Enlightenment Thought: A Very Brief Primer

The controversy surrounding Steven Pinker’s latest bookEnlightenment Now, has led to a scurry of casual pronouncements on Enlightenment philosophy, some of which are misguided. While this is far too expansive a subject to deal with in detail here, let’s clear up a few misunderstandings.

First of all, there are three possible subjects of discussion here: (1) the Enlightenment era (usually defined as spanning a period from around the late seventeenth to the mid to late eighteenth century, though the relevant dates vary by country); (2) Enlightenment thinkers and prominent figures as a group; and (3) Enlightenment thinking as a set of political, social, economic and religious attitudes. I’ll be looking at the latter here: not the historical period in all its complexity; not the all-too-human protagonists — the principles of Enlightenment thought.

Not everything that happened during the Enlightenment could be considered “enlightened.” Magical thinking, religious authoritarianism, sectarianism and xenophobia continued to be widespread throughout the period. Only fifty miles from Europe’s largest capital city, the inhabitants of Tring drowned a husband and wife for “witchcraft” in 1751. We refer to this period as the Enlightenment, however, in part because such practices were in decline. (The Tring incident was to be the last of its kind). And we think of certain figures from that era as enlightened because their work contributed to this tendency in some way, even though they themselves might have been prey to superstition at times, just as Sir Isaac Newton famously dabbled in alchemy.

A witch being drowned

History is messy, unpredictable, contingent on myriad circumstances. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we can trace a trajectory here, plot the development of one of the most fortunate and influential movements of the modern age. So what characterized Enlightenment thought? There were two main drivers: rejection of authority and an enthusiasm for the benefits of trade.

The rejection of blind faith in authority — whether its source was monarchical, aristocratic or clerical — was central to Enlightenment thought. We can see this everywhere, from the Glorious Revolution in 1688, which discredited the idea of the divine right of kings, to the establishment of the circle of “lunar men” around Josiah Wedgeworth, Matthew Boulton, James Watt and others in mid-century Derby. Men from humble backgrounds, often without a formal education, were united by their keen interest in science and their ingenuity in designing and manufacturing new technology based on that knowledge.

The enlightened skeptical attitude towards received wisdom can also be seen in John Locke’s hypotheses as to how a child learns through observation and practice in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” and in David Hume’s skepticism as to the truth of miracles. The focus on autodidacticism was also reflected in the pull-out plates in the popular Gentleman’s Magazine illustrating the different animals to be found in Sri Lanka or labelling the various parts of a flower to show how pollination takes place. The early eighteenth century witnessed the growth of a vibrant public sphere in which anyone could discuss new ideas. For a modest sum, any man could enter a coffeehouse, pick up one of a dozen newspapers kept there for customers (journalism, as we know it today, was also a recent development) and join in a conversation about politics, religion or science. Questioning, doubting, analyzing, discussing and disagreeing were all encouraged.

The second key point was the central importance of free trade. Trade was vital for a number of reasons. First, it brought peace. Instead of the zero-sum game of warring nations seeking conquest and plunder, Enlightenment thinkers envisaged a world in which countries would be bound together by ties of commerce. Each country’s prosperity would benefit its trading partners. This would benefit society on an individual level, too. Economists from Mandeville to Adam Smith mused on the ways in which free trade could exploit man’s natural tendencies towards selfishness for beneficial ends. Ideally, in a trading exchange, each party seeks only his own profit: but both stand to gain from the transaction. Wealth creation was seen as a means towards happiness, on both a societal and an individual level.

The rise of homo economicus also had wide-ranging implications for people’s perceptions of what it meant to be a praiseworthy man. Romantic martial virtues gradually fell out of favor. One of the most popular genres of the seventeenth century was the romance: in which a valiant knight would win his lady’s favor through a blood-bespattered conquest over her enemies. In the Enlightenment, these elephantine tomes were replaced by novels that valorized the domestic sphere, that talked of home and work and earnings. Honor-related violence such as dueling was increasingly frowned upon. What was once manly was then considered thuggish.

Finally, we should note that the two core values of the Enlightenment, education and trade, both require an  understanding of the way people think since they both depend on harnessing the natural impulses of the individual. (Hence many Enlightenment thinkers harbored a keen interest in psychology.) Empiricism, trial and error, trade, commerce, invention: these are all gradual means towards social and personal improvement. The Enlightenment thinkers did not, on the whole, believe in either man’s inherent sinfulness or his perfectibility. They produced plans for steam engines, not blueprints for social utopias. They were optimists who had faith in the slow but sure progress that would result from their core values: the rejection of authoritarianism, freedom of speech, religious tolerance and pluralism, the expansion of trade, free enquiry, science, inventiveness, education and the knowledge of human nature.

We are in many ways the inheritors of the Enlightenment. But its opponents are legion. We have the proponents of identity politics, for whom the truth of what you say is less important than the color of your skin — though some think brown skin lends you more authority than white and others believe the reverse. We have both right and left calling for censorship of speech. We have strongmen like Trump, Modi and Putin attempting to — or succeeding in — muzzling the press. We have a comedian convicted in a UK court of law because a joke he told was considered in poor taste — and people who claim to be “liberal” applauding the verdict. There has been a resurgence of religious intolerance and persecution of minorities, especially in the Islamic world and among Hindu extremists in India.

We need Enlightenment values as much as ever. The Enlightenment was an imperfect movement and an incomplete philosophy. But its values are crucial to any happy and prosperous human society. Let’s fight for them.


  1. I think some of the criticisms of some aspects of the enlightenment go a little deeper than those mentioned here. Come now

    In fact the article looks mainly at some of the outward results or features of enlightenment thinking – a concession pointed out by the author in the first paragraph.



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