During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Western world was shaken with an emerging cultural movement that eventually transformed involved Western societies. This focal point in history has been popularly referred to as the Age of Enlightenment. During which, intellectuals had taken the spotlight to promote reasoning and scepticism. Revolutionary philosophical ideas, socio-political ideologies, scientific thoughts and discoveries had emerged during this period, thereby challenging the norms and other conventions that were long been promoted by the church and several states.
Because the Enlightenment had sparked the advancement of knowledge in the Western world, its lasting imprints are demonstrated in the modernity that pervades in the contemporary global society.
Accomplishments of the Age of Enlightenment
Reasoning was at the core of Enlightenment. During the seventeenth 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 attentions 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, Newton in 1686 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 Enlightenment. These works paved the way for the acceptance of reasoning based from cause and effect that in turn, promoted scientific methodology and reasoning, as well as scepticism toward tradition and faith.
However, it is important to take note of the fact 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 eighteenth century pushed for the promotion of reasoning in all aspects of social life.
Apart from driving the Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment had also revolutionised several socio-political institutions. Some leaders, particularly heads of monarchical regimes, tried applying reforms, including accepting multiple religion, tolerance toward cultural diversity, freedom of speech, and right to hold private property. This 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 an increase in 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 in spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment by writing and publishing the books Letters on the English in 1733 and Dictionnaire Philosophique in 1764 and
At the height of the Age of Enlightenment was an emerging perception that the predisposition toward reasoning and scepticism bordered with radicalism. This perception was unavoidable. Both reasoning and scepticism had challenged the norms and conventions of those times. In France for instance, the perpetrators and 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. Such resulted in the French Revolution.
Criticisms of the Age of Enlightenment
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 enemies 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 ideals and scientific thought had corrupted the people.
The criticisms were suggestive of opposition toward or strong disregard of liberalism. Often times, critics blamed liberalism for corrupting the minds of the populace during the eighteenth 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 the preservation of 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 scepticism had left people devoid of their ability to accept the standards, acknowledge the authority, and appreciate the existing.
In plain sight, the predisposition toward reasoning and scepticism made Enlightenment unacceptable for some. Perpetrators and supporters of the Enlightenment blatantly rejected the standards that were in existent 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 criticising.
Critics argued that the Enlightenment had prevented a considerable number of people to notice the literary and art works that pervaded during that time. They did not even pay attention to sermons and religious apologetics. Reasoning and scepticism compelled people to distance themselves from these things. At some point, it can be considered that even though reasoning and scepticism demonstrates critical thinking and thus objectivity, too much inclination toward the Enlightenment could have had brought forth subjectivity, bias, or prejudice—not to all, but perhaps, to some ardent supporters of the cultural movement.
Nonetheless, the Age of the Enlightenment marked an important 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. While it is true that the Enlightenment is not a perfect model, the depth and extent of its achievements are undeniable. Perhaps, it is actually a blunder to discredit modernity and social progress from Enlightenment. After all, it is during this era that the general populace demonstrated their resolve against the established social institutions.