The Enlightenment. This is our tradition. This is our world view. The liberal, rational, humanitarian way of thought. It has persisted for over two centuries. This is a tradition which is bending against strains that challenge its hegemony. At what point has it lost its relevance? …
The proposition that the Enlightenment has anything of interest to say to our time sounds at first merely absurd. It sounds like special pleading, the efforts of cloistered scholars to establish some sort of relevance to our impatient time. The Enlightenment seems unreal. A vanished world charming in the worst possible sense of the word “historic” , wholly remote from us and our pressing needs, as though it were five centuries away, or ten, rather than into its third century.
We know, we are embedded in this belief, that the age of the Enlightenment was addicted to reason, to optimism, to humanitarianism, to secularism, to rising expectations, and that its self appointed spokespeople, almost all men, the philosophes, were a collection of irresponsible literary men, like Voltaire, or unworldly professors, like Kant, or shallow politician-philosophers, like Jefferson, all guilty of first arousing and then encouraging unjustified expectations.
If this portrait were accurate, the age of the Enlightenment would be nothing more than a condition to which it would be pointless to aspire. And the reforming program of the philosophes would be nothing better than a fantasy that once aroused false hopes, and as its inescapable consequence, produced real despair. At best the Enlightenment would be irrelevant; at worst, it would be pernicious.
But the portrait is, in fact, badly distorted. Each of its lines must be redrawn and assigned new significance. And it is important to undertake theis corrective activity. Santayana once said that those who do not learn from the past will be condemned to repeat it. And those who do not understand the past will be unable to learn from it.
“Enlightenment” is the name given to two distinct but interdependent entities. It is the name of an age, the eighteenth century all across Europe and the European colonies in the New World, and at the same time, the name of a movement that pervaded and came to dominate that age: a movement of philosophes. The two Enlightenments were not the same; Kant, with his customary acuteness, called his age an age of enlightenment, but not an enlightened age; there was, in other words, a great deal of work for reforming, critical philosophes to do.
The age of Enlightenment was an age of hope among other things. The hope that radiated from scientists and philosophers captured the imagination of a wide public. More and more men came to feel a sense of power over their environment and over their individual destinies. This hope arose from a number of sources, and it was this confluence of elements that made it so appealing. Not merely professional optimists like Condorcet, but hardened realists and unsparing critics of optimism like John Adams, found their age a time that offered solid grounds for self-confidence.
Science, and its companion, technology, were opening new, exhilarating vistas into a life that might be longer, easier, pleasanter, safer, than life had ever been before. Science, too, with its spectacular successes, suggested a dependable method for acquiring knowledge outside the increasingly specialized realms of physics or astronomy.
Few philosophes were presumptuous enough to deny their forbears all capacity for fruitful thinking, but the scientific thinking of their own day struck them as being a new instrument, far more powerful, far more accurate, than any intellectual instrument ever devised. Scientific thinking was unprecedented and unique in commanding the unanimous assent of informed minds. As the French physiocrats put it, a little quaintly, Euclid had been, the greatest despot that ever lived; his propositions had compelled the agreement of all men of intelligence and goodwill. Philosophy, the philosophes argued, ought to imitate the exact sciences and produce ideas that could be corrected, refined, and improved upon, so that they could be universally accepted as no philosophical system or theological doctrine had ever been or could ever be accepted.