Seeing the World Without Shadows: the Enlightenment Dream

The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century (c. 1500-1700) in Europe—beginning with Copernicus (1493-1543) and ending with Isaac Newton (1642-1727)—precipitated a momentous transformative learning moment for humankind.

What a revolution that was! Sixteenth century intellectuals in the grip of Aristotle still imagined that nature consisted of four qualities (earth, water, fire and air) and the earth stood still. In Newton’s day the earth moved and humans inhabited a cosmos governed by one set of laws, in one kind of space and one kind of time. Demons no longer possessed men’s souls and claims to knowledge were rooted in sensory evidence and based on argument.

If God hadn’t exactly disappeared from the Newtonian world-picture, he was there for a brief moment to set things in motion. Alexandre Koyre (From the closed world to the infinite universe [1957]) has described the seventeenth-century transformation as a “veritable ‘mutation’ of the human intellect…one of the most important, since the invention of the cosmos by Greek thought.”

Eighteenth-century philosophes (Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, d’Holbach and Rousseau) chose as their mentors the illustrious men of the scientific revolution. As the scientific revolution morphed into the “Age of Enlightenment,” these philosophes articulated the great themes of the Enlightenment: the autonomy and universality of reason, perfectibility and progress, the assault on religious dogma and authority, the principle of sociability and learning through conversation, disgust with nationalism and belief in a cosmopolitan “republic of letters.”

The animating vision of the Enlightenment Project was the ardent belief that humanity did not have to be resigned to its fate. They could be filled with hope because the natural and social worlds were accessible to human reason and control. Through rational inquiry, the principles and norms that governed economic, social, cultural and political life could be ascertained. Humans could break free from ecclesiastical domination and learn to think for themselves. In a word, life could get better and people could actually be autonomous actors!

Now the source of light was reason itself and not God. On 11 December 1750, a young theology student, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, had declared that “[t]he time has come” for Europe to escape “the darkness which covered thee!” Turgot exhorted his contemporaries to “open your eyes and see.” He thought that the wondrous achievements of Louis XV’s France would “extend over the whole world” and mankind would “continually become better and happier!”

The eighteenth-century in Europe could be thought of as the dawning of the emancipatory vision that has threaded its way to our torturous present. Indeed, the Enlightenment ideals of autonomy, tolerance and commitment to a scientific understanding of the world have been connected with the great progressive movements of the last two centuries: the suffrage movement, the abolition of the slave trade, civil liberties, socialist movements and progressive labour legislation. Works of the great Enlightenment thinkers from Locke to Kant to Hegel influenced all manner of liberals, socialists and anarchists.

All believed that the social and natural worlds could be “known” and just principles of organization could be separated from unjust ones through communicative action. But from the dawning of the emancipatory vision, the Enlightenment Project has been shadowed by fierce opponents and critics.

We may speak of a counter-enlightenment. The French Revolution of 1789, which deliquesced into Terror, certainly fed anti-rational and counter-enlightenment tendencies that have continued into the present. In fact, opponents of the Enlightenment Project (such as Edmund Burke) pointed accusingly at the infamous results of the Revolution as moral lessons to anyone wishing to abandon Tradition and the firm Guiding Hand of Religion.

What lessons needed to be learned? Humanity must lower its expectations! Beware of subversion! Let’s fear any idea of popular sovereignty! The people cannot be allowed to think for themselves, let alone act in their own interests! Order before justice! Faith before reason!

In 1784 Immanuel Kant’s epochal question, “What is Enlightenment?” (Aufklarung) had crystallized the debates raging in Germany in the 1780s. After 1789 another dimension was added: What is the relationship between enlightenment and revolution? Kant’s disciple Johann Heinrich Tieftrunk observed: “We now live in a century of enlightenment. Should this be said to be an honor or a disgrace for our country? We also live in a century of revolutions. Is it enlightenment which currently undermines the peace of states?”

As the Jacobin Reign of Terror worked its course, a prominent journal of the Catholic enlightenment in Austria, lamented: “Then the disorders in France erupted: and now they reared again their empty heads and screeched at the tops of their voices: ‘Look there at the shocking results of the Aufklarung! Look there at the philosophers, the preachers of sedition!’ Everyone seized this magnificent opportunity to spray their poison at the supporters of the Aufklarung.

Historians have documented the complexities of understanding the linkages between “enlightenment” and “revolution.” Despite his ambivalence, Kant himself believed that the French Revolution “marked the moment in history when there was an actual effort to put into practice the goal that nature had dictated to the species: the achievement of a republican form of constitution.”

Kant’s position is appealing. It is an epochal moment in humankind’s emancipatory struggles. Dare to know! Dare to cast off your chains! Dare to emancipate your minds from mental slavery! But for the Revolution’s opponents, it undermined the ground of political authority, reducing politics to a bloody conflict between anarchy and despotism. For those who clung to the ideals of the Revolution, observes James Schmidt (“Introduction: What is enlightenment? A question, its context, and some consequences,” in J. Schmidt (Ed.), What is enlightenment? Eighteenth-century answers and twentieth-century questions [1996]) “enlightenment embodied the vision of a society governed by law and reason” (p., 15).

“For the Right, enlightenment was a synonym for a political naiveté with murderous consequences. For the Left, it expressed the unfulfilled dream of a just and rational society” (ibid.).

At this historic moment, near the end of the second miserable decade of the twenty-first century, the Left appears to have stopped dreaming of a just and rational society. To make matters even worse, the trajectory of global history has derailed the foundation of the Enlightenment Project. Hope has become scarce; cruelty and massacre seethe through the world.

Two foundational pillars must not be overthrown: the autonomy and universality of reason and learning through conversation. Fighting is now better than talking and the idea of a universal reason has been cut into fragmented ribbons. Bombs are best and words can mean whatever Power intends.

Precisely at this historic moment—when we need a reinvigorated affirmation of the ideals of the Enlightenment—many intellectuals have forsaken the philosophical resources that could, in fact, begin to confront a world where irrationality increasingly prevails and might rules over right, and universal truth has been cut to pieces.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.