The Enlighenment. The Age of the Enlightenment. The name of an age, the eighteenth century all across Europe and the colonies in the New World and the name of a movement that pervaded and came to dominate that age: a movement of philosophes. They were not the same, but they were interdependent, and the movement that endured became our tradition, our dominant world view: the liberal, rational, humanitarian way of thought that has persisted since then. The question arises is what are the pathologies that seem intrinsic to it, and secondly, is it still relevant?…
It was in direct response to the hopes of the eighteenth-century to alleviate poverty, lengthen life expectancies, and benefit from the emrging sciences that the phiosophes developed their program. Far from being utopians, the philosophes sensed the mood of their century and sought to capture its public opinion and influence its direction. But it was the direction the century was going in any event, if a little more slowly than the impatient philosophes hoped it would. At that time, optimism was realism; the philosophy of the Enlightenment was the philosophy that the age of the Enlightenment wanted, needed, and deserved.
Thus, just as the philosophes’ optimism was more reasonable than many have long believed, so it was more moderate. Men like Voltaire, Hume and Wieland were men of good hope but none trusted themselves to a theory of progress. All thought well of the prospects of human reason, but none ever said or believed that it would triumph totally or for all time.
Indeed the Enlightenment’s view of reason itself was a complicated, highly nuanced affair. Far from denigrating passion, the philosophes appreciated its power and valued its work. They persistently assailed Christianity, it was their main enemy, because Christianity seemed to them the deadly adversary not merely of reason but of passion as well. So, you could see they were the “unseen hand” shaping secular society and aesthetically implicated in the romantic age setting up the clash with traditional forces determined in many ways to throw the baby out with the bath water based on some disturbing underlying forces of nihilism that seem intrinsic to the line of thought, artistically reaching either a nadir or zenith, depending, in the work of a Duchamp.
David Hume had a well known remark that, “reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions,” but few have treated that remark with the seriousness it demands. With vigor, the philosophes honored the claims of the body and celebrated the pleasures of sensuality, within reason, but vigorously. Apostles of experience that were rather more complicated and in a sense more “reasonable” than what they wanted to supplant; but there is much nagging doubt that they were simply “useful idiots” for the consumer society seeking rationale for for increasing materialist projection onto the public sphere. Or a bit of both.
Most troubling of all is that the Enlightenment produced reformers,the first modern reformers with broad social concerns; poverty, slavery, criminal law,censoring, subjugation of children and women; and their goals remain recognizable. Yet the specific proposals strike us as half-hearted, tepid and irrelevant. In part, because they already have been achieved, in part because they no longer seem to matter, or to be enough.