Common section

Chapter 12. Enlightening the Public, Not the People

In This Chapter

Who’s enlightened and who needs enlightening

• Skepticism and reason

Were the philosophes really that smart?

• The crème de la crème

• Absolute rulers embrace the Enlightenment

The Scientific Revolution did more than simply remove the earth from the center of the universe: it permanently changed the way Europeans thought and looked at the world around them. it impressed upon them the importance of examining everything, asking questions, observing, and experimenting. This way of thinking and looking at the world reached its peak among intellectuals in the eighteenth century in a movement known as the Enlightenment.

Linking the Revolution and the Enlightenment

Most events or movements throughout history wait for later generations to name them. The Renaissance waited hundreds of years to be identified as such. It was intellectuals in their own era, however, who declared their movement to be the Enlightenment, their purpose being to enlighten Europe, to shed light on its intellectual darkness.

The Enlightenment was a direct result of the Scientific Revolution, but its roots actually go back much farther. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle invented formal logic; the Renaissance thinkers rediscovered his methodology (see Chapter 2); and then the thinkers of the Scientific Revolution built upon his deductive reasoning. The writers and intellectuals of the eighteenth century embraced the new worldview and the new way of thinking produced by the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment was born. These writers and intellectuals placed great value on the concept of reason, or the combination of logic with common sense and empirical evidence. The Enlightenment thinkers believed that the methodology of science, the union of inductive and deductive reasoning, could be applied to all sorts of problems outside the field of science, and that the scientific methodology could lead to the betterment of society.

Science Chic

The Enlightenment thinkers were the intellectual elite, and represented a small fraction of society. They found an audience, small though it was, among the social elite, the aristocracy, and the wealthy middle class. As the new way of thinking developed, scientists and the scientific community grew in esteem and influence. All things scientific became increasingly popular among the aristocracy, who attended lectures to hear scientists speak about the natural world. As Europe moved deeper into the Enlightenment, book production and book sales soared across Europe. The Enlightenment would have a profound effect on the reading public of the eighteenth century.

Applying What We've Learned

The intellectuals of the Enlightenment maintained that the scientific method could be applied to issues and problems that were not scientific in nature: that the new way of thinking could be used to gain insight into the human condition. These thinkers believed that there was much to be learned about humanity, society, and the laws that govern society through the application of the scientific method, to create better humans and better societies. The Enlightenment called this concept progress.

As a Matter of Fact

A Frenchman named Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) wrote a revolutionary book, Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686), that went a long way toward making science interesting and comprehensible for nonscientific readers. Fontenelle used a conversation between two wealthy aristocrats to explain the Copernican system and other aspects of the natural world. The success of Fontenelle's book served as a sign of things to come.

Whereas the humanists of the Renaissance sought to recreate and equal the great feats and achievements of classical Greek and Roman society, the Enlightenment thinkers believed that humans had the potential to get better and better, that the examples of Greece and Rome could be surpassed. The idea of progress, the advancement of man and society for good, remained a key tenet of Enlightenment thought throughout the eighteenth century, and the improving economic and social conditions for most of Europe during the eighteenth century lent some credibility to the Enlightenment’s claims. The Enlightenment thinkers touted the betterment of society as their ultimate goal, and indeed conditions for most western Europeans improved simultaneously with the rise of things like more tolerant and less repressive representative governments.

Why So Skeptical?

It should not come as a surprise that the new way of thinking caused problems for guardians of the established religious and social order during the eighteenth century. The Scientific Revolution proved the necessity of questioning tradition and dogma, developing and testing hypotheses, and generally being open-minded and creative.

After an era of absolute rulers and religious warfare and persecution, it made sense to Enlightenment thinkers to question the authority and oppression of absolute rulers. It made sense to question the absolute truth on which religions based their absolute claims to absolute authority over absolutely everyone. In other words, the Enlightenment thinkers were skeptical of anything that was “absolute.” Just a few centuries earlier, the absolute truth was that the Earth was the center of the universe, heaven lay in a location just outside the finite universe, and the Catholic Church was the only true religion. The Scientific Revolution and the Reformation shattered all those absolute truths. Enlightenment thinkers wondered how anything could be absolute if those things were proven to be not necessarily the truth.

Skepticism didn’t begin with the scientists. Skepticism dates to the ancient Greeks, but more concretely to the sixteenth-century Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne spent much of his life mediating between Catholics and Protestants (see Chapter 7), and he experienced much turmoil as a result of the religious differences among his fellow Frenchmen. Montaigne disapproved of the conflict over religion and wondered if either side actually held a monopoly on the truth. Montaigne observed and questioned many other things about human nature and recorded his thoughts in his progressive Essays. Montaigne in fact invented the literary form known as the essay, in which he pondered a topic, usually pertaining to himself or to human nature in general. Montaigne grew to believe in man’s inability to attain certainty. He also hinted at cultural relativism, or the lack of a universal truth; in other words, truth varied from culture to culture. Montaigne suggested that example and experience carried far more weight and value than abstract knowledge and tradition. These beliefs made Montaigne a skeptic, or a proponent of skepticism.

Would You Believe?

Montaigne believed in marriage but personally he preferred not to give in to romantic feelings because of the way that romantic love stifles freedom.

Skepticism questions established truths. Is knowledge true? Are perceptions true?

Can one ever have absolute knowledge about anything? Scientifically, skepticism leads to the practice of the scientific method. Philosophically, skepticism leads to questioning religion, politics, the social order, and the authority on which current practices are based. Critics of skepticism claimed that skeptics denied truth, but skeptics merely questioned the existence of truth.

Another Frenchman continued the tradition of skepticism. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a Huguenot who fled to the safe haven of the Dutch Republic to escape the oppression of Louis XIV’s Catholic government, wrote the Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697) that showed his skepticism of religion. He pointed out the errors of historical and contemporary religious writers and theologians, citing examples of how human beliefs about religion had been diverse or wrong and arguing for open-mindedness. Because in France his works would have landed him in prison, or worse, he remained in the Netherlands and published his works there. They were then smuggled into France, where they found their way to the bookshelves of many, many French intellectuals.

Skepticism of the status quo even appeared in an unlikely place: the writings of travelers to foreign lands. Travelers often documented what they saw as they traveled to foreign lands, such as the New World and China. Travelers noted primitive and ostensibly uncivilized peoples living in harmony without strict governments, oppressive laws, state religions, or other features of modern European states. If these peoples lived in harmony and peace and prosperity without the “truth” of European religions and states, skeptics asked, then are the current values and traditions of European states and churches absolutely true? Just as the Scientific Revolution shook the foundations of science, the Enlightenment was about to undermine the status quo of religion and society.

The tabula rasa

Another major blow to the status quo and the idea of universal, absolute truths came in the wake of the 1690 publication of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke (1632-1704) shed serious doubt on the Cartesian and ancient Greek idea that humans are born with certain innate knowledge that can be drawn out through questions, logic, and deductive reasoning. Locke’s theory proposed that all knowledge was based on experience, that humans are born a blank slate, or tabula rasa, on which all knowledge is written as they live. Universal truths didn’t exist because each person’s knowledge and version of truth were based solely on his or her own experiences.

This theory fell perfectly in line with the Enlightenment idea that man and society could be improved. Education and social institutions could have a positive impact on humans if they carried no a priori knowledge, or knowledge independent of experience, but rather were a blank slate waiting to be filled.

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