The Ideals of the Enlightenment – Isaac Kramnick (The Portable Enlightenment Reader)

Posted on October 27, 2010 by


In order for the contemporary student of knowledge to attain proper education, he or she must also study the dominant intellectual framework that is often presented as a competing source of authority and intellectual discourse for Islam. Secularized and Westernized elites, intellectuals, and bureaucrats knowingly or unknowingly utilize entire disciplines and arts that are alien to Islam without scrutinizing the underlying assumptions and premises within them. Both traditionalists and modernists often fail to realize the core issues concerning Islam and modernity and instead argue over particular sub-sets of issues (e.g. gender roles, sexuality, commerce, identity, freedom of speech and expression, etc). In order for any meaningful discussion to take place, one must first construct a hierarchy of all issues and isolate a matrix of broader assumptions and premises. One of the ways to do so is by studying the ideals of the Enlightenment as it was one of the hallmark historical events in the development of modernity and Western civilization. The following excerpt from “The Portable Enlightenment Reader” explains the ideals of the Enlightenment and how such ideals differed from previous paradigms. [Subtitles are my own addition]

The Ideals of the Enlightenment

By Isaac Kramnick


“What was the message of these Enlightenment intellectuals? What were their ideals? They believed that unassisted human reason, not faith or tradition, was the principal guide to human conduct. “Have courage to use your own reason – that is the motto of Enlightenment,” Kant wrote in 1784. Everything, including political and religious authority, must be subject to a critique of reason if it were to commend itself to the respect of humanity. Particularly suspect was religious faith and superstition. Humanity was not innately corrupt as Catholicism taught, nor was the good life found only in a beatific state of otherworldly salvation. Pleasure and happiness were worthy ends of life and realizable in this world. The natural universe, governed not by the miraculous whimsy of a supernatural God, was ruled by rational scientific laws, which were accessible to human beings through the scientific method of experiment and empirical observation. Science and technology were the engines of progress enabling modern men and women to force nature to serve their well-being and further their happiness. Science and the conquest of superstition of ignorance provided the prospect for endless improvement and reformation of the human condition, progress even unto a future that was perfection. The Enlightenment valorized the individual and the moral legitimacy of self-interest. It sought to free the individual from all varieties of external corporate or communal constraints, and it sought to reorganize the political, moral, intellectual, and economic worlds to serve individual interest.

[Critique of Religion]

Central to the Enlightenment agenda was the assault on religious superstition and its replacement by a rational religion in which God became no more than the supreme intelligence or craftsmen who had set the machine that was the world to run according to its own natural and scientifically predictable laws. This deism, so reminiscent of the cosmic outlook of the ancient Stoics, was inherently anticlerical and deeply suspicious of religious fanaticism and persecution. More than anyone else, Voltaire and his motto Ecrasez l’infame symbolized the war against torture and persecution bred by the infamy of religious fanaticism. But virtually all the Enlightenment theorists followed the lead of Locke in demanding religious toleration. Religion moved from public life and public authority would be reserved for the private sphere of individual preference and individual practice. Public matters in a commercial society involved markets and property, not the saving of souls. So Voltaire approvingly described the Royal Exchange in London as the place where “the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to non but bankrupts.” Jefferson, in turn, rendered the same liberal, tolerant theme in simple American folk wisdom: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

[Promotion of Science]

If religion was the principal villain of the Enlightenment, then science was its hero. The eighteenth century began the Western love affair with science and technology that only now shows signs of being broken up by environmentalism and certain strands of postmodernism. Science embodied reason, and a scientific worldview embodied a rational perspective freedom from religion and superstition. Moreover, science, a very practical, would ameliorate human life, providing the comfort that accompanied happiness in this world. Many of the Enlightenment writers were themselves scientists. Locke, Hartley, and La Mettrie were doctors; Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot were authors of scientific papers; d’Alembert, Richard Price, and Condorcet were mathematicians; Priestly, Buffon, and Franklin were world-famous scientists; and even Tom Paine was the inventor of the irong bridge.

[Faith In Progress]

Science was in the service of reform. According to Priestly, science would “overturn in a moment … the old building of error and superstition.” It would “be the means, under God, of extirpating all error and prejudice, and of putting an end to all undue and usurped authority.” Science also fueled millennial fervor in the Enlightenment. It was the basis for an unbounded faith in progress, a belief in perfectibility and the imminent elimination of pain and suffering. Priestly, Condorcet, and Turgot assumed that science would create a people “more easy and comfortable,” who would “grow daily more happy.” Whatever was the beginning of the world, the end will be glorious and paradisiacal.” Science might even eliminate mortality, as Franklin wrote to Priestley:

The rapid progress the sciences now make, occasions my regrets sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the heights to which may be carried in a hundred years, the power of man over matter. … All diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of old age, and our lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian standard.

Progress was a leitmotiv of the Enlightenment, but not only in the dreams of scientists like Priestly and Franklin. It was central, for example, to the writers in the Scottish Enlightenment and their sociological “histories” of the stages of social development. Smith, Ferguson, Miller, and Kames wrote of the four stages of human progress – the hunting, pasturage, agricultural, and commercial – and they saw this evolutionary process as moving humanity from “rude” simplicity to “civilized” complexity. Like Mandeville, Hume, and Voltaire, and unlike Rousseau, they accepted and defended the luxury of contemporary “civilized” commercial society. Condorcet, in turn, read a clear-cut egalitarian political message in the patterns of scientific and commercial progress. His optimistic hope for the “future condition of the human race” was “the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.”

[A New View of History]

Such faith in progress required a jaundiced view of the past, and once again Voltaire was the Enlightenment’s guide. History, he wrote in 1754, was “little else than a long succession of useless cruelties” and “a collection of crimes, follies, and misfortunes.” Progressive, perfectible humanity disdained the superstitious past and traditions in general, for it could not pass the skeptical test of reason. The american philosophe Jefferson summed up well this Enlightenment ideal in a letter to his friend Priestly, attacking what the former labeled “the Gothic idea,” which has one “look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind.” Just as Priestly had insisted that “those times of revered antiquity have had their use and are now no more,” so Jefferson agreed that Americans would have nothing to do with such errors:

To recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion, in learning, is worthy of those bigots in religion, and government, by whom it is recommended, and whose purpose it would answer. But it is not an idea which this country will endure.

[The True Perfection of Mankind]

One clear feature of the Enlightenment’s idea of the “true perfection of mankind” was that humanity be comfortable and happy. Maximizing public happiness was a central theme in the utilitarian politics of Helvetius, Beccaria, Priestley, and Bentham. The Enlightenment was convinced, as Bayle wrote, that basic to the human temperament was “our natural inclination to seek pleasure.” In reaction to the religious view that in this life and under its veil of tears a virtuous person lived a life of self-denial and privation, Enlightenment writers emphasized enjoyment and happiness, not the least of which was sensual pleasure. How better to ridicule the asceticism and self-denial preached by religion than to mock it in sexual fantasy. So it was that the eighteenth century is the fountain of modern pornography, be it the Marquis de Sade or John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Montesquieu, Diderot, and even Franklin wrote their share as well. In his Encyclopedie entry on “Enjoyment” (jouissance), Diderot praised sexual pleasure as the most noble of passions. To the “perverse man” who takes offense at this praise “I would evoke Nature before him, I would make it speak, and Nature would say to him: why do you blush to hear the word pleasure pronounced, when you do not blush to indulge in its temptations under the cover of night.”

[A New Understanding of Happiness]

Happiness was an explosive political ideal as well, for it was closely linked to the new world of individualism and the legitimacy of self-interest. Jefferson knew exactly what he was doing when he changed Locke’s trilogy “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Property, and the individual’s right to it, was but one expression of the larger human right to individual happiness. The emphasis is properly on the individual’s happiness, for the Enlightenment’s revolutionary objective, enshrined in Jefferson’s text for the Declaration of Independence, was to place at the heart of politics the sacredness of each separate individual’s own quest for happiness and the good life. No longer was there assumed to be a Christian conception of the good life or the moral life, which the church and state defined and to whose common values it led all men and women. The Enlightenment assumption was that each individual pursued his or her own happiness and their own individual sense of the good life – so long, that is, that in doing this they did not interfere with other people’s life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness – or as Jefferson put it, so long as “it neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.”

[Radical Individualism]

There is a profoundly radical individualism at the heart of the Enlightenment thought. Its rationalism led Enlightenment philosophy to enthrone the individual as the center and creator of meaning, truth, and even reality. Descartes had doubted everything, but he could not doubt himself. He as the I, the irreducible thinking being, existed at the core of reality. This epistemological and ontological focus on the individual provided by Descartes’s cogito ergo sum was reinforced in Enlightenment thought by Locke’s sensationalism. The mind as a “blank slate” received sensations from the external world. That individual mind imperially ordered chaotic sensory experience, constructing, therefore,, its own meaning for the world. This Lockean portrayal of individuals as sole intellectual creators of their universe dominates the eighteenth century,, from the writings of his disciples Hartley and Condillac to Helvetius, Beccaria, and Condorcet. No wonder, then, that Diderot and d’Alembert dedicated the Encylopedie in part to Locke.

[Individualism and Liberalism]

It wasn’t only Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, however, that held the Enlightenment in thrall. It was also the political liberalism of his Second Treatise on Civil Government. Indeed, it is in its basic assumptions about society, so heavily influenced by Locke, that one sees best the linkage of the Enlightenment’s ideals and liberal individualism. Enlightenment liberalism set the individual free politically, intellectually, and economically. The political universe was demystified, as the magical power of thrones, scepters, and crowns was replaced by rational acts of consent. The individual (understood, of course, in the Enlightenment as male and property-owning) did not receive government and authority from a God who had given his secular sword to princes and magistrates to rule by his divine right. Nor did the individual keep any longer to his subordinate place in a divinely inspired hierarchy, in which kings and noblemen had been placed above him as “your highness” who were society’s natural governors. Government was voluntarily established by free individuals through a willful act of contract. Individuals rationally consented to limit their own freedom and to obey civil authority in order to have public protection of their natural rights. Government’s purpose was to serve self-interest, to enable individuals to enjoy peacefully their rights to life, liberty, and property, not to serve the glory of God or dynasties, and certainly not to dictate moral or religious truth.

[Political Focus on Material Needs]

Enlightenment liberalism freed the individual in the intellectual and moral world as well. Here, too, Locke provided the basic text with his Letters on Toleration and his argument that governments were only concerned with worldly matters of life and property, not with immaterial things like salvation of souls. No summum bonum, no unquestioned and absolute truths were to be enforced on the individual by public authority be it secular or spiritual. If men and women were not to slaughter each other in religious wars, then matters of belief and moral conviction had to be reserved for the private realm, where each individual was free to believe as he wished. Public law no longer enforced God’s higher truths nor any ideal of the moral life; it merely kept order. What individuals privately believed seldom stole property or injured others. Clerical or royal censorship and persecution of free individual minds was the lightning rod for Enlightenment contempt.

[Rejection of the Moral Economy]

As Enlightenment liberalism would free the individual from intellectual constraint, so it would also liberate that individual from economic restraints on private initiative. Rejected were the ideas of a moral economy in which economic activity was perceived as serving public moral ends of justice, whether these be realized through church-imposed constraints on wages and prices, or through magistrates setting prices and providing relief to insure that the poor not starve. Church, state, and guilds were no longer to superintend economic activity; individuals would be left alone to seek their own self-interest in a free voluntary market, which through “an invisible hand” would produce the good of all. These Enlightenment ideals are associated typically with Adam Smith and the French physiocrats Turgot and Quesnay, but they pervade the era and are found in writers as disparate as Voltaire, Priestley, and Jefferson. So too, we should also note the fundamental unity of the Enlightenment’s message, for the economic liberals, the Smiths and the physiocrats, were as strongly committed to the principles of political and intellectual individualism as were the rest of the Enlightenment intellectuals.

[From the Great Chain of Being to the Rat Race]

Indeed, it is Smith who weaves together all the social trends of Enlightenment individualism with his striking insights into human nature. In commercial societies, Smith suggested, the individual was ever ambitious and striving. Every individual “seeks to better his own condition.” This ambition, Smith writers, is “a desire which comes with us from the womb and never leaves us until we go into the grave.” Life, he wrote, was “a race for wealth and honors and preferments.” Life is no longer a hierarchical ladder or chain of being. In commercial society, life is a race. This race should be fair; each and every runner in it should have an equal opportunity to win. Each competitor will “run as hard as he can, and strain every move and every muscle, in order to outrun all his competitors.” Interfering with other runners or seizing special advantages is “a violation of fair play.” But merit, talent, virtue, and ability are, alas, no sure indicators of success, because the church, the state, and the aristocracy are too involved in the face. By reserving offices, power, and authority for the privileged, they tilt the competition in favor of an idle aristocracy devoid of the talent and virtue of a Figaro – or a Mozart, for that matter.

[Equality of Opportunity as Inequality]

The ideal of equality of opportunity at its origins was both an effort to reduce inequality and to perpetuate it. It appeared egalitarian because it lashed out at the exclusiveness of aristocratic and clerical privilege, but it sought to replace that secular and spiritual elite with a new meritocratic elite, albeit one more broadly based in talent and merit. Equality of opportunity is not really a theory of equality but one of justified and morally acceptable inequality. What can legitimize some having more than others? Only that all have had an equal opportunity to have more. Equality for Enlightenment liberalism really means fairness, no rigging of life’s rewards by priests or princes. Let all men who are not of color have an equal chance to win in the social competition that is the race of life, just as all claimants to truth compete freely in the marketplace of ideas.”

(p xi – xvii of “The Portable Enlightenment Reader” edited by Isaac Kramnick)

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