Second, all monopolies and regulations stifle productive labor. Human beings work for their own profit; regulations and monopolies do away with the profit incentive and so discourage human productivity. In place of these regulations, Smith proposed a natural system of economic liberty, in which each individual in a society is free to choose how to expend their productive labor and their capital. This economic liberty was called laissez faire (let them do as they please); if individuals were allowed to pursue their own selfish aims, then the wealth of the nation as a whole would increase. This selfishness, though, would not result in social injustice; behind this natural economic liberty lay an "invisible hand" which guided people into right action. Thirdly, the material world was an infinite store of resources that could be exploited for the benefit of humankind. It was incumbent on humans to approach material resources, not as scarce, but as infinitely abundant. The idea that the world is an infinite storehouse of resources that should be exploited by us is such a common aspect of our lives, that it's hard to realize that it's a modern idea that can be dated back to Smith's book.

   Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) wrote a monumental history of Rome, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , which was published between 1776 and 1788. You can still find people dutifully reading this book as a classic of history. However, the book is important for articulating political and social ideas of the philosophe movement in relationship to history. Gibbon argued that Rome fell for two reasons. First, Rome was overwhelmed by barbarians; Europe, Gibbon argued, was also threatened by barbarians. Second, Rome declined when it adopted Christianity, which he called "servile and pusillanimous" and a religion which "debased" the Roman mind and soul. The Romans replaced scientific rationalism with a "vile" religion; this, above all, made Rome vulnerable to internal degradation and external predation.


Italian philosophes    In Italy, the most influential adherent of the philosophe movement was Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), whose book, On Crimes and Punishments (1764) radically changed the European outlook on justice and the penal system. Beccaria argued that judicial punishment should not be used for punishment , but rather should be used to protect society. Incarceration of the criminal prevented the criminal from committing other crimes, and closely watching and training incarcerated criminals taught them moral and social values that would prevent the from committing crimes once they were released. All other forms of punishment, including corporal and capital punishment, were excessive; understand that Beccaria wrote this at a time when most serious crimes were capital crimes and that executions were a common public sight. Beccaria's book completely changed the face of European society: forty years after it was written, most European countries had abolished torture and maiming as well as severely trimmed the number of crimes punishable by death. In addition, prisons changed to reflect the new mentality towards prisoners. Prison became a place where prisoners interiorized proper social behavior. Rather than being thrown into a hole, prisons became large and open places that allowed for prisoners to be constantly watched to assure that their behavior conformed to proper norms.


German philosophes    In Germany, the most prominent thinkers influenced by the philosophe movement was Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781). The movement never gained much ground in Germany and the Papal States, for censorship was very tight and religious authorities, particularly in Protestant states, were extremely intolerant of new ideas. Lessing primarily argued for religious tolerance; his most famous work is Nathan the Wise , written in 1779. In it, he argued for religious tolerance of the Jews and, even further, that human excellence was in no way related to religious affiliation. He carried this argument even further in his work, On the Education of the Human Race in 1780. This is the classic work of the history of human progress; Lessing argues that each and every world religion, including Christianity, are steps in the intellectual, social, and spiritual progress of humanity. The ultimate goal of this progress is the point at which humanity abandons religion entirely in favor of pure reason.


Social Agitation    Since the philosophes of all countries believed that human beings and human society was perfectible, the philosophes were energetic activists and agitators, sometimes incurring great personal risk for their beliefs and actions. They believed that human society could be perfected a bit at a time. Some of these efforts were useless, while others, such as agitation for judicail reform following the principles outlined in Beccaria's book, led to significant improvement. It should not be overlooked, however, that the most effective agitators using the ideas of the philosophe movement were the American revolutionaries in the latter quarter of the century. The foundation and formation of the American Republic was, by and large, the product of putting philosophe ideas into practice at great personal risk.

   However, the center of gravity for social reform in the eighteenth century was a single writer: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-25-98