“Let knowledge grow from more to more and thus be human life enriched” . All men assert that man is capable of knowing. And no one can deny this fact. Humans strive to know by relinquishing unfounded beliefs. This knowledge, when attained, is used to better their lot. In every sphere of human endeavor, there emerges a thought or way of life which preoccupies the mind of the people of that particular period. In this preoccupation, philosophical problems arise, and men also ask question themselves, of their surroundings etc. which though very diverse, have certain characteristics in common. This, in a way, is a narration of what happened in human history in the period between the 1600s’ and the 1800s’. According to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the motto of the age should be “Dare to know.” During this period, people got themselves heavily in pure reasoning. This histo-cultural period is what we refer to as the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, as it may be called. In this presentation, I am going to describe my understanding of this period of time in the history of man.
The Age of Reason or Enlightenment as it is chiefly referred to, is a designation for a historical period in the Western world. This period saw to the advancement in human thought as regards characteristic ideas and attitudes of Rationalism. It reached a time when a reliable method of discovery was needed because; every genuine question had many false answers and an only true one. In this vein, the Age of Reason was an “attempt to transform the present welter of ignorance and idle conjecture into a clear and coherent system of logically interrelated elements. The philosophers of this age realized that in order to reach understanding of the multiplicity of things in nature and the human being, “a clear coherent system of logically interrelated elements alone was a guarantee for man’s happiness, rationality and freedom”. And so, the dominant conviction of the enlightenment was that right reasoning could find true knowledge and could lead mankind to felicity. Of the basic assumptions and beliefs common to both philosophers and intellectuals of this period, the most important belief, perhaps, was an abiding faith in the power of human reason.
To this end, the period of enlightenment saw to it that every human investigation began with empirical observation and which will eventually lead to truth. During this Age of Reason also surfaced some propagandists- called “philosophes” from the French for the term philosopher. Among the proponents were Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet, Holbach, and Beccaria.
However, these men were not recognized as systematic philosophers. As they held that every human investigation was to begin with empirical observation, the philosophes shunned metaphysics completely and took boldly on the steps of philosophers like John Locke. Science was for them, however, living growing evidence that human beings, and that using their natural reasoning powers in a fairly obvious and teachable way, could not only understand the way things really were in the universe. Nonetheless, they could understand what human beings are really like, by combining this knowledge of nature and human nature, learn how to live better and happier lives. This is the period when mathematical studies were heightened in formal education. Advancement in reason led to the notion that, crime and insanity, no longer, were given theological explanations, and were dealt with as mundane difficulties of empirical solutions. This way of thought led to specific changes in attitudes of people and consequent changes in institutions.
Enlightenment, like any other school of thought, had clusters of ideas which formed the model for their worldview and basis on which they built and expounded their thought. The models for the enlightenment were Reason, Nature and Progress. “Just as grace was available to the Christian, so also was reason available to the truly enlightened.” For the philosophes, reason was a kind of common sense sharpened and made subtler by training in logic and the natural philosophy- which they called Science. This notion of science made the philosophers construct their faith in Reason and this influenced negatively the Christian thought of their age. Locke, for instance, completely dismissed the theory of innate ideas and held the mind to be a tabula rasa-a blank tablet on which experience only inscribed content. This threatened the Christian doctrine of Revelation. They saw the church-especially the Roman Catholic Church-as the principal force that had enslaved the human mind in the past, because they held people in ignorance.
And to that effect, most Enlightenment thinkers though did not renounce religion altogether, they rather opted for a form of Deism, which accepted the existence of God and of a hereafter, but rejected the intricacies of Christian theology. The dependence on reason brought about a conviction that the formation of the mind, the character-all counted on man. In the light of this, a sturdy faith in cultural engineering which asserted the “possibility of changing all human beings for the good by changing their environment, in particular their education, from infancy on…” And so like any other physiological function, reason was held to work always and in substantially the same in all human beings as Nature designed them. And because the philosophers became very much convinced that all men have potentially, roughly equal powers of understanding (human beings and nature), reason was realized as a basic tool in comprehending the reasonable world
The second model for the enlightenment is Nature. This was closely meshed with reason. The philosophers of the enlightenment posited that reason was an indispensable tool; that which “enable human beings to discover and rediscover Nature beneath the concealing corruption of Religion, social structure, convention, and indeed the misleading impressions of sense experience” . This was a radical way which relegated Religion, with all its complexities to the menial. And regard for conventions was held in no esteem. The enlightened only admitted that nature was hypostatized conception of the beautiful and the good. And though, there were notions of the supernatural, the enlightened simply dismissed them as figments of imagination, non-existent which were indeed designed to keep men ignorant of the ways of reason and nature.
For them, nature is “good”. This way of thought was heavily influenced by a touch of Hellenism. During this period, there were strain of social consciousness as a result of looseness in morality, cynicism and corruption. It was not surprising that the enlightened were hardly self-indulgent sensualists. This was self-evident in the touch of Puritanism in the enlightened. Some held that there was once a state of nature on earth in which all men lived free from evil. This they indicated in the semi-classical past.
The third model was summed up in the word “Progress”. The idea of progress was so much enshrined in the enlightenment to the fact that “as social dissatisfaction mounted the idea of an intellectual progress became transformed into a belief in the general progress of mankind” – in all spheres of human endeavor. People came to assume that through a judicious use of reason, an unending progress would be possible—progress in knowledge, in technical achievement, and even in moral values. The notion of progress was seen as an evident and wholesome truth in the doctrine of development. They dismissed the thought that development could not attain by the gradual improvement of man’s lot on earth. The promise of a second coming of a Christ, in which man’s lot will be perfected, was shunned completely. For the enlightened, perfection was possible when reason was sufficiently used and nature properly controlled will lead to progress.
They thus admitted that the agent of progress was the increasingly, rapid and effective application of reason to control the physical and cultural environment. Education was however implored as an intrinsic tool in boosting the ways in which reason was to manifest its reform. This saw to the beginnings of serious experimentation in the field and a series of important writings on educational theory also revealed. The enlightened were convinced that because man could reason, he could have unique advantage over all other creatures; hence human beings could progress from that line. This culminated in the beginnings of extraordinary technological advancements in the Western world and greater widespread in economic growth. This cluster of Progress, in no doubt, concretized the material advancement of the Western world.
The modifications of the models was a way to amended the worldly belief which posited that the power of human beings when raised rationally from infancy on as natural things meant to be, can achieve steady and unlimited growth both materially and spiritually which would eventually lead to secure happiness for all people. The denial of transcendence of an external world of personal immortality was highly incompatible with the Judeo-Christian line of thought. Christians however did not remain silent and passive at the touch of these trends. This saw the emergence of great protestant movements like Methodism in Britain, and the Allied Pietism in Germany. Though, not in consonance with the enlightenment, and sternly distrustful of reason, the movements were evangelical, political and social. This really went down with the working class which had virtually no complete glimpse of enlightenment. Another qualification was made on those who on the whole conformed in the principle to the model of the enlightenment. Questions were asked on how fast reason was to get to amend the present welter of evil in the environment and pave way to the natural good environment which the proper use of reason could enhance. To this end, the enlightened presented a united front.
Some believed in despotism and they held that the only hope of reform of the environment was from. Other, on the other hand, also held what can be termed philosophical anarchism, the doctrine that men needed no authority themselves as long as they obeyed their natural inner light. Among other things included the qualification made to time and place which created variations. This took into account the places from where the enlightened stay and worked. Again, they considered the period within which they lived and worked. It becomes obvious that another qualification also identified with the models was the touch of romanticism. People tried to disentangle from the works of enlightenment, the works of writers and artists. They acknowledged some writings as classic which had a touch of rationalism. On the other hand, the others were seen as romantic with a sentimental and transcendental touch. These two trends were seen as the use of the head and the heart. However, both head and heart condemned the nature of things as they were.
To conclude with the tradition of the enlightenment or the epoch of the enlightened thought this was understood as an opposition and counterforce to unfounded beliefs and myths. The enlightenment was an attempt to promote the judicious use of reason which will subsequently lead to an ordered control of the environment or nature. And this left a lasting heritage for the 19th and 20th centuries which facilitated the growth of modern secularism. It also served as the model for political and economic liberalism and for humanitarian reform throughout the 19th-century Western world. However, this period marked a key stage in the decline of the church. Believing in the proper use of reason as an indispensable tool for progress and felicity, the enlightened accused the church as the entity which prevented the people from using the best of their reason to develop their lot. Nonetheless, no one can say that the enlightenment has had little influence in the life of the modern world. In essence, it has contributed in no mean way to the day’s sophisticated scientific discoveries and the technological advancements. And it has also become a solid foundation for modern science. It has really urged man to think in a more logical, coherent, and systematic way other than basing their convictions on unfounded, unjustified and unsubstantiated beliefs. And this has made man more critical than ever in the history of humanity, because every thought is now subjected to critical, cognitive analysis, and then is tested to see how best it could used to better the lives of people. To sum it all, the enlightenment has in no doubt helped man come of age to progress.
Isaiah Belin, The Age of Enlightenment, Mentor Books, New American Library, New York, 1956
Encarta Encyclopedia Standard Version 2005
Neil McInnes, Enlightenment in Encyclopedia of Philosophy