The Enlightenment. This is our tradition. Our world view. The liberal, rational, humanitarian way of thought that have persisted since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the French Revolution and had earlier seeds in the likes of Spinoza, among others. It is also the tradition against which much our idea of “rebellion” arises. Is the rebellion relevant or the tradition irrelevant? And ultimately, was the Enlightenment complicit in the rise of fascism? …
The quality of the enlightened mind deserves emphasis, for it separates the eighteenth-century from its predecessors and places it into direct relation to our own. Voltaire saw history aspiring to the condition of a science; Adam Smith dismissed the “political arithmetic” of earlier economists as inadequately precise; the authors of the Federalist Papers spoke proudly of the advances that the “science of politics” had made in their own time. All wanted to establish objective, general truths about man and his conduct, and to establish these truths principally for the sake of improving man’s lot.
The pervasive hope that animated the eighteenth-century did not emerge from intellectual inventions alone. All around them, men saw evidence of improvement, most of all in medicine. Eighteenth-century medicine looks unimpressive to us, even deadly; but its contemporaries found it enormously promising. We are more skeptical in assigning causal importance to a single element; we are inclined to doubt that the disappearance of pestilence and the reduction of famines, like the palpable increase in population all across Europe, were somehow the work of improved medical attention. But the eighteenth century found the scanty statistics spectacular and gratifying: they took the growth of population as a good sign, as a sign of rising hopes for all. The pessimism of Thomas Malthus came at the end and in many ways it marked the end of the age of the Enlightenment.
This was not all. The conduct of all classes, even the upper classes, seemed to be improving. There was more talk and less violence. Reforming causes like the anti-slavery crusade were receiving a serious hearing; even Horace Walpole, no optimist, thought it a splendid century. Although prejudices and tyrannies survived, they at least produced no new “persecutors or martyrs.” It was remarkable Walpole thought, “No prime ministers perished on the scaffold, no heretics in the flames, a Russian princess spared her competitor; even in Turkey the bowstring has been relaxed.”
Not so fast. The improvements were hardly universal. The poor remained as poor, short life expectancies remained, and while famine officially disappeared, many unofficially still starved to death. Exploitation did not vanish with the new industrial techniques that spread, slowly at first, and then more rapidly through England and across Europe. It merely took new and often more savage forms. The law, a cherished province of the reforming philosophes, grew more repressive as the possessing classes sought to protect themselves from the most petty thievery by enlarging the list of crimes for which the death penalty could be imposed. Nonetheless, it still remained true that the general color of life was brighter and that hope grew , lie a beneficent weed, unchecked.