Our debt is to the philosophers who were harassed and sometimes imprisoned and executed for their brilliant thought and their courage in giving voice to their desire for freedom.
What was the Enlightenment? The period from 1650 to 1800 was an unprecedented moment in European history. Dates vary according to each historian, but there is no question that the Enlightenment represented a profound break with past assumptions. Theology had previously ruled over philosophy; people were under the domination of the churches and the monarchies of Europe. As science and secular philosophy advanced, however, so did peoples’ minds from the darkness of religious dogma and belief in the divine right of kings. Instead, new and daring ideas held sway- ideas of democracy, freedom of expression and the press, universal education, the rights of man, abolition of slavery, and separation of church and state. In short, as Van Dulmen states, the subordination of the whole of society to the laws of morality and reason represented a new phenomenon, which in the long term challenged the legitimacy of the old world.
The new concepts of the Enlightenment have made their way into the laws and ideals of the progressive countries of the modern world. It has been a relentless march from the 18th Century to the 21st. Those ideals are with us today, and even when not fully implemented, they are goals whose realization is the means by which we measure our progress as nations and also as human beings. Tonight’s lecture will undertake, in a short amount of time, to discuss the flow of the 18th Century’s progress as a great river with many tributaries. Many of those tributaries are described here tonight and I thank you in advance for your patience as we move here and then there, and rejoin the Greater Enlightenment from time to time in our survey.
In 1784, Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, wrote a famous essay, titled: “What is the Enlightenment?”
He concluded that it is liberation of thought within the individual, a mature sense of making decisions that are not dictated by received opinion from outside authority. Enlightenment concerns “daring to know” how the dark corners of the human mind could be illuminated. The ever cautious Kant concluded, though, that this process should be done in the privacy of one’s home, one’s life, and should in no way affect the power of the king or the clergy. He asked an additional question: “Are we now living in an enlightened age?” His interesting answer was: “No, but we live in an age of Enlightenment.”
The word for light was the metaphor for the process of modernization that, as we have said, began to take place from around 1650 or 1700 to about 1800 in Europe, with a penetration into America. The American Revolution, which began in 1776, was greatly influenced by the ideas of the French Enlightenment, and in turn influenced the French philosophers and French philosophy. Some scholars of history believe that Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison should be called philosophers as well as such thinkers as Voltaire and Diderot, and I think that is a reasonable position, if one peruses the Americans’ writings. Their thinking and ideals ran concurrently with the explosion of new and often disquieting concepts that were being explored by the philosophers in Europe.
Tonight we shall look or rather, glance, in the short time allowed, at the panorama of the Enlightenment, Part One of a two part lecture. Next month, we shall narrow our topic somewhat, and speak about the Radical Enlightenment, which was most likely the true influence on the concepts and beliefs of the progressive nations today.
Many European nations used their own word for “light” to describe the rapidly expanding awareness taking place in men’s and women’s minds during the Enlightenment period. We shall discuss Baruch Spinoza’s (1632-1677) influential role in our next lecture. But tonight we will focus more on Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and on John Locke (1632-1704,) both moderate thinkers and as cautious of the status quo as Kant. Locke’s view of education had a profound influence on European society and also helped shape the thinking of the modern intellectual mind. His belief that kingship was a folly became a widespread concept that not only influenced European political thought and events but also was a great influence on the men who would begin the rebellion against kingly rule in America. Those American thinkers would then draft a constitution based partly on such Enlightenment theories as John Locke’s.
Newton’s discovery of the theory of gravity and the motions of the planets were key to clearing away the mists of fanciful, superstitious thinking about the cosmos. Newton himself was considered by some to be an occultist, because the force of gravity he discussed could not be seen. Nevertheless, despite lingering belief in magic and alchemy, the empirical method came to be the accepted scientific procedure, with its emphasis on experiment, and trial and error. The 18th Century was a period that not only saw Newton’s great discoveries, but also made significant advances in the fields of medicine and physics, began to understand magnetism and electricity better, and made great progress in the establishment of modern chemistry. Thinkers began to be encouraged by the orderly laws of the heavens, discovered by the thought of the human brain. They thought that such order could be replicated in society, that laws and customs could be worked out by human intervention and practice, rather than divine authority. Newton was a devout Christian, and Locke was a theist, but Newton’s scientific discoveries and Locke’s writing greatly loosened men’s minds to the extent that they began to attempt to forge institutions with the use of reason and to work out a constitutional form of government.
The political situation in Europe was in transition as well. The situations in England and France were very unstable. Scholars of the Enlightenment such as Margaret C. Jacob explain that political abuse on both sides of the English Chanel in the 1680’s was a spark to igniting the Enlightenment of the 18th Century. In 1685, there were two events that created huge mistrust of monarchy and the established royalist/aristocratic governments. James II came to power in England. He was a Catholic and an absolutist. James tried to revoke the charters of his opponents, which provided them rights, and placed Catholics in high positions in his army and in universities. England had already had a revolution in the 1640’s by the Protestant Oliver Cromwell. James’ autocratic father, Charles I, had been beheaded in 1649. The English people had had enough of James’ presiding over the backward turn of events and what is called the Grand Revolution took place. William of Orange, a Protestant Dutch head of State, and James’ estranged daughter, Mary, William’s spouse, led the revolt, and in 1689, James was deposed and William and Mary were crowned King and Queen of England.
Parliament’s independence was secured, habeas corpus restored, as well as trial by jury, and toleration extended for all Protestants who believed in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The repercussions from the above events were enormous. Of interest to we Americans, the principles it established and the relatively constitutional deposing of a monarch, was an inspiration for the American Revolution. Civil liberties became well established in England. In the 1690’s, both England and the Dutch Republic were at war with France, and this militancy against the authoritarian French government gave impetus to reformers and disaffected English thinkers and citizens.
A new English political party, the Whigs, was formed, which claimed credit for the Grand Revolution. The Church of England had a difficult time shoring up its position in such a time of ferment and general mistrust of both churches and absolutist governments.
The situation was worse for citizens in France, where in 1685, the absolute monarch, Louis XIV, the Sun King, so-called, actually tore up the Edict of Nantes, which had, since the 1590’s, brought a small measure of peace to religious opponents. Louis revoked the limited toleration that the Huguenots had been granted. They were French Protestants. After a century of peace, Huguenots suddenly had to convert to Catholicism, go to prison, or leave France. Children were encouraged to report on their parents in the new laws. A few Huguenots converted and many more went to prison. But over two hundred thousand left France and took refuge in Geneva, Berlin, the Dutch Republic, and England, with a few ending up in America.
The persecution of this group was a poor political maneuver: historians report that the educated among the Huguenots set up presses and engraving studios wherever they settled. From their presses and engraving establishments, they mounted a widespread and unprecedented publicity war against French absolutism. Louis was portrayed as a tyrant, the Catholic Church as persecutory and the exiles as martyrs for religious toleration. To make matters worse, the English Protestants had, since the Reign of James II, made common cause with the Huguenots to defeat absolutism. Their alliance lasted into the 1720’s, just as the early Enlightenment was taking hold. The disaffected in France had to remain covert for some time, unlike the English Protestants, who had enjoyed a burst of freedom.
From these events rose a general consensus among many Europeans that establishment religions and rulers were supported by traditions that must be done away with. Enlightened circles saw the Catholic Church as a negative power, which would push the already tyrannical monarchs to persecute various dissenters. Clerical privileges were mistrusted and disliked and religion began to become discredited. Some of the striking engravings from this period were devastating to religion and kings. They depicted people being tortured and murdered at will by kings and the church.
To return to England, John Locke, (1632- 1704) was the leading theorist of the Whig Revolution in that country. He was educated in liberal Protestantism, was a doctor, and was a formidable educator. A Christian who believed that “depravity was within us,” nevertheless he maintained that people could be taught virtue and rationality. He believed that educators who were neither too liberal nor too hard could instill rationality in their pupils. Nevertheless, Locke was writing for the elite, educated and wealthy Whigs and their children. He should always be considered a Christian and a moderate philosopher. He was not writing for the working classes. Nevertheless, Locke was ahead of his time and provided thinkers with new ways of viewing education and politics.
Let us keep in mind, as we work through the 18th Century, that very few philosophers, except the Radical thinkers, were for education for the working classes. Newton wrote his great work on physics, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in Latin. He believed that knowledge only belonged to those educated enough to use it. That was a common belief among far too many intellectuals of the era.
Lois G. Schwoerer states that after the English Revolution, Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government,” 1690, was hailed as a popularization of principles of conscience and the right of resistance. Historians in the 20th Century discovered that Locke had written “Two Treatise’s” first draft BEFORE the Grand Revolution, so that he had not only legitimatized the revolution after the fact, but had from the first advocated a magistrate-led rebellion. A 1701 translation of the “Two Treatises “by two Protestants into French manipulated the text to make Locke sound more radical than he actually was. Their translation made it seem as if he had claimed that a republic was the best form of government. We shall see a similar situation in next month’s lecture- how a two volume forgery, supposedly about Spinoza with some of his writings attached, also made Spinoza sound much more radical than he was. This volume was an influence on the French Revolution of 1789.
Wars were a constant during the era. France was at war with England, Austria and the Dutch Republic, and also tried to extend its influence into Spain, Poland and the Low Countries. By 1710, despite his best efforts, Louis XIV was nearly “washed up,” with his treasury almost empty. Unfortunately for the French people, famine was extremely prevalent in the French countryside and the working classes were very hard hit. A confluence of writers, publishers, journalists, theorists, scientists and booksellers together with their Protestant and International connections, worked against Louis and the old traditions with all the intellectual tools they possessed. They created an atmosphere where liberal ideas would flourish- government by representation, abolition of Church privilege, and a better acceptance of human nature, sexuality and virtue. The publishing center of this new order, which we shall discuss more thoroughly in a moment, was the Dutch Republic; and French censors could not stem the momentum of a vast number of liberal ideas written in French and flowing into the country.
Before I finish with the political background to the Enlightenment, I should mention that there were some rulers who aspired to be considered “philosophers.” The most notable were Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia. Most of these so-called “enlightened” rulers, who invited philosophers to their courts, read books by intellectuals and seemed to be at one with the new emancipatory ideas, were in truth enlightened despots. They were interested, according to historians, in reforms for the purpose of making their national governments stronger, not really for the benefit of their subjects. Voltaire, the famous French philosopher and public intellectual, was in accord with such monarchs’ notions about strengthening secular governments. The despots wanted to weaken the Church, but increase and consolidate secular power in the courts of Europe. Voltaire was not unfriendly to such an idea. Historians report that the only ruler who truly believed in reform was Leopold of Sicily (1790-1851.) His ideas were far-reaching, as for instance, he believed in education not just for the wealthy classes and the nobility, but for the working classes. It is reported that some of the common people became frightened of his reforming zeal- they were not ready for someone who had their interests at heart.
We have seen the unstable political situation in Europe, with absolutist monarchs, countries at war, bad harvests and famine in France, and the attempt to deprive citizens of their civil rights in England. We have also begun to see the rise of thinking that opposed those outmoded concepts. Now we come to an important source for the dissemination of the new ideas, which included science, letters, disdain for the church and traditional values- the publishing houses of the Dutch Republic. In France, writing something that displeased the authorities could earn one a stay, an unlimited one, in the Bastille. Voltaire and other French philosophers were very instrumental in demanding the release of thinkers jailed for expressing their opinions. Voltaire was particularly brave and successful in the attempt to free thinkers from unjust arrest.
But the restrictions remained despite the release of a few public intellectuals from jail. This is where the Dutch Republic played such a vital part in the constant stream of ideas flowing across Europe and entering France. The Lingua Franca of the Enlightenment was definitely the French language. It was the language of the exiled French Huguenots, the language of business and of travel. The elites of the Netherlands and of Germany used French as their language of choice, as well.
The so-called “French Books” were usually not published in France, but in the Dutch Republic. Margaret C. Jacobs has contributed an excellent description of publishing during the Enlightenment by means of tracing the history of one Pierre Marteau’s business. Her brief history of Marteau output describes the workings of the seminal Dutch publishing houses. There was never a publisher with the name, Marteau, she explains, and Pierre Marteau never lived or did business in France. He was apparently the invention of the publishing houses in the Dutch Republic. His imprint usually read Pierre Marteau, Cologne. Such was the traditional device used by both publishing houses and authors trying to avoid prosecution for various violations of the law. None of the Marteau books were ever published in Cologne. The Marteau imprint itself was likely an invention of the Elzevier Press in Amsterdam.
Its name was a scholarly joke- Pierre Marteau means “Peter Hammer” in French and Marteau’s productions were bold and direct, like a hammer striking. The authorities could not arrest writers, publishers and printers who could not be found. Jacobs states that more than three hundred books came from Marteau, each with an average press run of five hundred copies. That is a staggering, for the time, 150,000 copies and these figures were merely the production up to 1700, before the flowering of the Enlightenment. The Grand Encyclopedia of the late 18th Century had a print run of 25,000 copies. Marteau’s output is fairly typical of the sorts of clandestine books coming from Amsterdam.
The volumes often attacked the Catholic Church and its clergy. The work from Marteau’s publishing house was not only anti-Catholic, but anti-French. It is fairly clear that the authors were Protestants. The story of the Church’s salaciousness took on a new style with Marteau. The narrative device begun by this imprint began to be the most successful genre for conveying the salacious behavior of the Catholic clergy. The books were fairly graphic, describing in some detail the sexual crimes and escapades of priests, monks and nuns. Then the Marteau imprint became bolder and began to describe the illicit love affairs of the French aristocracy, especially of the unpopular Queen, Marie Antoinette. From the time of his detested revocation of the Edict of Nantes, they made the powerful Louis XIV the target. His relationship to the Catholic Church was criticized. The King had become devout, and by involving himself so decidedly with the mistrusted Catholic Church and its clergy, exposed himself to the menacing words of the Amsterdam publishing house’s authors. Later the Marteau imprint put out successful satirical and racy works.
But it is important to keep in mind that most of the vital radical publications of the French Enlightenment were printed in Amsterdam as well. Such publications were the sine qua non of the era. We owe a debt to the Dutch Republic of that time for its ingenuity in making the distribution of Enlightenment thought possible. There were very few countries where such printing, while nominally illegal, was tolerated. The Dutch authorities looked the other way most of the time.
In general, people were becoming more literate and more people demanded access to the work of the intellectual philosophers and also access to the public libraries of the cities. We shall discuss Dennis Diderot and the Encyclopedia, published between 1751 and 1772 in our lecture on the Radical Enlightenment next month. Darnton, in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, states that it is extremely difficult to ascertain what people actually read during the Enlightenment. A study of publishing, carried out minutely, would yield greater results, but one has yet to be done. Catalogs of private libraries are skewered to the tastes of the wealthy who could afford to purchase books, and also to ignore censured books that owners were unlikely to wish publicly acknowledged.
Another fact to keep in mind, is that the vast majority of books purchased, 70% of them in fact, were novels. Dorinda Outran states that less than 10% of books sold during the years of the Enlightenment were of a religious nature, supporting that era’s trend of a decline in religious interest. These figures were collected from the borrowing records of libraries in England, Germany and North America.
Hand in hand with the reading history of the era, was the change from people believing in the reasonableness of the Protestant version of Christianity to a reliance on reason alone. They adopted the Enlightenment credo that reasonableness could lead to a virtuous life without religion. They began to think, or I should say, the literate class began to think, that staying home on Sunday rather than going to church was a perfectly fine activity- one could sleep, write letters, read the newspapers or books.
Peter Gay, in The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, speaks of how self reliance became an important virtue during the Enlightenment. There was more independence of thought and action. Reliance on god waned. It was a recovery, Gay maintains, from the failure of nerve that afflicted the ancients at times, and that had been definitely all pervasive under the domination of Christianity. The Enlightenment’s emotional climate may be seen as a recovery of nerve. It was the century of decline in mysticism, of growing hope for life and trust in effort, accompanied by inquiry and criticism and willingness to take risks. For the educated classes, it was as if a dark mist was being dispelled from society. Secularism continued to advance.
Yet it is necessary to note that such new horizons did not exist for the poor and uneducated. We shall see in my next lecture on the Radical Enlightenment that many of the philosophers were not interested in extending education or democracy to the masses. We have already seen some of the views of Locke, Newton and Voltaire that were not congenial to emancipation of the common people. Some of the progress in the 18th Century actually made life worse for the poor in the short run, and they were hardly interested, in their day to day existence, in the long run. Displaced squatters in England settled in horrid slums; the rural unemployed in France wandered the countryside, begging and stealing. It was only the well-off, the educated, the lucky and the articulate who enjoyed the 18th Century. The rural poor and urban masses suffered.
“Those,” wrote the philosopher Duclos in 1750, “who live a hundred miles from the capital are a century away from it in their modes of thinking and acting.”
The world of books was not available to these masses of people; many of them could not read. However, a new genre of literature suddenly made great headway in the Enlightenment- travel literature, which is still popular in the present day. Those books, too, were for the literate and relatively affluent. But in addition to learning about new people and new places, the different ways of life and customs, readers could often perceive different types of social injustice when they discovered new worlds in the travel books. The Radical philosophers and authors were very aware of the egregious state of the citizens of many countries and desired a new dispensation. Authors also had the freedom in this genre to make up imaginary utopias. For example, there was a quite remarkable volume around 1700 called A New Voyage to the Land of Australia, which narrated the existence of androgynous Australians, possessed of both sexes. There were no patriarchs in this society or the word, father, no subjugation of women and children. Other writers spoke of the freer sexual mores of other societies.
In general, many travel writers tried to demonstrate that European society mores were in need of reform. The aforementioned Australian society valued liberty above all. Its inhabitants believed that religion was based on a belief in an incomprehensible being and so the people never spoke of religion. A story teller in the society related that the Universe was composed of atoms and nothing more. In another book based on an imaginary voyage to Tartary, a traveler discovered that “death is but a cessation from the action of motion and thought.”
Jacobs writes of how the great philosophers, Diderot, Voltaire and Montesquieu took up travel literature and elevated it to literary status. Diderot wrote one volume, not a travelogue but a satirical novel, The Indiscrete Jewels in 1748 that was deemed pornography and he was sent to the Bastille for a short time. The new literature, travel or otherwise, was used to promote irreligion and stimulate disbelief. It did. But Enlightenment literature and philosophy, we must remember, did much more than that. Peter Gay maintains that it turned the study of man into a science. As we continue with the discussion of significant publishing and important books of the Enlightenment Era during both lectures. I will be speaking of Diderot’s Encyclopedia and the Baron d’Holbach’s System of Nature, 1770, the first openly atheist book in France, during next month’s lecture on the Radical Enlightenment. Tonight I would like to discuss Jean Messlier’s Testament, which circulated clandestinely after his death in 1729, and Man the Machine by La Metrie, in 1748. Such books were a sensation, an innovation, and yet it would seem, a logical outcome of the new thinking beginning to spread not only throughout France, but also throughout Europe.
Jean Offray de la Mettrie (1708-1751) was a physician from the French middle class. He read extensively, but particularly from an author by the name of Boerhaave, an empiricist and anti-Cartesian (that would mean rejecting Descartes’ philosophy, especially its dualist concepts.) Boerhaave was a great admirer of yet another writer, De Volder, who was inclined to the monist ideas of Spinoza. Monism is the belief that all matter in the universe is of one substance. An important facet of such an idea is that mind and brain are one, and another consequence is belief that there is no immortal soul within the human body or mind. We will be looking at the 17th Century Spinoza and his truly great influence on the Radical Enlightenment philosophy in our next lecture. La Mettrie’s earlier volume, Histoire naturelle de l’âme, in 1745, had caused a scandal and he lost his post as physician to an important army regiment. Copies of his book were confiscated and he was forced to flee France. The work maintained that Spinoza was correct in stating “a man resembled a watch or a ship, with no pilot, propelled this way and that, by winds, currents, and waves.” Mettrie’s materialist refutation of the religious idea of the soul was abhorrent to the established church and state authorities.
La Mettrie’s second volume was published in Leiden, where he had settled, anonymously, in 1747. It was called Man the Machine. Robert Israel says about this volume: “La Mettrie attempts to explain man’s nature and his behavior in purely materialistic terms, claiming that medical experience proves the different states of the soul are always linked to those of the body.” La Mettrie’s materialism claimed that matter is self-moving and sensitive and its sensitivity was the origin of thought. This statement of radical materialism created yet another scandal. La Mettrie maintained that man is like a machine and body and soul are one substance. His concept of monism was directly related to the ideas of Spinoza. La Mettrie had to flee Holland, but ended up at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Frederick (1712-1786) was a friend to many Enlightenment scholars and he made La Mettrie a member of the Royal Academy. La Mettrie continued writing and in his last work, Preliminary Discourse, he stated that his understanding of philosophy was completely opposed to theology and religion. He claimed that morality originates in the political sphere, not from divine decrees or supernatural causes. He apparently never read Spinoza seriously, if at all, but his views and his statements about Spinoza, while meant to tease, say scholars, are also resonant with Spinoza’s thought. He was very acquainted with Spinoza second hand, from the writers and thinkers whose work he admired.
La Mettrie, dined well and enjoyed his fame and respect in Germany. A less happy writer was the tormented French Catholic priest, Jean Messlier, whose posthumous 1727 manuscript, Testament, was read by such luminaries as Voltaire. It is twelve hundred pages long and attacked religion relentlessly. Messlier had come to believe that all religions are false because of their non transcendent origins, their idea of placing faith above reason, and the non-fullfillment of prophesies. He stated that religion’s doctrines and moralities were fundamentally in error. He went on to say that religion had done nothing to ameliorate the abuses in government and society, that religions proffer a false picture about god’s existence and insist on the untrue idea of the immorality of the soul.
He was a brutally disillusioned man, but his thought is clear cut and consistent. His hatred of religion and the government of his time are clear and he often reiterates his disgust concerning the establishment. He thought man in society was surrounded by physical and moral evil. He was in favor of revolution, but he recognized what an involved, complex process revolution is, and he did not believe that it would ever be possible to attain justice. He drew up a list of the contradictions in the Old and New Testament. Meslier took for granted that religion had been thought up by the powerful and astute who then imposed it on the weaker and poorer. He denied miracles, revelation, and since there was no immortality of the soul, the belief system of an afterlife’s rewards and punishments. He analyzed and found untrue the Trinity, Original Sin and Transubstantiation.
Meslier despised priests and nuns, finding them idle. He detested wealthy prelates and especially monks, who lived, he said, at the expense of the labor of the workers. He ranted about the accumulation of wealth by special interests. He attacked the government, stating that its injustice was a direct result of the falsity of Christianity. He ranted about the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few and discussed at length his belief in common property. Wade states that “such a violent arraignment of the government of Louis XIV and Louis XV can be found in no other clandestine essay of the time.” Wade goes on to say: “Nor can one find in any other of these essays a clearer exposition of metaphysical naturalism than is presented in Meslier’s seventh and eighth proofs of the falsity of the Christian religion. In these two sections, Meslier summed up the arguments he had earlier devised: the universe is composed of matter; there is no spiritual force, no final cause, nothing but movement and nature, the sum total of being. Nature acts blindly, hence there is no virtue and vice, no good or evil.”
We shall see that, when we go on to our lecture on the Radical Enlightenment, none of the radical philosophers, including d’Holbach, went further in stating the tenets of radical materialism. How far Meslier’s influence extended is not completely known. As I mentioned, Voltaire certainly read him. Before 1761, more than 100 copies of this clandestine volume were circulating in Paris, which, according to scholars, was more than the distribution of any of the other clandestine manuscripts of that time. Voltaire recommended Meslier’s work, but fashioned him as a deist when he published parts of Testament. This is untrue. Meslier’s manuscript was the first written defense of atheism. Sadly, people who read truncated copies of Meslier, believed he was a deist.
I would like to emphasize that not only was Messlier a decided atheist and materialist, he was the strongest kind of atheist and materialist. His ideas not only influenced Voltaire, a deist as we know, but the atheist d’Holbach, Helvetius and many philosophers of the time. One wishes he had known of this and wonders if his bitterness would have been sweetened by the respect of the Enlightenment philosophers.
Meslier’s Testament was probably the most important clandestine manuscript of the Enlightenment era, and the area of 18th Century underground publications is a fascinating field to glance at. Clandestine books were a genuine influence on the ideas of the Enlightenment, a steady influence on the new thoughts sweeping through Europe. Ira O. Wade, in his Clandestine Organizations and Diffusion of Philosophic Ideas in France from 1700-1750, has this to say: “From 1700 to 1750, there was a sustained philosophic activity conducted in a secret, but very effective fashion. Some were from the previous century; some were translations of works from other countries.” We get a picture of the diffusion of such works in Wade’s volume. He has collated the titles of a large and significant amount of philosophic works that were available during the first part of the 18th Century. Next month, we shall be looking at the ongoing controversy about whether the French Revolution was a book revolution inspired by philosophic writing or if it was a political revolution, brought on by the political situation of the time. My personal belief is that it was both a book and political revolution. It is important to keep in mind while we glance at the Enlightenment era, the significant influence of books on the minds of educated people as the century advanced.
The literary and scientific journals of the Enlightenment era were seminal to the proliferation of intellectual activity. Jonathan Israel states that those journals from the 1680’s onwards influenced European intellectual culture to a greater degree than any other cultural innovation. Israel is one of the principal proponents that the French Revolution was a book revolution, more influenced by the intellectual outpourings of the time than by politics. This argument remains an open question.
But here is Israel’s, I am quoting from his volume, Radical Enlightenment, 2002, division of the various journals’ importance into four elements: “First was their role in shifting the attention of the cultivated public away from ‘established authorities’ to what was new, innovative or challenging. Secondly, they did much to promote the enlightened ideals of toleration and intellectual objectivity. Thirdly, the journals were implicit critiques of existing notions of universal truth monopolized by monarchies, parliaments and religious authorities. The journals suggested a new source of knowledge- through science and reason- that undermined these sources of authority. And finally, they advanced a ‘Christian Enlightenment,’ a notion of Enlightenment that, despite its advocacy for new knowledge sources, upheld the legitimacy of God-ordained authority.” This last affirmation of god was important because the journals avoided seizure and arrest of the writers and publishers. Additionally, mainstream readers would have had religion undermined by the journals without feeling they were slipping into atheism.
The learned academies were another source of education. However, they were tied to the establishment. At the pinnacle were the French, L’Académie française and in England, The Royal Society. The English Royal Society, founded in 1660, saw Newton, Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren come together in a spirit of revolutionary inquiry. Most members of the academies were bourgeois; additionally most of the academies were only open to scholars. But an important function of the French Academy was to revive public contests around the middle of the 17th Century. Contests had been popular during the Middle Ages. The subject matter of the essays, by the 18th Century, was very diverse and controversial. Importantly, anyone could submit an essay; the essays’ authors were kept anonymous, so gender and rank could not influence the judging. Although, as can be expected, it was mainly the wealthy and educated class who participated, sometimes people from the so-called ‘popular classes’ not only submitted essays, but also won. Jeremy L. Cardonna cites some topics from that era- the theories of Newton and Descartes, the slave trade, women’s education and justice in France.
To be elected into the French Academy meant to enter a select group, to be a member among forty intellectuals, and to be on equal footing with them, no matter if your opponent was a duke or a cardinal. Only the Royal Protector could exercise a veto over the group. Peter Gay states that during the course of the 18th Century, the philosophers set out to capture the Academy. It was not a plot, but a very shrewd sense of the social and political realities. And of course, most of the philosophers had literary aspirations. The first assaults began with some sour grapes. When the philosophers were spurned by the Academy, they began to ridicule it. None of them were elected early in their attempts, or easily, but in 1727, Montesquieu was chosen. He stopped ridiculing the Academy immediately. Voltaire, as might be expected, exercised his satirical talents against it, but he attempted to be elected as a member from 1736. Finally, in 1746, he was elected and began to offer some praise about the Academy. In the same year, the philosopher Duclos was elected, Buffon, the naturalist, in 1753, and d’Alembert, the co-editor of the Great Encyclopedia in 1754.
In the late 1750’s, the philosophers had become more notorious and conflicts within the Academy erupted. In 1760, a new member, Pompignan, was elected. He was an extremely minor poet, a nobleman and brother of a bishop. He used his opening speech to criticize impiety and destruction of respect for throne and state by the new writers. Poor Pompignan. In his youth, he had some leanings toward deism; his writings were on the record and Voltaire flayed him mercilessly. Pompignan never returned to the Academy after several written attacks by the philosophers, and slowly, over many years, his allies shrunk in numbers. In 1772, d’Alembert was elected Perpetual Secretary. By then, the philosophers were the majority party of the French Academy.
While such rarified societies changed views and membership, we need to keep track of the changes in the greater society of the Enlightenment as well. There were startling innovations during that era. People flocked to the cities in Europe which were rapidly growing during the 18th Century. Many young people came from the provinces to find work. Others came to enjoy, if they were prosperous, theatres and parties. London grew to over a half million people, becoming larger than Paris. Many cities, such as Amsterdam, had populations of more than one hundred thousand, and Berlin and other places, had more than 30,000 residents. Allison Blakely states that hundreds of free black men congregated who had originally been from Africa. Clubs and cabarets opened where men had sex but also married each other. While our attention is focused on the esoteric societies, salons and publications of the Enlightenment, the spread of its innovative ideas was accompanied and aided, by the growth of population and the relaxing of social and sexual mores. I wanted to mention such changes briefly before moving on to the less accessible but highly influential groups of the 18th Century. Remembering the growth of the cities helps to keeps a perspective on the developments accompanying the intellectual advances.
Debating societies began to become very popular in London and France in the late 1780’s. Germany had a far livelier debating scene that had begun much earlier than the other countries. Debating societies served a variety of purposes in London, according to Donna Andrews. The largest groups of fifty or more men came together to discuss religious topics and politics in pubs; law students practiced rhetoric; smaller groups helped actors prepare for their roles in the theatre, and John Henley’s Oratory, where Henley mixed the comic with the serious, was very popular. The debating clubs could bring in as many as eight hundred to twelve hundred member audiences a night. The clubs argued the woman question very often, with all its attendant topics. The debaters were expected to behave respectably and such decorum was fairly assured with a high admission price at the newer societies. Women actually attended in London and took part in debates. There is no question that the debating societies helped disseminate the ideas of the Enlightenment.
However, such groups were not really open to the general public. When Enlightenment philosophers and men of letters talked about the public, they meant those groups excluded by the aristocracy- the educated middle classes, intellectuals and so on. Even in their writings, the philosophers drew a sharp distinction between what they called the public and the commoners. Far too many of the philosophers, principally the moderate branch, did not extend their egalitarian ideas to the masses. I return to this point so often because it was an important difference between the Radical and Moderate strands of the Enlightenment. Although such 18th Century groups as the debating societies helped transmit the innovative thinking, it is important to remember that most never extended the discussion beyond the status quo. The debating groups were very mainstream in the conclusions of their contests, supporting the existing government and actually desirous of its attention and support. Taking root in late 18th Century France, they became so popular that they helped significantly to put an end to salon culture.
The salons had been a place for women to exercise some of their gifts. Women had reigned in salons, says Dana Goodman, since the 17th Century. Salon life was a popular feature for most of the century. Salons were social gatherings in rooms of private, wealthy homes where select guests gathered to exchange ideas on a variety of topics. Differences of opinion were aired robustly, but rules of politeness were rigidly enforced. There was generally an understanding that disagreement was fine if courtesy was extended to one’s opponent. The salons were very sophisticated and upper class, with eminent people and many of the philosophers attending them. Women were the hostesses and planners of such evenings. But clubs, such as the debating societies that began in the latter 18th Century, were dominated by men. Women did not generally attend the societies and did not take part in the masculine debates. The new associations were begun by young men of letters, who competed with each other to advance the Enlightenment cause. Many of the men who formed the clubs seemed to adopt the philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s attitude- that men of letters were better off without women. In the final years of the Enlightenment, women were marginalized.
During most of the 18th Century, it was possible for upper class, educated women to be relatively free and influential. Women continued to be excluded from institutions of higher education, but they became ever more included in public life. They participated in the Enlightenment through travel, writing, the salons, conversations and reading, among other activities. As we have seen, the woman question was a “hot” topic and many of the philosophers wrote on the issue. Education for women became an important area of discussion.
The Marquis de Condorcet, and his wife, Madame Condorcet, took up the question of women’s status and education, and it became their life vocation. The Marquis was to be arrested during the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) and committed suicide before being guillotined for crimes he never committed. His true crime, in the eyes of the Jacobin Party which initiated the Terror, was that he was a Radical Philosopher. Margaret Jacobs tells us that while in prison, he wrote this statement concerning women: “…the degree of equality in education that we can reasonably hope to obtain…is that which excludes dependence, either forced or voluntary.” His wife continued their work after his death.
Records show that the first scientific society for women was founded in Middleburg, a city in Zealand which was in the most southern section of the Dutch Republic. Its scientific lecturer was also a Freemason, a follower of Voltaire and a friend to many people of letters. The society lasted more than a hundred years, with its main interest the education of women. Remarkably, by the middle of the 18th Century, there appeared journals for women, such as the Female Spectator and the Ladies Diary that focused on science. The journals reached women who lived in small towns in the provinces, so they were not confined to the aristocracy.
Chartier, a well respected historian of the Enlightenment, shows a masculine bias in his Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, 1991, in which he claims that “intriguing women substituted their own power for that of the monarchy and the court during the salon years.” He goes on to maintain that the emancipation of male intellectual life was threatened by the rivalries and ambitions of the salon women, who now sought to control it, i.e. male intellectual life. Chartier predictably found the rivalry among male journalists “healthy competition.” Mark it well. His important book was published in 1991!
We are not finished with the woman question- our day as well as of the 18th Century, however. I have discussed how the masculine clubs and debating societies helped to close down the salons, in which women reigned and were so important. In the 1929 French Liberal Thought in the 18th Century, the historian Kingsley Martin waxed regretful about the “greatness the philosophers could have achieved if only the women in the salons had not forced the philosophers to attend.” That is a quote. Dena Goodman states that when men were touting the new establishments that would be almost exclusively male, it was understood that women would not have a part in the new institutions. Men saw no necessary role for women in the new society. Rousseau believed that the influence of women on French society and the power some women had on the men of letters had even harmed the French theatre!
I would like to mention just two illustrious women of the Enlightenment. There was the English Mary Bryan who ran an elite school for girls in Chelsea. She also wrote books on astronomy and general science. There was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Jacobs enumerates her many accomplishments. She was a writer, a world traveler, an advocate of sexual pleasure, and of small pox inoculations. She made many enemies by her championing of women’s education and for her advanced views. Eventually she left England voluntarily and moved to Italy in a sort of self exile.
Despite the pressure on individual gifted women, the question of women’s issues continued to be argued, discussed and thought about during the Enlightenment. Women made gains that had been undreamed of for centuries. It is most unfortunate that learned scholars of the last century and in the present day continue to hold views that hearken back to the Dark Ages and before concerning women, their influence, and their intellectual capacities. Eve was blamed for Adam’s fall in the Bible, and it seems that the salonnières were responsible for the failings of the Enlightenment philosophers as well.
The views on children began to change, too, during the 18th Century. It is very ironic, however, as Gay reports that children began to be seen as human beings in their own right in “the very century in which they were being exploited in factories and on farms.” In earlier centuries, beginning from the Middle Ages, children had been variously treated as toys, odd animals, or small grownups. Children’s ages were frequently unknown, reports, Gay, and if known were considered irrelevant.
Children were a source of labor for the working classes, and in the wealthier classes, links in the chain of succession. That was what was important. Children played adaptations of grown up games; dressed in smaller versions of adult clothing, mingled freely with adults and no one cared to shield them from the grossest sexual allusions, says Gay. John Locke’s “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” in 1693, had a long-lasting influence, not only in England, but the Continent. The German moral weeklies advocated, from about 1720 on, for humane educational practices. They wanted education reform.
But it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel, Emile, 1767, that helped create the cult of the child, according to Gay. I will be discussing Rousseau in a few more minutes. Despite his sentimental attitude toward children, one must keep in mind that while Rousseau articulated what many people already knew, that children have their own rights and their own rhythm of growth, he never practiced what he advocated. He and his mistress gave away five children by his own count, to foundling homes. Such homes were not salubrious or happy places for children in that era, to say the least.
Rousseau was not the only philosopher to practice hypocrisy, however; many of the public intellectuals became more socially conservative as there arose more of a societal concern about the labor supply and future lack of deference from the working classes to the aristocracy and wealthy classes. As a price of modernity, mines and factories needed labor and the exigent need forced children to work in these unsuitable places. It is well known that Voltaire objected vociferously to the education of laborer’s children. The English charity schools seldom taught anything to the working class children that attended them other than the blessings of religion and the necessity of obedience. Fortunately for children and society in general, the future lay with people like the Marquis de Condorcet, who never deviated from the concept of universal education.
The African slave trade was at its height during the 18th Century, with Britain, France and Portugal participating in more than half of such an egregious practice. The issue of slavery and its abolition came to the very head of the agenda of the International Enlightenment by 1780 and later. A possible reason, other than the known evils of slavery, is put forth by Jacobs. She thinks that what carried the day were the writings and testimonies of the former slaves themselves. Men who had been slaves and opposed the practice slowly made their way to England and other countries; they made the case against the evils of slavery through recounting their personal experiences. Their narratives resonated with those people already against the practice by presenting a positive image of black people.
There had been a hardening of slave laws in the British and French slave colonies around the later 16th and 17th Centuries which helped fuel enlightened people’s abhorrence of slavery. Absentee owners benefited from such legislation and their absence was socially acceptable. Foremen often ran plantations of slaves brutally without being checked. Louis XIV, the king who revoked the rights of the Huguenots if you recall, also brought forth the Code Noir, or Black Code, in 1685, which was very regressive. Life worsened for slaves in the French colonies as their populations grew and vastly outnumbered their fearful overseers. Victory finally came as abolitionists and freed slaves, inspired by the French and American Revolutions, launched a moral crusade that eventually ended the slave trade. Many European countries passed laws against it in the late 1700’s and the early 1800’s, and the United States did the same five years after its Civil War ended in 1865.
We can see from our winding discussion this evening that the Enlightenment and its ideas were transmitted in a variety of different ways, and one of the most interesting that I will now turn to was the rise of the coffee house. The first English coffee house opened in Oxford, England in 1650. Brian Cowan maintains that such English coffee houses acted as “penny universities.” They were a locus of learning outside the structured course work of the formal universities. Excellent scholars and other types of virtuosi did their research there. It was a place for like-minded intellectuals and people interested in scholarly topics to meet, exchange ideas, debate and learn from each other. The format was, of course, totally unlike a university course, and the discourse of a different order. The coffee houses provided a heady, steamy atmosphere, not only from the coffee, but from the new liberal ideas that could be encountered at them.
The French were a little slower. Francois Procope began the first café in Paris in 1686. By the 1720’s, there were around four hundred cafes in Paris. Café Procope was the most important establishment, which often saw such luminaries as the philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau. It is apparently there that Diderot and d’Alembert decided to create the great Encyclopedia. Scholars who have researched the cafes maintain that they were the focus of what Robert Darnton calls “the nerve centers” for bruits publics, which is translated as public noise or rumor. It is said that such bruits or gossip were more accurate than many newspapers of that era.
It can be seen from the various institutions, clubs, cafes, coffee houses, civic organizations, debating societies and so on, how important public life was to, at least, the educated classes of France, England and Germany. There was a new sense of optimism aboard, a feeling of a change in the air, a move away from the stagnation of monarchy and religion.
And now we come to subject of the so-called secret societies of the Enlightenment. I have mentioned the two strands of 18th Century thought that we shall discuss in detail next month in my talk about the Radical Enlightenment. Van Dulmen is an expert on the society of the Enlightenment, and has written on the two main strands of Enlightenment societies: the secret ones and the public spirited ones. The secret society that was by leaps and bounds the most popular and prominent was, in fact, hardly a secret. It was the Order of the Freemasons. Both its literature and often its members were well known. It was very much in the emancipatory spirit, or zeitgeist, of the time- broad sections of the middle classes shared membership and rubbed shoulders with the aristocracy. Many societies of the Enlightenment, it is worth repeating, were in reality only open to aristocrats.
The Freemasons were an entirely new dispensation, both in relatively open cities and in absolutist states. It has been called “one of the most powerful social institutions of the moral world,” by historians. In addition, Freemasonry had mystical leanings, which were touted as having ancient origins. Oddly enough, such an incongruent blend made it most appealing to many educated people of that era. Just as in the present day, Freemasonry was international in character in the 18th Century. It began in England, from early stonemason guilds in the 17th Century, and rapidly spread to surrounding European nations. Its spread was assisted by the rise of international trade. One can trace the path of the influence of trade by observing the opening of Masonic lodges in nearly all the great trade fair centers and commercial sites.
Freemasonry was particularly popular in Germany, where the Crown Prince, Friedrich the Great, became a member in 1758, encouraging the military, the aristocracy and the middle classes to join. Interestingly enough, the Catholic Church, disliking the popularity of Freemasonry rites and services, which rivaled the churches, forbade members to join. But as many Catholics became Freemasons as Protestant, so the church was ignored. Freemasonry particularly took hold in those cities which were open and welcoming to the Enlightenment, as well. Freemasonry was arguably the first society in Germany to no longer pursue religious objectives exclusively. It should be said, however, that in lodges where there were large numbers of both middle class and aristocratic members, the aristocracy was dominant. Large numbers of public intellectuals joined, at least for a while; their fascination with the new Freemasonry was very often not lasting.
Van Dulmen states that the lodges had virtually no women members in Germany; the situation was different in England and France- women were nearly as active as the men in the new movement. So were people of different ethnicities. Jacobs states: “The monthly or bimonthly meetings of lodges were occasions where Jews and Christians mixed freely.” The distinguished Jewish scholar, and founder important to Reform Judaism, Moses Mendelssohn, was a member of the Freemasons. He was well known as an exemplar of Enlightenment thought. Jacobs go on to say that the meetings “of lodges all over Europe were occasions when science or simply new ideas were freely discussed in a formal atmosphere of fraternal toleration.”
The science of man was often mixed into these lecture/discussions with the natural sciences. The social energy that had been poured into the church in France was now transferred to the Freemasons. With their rules, various oaths, and searching for spiritual and secular truth, the Freemasons thought they had found the road to enlightened rationalism. They had many interior goals, however, that were somewhat the opposite of the outward turning culture of the time. The lodges had a united understanding of liberty, equality and fraternity. Interestingly, their slogan was almost identical to the rallying cry of the French Revolution, spawning conspiracies concerning the role of Freemasonry in overthrowing the monarchy and established values.
In reality, however, as Jacobs states: “They reconstituted the polity and established a constitutional form of self government, complete with constitutions and laws, elections and representatives.” What she is saying is that they put together a micro world that became a model for the outer world as well. Searching for personal enlightenment, while very close to the goals of the greater Enlightenment, did not make them atheists. Still they would slip into heresy now and then. They saw it as a worthy goal to enlighten the unenlightened. Such a practice surely helped with the transmission of Enlightenment values.
By the late 1700’s, there were approximately one hundred thousand French members of Freemason lodges. Some of the names mentioned here represent a small sampling of their international roster: Voltaire, Horace and Robert Walpole, Mozart, Goethe, Frederick the Great, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. We can see from such names what a list of Enlightenment philosophers took part in the rapidly growing Freemason movement.
However, it was never, despite prejudiced claims by its opponents, revolutionary. We will discuss some of the revolutionary secret societies next month, but Freemasonry should be considered more a part of the moderate Enlightenment rather than a radical group. It placed great emphasis on laws, constitutions, private morality, and even civic duty, despite its inner seeking. Margaret Jacobs explains the social nature, rather than the political nature, of the Freemason lodges in Europe. She states: “In the 18th Century, lodges attracted worldly men and some women bent on self-improvement undertaken amid conviviality and good food and drink.”
By the later 1790’s, churches and governments had begun to fear for their survival and Freemason lodges were often a focus of blame. They were frequently accused of having started the French Revolution, because the establishment truly believed that the enlarged public sphere had weakened irreparably the authority established by earlier authoritarian monarchs, who had indeed labored to entrench absolutism firmly in France, such as Louis XIV. Lessing (1729-1781,) a foremost figure of the German Radical Enlightenment, had this to say, however, about the Freemasons. He maintained that Freemasonry had become so corrupted by love of ritual and mysteries, along with deference for rank, that in Germany at least, it everywhere betrayed Enlightenment ideals.
Since we have just been discussing Freemasonry and its English origins, this seems like a good time to segue into the anglomania that took place around Europe about the middle of the 18th Century. There are claims that it influenced Radical philosophy in France, but this is an exaggeration. In our upcoming lecture on the Radical Enlightenment, we shall see that it was earlier thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza who were the true influence on the Radical philosophers. But anglomania was an interesting and important phenomenon and necessary to discuss.
Peter Gay explains that possibly the most important facet of anglomania was the example England set for the recovery of nerve, which we spoke of earlier, and he points out how progress in one sphere, the philosophers began to think, meant progress in another. The philosophers observing English government and society had reinforced for them the interaction of different aspects of the society, and that progress was infectious. Progress seemed to radiate out from the fields of science, medicine, merchants and civil servants to society as a whole. Such an observation gave the philosophers confidence in their mission.
They were sure that they could spread light and reason throughout many areas of society in the countries of Europe. All they must do, they began to believe, was teach truth, correct error, and give people confidence. They planned to add their own liberal ideas, and with such a mix, they looked forward to a revolution of sorts that would take place.
Europeans looking for a model as an alternative to monarchial absolutism found what they liked in late 17th and early 18th Century England. The journals coming out of Amsterdam praised England. They admired its Constitution, its relative toleration of religion, especially for Protestants, its advanced science and lively literature, explains Margaret Jacobs. The infatuation with things English was not a complete fantasy because England had truly begun to liberalize in ways many European countries had not begun to achieve.
After the English Revolution of 1688-89, the monarchs had to deal with Parliament, which became powerful. The government was centralized, which made it easier to get things done. Habeas corpus, meaning the law had to show cause why a person accused of a crime was being held, became well established. The clergy had lost most of its power; church courts, except perhaps for divorce cases, became irrelevant. After about 1695, non Anglican Protestants were allowed to attend important universities, but non Anglicans also established schools that sometimes rivaled Oxford and Cambridge. Censorship, too, was greatly eased.
France, by contrast, had a powerful clergy which could not be tried in the secular courts. The clergy was also exempt from taxes, and the French church instead made “donations” to the monarchy. The Dutch government was decentralized and it was very difficult to accomplish national policy.
German absolutism was very strong before 1750, and Jacobs reports that in Italy, people could be imprisoned for accepting the fact that matter was composed of atoms. No wonder England seemed to promise a more salubrious atmosphere for people interested in books, science, philosophy and social reform. Visitors were also very impressed with the way England instituted division of labor and the application of technology to industry. For a long while, says Jacobs, the Enlightenment was linked to anglomania.
Voltaire, as well as French spies, and some German philosophers spread the virtues of England with their writings and letters. Voltaire’s Letters concerning the English Nation, 1733, was an international best seller. It was immediately suppressed in France, but copies were available everywhere. Voltaire praised everything English, from Newtonian science to English social mores. It is interesting to learn from historians that in the process of praising England, Voltaire made his reputation as a philosopher internationally, and his name, by 1750, became associated with the avant-garde. We shall see next month that scholars such as Jonathan Israel do not accept Voltaire as a Radical philosopher. We seen Voltaire’s dislike of extending education to the children of the lower classes and his notion that the strong secular governments of Europe should not be interfered with.
Voltaire (1694-1788) was born in Paris and educated by Jesuits. He was a leading philosopher, novelist, playwright, poet, historian, and was, and still is, known for his satirical productions. Today his most read and performed work, the one most popular with atheists and the secular community, is Candide. Candide was a new genre, the philosophical tale, which Voltaire pretty much originated.
It was written in 1759, a few years after the Lisbon Earthquake in Portugal with its deaths of tens of thousands of people. It makes wonderful ridicule of the philosopher Leibniz’s notions that since there is an all powerful and benevolent god, our earth, just as it is, must be the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire himself was a deist, and apparently believed that there must be a designer of the Universe. He detested fatuous ideas, however, such as Leibniz’s optimistic belief in the rightness of the world. He was a realist and did not see this world’s natural phenomena or social mores and customs as the best of all possible worlds.
Voltaire was outspoken and courageous in attempting to clear innocent people of accused crimes, as well as vociferously insisting on the release of imprisoned philosophers and writers. Church and state were monoliths in his country of France, and he was forced to avoid imprisonment by traveling abroad. We have mentioned the great influence England had on him and how he spread this message all over Europe. He emerged from England a Lochean-Newtonian proponent, and so we must classify him as a Moderate Enlightenment philosopher. He also traveled to Frederick the Great’s Prussian Court, but he became convinced that Frederick was a hypocrite. Voltaire was unable to stay in Paris, because he was so frequently in bad odor with the authorities, and in danger of prison. Many of his works were publicly banned. He finally settled at his estate in Ferney, France, where many thinkers and intellectuals made pilgrimages to see him.
In addition to being a deist, Voltaire also thought the social order was best served if the common people believed in a supreme being who punished evil and rewarded good. He was not a friend of atheists.
However he worked diligently to undermine the foundations of the Christian religion. He also disliked Judaism and Islam. He maintained that the attempt to explain natural phenomena was at the root of belief. His famous cry, repeated hundreds of times, according to S.T. Joshi, was “Ecrasez l’infame” (crush the infamy.) He especially abhorred religious superstition. He was not for separation of church and state, but rather for a strong state which could thwart religion when it tried to exercise undue influence and power. His works are full amplifications of his views on religion. He was not only an expert at lampooning the various biblical and other inanities of religion, but a serious philosophic critic of religion as well. However, he was tireless in his advocacy of tolerance. Many of his works are being slowly translated into English for the first time in centuries, so eventually contemporary readers may become acquainted with the witty and brilliant works of this famous public intellectual.
And now we have reached the final section of Part One of the Enlightenment, which I will conclude with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. No serious discussion of the Enlightenment can exclude him but I will make a full disclosure- he is my bête noire, or real annoyance. An orphan from ten years old, his nomadic life was spent writing and philosophizing. He was one of the giants of the age, but he took a turn away from materialism and reason, that most secular thinkers will find regrettable. His views might be viewed as egregious, because his Romanticism was very influential for Robespierre (1758-1794,) the avatar of the Reign of Terror which came upon the heels of the French Revolution.
Forced to leave France, then Geneva, then London, where he broke with the great philosopher, David Hume, Rousseau died in France at the estate of a nobleman who put him under his protection.
Rousseau believed in a supreme being. He rejected science, reason and the study of science, arts and letters. However, his dislike of Christian dogma led him to a belief in the natural goodness of man. He held that civilization had degraded man rather than civilize him. He sentimentally advocated a return to the state of nature. Rousseau additionally postulated a so-called Golden Age, when people had lived in harmony before the coming of agriculture and property rights. The concept of property rights that landed society created, he maintained, had initiated a civilization of have and have nots. People became accustomed to their life situation and were trained to respect the landowners and aristocrats who oppressed them and kept them from attaining decent food and shelter. Furthermore, he said that the Christian god was touted as presiding over such an inequitable world. His rallying cry was: “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.”
Rousseau’s popular and controversial books, Heloise (1761) and Emile (1762,) were widely read. In Heloise, he stated his views on raising children, which became very influential. He believed children should be raised alone, not in schools, and the most attention should be to their emotional rather than intellectual development. He thought children should have direct contact with nature rather than a regime of books. The Bible, he averred, might be read in the children’s teen years, and he approved of Robinson Crusoe because it taught self-reliance.
Rousseau believed women were not the equal of men, that they had a different nature and should be helpmates to men. Feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of the 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Women, took him to task for his position, although Wollstonecraft approved of some of his ideas. One section of Emile was an account of a cleric who advocated naturalist views. The cleric criticized both Catholics and Protestants and maintained their orthodox views were an insult to the deity. Timothy J. Madigan tells us that this portion of the book completely enraged the religious authorities.
Rousseau advocated a Civil Religion, which all citizens of a country could participate in, because he believed man had a spiritual nature as well as a physical one that must be satisfied. He refused to give up belief in an afterlife, unlike so many of the Enlightenment philosophers. His treatise, The Social Contract, in 1762, laid out his ideas for a just political society. He broke with thinkers, such as Diderot, very early. Robespierre credited his revolutionary political ideals to Rousseau, whom he visited in his youth. Robespierre also firmly thought there was a need to believe in a supreme being. During the Terror, Rousseau was virtually the sole philosopher not condemned by Robespierre’s Jacobin Party. The Age of the Enlightenment was coming to an end. But its beliefs and ideals have had a lasting effect on societies up to the present day.
Europe and America saw revolutions and after them, most European countries liberalized their authoritarian governments. Intellectual modernity was born and there would be no stopping it, despite the Terror of 1793-94 and the ensuing Counter-Enlightenment of the late 18th and early 19th Century.
The Enlightenment has left an undying legacy to the modern world, and especially to those of us in the secular community. The beliefs we embrace, separation of church and state, reliance on science and reason, belief in democracy, progress and the equality of man were brought forward by courageous and brilliant thinkers. Some of the philosophers were hounded from country to country for many years. Others paid with their lives for their advanced views.
In next month’s lecture, The Enlightenment, Part 2, we shall discuss the Radical philosophers and examine the theory that it was their secular thinking that has come down to us today, rather than the concepts of the Moderate philosophers. I have mentioned there were putatively two strands of Enlightenment philosophy and I fully accept the theory. The Radical philosophers were an exciting and stimulating group- d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and the others. We shall see, in their thinking and writings, true atheism and materialism take shape and spread throughout the Enlightenment. We of the secular community today are their intellectual heirs and owe much of our beliefs and ideals to their breathtaking modernism.
Video of Lecture: Enlightenment, Part 1
Video of Discussion: Enlightenment, Part 1
Berman, David. “The Enlightenment and Unbelief.” in Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 276-280.
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_______. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. Vol.2. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1969.
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