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.

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12 comments

  1. After watching shallow TMZ television program focused primarily on la-la-land importances, I decided to try out a Kanya West-ish type of communication in the prior blog. However, my conscience bothers me and I regret just typing anything without giving more thought, brakes to rampant thought. I was purposely being absurd in some paragraphs but wasn’t sure if it was obvious. So, I blame Yeezy but not the author or reader for any liposuction I may decide is necessary in the future.

  2. After reading an article which felt like a shotgun scatter type of attempt to explain enlightenment, I then read and glanced, as usual, at the author’s short brief summation about herself and the personal photo chosen to upload. These little things strangely matter because they influence one of three thought processes: acceptance, disagreement, or indifference about her intent as the composition seems to have run off in too many directions with no real point. So here’s a scatter of thoughts back atcha!

    “Wordsmith” is up to the reader to decide, judge. The uploaded photo is lovely, seems fitting in the way the broad subject of “enlightenment” is a bit “danced” around. Why is it important to share genealogical background? Readers care about an article’s content depth, educational value, or empathy it may provoke—not necessarily because thoughts came from a person with brown, blue, green, or hazel eyes from a predominant gene.

    It may be a popular trend these days for many article contributors to add their genealogical background into mini-profile summary. I cannot imagine a world where we all look alike—viva la difference! However, it looks goofy if employee name badges were to list such info (employees living in cosmopolitan cities of diverse cultures would find it quite cumbersome).

    Enlightenment seems born of religious or spiritual concepts—an idealized manner of reaching a higher understanding of an “Oh Wow, I finally get it!” If it truly could occur on a religious or spiritual level, then a very long time ago the world would’ve begun to function perceptionally to negate any kind of rationalization for violence.

    So-called enlightenment—not just politics or economics—is a cause of murder, slavery, wars. The belief one’s tribe is more superior than another’s is an ongoing narrow view, prejudice in many societies or regions which do not, for whatever reason, have a diverse culture, where everyone pretty much looks the same.

    Science cannot “enlighten” nor would it presume such a task. But science, especially in the field of brain research study, had come leaps and bounds in just a few short years in discovering many amazing insights about people and what makes us act the way we do. People everywhere please read the many recent neuroscience books regarding our brain—how it skews what we fervently think is real, perceived—than pursue an illusion.

    Enlightenment is best defined as a brief egoistic oriented chimera—or as a listing on a fringe cue of explanations for certain types of mental illness. Then add a picture of a roadsign in its name pointing to nowhere.

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    1. Hello there L!

      Actually, I have been blogging for a long time, using the WordPress site, and this is the old avatar I used when I was anonymous there. I’m not very tech-oriented, so I have no idea how to change it.

      “Wordsmith” is a technical description of what I do for a living. Or half of it. I’m a dancer and writer. You can decide if the smithing is good or not.

      I included the genealogy because I’m writing a memoir (which will be my fourth book).

      Thanks for reading! I enjoyed your musings on the Buddhist versus the eighteenth-century meanings of Enlightenment. And I agree the article was a little scattershot: but I was writing to a very strict word limit.

      1. I was flippantly harsh but may have excuses which you might hopefully accept. Excuse #1: You are an intelligent writer who used the word “enlightenment”—a trigger word which affected me like an old vaudeville act…”slowly I turned inch by inch step by step.”

        Excuse # 2: I forgot to take my meds that day

        Excuse #3 (because things supposedly come in threes): A complex tear in right knee meniscus doesn’t allow much dancing and I took it out on you that you can still dance (the photo of you embraced in a ballroom dance is so cool).

  3. 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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