The Enlightenment throughout Europe

Foreigners who came to see the monuments of Italy, or perhaps to listen to the music that they might recognize as the inspiration of some of the best of their own, were likely to return convinced that the country was backward. Its intellectual life might remain a closed book. As elsewhere, the Enlightenment consisted of small, isolated groups; measured by impact on governments, they had little obvious effect. Where there was important change, it was usually the work of a ruler, such as Leopold of Tuscany, or a minister, such as Bernardo Tanucci in Naples. The power of the church, symbolized by the listing of Galileo, a century after his condemnation, on the Index of Forbidden Books; the survival, particularly in the south, of an oppressive feudal power; and the restrictive power of the guilds were among the targets for liberals and humanitarians. Universities like Bologna, Padua, and Naples had preserved traditions of scholarship and still provided a stimulating base for such original thinkers as Giambattista Vico and Antonio Genovesi, a devout priest, professor of philosophy, and pioneer in ethical studies and economic theory. The distinctive feature of the Italian Enlightenment, however, as befitted the country that produced such scientists as Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta, was its practical tendency--as if speculation were a luxury amid so much disorder and poverty. Its proponents introduced to political philosophy utilitarianism's slogan "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." They also felt the passion of patriots seeking to rouse their countrymen. The greatest representative of the Italian Enlightenment was Cesare Beccaria, whose work included Of Crimes and Punishments (1764); in his lifetime it was translated into 22 languages. His pupils and imitators included Catherine II of Russia and Jeremy Bentham, the most influential figure in the long-delayed reform of English law. "Newtoncino," as admirers called Beccaria, claimed to apply the geometric spirit to the study of criminal law. There was indeed no mystique about his idea of justice. "That bond which is necessary to keep the interest of individuals united, without which men would return to their original state of barbarity," may recall the pessimism of Hobbes, but his formula for penalties answered to the enlightened ruler's search for what was both rational and practical: "Punishments which exceed the necessity of preserving this bond are in their nature unjust." So Beccaria condemned torture and capital punishment, questioned the treatment of sins as crimes, and stressed the value of equality before the law and of prevention having priority over punishment. Much of the best-enlightened thought comes together in Beccaria's work, in which the link between philosophy and reform is clearly evident.

The Enlightenment was a European phenomenon: examples of enlightened thought and writing can be found in every country. There were important reforms in late 18th-century Spain under the benevolent rule of Charles III. There was little originality, however, about the Luces and its disciples. The spirit of acceptance was stronger than that of inquiry; Spain apparently was a casebook example of the philosophes' belief that religion stifled freedom of thought. It was a priest, Benito Feijóo y Montenegro, who did as much as any man to prepare for the Spanish Enlightenment, preaching the criterion of social utility in a society still obsessed with honour and display. Conservatism was, however, well entrenched, whether expressed in the pedantic procedures of the Inquisition or in the crude mob destroying the Marqués de Squillace's new street lamps in Madrid in 1766. "It is an old habit in Spain," wrote the Count de Campomanes, "to condemn everything that is new."

So the accent in Spain was utilitarian--more Colbertiste than philosophe--as in other countries where local circumstances and needs dictated certain courses of action. Johann Struensee's liberal reforms in Denmark (1771-72) represented, besides his own eccentricity, justifiable resentment at an oppressive Pietist regime. The constitutional changes that followed the first partition of Poland in 1772 were dictated as much by the need to survive as by the imaginative idealism of King Stanislaw. Despite her interest in abstract ideals, reforms in law and government in Catherine the Great's vast Russian lands represented the overriding imperative, the security of the state. In Portugal, Pombal, the rebuilder of post-earthquake Lisbon, was motivated chiefly by the need to restore vitality to a country with a pioneering maritime past. Leopold of Tuscany was able to draw on a rich humanist tradition and civic pride. Everywhere the preferences of the ruler had an idiosyncratic effect, as in the Margrave Charles Frederick of Baden's unsuccessful attempt in 1770 to introduce a land tax (the impôt unique advocated by the physiocrats), or in Pombal's campaign to expel the Jesuits (copied supinely by other Catholic rulers).

Overall it may seem as easy to define the Enlightenment by what it opposed as by what it advocated. Along with some superficiality in thought and cynical expediency in action, this is the basis for conservative criticism: When reason is little more than common sense and utilitarianism so infects attitudes that progress can be measured only by material standards, then Edmund Burke's lament about the age of "sophisters, economists, and calculators" is held to be justified. Some historians have followed Burke in ascribing not only Jacobin authoritarianism but even 20th-century totalitarianism to tendencies within the Enlightenment. Indeed, it may be that the movement that helped to free man from the past and its "self-incurred tutelage" (Kant) failed to prevent the development of new systems and techniques of tyranny. This intellectual odyssey, following Shaftesbury's "mighty light which spreads itself over the world," should, however, be seen to be related to the growth of the state, the advance of science, and the subsequent development of an industrial society. For their ill effects, the Enlightenment cannot be held to be mainly responsible. Rather it should be viewed as an integral part of a broader historical process. In this light it is easier to appraise the achievements that are its singular glory. To be challenged to think harder, with greater chance of discovering truth; to be able to write, speak, and worship freely; and to experience equality under the law and relatively humane treatment if one offended against it was to be able to live a fuller life.

The Enlightenment, its ideas, players and legacy

The Enlightenment was a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and man were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide assent and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and the celebration of reason, the power by which man understands the universe and improves his own condition. The goals of rational man were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.

The powers and uses of reason had first been explored by the philosophers of ancient Greece, who discerned in the ordered regularity of nature the workings of an intelligent mind. Rome adopted and preserved much of Greek culture, notably including the ideas of a rational natural order and natural law. Amid the turmoil of empire, however, a new concern arose for personal salvation, and the way was paved for the triumph of the Christian religion. Christian thinkers gradually found uses for their Greco-Roman heritage. The system of thought known as scholasticism, culminating in the work of Thomas Aquinas, resurrected reason as a tool of understanding but subordinated it to spiritual revelation and the revealed truths of Christianity.

The intellectual and political edifice of Christianity, seemingly impregnable in the European Middle Ages, fell in turn to the assaults made on it by humanism, the Renaissance, and the Protestant Reformation. Humanism bred the experimental science of Francis Bacon, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Galileo and the mathematical rigor of René Descartes, G.W. Leibniz, and Sir Isaac Newton. The Renaissance rediscovered much of classical culture and revived the notion of man as a creative being, while the Reformation, more directly but in the long run no less effectively, challenged the monolithic authority of the Roman Catholic Church. For Luther as for Bacon or Descartes, the way to truth lay in the application of human reason. Received authority, whether of Ptolemy in the sciences or of the church in matters of the spirit, was to be subject to the probings of unfettered minds.

The successful application of reason to any question depended on its correct application--on the development of a methodology of reasoning that would serve as its own guarantee of validity. Such a methodology was most spectacularly achieved in the sciences and mathematics, where the logics of induction and deduction made possible the creation of a sweeping new cosmology. The success of Newton, in particular, in capturing in a few mathematical equations the laws that govern the motions of the planets gave great impetus to a growing faith in man's capacity to attain knowledge. At the same time, the idea of the universe as a mechanism governed by a few simple (and discoverable) laws had a subversive effect on the concepts of a personal God and individual salvation that were central to Christianity.

Inevitably, the method of reason was applied to religion itself. The product of a search for a natural--rational--religion was deism, which, although never an organized cult or movement, conflicted with Christianity for two centuries, especially in England and France. For the deist a very few religious truths sufficed, and they were truths felt to be manifest to all rational beings: the existence of one God, often conceived of as architect or mechanician, the existence of a system of rewards and punishments administered by that God, and the obligation of men to virtue and piety. Beyond the natural religion of the deists lay the more radical products of the application of reason to religion: skepticism, atheism, and materialism.

The Enlightenment produced the first modern secularized theories of psychology and ethics. John Locke conceived of the human mind as being at birth a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which experience wrote freely and boldly, creating the individual character according to the individual experience of the world. Supposed innate qualities, such as goodness or original sin, had no reality. In a darker vein, Thomas Hobbes portrayed man as moved solely by considerations of his own pleasure and pain. The notion of man as neither good nor bad but interested principally in survival and the maximization of his own pleasure led to radical political theories. Where the state had once been viewed as an earthly approximation of an eternal order, with the city of man modeled on the city of God, now it came to be seen as a mutually beneficial arrangement among men aimed at protecting the natural rights and self-interest of each.

The idea of society as a social contract, however, contrasted sharply with the realities of actual societies. Thus the Enlightenment became critical, reforming, and eventually revolutionary. Locke and Jeremy Bentham in England, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Voltaire in France, and Thomas Jefferson in America all contributed to an evolving critique of the arbitrary, authoritarian state and to sketching the outline of a higher form of social organization, based on natural rights and functioning as a political democracy. Such powerful ideas found expression as reform in England and as revolution in France and America.

The Enlightenment expired as the victim of its own excesses. The more rarefied the religion of the deists became; the less it offered those who sought solace or salvation. The celebration of abstract reason provoked contrary spirits to begin exploring the world of sensation and emotion in the cultural movement known as Romanticism. The Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution severely tested the belief that man could govern himself. The high optimism that marked much of Enlightenment thought, however, survived as one of the movement's most enduring legacies: the belief that human history is a record of general progress.

 

 

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