European History Pt. 29 — the age of enlightenment

Last time, I looked at the spread of science in the 17th Century, meaning the 1600s. This was the age of Newton and Galileo, and Locke and Hobbes. Big strides all around.

The book now shifts to the 1700s, especially after mid century, and proclaims this the age of enlightenment. I’ve read a good deal about the enlightenment, and its possibly of the most complex historical happenings, since it involves a change in world view, a type of change that is very hard to appreciate and capture in words, especially since we now live, almost automatically, based on many of the principles and ideas which at the time were hard won.

As the book describes things, the enlightenment of the 18th century was a product of the ideas of the 17th century — Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Locke — spilling out in a wider, now literate public. Progress was the watchword. More than ever, people believed that society was moving ahead and that THEY were at the forefront of this movement. There was some hubris in enlightenment thinking.

This spirit of progress and improvement showed up in various forms.

There were religious reformers like John Wesley in England, who eventually founded Methodism and inspired the first “Great Awakening” in the new world in the 1740s. There was also the beginning of the Freemasons, a group dedicated to rationality and progress, but also to a sober (should I say dutch?) view of religion.

Paris was the center of the popularization of enlightenment ideas. There were salons, and writers dedicated to making encyclopedias and dictionaries to bring terms and concepts to a vast number of people.

The book emphasizes that a good portion of the 18th century, especially the back half, belonged to the trio Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau.

I’ve not read Voltaire or Montesquieu, so I won’t really comment on them. Through the grapevine, I’ve heard Voltaire as a kind of satirist, obsessed with free-thinking, usually targeting the clergy and church, and lacking a programmatic system of reform, more concerned to clear the air and deconstruct. Montesquieu was a powerful noble at the time and somewhat conservative, though he also favored toleration.

Rousseau I have read in some depth, and the book’s 2 page summary is somewhat fair to him. He was an outsider and eventually a paranoiac. He believed that nature was the source of good and that society was, roughly, the source of corruption of that good. Though of course, in his political philosophy, he tried to explain a way in which society could be organized to defeat or inhibit the kind of runaway valuation of betterment that he believed create competition and dissatisfaction.


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